Thursday, February 26, 2009

Amadeus - 3 miles at a time

I try to run 3 miles 4-5 times a week. In winter this is a bit more difficult due to shorter amounts of daylight (I usually leave for work before sunrise and get home after sunset) as well as colder and wetter weather. For such times when I can't easily run my outside route I have an elliptical machine to help compensate.

Nothing replaces actually running but one advantage the elliptical affords is that I get to listen to more music as I exercise. (When outside I don't listen to music as I prefer to hear approaching vehicles and other sounds - like dogs.) I started out the winter listening to my favorite contemporary band - Coldplay. But, their five CDs didn't last very many exercise sessions.

I have been a huge lover of classical music since my college days and this winter I took the opportunity to listen to all of Mozart's 27 piano concertos in chronological order. Generally, I could get at least one full concerto in during every running session. I listened to some concertos more than once along with some of Mozart's delightful rondos.

The development of the child prodigy from a playful, dexterous composer into a mature master filled with complex musical progressions and diverse themes is rather obvious even to an untrained amateur such as myself, if the body of work is experienced in the order it was composed.

To me, the greatest body of symphonies belongs to Mahler, the greatest string quartets to Beethoven (perhaps the best piano sonatas too), but Mozart is unequalled in his piano concertos.

Unfortunately, although I have read a lot about the history of music and have hundreds of classical recordings in my personal collection, the fact that I have never been trained in music severely handicaps my ability to articulate why I find any piece of classical music enjoyable. I just know what I like.

So here's some examples...

Compare Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by a contemporary child prodigy with his last (No. 27) in a historical performance by one of the great pianists of the 20th century.

No. 12 is considered among the best compositions of Mozart's "middle period".

The adagio movement from No. 23 is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

My favorite is No. 20. The first movement is noted as allegro. The second movement is noted as romanze. The third movement is noted as allegro assai.

Mozart was a meteor across the artistic sky of humanity. His talent was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. He died poor and was buried in a common grave. But his enduring talent has been a bright part of this past winter...3 miles at a time.

I wonder if the work of Coldplay will be performed some 220 years from now.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Devotional

On the cold, dark mornings of this winter, having gotten my daughter out of bed for school and myself dressed for work, I have set aside 10-15 minutes with a cup of coffee for myself and reading one of the oldest books in my personal library, The Portable Thoreau from 1977.

I bought this book during my senior year of high school. At the time, no philosopher spoke to me in such a familiar, agreeable voice about the wonder, peace, and rich experience that is to be found in nature as Henry David Thoreau.

The book, like most that I own, is written in, highlighted, and underlined from repeat readings. So now, with a few exceptions, I browsed through these yellowed pages, meeting old friends each morning, reminiscing of past readings and times, while touching the intimate truths to be found here over the course of these past months in the predawn of winter before the work day began.

“In the winter, I stop short in the path to admire how the trees grow up without forethought, regardless of the time and circumstances. They do not wait as man does, but now is the golden age of the sapling. Earth, air, sun, and rain are occasion enough: they were no better in primeval centuries. The ‘winter of their discontent’ never comes. Witness the buds of the native poplar standing gaily out to the frost on the sides of its bare switches. They express a naked confidence.” (page 51)

“In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends. The imprisoning drifts increase the sense of comfort which the house affords, and in the coldest days we are content to sit over the hearth and see the sky through the chimney-top, enjoying the quiet and serene life that may be had in a warm corner by the chimney-side, or feeling our pulse listening to the low of cattle in the street, or the sound of the flail in distant barns all the long afternoon.” (page 74)

Thoreau knew the close connectivity between simplicity and nature. But he was also very much the social critic.

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves in a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.” (page 112)

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” (page 263)

“…a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” (page 335)

Nature is not only a refuge for Thoreau. It is a teacher and motivator.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in the details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essentials of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (page 343)

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” (page 351)

“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.” (page 463)

Thoreau had a gift for not only capturing the metaphysical reality of nature but the splendid, singular moment as well.

“We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before sitting, after a cold, gray day, reached the clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon and on the leaves of the shrub oaks on the hillside, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. When we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever, an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still.” (page 629)

I am that child. Thoreau understood the spiritual quality of Nature. This is something I have felt all my life. I have taken countless long hikes, listened to distant sounds, silently watched the clouds, known the warm sun on cold, clear days, and the comfort of shade in the summer heat. I have swam in cold mountain streams, heard the hiss of hardwood on open fires flickering at night, and contemplated frogs croaking along wet creeks after sundown.

It was for these reasons I chose to live in the country, to experience what nature gives, just as Thoreau did. In this respect I have not changed. Time has not made me cynical in this particular way. I have not grown hard and unfeeling where this is concerned. Nature is, as always, a place where I find my Being contented, awake, not rational but sensing in perpetual appreciation.

Thoreau taught me early on a possible framework for articulating and understanding my intimate experience. Thank you Henry.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Abstracts of a late afternoon sun

A couple of effects I created today from pics taken during a walk in a rare lazy, late afternoon sun. Last Monday I mowed for the first time this year. Mowing is a wonderful thing. You can experience a meditative state so easily when mowing, just mowing on and on. I did the lower field, roughly an acre. Jennifer and I walked down to enjoy the space. Two beers, the view, no cars. Crows cawking. The wind in pine needles. So far apart that you have to holler just a bit to hear the other person. Space. And silence to raise your voice in. Home. No worries right Now.

Compare this pic with the pics I took of the lower field on October 26, 2008.

The sky was really this blue. I can honestly say I own the view.

After the walk my daughter came up to Jennifer and said: "Mama! What are you wearing?! I want to take everything you have on and burn it."

Jennifer took this pic of the vapor trails from two passenger jets scattering in the wind miles over our house. We wondered if the X was an omen.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rewarding the Losers

I wish I hadn't worked hard and saved money and paid off my mortgage early. I wish I wasn't debt free. Right now I wish I was up to my eyeballs in debt and facing foreclosure. THEN, I would qualify for assistance. INSTEAD, I am indirectly penalized for my financial prudence because NO ONE HELPED ME and now you want to take MY tax dollars to "spread the wealth around."

I just realized how pissed off I am.

Everything about this stimulus and bailout sucks. My opinion is that we are creating a much larger problem for the future of this country by making the Bush public debt look trivial compared with the eventual Obama public debt. We are sending the wrong message to the mass of mediocrity that make up this pathetic consumer-driven democracy - that winners are to pay for the sins of the losers and that losers will always be rescued for their sins.

Let Rome burn. (A contemporary Howard Beale.)

The market broke through the November 20 lows today. The Great Recession doesn't want to let up. Today was a Dow Theory reconfirmation of the bear market. Accordingly,
things are likely to get much worse now. Gold continues to perform well, however.

Years ago when I first started reading him, Richard Russell made the rather outlandish statement that someday one ounce of gold would buy one share of the Dow. Let's hope things don't get that bad. But, it seems a lot more likely today than back in 2003.

It is a tough situation for any president. Particularly for a one with less than a single-term in the senate, a poetic vocabulary, and a nice suit. I sincerely hope this ain't all you got Obama. This Great Recession wants to eat your administration alive.

The Wall Street Journal argued yesterday that Paulson made a mistake by taking the financial crisis to congress. In doing so, he politicized the whole situation. Undoubtedly, that's what happened. But the WSJ is a bit vague on what the alternatives were.

Is there a viable alternative to this mess? I don't know. I do know that, without the bailouts, the banking system would have probably collapsed by now. No one, of course, wants to see that. But, the question no one seems to ask is are we going to be any better off spending all this money out of thin air? Which is worse - a financial collapse at the end of the Bush administration or postponing the collapse until after we reward the losers with massive assistance?

I guess it doesn't matter. Either way.

The root of the problem has never been addressed. The consumer, debt-ridden culture founded upon fiat money, founded upon nothing at all. Who says the dollar's worth anything?

Richard Russell closed his daily remarks tonight this way: "This looks to me to be the correction of the 64 years of inflation and debt-building that has gone on ever since World War II. I see the months ahead as being very difficult, but I'll do my best to be helpful to my subscribers. I lived through the Great Depression and combat in WW II. I can't imagine that the years ahead will be more difficult than those old bleak and frightening days.

"For decades the American punch bowl overflowed, with the help of the Federal Reserve and the creation of unconstitutional fiat money. There's little sense in analyzing today's market minutiae, the market did what it had to do. It pointed the way for stocks and the economy. The Founding Fathers and creators of the Constitution must be shaking their heads and smiling wryly. The money system that they had so carefully inserted into the Constitution had been thwarted and degraded. Now we must pay."

So, while the stimulus sucks, it is not the problem nor the cure...just a symptom. We asked for this.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Simple Pleasures, Sobering Facts

Over the weekend we decided to make a chocolate cake for no reason. It wasn't because it was Valentine's Day. It was just because it's February, the weather's getting just a tad old and we needed something spontaneous yet simple to lighten the overall effects to a dull winter, a rough economy, and the general rut of the momentary Now.

Grandmother Carson's chocolate cake was just the ticket. I'm not a dessert lover but for years I enjoyed GMC making this cake when we used to drive down to Dothan every Thanksgiving for a visit. If I was lucky she would make it on the rare occasions when she came to visit us.

Fortunately, Jennifer got a detailed lesson in how to make the cake directly from her grandmother so that now, even though GMC is gone, her cake remains. It is actually not completely chocolate. It is a Duncan Heinz Golden Butter Recipe cake with a special chocolate frosting. Theoretically, the frosting is supposed to sit for 24 hours on the cake before you eat it.

Well, we kinda set that part aside and enjoyed it immediately. When you are not that in to dessert and you indulge in something this good and rich, the simple pleasure of it makes it rather extraordinary.

The plan was to share some of the cake with our parents. A little treat for them as well. LOL. Throw that out the window. They got nothing and there's hardly anything left. The cake didn't stand a chance.


On a sobering note, the Dow closed today within a remarkable 1/3 of a point of breaking the November 20 low. This signals very serious trouble. If we break through the November 20 lows then, according to Dow Theory, we are looking at an almost ominous period ahead. For me, the January buy-in was foolish. But, my primary holdings remain in gold, which has performed very well of late. I actually profited today. Let's hope the lows hold.

Of course, history should note that we arrive on the edge of this Dow Theory bear market reconfirmation on the same day President Obama signed the stimulus bill. There's roughly $800 billion we'll never see again. Even so, General Motors promises to lay-off about 50,000 and says it will need another $16.6 billion. Uh, I'd settle for a paltry $16 million myself. If it's not too much trouble, Uncle Sam.

I also noticed today that Time Magazine had the guts to include
"American Consumers" on its list of "25 People to Blame" for the Great Recession. To quote the article: "Household debt in the U.S. — the money we owe as individuals — zoomed to more than 130% of income in 2007, up from about 60% in 1982. We enjoyed living beyond our means — no wonder we wanted to believe it would never end."

Plenty of folks to blame for all this mess. They range from the elite to the stupid to the greedy to the visionary. But, in truth, no one is more to blame than the inept mass of Americans. Consumerism has become our national religion, anthem, and drug all wrapped up into one convenient marketing package. We asked for this.

As you know by now, I don't watch a lot of television. One program I do try to keep up with is PBS's Frontline. Tonight Frontline had a wonderful documentary entitled "Inside the Meltdown" dealing with the beginnings of the current financial crisis. I learned a lot.

It could have just as easily been entitled "Henry Paulson's Trial by Fire" as it examined how a powerful, intelligent, idealistic capitalist official ended up becoming the primary architect of the largest government intervention into the economy since the Great Depression. The internal struggle of Paulson between his ideals and the reality in which he found himself fascinates me from a personal perspective.

The terms "moral hazard" and "systemic risk " were new to me, but I understood how these two competing concepts were at war through much of build-up to the crisis. In the end risk outweighed hazard and we got the bailouts. Frontline explains why in very careful, clear detail.

In the broader context, searching for the roots of the crisis, they seem to lie in the murky past, the final years of the Clinton Administration, when credit default swaps were first becoming all the rage in the banking system. Phil Gramm was a primary champion of these novel derivatives. One small government agency saw them as a potential for disaster and tried to regulate them. They were squelched. This led to legislation protecting the free and unregulated nature of credit default swaps among other derivatives. The unintended consequences of that trumpeting of deregulation was that the entire banking system of the world became toxic.

Specifically, Brooksley Borne of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission testified before Congress as to her concerns regarding the impact of certain derivatives. She was ignored. Anyone interested at all in the beginnings of the current crisis should take a moment to scan her testimony.

Sometimes, someone knows, but no one listens.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dark City, Dark Knight

I've watched two films on DVD recently that have impressed me in different ways. Dark Knight was last summer's blockbuster. It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the artist I feel is the best active director in film today. His earlier work, Memento, is one of my all-time favorite films. Nolan has had an impressive career to date.

Dark Knight is classic Nolan and one of his best films. He has Hitchcock's sensibilities about suspense. His films build momentum, relentlessly, be they pure drama or action-adventure.
His choice of music for the film is particularly noteworthy.

But the film is stolen by
Heath Ledger's brilliant portrayal of The Joker. I can't help but compare Ledger with my favorite actor, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the same role in the 1989 Batman. Nicholson was twisted, maniacal, but Ledger pushes these qualities with a deeply insightful character, who understands things about the world and plays them to his advantage. Ledger humanizes the role to the point where The Joker isn't just a villain, he's truly a psychotic monster, made all the more terrifying by the bits of humanity you glimpse now and then in the performance.
Nolan's direction of Ledger was a stroke of genius, allowing the actor free rein, but simultaneously guiding him to places he didn't originally envision, giving the viewer a surprisingly subtle uneasiness, an orchestrated anxiety. The Joker is not someone strange anymore, he is something the viewer can almost understand. It is within this recognizable yet demented construct that Nolan builds believable (and, therefore, more deeply disturbing) tension.

Of course, the film is visually marvelous,
the special effects and action sequences highly entertaining.

Another film that made an even stronger impression was viewing
Dark City for the first time on a DVD I bought cheaply at Wal-Mart yesterday. This was the "Director's Cut" of a film I previously owned only on VHS and had watched 2-3 times.

There are several changes in the director's cut, most of them subtle. The most significant change was the omission of the original narration at the beginning of the film that basically explains the context for everything, thereby ruining the journey for anyone bright enough to slowly figure things out for themselves. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this version of the movie. It is visually arresting at times, highly complex and demanding your attention of the many mysterious details that are gradually explained and made comprehensible by the end of the film.

Dark City is my favorite type of film, a highly metaphorical one. It explores a variety of substantive questions. What makes us human? Where is the essence of who we are? What are the possibilities of consciousness as a universal phenomenon? It makes many other inquiries while the outstanding cast gives terrific performances worthy of the film's substance, lighting, color, pacing, and tone.

Jennifer and I kept noticing how much it compared with another film that came out a year after Dark City, The Matrix. Whereas, The Matrix took the route of being highly computerized with its effects, Dark City is low-tech with larger sets. Dark City has more of a classic (noir) film feel to it and it feels bigger than the The Matrix both visually (though not as innovative in its effects) and in terms of substance (The Matrix ends up with a strong, somewhat more common, master-slave-technology slant whereas Dark City is something completely different). Though both films are compelling and well made, I discovered in re-watching Dark City for the first time in probably 6-7 years that it is in most every way superior to The Matrix in what it attempts and what it actually accomplishes.

Dark City might be worthy of a Blu-Ray upgrade. It is the type of film that demands repeat viewings. And, like Lawrence of Arabia, for example, it gets better practically every time you watch it.

It was certainly a pleasant surprise for me to remember and experience this wonderful film upon viewing the director's cut for the first time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Red in Winter

Compare these recent pics of our Nadina with the ones I posted on September 27, 2008. A bit of color in an otherwise rather dull winter palette.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Problem to All Our Solutions

"So far, the measures we’ve taken to resolve this crisis have thrown the rational principles of finance out the window. We are going on a crash diet—contradicting mortgage contracts on an ad hoc basis and giving away handfuls of money—when we should be coming up with an eating regime we can live on indefinitely. Instead of making whatever short-term patches seem necessary, we might take a more systemic, market-based approach, such as stipulating that mortgage values always be linked to housing prices and adjusted each month.

"Speculative excesses are an endemic problem of the market system, but capitalism also provides its own self-correcting mechanisms. There’s no reason to abandon those tools now."

- Robert J. Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and chief economist at MacroMarkets LLC. The quote is from Foreign Policy Magazine and pertains primarily to the housing crisis but it is applicable to the stimulus overall as well.

I'm still a bit miffed that the perception out there is that we have no choice but for government to intervene in the Great Recession. Recessions - no matter how pervasive - are self-correcting. That's what no one seems to understand.

Sure, this means whoever is the current president takes a huge hit in popularity by allowing markets to self-correct. Probably, no president is enough of a leader to muddle through such negativity in the face of misery.

It is a sign of how weak American democracy truly is that the mass of voters have no clue that when governments intervene in bull markets they help create bubbles and when they intervene in bear markets they inevitably burden us with more public debt. In the long-run debt and deficits lead to far greater misery than we would have known without them.

Government has very little place in economics. Government's role lies in opening up trade between nations and states, guarding against monopolies and fraud, protecting the rights of both owners and workers within the economy, stuff like that.

That the people want more, that they want salvation by government, is reflective of the Grand Society of Convenience and Immediacy our wretched consumer-driven culture has created. There is no patience. There is no understanding of risk. And for our ignorance as a democracy we get fallacy serving as prudent policy.

We asked for what is happening. We asked for what is ahead. The rhetorical distinction between "Wall Street" and "Main Street" is an illusion. There are no streets, just the few who seek to abuse their power and the many who only know fear in challenging times, leading the leaders to create the problem to every genuine solution.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Stimulus is a Mistake

President Obama is at his best when he is speaking and
last night's press conference is no exception. He is acutely persuasive and charismatic. And he is highly "presidential" in that he upholds the time-honored technique of answering the question he wanted to be asked rather than what was actually asked. The press was submissive.

I respect the fact that the president is a very intelligent man and he is impressive on a number of counts that I enumerated in an earlier post. But the man, those behind him, and those elected officials supporting him are totally wrong about the need for the stimulus, the effect it will have, and naive as to its potential for worsening the Great Recession.

Obama was a bit disingenuous last night when he stated that politicians were the only ones who disagreed over the need for "government intervention" on the economy; that there was little or no serious disagreement among economists.

As the inset on this post indicates, nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is there is a genuine concern among many highly respected economists that the current stimulus package will do more harm than good.

If you find yourself in a hole (admittedly not of Obama's making) stop digging. The truth is no one really knows what the consequences of the government spending trillions of dollars will be - other than to drastically raise the public debt even further. Obama is being bold, but let's hope his boldness doesn't get the better of us all.

On the other hand, the situation might already be beyond government's ability to repair. In his daily comments last night Richard Russell wrote: "The fact is that this country has been living the grand life ever since WW II courtesy of debt, credit, inflation and fiat money. Now the markets, merciless and unemotional as they are, are correcting 64 years of living beyond our means. Meanwhile, the Fed and the Treasury are fighting inflation and over-spending with the greatest program of inflationary spending in world history.

"So I ask myself again, what's happened to the country I grew up in? And the answer is that the people have simply been imitating their government -- inflation, monster debts, and endless production of fiat money -- all the while ignoring the US Constitution on money creation -- it's been a long, wild fantasy ride, and now it seems payment is due. I've said for years that the last two or three generations of Americans have never seen hard times. I've warned that a 'hard rain' is coming. Now it's time to get our umbrellas out. Because it's raining, and the bills are coming due."

Once more, my personal opinion is that raising the public debt in order to generate wealth is fundamentally flawed. Things are bad right now. But, that doesn't mean we can't make them worse. Obama's plan most likely will make things much worse because this is the Great Recession, it will run its course, it is as "natural" an economic phenomenon as the great bull market that ran from 1982-2007. If anything, government machinations have done their fair share to make this mess.

Did anyone honestly think the good times would last forever? Or that the price of the good times wouldn't be a market correction to balance the ledger? What does history teach us if not that bear markets follow bull markets follow bear markets, etc.?

Obama wants to meddle with the natural ebb and flow of the global economy. Of course, Bush did too. Perhaps it is inherent that any president will muck this up. The recession of 2001 was not allowed to play itself out. We did not have a final capitulation due to government intervention. So, now that the Great Recession has emerged out of that misguided policy we do what? Create an even more towering mess in hopes of avoiding the inevitable yet again?

Recessions should lead to capitulation. New, genuine bull markets then emerge out of that. What we have had since 2003 or so has been an artificial bull market founded largely on the ill-fated housing bubble. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The anguish of the people, the manipulations of the government, are ultimately no match for these forces which are beyond everyone's control.

The immediate verdict? The Dow was down almost 400 points today even as the Senate passed their version of the misguided stimulus legislation. On the bright side, gold was up over $21 to $914.20.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"A Stranger to Myself"

The last couple of nights I have torn through a remarkable military memoir by a German infantryman turned acting bombardier, Willy Peter Reese. The memoir tells of Reese’s experiences in the war against Soviet Russia in World War Two.

I am not a big fan of soldier memoirs. All war is crazy, chaotic bloodshed punctuating extended periods of boredom. This is the way most every soldier experiences war. I’ve always been more interested in the operational and strategic basis for the fighting, rather than the personal narratives.

But, Reese is compelling because he was a young man who wanted to be a writer, who had talent with the pen, who wrote poetically in an intimate, distinctive style. The beginning of the book does not read like a war memoir at all, displaying Reese’s literary aptitude.

“I walked the beach in storm and sunshine. I lay on the dunes and dreamed to the crash of the waves, listening to crickets strumming of hot noons while Pan slept. I sang and whiled away the hours. A stray love flitted along like a butterfly. I strolled through woods, collected mosses, pine needles, and leaves. Grasses and flowers were experiences for me. I looked for bison, listened to the singsong of the wind, and watched the sun go down over the sea.” (page 6)

This could be me. I have felt these things.

Reese worked as a bank clerk having just graduated high school at the start of Hitler’s war. “I went to the theater, and I went to concert halls to listen to the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The defeat of Poland meant less to me than a sonata or a poem. Most my nights were given over to the fantastic tales and introspective legends I was writing at the time.” (page 4-5)

The contents of the narrative are not unique really. It is mostly about missing home, being thirsty, hungry, tired, sleepless, anxious, bored, playing pranks, getting drunk, singing, sleeping, horrible fighting, being too hot, being too cold, and seeing destruction everywhere. These predictable experiences are why I usually find military memoirs of ordinary soldiers of little interest.

You should understand that there has never been a war like the Eastern Front of World War Two. On the Soviet side 27 million died, on the German 4 million. (By comparison, the total dead for the US, Britain, and France combined was 1 million.) It was destruction such as this planet has never seen - far out pacing the destructive force of the two atomic bombs that proved so significant at the end of the war with Japan. I call it the first primitive war fought with modern weapons.

We grieve over 4,200 dead US solders in Iraq. 58,000 dead tore this country apart in Vietnam. But these were daily figures in Russia. There is no comparison.

Reese was there recording events and impressions with his wonderful style of writing. This youth of 20 was drafted into the Wehrmacht. His platoon was a replacement in the 95th Infantry Division several months after the seemingly successful Operation Barbarossa had started. The Germans had advanced so far into Russia that it took Reese by combination of train, truck, and marching almost three months just to get to the frontlines from his training base.

But the speed of the German advance was causing some logistical problems. Reese was on low rations during much of his march to the front. “But a little midday soup wasn’t enough to get us through our exertions. So we started taking the last piece of bread from women and children, had chickens and geese prepared for us, pocketed their small supplies of butter and lard, weighed down our vehicles with flitches of bacon and flour from the larders, drank the overrich milk, and cooked and roasted on their stoves, stole honey from collective farms, came upon stashes of eggs, and weren’t bothered by tears, hand wringings, and curses. We were the victors. War excused our thefts, encouraged cruelty, and the need to survive didn’t go around getting permission from conscience.” (page 35)

Reese called his soldier mind “heroic nihilism”. His commanders told the platoon they “were lords of the universe” and propelled them forward to the front. Reese arrived in winter without proper clothing and nearly froze to death. He witnessed how Russian prisoners were handled in November 1941. “The following morning a soldier doled out hand grenades among a hundred captured Russian prisoners and shot the survivors with his submachine gun.” (page 46)

The platoon was placed right in front of the Soviet counterattack after Operation Typhoon failed. Mainly, Reese’s division retreated and eventually dug-in for the winter. 1941-42 was a harsh winter even by Russian standards. “One soldier had been unable to find any felt boots, which were an excellent protection against the cold. The next day he found a Red Army corpse frozen stiff. He tugged at his legs, but in vain. He grabbed an ax and took the man off at the thighs. Fragments of flesh flew everywhere. He bundled the two stumps under his arm and set them down in the oven, next to our lunch. By the time the potatoes were done, the legs thawed out and he pulled on the bloody felt boots. Having the dead meat next to our food bothered us as little as if someone had wrapped his frostbite between meals or cracked lice. The dead lay where they lay. After weeks they were collected on sleighs, piled up in ruined houses along with horse cadavers, doused with gasoline, and lit.” (page 56)

He suffered complications from frostbite, a bout of dysentery, and was wounded once during the course of his service on the Eastern Front. Each time he was sent home after his hospital stays. Just short visits. During the visit in early 1944, Reese waded through his notebooks and literally thousands of letters home and typed up the memoir. He was called back into service just before the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, the largest single operational assault of World War Two.

As the war wore on, Reese dealt with the numbness that set in due to the endless violence and suffering everywhere. “Our own greatness was nothing but a dementia. Less than a scrap of steel, a man stood between unfettered forces, a cipher, a weapon, and an obedient body, servant to a machine. We didn’t want to be like that. But we preferred to give ourselves to the chance of battle, the mockery to a soldier’s hazard, than to the certain law of death. Whether we were courageous or trembling, bold or cowardly, grimly prepared or frantic, as we went into battle, nothing weighed as anything compared with the fact that none of us went voluntarily. Only occasionally, on the brink of madness, was there the heroic sacrifice of an individual who had lost his belief in his own life.” (page 97)

Eventually, Reese’s unit shrank to so few men from causalities that he was needed to help staff one of the unit’s anti-tank guns. In 1943, his position was overrun and the gun was lost. The Germans burned everything in their retreat. “Slowly we headed toward Gomel, seeing always the same thing: harvested fields in a storm, smoke clouds on the horizon. Russia was turning into a depopulated, smoking, burning, wreckage-strewn desert, and the war behind the front bothered me still more, because those it affected were noncombatants. I was partly responsible for this devastation and the grief it brought the people, responsible like all the nameless victims, like all the soldiers. I had almost forgotten that there was anything besides war and fight. I no longer dreamed of going home.” (page 148)

Before being wounded Reese wrote: “The last of my values collapsed; goodness, nobility, beauty perished; my high spirits left me. The armor of apathy with which I had covered myself against terror, horror, fear, and madness, which had saved me from suffering and screaming, crushed any tender stirrings within me, snapped off the green shoots of hope, faith, and love of my fellow men, and turned my heart to stone. I was in decline, and I mocked myself for it.” (page 137)

Reese was killed in the summer of 1944 while fighting against the overwhelming tide of the Soviet Bagration Offensive. He was 23. The last words he wrote in his memoir before returning to action were: “Pause. A furlough, a leave. Home! Home! But it was just an interval. The war went on. Once more I went out there. I loved life.” (page 165)

The 95th Infantry Division was completely wiped out by the Soviets in July 1944. Reese had a distinctive literary voice, a would-be poet and dreamer of the fantastic. It mattered not.

I can see myself in the pages of this book. I have never known these things but surely that’s no evidence of immunity. Could this have been me?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Nuking Deflation

Deflation is our worst nightmare. In deflation the cost of everything goes down. Goods and commodities get cheaper. Doesn't sound that bad, does it?

But, here's the kicker. In a deflationary environment everything gets cheaper but the amount of debt you owe stays the same. So, in relation to everything else your debt actually feels like it goes UP.

We don't need that right now because the country, the government, the consumers are all awash in debt. During deflationary periods (which is what we have right now and have had for months) what you owe on your assets gets heavier while the value of your assets shrinks. This is the sub-prime mortgage fiasco on steroids.

We have to create inflation. It is the only way to make the debt manageable because as things inflate the perceived weight of the debt comparatively goes down.

Jack Schannep sent his subscribers a mind-blowing graph today. This the "monthly reserves and monetary base" for the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis.

Click the graph to enlarge it. Briefly, in 1918, the monetary base was $4.8 billion. By 1942 it had reached $20 billion. $50 billion in 1966. $100 billion in 1976. $200 billion in 1985. $500 billion in 1997. In January 2008 it stood at $855 billion. Then things got really crazy. By October it was at $1.1 TRILLION. And at year end 2008 the monetary base was a whopping $1.7 trillion. See all the data here.

The exponential rise in the monetary base represents the enormous and unparalleled gravity of our financial crisis. It is almost beyond comprehension. The Fed is determined to flood the economy with unheard of amounts of cash and credit and liquidity. Under ordinary circumstances this could create hyperinflation. Yet the clutches of deflation remain firmly around our necks...along with historically high public deficits and personal debt. It's almost like trying to force a glass of water down a drowning man.

I hope they win this battle. I want inflation. Besides having cash, my largest investment for the past 7 years has been in gold. If things go according to plan my gold - which has already more than doubled in value - should at least triple, maybe more. If not, well, then we're all in a world of shit.

The current monetary policy by Fed Reserve chief Ben Bernanke is nothing short of a nuclear attack on deflation. The crazy thing is there is no alternative. We asked for this.