Sunday, May 27, 2012

Awakening to Malick's Brilliance

Part of the "creation sequence" from The Tree of Life.

Part of the "into the monolith sequence" from 2001.

I have been a Terrence Malick fan for years. My first exposure to him was seeing Days of Heaven (1978) in college. While the film impressed me as sort of a “landscape movie” I did not fully appreciate Malick’s style – which was still emerging at the time. The film remained on my mind for awhile, however. I just didn’t take much notice of that fact and eventually I forgot it.

My next encounter with Malick came many years later when I saw his re-make of The Thin Red Line (1998). I experienced that film as a “psychological war movie,” unique in that genre. I first saw it on VHS and then later on DVD. It was a film I revisited regularly through the years because it haunted me. I did not understand why even though it was obviously very well made.

It wasn’t until after I saw The New World (2005) that I began to grasp Malick as an exceptional stylist. Visually stunning, slowly paced, carefully crafted, and – still – haunting in its way. This motivated me to watch a copy of his first film, Badlands (1973). While immature compared with the other films mentioned it was still entertaining in its distinctive and influential way. These are all “non-Hollywood” movies.

So, almost unconsciously, I have been a fan of Malick as if his films chose me rather than the other way around. That might sound strange, being “possessed” by Malick’s films (as opposed to being “obsessed” by them), but it rings true for me.

There is no better example of this than his 2011 Cannes Film Festival award winner, The Tree of Life. Like me, Jennifer finds the Malick experience irresistible. The Thin Red Line is the only war movie I have known her to sit all the way through during our marriage, for example. She really enjoyed The New World. We had both planned to see The Tree of Life while it was in limited release last summer at one of Atlanta’s art movie houses. But, we never got around to going.

So, I was interested to see the film when it came out on Blu-Ray. I watched it for the first time last fall. For weeks I waited for Jennifer to find the time or be in the mood for some heavy Malick. The time never came.  She asked me what I thought of the film after she found out I watched it without her. I got away with something nebulous like “oh, it is like all his other films, only he goes all-out with it.” That satisfied her curiosity until recently. We finally watched it together last weekend and, as with most great movies, I enjoyed it more upon subsequent viewings.

Before my second viewing, however, I had discussed the film with an artsy employee I have in the department I manage. I had expressed that The Tree of Life reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), one of my all-time favorite films. Both films are visually amazing, with slow-building structure, and somewhat ambiguous, certainly open to the viewer’s interpretation.

Jennifer taught me the proper comparison between 2001 and The Tree of Life when we finally got around to watching it together. About 30 minutes into the virtually plot-less film, she was sobbing. Malick always provokes an emotional response, usually – for me – tranquility and a nebulous “something else.” When she started crying it struck me like a lightning bolt. Suddenly, for the first time, I understood my emotional connection to Malick’s entire body of work. Suddenly, Malick was brilliant, clearly one of the best directors I have known, comparable to Kubrick. Whereas 2001 is a mind-blowing film, The Tree of Life is a heart-blowing one.

Seeing not just The Tree of Life but all of Malick’s films in a different light for the first time motivated me to watch the only bonus-feature that came with my Blu-Ray, a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film that I had just never gotten around to watching before.

Of course, Malick himself, who is infamously private and reclusive, is not in the documentary. You can’t even spot him in any of photos or videos contained in the documentary. But, a good number of other key figures in the film are interviewed like Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. And there are some short comments by two other filmmakers both of whose work I admire, David Fincher and, my favorite living director, Christopher Nolan. To my surprise, Nolan remarkss on how Malick’s work reminds him of Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, both of whom I would place in my Top 10 director’s list (along with Nolan himself, and now Malick).

Moreover, the documentary also features comments from Douglas Trumbull, the brilliant special effects supervisor for 2001 (as well as, Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind among others) who, as it turns out, was instrumental in working on the “creation sequence" for The Tree of Life. I had no idea, having never paid close attention to the film’s credits. This visually stunning experience is the most obvious connection between Malick’s film and Kubrick’s. The fact Trumbull was involved in both was a connection I had not expected.

From The Tree of Life.

From 2001.

From The Tree of Life, a repesentation of the universe's organic feel.

From 2001, a representation of alien intelligence.

So my original intuition of comparing Kubrick with Malick in this particular film is validated. The similarities between them are numerous, even though the subject matter and style greatly differ. Both films are visually extravagant, even ground-breaking. Both films feature wonderful musical scores that rely heavily upon established works from the classical repertory. Mahler, Brahms, and Gorecki in Malick, Strauss, Khachaturian, and Ligeti in Kubrick. Both films are slowly paced with comparatively little dialog. Both films are philosophical and attempt to place humanity in context with the cosmos.

As I said, 2001 is one of my favorite all-time films. I would suddenly (!) place The Tree of Life somewhere (?) among my list of favorite films. I don’t actually have any such list. Well, maybe vaguely. Jennifer’s sobbing taught me a new appreciation. I love her for things like that. Malick’s work has possessed me to some mild extent for years. Now this film haunts me as most of Malick’s films have. The experience outshines all his other works and I see its importance clearly. I understand it makes me feel…richly…on and on…childhood, parenting, the way of nature, the way of grace, all within the glorious space and time of creation itself.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SpaceX Launches a New Era

A new era may have dawned today.  This morning at 3:44 AM a Falcon 9 rocket owned by a private company known as SpaceX lifted off with an unmanned capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station.  If successful, this mission could mark a major step forward in private space ventures.  The mission was scrubbed at literally the last second before launch this past Saturday.  But today's launch was flawless.  With government austerity threatening all manner of future space exploration, the privatization of space will likely take on a greater role moving forward.  This development meets with NASA's approval

This is as it should be.  It is only when the potential for economic gain in space (such as mining planets, moons, and asteroids) fire humanity's innate passion for wealth, that space exploration will literally regain the momentum it has lost since the Cold WarScientific inquiry and political competition was enough to get things going.  Now what we need is some old-fashioned greed to create a sense of urgency about space that transcends cutbacks in public funding.  

Late Note: The Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station on May 25.  Aboard the capsule were the remains of Star Trek's Mr. Scott.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Annular Eclipse

The Western US was treated to a rare Annular Eclipse tonight.  It was already dark here but I followed it on the internet.  I captured the image above while watching on my iPad.  At the time of my screen capture the Moon covered about 94 percent of the Sun's surface.  The eclipse started in Asia and spread across the Pacific Ocean to the Southwestern US.  The most recent eclipse to occur in the US was back in 1994 and it will be 2023 before our mainland sees another.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

When Honesties Collide

Jennifer recently asked our daughter for her opinion on what the president said last week about same-sex marriage.  "Oh my god mom, I am so sick of that.  It's all over Facebook.  It's like all people are talking about.  It makes me sick."  That is how my daughter responded before mentioning that she thought people in love should be able to marry regardless of their gender.

I agree with my daughter, although it does not sicken me to experience the intense debate over this historic moment.  The much-hated liberals, rightly I think, are portraying it as a matter of civil rights.  The Left is praising the president, of course.  The conservatives are spinning it as Obama playing politics in a way that is out of touch with mainstream America.  More honest conservatives are connecting their opposition with their religious faith.

Last Sunday vice-president Joe Biden abruptly announced that he was "absolutely comfortable" with the controversial idea of gay marriage.  This was just before North Carolina (who will host the Democratic National Convention later this summer) voted to join the ranks of some 30 states and ban marriage as a legal bond between couples of the same-sex.

This forced president Obama to hurriedly reconsider how to posture himself on this issue in the upcoming election.  It all happened over the course of about six days.  This seems to me to be a rare moment of (perhaps calculated, perhaps not) honesty about a deeply decisive issue.

I have been critical of Obama for being dispassionate, technocratic, and without any real guiding principles during these past four years.  Even with his signature domestic program, the Affordable Health Care for Americans Act, he weaved and waffled to the whims of others trying to form a consensus that just wasn't possible.  The Act ended up largely written by others.  Obama's plan was not crafted under his close supervision.  He didn't really have much to do with the specifics.

Coming out in favor of gay marriage is a historic moment of distinctive political honesty about a civil rights issue that is in line with Obama's liberal nature.  His support for same-sex marriage is not surprising.  Still, he called his decision a result of an "evolution" of consideration.  In truth, the evolution was toward becoming honest with himself and with the American People.  Conservatives disagree with the "civil rights" assessment but I find their reasoning lacking because it is limited by religious preference.

By a slim margin, the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.  This is a major shift in the culture of our nation over the past 15 years or so.  With that in mind it is easy to see how Obama's controversial announcement is, as some conservatives claim, simply playing politics.  But that doesn't take away the bravery and honesty of the moment.  In what will likely be a close election year, it is always safer to straddle the fence of such issues in order to build the largest coalition of voters as possible.  Obama's honest and definitive announcement is therefore a gamble no matter how anyone wants to caste it.

Setting politics aside, however, all the reasons to oppose same-sex marriage are religious ones.   There are no reasonable ethical or legal arguments against gay marriage.  There is nothing about the sexuality of marriage that threatens the constitutional rights of Americans.  That is an undeniable fact.

Therefore the gay marriage issue is fundamentally and unintentionally all an expression/critique of morality in our culture.  Therefore the honest pursuit of liberal civil rights and conservative morality collide.  That is the polarity of the situation and it could possibly place great urgency on this presidential election.

How this will ultimately affect the election is yet to be seen.   I'm not convinced that the issue will deflect attention away from the economy but the politics might work in Obama's favor.  Or not.  This issue might turn out to be mean nothing by November.  As explosive as it seems, gay rights isn't exactly at the forefront of the minds of most Americans.  Maybe everybody is like my daughter and just sick of it.  Everybody just needs to get over it.

Whether or not it flies as a lasting issue, it is the right thing to do.  I applaud Obama for coming out of the closet on the issue even if Joe Biden did place the president in an awkward position in order to "enable" this to happen.  The president is apparently not upset with Biden even though the veep did apologize for going wildly off-message.  Now we are in new political territory and both core supporters of the Left and the Right should be more energized making this election all the more interesting to watch.

The Christian militancy (for that is exactly what it is, self-righteous religious advocacy for a theocratic government) against gay and lesbian citizens should be met head-on.  Not because a slim majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, but because any political argument based solely on religious perspectives is inherently all about joining church and state, which is something our Founding Fathers took great pains to plainly separate.

So, when Romney reacts to the Obama announcement he is being a religious president.  He is playing in a moral realm not an ethical or legal one.  He becomes the same Neanderthal candidate as Rick Santorum was.  Romney's position seems to be "evolving" as well, but in the opposite direction.  At first he thought gay couples had a "right" to adopt children but those children should not be allowed to be reared in the family atmosphere that only marriage can bring.  This is an untenable, naive position.  So, now it is Romney's turn to waffle and wander vaguely through the realm of ethical principle.  The Plastic Republican nominee-to-be is showing his wax museum disingenuous soul. 

Some might contend that our system of ethics is founded upon morality.  I agree.  But, ethics is founded upon a number of other things (fairness, openness, tolerance) and is not necessarily the prerogative of the religious.  That is why our Founding Fathers, though religious men, kept political power away from religious faith.

This is an opportunity for liberalism to shine just as it shined in the great civil rights movement of the 1960's.  The energy of being right and being opposed by passionate yet archaic political thought grounded solely in conservative religious doctrine can be powerful.  But, once again, I'm not sure the average voter will care so much about it in a few months, after this has run its course through the news cycle.

It would be ironic if this year, with the economy consuming so much of our attention, and if the stock market doesn't just collapse between now and November, the election might not be about the economy, stupid.  Voters might be galvanized about more than an anemic economic recovery and a major shift in healthcare.  That might mean all this is just Obama playing politics after all.  Using a divisive political issue to project the attention of the voters elsewhere.  This is obviously a risky situation, however.  Swing states like North Carolina might now be more likely to lean toward Romney if Obama cannot somehow turn issues like gay rights into a mobilization for his re-election.  In swing states this could hurt Obama more than help him.

For the risk Obama is taking I have to believe this is not a clever political calculation.  It is, rather, a moment of direct personal conviction from a president that has expressed few such moments in the last four years.  I welcome the situation.  Obama is right.  Biden forced him to become who he truly is.  And now this election could at least in part be about taking human liberty to the next stage in our society.  There is no legitimate reason not to do so.

But, that does not mean Obama will win this round of the debate.  So, which is it going to be for now?  The honesty of the ethical liberals or the honesty of the religious conservatives?  It is a competition of worldviews.  The stuff that makes worlds collide.

Late Note: On May 31,  the First Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.  This is a major win for same-sex marriage in the US.  It is also a major victory for States Rights.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Follow-up: JPMorgan

As follow-up to the previous post, I was going to say that JP Morgan seemed to me to come out of the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession better than anyone except maybe for Wells Fargo.

But it is announced today that JPMorgan must book a $2 billion dollar loss on a single bad bet that apparently happened over a brief period of six-weeks.  A staggering number for any company.  The banking company is referred to in The Wall Street Journal today as "the King of Wall Street."  Once more, a major US bank demonstrates how difficult it is to manage risk in current economic circumstances.

Even with the loss, however, JP Morgan will still record a profit of about $4 billion for this quarter.  Not a shabby performance by most standards.  Risk being risky, the loss should perhaps not be as "shocking" as the media is making it out to be.  JP Morgan still appears to be responsibly managed in spite of the the huge hit to earnings.

As suggested in the Frontline documentary, Terri Duhan advised JPMorgan to reduce its exposure to particular Swaps and CDOs.  This proved to be the greatest kind of wisdom.  JPMorgan did not suffer as badly as its peers in the Great Recession and it rebounded quickly thanks to some insightful thinking from people like Ms. Duhan.

Nevertheless, greed trumped wisdom in this case.  By coincidence, Kelly Evans made her CNBC London reporting debut today with a report on the JPMorgan story. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Summary of Money, Power, and Wall Street

For a long time I have admired the PBS series Frontline for its outstanding reporting.  On May 1, the program aired the second-half of a huge four-hour documentary on the origins the Great Recession entitled Money, Power, and Wall Street.  The situation obsessed me and my blog posts back in 2008 – 2009.  Economically, nothing compares to it in my lifetime.  In this post I will attempt to summarize this superb four-part Frontline.

Wall Street is the largest sector of the American economy.  It is almost double the size of America's manufacturing sector.  Ultimately, the 2008 financial crisis and resulting Great Recession cost the world economy $11 trillion dollars.  This is how it happened.

It all started at a ritzy weekend resort in Boca Raton, FL in 1994.  A group of young bankers from JPMorgan, were celebrating the success of the company's derivative portfolios.  Young, very bright minds, partying a bit and meeting in small conference rooms hatched a new idea.

These young people were struggling with the age-old problem of how to manage Risk.  Out of these discussions came the idea of Credit Default Swaps, a derivative that ensured a loan against default, a novel idea.  Up to this point derivatives had always involved speculation about the future value of some tangible commodity like corn, coal, or beef.

The JPMorgan whiz kids came up with the idea to use derivatives to manage their bank loan risks. Banks are required to set aside a certain percentage of capital in reserve for every loan they make in order to ensure that if a certain number of loans default they will be able to cover the loses.  But, what if banks could find another way to cover potential losses without setting aside their own capital?  The banks would then have more capital to lend.  Beyond this, however, the derivatives themselves were wildly profitable.

Credit derivatives were born.  Banks could loan more capital instead of keeping it in reserve while spreading risks around in an innovative way.  In 1994, one of JPMorgan’s whiz kids, Blythe Masters, brokered the world’s first Credit Default Swap with Exxon.  By 1998, JPMorgan had hired Terri Duhon to package whole segments of loan portfolios from multiple companies and offer them.  The idea mushroomed.  JPMorgan’s profits soared and its competitors soon followed suit.

By now derivatives became bets on any and all portfolios whether the banks owned them or not.  Credit risk itself became no different from the risk of a season's worth of corn or the coal in a mine in West Virginia.  Credit became a commodity, thereby making banking history.

This fueled a worldwide credit boom.  Ironically, just as large banking institutions were attempting to reduce risk through new kinds of derivatives, public officials in Washington saw the workings of these new financial instruments as creating greater risk overall. Most famously, Brooksley Born in 1998 attempted to alert congress to the dangers and sought to regulate these Swaps and derivatives.  The Banks lobbied hard against this. The Banks won.  Legislation was passed by congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton to repeal the depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, thus opening the way for Banks to market and sell derivatives without any public accountability whatsoever.  Citigroup led the charge to repel the Act.

The result was an explosion in Credit Default Swaps beyond commercial credit risk into consumer credit risk with emphasis on home mortgages.  In places with rapidly growing housing markets, like Georgia, predatory lending practices emerged.  In 2002, Governor Roy Barnes managed to pass legislation putting limits on aggressive mortgage lending practices.  The mortgage lobby heavily funded his political opponents and got the law overturned when Barnes failed to win re-election.

Home sales skyrocketed.  Swaps grew exponentially.  Credit innovation continued with the emergence of Synthetic CDOs.  Investors could now bet on derivatives based not on mortgages themselves but on other derivatives.  Derivatives on derivatives on derivatives. Terri Dohan, one of the innovators of the Swap system, began to hesitate about the amount of growth and the resulting tower of risk that was amassing.  Ultimately, she encouraged JPMorgan to reduce its exposure and limit its protfolio to only certain kinds of Swaps.  The derivatives had evolved into something that she had not originally anticipated.

Subprime mortgages fed the growing hunger for Swaps and CDOs.  By 2005, many trillions of dollars were involved and the amount started to double every year.  It was a global phenomenon led, of course, by the United States. Conditions became such that neither the bankers nor the legislators of the countries involved even understood how these swaps in conjunction with subprime lending worked.  The understanding of risk virtually vanished as the housing market continued to grow at a record pace.

Around $36 billion in bonus money was being doled out to the top managers of the derivative market.  But, in meetings with the Federal Reserve some bankers like Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich warned of “toxic assets” and “building a bubble.”  They remained in the minority, however.  His fellow bankers disagreed with that assessment, telling the Fed everything looked fine.

The Frontline correspondent asked Terri Duhon pointblank why did everyone keep going when it became clear to her that JPMorgan should reduce its exposure to Swaps and CDOs.  She replied: “Umm…the…I mean…look…very simply, there are certainly some investors, some banks, some borrowers who are a bit greedier than they should be.”

When it became more obvious that the derivatives market was nearing a climax, Goldman Sachs took a particularly aggressive position.  A congressional investigation later revealed that the bank packaged toxic mortgages into CDOs and then sold them to foreign banks and municipalities while the bank used Swaps to bet against their own customers.  As things began to unravel, when the housing bubble burst, Goldman Sachs made money off of other banks that had invested in their CDOs.  Banks in Germany became the first to fail.

By 2008, things were going terribly wrong but, due to the lack of public disclosure, almost no one knew it yet.  Suddenly, massive numbers of mortgages were in default and those holding Swaps had to pay up.  If they could.  Insurance giant AIG was on the hook for $440 billion in Swaps.  Effectively, there was a “run” on AIG.  Too much money was coming due too quickly.

Blythe Masters: “It was a very scary time.  We were in totally new territory and the notion that Lehman Brothers could be filing for bankruptcy and AIG could be at risk of the same fate was absolutely unprecedented.  And thinking through the implications of that for the health of not just the US economy but the world, I mean it wasn’t really conceivable to do that.  I couldn’t get my mind around it.”

Terri Duhon: “We never saw it coming.  We never saw that coming.  And I was disappointed.  Hugely disappointed.  I was part of a market that I believed was doing the right thing.  Maybe I was idealistic, maybe I was young, maybe I didn’t fully appreciate where we were going, but there was a whole system going on…of people who maybe were turning a blind eye, maybe were…you know just…I don’t know…it is frustrating to see.  Certainly.”

Richard Kovacevich: “It shouldn’t have happened.  Most of our financial crises in the past have been due to some macroeconomic event.  Oil disruption.  War.  This was caused by a few institutions – about 20 – who, in my opinion, lost all credibility relative to managing their risk and the sad thing is it should never have happened.  The management should have stopped it before it got big and people were suffering.”

A financial meltdown occurred unlike anything since the Great Depression.  Bear Sterns, heavily into subprime mortgages, ran out of cash first.  The corporation called Wall Street lawyer Rodgin Cohen, who called the president of the New York Federal Reserve, Timothy Geithner that same day.  By 1AM the next morning Geithner had a Fed team inside Bear Sterns looking at the books.

This is the first time anyone outside the banking industry saw hard data of the systemic magnitude of exposure of financial markets to Swaps.  Until this moment everything had been shrouded thanks to the repel of Glass-Steagall and the laissaz-faire regulatory climate and, of course, to human greed.

If Bear Sterns failed on their Swap obligations it would impact trillions of dollars in other banks all over the world.  Geithner was shocked and immediately concluded that Bear Sterns was “too big to fail.”   By 4AM Geithner called Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.  The next morning George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, was briefed by Bernanke.

Ultimately, Paulson and Bernanke worked out a deal where the US Government would oversee the sale of assets from Bear Sterns to JPMorgan.  The Fed paid JPMorgan $30 billion to ensure the sale.  Paulson felt this would be a one-time event.  He was wrong.  No one still understood either the magnitude of exposure to or the consequences of Swaps and CDOs.

Next came Lehman Brothers, the world’s fourth largest investment bank.  In the fall of 2008 this firm was shelling out over $250 billion a day just to remain in business.  It was a panic situation.  Only this time Paulson, who initially opposed getting the government involved with Bear Sterns, decided that “moral hazard” trumped the situation.  If you take away all risk of failure then it will only lead to ridiculous risk-taking and the free market loses its inherent ability to regulate itself.

Late on a Friday afternoon in mid-September Paulson summoned all the major banking CEO’s to the Federal Reserve Bank branch in New York and told them that this time the government would not step in.  The CEO’s were told to figure the mess out on their own.  Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail.  Yet, by“saving” Bear Sterns but not “saving” Lehman Brothers the government unintentionally sent mixed signals.  Credit markets worldwide froze.  The stock market crashed.

Many Lehman Brothers investors were insured against bankruptcy by AIG.  Suddenly, AIG was obligated to pay huge sums of money that it was not leveraged to compensate.  Once again, no government or Fed official saw this coming.  Once again, decisions were being made in “real-time” as facts were being discovered. AIG was only days away from complete collapse.

Geithner knew the consequences of an AIG collapse would dwarf those of Lehman Brothers.  He argued that the government had to step in this time.  Paulson, against his principles of moral hazard, agreed to go along.  $180 Billion would flow to Wall Street’s largest banks in order to cover AIG’s exposure.  The stock market continued in freefall.

By now Ben Bernanke understood the magnitude of the problem and proposed to the Bush administration a massive bailout of Wall Street in order to stop playing catch-up to the situation.  Bernanke wanted to get control before things got completely out of hand.  There was a risk of a full-blown depression.

Paulson agreed to go to congress and address the situation.  By coincidence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put in a call to Paulson to request that congressional leadership be briefed on the AIG situation the next morning.  Paulson replied to Pelosi that “tomorrow morning will be too late.”  An emergency meeting was held late that afternoon involving senior legislators from both political parties in the House and the Senate.  Both the Fed Chairman and the Treasury Secretary reported to the group that if they did not act immediately the financial system of the entire world would melt down in a matter of days.

Paulson requested $700 Billion to unfreeze the financial markets, to get banks willing to transact with other banks again.  Conservative republicans revolted.  The bill became stuck in congress, unable to move.  The markets were plunging. Suddenly, presidential politics intervened.  2008 was, of course, and election year.  Senator Barack Obama was facing Senator John McCain in the presidential race.  McCain out-of-the-blue announced he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to address the situation.  He called upon President Bush to summon senior leadership including McCain and Obama for a meeting on the crisis.

What McCain did not know is that Obama had Wall Street insiders keeping him informed of the situation all along.  Obama was prepared to address the issues far beyond the understanding of McCain.  In the meeting it showed.  McCain fumbled with a few note cards, Obama took command with facts and forceful recommendations.  Others began to argue among themselves.  Bush left the meeting after it became obvious that he had lost control of it.  Before he exited, however, he turned to Speaker Pelosi and whispered: “You guys are going to miss me.”  McCain ended up looking like a bumbling fool.

In the end, by a vote of 263-171, Paulson got his $700 Billion known as TARP.  Paulson immediately convened a meeting with the largest bank CEOs.  Paulson divided about $125 billion among these banks in exchange for partial government ownership of the banks.  This was issued as an ultimatum.  The CEOs had to sign agreements to accept the infusion of cash before they left the room.  It was hoped this massive injection would unfreeze the financial markets and get the global economy moving again.

As long as my post has been to this point, it is only half the story, covering Part One and Part Two of the documentary.  For the sake of space I will more briefly highlight the second half.  Part Three examines how the newly-elected Obama Administration dealt with the mess.  Specifically, how Obama was simultaneously attempting to cast the bankers in public as "fat cats" yet privately attempting to get them on board in addressing the crisis.

As Obama took office Citigroup was failing.  Wall Street was definitely in the grips of systemic contagion.  Obama chose Tim Geithner as his Secretary of the Treasury and Larry Summers as his National Economic Advisor.  His economic team had to hit the ground running.  In the early days, Geithner came off as unpolished.  He flubbed his major speech laying out the Administration's policy for dealing with the crisis.  It was his first appearance ever on television.

Meanwhile, Larry Summers became a fierce advocate for the total reform of Wall Street.  He wanted to split-up the major banks and to investigate select banking officials for possible criminal charges.  Geithner, so novice in his public dealings, remained an expert behind the scenes and in private meetings.  He stood up to Summers and argued that now was not the time to press for reforms.  The situation could be better addressed with government stress tests of specific banks.

Obama ultimately sided with Geithner.  He had always had Wall Street connections for information and wanted to build a consensus with the bankers to face the crisis.  But that cooperation never came about.  The bankers had dodged a bullet.  Wall Street was essentially left intact.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party emerged partially in reaction to the Obama Administration's continuation of Bush policy to bailout the banks which, of course, was originally the brainchild of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. The 2010 elections were partially a revolt against the actions of the Fed in favor of keeping large banks afloat.

The implementation of the stress tests took some time and every major bank was subject to direct government audits and scrutiny.  Geithner, more proficient in public now, proclaimed that the results of the stress test brought "an unprecedented level of transparency and clarity to the nation's banking system."

The 19 largest banks in the nation were declared healthy and could repay their government loans.  Geithner was viewed as something of a hero for standing firm against Summers and advocating the "right" approach to the crisis.  Before long, the banking industry was back to making respectable, if subdued, profits again.

But this profitability only fueled the rage of the Tea Party.  While business seemed to return to usual on Wall Street, Main Street continued to suffer under the aftereffects of the Great Recession.  And it wasn't only the conservatives that were pissed off.  The emergence of the Occupy Wall Street ultimately indicated the anger toward the large banking industry and all that it supported was spilling across the political spectrum.

Part Four presents the actual workings of how the banks priced, packaged, and sold the Swaps and CDOs.  Four successful individual bankers are interviewed throughout the program, giving details of how they worked while only vaguely answering questions about their personal involvements.  At the time of their employment, mostly from late 2007 on, some of them were making up to $10 million a year as banking "star traders.”

The derivatives were mostly packaged in the US and mostly sold from large banks both on Wall Street and in London to municipalities and other foreign banks. In 2004, Goldman Sachs sold the largest sovereign debt deal in history with a unique Swap to Greece.  It was a complex instrument that was intentionally deceptive.  Greece did not realize that they had locked themselves into high interest rate debt in the long run.

In 2011 Jefferson County, Alabama became the largest municipal bankruptcy in history due to dealings with Swaps.  Several similar stories are told in the episode from Italy, Spain, other municipalities and other banks worldwide.

One of the basic tenets of the Glass-Steagall Act, repealed in 1999 by President Clinton with strong bi-partisan support, was to partition Commercial Banks and Investment Banks.  The new environment created by the repeal made the mixing of loans, other forms of credit, and derivatives possible.

The origins and resilience of the Occupy Wall Street movement is discussed in another segment.  That group is slowly coming around to pushing, along with other parties, for passage of the Volker Rule which would effectively re-establish the partition that once separated investment bankers from commercial lenders.  But, as Frontline notes in several interviews, there is absolutely no momentum on the part of financial institutions nor political willpower on the part of the legislators to separate the two types of banks again.

Wall Street culture remains largely the same today as it was before the crisis.  It is a culture unto itself, distinctive within both America and the world.  Since 2007 the five largest banks in the US have grown larger.  These five corporate entities control assets equaling 56% of the American economy.

OK.  So this is a very long post.  But it is actually a very short summary of everything covered in this excellent four-hour documentary, with plenty of interesting online extras offered.  Complete unedited interviews.  Financial industry reporting.  Well worth watching if you want to delve deeper into this most unprecedented worldwide social, political, and economic story – still unfolding today.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

“Spank Me” Comes of Age

A recent Newsweek cover story dealt with how sexual fetishism has become “mainstream.”  The article was inspired by the erotic trilogy 50 Shades of Grey that has sparked something of a furor, at least on the internet.  The Newsweek piece was read by a wider audience and it offended the tender, yet publicly strong sensibilities of two usually opposed interest groups: feminists and evangelicals.   For the first group, the suggestion that the female sexual experience should be in any way submissive and even mildly masochistic struck at the core of “equality.”  For the latter group, well, sex is for procreation alone and any hint of adventurous exploration of pleasure possibilities beyond the missionary position is just down-right sinful.

Eroticism has always interested me.  I am a sexually active person by nature. Sex has always been an important aspect of my relationship with Jennifer.  I own a DVD of Basic Instinct, a movie I enjoy, along with a half-dozen or so other erotic films in my video library.  I have a small collection erotic novels and short stories as well.  The Mammoth Book of New Erotica is my oldest erotic book, from 1998.  But, I’ll be the first to admit that I am rarely aroused by any of the erotic literature.  I find virtually all erotic fiction to be lacking, even if the characters do end up giving me ideas on innovative ways to keep the sexual spark alive.  Frankly, I think I can write more exciting prose, but perhaps that’s just my tastes.  I have dabbled in it a bit in private writings and someday I might give it more of a try.

Human sexual attraction is one of the most natural things in the world.  It involves all sorts of uncontrollable and instinctual aspects of our humanity from pheromones to physical symmetry to just simple surrender to the whims of animal passion.  Attempts by religions and various laws to regulate human sexual attraction are largely pointless and the fact that sex and pornography are so pervasive both on the internet and throughout virtually every human society tells us how integral tabooed attractions truly are to our existence as a whole.  Like it or not.

The evangelical reaction can be best illustrated in comments by Rick Santorum a few weeks ago.  He has infamously stated that oral contraceptives are a root cause of sexual promiscuousness.  Specifically: "It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

Imagine that.  I guess sex any time, any way, and any where never existed before the Pill.  How naive.  Silly, stupid logic that is indicative of the unfree, uninitiated, and neurotically self-possessed Christian right-wing.  Still, Santorum’s comments evoked a response from none other than Mr. Playboy himself, Hugh Heffner, who bemoaned the assault upon sexual liberty.

Interestingly enough Heffner did not comment on the feminist response to the fringes of sexual liberation as revealed by NewsweekWomen seem to be conflicted over their desire for equality and their desire for certain domination role-plays or submissive sexual lifestyles.  It is an interesting juxtaposition of seemingly conflicting motivations.

I don’t see what all the fuss is about.  Women can certainly be treated as equals in society while acting out diverse, kinky sexual preferencesThe problem comes with individual relationships and the desire for submission.  And this is true of not just male-domination.  There are plenty of lesbian relationships which have a dominant-submissive context.

So the problem really is confusion on the part of everyone appalled by sexual fetishism as part of our humanity.  Sex is meant to be joyful, fullfilling, and inspiring.  How that is attained comes in a variety of flavors, diversity being a primary strength of human evolution.

There is currently a call for female erotica.  What a quandary for so many myths.  The guidelines for submissions reads: "Desired themes include: Women’s sexual fantasies and experiences of all kinds, such as taboo sex acts, fantasy scenarios (real or imagined), bondage, fetish, male anal penetration (such as strap-on play), first-time experiences, light S/M, exhibitionism, power-play, voyeurism, public sex, seduction, role-play, spontaneous sex, spanking, erotic punishment, sexual surprise, emotional honesty, desire, longing, lust, passion, female fierceness, power (and power struggles), deviousness, meaning, themes that involve the Internet and technology, and sublime humor. Above all, include explicit sex."

The emphasis is strict: "sexual activity must be on the female experience; female pleasure is the main element."

This fits the evangelical perspective more so than the feminist, but in a negative way.  Women always were the root of sin itself.  This is a universally stirct-orthodox Christian, Judaic, and Islamic understanding.  It goes without saying. So, here we have a call for women who are so liberated in their sexuality and so animalistically connected to their bodies that they want to express and explore this human urge in complete freedom.  How sinful.  Which, of course, is precisely the condition that makes it delicious. Thus is erotica.

In truth, however, the most progressive feminists understand that what gets women off is just as complex and sophisticated as what gets men off.  Equality of sex drives and the popularization of fetishism are not the would-be symptoms of sinful decay nor are they admission that a woman's body is subservient to a man's.  To the truly liberated sexuality is the basis for an Equality within which human individuals get to choose their most intimate erotic pleasure.

So it turns out Equality is perhaps most profoundly exhibited in the sexual passions of women which are strong in the play for power in sex.  Women and men (doms and subs in both sexes) are most equal in their sexual needs.  These seek to balance one another as do their bodies as organs of pleasure.  For, truth be told, submission and domination are a precarious balance in every animal body.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Oh! Cassini!

Cassini captured this incredible shot of Saturn's rings back in 2004.  This is one of many wonderful images included in the short video that came with my recent Solar Walk app update.

A recent update of my beloved Solar Walk App contained a new "movie" made with the App.   The movie is a documentary of the journey of the Cassini spacecraft from the Earth to Saturn.  I have blogged about Cassini before.  It is a mission I have followed since before its launch in 1997.  The movie that came with the app update was a mind-blower for me.

I have always known that Cassini used orbital assists from planets to gain enough speed to make the distant journey all the way out to Saturn.  But, it suddenly struck me how incredible this feat of space flight truly was.  Cassini flew around Venus twice, the Earth once, then used Jupiter to fling itself a billion miles out to Saturn.  I just never thought of it collectively before since it all happened many years apart in the span of time that I have followed the mission.

All total, Cassini has traveled over 2.1 billion miles to date

On April 5 this year Cassini began its 164th orbit studying Saturn and it moons. 

In 2011, Cassini studied a massive storm thousands of miles long as it raged around the cloud-shrouded surface of the planet.  The storm looped the northern hemisphere of the planet's surface over a few days.  Such a storm would have engulfed the entire Earth with unimaginably destructive force.

According to Solar Walk, Cassini flew-by Venus the first time on Day 193 of its mission gaining in speed over 26,000 kilometers per hour.  This gave Cassini enough velocity to make it all the way out to the Asteroid Belt.  But before Cassini flew out that far NASA adjusted it trajectory to fly by Venus again on Day 617 of the mission, over a year later.  This gave Cassini enough force to whip by the Earth and on the Saturn.

I had forgotten that there were protests on the Earth both before Cassini's launch and again over how "dangerously close" the "radioactive" spacecraft came in the flyby.  That all seems so incredibly childish to me now and I remember thinking it was silly at the time.  I was marketing for a bank holding company at the time.  The Solar Walk movie does not mention this, I rediscovered it in the bit of research the movie inspired me to do later.

The movie includes some fantastic photos which can be tapped and brought to full screen, pausing the movie, so you can enjoy Cassini's glorious capabilities.  The Earth flyby afforded Cassini an opportunity to calibrate its cameras.  That took place on Day 672 of the mission.

Cassini maneuvered a flyby of Jupiter for a final gravity assist on Day 1172 of the mission, December 30, 2000, almost two years after passing the Earth.  By this passage of time I was no longer paying close attention to the mission, though the juncture with Jupiter was in the news and I followed things generally.  Again, there were amazing photos but I never saw the ones featured in the movie before.

Cassini snapped a series of images from one of Jupiter's poles.  These were stitched together (as only one-half of the planet is in sunlight at any given time) and included among the awesome pics in my Solar Walk app's new movie on the mission.  I have never seen Jupiter from this angle before and I bet neither have you.

After a 500-day flyby of Jupiter, Cassini finally ventured on to its intended destination.  This part of the mission took longer than the entire journey to date - an additional 1278 days.  During this time, January 2001 to June 30, 2004, I more or less forgot about Cassini.  There wasn't even much news to check on.  The mission silently went through its fifth and sixth year en route.

When the spacecraft finally entered Saturn's orbit in 2004, I watched the news for reports of the first images.  My interest was briefly renewed, though it soon dissolved into all the other things I was otherwise into in my life.

By karmic coincidence, The Atlantic recently brought my attention to Cassini's amazing capabilities with an incredible collection of high-definition raw space video.  Much of it was presented in a time-lapsed nature so that the viewer might quickly enjoy the rings and moons and debris as it is affected within Saturn's powerful gravitational field.

Condensing years of flight into a few minutes of simple documentary was fascinating to me; all the more rewarding because I didn't have to pay anything for this added treat.  It came with an update of an App I bought last year for only a couple of bucks.  A nice surprise which can also serve as an example of the great value of many of these inexpensive Apps on a tablet platform.

Late Note: A Cassini portrait of one of Saturn's many moons, Helene, was featured as the Astronomy Picture of the Day the day after this post.