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    • Ferguson everywhere
      It’s encouraging to see so many people protesting, but depressing that after all these years, they still have to protest: In Atlanta and Boston and New York and Los Angeles, they marched by the hundreds or the thousands — blocking bridges, tunnels and major highways as they shouted their anger over a Missouri grand jury’s […]
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    • Ferguson and the brokenness of America’s “Justice” System
      There isn’t much to say that others haven’t, but let’s go through it anyway: There was never any chance that Darren Wilson would be charged; the prosecutor acted as defense attorney, not as prosecutor; A grand jury, for all intents and purposes does what the prosecutor tells it to; Doing the announcement at 8pm at [...]
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Serial spinoff from This American Life is Gripping

Back in the 19th century, famous authors Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy would serialize their novels for the papers.  Readers could check in with Bleak House or Jude the Obscure on a weekly basis.  Even though soap operas have serialized fictional lives for decades, it has only been recently that series like Fargo, Homeland and True Detective have presented complete plots in a serialized format instead of an episodic one.  This new kind of series season consists of one plot line, one story.  There is a beginning and an end.  The series could end after a single season, like a book without a sequel.

That kind of story telling has come to podcasting with the new This American Life spinoff, Serial.  Serial presents one single story, in this case told over twelve episodes.  TAL alum Sarah Koenig breaks down the elements of the story and constructs a gripping narrative that will leave you on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next.

Her first serial is a whodunit based on a real life crime and mystery.  Who killed Hae Min Lee, a pretty and smart high school student from Baltimore?  We know at the outset that her well-liked, equally smart boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime based on the testimony of his friend Jay, who confessed to helping dispose of the body.  But there was no physical evidence linking Adnan to the crime and, in the end, what gets Adnan locked away for life is that he can’t account for about thirty minutes of his life on the cold January day in 1999 when Hae disappeared.  Was he at the library like he said, and some of his friends back up?  Or was he riding around in Hae’s car, looking for an opportunity to strangle her?

What is really fascinating about this series is Koenig herself flips back and forth on Adnan’s culpability as she peels back the layers of the onion of this story.  The series is twelve episodes long and Koenig is still in the midst of recording.  We will know what conclusion she comes to just about the time that she comes to one, though she says she has about as much information as the prosecutors and the detectives have on the case.  She’s just missing one or two bits to put the whole thing together- or have her theory blown apart.

She has already discarded the prosecutors’ theory for what motivated Adnan to do it, if he did.  I was likewise convinced that the motive was an improbable stretch but the fact that the jury didn’t think so is more interesting to me.  What we find out in this serial is that there’s more going on here than just a murder.  There are a lot of assumptions that every character caught up in the investigation and trial is making.  It seems like a specific motive and suspect was zeroed in on like a tractor beam from the very beginning and cultural influences may have lead to confirmation bias. That confirmation bias may explain why some people were dismissed as suspects or witnesses earlier and why some people were believed too soon.

In any case, I have no idea how this serial is going to end but I’m fascinated by the great storytelling.  If you have a house to clean, subscribe to the podcast for the first three episodes of binge listening.  Start from the beginning so you don’t miss a thing.

Five sponges.  Highly recommended.

We have now entered the realm of the fiasco

I learned about real fiascos in Italy.  A fiasco is a bottle that you cook beans in.  You put the beans and water in the bottle and sit it in the warm embers of your fireplace before you go to bed.  If everything goes right, those beans will be tender and delicious in the morning.  But beans are full of gas producing and nitrogen containing compounds so they tend to be unstable when they’re cooked under pressure.  So, you could come downstairs to find that your fiasco has blown up all over the place and you now have a mess to clean up.

In other words, fiascos are more likely to occur when you leave the bottle unattended.

On Nov 1, 2013, This American Life reprised one of my favorite episodes on Fiascos.  The funniest act in the episode is about what happens when an untested director reaches beyond her modest abilities to stage a Julie Taymor-esque version of Peter Pan complete with flying apparatus.  It’s hysterical but also illuminating.  You get the stages of a fiasco in the making from this act.  At first, the audience is bemused and forgiving.  Then the mistakes keep piling up and the audience progresses from sympathizing with the actors to ridicule.  Then they start getting involved.  The play completely breaks down and the audience is fully engaged in demolition.  At some point the audience recognizes that they are no longer watching a play.  They are watching a fiasco.

I think we are at the ridicule stage right now with Obamacare.  We are rapidly reaching the point of no return with this play.  We may get a reaction to Obamacare that was completely absent with HAMP but what the heck, why not revisit HAMP too, while we’re at it?

Some of us knew the Democrats were working with an untended mess of explosive beans but did they listen?  No.  They did not.  There are really no good options right now.  Just watch it explode and be ready on the other side with some game changing plan.  I’m going to bet that the fiasco is going to generate enough public anger that there will be a slim chink of an opportunity to get something passed.

Go big.  Like a public option.  Make it administered by a non-profit insurance company like Blue Cross.  Pour the subsidies into it.  Make sure providers in the area can’t lock public option participants out and tell everyone you’re working on a permanent fix.

The problem is the for profit insurance companies and the politicians who cooperated with them. Let’s stop forcing this fiasco on the uninsured, the poor and the sick.

And check out Fiasco! on This American Life for one of the funniest episodes they’ve ever broadcast.

Movie Recommendation: Sleepwalk With Me

Last week, after much nagging, pleading, begging, Puss-in-Boots eyes, I gave in to Brook at took her to see Mike Birbiglia’s first film debut, Sleepwalk With Me.  The film was produced in collaboration with Ira Glass of This American Life.  It’s about how Mike’s fear of commitment turned into a sleep disorder*.  If you’re a regular listener of This American Life, you’re probably already familiar with Mike’s story and I’m not going to spoil it for the rest of you.

The film had a problem getting into theaters.  It’s an independent film and didn’t have the kind of distribution system that would get it a lot of publicity.  So Ira called on his listeners to pester theaters in their local area to pick it up.  Brook did her part.  She contacted theaters in the area but they weren’t interested.  Last week, it was playing at 45 theaters nationwide and the only one in NJ was in Montclair, about 45 miles from here.  If you are familiar with Central NJ, you will understand why I didn’t want to drive 45 miles on a dark and rainy night to see a movie by some novice director.

But it turned out to be pretty good.  There are some genuinely hilarious moments but also some touching ones.  It’s sweet.  You can take the whole family.  There wasn’t any gratuitous swearing or nudity, and what goes on in the bedroom scenes isn’t sexy.  Carol Kane is in it, which for me, is one of the main reasons to go.  If you remember her portrayal of Simka Gravis from Taxi you’ll remember why she’s so funny.  But all of the performances are pretty good.  There are several regulars from the DailyShow.  You’ll sympathize with Lauren Ambrose who plays Mike’s girlfriend Abby.

So, anyway, last week, the whining was incessant.  Brook HAD to see this movie.  This American Life is a bit of a cult thing with her and her friends.  I looked up the reviews and they were pretty favorable.  Roger Ebert says Birbiglia could be the next Woody Allen.  I tried to reason with her that if it was really that good it would get picked up by other theaters.  But she made it sound like if it didn’t take her, it would be MY fault that it was a commercial failure and would have to wait for it to be released on video.  What the heck, it’s only my one and only car and I’m lousy driving at night, in the rain, 45 miles on Rt287 to Montclair where I’ve never been before.  What could go wrong?  Thankfully, nothing.  I liked it.

It looks like other people liked it too because it has now been picked up by 125 theaters nationwide, including 2 that are 10 miles from our house.    Check the This American Life website for a list of theaters nationwide.

No, don’t thank me, Mike and Ira.  The kid is a just an obsessed fangirl but the movie is surprisingly good for filmmakers who didn’t know what the heck they were doing.  And good luck with the next film. Someone should really do a movie based on David Sedaris’ book Naked.  {{hint, hint}}

Here’s the trailer:

* I used to have sleep problems too when I was in my twenties.  Lots of night terrors, sleepwalking and sleeptalking.  On one occasion, I saw some dark thing climb out of a vase of roses, jumped out of my bed screaming, and pulled the door of my room open without moving my foot out of the way.  Yep, ripped my toenails right off.  Not recommended.  Now, I just sleep with the light on.  True story.

The Ring of Gyges or Why Study the Classics at UVA or Why anti-Regulators are full of $#*!

About 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato told a story that even the most dedicated Fox News viewer can understand.  Here it is in text form:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

The Greeks go on to say that King Croesus, you know, the guy who had more money than God, was a descendent of Gyges.

Now, the more zealous whip kissers out there will ask why even bring up this stupid story.  I mean, it’s not even in the Bible, right?  I have no way of knowing for sure but I suspect that Jesus would have gotten around to it eventually but his career was cut short by the anti-Occupy forces of the Roman Empire.  You know how it goes, some rowdy bunch of activists for social justice and equality who sleep outdoors and make noisy spectacles of themselves in public places and carry out unpermitted marches into Jerusalem are reported to the authorities for disrupting the peace, keeping everyone up at night, and making everyone uncomfortable and, before you know it, someone gets crucified and the whole group scatters.  So many parables, so little time.  Still, Jesus was totally into shepherds so I think he was leading up to it.

The Ring of Gyges story is pretty easy to understand and there is a reason why we call stuff like this “the classics”.  The classics never go out of style and say something that is universally true.  So, let me give you my spin on this and why the Ring of Gyges should be invoked whenever some politician starts using the evils of “regulation” to persuade others to vote for him.

The power that the ring gives the user is the ability to do what he wants without accountability.  Gyges gets away with murder and seduction and theft because no one can see him.  In other words, shit just happens. Mistakes are made.  We don’t know who.  Maybe Gyges did it, maybe someone else did it.  We can’t hold anyone responsible because no one is able to see or use indirect methods of seeing who did what.  That is, there is no way to measure who went in and out of the palace that doesn’t rely on our own eyes.  There’s no safeguarding person watching over the treasury who has the power to see through the ring’s power and detect Gyges robbing the bank.

The moral of the story is if there’s nobody watching, no justice system in place that is able to hold you accountable, and even the most honest and ethical person can become corrupted.  It is human nature to desire things and if there is no way to hold you accountable for taking what you desire, then you might as well take it.  In fact, you’re going to look like a fool if you have access to unlimited power and the things you desire and don’t take full advantage of it and the power you have over others.  If you don’t have access to the ring, well, you’re just a fricking loser.  Keep that in mind when you listen to this act from a This American Life episode called “Crybabies” about Happy Hour on Wall Street. Try to ignore the fact that Adam Davidson is reporting. The piece is actually quite good and illustrates the power of the ring of Gyges perfectly:

Wall Street: Money Never Weeps

Plato couldn’t have written that act any better.  Isn’t your blood boiling?  Don’t you want to hurt those bankers?  I know I do.  I think, who the f^*$ do those assholes think they are?  Oh, yeah, they’re the guys (and they’re almost always guys.  Women rarely get away with behaving badly.) who think they don’t have to answer to anyone.  They can do pretty much whatever the hell they want because no one can do a thing about it.  And they attribute their success to their smartness.  They’re just smarter than you losers who work at a regular job.  But that’s not why they’re so amazingly successful.  No.  They’re so successful because we have removed just about all the regulation from the financial industry.  There’s no oversight.

Oversight-1.a : watchful and responsible care b : regulatory supervision <congressional oversight>

In other words, those bankers are invisible to the justice system.  They can do what they want because no one can see what they’re doing.  No one can see what they’re doing because they keep telling everyone that regulation is bad.  They convince voters that regulation is bad by focusing the voters’ attention on the plight of small business owners.  And it probably is bad for small business owners.  But the effect of deregulation virtually never benefits small business owners.  It almost always benefits the guys at the top with the ring.  And the more money they get with their rings, like Croesus, the more money they can spend on advertising and Fox News and bribing politicians to make sure that no oversight is ever imposed on them.  Remember Elizabeth Warren?  She was supposed to head up a new oversight commission for the consumer financial products.  But the bankers wouldn’t have any oversight so Obama never appointed her.  Therefore, they can do whatever they want to consumers without oversight.

This is the real story of Elizabeth Warren and what she stands for.  She should be using that against Scott Brown.

And here is the most recent manifestation of the power of the ring of Gyges as explained by Matt Taibbi and Eliot Spitzer with regard to the fraud that Goldman-Sachs perpetrated on unsuspecting pension fund managers.  Goldman-Sachs is negotiating its way out of prosecution with the consent of our US attorney generals.  Matt says:

I was trying not to be too obvious in making the point that Spitzer is an example of the kind of guy you would want looking at that Goldman case. Not only did I not want to look like a suck-up, but I wasn’t sure how, “As you know, Eliot, a prosecutor is supposed to be kind of a dick!” would go over. Because I would have meant it in the most complimentary way possible. And it has nothing to do with politics. If you read James Stewart’s Den of Thieves you can see that Rudy Giuliani had some of the same key qualities. A good prosecutor should look down the barrel of a bunch of millionaire lawyers at Davis Polk or White and Case and feel turned on by the challenge of combat. Making a deal with any devil should burn him at the core, keep him awake at night.

But that’s exactly who Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer haven’t been, exactly who Bob Khuzami at the SEC hasn’t been. Instead of being fighters, they’ve been dealmakers and plea-bargainers. They’ve dealt out every major financial scandal, from Abacus to the Muni-bid-rigging cases (they prosecuted a few low-level guys at GE but let the big players at the big banks skate) to the Citigroup fraud settlement that was so bad a judge threw it back at the govenment’s face. In that latter case, amazingly, the govenment is now fighting not for its constituents, but for its right to give out crappy deals to repeat-offender banks without judicial review.

I’m not surprised that the Obama administration’s justice department has been reluctant to use regulation to its benefit and prosecute the criminals with the full force of the law.  It was evident early on (April 2009, to be exact) that this was the approach that Obama would use when it came to Wall Street.  All of the “oversight” would come in the way of ad hoc deals, each company getting a custom made solution that allowed them to skirt the law and get away with a slap on the wrist.  That’s because Obama doesn’t have any principles that he isn’t willing to bargain away on the negotiating table and he always starts his bidding on terms that are heavily favorable to the other side.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

It goes without saying that you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be incensed that the banking industry is getting away with murder and theft without any oversight.  It goes without saying but for some reason, I feel compelled to say it anyway.

Just because people on the left are the most vocal and angry and disappointed and irate about the fact that the financial industry is going unpunished doesn’t mean they are wrong.  Just because a bunch of Occupiers are calling attention to the financial industry and how the fact that it is not accountable screws all of us doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

What I wonder is why it is that so many people on the right are focusing all of their attention on abortion and gay rights and how unemployed and poor people are unconscionable deadbeats but giving the real parasites in the finance industry a pass.  And I can only come to two possible conclusions: 1. The people on the right are easily lead and gullible and respond well to authoritarian messaging because it is all over the place or 2. It’s because they hope to *be* part of that privileged group of power ring owners in the future so that they can have all of their desires met without accountability.

Now, I will be the first one to mock the left for their crazy ass beliefs about GMO crops and homeopathy and nuclear energy and that the pharma industry is trying to poison them (because they’re not and anyway, it’s just another way for the trial lawyers to sink their fangs into the money stream. The left has its own unaccountability problem.)  But if you’re on the right or leaning right, or used to be a Democrat but are so pissed off about what Obama and the DNC did in 2008 that you’re letting your anger blind you to what these criminals on Wall Street are doing now, then you need to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of your orneriness because it’s really not helping.

It’s the right that relies on religion to keep everyone in line with threats of hellfire if you’re sexually active and not married.  You can always count on the religious to condemn everyone who doesn’t believe strictly in the Judeo-Christian version of the ten commandments.  They have a holy fit if you’re an atheist.  But they seem to be perfectly Ok with giving Wall Street a pass.  It’s like, “there’s nothing we can do.  They’re evil and we’re scared of them because they have all the power to make our lives miserable.”  Bullshit, of course there’s something you can do.  Stop voting for the politicians who keep asking for fewer regulations.  It doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Unfortunately, they’re also the politicians who hide behind religion or pander to religious people.  Show me a religious politician and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t believe in regulation.  That’s all there is to it.  They want to let the criminals operate without boundaries.

If these wealthy, unaccountable assholes continue to do what they’re doing without oversight, they’re going to bring the entire world’s financial system down.  That’s what happens when you can’t stop yourself from taking whatever you want and no one else has to power to interfere.

It doesn’t matter if you are on the right or the left, everything you own, everything you planned, your health, your retirement, your entire future, is at risk.

What’ll I do when you are far away…

David Rakoff, November 27, 1964 – August 9, 2012.

David died yesterday after a long battle with cancer.  Brook and I became devotees of David through his This American Life acts.  The last time we saw him was in May at the This American Life simulcast when he said goodbye, gracefully.

Here is that act, from This American Life, The Invisible Made Visible:

A Taste of the Invisible Made Visible.

Brooke and I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see the This American Life production of the Invisible Made Visible.  It was a two hour extravaganza of humor, stories, interactive music, dancing and, well, I’m not sure how you would characterize this:

Ya’know, I can totally see this, for some reason.

After the program, there was about an hour of Q&A.  Part of this program is already available in podcast form here.  But if you want to see what we saw, you’re going to have to wait for the DVD.  Definitely worth it.  Expect it around pledge time.  ;-)

The kid was a starry eyed fangirl around Ira Glass, who generously gave us tickets to the performance.  Afterwards, she got to talk with him and he recommended a site for teenaged girls that his wife had recently discovered and was promoting called rookiemag.com.  Then they posed for pictures.  My camera was acting really strangely whenever I tried to get a shot of Glass.  For some reason, my hand got in the way or his aura gave off too much glare.  I’m telling you, it was unnatural, if you get my meaning.  But I did manage to get a of good one when he said to Brooke, “Ok, let’s pose for a serious one.”  Here it is:

One other thing:

David Rakoff, We Love You.

Thanks, Ira!

About six years ago, I got the kid hooked on This American Life.  It wasn’t hard.  A few David Sedaris pieces acted as gateway episodes.  Or maybe it was the epic fail Peter Pan story from the Fiasco episode.  Who knows?  Eventually, she devoured every single episode like she couldn’t get enough.  I know she downloads the newest podcast as soon as it’s available.  Sometimes, we have to listen to it during dinner.

So, she was really disappointed when TAL scheduled some simulcasts during her online English class- twice.  The kid got her friend P. hooked on TAL recently and P. was able to go.  P. came back excited about it and told the kid all of the gory details.  The kid was a little pissed.  There is no bigger fan of TAL in NJ and she missed it.  So, she fired off a flaming email to Ira Glass, accusing him of deliberately scheduling the simulcast when she couldn’t make it.

He fired one back to her and said, “Sorry” and yes, he did deliberately schedule it when she wasn’t available.  Then he offered her tickets to a live performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  So, off we go today so the kid can get her fix.

Thanks, Ira!

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