Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Flu

Well, the media is doing its best to turn the flu situation into a panic. I guess that's what happens when the news is a form of entertainment. You've got to get the suckers into the tent. Nothing seems to sell quite like fear, and the news outlets specialize in it. On the national level it's things like fear of another 9/11, fear of another Great Depression, and now fear of another flu pandemic. On the local level, it's fear of crime, and fear that the damned flu will come to our town. Listen to these folks and you'd be afraid to step out of your house or apartment. Watch them enough, and agoraphobia just plain makes good sense.

Let's look at the facts. Sixty people have died of this flu in Mexico. But who were these people. If they were already weak and ill, that's unfortunate, but it's no cause for alarm. People in such a condition die of many diseases that are no more than an annoyance to the healthy. Sure a newborn has died in the US, but what kind of shape was that newborn in? What we do know for sure is that the cases in the US have been mild. I read a question-and-answer session on the Boing Boing site with a so-called science writer. One of the questions asked why those people died in Mexico while the flu has been mild in the US. The reply was, "Baby, if I could answer that, my pay grade would be a LOT higher." Well, baby, I guess we know why you're doing journalism instead of epidemiological research. You can't friggin' think straight. The fact is that we don't know that the flu hasn't been just as mild in Mexico because we have no real idea just how many people have caught it there. What if it's a million, or five million, or more, and those sixty were among the most vulnerable of that number? Suddenly those sixty look almost like bad luck, not evidence of virulence.

What say we assume the worst though. What if this strain of the flu really does turn out to be virulent; what can we expect? In the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, 28% of Canadians and Americans contracted the disease. Worldwide 2.5% died. That means that something like seven out of every thousand Americans died of that flu. Now, that's nothing to laugh at, but I'd always gotten the impression that people were dying left and right from that infection. Seven out of a thousand means that there were a lot of people who didn't know anyone who died of the flu. And we have to remember. This was before we had the public health system we have now, and before we had antibiotics to treat the secondary infections, like pneumonia, that the flu caused.

I'm not saying that this emerging strain of the flu is nothing to worry about. It's something that should be studied and watched. However, we need to have some perspective, especially given the way the usual right-wing assholes are trying to use it to gin up xenophobia. One-time Fox News hack Michelle Malkin, and hate-radio jock Michael Savage have already started blaming illegal immigration for the spread of the flu. Their argument is basically, that's what we get for letting those illegal Mexicans into our country. What patent bullshit. If you want to play the blame game, try the American-owned pig farms in Mexico. The conditions in those places, where the pigs are all crammed together and wallowing in each others' shit, couldn't be better for creating new strains of the swine flu.

Keep yourselves informed, folks. That's what I'm going to do, but don't fall for the media panic. It'll just make you stupid.

Monday, April 27, 2009

No, You Can't Sit On My Lap!

The Naked Capitalism site is speculating on whether or not the knives are coming out for Geithner. It bases this speculation upon a long article on the front page of the print edition of today's New York Times. As the lead-in to the article says, "During five years as head of the New York Fed, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner built unusually close relationships with Wall Street executives." To back up their claims, they reproduce Geithner's appointments calendar from 2007 to 2009, while he was working at the Fed. They apparently obtained it through the Freedom of Information act. Of course, it's not news that Geithner is "a creature of the financial establishment" as Naked Capitalism puts it. They also speculate that Obama may be getting ready to dump Geithner, but they're not optimistic about a replacement given that Larry Summers is still the chief economic advisor to the president.

This weekend, Billy Moyers' PBS show focussed on the Pecora hearings during the Great Depression. For those of you who don't know, Ferdinand Pecora was Chief Counsel to the United States Senate Committee on Banking and Currency in the 1930's during the Depression. He conducted the Committee's grilling of banking executives over their business practices. Pecora was a populist by temperament and he apparently put on quite a show. He was also a bulldog and he kept at the executive he was questioning until he got the answers he wanted. Not like the lapdogs we have in Washington today. Though Pecora didn't really get at the causes of the Depression, he stoked up a good deal of popular anger against the banking establishment that paved the way for the reforms that were enacted, like the Glass-Stegall act and the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

An interesting episode took place during the Pecora hearings that highlighted the difference between those times and today. Carter Glass, who was one of the senators responsible for the Glass-Stegall act, objected to Pecora's methods. They had a very public clash during the hearings in which J.P. Morgan testified. Glass said, "This is a circus. All we need is peanuts and colored lemonade." A promoter for the Ringling Brother's Circus heard the quote and thought that it would be great to have a picture of Lya Graf, alleged to be the shortest woman in the world, sitting on the lap of the richest man. Graf was brought to the hearings and Morgan let her sit on his lap while a photo was taken. The link below is to a site that contains the photo. Can you imagine anything like that happening today? No way in hell would a Wall Street executive let a circus midget sit on his lap. If he did, the advocates for "little people" would be going nuts. Image is everything these days, folks.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Musings on the US Civil War

One of the PBS channels that I get is showing the Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, an episode each week on Thursday night. In the one I was watching last night, they were talking about the composition of the Union army. If the numbers cited by the film are to be believed, there were 100,000 soldiers in the Union army who were fifteen years old and under. The youngest known soldier to be wounded was twelve.

In recent years, we have been scandalized by the child soldiers of Africa, and rightfully so, but it appears that the same phenomenon has occurred within our own history. Sure, those child soldiers that we've heard about in Africa have tended to be parts of renegade military units, and the youths in our Civil War were serving in a conventional army. That makes little difference. Of course, it wasn't just the United States that engaged in such practices in the past. Those youngsters who would have careers as officers in the British navy in the 18th and 19th centuries were apprenticed aboard warships between the ages of twelve and fourteen. And they participated fully in any combat that their vessels took part in. Perhaps this shouldn't be all that surprising. In traditional societies, boys went through manhood rituals in early adolescence, and to be a man in many of those societies meant to be a warrior. That doesn't justify the use of boys in the military, but it does serve to give it context.

One thing that really has changed since the US Civil War is the treatment of disease. Most of us don't realize what a huge factor it used to be, even in the lives of the young and healthy. During the Civil War, a soldier had a one is sixty-five chance of dying in battle. He had a one in ten chance of being wounded, but he had a one in thirteen chance of dying of disease. Such has been the impact of vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitary practices that we find such death rates from disease to be outrageous.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fools For Advertising

We've all been brainwashed by the advertising industry, some of us more than others. That's something that most of us know, but sometimes little things will really bring it home to you. This morning I was at a nearby Kroger market. They're pushing the idea of bringing your own bags to take your groceries home in. Not a bad idea. All of those paper and plastic bags are a big waste of resources, not to mention the product packaging, like cereal boxes and such. For those who don't have bags of their own, Kroger is selling them. With a Kroger logo on it. Let me say that again. They want you to buy a bag with a Kroger logo on it. And I'm willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of people who pass through that store see nothing wrong with that. I do, and you'd better believe it. That's advertising for Kroger and I, for one, am not going to pay to advertise for Kroger.

Of course, they're really pikers when it comes to this kind of marketing. Here in Atlanta, we have the World of Coca-Cola. It's a museum about the history of the Coca-Cola company and its products. They charge an entrance fee of fifteen bucks for adults and ten bucks for kids. In the first place, I can't imagine why anyone would want to visit such a museum, even if it were free. Coca-Cola is not a food product. It's little better than a drug and I'm not saying that from a supposed height of moral superiority. I drink a helluva lot of Diet Coke myself, but I don't delude myself as to what it is. The real stuff with the fructose or sugar in it is even better. But it's still dope. If they're going to have a museum like this why not the World of Cocaine or the World of Heroin? And speaking of cocaine, there was a time when there was cocaine in Coca-Cola. I remember my grandfather, who lived all of his life in St. Augustine, Floria, telling me about the people who would line up waiting for the store to open in the morning so they could get their Coca-Cola fix.

Well, all that be as it may, I suppose Coke isn't as bad as cigarettes but, in the World of Coca-Cola, they have a retail shop where you can buy all kinds of items with the Coke logo on them, from tee shirts and jackets to cups and glasses. Again, I ask you, why the hell would anyone pay for the "privilege" of advertising Coca-Cola? A nice, bright red tee shirt or hoodie might be nice with that white logo on the front, but it should be a freebie, Jack. But no, there are plenty of fools who not only pony up to enter the museum but to carry away some memorabilia. When people have no more sense than that, it's no wonder we're awash in consumer debt.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Literary Note

As I mentioned earlier, I'm rereading Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I'm taking my time about it too, only reading ten pages or so a day. Right now, I'm about a quarter of the way through the book. It'll take me a couple more months to complete it.

I'm reading other books in the meantime, of course. Just recently I finished How Fiction Works by James Wood. It's an interesting little work that's worth reading, even though there's a lot I disagree with in it. Wood espouses the New Yorker school of fiction. He dislikes the tag of realism, but that's what he embraces as the best of fiction. In order to make his points, he will quote passages and deconstruct them. There are some, and one by Philip Roth comes to mind, that just leave me scratching my head. (I would reproduce the passage here, but I've already returned the book to the library.) He enthuses over the passage. He really likes the way Roth jumps from colloquial speech to an extraordinarily pedantic phrase within the spaced of a couple of sentences. To Wood's mind, this brilliantly illustrates different levels of diction, and how it enhances the passage in which it occurs. I read it over several times. The passage just seemed forced and, yes, pedantic.

Wood is also fond of David Foster Wallace. I don't understand the appeal of Wallace. I've read small bits of his work and they've all left me flat. I've not been inclined to make the effort to read one of his books. Anyway, Wood quotes a rather long passage from Wallace that is nothing but colloquialism, slang, and cliches. He says that Wallace goes on for two pages like that and, to Wood's mind, it illustrates the shallowness of the character whose perception of the world it represents. Bullshit. It read incredibly sophomoric to me in that it's such an cheap literary trick, the sort of thing you would expect from a somewhat precocious high-school senior who aspired to become a writer.

That said, Wood makes a comment about Gravity's Rainbow in one of his footnotes. He says that it has less in common with modern realism and the character-driven narrative than it does with the 18th-century picaresque novel. I don't know why, but that hadn't occurred to me before, even though it is obviously true. It may also explain why some of Pynchon's novels, like Vineland and Against The Day don't really work. Pynchon's characters lack depth and his novels aren't driven by their development. Hence, as Wood points out, Pynchon's villains, like Captain Blicero in Gravity's Rainbow, aren't truly frightening, though Blicero should be, given what he represents. Pynchon's best work is driven by sheer rhetorical brilliance, and when that's lacking, his work suffers. Gravity's Rainbow has it in spades though, and that's why I keep going back to it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Writing Update

I thought I might post an update on my writing efforts. My novel Buster Bungle's Big Top sits there requiring about a half day's worth of polishing. I've been procrastinating though. It's the old fear of failure thing, I suppose. When it's completed, I'll have to start trying to sell the manuascript, and that's a daunting task. The odds against me are so long as to approach the impossible. I've thought of self-publication, but the people on the Writers' Beware site don't recommend it, and I can see their point. At best you can hope to sell a couple of hundred copies, and that's with a lot of hustling. There are stories of self-published authors who attract the attention of the publishing companies, but the Writers' Beware folks say they only know of two authors who did that, and that was after hiring PR firms to pimp their books for them. That's not an option for me. I don't have that kind of money.

I've been pondering a couple of new novels. I spent about a month making notes, about 10,000 words worth of them, on a science fiction novel, a contemplation of what it means to be human, but I've put it aside. There are just too many degrees of freedom. Reality doesn't put enough restrictions on you. I don't feel like I can make a plausible story out of it. I may change my mind later, but I've put it aside for now.

About a week ago, I started making notes for a black comedy that is loosely in the Southern gothic tradition. I'm finding that I'm much more comfortable with that kind of story. The trouble is that I don't know much about the world of country music, and one of the lead characters makes a Faustian bargain to secure herself a career as a country singer. I need to read some background on the world of contemporary country music. If anybody out there knows of any books, please let me know, even if they're trashy gossip accounts. Hell, those might be the best in terms of research for the kind of book I'm thinking about writing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bottomed Out II?

Well, I guess we can all rest easy. On the heels of the Wells Fargo results, Time magazine has announced that the banking crisis is over. Gee, why doesn't that fill me with cheer? The link to the article is below.


Bottomed Out?

The stock market has been surging and Wells Fargo has reported positive quarterly results. Could we have bottomed out? Are things going to get better from here on? Not so fast, kemosabe. That's a mule you're riding now, not some flashy palomino stallion. There are questions about the Wells Fargo results. Some seem to think that there are smoke and mirrors involved. I don't fully understand their arguments, nor do I care to educate myself enough to understand them. However, it appears that Wells Fargo had a suspiciously low figure for charge-offs against bad loans.

Meanwhile, the right-wing nut bags are flailing about as they try to find something which will give them a hook with the public. It seems that they keep throwing things out there, hoping that they can stumble upon something that will scare people enough to give them some political traction. Michelle Bachmann, who is apparently the new, more acceptable Sarah Palin figure, said that Obama was planning to send the youth to re-education camps. Others continue to push the notion that Obama is a cryto-Islamist. When the President told the Turkish parliament that the US would never be at war with Islam, and later bowed to the Saudi king, it really got them stoked up. How do these people make such bullshit come out of their mouths? There's a constituency for it though, the constituency that frequents gun shows. There's been a surge of gun buying and it isn't because of a surge in hunting and target shooting.

It all just gets to be too much. I myself am getting tired of blogging about it. I read an item a few weeks ago. It expressed surprise that movies seem to be doing relatively well. Duh. The same thing happened during the Great Depression. People want to escape the grim facts for a few hours. And the Depression was a great era for comedy with the likes of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and the Three Stooges. Hollywood can't seem to come up with funny comedies of its own, so they're remaking three shorts by the Three Stooges and packaging them in a single movie. Jim Carrey as Curly? I don't care if he does put on weight for the role. I'm not buying it.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Bishop Berkeley on the Beam

To those who might think that this is a unique era, here's a quotation from the 18th-century philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley.

"I imagine that thinking is the great desideratum of the present age; and the cause of whatever is done amiss may justly be reckoned the general neglect of education in those who need it most, the people of fashion. What can be expected where those who have the most influence have the least sense, and those who are sure to be followed set the worst examples?"

It seems to apply, doesn't it. I'd contend that it applies, to a greater or lesser degree to all eras. Which is why Plato's republic, with its philosopher kings, is a pipe dream.* It's not the wisest and most educated who rise to power. It's the most ruthless and ambitious.

*Speaking of pipe dreams, I wonder if the old Greeks smoked a little weed. I could just see Plato lighting up a pipe before one of those dinner parties where they chewed over matters philosophical. It would stimulate the imagination. The scribe would have to remain straight though, so he could write it down, leaving out the giggling and laughing as he made it all sound properly profound.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Winter of Our Discontent

John Steinbeck is another writer who I've neglected. I read his Grapes of Wrath years ago, but that's it. While going through the blogs I frequently read, someone recommended The Winter of Our Discontent as germane to the current economic situation, so I went to the library and checked out a copy. I'm not that far into it, so I can't say a lot so far. The writing is somewhat sloppy. It doesn't look like Steinbeck did too many rewrites, if any at all. Also, the protagonist's wife is so far too good to be true. She seems to be the ideal of the good and faithful spouse. Not that she should be fooling around, but she's just too steadfast and doubt-free when it comes to being a wife. The novel was published in 1961, and that's the Saturday Evening Post's notion of what a woman should be in those days.

One thing's apparent right away, class is a salient factor in Steinbeck's world. In that sense it's more realistic than most of the fiction that purports to be true to everyday life these days. Steinbeck also seems to have nothing but contempt for religion. I like the following remark about Puritanism. The protagonist is reflecting upon his ancestors who he thinks may have been pirates, as well as whalers. "They successfully combined piracy and puritanism, which aren't so dislike when you come right down to it. Both had a strong dislike for opposition and both had a roving eye for other people's property." It isn't just the Puritans either. Other Christian sects are just as bad. Need I mention anything other than the Crusades?