Saturday, December 26, 2009
Pandora is a gorgeous, savage jungle world. It is the home of the Na’vi People. The Na’vi are central to the telling of the story and therefore they have to be visually convincing. James Cameron masters this situation as few other directors can and delivers an eye-catching thrill ride that doesn’t really seem to last 2 hours and 40 minutes. Time flies.
There is some depth to the back story of the Na’vi as revealed in Cameron’s screenplay. Pandora is not a planet but a moon of a lifeless, gaseous planet. Yet, life flourishes abundantly on this moon. The vegetation is evolving like the Na’vi and is, in fact, more evolved than them in the sense that Pandora’s organics is connected like neurons of the human brain. Memories can be stored in the roots of the trees and they are shared within a vast thriving natural planetary network. That is an interest twist of the “Gaia” metaphysic, connecting the people’s ancestors with the roots of the trees.
Avatar never made me want to take my eye off the screen. Cameron held my gaze in a timeless state, experienced in the most technologically advanced way possible.
The unfortunate thing, for Cameron, is that the visual magnitude of his spectacle demands either a powerful, unique metaphorical message and/or characters of profound depth to balance all that eye-candy on the screen. It is here that Avatar falls short and for that reason it comes off as just a bit too showy and incomplete.
The story has been done before. Cameron adds no twists really except in the action sequences and the visuals. The characters themselves are of cardboard. This was a chief criticism of Cameron when Titanic came out. I argued then that there was more character depth in that film than the critics gave it credit for. Perhaps I was wrong. But, even so, Titanic is an awesome movie, not just a blockbuster. It made a fundamental metaphorical statement about the experience of human space through time which is its reason for greatness in my view.
But, in Avatar there is no compelling character or metaphorical element. I never connect with any of their emotions or aspirations. They are all entertaining but I find none of them engaging as they are obviously formula-matic. The subplot stories are largely cliché – of forbidden love and of the greed of corporations against (seemingly) defenseless Nature. These just can’t compete with this joyously visual world Cameron so masterfully creates. This is its weakness as a film.
Cameron does do a great job, however, of making the Na’vi come to life as a cultural whole, as a People, and for that he is to be congratulated. This is an invented culture and it is made totally believable because of Cameron’s attention to detail and in his slow revelation to the audience of the secrets of Pandora in ways even the Na’vi would not understand – only humans do, through human science.
It is not developed so much as disclosed but the audience’s belief in the culture of the Na’vi (there will doubtlessly be many people desiring to learn more about Cameron’s vision for this culture) makes up for some of the film’s lack of depth and cliché use of the major characters.
I give Avatar a solid 8. It has imperfections but is, nevertheless, masterfully done. About one-third of the sold-out audience of several hundred clapped very loudly and enthusiastically at the end of the film. That is something I don’t experience very often. Avatar obviously inspires viewers. There can be no harm in that.
There are plans for a trilogy, of course. So, perhaps more character depth or some greater message will follow. Perhaps this was just an introductory effort to a larger plan. Perhaps.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
About this time of year, I usually view films that have caught my attention at the time of their general release during the course of the year. So, recently I've been doing far more film watching than reading. The 2009 crop of interesting films (so far) are Up, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and Star Trek.
Up is what you expect from Pixar. Great animation, funny sequences, touching character interaction, and - increasingly with Pixar - a sappy storyline. I own most of the Pixar films but I will not be adding Up to my collection. It was OK, a good family film, but that's about it. On a scale of 10 I'd give it a 7.
District 9 is an interesting, semi-documentary science-fiction film. It does not rely heavily on special effects nor on action sequences, though both are present in the film and both are well-done. Instead, it is a film with an interesting, mostly distinctive, story which relies not so much on the characters portrayed as on the larger story of an alien ship's mishap, the resulting segregation of the aliens from humanity, and their attempt to return to wherever they came from. The film pushed some genre boundaries without the usual trimmings and contained a well-crafted plot. It delivers a direct, meaningful, metaphorical message about the nature of prejudice without getting too preachy. I gave it an 8.
Inglourious Basterds is another Quentin Tarantino film, which means it is a film of a unique, specific style. Tarantino has a great way with characters, off-beat plots, intersecting storylines, exceptionally good music, and some of the best dialog you'll ever see in a film. The thing about Inglourious Basterds is that I just never bought into it. I was hoping for more and didn't feel it. I keep waiting for Tarrentino to achieve something on the order of Pulp Fiction again (one of my favorite films). This has a lot of the elements and is certainly zany enough but it just ain't it. I gave it a 7.
Star Trek, the remake ad nauseum, or so I thought. The idea of "rejuvenating the franchise" struck me as "whoring the concept." I remember watching the original TV series as a kid. I followed most of the movies, never really got in to the numerous off-shoot television series, so I am a bit of a Trekkie (not to be confused, I recently learned, with a "Trekker" - someone really into Star Trek, who knows all the dates and stats and places and characters by heart.) Anyway, I had long-since given up on this idea.
I should have known that J.J. Abrams (of Alias, Lost, and Fringe fame) would appreciate much of the original spirit of the television series and attempt to instill that spirit within the context of an "upgrade" in the effects and possibilities contained in the original series. He nailed that in spades and delivered a superb film that truly does (with the help of an "old friend") legitimately reboot everything and give us the basis for a new beginning directly from the 1960's roots of the franchise.
The film is masterfully done in terms of effects, action, character interaction, plot, music, props, costumes, etc. Everything I liked as a kid about the TV series is infused with new energy while avoiding a appearance of contrivance or the feeling of ripping anything off. The film manages something very difficult, to remain faithful to the "canon" of Star Trek while establishing something new and entertaining for both fans and non-fans alike.
That alone is a worthy achievement for an idea that has a huge fan based and more than 40 years of staying power. Not many television or movie franchises can make that claim. But, what really makes this film work so well is the outstanding cast the producers assembled for it. Zachary Quinto is a marvelous Spock. Chris Pine sold me on Kirk. Zoe Saldana is, if anything, a better Uhura - one of the "upgrades" that definitely sets well with me. The actors portraying McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu all get high marks. I believe in this cast. Their human chemistry together is as good as the originals and leaves opportunities for further exploration beyond the original series.
Abrams is to be congratulated for this. I gave the new Star Trek a solid 9 and I'll be visiting the theater when the next one comes out. How wonderful to experience such a rebirth of something so integral to my youth into something that is comfortably recognizable yet distinctively original.
I will see Avatar soon and report back with a post on that one. I suspect that it is a visual experience which demands a trip to the theater. I am also looking forward to seeing George Clooney's performance in Up in the Air as well as Daniel Day-Lewis (my favorite living actor) in Nine. So, there's still some 2009 movie magic (maybe) to be enjoyed with the coming of the new year.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Al Gore made a buffoon of himself. Obama looked marginalized. Climategate brought over 1500 stolen emails to public light, some of which suggested that some variable global warming data had been manipulated. This undermined in the public sphere confidence as to whether the earth is warming at all. But, the instigators of Climategate only brought confusion, nothing clear for their part either.
China was not exactly cooperative to the process. Developing countries threatened at one point to walk out of the talks completely. It costs money to build a clear energy economy versus just burning cheap coal as fast as you can. Where are these poor nations supposed to get the money from? Burning the coal fast as possible generates wealth faster.
The earth is warming. It naturally goes through cycles of warming and cooling. We are likely going through a warming trend as we live. The science is pretty solid.
So, the skeptics target the aspect of the global warming argument that contends that recent warming is to some extent (depending upon how extreme your position is) due to the burning of human-made fossil fuels and higher CO2 emissions in technologically advanced societies. The skeptics say human activity has little to do with the natural fluctuation of climate temperature.
I am not a scientist so I have to take the word of persons more authoritative than myself on the subject. Is it possible that the earth is warming and will continue to warm regardless of what human beings do about their CO2 emissions? It's possible. Is it possible that the warming is occurring within the context of the highest human-induced CO2 emissions in thousands of millennia and no one really knows what the effect of a warming trend under such circumstances will be? It's possible.
I guess what I scratch my head about is that even if human beings have nothing to do with the change in climate slowly affecting the globe what exactly is the point the skeptics are making? That human CO2 emissions should continue to grow at their historic rate, which is fast becoming parabolic? That that is a good thing?
It seems to me, admittedly an amateur at such things, that while natural CO2 is beneficial that doesn't necessarily mean that human-made CO2 is super cool as well. Perhaps, the skeptics will prove the advocates of lower greenhouse gas emissions wrong. That the earth will warm regardless of what humanity does. But, does that mean we should make no efforts to reduce emissions?
Are the skeptics making a point that we should do nothing?
The worst thing that can happen if we side with the advocates for reductions in CO2 emissions is that we can burn fuels more efficiently, more cleanly, and we can pursue alternative fuels to transportation and manufacturing more immediately, rather than sit back and just wait for the world to run out of oil in a few decades and deplete all our coal in another 200 years or so.
The global environmental movement has never looked so inept. The recent, historic meeting on climate change in Copenhagen was almost a black comedy in the tradition of Paddy Chayefsky, only most of the dialog was worse.
All this talk of the conference being a “good beginning” is hopeful. It is true that some small measures were agreed upon and that the whole concept of getting the world together to debate a worldwide concern is worthy (you have to start somewhere). Those who had hoped for more were predictably disappointed. But, it was unlikely to be otherwise.
For years, I have discussed with my friends the fact that as China and India develop economically they will want to do what the West did during their industrial revolution. They will want to burn cheap coal as inexpensively as possible (which means little money for pollution controls) so that they can grow their economies as quickly as possible – as the Western World has done since the 1800’s.
The inevitable result is that, regardless of how much America and Europe reduce carbon emissions that may or may not be significantly contributing to global warming, any lessening of the human burden of emission on the environment would be more than offset by the growth in Asia. That is, CO2 emissions are likely to continue to rise exponentially while the world fumbles through the politics of it all.
But, for me, the central question remains what is the point that the skeptics of the human contribution to global warming want to make? Since it might not matter and the earth might continue to warm anyway then humanity shouldn’t be burdened with having to make deal with carbon emissions at all?
I’ll be very clear. I am opposed to any perspective that advances human industriousness and the overall human “footprint” over the requirements of a sustained and viable natural environment. Human activity on this planet should not be a blank check. Human beings should not be free to do whatever they wish to the air and water and trees and land.
The environment of the planet has an intrinsic value beyond human existence. It is more important than any human endeavor. It is wrong to continue to elevate above the environment itself every human desire for exploitation of the planet’s resources and human inefficiencies that result in pollution and unnatural increase of natural elements such as CO2.
From my perspective the marginalized results of the conference are not the point. The point is I think we should do something over nothing. I think the skeptics, even if they are right scientifically (which they aren’t), are all wrong to think that even if the human contribution to global warming is inconsequential then we have no need to concern ourselves. The costs of more efficient use of resources are well worth the resulting change in our filthy habits as a species.
So, the real message of Copenhagen is confusion. It doesn’t matter if humans are contributing to global warming or not. What matters is that we change the way we think about generating wealth as a species and its affect on the environment. That can in no way be a bad thing. The skeptics are intellectually and morally empty, a beggar for the jingle of change.
The incompetence exhibited by the international community in Copenhagen doesn’t change this fact.
So, now we move on the next question. Will Copenhagen succeed under Obama where Kyoto failed for Clinton? Healthcare and global warming really unite these two administrations separated by Dubya. A comparison worthy of note.
Monday, December 14, 2009
It becomes obvious when you read these books that everything about Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria and conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 was predicated upon the weakness of Britain and, particularly, France when Hitler ordered German troops to remilitarize the Rhineland in 1936.
Munich, 1938 gives the reader a blow by blow account of the events primarily in London and Berlin leading up to the Munich Agreement. It does not attempt to give the reader much historical context for the events, however. Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 is hardly mentioned at all.
But, France in 1938 fills in some of the gaps of the more recent work, specifically stating: “Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, illegal but unopposed other than by formal protests, had seriously undermined the potential for the Western democracies to intervene against Hitler’s ambitions in the East.” (Martin, page 3)
The failure to militarily oust Hitler from the Rhineland in 1936 (which France could have easily done) ultimately resulted in Hitler’s confident decision to attack Poland in 1939. Berlin did not believe Britain or France would risk war with Germany so long as Germany did not directly attack them.
To learn more about the details of the German political victory in the Rhineland in 1936 I turned to some older books in my library. This is why I have a personal library. Years later something I read becomes relevant to something I am currently reading and I can expand my knowledge of it with a certain ease.
John Toland’s excellent biography of Hitler (1976) and William Shirer’s still highly relevant history of Nazi Germany (1959) both shine interesting details about how Hitler got away with the Rhineland maneuver and how it led to a dramatic solidification of Hitler’s popularity in Germany.
Here’s how one war leads to another. The Rhineland was a concession of the Treaty of Versailles, which – importantly – the common German abhorred. We are in what I would call the Late-Imperial period. Empires were still recognized as such even if their nature had changed in the last 200 years. The Rhineland was a demilitarized zone. No German military unit or aircraft of any kind could be stationed there.
This made France (who had suffered the physical scars of war more than any nation in the Great War) feel safer because the Germans also had to give up by treaty their ambitions of controlling the Alsace-Lorraine region, which remained solidly French. It is there that the French later built their magnificent Maginot Line, reflecting their thinking about preventing another German invasion of their country.
In March 1936, Hitler decided to send troops into the Rhineland. To occupy it militarily with about 3 battalions of infantry. An extremely trivial amount of force. Nevertheless it was a huge gamble. The French Army could easily, without question, have occupied the area and booted the Germans out.
But, that would risk another major war with Germany. The weight of World War I was heavier in France than anywhere. Internally, France was a confused nation, having just shifted as a people from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek as part of France’s response to the Great Depression. The people liked working 40 hours a week better. But they wanted their standard of living to be maintained. This, among other influences, weakened France’s political system. There were only fragments and no “moderates.” France did nothing. Britain made it plain they were disinterested, so Hitler took the gamble.
“London never seriously considered taking action…General Gamelin warned that ‘a war operation, however limited, entailed unpredictable risks’…He did agree to rush 13 divisions to the Maginot Line.” (Toland, page 407) A large response but without intention of acting in the absence of British support. The German Army leaders were terrified in the face of overwhelming odds and begged Hitler to withdraw the 3 battalions. Hitler was intensely worried as well but he was relying on his foreign policy advisers, trusting the instincts of von Ribbentrop and von Neurath. Hitler refused to withdraw. More German troops were positioned nearby to offer assistance. It was a clear military build-up in the area by both sides, but the French far outnumbered the Germans in troops and, more importantly, artillery. Still, the Germans were aggressive...
“By Monday more than 25,000 German troops, greeted by censer-swinging priests conferring blessings on them, were established in the Rhine zone. While there were still only words from the French, Hitler was consumed with anxiety.” (Toland, page 408) But the British labeled the event as “The Germans, after all, are only going into their back garden.” (page 408) However, “the very next day, …the Council of the League of Nations met in London and unanimously passed a resolution condemning Germany as a treaty-breaker.”(page 408)
Hitler’s foreign advisers read the situation well, insisting that there would be no real consequences. It worked. “Holding the weakest hand, Hitler had bluffed England and France, proof that words of condemnation from international bodies were futile without force behind them….He was also shrewd enough to capitalize on the Rhineland to further solidify his power at home. He dissolved the Reichstag and submitted this policy to plebiscite. Rather than an election campaign, it was a triumphal parade from city to city with the majestic dirigible, Hindenburg, painted all over with swastikas, flying escort overhead….On March 29, without benefit of guns, 98.8 percent of the electorate voted for Hitler. No head of state in the world enjoyed such popularity. Moreover, he had maneuvered his country in little more than three years from supplicant to challenger.” (Toland, page 409)
Ian Kershaw agrees in his more recent, great history. Kershaw begins volume two of his Hitler biography quoting Hitler before the Reichstag on March 7, 1936: “’After three years, I believe that, with the present day, the struggle for German equal rights can be regarded as closed.’….there can be no doubt that the overwhelming mass of German people applauded Hitler’s recovery of German sovereignty in the Rhineland (as they had his earlier steps at throwing off the shackles of Versailles). It was a major triumph for Hitler, both externally and internally. It was the culminating point of the first phase of his dictatorship.” (Kershaw, pp. xxxv – xxxvi).
Richard Evans, defines the moment better than anybody I’ve read. “In March 1936, Germans held their breath while 3,000 troops marched deep into the Rhineland backed by another 30,000 troops who remained on or near the eastern bank of the river. Had France chosen to send their own troops in, the Germans would have been driven out within a few hours despite Hitler’s orders to resist. But, they did not. Believing that the German military presence was ten times greater that it really was, and hamstring by public anxiety about war at a time when a general election was looming, the French government chose inaction….No body at this stage thought of Hitler as different from previous German statesmen, and these had never hidden their desire to move troops back into the Rhineland.” (page 635)
But, what these quotes don’t reveal is that Hitler manipulated this entire situation. Munich, 1938 makes Hitler's talent for bold political manipulations very clear and it is one of that book’s strengths. But, how Hitler managed the manipulation is a question only William L. Shirer can answer in my library. My copy of Shirer’s still renowned The Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich is a paperback I bought upon graduating from college. I was renting an apartment for a few more weeks, without any job offers, it was summer there was a pool and I had time to do nothing but read, swim, tan and party at night. I really didn’t know what I would do next. I look back on it now and I’m amazed how little thought I gave to my career while in college. It was that free, present moment kind of Being that ultimately lead me to India.
Anyway, I wanted to read something “thick” with some meat on it. For the past few months, I had been shooting and editing a United Way promotional film and playing cameraman to the film efforts of the college’s drama department. I had been only thinking creatively in the moment. I wanted something grounded. Shirer fits the bill. My badly yellowed-page copy is marked up like almost all my other books but the markings are from subsequent readings. That college summer when I first read the book I didn’t underline anything at all. I laid in the sun by the swimming pool and tanned my young runner’s body.
Shirer’s eyewitness account goes back to May 1935 when Hitler gave a couple of “peace” speeches at the Reichstag in which he emphasized “tolerance and conciliation.” In his last peace speech, Hitler renounced: “all claims to Alsace-Lorraine, a land for which we fought two great wars…Without taking the past into account Germany has concluded a non-aggression pact with Poland…We shall adhere to it unconditionally…We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people. Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria, to annex Austria, or to conclude an Anschluss.” (page 394) Hitler proclaimed that he had no intention of attempting to challenge British naval supremacy and that he had little interest in "colonial" conquests in Africa or Asia.
Hitler waited for the slow moving French government to ratify a pact with the Soviet Union and used this agreement to justify his planned Rhineland operation. Shirer described the wider political context for Hitler’s decision very well: “All through the winter of 1935-36 Hitler bided his time. France and Britain, he could not help but note, were preoccupied with stopping Italy’s aggression in Abyssinia, but Mussolini seemed to be getting by with it. Despite its much-publicized sanctions, the League of Nations was proving itself impotent to halt a determined aggressor….Apparently Hitler thought there was a good chance of the French Chamber or Senate rejecting the alliance with Moscow. In that case he would have to look for another excuse…” (page 400)
But he got to use the excuse he planned to use. Shirer writes of a memory upon the French ratified agreement with the Soviet Union: “Indeed, two hours later the Fuehrer was standing at the rostrum of the Reichstag before a delirious audience, expounding his desire for peace and his latest ideas of how to maintain it. I went over to the Kroll Opera House to see the spectacle, which I will never forget, for it was both fascinating and gruesome. After a long harangue about both the evils of Versailles and the threat of Bolshevism, Hitler calmly announced that France’s pact with Russia had in validated the Locarno Treaty, which, unlike that of Versailles, Germany had freely signed.” (page 401)
Hitler whipped the 600 deputies of the Reichstag into a frenzy of Heils. He simultaneously swore to the “unrestricted sovereignty” for Germany in the demilitarized zone and to “never break the peace!” Hitler had the full support of Germany in marching into the Rhineland in spite of the hesitations of Germany’s High Command (Hitler himself was nervous but Shirer does not discuss that, it is a product of more recent research). The combination of public support, the beginnings of a German military build-up in 1935, Mussolini’s conquests in Africa, France’s indecisiveness, and British indifference allowed Hitler to play the situation in grand political style.
Shirer concludes of Hitler’s “coup” in the Rhineland: “Conversely, it is equally easy to see, in retrospect, that France’s failure to repel the Wehrmacht battalions and Britain’s failure to back her in what would have been nothing more than a police action was a disaster for the West from which sprang all the later ones of even greater magnitude. In March 1936 the two Western democracies were given their last chance to halt, without risk of a serious war, the rise of a militarized, aggressive, totalitarian Germany and, in fact – as we have seen Hitler admitting – bring the Nazi dictator and his regime tumbling down. They let the chance slip by.” (page 405)
As I said, Shirer’s history is still highly insightful and relevant. It is a massive work of great detail. Combined with Toland’s work and the other books I mentioned it affords a clearer understanding of how Hitler was able to retake the Rhineland, gain political and cultural momentum, and masterly dupe his enemies at Munich in 1938. He thought himself invincible. Deutschland Uber Alles. A key root cause (among many) of the catastrophic yet world-changing Second World War.
One thing I enjoy about reading is how one topic can lead you to something else. And I enjoy my older books because they contain nuggets that yield fresh understandings years later. Life is for learning. My older books are also enjoyable in the context of the memories they contain, like photographs, of what my life was like when I first purchased them. Links in the chain. My library is like a toy box that I can open up and find old friends that occupy and enrich my mind in very satisfying ways.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
This is a bull market for gold. You have to get in when you get in and be firm about it. My formula for buying GLD is reflected in the chart below. I use a combination of Slow Stochastic, RSI, and MACD in my readings of most stocks.
Generally speaking, in a bull market if the Slow Stochastic drops below 10 and the RSI below 50 then you want to buy. Alternately, if the Slow Stochastic is below 15 for three days in a row (like today) and the RSI is below 50 it is a buy signal as well. This works only for sectors in bull markets. This doesn't work at all in bear markets as I painfully found out in 2000 and 2001. But, hey, learn from your mistakes, right?
The MACD is kind of a wild card. If it is negative at the same time you get the other indicators then that means it is a solid buy. Buy a lot. But, if it is strongly positive (as it is today) you want to be cautious and not buy so much. So, I only bought about one-third of what I would have bought if the MACD had been negative today. Gold is oversold, but not severely. It could still drop more. If it does, I'll buy more. If it doesn't rise too fast and the MACD works its way toward zero, I'll buy more if the Stochastic and RSI aren't too high. This is more an art than a science although you are dealing with very real technicalities.
I bought more GLD based on this chart today. The only "trouble" with these indicators is that the MACD is a bit extended and high. So, it was a cautious buy. The chart is at the top followed by the Slow Stochastic, the RSI, and then the MACD readings. Within the chart itself are Bollinger Bands and the 50-day moving average. Notice how during this bull run GLD has been pulled back toward the average only to break free again. I think this will happen again this time. In fact, I put money on it. We'll see. This chart was created at BigCharts.com.
So, using this method the chart above reveals the following. Assuming you do everything the simple way and just buy at the open (though it is best to trade near the close when things are clearer) you would have a solid buy July 9 at $89.63, a small buy August 12 at $92.60, a solid buy October 26 at $101.62, and today a small buy at whatever tomorrow's open is - I bought at $110.22. Essentially, you do what you are supposed to do in any bull market. You buy on the pullbacks. Nothing magical about it actually.
There are another set of rules for selling, but Richard Russell has taught me not to sell gold. Just accumulate it for now. A huge, third-phase of this gold bull market awaits somewhere in the future. At that time everyone with want gold and the price will experience a blow-off. When will that be? He doesn't know and neither does anybody else. An educated guess is over $2000 an ounce, however. Probably a lot higher.
Why will gold skyrocket? Because to the Federal Reserve attempting to defeat deflation. Next year, our government is going to have to refinance over $3.5 trillion in debt. It will do that by selling bonds and effectively "printing money." Worthless fiat money. In the years ahead that number will grow exponentially. It will balloon to more than $23 trillion just ten years from now. This is not even conjectural. It is an economic fact. This bodes for well gold, the only form of currency that is more than 5,000 years old. Gold is the only money.
I discovered this combination trading stocks routinely in the late 1990's. Since then I've quit my trading ways and focused on buying and holding gold. As I posted just six days ago, I sold all my stocks and gold stocks in order to capitalize a movement into gold bullion, gold ETFs and perhaps some utility stocks that pay 5% yields. The strategy, once again, is to get my money closer to gold and out of the influences of the general stock market. Also, I trust utilities more than banks, plus they pay more.
So, we'll see how it all plays out. It is always a gamble. No body knows what is going to happen.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
This morning was our first hard frost since last winter. My open ground was coated in a heavy frosty white-silver. There were no crows or other birds in flight yet. Charlie went out with me after I made coffee. Jennifer and my daughter continued to sleep.
There was a moment totally consumed with doggy action at first. As I opened the door for Charlie to go out I was also herding Parks (who now sleeps in our laundry room every night) toward the door for his morning constitutional. I have to pick him up and sit him down the stairs to our carport. His shoulder is bad and we are medicating him for it. But, that is another story. Anyway, he’s still undead particularly about 3 hours before feeding time.
With Parks slowly puttering off, stopping frequently to stare into apparent nothingness, and before I could get out the front door with my cup of homebrewed Starbucks, Nala came up very animated. She looked frisky, she likes cold weather. But, she is used to coming in about this time every morning (we now let her into the laundry room but not usually at night, she prefers her freshly made bed of hey under our front porch, having always been an outside dog).
So, Nala replaced Parks and I had to pet her a bit and make a fuss over her. She laid down, still. I finally got out the door. Charlie was running outside. This was his first heavy frost since being a little puppy. I don’t believe he remembers his last one. I sure don’t. Regardless, he likes a frosty morning, maybe just because it’s something new.
I walked into our woods. The air was still. No breeze at all. Even though it was 24 degrees out I felt warmer than I did outside yesterday in 47 degrees, overcast and wet, with a 10 mph wind. The coffee cup warmed my exposed hands. I was just in sweats and a sweater.
Then I just breathed for a bit. A sip of coffee. Quiet.
The sun, hidden by the ridge behind me to the east was up and bright. My land remained in its shadow for the moment, daylight had yet to touch the tops of my tallest trees from where I stood. I had noticed the sun’s young yellow light in the trees on the ridge to my west about 40 acres away from my house as I walked toward the Pine Forest Road. It was more overcast back to the west.
Now, in my woods, in the shadow, with my coffee, there were squirrels, high in the trees like acrobats, hopping along the thick blanket of leaves at the forest’s trunks. They made little noise and were quick as lightning when Charlie saw one and chased it up a tree. He gets close. He’s learning. He will catch one some day.
I thought of nothing. The coffee tasted nice. Looking back toward the house I noticed the frost of the red tin roof, though all I could see was the edge from my angle. I started feeling cold. I breathed deeper a few times. The cold air filling my lungs. It felt satisfying. I was alert.
There is a place in my woods where we recently relocated a garden bench. It had been sitting under an oak in Jennifer’s wonderful backyard garden space for years. There are patches of fungi from the drippings and fallings of the tree over the years. So, in a sense, the bench is alive. It is not yet rotted but it will soon in a couple more years. We need to replace the wooden slats with fresh ones. Otherwise, it sits great.
I sat there of a moment until Charlie got bored with the squirrels.
By now the coffee cup was two-thirds empty and it no longer warmed my hands. Time to warm the cup. So I walked slowly back listening to my Nike’s in the leaves. Charlie was sniffing for grubs or, more likely, deer poop. He is a connoisseur of venison defecation. Not his most attractive quality, I admit.
I called him. He came after a few seconds and raced past me down the length of Pine Forest Road to the front door where he stopped, sprawling his long, slim four-legged body all over the space of our entry steps, looking back, tongue half out. I let him in, toweled off his wet, dirty paws, and set him free, whereupon he bounced around the house and furniture so happy to be alive. He bounded up the stairs and pounced on Jennifer in our bed.
I filled my cup and coaxed him out from our bedroom. He retrieved a tennis ball but I told him I couldn’t throw with him right now. I sat down to check emails and sip my coffee. Charlie reappeared with a piece of new rope I bought him yesterday. We wrestled with it roughly for 5 – 10 minutes. He growled playfully more than usual, really into it. I growled back which provoked him more. Then he went to lie by Jennifer. Charlie remained motionless, stretched out seemingly twice his natural length until she got about 20 minutes later.
Meanwhile, I had completed my morning routine on the internet. I read some while Jennifer had her first cup, checked her laptop and woke up. Then we shared a cup, talked for a bit in a slow, relaxed early morning pace. Parks returned and wanted in. I picked his densely packed body up and lifted him back into the house. I went back to read, Jennifer went back to her laptop.
After a bit, Parks threw-up on the carpet. Jennifer was suddenly alert and giving orders. “Hold Charlie back while I get this.” I raced downstairs and did so. Parks had been across the ditch to the neighbor’s house and had eaten some ham scraps that they seem to consistently provide behind their house.
On this cold morning, the ham parts were probably frozen when Parks neurotically consumed them. He choked them up roughly intact and without any liquid. It was just this moist mass sitting there. To Charlie it looked tasty. I held him gently with my finger looped around his collar, squatting next to him. He was anxious and intensely curious, but he did not try to bolt. Jennifer deposited Parks back outside.
Unfortunately, as Jennifer let Parks out, Nala thought that the door opening was for her to go out and rose stiffly from the communal doggie mat in our laundry room. Nala has a deformed pelvic bone and this has resulted in some painful pressure on her knees from the angle of her legs in her old age. In addition she has become sporadically incontinent and she spotted the mat heavily upon rising to exit the door with Parks. So, Jennifer had to toss the mat quickly in the washing machine. Then she returned and threw the scraps of Parks’ regurgitation away using vinyl gloves and newspaper.
Toweling up the small spot on the carpet which was luckily unstained by the episode, I let Charlie go. He inspected briefly and decided he didn’t want anything to do with that after all. Jennifer freshened her coffee and returned with a smile. “Well, that was pleasant” she opined, sitting again. “Get you going better than the coffee,” I uttered. We chuckled. The heat kicked on, warming us inside our Christmas decorated home. My daughter dreamed on, oblivious.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Meanwhile, my DIA and SPY positions all opened up and then lost ground most of the day so I was able to exit them on a high note before they turned negative.
By the close, however, the Transports ended at a new high for the rally - 4101.76. The Dow did not confirm this action, however, closing at 10,388.90 - about 90 points below its recent high. So, another Dow Theory non-confirmation is in effect for now.
Last night, I decided the short-term correction in gold is here and took the opportunity to exit the markets entirely except for my holdings in GLD, NEM, and SLV. Otherwise, I'm out.
I do not trust this rally in general and gold itself has been greatly overbought for weeks. So, it was a good time to take profits, offset some losses, and consolidate. In the coming months I think gold will at least test the $1500 level.
My plan is to remain cash heavy until GLD gives a new buy signal. I am also considering a few utility companies right now. Some are paying 5% annual yields - far better than I can do at any bank and, frankly, I think these companies are safer than our faltering banking industry.
I do not believe the Great Recession is over. I think 2010 will not be a good year for the housing industry, nor for unemployment (despite today's report), and certainly we will see greater levels of federal debt with more fiat "paper money" being thrown at this bear.
Gold should play out well in this scenario. The problem with gold stocks is that they will not necessarily follow the price of gold or an exchange traded fund like GLD. If the stock market tanks, the gold stocks are susceptible to general market forces, not purely gold forces. I want to be positioned more directly into the price of gold going forward. So, I will take the profits and my original cash and buy more gold (bullion and/or ETFs) on corrections in the on-going gold bull market.
That's the plan anyway.
Back on July 23 I posted that I planned on being out by October. I just missed my estimate by a couple of very lucrative months.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I have recently been reading about this period and playing a wargame on the battle from Victory Point Games' "Napoleon 20" Series. I am a big fan of this series and have purchased most of Victory Point's offerings in it. These are small wargames, designed for quick-play while offering enough game design elements to get a feel for the Napoleonic Era and to offer some insights on the battle. As usual, even though the game is designed to be played on a physical map with physical playing pieces (pictured above), I prefer to play it in its digital format. This time in a popular gaming program known as Cyberboard.
Austerlitz 20 allows players to explore some of the wider possibilities of the battle by offering an “early start” scenario which represents the military situation from December 1 through December 3. Playing the game this way leads to some very interesting and plausible divergences from the historical situation. Victory for Napoleon was by no means assured. Rather, it historically occurred due to a combination of excellent strategy and tactics on the French side, as well as some blunders by the less organized and trained Coalition side. In game terms, you don’t necessarily have to blunder as the Coalition player and sometimes things don’t go according to plan for Napoleon.
This failure for events to go according to plan is simulated in the game by a small deck of “event cards” that are randomly drawn at the beginning of each player’s turn. Sometimes the event is helpful, sometimes it does not apply, and sometimes it harms your best plans. It is this degree of uncertain variability that makes wargaming in general and the Napoleonic 20 series in particular very entertaining whether playing face-to-face or solitaire.
The “historical scenario” affords Napoleon several advantages and takes place only on December 2. The Allied army is not very well positioned – they have already fallen for the bait with which Napoleon presented them by abandoning Pratzen Heights and weakening his right flank. His plan was to draw the Coalition army forward and around toward Napoleon’s right, then the bulk of the French army would strike at the center on the heights and rout it.
As usual my game play is accompanied by simultaneous reading and study of the situation. Two books I have on hand specifically for this battle are 1805: Austerlitz and The End of the Old Order. The later book summarizes Napoloen’s handling of the situation just before the battle as follows: “By abandoning the Pratzen heights to the allies and concentrating his forces at the Santon-Zuran complex, Napoleon transformed the conditions in which the battle would be fought and made such a victory possible. That left envelopment of Napoleon’s right flank as the only promising option for the allies. By abandoning the Pratzen, Napoleon forced them to choose between abandoning the highway and with it their lines of communication and withdrawal, or dividing their forces into units that had no direct contact with one another, thus offering Napoleon the opportunity to split up the enemy army and defeat it in detail.” (Kagan, page 570)
That’s pretty much what happened historically and it is fun to play this situation out in the game. Whereas most wargames take several hours (or even days or weeks) to play, this historical scenario is fun and can be completed in less than an hour. Given the variability of the game mechanics, a French victory is likely but not guaranteed. It wouldn’t be much of a game if the outcome were certain.
Due to its quick play time, over the last couple of evenings I have played this scenario at least a half dozen times. In all but one instance, the French have won the game. So it is possible for the Coalition to achieve victory. It is just very tough given the French advantages. What follows is an example of one such playing that yielded a roughly historical result.
The game begins with fog. That affects what players can do the first turn. Among other things, movement is severely restricted and players cannot combine attacks. Units must be attacked one-on-one, individually. This is decidedly unfortunate for the Coalition player as the game begins with a massive threat to the weakly held French position at Sokolnitz Castle, an important Coalition objective hex. The Coalition player can only attack with one of his units, not both. Meanwhile, the French player is rushing his weakened III Corps unit to the Castle in hopes of holding the position. The battle begins…
The opening situation. This is historically accurate for a game on this scale.
After playing this scenario multiple times, I have decided the French have to close the distance between their main army and the Prazten Heights ASAP. So, even though they do not get the to make full use of the battle advantages of the card on the first turn due to the distance between the two armies, it is best to negate the effects of fog and get that extra movement point under their belt, especially when the Coalition forces can only make one movement point in their first turn.
But the Coalition still goes first. There are choices to be made here too. Even though they are moving at a crawl due to fog they can leave themselves open to some pretty nasty French attacks if they are not careful of unit placement. The Coalition moves forward at a snail’s pace and attacks the weakened French right near Sokolnitz Castle. The attack routs the French cadre unit which is forced to make a “hazardous retreat” across a minor river. This forces the cadre to check morale which it fails thereby breaking the unit, effectively eliminating it for the rest of this scenario.
This places the Coalition in a fine condition to attempt to overwhelm the Castle in the next turn and thereby capture an important objective hex. More importantly, this rout and break of the cadre damages French morale. If one side’s morale drops to zero its army is considered demoralized and the other side automatically wins the game. Things look tough for the French.
But then the French play the Sun of Austerlitz card. They advance rapidly toward several key Coalition objectives on Pratzen Heights. The French attack the village of Pratzen with their IV Corps and Reserve Light Cavalry. This breaks the Russian 3 Corps, raising French morale and lowering the Coalition.
Suddenly, the Coalition is in trouble. They are weak in the center and the French are driving a wedge between the Coalition left and right flanks. It is important that the Coalition protect their objective hexes from the French in their next turn. The Coalition draws a card that allows them to immediately rally any one unit. This isn’t a great deal of help but it does allow them to try to rally the Russian 3 Corps. Even if successful that Corps must be placed too far away to be of any assistance during this short historical scenario. This event is more helpful in the “early start” scenario. Still, the attempt is made and it is successful. The unit does, in fact, rally and return to the map’s edge.
The Coalition is too weak to risk an attack to the north but it throws everything it can into stopping the French IV Corps before it can advance on the objective hex of St. Anthony’s Chapel. The attack forces a French withdrawal, allowing the Russian 1 Corps to advance. The French draw a “no effect” card but a wild melee ensues.
Coalition counterattack at St. Anthony's Church. Here the game begins to stray from history a bit.
So the battle is on the line. While the French advance and attempt to secure the Stare Vinobrady objective hex against the Austrian 2/4 Corps, the French surround the Russian 1 Corps as the French Light Cavalry soaks-off the Russian 2 Corps. The French Imperial Guard waits in reserve.
The superb French Grenadiers and V Corps rout the Austrians. The Light Cavalry is routed holding the attention of the Russian 2 Corps. But, the Russian 1 Corps gives as much as it gets forcing an “Exchange” result. The Russian defender is eliminated, dropping Coalition morale further, but at least an equal number of French strength must the eliminated as well. The only thing the French can do to at least equal the Russian loss is eliminate their powerful V Corps, dropping French morale. It is a very bloody situation. The surviving French Heavy Cavalry is allowed to advance into the vacated Russian hex.
This presents another dilemma for the Coalition in their next turn. First of all, they draw the “Uncertainty and Confusion Reign” card which means all their units lose one movement point. Next, the Russian 2 Corps is trapped by the entire French cavalry and must stand a counterattack by the cavalry. The French strength is doubled in this effort because it is cavalry countercharging infantry.
The French Cavalry countercharge after a bloody infantry clash.
The French draw an “Unexpected Help” card which means they will get an additional infantry corps on their side of the map. But, it will not affect play in this short scenario. Cards like that are more important if you are playing the longer 3-day game.
Now the French must decide whether to attack the Austrians with their cavalry or to withdraw – which cavalry are allowed to do against infantry-only opponents. They decide to attack but the die roll results in an “N” – no effect. Everyone stays in place. Unfortunately, now the Austrians are going to be forced to endure a counterattack by the French in the next turn.
The French cavalry charge the Austrians at St. Anthony's.
The French cavalry push the Austrians out of St. Anthony Chapel. Meanwhile, the Coalition manages to drive the French Grenadiers back. But, neither action costs anything in terms of morale. However, now the French have two objective hexes and that does cost the Coalition a precious morale point.
But all is not lost! The “Warriors of Russia” card is drawn which grants all Russian units (not Austrian) +1 strength point the next turn. The French consolidate their gains. Coalition morale drops dangerously low. But, the Coalition forms for one last attempt to save one of the objective hexes. Only it is now the evening turn. Fog has returned to the field. The Coalition can only move one hex again and they cannot combine attacks. Still, they will attack where they can. Nothing comes of it. A bunch of meaningless withdrawals.
Of course, this was not the way Austerlitz was actually fought. I used units from both sides differently than they were used historically. The dynamics of battle were also different. Historically, the French cavalry didn’t play as big a role in the battle as they did in my game play. But, the end result was roughly the same. A decisive French victory elevating Napoleon to his rightful height in history.
Although Austerlitz has the scholarly clout of being Napoleon's greatest victory I do not personally believe it was the greatest victory of the Napoleonic Era. That distinction in my opinion should go to one of Napoleon's marshalls – Louis-Nicolas Davout. In 1806 at the Battle of Auerstadt, though outnumbered 2-1 by the Prussians and losing almost one-third of his troops in a very bloody encounter, Davout engineered an amazing, crushing defeat of the Prussian army. To me, this was the finest achievement by any military commander in a single battle during this period. Davout's mastery demonstrated the supremacy of the innovative and aggressive French tactics compared with a Prussian force that still fought battles the way Frederick the Great did some 50 years previously.
Nevertheless, Austerlitz remains a stellar historic achievement of superior political weight compared to Auerstadt. Whereas Davout’s victory merely demoralized superior Prussia forces, at Austerlitz Napoleon’s victory reaped huge political concessions from his enemies and ended the Third Coalition. It is a fascinating situation to study and to simulate in this small but not simplistic gaming format.