Friday, August 25, 2006

Locked Rooms in a City of Glass full of Ghosts

I just finished my first reading of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. I had never read Paul Auster for a couple of reasons.

First because I had the impression that his prose was dry, pretentious and literary. I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe from watching Smoke.

Second, he was highly recommended to me by a couple of people I reflexively didn’t respect much. That’s shallow and wrong of me I know. They are both well-read younger guys with that superior young guy attitude. Intellectually I know better than to let that bother me since I had the same attitude in spades. Ultimately I was able to overcome it and picked up the book.

Much to my surprise Auster wasn’t dry and pretentious at all. The New York Trilogy is deep literature that is very enjoyable and easy to read.

But I’m afraid that’s all I’m going to be able to tell you about it. Although I’m willing to play the critic on a few movies, there is no way I’m going to take away any of the pleasure you may get if you read those books. To discover what is going on in the many layers of the narrative provides much of the enjoyment of reading them. I still haven’t read anything about them, or Auster.

I want to read a lot more before I let others influence my opinion, but I do look forward to that day. Although Auster is fun and easy to read, he is tricky and I can easily see that there are a lot of hidden things and multiple ways of interpreting them.

So I recommend New York Trilogy. Go for it. And go for it in virginal ignorance of Paul Auster if you still can. That’s my advice.

Shape of things

Barbara Ehrenreich whomps on Wal-Mart’s ass, as is her wont.

When Wal-Mart workers can't afford health insurance or new school clothes, the whole working class begins to flail. Furthermore, the Wal-Mart business model increasingly betrays what was once the operating principle of American capitalism, as explained by Henry Ford the First: You've got to pay your workers enough so that they can buy your product; that's what keeps the system going. When the American majority can't buy the very goods they manufacture or sell, that system is cruising for a bruising.

I’ve seen a lot of this myself. By the nature of my work, I’ve spent a little bit of time at a lot of companies over the past few years and, although the people I work with are not quite as low on the economic ladder as Wal-Mart employees, it’s easy to discern the same trends.

Companies are under constantly increasing pressure to cut expenditures and from what I’ve seen they do not go about it intelligently. All too often the decisions on who or what to cut are based on petty office politics rather than competence. And as the more competent people are laid off or bail out, the product suffers and profit declines. Meanwhile, those remaining are required to work ever more hours for which they are rarely paid. Either they are salaried workers or hourly types being offered comp time in lieu of overtime. Of course that comp time is in no way officially tracked and rarely collected. And raises are limited to 3 or so percent annually and promotions are generally out of the question.

Meanwhile only speculators or trust fund babies can afford to buy a house. I made the mistake of calling a realtor about a house I saw the other day. It is an old house, early twentieth century, fairly large but not particularly well built. It needs repairs, has a very small yard, sits near a noisy freeway in a generally ugly neighborhood in a not trendy part of the city. 1.6 million. What’s that in monthly payments? $11,000 dollars. My sister bought a house just like it in a small town in Indiana for $29,000 total a few years ago. People making $80,000 with a couple kids in New York can’t begin to afford a house and have to live paycheck to paycheck just to make the rent and very basic living expenses. And I’m not even talking about Manhattan, or even trendy Brooklyn.

And most of these companies that aren’t paying squat are very profitable. All of the squeeze is to make ever higher returns for the shareholders and top management, most of whom are arrogant sociopaths, many of whom are incompetent at everything besides gaining power.

Ah well, what can you do? Live well and prosper, emotionally at least, while we can. How will the inevitable crash play out? I guess we’ll just have to see.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Shit for brains

Via Atrios:

According to CNN just now a Time poll for a hypothetical McCain-Clinton race has it at 49% McCain 47% Clinton.

First the standard disclaimer: I know, I know, anyone is better than Bush and any Democrat is better than any Republican. Still, if our leaders are the brain cells of our nation, we sure got shit for brains.

It’s all to easy to imagine McCain vs. Hillary. McCain will advocate putting a force of 400,000 in Iraq and gearing up the draft in order to invade Iran and Syria. Hillary will boldly compromise, arguing for a force of 200,000 and a partial draft in order to invade either Iran or Syria.

Yep, that’s the future. Republicans show real leadership with insanely stupid ideas and the Doormatocrats boldly compromise. It sucks to see the future.

I shit bullshit, who shit bear shit?

I was roped into hitting a happy hour with several of my colleagues today and had one of the strangest social experiences I can recall. One of the other project managers, let’s call him Bob, told me about how his father died. I’d chatted with him a few times since starting the job, but we had never had anything remotely resembling a heart-to-heart talk and all of a sudden he guzzles three healthy Manhattans and lays this shit on me.

This is what he told me. When he was 10 years old he was camping with his dad in western Montana when they were confronted by a big black bear. His father pushed the boy behind him and started jumping up and down and barking like a dog to try to scare the bear. The bear rushed them. The father shoved the boy away and yelled for him to run, then tried to duke it out with the bear and was gutted. Bob escaped but was tortured for years because he ran away and left his father to die. For what remained of his childhood he fantasized about killing bears. When he was in his late teens he began to hunt them. Then he learned that he could make a lot of money selling their gallbladders, getting up to $500 a gram, he says. He kept poaching bears into his mid-twenties when one day he realized that he had forgotten his purpose in killing bears and was doing it for the money rather than for his father. Then he started a but was unable to raise any serious VC money in Montana so he moved to New York and blew his savings. Next thing he knows, he’s data mining. He’s had a fourth Manhattan as he tells this story and is starting on his fifth, says I remind him of his father.

Okay, I say, that’s really tragic man, gotta be going. The job was weird enough before that. Anyone out there want to hire me?

Bringing it all back home

From the Guardian:

The victim's name was Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Abeer means "fragrance of flowers". She was 14 years old. According to a statement by one of the accused, the soldiers first noticed her at a checkpoint. On March 12, after playing cards while slugging whisky, they changed into civvies and burst into Abeer's home. They killed her mother, father and five-year-old sister and "took turns" raping Abeer. Finally, according to the statement, they murdered her, drenched the bodies with kerosene, and set them on fire. Then the GIs grilled chicken wings.

The defence already pleads post-traumatic stress disorder

Yea, post-traumatic stress disorder, gotta be a lot of that going around. And you know what they say about what goes around...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Yea, peace would be great, but what about the Benjamins

The Congressional Research Service, Congress’s nonpartisan public policy research arm, estimates that our invasions and on-going wars against Iraq and Afghanistan are costing roughly $8 billion dollars a month. That’s close to $100 billion a year.

Just ask yourself, better yet ask your elected representatives, candidates in the next election and media outlets if we wouldn’t be infinitely better off with Osama bin Laden in an orange jumpsuit in The Hague, Sadaam Hussein impotent and surrounded in his castle in Baghdad and $100 billion a year being spent on education, health care, and other pressing needs?

One of the first research problems we could fund would be to find out why so many people who have dug themselves a deep hole and want to get out of it are pathologically unable to grasp the simple fact that the first step to getting out of the hole is to stop digging. Develop a pill to cure that particular pathology would be a great start to a better world.

Murder's what you want...

Well, then murder’s what you’ll get, duh. And probably a whole lot more of it than you bargained for.

But our “leadership” has lost sight of that oh-so-basic fact of life. Today’s example is an article in the NY Times that reports Israel’s goal of killing Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The Israelis do not even argue that killing this man will solve any problems. It is for revenge, nothing else.

“There’s only one solution for him,” said an Israeli representative, “This man must die.”

Well, no, there is another solution. If there is reason to believe he has committed crimes, he could be arrested and tried in a court of law. That’s how civilized societies handle these things.

And there is a reason for that. The act of murder as a tool of revenge is worse than ineffective, it is counter-productive.

I know it’s difficult for the idiots running our country and their lapdogs in the so-called opposition party or the media to understand, much more so for their followers, but if it’s okay to murder other people’s leaders who are involved in military operations then it is okay for them to kill yours. The same principle holds for torture. If it’s okay for our country to use torture on another’s soldiers, then it’s okay for another country to torture our soldiers.

But murder and torture are not okay. Not for us, not for anybody. Fortunately, there is a very easy way to stop this insane cycle of violence. Just stop. That’s all we need to do. At any moment, we can simply stop it. Nobody is making us create these crimes. Many people say that it would be impossible to stop, but that’s not true. It would be just as easy as it was starting it, possibly easier since historically we have been more about the rule-of-law than wantonly violent and counter-productive retribution.

But alas, we have no opposition party or independent media willing to make such an obvious argument. Instead, we are told that revenge and murder are a good thing, a means to a good end. Many people who write on the internets are already advocating a “final solution” for those who oppose us (and their families, neighbors, countrymen, And some of these people even make it onto television or get quoted in what were formally respectable publications.

When a society’s discourse begins to plumb these moral depths, the bad things they so ardently wish for are likely to happen. Historically, when societies go insane with bloodlust they only see the errors of their ways when they end up on the receiving end. And if we don’t change our ways, the receiving end is where we’ll be. Whether it’s in two hundred years or 10, that kind of blow back is inevitable.