Foxcatcher in the Rye

SONY-FXOS-03_102414_SteveCenter_FINAL.inddOne day in late January 1996 my mother called to tell me in a voice projecting both anxiety and relief that she had just seen a TV news report on the murder of a Coach Dave Schultz somewhere in southeast Pennsylvania. As my brother, Dave Schultz, was a coach on the road at a swim meet in Pennsylvania at the time, you can understand my mother’s emotional roller-coaster ride. It turns out the deceased was not my brother but a 1984 Olympic Wrestling Gold Medalist who had been subsequently hired by the extremely wealthy and creepy John E. DuPont to help coach the U.S. wrestling team (dubbed “Team Foxcatcher” after the name of DuPont’s estate) that would compete in the 1988 Olympics and other world class events. The star of the team for a few years until he wearied of DuPont’s overbearing demeanor was Dave’s younger brother Mark who had also won 1984 Olympic gold in a different weight class.

Because of the name-confusion angle, I took a passing interest in the crime: John Éleuthère DuPont, an heir to the E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company (aka. DuPont) fortune that had been built up from a small firm supplying gun powder during the American Revolution to a global conglomerate running the largest chemical company in the world, had casually shot Schultz point blank thrice killing him. Perhaps drug-addled at the time, DuPont seemed to have been motivated to do evil by the perception that Schultz hadn’t been properly appreciative of the millionaire’s largesse. John DuPont went to jail and died there in 2010.

I saw the new movie “Foxcatcher” the other day and was duly impressed by the acting, directing and cinematography; and although the story as told has some jagged edges, I fully expect Oscar nominations in multiple categories. Directed by Bennett Miller, the film immediately establishes the beauty and grace of free-style wrestling as a kind of kinetic dance, a paso doble maybe. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo who play Mark and Dave Schultz obviously underwent intensive training to pull off the wrestling scenes. And the brotherly interaction between them comes off as genuine.

Tension between the brothers begins when DuPont reaches out first to Mark to join his team, then quickly leans on Mark to convince Dave to join as well – a request he cannot fulfill. Used to buying whatever he wants, DuPont is flummoxed when he learns Dave isn’t interested. Mark wants badly to measure up to DuPont’s high bar, and feels he let his benefactor down when Dave the family man declines to join his brother.

As played by TV and film comedian Steve Carell, John DuPont is a tortured middle-aged man, uncomfortable in his own skin, who despite his enormous wealth desires desperately to prove to his aged mother that he can accomplish great things on his own. Carell’s hesitant elocution and awkward physical mannerisms are mesmerizing to watch. And if you think Carell goes over the top, watch this video of DuPont shot in 1988 at the Foxcatcher Farm to see the subject in action.

When I first saw ads for the movie, I had no idea that the actor playing DuPont was Carell, given the prosthetic nose he wears, and the serious nature of the film itself – but his performance is powerful and convincing. Commenting on the casting of TV’s bumbling Michael Scott of “The Office” as the villain, Miller said, “I think all comedians are dark.”

Given the movie is based on the tragic Schultz story, the looming murder comes at an obvious time in the film and consumes very little screen time, which is fine. The more important element is the treatment of the complex relationships: between the brothers, between DuPont and his mother, and between Mark and DuPont.

As I mentioned, there are some jagged edges in the plot. Mark Schultz leaves the Foxcatcher compound shortly after the 1988 Olympics; Dave is murdered in 1996. The movie makes it seem as though mere months elapse between the two events. Where did Mark go? What did he do? The movie closes with Mark entering a cage to fight bare-knuckle against a burly Russian. How did he come to be a side-show attraction? Is this scene even relevant?

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Multi-Millionaire John DuPont practices for his day in infamy.

There has been debate as to who is the main character of “Foxcatcher.” It would seem to be Mark Schultz, as he is the one who goes through the usual movie arc; but the director compels the audience to pay more attention to DuPont. The movie studio, in pushing for a Best Actor nomination for Carell, implicitly sees DuPont as the main character, but the story really seems to be more about Mark Schultz. Which is why it seems odd that he drives off the compound and out of the movie. Anyway, I read that the original cut of the movie exceeded four hours – so undoubtedly in the effort to shrink it to a length tolerable to antsy viewers context was lost.

Nevertheless, “Foxcatcher” is highly recommended.

Microsoft: Hopelessly Inept

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Three times this week my laptop automatically and without warning shutdown and restarted, thanks to a forced reboot initiated by Microsoft Windows 7. By the time the system came back each time, a good half hour had frittered away. Microsoft invokes this disruptive procedure because their operating system continues to be a miasma of severe bugs and flaws in need of constant repair. Even after two decades in market the product remains a piece of garbage. Presumably complacent in the belief that the Windows hegemony could never be broken, Microsoft is shitting now that “personal computing” is moving fast to mobile devices that primarily run Android and iOS systems.

And in another wave of embarrassing news for the toads in Seattle, Ford Motor just announced it is kicking Microsoft off its in-car technology platform and replacing it with a system from Blackberry called QNX. Apparently drivers found the old system – called MyFord Touch – difficult and annoying to navigate because of the clunky, menu-driven Microsoft software. Again, the preferred user experience today hews more closely to the design of a smart phone than a PC.

In a tasty piece of snark, AutoTrader.com called the MyFord Touch system “the modern-day equivalent of the Edsel.” I guess Ford decided a forced reboot was the only viable action.

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Americans Confuse the CIA with the Boy Scouts

abuIt’s easy to understand the general public outrage directed at the CIA now that the summary Senate report has come out debunking claims the agency made about their “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but is really there anyone out there who considers the findings new news? Regardless of whether or not you think the CIA was justified in using techniques that amounted to or were damn close to torture, does it surprise you that the agency would implement them, try to hide evidence of the behavior, and seek to excoriate anyone who called them out on it? Why all the sudden hand wringing?

During the period of the mid-2000s after 9/11 when the first clues of torture began to surface, the administration at the time bent over backwards to assure people that the U.S. didn’t resort to such illegal tactics. It really was Sophism at its finest: the U.S. doesn’t perform torture because whatever it is we do that looks like torture isn’t on our recognized list of torturous activities. Just like purple isn’t a color because it’s not on our list of recognized colors.


Bush speaks the troof.

Anyone alive at the time who was paying attention knew the U.S. had been engaging in torture. After all, why would so many detainees languishing for years in Guantanamo prison without charges still be there if solid cases could be made to prosecute them? Obviously, prosecutors know their cases are losers because guilt is based on evidence extracted from torture – evidence that would be deemed inadmissible in court. And to those who claim water-boarding, mock execution, “rectal feeding” and going without sleep for 59 consecutive hours doesn’t cross the line – man up and give one of them a try. Sean Hannity famously offered himself up to be water-boarded for charity on April 2, 2009; the world still awaits this coward’s moment under the bucket.

Furthermore, it was not a stretch of imagination at the time to suspect that many if not most of the detainees had little or nothing of value to share about secret terrorist plots or the whereabouts of key insurgent leaders. Many of these miscreants were rounded up in the fog of war, indiscriminately netted like a stray dolphin in a tuna hunt; some had no business being in custody as they didn’t know a goddamned thing of value. Nonetheless, these insurgents were forced to disgorge volumes of worthless “intelligence.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the CIA chased after a pistachio vendor in Qatar because a water-boarded Gitmo detainee ratted him out for shooting Kennedy from the grassy knoll in 1963.

Sad, really. Billions spent for such shit.

I’ve read no reports identifying what I believe is the underlying cause of all this: revenge. Immediately after 9/11 – after the shock had partially subsided – there was widespread agitation for some sort of retaliation. I bet if a poll had been taken on 9/12, half the nation would have approved a nuclear attack on Afghanistan. Unlike Pearl Harbor though, in which a sovereign nation was the clear perpetrator, the stateless Al Qaeda attacks defied simple counter-attack. The fact that the world’s most vaunted military took a whole fucking month to respond led Americans to feel short-changed. We wanted revenge.

So, I figure the CIA and the military (think Abu Ghraib) –absent the ability to deliver a swift, fatal blow to Al Qaeda – took on an unstated obligation to at least offer a salve of sorts. Imagine having the architect of 9/11 whimpering like a child in a cold, brightly-lit cell. Easy to see how that situation could spin off the rails. And so it began. Totally predictable in my view – which is why I think the “I’m shocked, shocked!” response to the Senate report is bogus.

Now consider how, in the 2000s, art imitated life in the form of the TV show “24” in which season after season the hero, Jack Bauer moved the plot forward by treating an evil-doer to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And luckily for Jack, his perpetrators met a very high-bar.

1. There was an imminent threat of mass-destruction
2. The perpetrator in custody knew intimate details of said threat
3. And the perp had special knowledge that could stop the threat
4. Jack somehow knew for certain that the perp in custody possessed the special knowledge
5. And somehow the perp knew that Jack knew that he possessed the special knowledge
6. Finally, the perp understood that Jack had been granted unimpeded permission to shove his nuts down his throat, after first roasting them on an open fire.

As anyone with half a brain understands, these scenarios simply do not exist in real life. Yet the public still expects its intelligence community to save the day just like Jack Bauer (preferably inside 24 hours.)

Considering some of Jack’s best torture performances, it’s easy to see why this is so:

Jack confronts former CTU agent Nina Myers who conveniently knows exactly how to stop a nuclear bomb from detonating.

Jack interrogates his own brother while his father watches. Gruesome.

In the “Day 5” season, Jack interrogates a husband and wife as they sit terrified on the sofa. The husband, Henderson, is dirty, but he won’t talk – even faced with Jack’s threats. Jack suddenly shoots the wife above the kneecap. She screams in pain, and when Henderson refuses to cooperate Jack informs him that the next shot will put his wife in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

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Jack Bauer also staged the mock execution of a terrorist’s family, cut open the stomach of a bad guy to retrieve a smart card with secret data, and in the “Day 1” season threatened to shove a long, twisted towel down the throat of a man suspected of financing Serbian terrorism. Hell, in the “Day 2” season, the President of the United States himself authorizes the Secret Service to torture answers out of his own head of the NSA. Watching the black president interrogate the suffering old white guy was surreal at best.

Any wonder why torture and its tacit acceptance flourished in the greatest democracy in history?

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Erie Drag Queen Makes Good

Tom173 copyThe New York Times did a puff piece on Friday about a Christmas-themed revue planned for the Laurie Beechman Theater featuring four drag queens, including the gorgeous Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 (although for some reason the Times just calls her Alaska 5000.)

The article contained a brief Q&A with each girl, and as I scanned the lascivious answers to softball questions, I noted that Alaska hails from my old home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Commenting on the loneliness of traveling the road doing drag shows, Alaska said, “My way of dealing with that is listening to really sad music. Sometimes when I’m doing my makeup, I’ll put on the old “Miss Bette Davis” album. I find that by indulging and embracing that sadness, that’s how you make art and gold out of it.” Who could disagree with that?

Discovering another star who came up out of Erie’s gritty (or maybe salty) streets, I harkened back to the half-dozen or so other famous people who once called Erie their home. Erie sits on the shore of the Great Lake of the same name and figures prominently in the band of “lake effect” snow that plagues residents from October through December with dumps of heavy precip that routinely accumulates in feet (the dirty remnants of which can often be found in the corners of grocery store parking lots in late May.)

I suspect for this reason alone, the quantity of famous people produced by this “rust belt” town is stunted. Add to that the city’s reputation for recognizing trends that have already swept the rest of the nation ten years earlier, and it’s a wonder anyone of renown bloomed there.

Anyway, as a test of your knowledge of Erie celebrity, see if you can choose Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the collection of famous Erie-ites shown below. Details to follow.

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Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 is photo B. Read more about Alaska at her fabulous website.

The other celebs are as follows:

A – Ida Tarbell. Journalist best known for her 1904 book “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” which placed No. 5 in a 1999 list of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.

C – Pat Monahan. Lead singer of the band Train. Train earned two Grammy Awards.

D – Fred Biletnikoff. Wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and 70s. Biletnikoff is a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

E- Ann B. Davis. Actress best known for playing the part of Alice the housekeeper on the irritating TV show “The Brady Bunch.” Less well-known is her work as “Schultzy” in the 1950s on “The Bob Cummings Show” which earned her two Primetime Emmy Awards.

F – Brian Douglas Wells. Pizza delivery man and co-conspirator to rob several Erie banks in the summer of 2003. Wells ended up having his head blown off by a makeshift explosive collar. Watch the exciting action here.

G – Tom Ridge. Governor of Pennsylvania and the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. After Ridge moved on, the authorities at the Erie International Airport renamed the place “Tom Ridge Field.” Nothing like naming an airport after the guy in charge of killing Al Qaeda to instill a sense of peace and calm.

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Culture Justly Scrutinized: Rice, Wilson, OPEC

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Toasted Rice on the Side

Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice won a pyrrhic victory this week when a judge ruled that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell improperly punished him twice for the same crime of violence against his fiancée (now wife) Janay. The judge got it right – the only reason Goodell punished Rice harshly with indefinite suspension was to mollify the outcry of the masses against the initial two-game suspension they perceived a mere slap on the wrist. It was almost certainly not because Goodell discovered some previously hidden film clip from inside an elevator of Rice clocking Janay, as the Commish lamely claimed.

As the assault happened inside a casino where cameras are installed every four feet everywhere, there is no chance the really incriminating footage could have evaded the NFL brass. (Besides – what more evidence do you need after you see a woman walk unaided into an elevator only to be dragged out unconscious 30 seconds later? Do you really need to witness the action inside the elevator before you can render a theory?)

In any event, it makes no difference for Rice. He’s toast. After a lackluster 2013 season and an abandoned 2014, his desirability is limited. But even if a team could get him at the league minimum, they’d pass. I have to believe that the NFL owners leaned on Goodell in the first place to suspend Rice indefinitely – as the highly lucrative but suddenly vulnerable sport business had been taking a beating at the time in the press over inaction on concussions, player misbehavior against women, and other damaging news that was hurting the brand. They have no appetite now to re-raise the ugly specter of coddling an abuser all over again.

Laying down an indefinite suspension was the NFL’s way of announcing to the women of the world: “we get it.” No way will the other owners allow any team to bring new slime upon the NFL franchise by reinstating Rice. And I don’t care about the precedents set by felons-turned-cherubs like Michael Vick and Donté Stallworth. Rice’s situation is different – he smacked a woman exactly at a time when the NFL needed desperately regain the approval of women. Rice upset the narrative – he ain’t never coming back.

Like His Namesake Volleyball, Wilson Floats Away into the Sunset

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A St. Louis County grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown to death after an altercation – because the District Attorney didn’t want to prosecute Wilson. A few things are common knowledge:

• As elected officials, DA’s want to tout 99+% conviction rates, and will never take a case to court unless they can get a conviction or a plea deal.

• DA’s can indict anyone they want, as the process is phenomenally one-sided in their favor. They decide what to show jurors and what not to. The defendant and his lawyers are not part of the process (unless the DA wants them there, which in this case, they did).

• A DA can indict a ham sandwich – and although I know of no such indictment occurring, I wouldn’t be surprised if one from Friendly’s Restaurant is doing 5 to 10 for assault with a deadly mayonnaise spread.

If the DA wanted to bring Wilson into court, he could have done so. But instead he essentially treated the grand jury like a criminal jury – presenting both sides to the jurors and leaving it up to them to sort it out. Kind of weak, but ultimately savvy on the DAs part.

Consider this: Had the grand jury indicted Wilson, the judge would have scheduled a trial for sometime late into next year, giving the media 200+ days to whip partisans on both sides into an even greater frenzy than we’re seeing today. Wilson would be placed on administrative leave with full pay and would receive taxpayer defense – pissing off a large slice of America. When jury selection started, the networks would gin up the ominous clouds of looming race riots. Then the trial would begin, and my guess is that it would have taken on O.J. dimensions – and end in an acquittal. After all, Brown is a dead black guy; Wilson is a live white cop. Does anyone actually think the defense couldn’t build reasonable doubt?

And seconds after the acquittal? Pandemonium all over again.

Yes, the DA knew damn well what he was doing. It’s called “the ends justify the means.”

OPEC-ers Taste Free Market Forces

It’s taken forty years, but justice has finally arrived. It was the spring of 1973 and I had just passed my driver test (2nd try). The family car: a 1967 convertible Pontiac LeMans. I was ready for action, then came something called the Yom Kippur War, and by that winter the price of gasoline doubled to more than 50 cents a gallon. Rationing took hold, speed limits plummetted, and soon cruising ceased to be an affordable past-time. The oil embargo instituted by a hitherto-unknown cartel called OPEC lasted for months, and by the time the oil started flowing again from the Middle East in 1974 the price had been elevated permanently. The rest of the 1970s became a decade of malaise – even fashion and popular music took a hit thanks to the greedy actions of the Saudi sheiks and their cohort.

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Today, the tables have turned. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. has flooded the market with cheap oil and natural gas, thus driving world prices down to levels that are unsustainable for the likes of Venezuela, Russia, Iran and a much of the once-reviled OPEC nations. Fuck ‘em. Fracking will undoubtedly cause local problems (mostly for people who advocated for it) in the form of fouled water supplies and 24×7 truck traffic, but the prospect that tyrannical regimes that use the influx of dollars to fund terrorism and instability will suffer is a fine trade-off.

I still look forward to a petro-free world, but in the meantime it’s so nice to watch the arrogant tyrants squirm, knowing they have no plan B.

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You Must Remember This

samThe big news in the fine art world a couple weeks ago centered on the drubbing Sotheby’s took at the hands of midtown auction house rival Christie’s when the latter sold $853 million in contemporary art on November 12, after Sotheby’s pulled down a mere $344 million the night before. As you might expect, top dollar went to works by must-have artists such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon. At this point it has almost become wearisome to read about the eight- and nine-figure sums disgorged by hedge fund managers and secretive Arab sheiks for the works of a handful of anointed 20th century saints.

Which is why I found the recent auction of the piano featured in “Casablanca” more interesting than the sale of yet another one of Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Everyone who’s seen “Casablanca” knows that the center of the universe is the piano that Sam plays every night in Rick’s Café Americain. It’s where Rick encounters his former lover Ilsa once again years after being dumped on a rainy train platform. It’s where he hides the infamous letters of transit. It’s the instrument that tinkles the painful notes as a drunken Rick observes “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

And it’s the cinematic trophy that some anonymous buyer picked up the other day for $3.4 million at Bonham’s on New York’s Madison Avenue. Not to be confused with a second piano that appeared momentarily in a flashback scene and which sold for $602,500 in 2012, this one is the real deal. This particular night of bidding was called “TCM Presents … There’s No Place Like Hollywood” and featured nearly 400 artifacts from movies popular with millions.

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Sam’s piano today.

Unlike auctions involving seminal works of art, a shindig like “TCM Presents … There’s No Place Like Hollywood” can serve to excavate pleasant memories and rekindle interest in bygone eras by putting once-mundane but now totemic objects on the block for all to drool over.

Here are just a few of the lots that sold last Monday. Can you guess how much each went for? Place each lot into one of the following price ranges, and test your knowledge of the value of cinematic memorabilia: A) less than $1000, B) $1001 to $10,000, C) $10,001 to $100,000, and D) more than $100,000. Bonus question: which of these items went for more than $3 million? Answers at bottom.

1) A Dorothy “test” dress and pinafore from The Wizard of Oz
2) Moe Howard screenplay Cactus Makes Perfect
3) The African Queen poster
4) Script supervisor Meta Rebner’s copy of the screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird
5) The main entrance doors to Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca
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6) Cowardly Lion costume from The Wizard of Oz
7) A Munchkin fiddler’s jacket from The Wizard of Oz
8) A final shooting script to Gone With the Wind, presented by David O. Selznick to the widow of screenwriter Sidney Howard
9) A Clark Gable riding jacket from Gone With the Wind
10) A Faye Dunaway dress from The Towering Inferno
11) Producer Albert Zugsmith’s copy of the screenplay for Touch of Evil
12) A Spanish galleon miniature from the estate of Douglas Fairbanks
13) A fertility idol from Raiders of the Lost Ark
14) An early screenplay of Mean Streets signed by Martin Scorsese
15) Radio Raheem’s boombox from Do the Right Thing
16) A pair of Charlton Heston pants from Planet of the Apes on a custom form
17) Aragorn’s sword Andúril, made for Viggo Mortensen, from Lord of the Rings: The Return Of The King
18) Dr. No (Japanese Poster)
19) A “robot squid” alien from Men in Black II
20) A final screenplay of Private Benjamin

Cubism Uber Alles

Watercolour by Hitler is displayed at auction house in Nuremberg

In a related story, a 1916 watercolor by Adolf Hitler titled “Altes Rathaus” went for $161,000 at auction last week. The 8 /12 by 11 inch rendition of an old town hall in the colors of sands and slates, was accompanied by a bill of sale which certainly elevated the price. Too bad Hitler was painting standard streetscapes at a time when the artists in Europe were experimenting with Cubism and Dadaism. Had he applied his talents in a more daring direction, who knows what the world would look like today. Worst case scenario, Hitler the artist struggles (a different Mein Kampf) and in a fit of frustration slices off his ear – which beats slicing up half of Europe.

Answers:

1) D – $245,000 2) B – $1,250 3) B – $3,750 4) C- $43,750 5) D – $115,000 6) D – $3.07 million 7) B – $10,000 8) C- $62,500 9) C- $50,000 10) B – $10,000 11) C – $10,625 12) C – $18,750 113) C – $16,250 14) B- $8,750 15) B – $9375 16) C – $12,500 17) D – $437,000 18) A – $875 19) C – $13,125 20) A – $687

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Enforce the Law? How About Paying For it First.

boner pissAs expected the media are expending a great deal of ink, both real and virtual, on the appropriateness of Obama’s executive order to halt the deportation of millions of immigrants who reside in the U.S. illegally. Obama’s argument is that the do-nothing Congress has sat on a bill for 500+ days and, as their nickname suggests, did nothing. He says he had to act because no one else would, and although he acknowledges that only Congress can truly address the whole issue, his order has thoroughly pissed off the Republican opposition.

There is some merit to the Republican’s argument which goes like this: Read the effing Constitution – Congress passes bills and they get signed into law (sometimes), and the President enforces them (always). They see the dynamic as equivalent to the cop on the beat – he’s not there to question the wisdom of the laws, just to enforce them. Of course, life in a country of 300 million people can inject a bit of nuance into the equation, but still – the general thesis stands.

One needs only to tune into one of the talking-head cable brands to hear what he or she wants to hear: Obama overstepped and should be sued/impeached/tarred & feathered; Obama is acting properly in the face of partisan obstruction; borders need to be secured before anything else can happen; people who mow our lawns and clean our hotel rooms should be treated with kindness; Obama is being pragmatics; Obama is a monarch.

I have no interest in debating issues that currently receive 24×7 coverage by such journalistic luminaries as Brian Kilmeade and Ed Schultz.

But I do want to offer a thought that hasn’t been addressed to any depth that I’ve observed.

Let’s agree for the moment that a figure of authority (the President) is required by the Constitution to uphold the laws passed by Congress – and if he or she were to purposely refuse, it would constitute a breach of office. I would argue congruently that if another agent of authority (Congress) passed a law but refused to appropriate the funds to execute it completely, they too would be in breach of their obligations.

Imagine you work for a landscaping company. You are dispatched to a client’s estate to mow the lawn, trim the hedges and weed-whack around the tennis court fence. Your boss sends you there with half the gas you need to do the job. Should you do nothing when you arrive, or would it be better to pick a job that can be done properly with the amount of gas you have available (eg. mow the lawn but forego the weed-whacking)? In other words, should you use your cognitive abilities and optimize the job with the inadequate resources you’ve been assigned, or operate like a brainless nitwit and do nothing?

Laws here on the books basically call for the deportation of anyone caught in the country illegally – after appropriate due process of course, which involves legal hearings and other procedures. Now, the 2015 budget for Enforcement and Removal Operation within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is $2.6 billion, or about $250 per illegal immigrant. Clearly this isn’t anywhere near enough to enforce the law. The actual cost to completely deport a person is closer to $12,500.

So I say to the Republicans: appropriate enough money to implement the law ($137.5 billion), or shut the fuck up about enforcing it.

Buffalo Thanks Professor Cuomo

Residents of Buffalo and the surrounding suburbs should be thankful they are governed by such a wise man in the form of Andrew Cuomo. As the beleaguered Buffalonians shoveled their roofs (!) and flirted with cardiac arrest, Professor Cuomo was there to explain it all to them. As reported in today’s New York Times , he shared this wisdom to the ignorant masses before him.

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“There will be warming over the next couple of days. The warming will bring melting, the melting will bring water, the water will bring floods.” Although he didn’t reveal what the floods will bring (perhaps Buffalonians aren’t yet advanced enough to comprehend), Professor Cuomo provided insight that few had ever imagined.

Ralph Strunck of nearby Orchard Park, leaning on a snow-shovel beside a ten-foot high drift remarked, “Shit, I thought melting would bring radioactive lava, but now I’m relieved it’s just water.” Betty Tamponic of hard-hit Hamburg asked, “Melting? Isn’t that something that happens in June? I don’t understand.”

Professor Cuomo’s next stop is said to be Mount Sinai Hospital where he will identify that which is connected to the knee bone.

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When’s it Gonna Happen?

Man checking his pocket watch

Rev. Al Charlatan: Time to apologize

The New York Times did a front page piece on the unpaid tax woes of Rev. Al Sharpton which he kind of rejected in an article the next day. But given Al’s prevarications of the past it’s hard not to believe that the holy man has long shirked his civic duties when it comes to paying his fair share. Although the article focused primarily on the unpaid tax burden – more than $4.5 million in current state and federal tax liens against him and his for-profit businesses according to records reviewed by the paper – the writer briefly mentioned the judgment against him for his role in besmirching the reputation of Steven Pagones. I suspect most people have no idea who Pagones is, but if they’re older than 40 they probably know the name Tawana Brawley.

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Prevaricators on Parade c. 1988

Pagones was an innocent bystander in the path of Sharpton and his ambulance-chasing cohort of lawyers Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox. The threesome ginned up outrage over Brawley’s claim that she had been sexually assaulted by several white men, including Pagones who was at the time an assistant DA for Duchess County, NY. Although the claims were horrifying, Brawley’s story quickly unraveled and it was soon dismissed as a sordid alibi for having left her house without permission to visit a friend. Nevertheless, Sharpton continued to support the fabrication well past its expiration date, making Pagones’ life a misery. Pagones won his defamation suit, but the good Reverend never paid the $65 grand judgment against him (ultimately some Sharpton associates quietly paid it off.)

And in the nearly thirty years since the case came to light, Sharpton has never admitted that he knew the Brawley story was a scam. In the 1989 book “Unholy Alliances: Working the Tawana Brawley Story” by Matt Taibbi and Anna Sims Phillips, the authors report on evidence that Sharpton nervously conceded privately that Tawana was lying, but felt that the frenzy was too hot to let go.

So, when’s it gonna happen? When is Rev. Al gonna publicly apologize to Pagones?

(By the way – when did Rev. Al start resembling the Elephant Man?)

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Muslims: Exhibit some outrage

Whenever you think things can’t get more debased in the Middle East, leave it to some crazy Arabs to lower the bar another notch. This time the story is about two radical Palestinians who stormed a Synagogue in Jerusalem and killed four worshipers with knives, meat cleavers and a gun. They also killed a police officer in the struggle that ensued afterwards. Clearly the work of vicious, deluded psychopaths.

Then after learning of the attack residents of the Gaza Strip broke out in celebration. Truly bizarre and not particularly helpful to the Muslim brand.

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-JERUSALEM

I read that a man named Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the first Muslim to be named a United Nations high commissioner for human rights pushed the UN Security Council to back efforts to overturn what he termed ISIS’s “ideology of violence.” Al Hussein also said something important: “It is also disturbing how few to nonexistent have been the public demonstrations of anger in the Arab and Muslims worlds over the crimes being perpetrated.” I couldn’t agree more.

Muslims hate it when people stereotype them as terrorists, but when Islamic terror occurs you rarely hear broad condemnations from the moderates in the community.

When’s it gonna happen? When will the millions of sane Muslims take the lead, throttle this scourge of radical religious craziness, and enable the “infidel” Westerners to withdraw from their space as they constantly demand.

Japan: Admit the “research” is bullshit

Being residents of a rocky collection of islands with little arable land, it’s no surprise the Japanese people love to consume products of the sea. And that includes whale meat. The problem is, virtually every country in the world views the hunting and killing of the magnificent and endangered creatures a violation of humanitarian fundamentals. As such, the International Whaling Commission has banned the practice of hunting and killing whales – but like with most laws there are loopholes. The Commission makes exceptions for peoples such as Inuits who have a long heritage of hunting whales, and for government institutions conducting scientific research.

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The color of Japanese research

Japan has exploited the research loophole for years, and although the government there recently announced they would reduce their target kills, they still plan to waste about 4,000 whales over the next dozen years. That’s better than the original plan to take nearly a thousand a year, but 4,000 is still a lot of whales that need to die for the sake of “scientific research.” When you think about it, why do any whales have to die in the pursuit of science? What scholarly findings have the Japanese uncovered over the many decades in which tens of thousands of whales and other sea mammals have been slaughtered?

Not often mentioned is that after data have been collected from the kills, the leftover whale meat makes it into restaurants all across Japan. Which is after all the whole point of the high-seas expeditions.

Clearly, Japan should stop hunting whales. But I also wish they would just come out and admit what everyone knows – the “scientific research” argument is pure bullshit. When’s it gonna happen?

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This Week in Big Numbers

Yes, the war so far in Iraq has cost $2 trillion, the combined unfunded pensions of the 50 states exceeds $4 trillion, and the debt of the United States sits at $17 trillion and counting, yet I submit a monetary amount of nine or ten figures is still a big number – especially when associated with an individual. Consider these stories in “This Week in Big Numbers.”

Art and the Insider Trader

The works of Twentieth-Century sculptor Alberto Giacometti are certified collectables hovering about in the same rarefied strata as Wasily Kandinsky, Egon Schiele and Willem De Kooning. Born in 1901 in Switzerland, Giacometti moved to Paris to study sculpture with an associate of Rodin in 1922, a period when the art world was undergoing radical transformation. Over time his style evolved toward depictions of the human body in super-elongated form, among the most famous being Walking Man I, a life-sized bronze of a man seemingly determined to press ahead. This trophy sculpture was sold at auction in 2010 for $104 million – by far a record for the artist who died in 1966.

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Now, this week in big numbers, another Giacometti has just sold for nine figures at auction – this time it’s Chariot depicting a woman in signature elongated style standing atop a simple two-wheeled vehicle resembling a garden cart. The buyer: none other than billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen whose company, SAC Capital Advisors has been a bit under the weather lately.

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A steady stream of damning evidence has emerged over several years that suggests the fantastic returns delivered by SAC Capital to its highfalutin clients were just a tiny bit assisted by some illegal insider trading. One of Cohen’s star portfolio managers, Mathew Martoma began a nine year sentence a couple days ago for insider trading on positions with two pharmaceutical companies. His request for bail was denied. Other SAC employees have also been indicted, and the firm has coughed up $1.2 billion in penalties so far to atone for its rude behavior. Prosecutors called SAC Capital “a breeding ground for inside trading activity” and “a veritable magnet for market cheaters.”

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Luckily however, thanks to cleverly insulating himself from the rampant wrong-doing buzzing all around him, Steve-O is out and about, free to throw money around buying famous art, and running Point72 Asset Management, the remnants of SAC Capital which is currently devoted to managing the wealth of just one client: billionaire Steve Cohen.

Given that Martoma’s in prison while his former boss Steve enjoys unalloyed freedom, one cannot blame little Mathew for wanting to shove the pointy Chariot wheels first up Cohen’s ass.

Hamm Sandwiched in Divorce Court

A billion dollar divorce settlement – now that’s a big number. A couple days ago Oklahoma County District Judge Howard R. Haralson awarded the ex-wife of oilman Harold Hamm a tidy sum of $995 million, some of which will be transferred shortly, the rest coming in monthly installments of $7 million until she gets the outstanding (in more ways than one) balance of $650 million. Hamm and his wife Sue Anne (who is 10 years his junior) were married for 26 years during which time he went from a net worth of only multi-millions to $14 billion after fortuitous investments in North Dakota shale, vaulting him into #24 on the Forbes plutocracy list. (Sue Anne has suddenly and coincidentally made the Forbes list of richest women.)

Two camps have emerged: those who argue Sue Ann is simply getting her fair share (and maybe not even that, as a billion is only 7 percent of Harold’s holdings), and those who see patent unfairness in awarding an obscene sum to a person who probably never set foot on an oil-field and couldn’t tell the difference between bitumen and isoparaffinic solvents. Harold himself called the settlement “fair” and I would agree. Look at the man. He’s a bloated, corpuscular blob with the body-fat index of head cheese who would probably prefer to wallow in crude than don a tux. Anyone who had to spend a quarter-century with such a specimen deserves whatever she can vacuum out.

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Billionaire Hamm saves money by renting a ring-bearer’s tuxedo

All You Can Excrete Buffett

Warren Buffett – the investor once known as the “Oracle of Omaha” and who may soon become the “Numbskull of Nebraska” – has lost scads of money investing in old-world companies like Coca Cola and IBM. In the matter of a week or so, Buffett lost about a bil on Coke when the sugary drink maker’s stock dropped 6 percent in one day and another 1.3 bil on IBM after the 100+ year old tech company swooned on a tumult of bad news.

Eighty-four year old Buffett, who prides himself on never putting money into businesses he doesn’t understand, may be wishing he had joined the ranks of 21st Century investors who use modern tools like cellular telephones and pagers, and considered some companies younger than himself.

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Still, at #2 on Forbes list with a net worth of $67 billion, Buffett losing a couple billion is like a bad day at the track for lesser mortals. I’m sure he still gets the best room at the Comfort Inn whenever he stops by Omaha.

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The New Senate (Minority) Majority

Once again, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “When are people going to learn . . . democracy doesn’t work.”

In an American biennial tradition this week, a fraction of eligible voters trudged to the polls to cast votes to select candidates for all type and flavor of political office, and to give thumbs up or down on dozens of ballot initiatives (my favorite was question #2 in New York which asked whether the state should amend its constitution to allow the legislature to bypass printing millions of pages of documents on paper and use instead some new-fangled thing-a-ma-jig called “digital technology.”)

Anyway, the big, big, big news was that the Republicans took back control of the U.S. Senate, grabbing enough seats from timid Democrats to build a 53 seat majority. Every committee seat will be chaired by a Republican, and the Majority Leader will undoubtedly become Mitch “The Turtle” McConnell. Republicans cheered, Democrats moaned. The American public had spoken!

But in all the excitement no one seemed to notice one salient fact. The 53 Republicans (many from states with small populations) represent 140.8 million Americans, out of a total population of 308.7 million (using 2010 Census data).

In other words, the 53 percent of the Senate that is Republican represents 45.6 percent of the people. Only in America (and maybe Myanmar) does such “democracy” compute.

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Draining Barrels of Ink for Empty Scoops

beat1In the summer of 2004 as the presidential race between party nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry was moving into higher gear, attention of the die-hard political whores turned toward the question of whom Kerry might choose as his running mate. Kerry’s camp had informed the press that the decision would be announced on July 6. And on that morning the New York Post ran a banner headline proclaiming, “Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate.” Later that afternoon, Kerry picked John Edwards – perhaps further dooming his chances but also making the Post’s editors look like a bunch of clowns.

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I never could figure out what the Post was trying to accomplish by running a speculative story just a few hours before the actual story was set to be revealed. The news didn’t really qualify as a scoop because within hours everyone was going to know the result anyway – with or without the Post’s advanced premonition capabilities. To my knowledge, no desperate soul was trembling on a ledge threatening to jump off lest he be given the name of Kerry’s running-mate right . . . this . . . instant.

The Post simply wanted to flaunt their investigative prowess, insider mastery and superiority over the timid competition – and it blew up in their faces. Not as bad as “Dewey Defeats Truman,” but plenty embarrassing nonetheless.

Reading newspapers over the past couple of weeks, I’m feeling the same vibe: publishers and editors devoting tremendous time and copious ink on election speculation, when the actual, 100 percent correct outcomes will be available to all on November 5. The New York Times has for the past three months produced near-daily polling analysis and Bayesian logic on the likelihood that Democrats will lose (or retain) the Senate after the 2014 mid-term elections. Ever since the Times employed statistician Nate Silver (of the blog The FiveThirtyEight ), and followed his departure with a new column called “The Upshot,” the paper has engaged in all variety of statistics-based analysis along the lines of Freakonomics.

As Upshot contributor Damon Darlin aptly wrote the other day, “Here at The Upshot, we’ve been cranking out articles and interactive graphics on the midterm elections all week and show no sign of letting up.” Now that’s an understatement.

Again on Sunday, the Times offered an article titled, “Both Parties See Campaign Tilting to Republicans” in which they analyze the outcomes of several election scenarios with probabilities running from 0.8 percent to 5.6 percent – as though the vagaries of politics could be ground down to such precision.

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A suggestion to the Upshotters: Take your eight or nine hotly contested states and do an honest side-by-side of each opposing candidate’s views on a dozen significant issues (clue: flag-burning and prayer in school are not significant). Analyze what might happen to the direction – good, bad, indifferent – of the country should either candidate prevail. Leave the horse-race calling to the pro’s at Saratoga and Belmont. Dispense with the patter on what a win or loss by Candidate X might mean to the fundraising ability of some unknown, Orwellian-named 501(c)(4) cabal. Occasionally refer to the dictionary for the definition of “news-worthy.”

I suppose in a country where one can bet on which Super Bowl team will be the first to use a coach’s challenge, or where a horse named “American Pharaoh” has already been named the front runner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby next May, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a full-fledged political speculation industry would come to flourish.

Which begs the question: what’s the over-under on how many hours into the first session of Congress before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell excoriates the Democrats for shamelessly launching a partisan filibuster against repealing Obamacare?

New Independence

A new TV ad for Chevrolet dubbed “A New Journey” by the car company’s agency depicts 30 seconds of split screen comparisons of real life and its equivalents in the virtual world before stating rather sanctimoniously that “Chevrolet is merging the physical freedom of the car with the virtual freedom of wi-fi.” Chevy passengers are shown messing around on tablets. The spot ends with a voice-over of the tag line, “It’s the new independence.”

But wait. Just before the concluding voice-over, the ad shows a teenage boy sitting on a log in a pastoral setting, sun just about to dip below the distant mountains, massive Chevy truck parked nearby – and the kid is Skyping with . . . his mother! “Hi Mom,” he says eagerly, even waving like a geek to her image on the laptop.

Now, when I was a teenager out cruising into the woods – case of malt liquor in the trunk, Pink Floyd on the 8-track, the pungency of Patchouli redolent, with the sultry night poised to pounce upon the languid summer heat – the last thing I needed was a fast, reliable, high-speed tether to my mother. (And as I write this, I suspect the feeling was mutual.)

In fact, outfitting a vehicle with 4G LTE wi-fi as Chevy has done with its newest line-up of cars, trucks and cross-overs will certainly serve to accelerate the downward spiral away from freedom toward an abyss of “always-on-connectivity” that has come to engulf our homes, workspaces and idylls of recreation.

A teenage boy on the cusp of manhood Skyping with Mommy? The anti-thesis of “new independence.” Yeesh.

$55 Million Impression of a Chalkboard

I’m not a big Cy Twombly fan, but someone out there is. On November 12, Christie’s will be auctioning off Twombly’s “Untitled, a 5×6 foot canvas done in grey house paint to look like a chalkboard upon which four rows of loops done with a wax crayon sweep across from left to right. It resembles something you very likely saw in grade school.

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Christie’s has placed a gavel-down estimate of $35 to $55 million for the piece. (Coincidentally, the high end estimate is about the same as the price of the most expensive residential property sold in New York City last week – a $59 million spread at the exclusive and desirable new high-rise One57 on 57th Street overlooking Central Park and the lesser mortals who are not worthy to gaze upon the building.)

$55 million is approximately what the average American would earn had he or she started working in 914 AD. I wonder what it works out to in dollars per inch of loop?

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Luxury Never Sleeps

bcdownload_luxury-brands-free-font-screenshot_luxury_brands_specimenThe theme of this blog is “Culture Justly Scrutinized,” and nothing acts as a barometer of culture quite like the ebb and flow of luxury items. Curiously, a lot of activity has taken place in the past several days with luxury brands. Here is a brief review:

Fiat Splits off Ferrari

Last month, Ferrari – which is wholly owned by Fiat Chrysler – announced the departure of Luca Di Montezemolo who was the sports car maker’s chairman for 23 years. Many reasons for Montezemolo’s resignation were floated, but the one that seems most pertinent is that Ferrari’s Formula 1 team hasn’t won a championship since 2008. For those familiar with the fabled luxury brand, it was Enzo Ferrari who founded the company in 1947 to produce race cars – a costly venture that would be funded by the sales of derivative road vehicles. The race cars would showcase the road cars, and sales of the road cars would fund the racing division. In short, racing – and winning – has always been the key part of the business model.

Fiat Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne indicated that Ferrari was too important to the parent company to ignore the troubles.

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Montezemolo steps out of Ferrari – in more ways than one.

Then just the other day Fiat Chrylser, after repeatedly voicing commitment to the Ferrari brand, announced they would be spinning it off instead, ahead of a major IPO. So much for the headaches of running a specialty brand that produces 6,500 gorgeous cars a year inside a behemoth company that cranks out 4.5 million boring ones annually.

Patek Philippe Celebrates 175 Years

High-end wristwatches have long been a symbol of wealth, taste and heritage. Although the category is awash in top brands – Cartier, Bulgari, Audemar-Piguet, Baume & Mercier, A. Lange & Sohn, Ulysse Nardin – it may be argued that the grand-daddy of all luxury wristwatches is Patek Philippe. With the advertising slogan, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” Patek seeks to establish the notion that their watches belong to the ages. And given the prices, one can understand why an owner would never consign his watch to a dusty drawer to be lost after a couple of household moves.

The Grand Complications Perpetual (5270G-013) goes for $160,000 new, the Grand Complications Perpetual Calendar Moonphase Chronograph (5004R-014) is $236,000, and the Grand Complication Tourbillon Perpetual (5207R-001) will set you back around $850,000.

Now on the 175th anniversary of the founding of the company, Patek announced last week the offering of the Grandmaster Chime (5207R-001), a double-sided watch with 20 complications and a price tag of 2.6 million Swiss Francs (about the same in dollars). Only seven watches will be made, one of which will be consigned to the Patek-Philippe museum in Geneva.

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How is it possible a wristwatch could cost $2.6 million? Well, if you have to ask . . . but since you did, watch the fascinating and lovely movie detailing its creation from precious metal blanks to finished product.

Steinway Moves to New Digs

Founded in 1853, Steinway & Sons has long been the premier makers of fine pianos, played by virtually all noteworthy pianists in the most prestigious concert halls of the world. In 1925 they opened their flagship New York store called Steinway Hall at 109 West 57th Street in a grand, three-storied building down the street from Carnegie Hall. The Hall, which serves as both showroom and concert facility, has since been the site of countless performances by famous virtuosos like Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Now, Steinway is making the move to new digs after having sold the building for $195 million a couple years ago. (Management also sold the company around the same time to billionaire hedge-funder John A. Paulson.) Steinway will take over space currently occupied by the International Center for Photography (ICP) at 43rd and 6th in a fifteen-year rental agreement.

Somehow, the move seems to diminish the standing of Steinway. And given the company is in the hands of a hedge-fund manager in a period where inexpensive digital keyboard products have cut into the business of selling classic stringed instruments, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

LVMH Opens a Fabulous Paris Store

Architect Frank Gehry continues to be the go-to guy for stylish and stunning museums. Added to his lengthy list of clients – Guggenheim Bilbao, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Vitra Design Museum, Weisman Art Museum – is LVMH, the huge purveyor of luxury brands that include Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon, Fendi, Hublot, Dom Pérignon, and Dior among dozens of other major labels.

Several years ago LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault conceived the notion of creating a museum-like showcase of the conglomerate’s seminal and influential products. Now, this month, Fondation Louis Vuitton opens in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne – a $143 million, 126,000 square foot homage to the finer things in life.

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Paris has had a rocky relationship with modern architecture, largely seeking to maintain the status quo of Napoleonic elegance against brash new ideas. The inclusion (intrusion?) of glass pyramids at the Louvre by noted architect I.M. Pei caused a major stir at the time of installation. And Gehry’s design for Fondation Louis Vuitton garnered like-minded loathing by Parisians who saw the asymmetric sail-like glass-and-titanium structure as an affront to the sensibilities of the Bois de Boulogne.

Still, luxury talks. And LVMH has raised a stunning edifice to itself.

Renzo Rosso Makes a Risky Hire

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Newly-restored Gallian.

Renzo Rosso, the billionaire owner of Diesel, Maison Martin Margiela, Viktor & Rolf and Marni, broke with conventional wisdom recently and hired as creative director for one of his houses none other than John Galliano – formerly of Christian Dior until he was fired for his drunken, ant-Semitic rant caught on video. The foppish and brilliant Galliano found himself out of a job for the past three years – my guess is less for what he said, and more for getting caught saying it.

In any event, occasionally in the world of luxury goods cultivating the “bad-boy” image is necessary to corral the next generation of high-end buyers who don’t want to dress, drink and smell like their grandparents.

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Pablo Picasso Never Got Called an Asshole

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“He was only five foot three but girls could not resist his stare – Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.”

This declaration by Jonathan Richman on the seminal 1972 album The Modern Lovers could not be more true today as seemingly dozens of museums and galleries trip over one another to display and (ultimately) auction off the Cubist master’s works, both famous and obscure. Consider this sampling of current and future Picassorgasm:

From October 31 to January 10 the Pace Gallery will show Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style, a presentation of Picasso’s devotion to his muse and (later) wife Jacqueline Roque, and his homage to Henri Matisse. According to Pace, “The exhibition begins in 1954 when the 73-year old Picasso started living with the 27-year old Jacqueline. That year also marked the death of Matisse, an early rival and later friend of Picasso, who had been the only living artist that Picasso considered his equal. In an unprecedented burst of creativity, Picasso put forth scores of paintings and drawings.”

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 16 will be showing Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection which represents a rich assortment of pieces by the essential Cubists: Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and, of course, Pablo Picasso whose works make up more than 40 percent of the exhibition. Lauder, a son of make-up magnate Estée Lauder, amassed a formidable collection which he donated to the Met in 2013.

Picasso and the Camera, curated by John Richardson and running from October 28 through January 3 at The Gagosian Gallery “explores how Picasso used photography not only as a source of inspiration, but as an integral part of his studio practice. Spanning sixty years, this show will provide an unprecedented survey of his unique relationship with the camera.” Imagine had he lived long enough to buy a GoPro.

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Employing the somewhat tedious device of putting works of art from different artists “side-by-side,” The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida will show a collection of works by Picasso and Salvador Dali from November 8 to February 16 (after which the exhibition moves to Barcelona.) Consisting of over 80 pieces, the show, Picasso/Dali Dali/Picasso “shows how these artists were shaped by the currents of their time.” The juxtaposition of these two strikes me as somewhat odd. Dali considered Picasso’s works adefesios esperpentos (monstrosities), arguing that “Picasso, who is afraid of everything, went in for the ugly because he was afraid of” being conventional. Maybe the curator of Picasso/Dali Dali/Picasso wanted to get edgy, but more than likely, packaged the two together to maximize ticket sales.

On November 3, Sotheby’s will be running an auction in their New York offices titled Picasso Through the Eyes of a Connoisseur. Available for bidding are drawings, linoleum cuts, painted plates and vases, terra cottas and gold medallions – 119 lots in all – ranging from low estimates of a few thousand to upper bounds of several hundred thousand dollars. Given that Picasso’s “La Rêve” ($155 million), “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” ($106 million) and “Garçon à la pipe” ($104 million) are among the most expensive paintings ever purchased, one can only imagine that the Sotheby’s gig represents some pretty trifle works in Pablo’s oeuvre.

A Red Haring?

Imaginative graffiti-artist Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990, leaving behind a collection of simple and funky paintings and drawings that captured the wonder and exuberance of life (both human and non.) Although semi-popular in life (he did an ad for Absolut vodka), it seems as though interest in Haring and his work has risen in recent years – at least when it comes to commercial ventures. Wander into the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue and you’ll be overwhelmed with tee shirts, socks, jackets, blankets and tote bags – most emblazoned with Haring’s trademarked squiggly line drawings.

Today I noticed that on October 28 the Phillips Gallery is auctioning off among other works, Haring’s Untitled 1-5 (The Fertility Suite) , a set of five colorful screenprints signed, dated `83′ and numbered 7/100 in pencil. The estimate for the set is $120,000-$180,000. In a Haring bull market, I have a feeling the winner is going to pay a lot more. Check back later for the actual sales price.

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(By the way, going on the block at Phillips alongside five Haring works are 33 Picasso pieces. Damn, you just can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something fashioned by the man who never got called an asshole.)

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Have You or a Loved One Been Injured?

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A staple of cable television advertising is the legal profession’s call to action for viewers suffering from the side-effects of popular drugs and common surgical procedures to rise up and get litigious. Mesothelioma has long been a stalwart malady for ambulance-chasing law firms to bloviate over. So have problems associated with AndroGel, Risperdal, Stryker Hip Replacements, Vaginal Meshes, and NuvaRings. Even Skechers toning shoes haven’t escaped the wrath of the personal injury lawyers.

And the just the other day I caught yet another TV ad denouncing the evils of a commonly used product: “Just for Men” hair dye – a product that’s been on the market since 1987. Apparently, some vain dudes applied the hair coloring concoction and wound up with rashes, blisters, chemical burns and cordovan-colored sideburns.

It should be noted that the warning label on “Just For Men” says that some may experience “rapidly spreading skin rash, dizziness, faintness, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, tightness of chest, hives or swelling to eyes/face, blistering of skin or scalp weeping, seek immediate medical attention.” (Shit – did they plagiarize this from a pack of Lucky Strikes?)

Yet despite the dire warnings some guys chose to slather the goo on their heads and faces just so they could acquire that virile Keith Hernandez/Walt Frazier look.

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Anyway, immediately following the recruitment ad for “Just for Men” sufferers came an ad extolling the virtues of a new drug called “Osphena” which is targeted at menopausal women who find sex painful (no, it’s not a pill the husband takes to improve his technique.) According to the ad Osphena enables a number of wonderful things, including promoting the growth of vaginal tissue. How could anything go wrong with that?

Needless to say, the side effects include some scary shit: stroke, blood clots, and cancer of the lining of the uterus.

Within five years expect to see one long string of advertisements from the personal injury law industry calling for Osphena sufferers to line up and have their cases assessed. Millions of dollars of compensation will be at stake, and that’s just covering the men who will accidentally take Osphena and become hermaphrodites.

Just Obeying Orders in Armonk

IBM’s stock just tumbled $20 per share to $163 in the two days since poor third quarter results were announced, shaving billions off the company’s market capitalization. Much has since been written about weaknesses in the company’s product line, delays in getting into new markets, and of course, the troubles behind IBM’s long-stated goal of achieving $20 earnings per share by the end of next year – a plan dubbed “Roadmap 2015. Now, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has formally abandoned Roadmap 2015 which most observers considered a distraction from the fundamentals.

Many reporters and analysts exclaimed, “it’s about time,” as most sentient beings recognized long ago that IBM was performing some tremendous stunts of financial engineering (as opposed to growing the business) to make the goal.

But one thing that caught my attention in the reporting was the way the writers seemed to give a pass to Rometty.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times: “To be fair, Ms. Rometty has been following a goal set by her predecessor, Samuel J. Palmisano, to return $20 a share to stockholders by 2015.”

Julie Bort, Business Insider “As part of IBM’s disappointing quarterly earnings, she (Rometty) said the company is not going to hit $20 earnings per share in 2015, as IBM has been promising for years. This wasn’t a promise made by Rometty, but by her predecessor, Sam Palmisano, a couple of years before Rometty took the helm in 2012.

ReCode “The promise of 2015 — one that Rometty inherited from her predecessor Sam Palmisano — is looking more difficult and unlikely every quarter.”

David Grossman, Stifel Nicolaus, “I don’t think it’s fair to put it all on her, She inherited the roadmap and a business that takes a long time to turn around.”

Jessica Menton International Business Times “Rometty is clearly in the hot seat, but is working hard with the hand she was dealt.”

The hand she was dealt??

Do these “industry experts” not recall that when previous CEO Sam Palmisano proclaimed “Roadmap 2015” five years ago, the senior leadership team – the people no doubt placed into conclave by Palmisano to help develop the Roadmap – included Ginni Rometty who held the title of Senior Vice President and Group Executive Sales, Marketing and Strategy ?

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Source: IBM Annual Report for 2010

Ginni Rometty may eventually work things out at IBM, but no one should see her as an innocent bystander who was unfairly shafted by her predecessor. She was a co-architect of the Roadmap that she has now, thankfully, disowned. (Sidebar: I wonder if the decision to drop the plan was motivated by an acknowledgement that it was counter-productive for the company, or found to be mathematically impossible to achieve.)

For all those holding IBM paper, but more so for the employees and customers of Big Blue, let’s hope it’s not too late.

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Fear of Flying

A tourist poses for a photo next to Jeff Hulbert from Annapolis, Maryland, dressed in a protective suit and mask demanding for a halt of all flights from West Africa, outside the White House in Washington, DC on October 16, 2014. Top US health officials faced a grilling Thursday by lawmakers infuriated over the nation's fumbling response to the Ebola outbreak, as the Obama administration scrambles to contain the disease's spread. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has become the most prominent target of the criticism, which has mounted as it emerged that a second Texas health care worker infected with the deadly disease was allowed to board a commercial flight despite reporting a low-grade fever. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOVMLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty ImagesWith another case of Ebola recently confirmed in the United States, the number of infected people on American soil jumped 50 percent to three, thus advancing the deadly disease into a full-blown epidemic. And coupled with the surprising (well, maybe not) ineptitude of the CDC, it’s no wonder calls to ban flights into the U.S. from countries known to harbor the virulent virus (Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone) have grown apace.

A petition on WhiteHouse.gov titled “Immediately stop all incoming flights from Liberia and other West African countries where the Ebola virus is present” calls on the Obama Administration to “wise up and immediately stop all flights to and from the United States and Liberia and any other West African country where Ebola has been found until this epidemic is over.”

That’s right: “Stop the Flights” is the new slogan of the panicky princes on the political tightrope.

But consider this: The first person not under quarantine to arrive in the U.S. carrying Ebola – Thomas Eric Duncan – flew from Monrovia, Liberia to Dallas, Texas by way of Brussels, Belgium. No doubt travelers from all over Europe connected in Brussels along with Duncan. Should we “wise up” and stop all flights from West Africa, even those that connect through other cities? If the U.S. did bar all direct flights in from the Ebola zone (possibly a violation of international treaties covering transportation, but so what – desperate times call for desperate measures), people will simply board connecting flights of which there are many.

Suppose you’re hanging around in Dakar, Senegal with a desire to travel to the New York region to visit relatives, attend a conference, or just come home. Here are just some of the flight options:

Turkish Airlines (stops in Istanbul)
Iberia Airlines (stops in Madrid)
Brussels Airlines (yeah, stops in Brussels)
Air France (stops in Paris)
Delta (stops in Paris, then in Amsterdam)
TAP Portugal (stops in Lisbon)
Royal Air Moroc (stops in Casablanca, but you might need to see Rick to get letters of transit to go on to America).

Given that Air France alone runs about 50 flights a week from Charles De Gaulle Airport to JFK, a complete moratorium on allowing entry to travelers who may have co-mingled with the sick and dying in Africa would be a monumentally difficult and disruptive exercise with little likelihood of solving the problem. Calling for a travel ban, as such political luminaries as John Boehner have done, and as was done in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, will likely get stronger as elections approach, but the cooler heads say it won’t amount to much. Better to focus on containing the outbreak in West Africa, developing cures and vaccines, and improving hospital procedures here.

Still, I expect greater not lesser agitation to “stop the flights.” But if the number of stricken Americans breaks into the hundreds, don’t be surprised if other countries ban flights that originate here. And expect John McCain and Lindsay Graham to demand airstrikes in retaliation.

Bryan Ferry: In Concert and on Vinyl

Bryan Ferry performs at the Lowry Salford

I caught Bryan Ferry and his superb band October 1 at the Beacon Theater in New York. The former front-man for Roxy Music took the audience on a mostly-nostalgic voyage through early Roxy works as well as gems from his solo career: “Love is the Drug,” “Casanova,” “Virginia Plain,” “Editions of You,” and “Take a Chance with Me.” (Photos and set list here. )

Ferry was coming off a throat infection which forced him to cancel a previous engagement, so his voice was at times strained, but the trio of backup singers who have toured with him for years carried him through tough spots.

In addition to performing several popular tunes known to all fans, he introduced two tracks from his forthcoming album Avonmore which debuts on November 17. As has been the hallmark of Ferry’s solo albums starting with Bête Noire the songs suggest Avonmore will again offer a line-up of lush sophistication.

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Listen to “Loop De Li,” one of the two songs from the album performed at the Beacon.

What Mitzi Saidel Wrought

As the proprietor of The Comedy Store in 1972 in West Hollywood, Mitzi Saidel was an instrumental force in the success of numerous stand-up comedians who performed there early in their careers, including Robin Williams, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Sam Kinison, Richard Belzer and Jim Carrey. She also had an outsized hand in the inexplicable rise of a complete buffoon who should never have gone further than assistant manager at White Castle: Pauly Shore.

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Pauly Shore today without his clown make-up

Pauly Shore is perhaps most notable for the moronic movies in which he’s appeared, many of late where Shore was cast as himself – presumably so as not to stretch him too much artistically. One particularly crappy movie was 1992’s “Encino Man” in which Pauly plays the role he always plays – the annoying, laid-back, stoner-skater-dude. “Encino Man” scored a lowly 16 percent on RottonTomatoes “TomatoMeter,” certifying it as junk. The consensus of critics of the film: “whether or not it works for you will largely be determined by your tolerance for Pauly Shore.”

Pauly Shore was in nearby Woodstock this week for the annual Woodstock Film Festival to shill for his latest project, a documentary called “Pauly Shore Stands Alone.” Once again, a movie in which he “plays” himself. According to the WFF press release, “The film is a true-life road documentary that follows him as he performs in obscure towns throughout Wisconsin while dealing with his personal life back home.”

Sounds to me like a bad reality TV show that should run at 3 AM somewhere around channel 600.

So how was it that Mitzi Saidel came to advance the career of a patently untalented clown? She married comedian Sammy Shore and gave birth to one Paul Montgomery Shore.

Nepotism – can’t beat it with a stick.

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Barack Hussein Ebola

ebola-obama-virusISIS is a crisis and Ebola is spreading faster than the virulent Macarena craze of 1995. According to the xenophobes who fear for the future of America, the only thing we can do now is . . . seal the borders!

TownHall.com rants, “Any day, any minute, illegal immigrants sick with Ebola could be walking across our border. Worse, how easy is it for our radical Muslim enemies to send Ebola infected terrorists across the border?”

NC State House Speaker Thom Tillis notes, “Ladies and gentlemen we have an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors who can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.”

One-time and wannabee-again senator, Scott Brown advises, “One of the reasons why I’ve been so adamant about closing our border because if people are coming through normal channels, can you imagine what they can do through a porous border.”

Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command predicted “If it (Ebola) breaks out, it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States.”

And then there’s right-wing skank Phyllis Schlafly who said Obama allowed Ebola to enter the United States so the country would be more like Africa. “Obama doesn’t want America to believe that we’re exceptional. He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola, we ought to join the group and be suffering from it, too.”
Goddamned porous borders!

The scourge is at our door, but the solution is simple (like all slogans): “Seal the border.”

What does it mean, though? What would it entail? Those are questions that the ranters fail perennially to explain. I presume the concept is that no one gets in or out of the U.S. without proper documentation, but given the vastness of the frontiers (thousands of miles of Mexican and Canadian borders, plus the hundreds of ports of entry like Hartsfield, O’Hare and JFK airports), travel and commerce would have to grind to a halt to ensure this. You think it takes an eternity to fly places now – imagine a truly sealed border.

And for those who like to eat fresh fruit and vegetables in the winter: start acquiring a taste for Bird’s Eye frozen waxed beans, because most of that produce comes in from south of the border which would be sealed to such an extent that food would rot in the truck before it could pass legitimately into the United States. (Of course, while bona fide foods were idling at the sealed border, somehow I suspect illegal drugs would continue to pass through unfettered, illustrating the power of the law of supply and demand over fences and wigwags.)

Consider these stats:

More than $1 billion worth of goods crosses the U.S.-Mexican border every day – 85 percent of it by truck. Even if that were easy to cut to zero, expect xenophobes like Texas governor Rick Perry and trigger-happy John McCain of Arizona to shit a brick once their business constituents feel profit pain.

Border fencing, which is arguably not up to the task of truly sealing the border, cost on average $4 million per mile in 2009 – and in some areas of tough terrain goes higher than $15 million a mile. Quite a costly burden for an over-taxed populace. Furthermore, building impermeable fences means taking peoples’ land, building massive, unsightly infrastructure, and putting up a barricade that impedes the movement of flood waters which usually damage the U.S. side.

Of the many illegal immigrants coming into the U.S., about 40 percent arrive legally through airports on temporary visas – then simply overstay. No wall is going to curtail that influx. How do you seal it? Deny visas across the board? Empower a Gestapo-like entity to monitor every visa holder like something out of a bad John Grisham novel?

Best stat of all: $28 billion per year. That’s the estimated price-tag to “seal the border” according to Bloomberg Government. I suspect the element of the population that clamors for a sealed border has no clue.

Bottom line: With about 70 million travelers entering the U.S. each year, and ISIS masterminding the internet to recruit home-grown jihadists, Ebola and terrorism are coming to America. And no fucking fence on a “sealed border” is gonna stop it.

Bad Toe Cheese

morris_110
Dick “Toesucker” Morris has a new book out titled “Power Grab.” Although you may be inclined to think it’s about an experience Dick had in a prison shower, it’s actually an expose of how Obama is secretly executing a plan to turn the U.S. into a single-party (ie. liberal Democratic) nation. Per the advertising, “In this blockbuster book, Morris exposes Obama’s true agenda — to turn America into a banana republic ruled by one party.”

One heinous example? “Obama is secretly pushing legislation in different states that would effectively abolish the Electoral College — allowing liberal states to bind all their electoral votes together for the Democratic candidate.” Of course, this same legislation would allow conservative states to bind all their votes together for Republican candidates – but that doesn’t help Dick’s case.

Here’s Obama’s plan, per Dick Toesucker:

• Pushing radical immigration plans that will tip the delicate political balance in favor of the Democrats in crucial states and in national elections
• How this new “health” law helps create a permanent government recipient class who will vote Democratic time and again
• Gaining more control over private business by granting the EPA global governance in the name of climate change, affecting every aspect of our lives
• Blocking energy independence, thereby slowing economic growth and breeding more dependency
• Gutting welfare reform and keeping millions on the dole
• Turning over regulation of the Internet to the United Nations

Nevermind that Obama has presided over the biggest exodus of illegal immigrants ever, and that domestic oil production is at a 25-year high while foreign oil imports are at a 17-year low such that production exceeded net imports in 2013 for the first time since 1995, and that the biggest moochers of the government tit reside in Red states, not in Obama’s treasured base.

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Morris rails full-speed against Obama’s fiendish attempts to alter the status quo in which:

• Republicans own the House of Representatives (234 to 201) with no chance of a change due to gerrymandering and voting restrictions.
• Republican governors run 29 of the 50 states.
• Republicans completely own the legislatures of 27 states versus 18 for the Democrats. The rest are split.
• The Supreme Court is made up of 5 Republican-nominated Justices. The Court has had a majority of Republicans since 1995.

In other words Obama wants to set up single-party hegemony where one already exists. Damn him!

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Saint Derek of Jeter

jeter saintNow that Derek Jeter, New York Yankees long-time short-stop and team captain, has retired from Major League Baseball, it seems a near certainty that he will achieve sainthood well ahead of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. For a sense of the headiness surrounding Jeter’s exit, digest some of the encomiums that have appeared in the press in the last several weeks leading up to Jeter’s final game in which his bloopy single saved the day once again.

NY Post – “More than anything Jeter seems like a nice guy who is unimpressed and uninterested in the accoutrements of his celebrity status.”

Fox Sports – “Derek Jeter is the most universally respected player of the modern era in baseball, and perhaps in all of sports.”

NPR – “If Jeter’s career has shown anything, it’s that utter reliability has a strangeness about it, and it has beauty. And among those who witness it, it can breed devotion. When Jeter retires, that’s what they’ll miss.”

NY Times – In a particularly fawning article: “Jeter is (to be) assumed into the baseball heavens, to be greeted at the Players Entrance by the Yankee Clipper, the Mick and the Sultan of Swat.”

Former teammate, Nick Swisher – “The man is an absolute god. The way that he went out will never ever be replicated.”

Perhaps professional sports figures have become so universally venal, with expectations of being treated like royalty, that a player who simply acts like a normal, dedicated person is elevated to Ghandi-like status.

Given Jeter’s illustrious record (five World Series rings, 14 All-Star games, all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,465), doubles (544), games played (2,747), stolen bases (358)) and his steady, non-offensive professional lifestyle, pure as the driven snow for a multi-million dollar sports figure, no way will he have to wait around for beatification and canonization – next stop: straight to sainthood.

Clearly, Jeter has performed the requisite two miracles necessary for sainthood. The first came in game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s when Jeter miraculously appeared in the middle of a relay play out of right field to home (despite his position being on the other side of second base), flipping the over-thrown ball to Jorge Posada a nanosecond before Jeremy Giambi touched the plate.

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Photographic evidence of St. Derek’s levitation miracle.
The second miracle occurred in the top of the 12th inning against the Boston Red Sox on July 1, 2004 when Derek the Jeter levitated into the stands after snagging a ball hit by Trot Nixon. Jeter stumbled out of the clutch of fans with a bloodied face and the Yankees went on to win 2-1 after scoring two runs in the bottom of the 13th inning. Rumor has it that a female fan dabbed Derek with a cloth that later came to bear an imprint of his face.

As the church requires miracles to be documented, look here for the immaculate flip, and here for the feast of the dive.

There is even talk within the Vatican that God may call up Saint Derek (posthumously, of course) to replace the Holy Ghost on Team Trinity. It seems H.G. (as he is known around heaven) has been a little too obtuse over the past millennium or so, granting just two interviews since the Inquisition and spending way too much time playing Baccarat at the Bellagio.

Memo to Jesus: If Jeter joins the Holy Trinity, watch your back. God didn’t assign him #2 for nothing.

Time to Short Netflix?

Forbes Magazine boasted a disturbing headline the other day: “Adam Sandler Deal Cheers Netflix Stock, But Will It Prove To Be A Blockbuster?” The very concept that association with the genetically unfunny Sandler could cheer any company’s stock seems as foolish as, well, casting Adam Sandler in a movie. After all, the man has appeared in one-after-the-other moronic dud movies, each a defilement of the very celluloid upon which it had been rendered.

Consider his starring movies which received sweeping dogshit ratings from RottenTomatoes.com, an aggregator of professional movie reviews:

Billy Madison – 46%. Sandler was the screenwriter
Happy Gilmore – 60%. Again, the screenwriter, as well as self-plagiarizer.
The Waterboy – 35%. Yet another retard-makes-good story.
Little Nicky – 22%. Screenwriter. The pattern has emerged. The fucker can’t write.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry – 14% (!)
Grown Ups – 10% (!!)
Grown Ups 2 – 7% (!!!). The original dud-quel.
Jack and Jill – 3 fucking percent (!!!!). Virtually unheard of, until . . .
The Cobbler – 0%. (5x!) Even more despised than Ebola.

happyGetting back to the Forbes story: the report is that Netflix had announced that it recruited Adam Sandler to produce and star in four movies that will premiere exclusively to Netflix subscribers. That might be dumber than the Food Network signing up Jeffrey Dahmer to host “Iron Chef”: “Contestants, you have 30 minutes to create a meal using all the ingredients set before you – spleen, cerebellum, fava beans, brook trout, rectum, and Belgian chocolate.”

The idea that Netflix, which leads the industry in streaming movie content and has made inroads against competitive providers like HBO with the “Orange is the New Black” series, would cut a deal with perennial loser Sandler calls their sanity into question. Or maybe not. Despite the long-running series of critical disasters, Sandler’s movies have done OK financially. Perhaps Netflix is banking on the notion that its subscribers are predominantly idiotic. Brainless chickens that will peck for whatever schmutz that’s tossed in their faces.

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter called this move “prudent” for Netflix, because they’re paying for the right to premiere Sandler’s work but not taking on the risk of distributing the films in case they are duds.

In case they are duds? C’mon. If Adam Sandler were a stock on NASDAQ, the symbol would be DUDS.

My guess for his first movie: “After Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore have a menage a quatre with Chuck and Larry, they reminisce in drag about the old days.”

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The Wormholes Behind the Wainscoting

piersonobamaEveryone who has ever bought an older house has probably been shocked at one time or another by the discovery of vermin and rotted wood so well-hidden behind burled paneling, or beneath lacquered flooring. Until that point of discovery – usually following what was anticipated to be routine maintenance – the homeowner lived in a state of blissful ignorance confident that his or her house was in good order.

The other day a disturbed Iraq War veteran hopped the fence surrounding the White House – a place long-believed to be one of the most secure buildings in the world – and managed to run all the way to the East Room one floor below the Presidential residence. The vaunted Secret Service was revealed to be inept stewards of the safety of the Commander in Chief. And once again Americans were stunned witnesses to the wormholes behind the wainscoting. As is often the case with such failures, the Secret Service started out by downplaying the entire event. The intruder was unarmed they said, and quickly apprehended. Neither of these claims was true. Early doubters questioned why attack dogs were not unleashed, given that their presence on the grounds is maintained just for such intrusions. Soon enough the façade had completely fallen down, and the rotting smell of the Secret Service began wafting across Washington, even overpowering the stink that emanates daily from Congress.

As with an old home, evidence of rot might be detected if someone actively looked for it. Remember the Secret Service detail caught servicing prostitutes in Cartagena, Columbia? Or how they took four days to discover that the White House had been hit by seven bullets? Despite the assurances of the Director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, during her Congressional inquisition yesterday, I have to believe any political figure currently receiving SS protection has to be thinking about hiring some personal bodyguards as an extra precaution.

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The Secret Service incident reminds us of the myriad failures of once-trusted government agencies that came on suddenly and significantly, calling into question whether there exists a single government agency or department that is competent.

Were it not for Hurricane Katrina, would we yet know how hollow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was? Would it have become common knowledge that the head of FEMA, Michael “Brownie” Brown was a totally unqualified stooge? Clearly, sooner or later FEMA would have been exposed, if not by a hurricane then perhaps by a collapsed dam built in the 1800s and known to be weak, but whose condition had been ignored. Which raises the question: “Who’s gonna fuck up next?”

We already know that the following agencies were hiding structural rot behind a pretty wall:

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) – exposed as clueless, lazy and unimaginative in the Bernie Madoff scandal.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – shown to be flat-footed and unprepared on 9/11 as they lost plane after plane, and who just the other day watched Chicago’s two airports go dark because of lightly-supervised contractor sabotage.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) – had to be quarantined after old stocks of pathogens including smallpox and ricin were discovered sitting unsecured in a shoebox in some lab.

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A “major malfunction”

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – destruction of the Challenger shuttle revealed callousness and decidedly unscientific decision-making. And that’s after they blew it on Apollo 1 which burst into an inferno on the launching pad.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – although GM kept a low-profile on info regarding faulty and deadly ignition switches in some of their vehicles, NHTSA wandered incuriously about in the dark for years.

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) – shown to be more helpful than hurtful to criminals in the ill-fated and stupidly-named “Fast and Furious” sting operation.

Veterans’ Administration (VA) – mired in scandal by failing in their mission to aid sick and injured vets, while falsifying wait-list records.

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Government Accountability Office (GAO) – instead of being accountable to taxpayers, this lame-o organization blew hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on boondoggles for their hard-working employees.

National Security Agency (NSA) – Nothing bad here (they’re probably watching).

Federal Election Commission (FEC) – this poorly thought-out regulatory agency is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and does absolutely nothing.

The alphabet-soup of agencies, departments and regulators in the U.S. government overflows with political cronies and deadbeat lifers. Which of these supposedly valuable organizations is actually a scenic lake hiding abandoned cars and junked appliances just below its glassy surface? CDC? CIA? OSHA? FDA? NTSB? CPA?

My guess – all of them. And although I acknowledge that numerous governments around the world suffer from the same disease as the U.S., none spend anywhere near the kind of coin Americans do in return for such rank incompetence.

Who’s to blame? Democrats have a long history of churning out department after department from the acronym factory going back to our first acronym president, FDR. Republicans claim government can’t do anything right, then ensure that outcome by slashing budgets and installing assholes in positions of leadership.

I think we’re doomed. Time to create the DPA – Doomsday Preparation Agency.

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This Week in Ingrates

good-deedimagesClare Booth Luce (or was it Oscar Wilde?) famously warned, “No good deed goes unpunished.” These days that seems like a tautology. Is there anyone of privilege left willing to accept the best and final offer without throwing a hissy-fit because they believe they somehow deserve better?

Today you’re invited to vote from three corpuscular cretins for this week’s most despicable ingrate. The candidates: outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai, former AIG chief Hank Greenberg, and one-time asshole-buddy of Bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Consider their stories and vote your heart (or perhaps another organ closer to your alimentary canal.)

karPointy-hat-wearing Karzai rose to the top spot in Afghanistan after the United States ran the much-reviled Taliban out of the perennially-failed state, and installed his worthless ass into the office of the presidency. This incompetent fool has “run” the country since 2001 when the U.S. embarked on the worthy goal of extricating Afghanistan from the clutches of some medieval tyrants. He and his people owe whatever semblance of normality they enjoy to the Americans. Earlier this year, after a dozen years, the U.S. wanted to call it quits in this god-forsaken country and urged Karzai to sign a transition plan – which he naturally spit upon. Karzai pushed out the date for agreement so far that the U.S. had no choice but to leave lock, stock and barrel. That outcome was completely the result of Karzai’s mind-boggling intransigence.

The other day, Karzai made a farewell speech in which he thanked India, China and Iran (?!) for their help while snubbing the U.S. which since 2001 has been Afghanistan’s biggest donor and most strident protector. This ungrateful cocksucker said in his speech, “America pursued its own interests and did not want peace in Afghanistan.” What were our interests? Cornering the market on gravel? As the Wall Street Journal reminded its readers, “The war against the Taliban has claimed the lives of more than 2,360 U.S. service members, and Washington has so far spent more than $104 billion to fund Afghanistan’s government, its security forces and development projects across the country.”

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham got it right when he commented, “I think his remarks, which were uncalled for, do a disservice to the American people, and dishonor the sacrifices Americans have made here. Not recognizing the many contributions that Americans have made and that our partners have made working with us, that’s the part that is ungracious and ungrateful.” Translation from diplomatese: “Karzai is an ungrateful fuck.”

aig_greenberg_0615Eighty-nine-year-old Hank Greenberg once ran the insurance giant American International Group, better known as AIG. AIG grew into a behemoth by creating and selling credit default swaps which were essentially insurance for bonds – a lucrative endeavor when the bonds in question are issued by top-notch blue-chip firms. After all, what are the chances a bond issuer like GE or Boeing will default? The problem: AIG insured a lot of bonds and related instruments that appeared blue-chip on the surface but whose core was total brown-cow-chip. Furthermore, although CDSs were essentially insurance, regulators treated them as an esoteric financial invention exempt from the normal rules governing insurance – like having enough capital on hand in case lots of companies come in with claims all at the same time. That’s what happened in 2008 – as the financial system imploded and dogshit bonds fell apart, lots of CDS holders (firms that had paid their “premiums”) came forward demanding payout. But because AIG was so poorly run, they didn’t have the capital to comply. Enter the U.S. taxpayer.

Unable to pay rightful claims, AIG floundered around until the Treasury Department came in with $182 billion to back-stop the claims. Had that not happened, hundreds of institutions holding worthless (but insured) bonds would have collapsed. In other words, Hank Greenberg’s AIG was perhaps the biggest infection in the economy. Yes, the terms of the bail-out were harsh (high interest payments, government intrusion in company governance), but shit – the alternative was for AIG to go bankrupt, most of its top brass open to civil and criminal penalties, and epidemic market pandemonium. The fact that the Treasury eventually made back $22 billion is irrelevant – AIG survived thanks to the humungous generosity of Joe Average American, the type of person Hank Greenberg wouldn’t piss on if poor Joe was on fire. Hank the Skank should have crossed himself every day after the bailout, thankful his remaining years would be spent outside a prison cell.

But noooooooooooo. Hank and some backers have been allowed to proceed this week with a lawsuit against the very government that bailed out his bony ass. No good deed, they say. While acknowledging that the $182 billion bailout was the right thing to do, Greenberg is suing for $40 billion on the grounds that the government was just too tough on little ole AIG. Ungrateful Greenberg, who resigned from AIG in 2005 amid some dicey accounting behavior, simply cannot let go. His lawsuit against the government that ensured the ongoing existence of AIG is world-class chutzpah.

ABUGHAITHweb-master180Right after 9/11, Osama bin Laden and a bunch of his sycophantic dirtbags holed up in a cave to chit-chat about the towers that fell in Manhattan that day. Among the dirtbags was a cretin named Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law to bin Laden (but given the rampant polygamy, half the population of Tora Bora was probably an in-law to Uncle Osama.) Although an illiterate, Ghaith became the spokesman for bin Laden, calling on Muslims (but not himself) to join up as suicide bombers in the fight against infidels.

Fortunately this evil zealot was captured, put on trial and found guilty. He received a sentence of life imprisonment this week. During the trial he showed no remorse as he blathered on about the righteousness of jihad.

But ultimately, Ghaith is an ingrate. For all his bullshit, he only got a sentence of life in prison. No one would bury him up to his neck and hurl stones at his head. No one would push him to his knees and saw off his head. No one would bury him alive, as he claimed the court was planning to do.

Now it’s time to vote for Ingrate of the Week. Which cretin nauseates you the most?

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Standing On Line Behind the Human Hemorrhoid

line01On occasion I’ll stop at a local inconvenience store in the morning to pick up a newspaper and a cup of tea – a transaction that, once I get to the register, takes all of 20 seconds. But because this particular store sits less than 50 yards from a senior citizen residence, I must invariably endure a lengthy intercourse involving a sullen cashier and a four-foot-three blue-hair seeking to purchase half a Social Security check’s worth of scratch-off lottery tickets. It’s worse than standing behind a person buying a dozen donuts. “I’ll take a Double Triple Cashword, a 777 Jackpot, a $2,500 A Week For Life, no, forget that, give me a, uh, hmm, let me see, a Break the Bank, a Big Bucks Multiplier, no, make that two Big Bucks Multipliers, and a 777 Jackpot – oh, I already asked for that. . .ok, then, I’ll take a $2,500 A Week For Life.” The cashier tears cards from the dispenser and places them on the counter – and only then does the blue-hair begin the process of producing the money to purchase these certain-losers. By then, I’ve finished the national news, the business section, the editorial page, and half the cross-word puzzle.

Everyone gets on line behind a human hemorrhoid now and again, but because I am an innately impatient person, I am keenly aware of the irritation – not unlike a person who detects a foul odor that no one else can smell. As a service to those who may not notice their lives frittering away, seconds turning into minutes, minutes into hours, until years of wasted time has accumulated, I offer my take on the fifteen most annoying situations interfering in efficient commerce.

1. The person ahead of you who is not ready to pay. They’ve stood on line, placed the goods on the conveyor belt, studiously observed the register for a mispriced item, and watched the cashier bag up the entire order. Somehow in all the excitement they forgot they too have a role to play to complete the transaction. Like paying for the goddamn stuff.

2. The person who insists on paying the exact total. The cashier rings up the goods while the customer waits patiently holding a $20 bill. The total comes to $17.87. Does the customer hand over the double sawbuck? No. She says helpfully, “I think I have 87 cents in here somewhere,” proceeding to dig out one by one the pennies, nickels and dimes wedged in the corners of her purse, proudly producing the exact change when she should be in her car driving out of the parking lot.

3. The person who checks out and then wants to buy one more thing. Not willing to go back to the end of the line or to forego the forgotten item altogether, this selfish bastard assumes the ten people behind him don’t mind if he runs back to pick up that oh-so-necessary can of chunk-light tuna in oil.

4. The person who splits the goods into two orders because they’re also buying some stuff for a friend. Rather than reconcile the bill back at the ranch, this ninny requires the cashier to double the transactions, and pack the goods separately. It’s like an invisible person cut in front of you.

5. The cashier who is just about to hand over the change but turns away to answer another customer’s/worker’s question. You’ve spent half an hour shopping, and another fifteen minutes on line. All the goods have been tallied and you’ve paid the bill. Mere seconds remain to completion. You think you’re 99.5 percent done – until someone steps up and asks where they might find cocktail onions. The change sits in the cashier’s hand just waiting to be turned over to you, but instead she embarks on the grocery store version of “The Hunt for Red October.”

6. The person without enough money to pay who picks out the stuff they want to leave behind. The bill comes to $145. The customer only has $100. And soon you’re the rapt observer of a desperate soul trying to decide whether cottage cheese is more or less important than a package of hot dogs.

7. The cashier who insists on getting a price check on an item known to cost less than a quarter. You come to the counter with a power drill, ten sheets of plywood, a five-gallon can of paint, and a nail. Everything but the nail has a barcode. Guess who’s gonna have to wait ten minutes while a dimwit in a blue apron runs around the store before coming back with “it’s four cents.”

8. The person who buys scratch off lottery tickets and then proceeds to scratch them at the counter. This offensive behavior is thankfully almost extinct, but you still on occasion end up behind a slovenly derelict, scratching like a dog with mange, who can’t wait ten seconds to find out that he’s a newly minted millionaire. (Sidebar: if the guy happens to hit it big and wins $5, he’ll immediately cash in the card for another card.)

9. The cashier who struggles to crack open a new roll of pennies so as to be able to give back $4.01 in change. You’d gladly take $4 and get out, but I suppose corporate headquarters fears an audit if their quarterly report is mysteriously off by one cent.

10. The cashier who knows you well but still asks every time you come in whether you have a loyalty card. And when you say no for the thousandth time, she asks if you’d like to apply for one.

11. The cashier who when handing you change drops a coin on the floor, and instead of taking another one from the drawer, begins crawling around looking for it. You were so close to getting out of there. That nickel was mere inches from your palm. Now you have two choices: forget the nickel and walk out like an ungrateful douchebag, or stand there pretending to be patient.

12. Stores that require a manager to intervene when a customer buys a six pack. Some stores post an alcohol sale policy: “If you look under 30, we’ll card you” – even though the legal age is 21. But others take a more fascist approach and card every damned person who wants to buy some beer – even those who use their AARP card to prove their age. Silly. But when you’re in your fifties, and you must wait for a manager to come from the office to validate your right to purchase beer, you’re shopping in a store run by lawyers.

13. The person in the express check-out lane who insists on writing a check for $4.75. “Express” is a two-way street, but some people fail to understand that. Check-writers in the express lane deserve a shock of 20 volts; 40 if they don’t start writing the check until the order is rung up.

14. The person who goes nuts over the scanned price of an item that is five cents higher than the price posted on the shelf. I don’t have a problem if a customer takes issue over a big price differential AND they are right – but time is money. And it ain’t worth holding up the people behind you to investigate the case of the missing nickel.

15. The customer at the specialty counter (fish, deli, meat) who makes the worker cut and weigh the product five times until it weighs exactly 1/2 pound. You’ve seen it. “How much does that piece of tilapia weigh? 10 ounces? Can you give me half a pound?” The fishmonger slices off an infinitesimal piece. “Just a bit over 8 ounces.” Not good enough. Now the fishmonger is doing arthroscopic surgery on the tilapia to get it to exactly 8.000 ounces. “Gee, that doesn’t look like very much. Can you give me another piece the same size please.”

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Lesson from Vietnam: 105 Degrees in the Caliphate and Rising

NVISISRory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam,” like so many excellent historical documentaries (think “The Fog of War” and “Harlan County, USA”) clarifies context and reveals critical details that often elude the cursory treatment offered in high-school and college curricula from which most people learn whatever it is they know. Focused specifically on the actions (and inactions) following the March 1975 “Spring Offensive” invasion of South Vietnam by their enemies in the North, “Last Days in Vietnam” lays out the riveting story of how the United States hesitantly and slowly prepared for and eventually executed under pressure an evacuation of U.S. personnel and South Vietnamese contractors from Saigon.

By this time, the Paris Peace Accords had established a type of armistice that had been put in place between the North and South Koreans, setting up a mutual ceasing of hostilities but not a lasting peace. In order to get the South to go along, Richard Nixon guaranteed to reenter the fracas should the North violate the Accords – but after he resigned in 1974, the North believed correctly that a worn-out U.S. would balk (or renege), no longer led by a president “mad” enough to drop the big one.

The story is told mostly by servicemen, CIA station agents, State Department officials and South Vietnamese citizens involved in the evacuation. And the continuing thread throughout most of the movie is the ever-growing frustration of the military men assigned to the U.S. Embassy with the Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, who steadfastly refused to accept the inevitability of a North Vietnamese blitzkrieg. Even the mere development of an evacuation plan was anathema to Martin, a man who was perhaps too invested in staying the course after having lost his only son in the Vietnam War conflict.

With the South looking vulnerable, President Gerald Ford appealed to Congress to approve $722 million in military aid for the one-time allies, but it was a futile effort. Virtually no member of Congress wanted to expend (waste?) more treasure and American lives on a war that had dragged on for a decade. That rejection no doubt further emboldened the North.

Given the rapid progress the North was making (within a month they had sacked Hue, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay) it is surprising that wholesale evacuation of Saigon was never fully considered until it was almost too late. But then again, maybe not so surprising given the long history of fatal U.S. hubris and ineptitude in Southeast Asia since the 1950s. Low-level military and State Department officials independently drew up four options for personnel evacuation, the preferred one being C40 airlifts from Tan Son Nhut airport. But after the North bombed the runways rendering them useless, Martin was forced to capitulate; by that time, the only viable option remaining was number four, the least practical: helicopter airlifts of 50 people at a time from the embassy grounds. They would go on to move close to 5,000 out of danger.

Most surreally, the secret clue to the general military personnel that evacuation was being initiated was a radio broadcast stating that “It’s 105 degrees in Saigon and rising” followed by the playing of Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas.” Bizarre.

It is this part of the movie that is probably most familiar to people. We see footage of South Vietnamese civilians scaling the embassy compound fences, and evacuees clamoring on the rooftop awaiting the next Chinook helicopter to arrive. And of course the famous shots of sailors pushing helicopters off the deck of the ship into the South China Sea to make room for more landings. The chaos is palpable. So is the sense of futility.

For me, the meticulous detail of the evacuation of Saigon portrayed in the movie filled in numerous blank spots in my recollection of the incidents which occurred when I was 18 and about to graduate from high school. By that time, the U.S. had suspended the much-hated draft, and guys my age were looking beyond the fears of going to the other side of the world to fight a pointless war. And the fact that the Congress had thoroughly rejected the idea of handing $722 million more to the South Vietnamese government proved that it wasn’t just me who wanted to move on.

As we know, a day after the last U.S. soldier departed the Embassy, the Communists from the North rolled into Saigon and hence began years of turmoil and despair for many in the South who were sent to “re-education” camps or summarily executed. In some ways, the methods by which the victorious North ran their country parallel those that cretins like Al Qaeda and ISIS would love to inflict upon the defenseless populace in their neck of the woods.

But think about this. Despite the depravity and incompetence of the Communists who took over all of Vietnam, the U.S. refused to go back in and try to save the day. We left the mess behind, allowing the Communists to prove their mettle – and by 1986, they had failed miserably. Things were going so poorly for the country that the ruling and wobbling Communist government changed direction and encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, and pushed for economic deregulation and foreign investment. Today unified Vietnam is an economic engine of growth and a destination location.

Is there a lesson for would-be interlopers into the miasma that is the Middle East? Would it be better in the long run to let ISIS have a go at running the lives of 50 million people who disagree with them, and fail miserably? If ISIS went ahead with their brutal oppression unimpeded by a foreign nation upon which they could lay the blame for all the world’s ills, would the masses rise up and vanquish them on their own?

I’m inclined to believe it to be so.

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