Thursday, January 31, 2008

Into the Octopus Spin Room

Why Barack Obama won tonight's debate (and I am trying to view the debate objectively):

UPDATED [2/1/08]

The talking heads are jib-jabbering about Clinton having the "line of the night" when she said: "It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, it'll take another Clinton to clean up after the second Bush." This line, which the audience inexplicably seemed to absolutely love will fall flat over time. Why? First, the whole power of the line relies on the family connection between Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. People are just starting to wake up to the idea that living under two families for one third of a century feels distinctly un-American and induces a sense of claustrophobia. Second, the disingenuousness of HRC's campaign message is brought into stark relief by this line. She claims to be running on her own merits and her own experience, but this line reveals how much her campaign slavishly depends on the purported accomplishments of Bill Clinton's administration. When it's convenient, when the issue is Marc Rich or bombing pharmaceutical factories or getting impeached or ending welfare as we knew it she's got nothing to do with the First Clinton administration; when it's about the economy (did Bill Clinton create Yahoo or Amazon?), or making diplomatic trips abroad (with Sinbad and Sheryl Crow) she was a full member. See also bullshit lines about "and my memory is that people did pretty well in the 90's" (i.e., if you elect the wife of the president who supposedly brought you the Dot Com bubble, things will be sweet again -- but I'm running on my own merits!).

But let's put all that nonsense to one side. I thought Obama made the case, quite powerfully, that he was the best person to go up against McCain in the general election, because Obama has been clearly against the war from the beginning. Wolf Blitzer did not give Hillary a free pass on her rambling, incoherent answer trying to explain why her original vote to authorize the war was not a mistake. If you listened carefully, Clinton appeared to be saying -- amazingly, breathtakingly, even -- that her vote was not a mistake, and it really was the execution (read the actual invasion) that was botched by the administration. This puts her position on the war in sync with McCain and Romney, except that now she wants to end it. This is the same position espoused by people like Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, and Richard Perle.

What we saw tonight, in Clinton's tortured, rambling, self-contradictory "answer" on why her vote on Iraq was not a mistake but that the war must now be ended is the horror that we will face if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee chosen to go up against John McCain. McCain will insist on making the election about the war and national security (the economy is a loser for him and the Republicans). The economy is important, and people will care about that issue, but we need to accept that the Iraq War is not just another issue in a list of issues: it is the defining issue of this century so far. Our invasion of Iraq was the greatest foreign policy mistake we have made in modern American history, it has fundamentally altered and upset the balance of power in the Middle East, it has completely altered the nature of our alliances abroad, and it has made us less safe around the globe. For these reasons, it is absolutely crucial that the Democratic nominee be able to stand up and clearly state that he (or she) was against it from the start. HRC can't do that; Obama can.

More significantly, HRC's rambling, shambling continued defense of her 2002 authorization for the war gives you great insight into the mind of someone who is unwilling to admit error, and who retains, in the face of facts that have proven her absolutely wrong, a deluded and mulish belief that she was not wrong -- other people were.

In my unbiased opinion, Obama had the best line of the night when he totally upended the rationale of Clinton's campaign (i.e., "35 years of experience" that makes her "Ready on Day One (TM)") by noting that all that purported experience was great and all (god knows Cheney and Rumsfeld had shitloads of experience) but the most important thing was to be "Right on Day One". He then drove the point home by saying that he didn't want to just end the war, but that he wanted to end the "mindset" that allowed this war to take place in the first place (i.e., the mindset of those like Bill and Hillary Clinton, who thought that it was worth cheerfully going along with Bush & Cheney on the war in Iraq in 2002 if it might help their chances for the Glorious Clinton Restoration in 2008, but then decided to turn against the war -- but not the vote authorizing the war -- when they realized that the war had become unpopular).

I am happy to hear any supporter of Hillary Clinton try to explain the principle behind Hillary Clinton's position on Iraq and her refusal to admit that her go-ahead for the war was a terrible, tragic mistake.

Also, I'd like to know this: Hillary Clinton, like other supposed foreign policy "experts", like her craven sycophant Richard Holbrooke (who also vocally supported the Iraq War, and would be our new Secretary of State under the Glorious Clinton Restoration) are constantly swanning around talking up how much foreign policy expertise they have. While that's nice and all, what good is all that supposed foreign policy "expertise" when you proved yourself miserably, fatally wrong on the biggest foreign policy decision of our time? It just doesn't make sense. I'm sorry, but if you went with the herd mentality of Washington insiders and supported this stupid, miserable, disastrous war, you don't get a free pass. You don't get to simply waltz into the White House with a promise that you'll do it better next time. Especially not after you've proven that you didn't learn anything from the disaster in Iraq and you go ahead and vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment in 2007 that gives Bush & Cheney everything they need to launch a new war against Iran by labeling the entire Iranian army a "terrorist organization".

This is the played-out mindset we need to get past: the mindset of people like the Clintons and their retinue (e.g., Holbrooke, Albright, et al.) who cheerfully go along with stupid ideas like the Iraq War because they think this makes them, somehow, "strong". What differentiates them from Bush & Cheney then? Especially when the Clintons et al. are unable to bring themselves to admit that they were wrong? Does that mulish stubborness and inability to learn from mistakes sound familiar to anyone? This is not what we need more of.

Look, I'm just a little lone person out on the edge of Los Angeles city limits, with my internet connection, basic cable, and home delivery of the L.A. Times, but from my vantage point, it feels like there is a massive movement gathering, and Obama is headed for greater success than we're expecting on Tuesday, and that he will ride this movement to the nomination, and straight on through to Inauguration Day.

We Can Win

Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike) (c. 190 B.C.)

Obama is dramatically cutting away at Clinton's former huge lead.

Reasons to vote for Obama, from Christopher Hayes and Rosa Brooks.

Another very good reason not to vote for Hillary Clinton: her willingness to throw unions under the bus when she was on the board of directors of WalMart.

As you all know, it is now a crucial time in the campaign. The Octopus begs and pleads with everyone reading this blog: support Obama on Tuesday, persuade your friends and family who might be wavering to support Obama's historic candidacy, and get out and motivate and convince your neighbors and co-workers. Our country is in a terrible spot, and we need at this point in history the inspired leadership that Barack Obama offers. I am convinced, as many others are, that Barack Obama is the type of candidate that comes around once in a generation. This is our chance to do something wonderful for our country. Let's win this thing!

Thoughts on Super Tuesday

Excellent analysis of the race, and a compelling endorsement, over at our good friend The Tonic Blotter's site.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Some of us were right, and some of us were wrong.

Robert Scheer on why Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Obama helps highlight the judgment gap between Obama and HRC, unrepentant proponent of the Invasion of Iraq.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Bus Smells Sort of Like Piss Today, And So Does the Clinton Campaign

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598) (perhaps I should've used Artemisia Gentileschi's version?)

Not that the piss smell is unusual for the bus.

Hillary Clinton continues to be relentlessly dispiriting, celebrating her "victory" in Florida, arriving just after polls closed so as not to violate the technical niceties of the pledge she took (along with the other candidates) not to campaign in Florida. (Who are these people that are excited about reinstalling the Clintons in the White House for eight more years of their narcissistic bullshit? Does the Clinton campaign pay these people to feign excitement about eight years of Hillary Clinton screaming and bugging her eyes out at us?)

Let's face it: Hillary Clinton thinks you are stupid. She is betting that we stupid voters don't know or don't care that the Democratic primary in Florida was a meaningless affair and that she has won zero delegates there. (Just as Bill Clinton thinks you are stupid and wouldn't think twice about him falsely proclaiming that he was "against the Iraq war from the start."). Hillary Clinton is now concerned with making sure Florida's delegates are seated; this is a long-standing concern for her: she's been concerned about this since last Saturday -- when Team Clinton's race-baiting bit them in the ass in South Carolina. But, hey, what did South Carolina matter: as Bill reminded us, Jesse Jackson won there and he was, um, black, too. Like Obama. Who's black.

Clinton & Clinton are shameless, and will do and say anything -- no matter how ridiculous, misleading, or repellent -- to beat down Obama and satisfy their limitless thirst for the power they see as their birthright. They know what's best for all of you: now shut up, stop whining, get out of their way, and let them get back to the business of running our country for another eight years. We should all be grateful.

UPDATE [1/30/08]: Dana Milbank in the Washington Post calls Clinton's "victory" rally what it was: "a political stunt worthy of the late Evel Knievel . . . ."

All Your Base Are Belong to Us

"Somebody set up us the bomb."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Give John Updike the Nobel Prize

It will be a tragic thing if John Updike, currently 75, does not live to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His output, of both fiction (22 novels and several collections of short fiction) and nonfiction (hundreds of articles in The New Yorker and the NYRB since the 1950's), is astounding. Critics are just now beginning to realize that his Rabbit series will go down as some of the most significant and masterfully written books of the twentieth century.

Most amazingly, Updike shows no sign of letting up. He continues to produce incisive, learned, and beautifully written criticism and essays at a clip that would embarrass writers half his age. (See, for example, his excellent piece on Klimt in the current NYRB.) Even in a magazine essay on art, Updike seems almost incapable of writing anything that is not beautiful: in his piece on Klimt he notes, for example, how the artist "sketched sex in something like its melancholy complexity."

Updike, who has won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award several times, may be at a disadvantage for the Nobel. His fiction often straddles the line between literature and pulp, high-brow and popular, between art and pornography: people read Updike on flights to Cincinatti and in graduate seminars at Yale. He is known, first and foremost, as a chronicler of adultery and lust -- and he describes these things in language more exquisite than any other American writer alive that I know -- Philip Roth included. But though sex is for Updike, as for Freud, his primary theme, his range is fantastic and terrifying: his prodigious collections of essays and magazine writings contain wonderful criticism of art, film, popular culture, and literature.

Updike is an American treasure. I hope we will see in him Stockholm before long.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The View from the Tank: Atonement (2007)

I can't believe I liked this movie. Unlike There Will Be Blood, I went into Atonement with the lowest possible expectations. I hadn't read the book, but from the previews and ads, I was expecting some yawner Masterpiece Theater bore, with lots of huge lawns, tons of neatly trimmed shrubbery, some polite but sexually charged talk over afternoon tea, etc. And there was some of that stuff, but the movie moved along at a nice clip, the acting was excellent, yes, even what's her name (though I could have done with a little less pouting), and I actually felt something like emotion at the end of the movie. (James McAvoy, who was quite good in The Last King of Scotland, is excellent here.) Some things were a little heavy handed -- the music, for one, was a bit intrusive at points -- but overall this was excellently done. The long shots of the British troops on the beach in France were particularly amazing and terrifying. The ending was maybe slightly gimmicky, but overall I thought it was quite effective.

There's an interesting mirror theme running throughout the movie, with the characters watching themselves, looking at themselves throughout the film, with the film (or story) itself ultimately being the mirror in which the author looks at herself, but I'm too tired to try to tease this out right now.

I realized that I had liked the movie despite myself as we left the theater; I felt a bit disoriented, my mind still in the movie. It stayed with me for the next day or so. None of the other movies I have seen over the last year made any real impact on me; they were all enjoyable, entertaining, nice to look at, etc., but none of them affected me. I was truly surprised that this was the movie that did.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Who Else Doesn't Want to Go Back to the Future?

Bob Herbert in today's NYT reads my fucking mind.

Buy Gold

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1865)

I'm watching John Edwards on C-Span from a rally earlier today in South Carolina. Someone asked him about the economy, and now he's all talking about the need to stimulate the economy, how we should've stimulated the economy before, etc. Everyone's talking about this now: everyone wants to freaking stimulate the economy. Is the economy frigid? When do we get to consumate with the economy?

Cutting interest rates, as the Fed did in their emergency action earlier this week, could work, but as most of you know, there are a number of dangers in this approach. First, lowering the interest rate often increases the possibility of inflation, but that seems unlikely, since consumer spending seems to be decreasing as a result of the housing crisis (and the psychological impact of the crisis). Inflation could result (and appears to be developing) due to higher oil costs (which spreads higher costs across the economy) and the lower dollar, which makes imports more expensive. (It's interesting to consider just why inflation may be a bad thing. Too often, we just assume inflation is bad. Many economists agree that a little inflation is actually a good thing. It's just when it gets a bit out of hand that things go all pear-shaped.)

Second, pushing the interest rate down in an effort to ease the credit crunch may be useful as a short term balm (i.e., to stanch the bleeding in the global capital markets for a week or two) but the Fed's determination to keep pushing the economy along and avoid deflation by keeping interest rates at historic lows for the past half-decade or so was a prime factor in creating the very housing bubble that's now popping. That is to say, the Fed may well be prolonging or briefly postponing the misery, a misery which may in fact be necessary as a corrective.

Third, this may well be self-defeating. Lowering interest reduces the attractiveness of U.S. investments such as bonds. With less investment coming in from abroad, we face the specter of crowding out, as there is a growing demand by debtors (the U.S. government being chief among these) to fill this void -- again driving up interest rates.

This is making my head spin. I'll write more later.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

God Help Us All

Great news! The New York Times has boldly endorsed Hillary Clinton. Such a daring move from the Grey Lady.

I'm watching a replay of the Republican debate in Boca Raton earlier tonight. This is why Hillary Clinton will not win: Giuliani just explained how in 2002, when the polls showed that a majority of Americans supported the war, Hillary Clinton also supported it. And now, when polls show that a majority of Americans are against the war, Hillary Clinton is now apparently against the war. (Although, she has yet to admit that her vote in favor of war in 2002 was a mistake.)

Let's watch and remember that glorious day, October 10, 2002:

And she thoughtfully wore black for her vote of steely resolve and "conviction" -- in favor of preemptive war against a country that had never attacked, and posed no threat to, the United States.

Let's have a "reality check" and a simple question, Senator Clinton: was this vote a mistake? Was it in fact a vote in support of the biggest foreign policy debacle in the history of the United States? (You don't think they're going to be asking this question this fall?)

How do you think this is going to play out in the general election, friends? Let us look back again:

Now let us recall Obama's judgment on the Iraq War, from his speech of October 2, 2002, eight days before Hillary's fateful and fatally misguided vote in support of war.

As Hillary Clinton would put it, “some of us were right and some of us were wrong.” I refuse to watch the Democrats go down in defeat yet again because we are all held in thrall by conventional wisdom to support the candidate of conventional wisdom.

Octopus Grigori endorses Barack Obama for President.

Self Congratulation All Around

Recently Mrs. Octopus and I have been thinking -- thinking -- about getting a Prius to replace our dear old friend, the Intrepid.

Something about the Prius has nagged at me for a while, and I think I can finally articulate it: the Prius is, in its own, shiny, happy, Al Gore-wearing-Patagonia-in-Alaska way, somewhat insidious, in that it makes driving feel like a virtuous act. One feels, while driving the Prius, that one is helping to scrub the environment clean with each passing mile. But what we should be doing is getting out of our cars and into buses and trains.

Also, I think becoming the owner of a Prius instantly makes one just a bit more insufferable. Somewhat like becoming the owner of an Iphone. (There's something horrible in contemplating scores of happy, young, rich, well-educated Google employees wearing ironic t-shirts and American Apparel, tooling around the Bay Area in their zero-emissions hybrids, composing blog posts, reading McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and watching "Heroes" on their Iphones, all choreographed to a catchy new tune by The Postal Service or The Shins, etc., etc.)

All that said, I guess 50 mpg beats 15.

Bodies Not at Rest

Some recent controversy over the plasticized, dissected human cadavers on display in the traveling "Body Worlds" show reminded me of something Andy Warhol once said: "Dying is the most embarrassing thing that can ever happen to you . . . ."

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This Blog Will Soon Be Outsourced

It's a little odd, but when I hear the reports about how U.S. schoolkids do so crappy on math and science compared to kids from other countries, I start to feel guilty: a wave of math anxiety washes over me -- I'm right back in fourth grade, walking up to the board to do some nasty long division, with decimals. That is to say, I have this feeling that our poor scores might somehow be my fault. I'm sorry, everybody.

True Love

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Et in Second Life ego

I am just as out of touch and clueless as members of Congress and other lawmakers who are befuddled and have no idea what to do about recent financial scandals on Second Life:
Stephanie Roberts knew Second Life was just a computer game, but she couldn't resist the virtual world's promise of a real-world interest rate of more than 40%.

The 33-year-old from Chicago, who played the game as a raven-haired vixen called Zania Turner, deposited $140 in Ginko Financial and waited for the money to grow. Instead, it vanished five months ago when Ginko, perhaps the first Ponzi scheme in history perpetrated by three-dimensional online avatars, left Second Life.

"I was foolish," Roberts said.

So were many others. Ginko took with it about $75,000 in real-money deposits, shaking faith in Second Life's venerated lawlessness -- no cops, no courts, no government -- and unnerving Linden Lab, the usually laid-back San Francisco company that created it.

Recently, Linden Lab banned all virtual banks from the online role-playing game, giving them until today to shut down, fearful that Ginko wasn't the only one paying crazy rates of return to some with the deposits of others.

Within moments, there was a meltdown. ATMs didn't work when players rushed to withdraw their Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for U.S. currency at a rate that hovers around 270 to 1. Stocks plunged and so did real estate prices.

This is such a weird story. I had some vague idea that people were using "Lindens" as currency on Second Life, but I had no idea that people were spending thousands purchasing "real estate" on Second Life, and that there were ATMs and banks on Second Life. I feel like a total geezer.

People are always messing up their utopias.

Questions for mid-January

  • Where is Harvey Keitel?

  • Does Lost actually suck?

  • Why is John McCain getting the votes of people who disapprove of the war?

  • When will they stop making superhero movies?

  • Kanye West can't really rap, right?

  • Should I buy an American car?

  • If the universe is constantly expanding, what is it expanding into?

  • Is now actually a good time to buy stock?

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Ode to the Eagle Rock Vons

Most Vons I've been to in L.A. are pretty pedestrian affairs. Stark fluorescent lighting, standard, Middle-America layout and selection: the Ford Taurus of grocery-shopping experience.

But there's something going on at the Vons in Eagle Rock, at La Loma and Figueroa. You walk into the warm, subdued light of the produce section. Everything is mood lighting and smooth jazz; the floor is an "aged" wide-plank natural wood, with a rustic stain; mist rolls down seductively over the Chinese parsley and the Romaine lettuce. Young, hip thirty-somethings linger at the organic section, fondling Asian pears.

I've been working on my repertoire of, ahem, pasta. Last week was Spaghetti alla Puttanesca (you really must follow the link if you don't know what that means). This week it was a tomato-less sauce with red bell peppers, many many cloves of garlic, a healthy dose of onions the recipe didn't call for but I figured couldn't hurt, some parsley, some red pepper flakes, capers, and olives. I try to work capers and olives into most of my sauces if I can.

Cooking pasta, as you all know, is easy as pie, and sometimes satisfying -- especially if you're making your own sauce. The entire process is full of pleasure from me: from picking an easy meatless recipe out of the Easy Italian Recipes cookbook I picked up for Mrs. Octopus at the Glastonbury Public Library annual book sale in 2001, the short 1-minute drive to the Vons, donning my Ipod as I walk into the store, and wheeling through the sexy produce section.

The other week, my Ipod was on shuffle mode on the "Hip Hop/Rap" genre; I was bobbing along to "Microphone Fiend" and "You Know I Gotcha Open" as I perused the selection of heirloom tomatoes. Later, at check-out, in the middle of "Clones", I took off my headphones, swiped my Vons card, and saved $10.35. That's how I roll.

Such is my place in life at this point in history.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Slick Willy Loses His Sh*t, Again

Where has ol', sweet, lovable Bill Clinton gone? Who is this angry, confrontational, mendacious attack dog on the campaign trail? Bill, we hardly knew ya.

Up before the birds

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Morgen (1820)

Every now and then, I find myself inexplicably and irreversibly awake at 4:37 in the morning. This happened again this morning.

I felt hot. Then I felt itchy. Then I felt itchy and hot. I felt a blurred, diluted sense of hopelessness and anxiety hanging over me. I tried to remember things I meant to look up on Wikipedia. (The "History of Pizza" and "Graf Zeppelin" were among these things.) I felt sort of hungry.

So I crept out of bed and into the living room. I decided to catch up on the four issues of Harpers I had lying around. (I have a subscription, and truly enjoy Harpers when I get around to reading it.) I read a fascinating article on the processing of and trade in human waste by Frederick Kaufman; it's in the February 2008 edition of the magazine and is highly recommended.

The light outside is a very deep, but gradually lightening, blue. It was silent before, except for a moaning cat, who seemed to be whimpering to herself in the predawn darkest. Now there's the closing car doors of neighbors making an early start to get a prime spot on P1 of the parking structure, buses beginning to run morning routes on Colorado, and the faraway rumble of eggs and bacon rolling into town on the backs of trucks on the 134.

It's a perfect time of day. Anything is still possible, before we go and mess it all up, taint the day with our failures, and give up on it, plan to do better tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It is the economy, stupid

I feel like Obama is lagging behind Clinton in addressing the issue that is rising to the forefront of this campaign: the economy. With each passing day, the news confirms what we're all fearing: we are headed for a long, painful slide. I wrote the following message to the Obama campaign today. I really hope they pick up the ball on this issue quickly:
Senator Obama (and campaign staff):

I am a staunch Obama supporter in California. I am writing you because I believe the campaign desperately needs to start focusing on economic issues and plans for a potential economic stimulus.

I know here in Los Angeles, and in other parts of the country, people are terrified of the mortgage crisis and what it's doing to home values. As you know, this, combined with the rising cost of oil, and rising prices across the board, are causing people to feel much less secure about their financial health.

As a starting point, on the Obama website, there should be more emphasis on economic issues, and Sen. Obama's plans to address American's economic concerns. (I'll note that Senator Clinton's website has moved up economic issues to the first place under the drop-down menu of issues; on Senator Obama's blog, the issues are in alphabetical order.) Senator Obama should also place great emphasis on economic issues on the campaign trail and at events and rallies.

I'm sure the Senator and all of you have already seen the writing on the wall in Mitt Romney's win in Michigan and Fed Chairman Benjamin Bernanke's recent statements: the bear market and recession are coming -- they may already be here -- and people are looking for answers. (One sure stormy petrel: last week, the CEO of AT&T noted that its consumer earnings were down because more and more people were having their phone and internet service disconnected due to failure to pay their bills.)

This election is rapidly becoming about the economy, and Senator Obama must address these issues head on, with detailed plans on how he will address the downturn in the economy, and how he will help Americans who are hurting in this developing recession.

Thanks very much for your attention. Best of luck in Nevada and South Carolina. We will do everything we can for you here in California.

[Octopus Grigori]
When it comes down to it, the issues people care about most are their pocketbooks, keeping a roof over their heads, and providing for their families.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hillary Clinton Is Tracy Flick



The second day of the week, in many languages, is named in honor of gods of war.

I'm just now getting into the new Radiohead album, which is lovely. I find it deeply relaxing, if a little depressing, with Thom Yorke's spectral vocals kind of hovering around the music, with words like "the infrastructure will collapse" and "etcetera etcetera" emerging out of the lilting noise and into sense every now and then.

It's another big day in Road to the White House 2008, with the Republican Michigan primary, and a Democratic debate in Las Vegas tonight at 9pm ET on MSNBC.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Yo! Check out Hillary's killer website! It's mad tight.

Do yourself a tremendous favor and watch this amazing CBS News video on all that crazy jive the hep-cat youth vote is talking, and do so mad fast. (Hint, it's called "The 411 on Hipster Voters".) Trust me, it's off the hook.

It's hard to believe, but this is the kind of stuff that the Daily Show is supposed to parody. How do you parody this?

I guess this is what happens when you try to explain today's youth to the Cialis and Celebrex set that still pays attention to network news. This piece must've caused a real stir in some Palm Beach retirement communities.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Yes We Can

From Barack Obama's New Hampshire Primary concession speech. The most magnificent section comes at the end:
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.

We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.

And so, tomorrow, as we take the campaign south and west, as we learn that the struggles of the textile workers in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas, that the hopes of the little girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of L.A., we will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation.

And, together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story, with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea: Yes, we can.
A true reality check? This is political eloquence approaching the levels of Lincoln or Jefferson. Aren't we ready for a leader who can inspire like this?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Coming Bear Market

It looks like it may be time to move out of the U.S. stock market and into overseas markets and commodities. One option is purchasing I-bonds offered by the Treasury -- they look like a safe hedge against inflation.

China is allowing the yuan to rise a bit now. The dollar remains weak. Oil is way up. The Fed is trying to loosen monetary policy -- though Bernanke is generally known as an inflation hawk. With the price of imports sure to go up because of the currencies and oil, prices should be set to rise. At the same time, consumer spending looks to be fading as a result of the mortgage crisis. A sure stormy petrel: AT&T's CEO reports that many of its customers are having their internet and phone service disconnected as they are unable to pay their bills. Homeowners no longer feel flush on perpetually rising home value, and are unable to pull cash out of their houses through home equity loans. Stagflation looks to be near.

Update [1/10/08]: Looks like the Fed will continue to loosen monetary policy by taking interest rates down again this month. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke says that the Fed will keep an eye on inflation, but that a lower rate is necessary to help stave off the coming recession.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

No One Knows Anything

Watching the persistent lead Clinton maintained throughout the night as the results came in, from 5% of the districts reporting, all the way through to the end, I kept on waiting for the tide to turn. It never did.

How could so many of the polls, and the Obama and Clinton camps' own internal tracking numbers, all of which projected a double-digit victory for Obama, have been so wrong?

My first hunch was race. First, it is my hunch that New Hampshire voters are less open to the idea of voting for a black man than voters in Iowa. I'm from Connecticut, and am well aware of the genteel racism that pervades the Northeast. This racism has interesting roots: in the Northeast, we are often self-congratulatory about living in a progressive, educated, sophisticated part of the country. Some of this identity is built in opposition to the stereotype of Southern identity: ignorant, crude, racist. Our Northeastern self-congratulation makes our version of racism less out in the open and up front than Southern racism, but still powerful and pervasive. Iowa, being in the center of the country, likely does not have this self-congratulatory attitude we New Englanders tend to have and probably felt as if they were sending a message by voting for Obama -- and were probably less hesitant to vote for a black man.

New Englanders -- and especially New Hampshirites, who are the most conservative and crabby residents of the Northeast -- don't feel the need to go out on a limb for a candidate like Obama because we are so smug and full of our sense of ourselves as sophisticated and tolerant. Crudely put, it's my sense that many of my fellow New Englanders are, in their own way, probably less ready to vote for a black candidate than Americans in other parts of the country.

That is, admittedly, a somewhat loopy and half-baked theory, but there it is.

The private nature of the voting booth, with curtain drawn, also had something to do with this result, I think. In Iowa, the voting process was very public, as people had to publicly declare their affiliation and physically walk over and join their candidate's camp. That is a completely different process, and it's entirely possible that seeing a huge group in the Obama corner helped some voters to overcome any hesitations they might have held about voting for a black candidate (by showing them that there was support for Obama, by forcing the voter to confront her own prejudices in a public process, etc.). I've not fully figured this aspect out, but I think that may have something to do with it.

Also, the situations in the past where pre-election day polls have been so far out of whack with ultimate voting results have often involved races where one candidate is black. It seems, in those situations, people answering pollsters' questions may not be able to be honest with the pollers (or themselves) about their preferences, and their hang-ups about voting for black candidates. Hence, inflated poll numbers for black candidates that disappear when voters pull the curtains shut behind them in the voting booth.

Another lesson here is that the Obama camp must begin to modify or move beyond the "Change" slogan. It's become empty and debased -- especially as it's been parroted by the other campaigns; there has to be a new direction taken. Obama's concession speech tonight gave glimmers of a new message; most of the speech was a mostly listless rehash of his Iowa victory speech, but the section where he brought in the "Yes, we can" refrain was electric. Edwards is beginning to fade: now is the time for Obama to pick up Edwards' populist theme, and to add some edge to his own message. He began doing this tonight, mentioning the dishwasher in Las Vegas, and the textile worker in South Carolina.

I find Clinton's narrow victory deeply dispiriting, coming as it does, after Clinton's calculated decision to go negative, to blatantly misrepresent Obama's position on t he war, and to manipulate the public with an obviously staged and cheesy moment of "real emotion". Note that Clinton's advisors were tonight lauding the success of the "teary" moment and were promising more such personalizing and humanizing moments in the future. Clinton's victory speech was okay. Her advisors wisely removed from the stage around her the corpses that had surrounded her during her concession speech in Iowa. Instead we had a handpicked assortment of slightly of focus youthful happy people (plenty of women) cheering the "change" of Clinton and Clinton headed back to the White House providing the picturesque background to HRC's grimacing/smiling victory dance/waddle. I remain convinced that the Democratic party will lose the Presidency yet again if Clinton is our nominee. Ronald Reagan in 1980, Kennedy in 1960, and Al Gore in 2000 proved to us that competence or qualifications do not win American Presidential Elections; the winning candidate has to do something more. For better or worse, the candiate must be able to move us. Hillary Clinton is simply incapable of doing this and will fail in a general election.

Now, all of this fails to address that HRC's ascent is just as historic as Obama's; she is the first viable female candidate for president. But I just can't help feeling that it's a little less clean and simple than that: her political career as senator and now presidential candidate has been based almost entirely on the accomplishments of her husband. The underlying rationale for her candidacy ("I have 35 years of experience") is that her husband accomplished a lot as Governor and then President, and she, through osmosis, through being around, has some right to take credit for this. Is this a victory for women?

Obama will have to be careful about how he does it, but he will need to gut this rationale directly. HRC became senator based on the track record of WJC's administration, in which she held no official or appointed position, and she is now running based on "35 years of experience" which are apparently based on her service as First Lady in Arkansas, in the White House, and as junior senator from New York, whose most important and significant vote was to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

This race will go on for a while, and won't be decided anytime soon. Obama looks strong in South Carolina, and is rumored to be strong in Nevada as well. South Carolina is a primary and Nevada is a caucus state. We'll see how that will affect the results. No one really has any idea what's going to happen from here. I'm telling myself that it's a good thing, that it's better that Obama won't peak too early, and that a longer fight will only make Obama a stronger candidate in the end. We'll see.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The View from the Tank: There Will Be Blood (2007)

I love reading movie reviews. I love going through multiple reviews of movies I've seen, to compare my take with that of the professionals. I'm almost always impressed with how well my favorite critics (Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, Kenneth Turan) can break down the movie at hand, how precisely they locate its influences and debts, how unfailingly they locate the fatal flaws. I often enjoy the bad reviews the most.

Sometimes, however, something goes incredibly wrong in this process. The reviews I read of There Will Be Blood were uniform in their unrestrained praise for the movie. Manohla Dargis, in the NY Times, called the film "a consummate work of art," and wrote that Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Daniel Plainview was "among the greatest [she has] seen . . . ." Someone writing in Time called it "[o]ne of the most wholly original American movies ever made." Other reviews declared that the film had lifted Paul Thomas Anderson into the ranks of Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppolla, and D.W. Griffith.

After reading this heady stuff, I went into There Will Be Blood with the very highest of hopes. I had loved Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, though the rest of that movie was mostly a mess. I was primed and ready to love this film.

I emerged, two hours and fort-five minutes later confused and deeply disappointed. What didn't I get? What had I missed?

There are a few things that don't need to be argued about: the cinematography was excellent (though not earth-shattering); there were fantastically executed scenes of action and event; Johnny Greenwood's score was indeed interesting and often quite compelling.

But There Will Be Blood was by no means a masterpiece -- far far from it. It was a simple -- perhaps simplistic -- and incredibly narrow and sketchy portrait of a purportedly "complex" character, weighed down by tendentious and somewhat overblown themes saying something about American capitalism and evangelism (from what I could tell, that both were sort of bad).

Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainfield, we are meant to believe, is deeply complicated and troubled. We are meant to understand this because he grunts often, drinks heavily, breaks out into violence, sometimes weeps, and has a complicated relationship with his adopted son. But that adopted son, all of the characters around Plainview, and even Plainview himself, are the most simplistic, uninteresting, one-dimensional cartoon characters.

In a telling symptom of the movie's half-baked, unthought-through nature, there is no depth to any of the supporting characters. They are uniformly cardboard and flat. (Paul Dano, terrifyingly out of his depth and embarrassingly overacting as Eli/Paul Sunday, is the saddest example of this -- Dano is at the level where he would be a competent gueststar on Law & Order: SVU or maybe Monk.)

But the really fantastic problem here is that the supposedly deep and profound character at the center of this film, Daniel Plainfield, is equally one-dimensional and empty. Yes, Day-Lewis makes Plainfield ruthless, cunning, edging toward madness, full of an air of menace, and tingling with violence. He makes him, in other words, almost exactly the same character he played in Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher, just with slightly different clothes (no hat), and the "Brooklynese" that Day-Lewis created for that role exchanged for a bizarre John Huston impersonation in this role. You know how this goes: he looks crazy and dangerous and menacing when he's walking (will he come over here and kick us in the face?), when he's drinking a glass of milk (will he smash the glass and carve his name into our chest?), when he's caressing his son's head (will he continue to caress the child's skull or bash it in?), when he's sleeping (will he wake and rip out our tongues?), when he's eating chocolate cake (will he stuff the cake into the eye-sockets of his business partner?). This provides the cheapest of thrills, and it is not great acting. It is simply one-note. He plays crazy all the time, and it is a cartoon. Should we be surprised when he breaks into absurd craziness at the end?

Yes, Day-Lewis is to be commended for his somewhat creative interpretation of American accents and pronunciation. Again, he does the same thing here that he did in Gangs of New York. He will be on the floor, moaning, writhing, in pain, making animal noises, heaving, etc., and then will emerge from this beastly mess to say, in his perfect historically-appropriate diction, "Yes, thank you very much, that is very kind." It's a darkly comic trick that he worked well in Gangs, and we see in this movie that Day-Lewis has fallen a little in love with this trick of his. Indeed, watching Day-Lewis, one feels that the actor is simply in love with this mad, menacing always about to explode into glittering insane rage generic, all-purpose character -- perhaps this is who Day-Lewis is? -- and that he will stuff this character into the time-appropriate clothing and accent and inflict it upon us time and again in film after film.

Despite all the sturm and drang, the glittering, menacing stares, the craggy features, the funny pants and boots, we aren't made to care about Plainview. We don't know anything about him -- though Anderson would surely smugly tell us that this was part of the point; but still, we don't care when he hurts (e.g., when Day-Lewis has him hunched over and howling, lying on the floor sobbing), we don't feel any of his pain, we don't feel anything for him. We don't feel anything for any of the characters, because they are the most simplistic sketches, given no depth or background. We don't care about this movie.

You get the sense that Anderson realizes this. His attempt to make up for what the story lacks in complexity or depth is to simply turn up the volume and literally smash the movie into our faces. When it comes, it's a little like a pie fight breaking out in a Three Stooges short.

In the end, we are left with little to think about. There is an issue about the mysterious Paul Sunday and his relation to his twin brother Eli Sunday. You could spend time wondering about this issue, but it wouldn't matter or change your view about the movie. This is representative of the other mostly throw-away details and developments in the movie. You could wonder a little about how Plainview's son, H.W., feels about things, but it wouldn't get you anywhere and wouldn't affect your interpretation -- Anderson clearly hasn't put much thought into it.

The great themes that are bandied about here -- to no real effect -- and Day-Lewis's madness without origin or end have driven many to conclude that this movie must be a classic American film. I am sad to say that this appears to be the type of movie that only true Hollywood insiders could see as profound and deep -- in a sort of Pavlovian response to the stimuli of Anderson, a Johnny Greenwood score, a remake of a classic work of American literature, and zaniness from Day-Lewis: push a button, get a response. What we get is the drool of worship for a half-understood, barely fleshed out ideas, and an empty story.

I do regret being as harsh as I am here. I applaud Anderson for his ambition here, and I do think Day-Lewis is a great actor. I just don't think there's much here, and it troubles me that so many critics seem to think otherwise. It seems to suggest a type of insider groupthink, and perhaps a desperate wishful thinking.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Roll of the Dice

How do you like them dice, Mr. [Former] President?

The Clinton campaign is saying it's now time for them to draw some "contrasts" with Obama. Translation: all the dirty tricks are going to be rolling out now like a fresh batch of Orcs from Mordor. Time to deploy Bob Kerrey and other Clinton minions.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Welcome to the Future

The world as we know it has just changed. ABC, NBC, NPR, CNN, the NYT, LAT, and the AP have all just declared Barack Obama the winner of the 2008 Iowa Caucus.

Democratic turnout was nearly double the Republican turnout. Democrats are fired up and ready to go. This is our year.

The future looks bright. Anything is possible. I haven't felt this hopeful about our country for many many years.

Thank you, Iowa! The New Hampshire primary is in five days. Here we come!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More Images from Arizona

Sunset in Saguaro National Park

Chiricahua National Monument [Photo by Mrs. Octopus]

Chiricahua National Monument [Photo by Mrs. Octopus]

Sunset in Saguaro National Park

Sedona [Photo by Mrs. Octopus]

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Happy 2008. Apologies for the long hiatus: we were on vacation in Arizona, which exceeded all expectations. Below are shots from my crappy cell phone camera (better quality photos will be posted at Mrs. Octopus's site).

The stunning cliffs in Sedona. These formations are composed of bright red rock striated with white streaks, and topped with greenery. They rise in all sorts of bizarre shapes around Sedona -- it's quite beautiful.

Lake Roosevelt, from Tonto National Monument, up on the trail near the Lower Cliff Dwelling. Tonto National Monument is about an hour and a half north of Phoenix. We got there taking the incredibly scenic Apache Trail, which is a winding gravel road through the mountains for about 46 miles.

We had reserved a Camry with Hertz for the trip, but ended up with a Prius, which we ended up liking quite a bit. (I want to mention here that the rental car facility at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is nicer than many regional airports.) We averaged about 47 mpg for the entire trip. The car did feel a bit flimsy, and it often felt like we were part of some science project, cruising around silently on battery power through cactus forests under the midday Arizona sun. Still, it had surprisingly good pick-up, plenty of room inside, and pretty much handled like a standard car. It gave me great pleasure to pass SUVs and pickup trucks doing 85 in the Prius on the I-10.

The Lower Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument. I was excited about seeing cliff dwellings during our trip to Arizona. I had become fascinated with cliff dwellings back in first grade, when we learned about Native Americans in different regions of the country. I remember a textbook or slideshow on the Native Americans of the Southwest, showing massive cliff dwellings, sometimes four or five stories, with multiple rooms. I found this incredibly compelling for some reason -- it looked so fantastic, so bizarre and interesting. Basically, they looked like the greatest forts/treehouses ever, and I wanted to live in them. My first visit to cliff dwellings was in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, back in 2004. The cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument were built about 700 years ago by the Salado, a group related to the Hohokam who built the cliff dwellings at the nearby Montezuma's Castle (see below).

View of saguaro cacti (pronounced "sah-wah-roh") from Tonto National Monument. We later visited Saguaro National Park in Tuscon to see whole forests of gigantic saguaro.

View of Lost Dutchman State Park from a tourist trap (but fun) mining "ghost town" along the Apache Trail. We stopped off at this park early on our route up the Apache Trail and went for a short hike. There were a bunch of people there. There were two women, who looked about college age, sitting on a rock near the destination of our short hike -- the Green Boulder. One woman was telling the other, as they looked out over a valley of scrub and cactus, that her current job, as a secretarial assistant to a professor in the theology department (at ASU in Phoenix? at U of A in Tuscon? back east at Yale? -- who knows) was the greatest job she would ever have and she wished she could just keep it for ever.

Gigantic saguaro in Saguaro National Park, in Tuscon. Saguaro grow about 1 to 1.5 inches for the first years of their lives, and can grow to heights of more than four stories (50 feet). They are considered adult at about 125 years, and are generally believed to live between 150 to 175 years, though some may live beyond 200 years. Adult saguaro can weigh up to 6 tons. [Saguaro fact sheet]

The cliff dwellings at Montezuma's Castle National Monument, about an hour and a half north of Phoenix on the I-17. These cliff dwellings were built by the Hohokam about 1,000 years ago. The site was mistakenly named Montezuma's Castle by a Spanish explorer who came across the dwelling and thought it might have been an Aztec structure. We also visited the nearby Montezuma's Well, which was just as impressive. Montezuma's Well was a large sinkhole reservoir, around which the Hohokam built dwellings, directly into the cliffs of the sinkhole, and constructed irrigation canals to water nearby fields of crops.

Sunset somewhere in Tuscon.