Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dion Hearts Paris

In this depressing and dangerous age of political dysfunction and global terror, theirs and ours, it's nice to know that love never dies.

And in celebration of that fact, Dion Di Mucci, yes, he of "Runaround Sue" fame and front man for Dion and the Belmonts, has penned a tender and sincere love song to the delinquent heiress, Ms. Hilton.

Maybe she's been an object of ridicule and derision, but doesn't everybody deserve to be loved? And what normal American girl doesn't want to be loved by a bonafide rock star?

She's crazy if she doesn't take advantage of this.

Dion performs "Hey, Paris" in what I presume is his living room.

Check it out!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Hitler and Whole Foods

Jonah Goldberg, sometimes known as the Pillsbury Pantload, is an overweight, dull-witted wannabe pundit who capitalized on his family connections to get a job writing thrice weekly for the National Review Online, where he also wears the elevated title of "Editor-at-Large."

He's the son of Lucianne Goldberg, a D.C. literary agent and rumormonger who gained some degree of fame back in the day as a professional Clinton hater. His column inevitably exemplifies the sort of nonsensical and evidence-free rumination that passes for thought in the right blogosphere.

A year or more ago, rumors began to circulate that the Pantload had produced a book, and a cover and publisher's description duly appeared on Amazon. The red cover was embellished with a yellow happyface cartoon portrait of Hitler accompanied by the title, "Liberal Fascism: from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton."

Now, a year on, this purportedly completed volume still hasn't been released, and apparently we're going to have to suppress our eager anticipation until December. However, in the meantime the title has changed, and while the new title has been posted at the book's blurb site at Amazon, the accompanying graphic still bears the old title, which you can clearly see if you supersize it.

The old title made little enough sense, but the new one: "Liberal Fascism: from Hegel to Whole Foods," makes absolutely none. The mind can only flailingly conjecture what a purveyor of yuppie foodstuffs has to do with fascism, or the philosophy Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, or for that matter, Mussolini or Hillary Clinton.

So which is it, Jonah? Mussolini or Hegel? Hillary Clinton or Whole Foods? This is what you'd expect from a Dick Cheney fan, and while I'm waiting with bated breath for these questions to be answered, I must admit I'm not planning to read Jonah's analytical opus, whatever it may be called by the time it finally comes out. I'll let someone else suffer through that ordeal, and read his or her review for answers to my questions.

Goldberg is a monumental piece of work. His writing is not only devoid of cogency, but is frequently so senseless as to fulfill every possible meaning of the word.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Morning in America

When Richard Lugar bailed out on the Iraq War a couple days ago, followed by Voinovich with John Warner waiting in the wings, it was obvious that something real big was up.

An AP story out this morning confirms that heavy changes are afoot.

"A majority of senators believe troops should start coming home within the next few months," the story confirms. "A new House investigation concluded this week that the Iraqis have little control over an ailing security force. And House Republicans are calling to revive the independent Iraq Study Group to give the nation options.

"While the White House thought they had until September to deal with political fallout on the unpopular war, officials may have forgotten another critical date: the upcoming 2008 elections."

This will play out when the next cycle of war funding requests comes around. I doubt that it will feature the noisy and contentious debate we saw the the last time. Republicans in Congress are looking at that ticking clock, and there are now fewer than 18 months until November, 2008.

If the administration tries to hold on to the same old stay the course policy until September, Lugar said "It'll be further advanced in the election cycle. It makes it more difficult for people to cooperate. ... If you ask if I have some anxiety about 2008, I do."

Everybody knows where the war is going -- nowhere. Everybody knows how most Americans feel about the war. However, nobody has asked the obvious question: if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq without having accomplished any of its objectives, what will be the impact on the oil supply?

We can't survive without mideast oil. As Jim Kunstler put it bluntly a couple weeks ago, "We're involved in Iraq because we don't want to begin thinking about modifying our behavior at home. We are desperate to preserve our access to Middle East oil because that is the only way we can keep running our society the way we're used to running it. Mostly, we don't want to face the tragic misinvestments we've made in the infrastructure of happy motoring, and we don't want to face the inconvenient truth that there really isn't any combination of alt.fuels that will permit us to keep running all the cars the way we like to run them. Either we keep getting the oil or say goodbye to the American Dream Version 2.K."

It looks like we're going to finally confront our dependency on oil, i.e., foreign oil. We'll have no choice. And we can't do that without confronting the tremendous weaknesses and vulnerability built into our fundamental way of life.

This was the problem the Iraq War was supposed to solve; we'd establish a firm base in the middle of the region, set up a client government, and guarantee ourselves a steady, cheap supply of the black gold, if not forever, then for a long time. After all, according to Dick Cheney, the present-day American way of life is "non-negotiable."

And when I think back on this moronic misadventure, I keep seeing the confident, imbecile faces of Cheney, Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Rumsfeld -- the real architects of the war and educated fools every one.

Our prospects for ending the war before 2009 are better now than they've been since it started. But our prospects for determining how we're going to live with the fallout -- nobody's bothered to think about that.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Joy of Cooking

Here's a very interesting story that I missed when it came out on MSNBC almost a year ago. Nonlethal weapons such as high-power microwave devices should be used on American citizens in crowd-control situations before they are used on the battlefield, the Air Force secretary (Michael Wynne) said last September.

“If we’re not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation,” said Wynne. “(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press.”

The "it" Wynne is talking about specifically is a riot-control device the Air Force calls "Active Denial Technology," or ADT. According to a 2001 article at the website, ADT is "is designed to heat people's skin with a microwave beam" and "uses a 2-metre dish to create a narrow beam of microwaves (delivered at the crowd from an aircraft) that can be scanned across a crowd or even aimed at individuals."

Apparently Secretary Wynne is not worried about what the domestic press would think if the Air Force microwaved a bunch of scruffy demonstrators. I guess nobody's scared of "60 Minutes" any more.

The Air Force Research Laboratory reassures us "that the 3-millimetre wavelength radiation penetrates only 0.3 millimetres into the skin, rapidly heating the surface above the 45 °C pain threshold." At 50 degrees C., a person would feel like he or she is on fire. "Someone would have to stay in the beam for 250 seconds before it burnt the skin," the AFRL adds, which would give demonstrators "ample margin between intolerable pain and causing a burn."

All those old jokes about the lady who gave her poodle a bath and then tried to dry it in the microwave aside, this is pretty scary stuff.

I believe this is another bit of anecdotal evidence which shows that the patients are now in charge of the asylum.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vive La Tarot de Marseille

For those who might be interested, there is a French cardmaker, Jean-Claude Flornoy, who still knows how to make tarot and playing cards the old-fashioned way, printing the blackline sheets off woodblocks and coloring the cards by hand using stencils.

An entire deck made this way would be prohibitively expensive, but he has made a couple of trumps-only decks (22 trump cards plus the two signature spot cards) that are hand colored and affordable.

This page on his website shows the coloring process. The woodblocks for these two old Marseille decks -- the Noblet and the Dodal -- are long gone, but he has copied the blackline designs faithfully with the aid of a computer. So these decks are produced with an impressive combination of cutting-edge and primitive technologies.

First two large sheets, each containing twelve cards, is printed. Then each is colored with a series of six stencils, one for each color. The lighter colors go on first -- light blue, then pink, then yellow, then green, red, and dark blue last. After that the sheets are cut into cards.

The result is an absolutely gorgeous set of hand-colored trumps plus the maker's signature cards, the deuce of cups and the deuce of coins. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see them.

The slightly smaller (and historically very early, hence more interesting) Noblet trumps deck sells for a very reasonable 38 Euros, or about $50, as near as I can work out the exchange, and I plan to buy them come payday, since I heard Flornoy is going to discontinue them this year.

I don't know of anything like this available anywhere else.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lonesome Highway W/ Full Moon

There's a painting by one of the New Yorker's regular artists, Istvan Banyai, in this week's issue that captures the essence of the contemporary American road. All the elements of the four lane -- the loneliness, the isolation, the feeling of being lost in an alien landscape -- are realized.

It's a perfectly balanced composition in late-night colors, mostly pink, white, and shades of gray. The scene is supposedly Highway 65 heading south, but the big yellow billboard for the Durango Orchestra would not likely be on a road connecting Minnesota with Louisiana, because Durango is in Colorado.

That just underscores the ubiquity of the place in the picture; it could be anywhere. Its elements are horrifyingly inevitable: the long, squat Wal-Mart store, a little further along the Golden Arches atop a long pole, and the semi-truck carrying "FOOD" approaching the freeway on-ramp from the left. An isolated pink sedan follows a white vantruck down the lonely nighttime highway, and way in the distance, the mandatory police cruiser with lights flashing, although you can't tell which way he's going.

I've been lost in this landscape many times. It's a disorienting place where nothing seems real, an alien environment where you're afraid to stop for fear of encountering strange beings. The worst thing about it is that it's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Mostly it's nowhere.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mobile Home Thrashers

When late spring arrives here in the desert, the people in the trailer park where I live move out, and the birds move in. There are trees and bushes here as well as water, and the local predator, the coyote, stays outside the fence. There are no dogs running loose and few cats. Wagner Park is now an open aviary.

I think it was mid-April when I first encountered the occasionally noisy and rather aggressive couple who now dominate my lot and the bushes on the other side of the driveway. I awoke one morning to hear them calling monotonously to one another. Apparently, both are named "Chuck."

"Chuck!" they said, in a raspy alto. "Chuck, Chuck!"

Foot-long brown birds with long, curved, wicked-looking black beaks, they're so identical in size, coloration, and temperament you can't tell the male from the female. They began industriously building a nest across the way and ran off all the other birds freqenting the lot except the mourning doves, who are extremely docile and apparently not a threat.

I soon began to grow attached to these dull, anti-social creatures, mainly because of their singular appearance, for I had never seen a bird that looks anything like them. I asked my neighbor, "What kind of bird is that?" but the usually knowledgeable Harold mis-identified my new lot mates as cactus wrens. I later found out cactus wrens are smaller and spotted, and not similar at all to these chocolate-colored wallflowers with the suture-needle beaks.

Thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey's comprehensive picture list of common birds of the U.S. and Canada, I finally determined that my new friends are the largest of the Mockingbird family (sometimes called the Mimidae), California thrashers.

One source I consulted said these birds are "common, but seldom seen" because they spend most of their time under bushes, turning over leaf litter and looking for food. So mine must be atypical, because I see 'em all the time, especially in the cool of the morning, and the waning hours of early evening, when invariably one of them is looking and calling for the other. Another source said they're "highly territorial," which is, I think, putting it mildly.

I wonder if they'll fly away to somewhere else in the fall, or will be here all the time now. I'd miss them if they left.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I read somewhere or other that Mrs. Clinton has now opened up a double-digit lead over Barack "The Kid" Obama. So now, 17 months before the actual event, it looks like our 2008 presidential election will be the Ice Queen versus the Oven Mitt.

Has the electorate ever been offered a such a moth-eaten choice as this before?

No wonder al-Qaida spokesmen Ayman al-Zawahari and the American Adam Gadahn (from Hemet, right down the road here -- local kid hits the big time!) sound so confident these days. Leadership like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney (pick 'em!) would be as big a gift to al-Qaida as the Iraq War has been.

I guess there's not much we humble voters can do about this situation, since the rulers make the rules for the smart people and the fools. But there might be a number of creative ways to protest this upcoming disaster dressed up as an exercise in democracy.

1. Boycott -- just don't vote, because it only encourages them. However, not voting wouldn't really have much impact because all a candidate needs is a majority among those who actually voted, even if that number is very small. So instead, I'd suggest...

2. A third candidate -- if any candidate gets enough votes to prevent either of the other two candidates from getting a clear majority, the election will be thrown into the House of Representatives. It wouldn't change things all that much, but at least then those g.d. Republicans and Democrats would have to do their dirty work out in the open, for the whole world to see.

Possible third candidates I would suggest include:
Paris Hilton
Engelbert Humperdinck
Lyndon LaRouche
Dennis Rodman
Jessica and Ashley Simpson (dual presidency/sister act).

But wait -- there's a news flash! I just heard on NPR that Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New Fork City, has announced he's going to drop out of the Republican Party. Newsies say he's doing so in preparation for standing for president as an independent.

Hell yeah, I'd vote for him, probably even sooner than I'd vote for Paris Hilton. He's got a lot going for him, such as:

1. He's not (or won't be) a Republican;
2. He's not a Democrat;
3. He's from New Fork City, a place feared and detested by the denizens of the U.S.'s vast, primitive, and barbaric regions of cornbread and Biblical literalism, who think New Fork and San Francisco are bottomless pits of depravity whence all evil emanates -- stuff like socialist gay yoga in Unitarian Churches.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Inna Gadda da Vida, BABY

Once I heard somebody say, "Thank God for a garden."

I don't know about that. I've been sweating away in mine, and gardening is not what I thought it was. So far I've facilitated zero life, because there's nothing to do there except kill things -- dig 'em up and cut 'em down, before they come around the corner at you. Then you barrow a ton of silage uphill to the dumpster.

Actually it's not a garden at all. It's a jungle. This isn't gardening, it's jungling. Whack your way through with a machete and a shovel.

Hardest job so far: digging up even medium-sized Mojave yuccas -- appropriately nicknamed "Spanish dagger" -- by the roots, in the meantime avoiding its dense phalanx of stabbing points.

I suppose it's good for me. I've never done any of this home improvement happy horseshit in my life, and this is a daily discipline that, if I keep at it a couple of years, will show some real results. The Buddha would approve. This is an appropriately humble undertaking to learn and practice in one's old age.

Plus, I don't think anybody's really cleaned this thing out in about 10 years. And I can tell you, a cactus garden in a hot desert is a dangerous thing. Put a little water on it, and it explodes in an excess of proliferation. Put a lot of water on it and stand back.

You're going need a willingness to sweat, a patient attitude, and a sharp machete.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sweet and Fitting

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori...

(Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country...)

Watching Lewis Milestone's towering film masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front a couple days ago, I was immediately struck by how little the methods of manipulating young and naive adolescent males into pouring out their blood and sacrificing their lives on the altars of false gods have changed over the last 100 years.

As a newly-formed regiment of fresh cannon fodder marches past their classroom window to the blare of martial music, a fresh crop of 17- and 18-year-old high school seniors is regaled on the virtues of war by their professor, who ritually washes and anoints them for the god Mars's chopping block:

It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads. I know that in one of the schools, the boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. If such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a feeling of pride. Perhaps some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet - that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away by your fathers so forgetful of their your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth. And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run? And if our young ladies glory in those who wear it, is that anything to be ashamed of?...To be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war. There will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood in battle in a foreign land:...Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland...

Look at present-day television commercials for our all-volunteer Army and Marine Corps and you'll see the same appeals to our current crop of young and defenseless American babies that German academics used in 1914 and 1915. Indeed, the pro-war propaganda manufactured by the current American regime is, if anything, cruder and more childish than what its predecessor war machines in 20th-century Germany used, and it's certainly not working as well. Recruitment numbers are down, and maybe the truth about modern warfare is finally starting to sink in.

When the protagonist veteran of "All Quiet," Paul Baumer (played by Lew Ayres) returns to his old classroom after a year of mud, blood, and terror in the Flemish trenches, the same professor who primed him for the killing fields asks him to deliver a few encouraging words to the new class of would-be victims, and is appalled by the truth he tells:

I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it's beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don't you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country, and what good is it?

Baumer might have added that it's also, by the same token, better not to kill at all. But in any modern society which finds itself in the grip of the spiritual and mental disease of war fever, such as Germany in 1914 and 1939, or the United States in 1964 and 2003, such talk inspires a degree of fear and hatred of which only the most profoundly blind, ignorant, and intensely overheated fanaticism is capable. Gunter Grass, the Nobel-winning German author who was drafted into the Waffen SS at 16 in 1944, describes how his unit dealt with a pacifist recruit in his recent memoir, "How I Spent the War:"

Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion...

Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.

I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.”

One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone—“transferred,” it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as unfit for service; no, we whispered, “he has long been ripe for the concentration camp.”

And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. “They’ll bring old Wedontdothat down a peg or two.”

Was it all as simple as that?

Did no one shed a tear?

Did everything go on as it had before?

I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any further thought from taking wing: mindlessness had filled the space.

Mindlessness certainly characterized American propaganda during the run up to the Iraq conflict, which trotted out the same sorts of lies and paranoid bluster Hitler used to justify going to war in 1939 to neutralize the Polish threat against Germany. But there are hopeful signs that the old war fever sales pitch isn't working like it used to. The majority of Americans has now turned against the war, which is encouraging, even though public opposition is apparently of no effect in altering the trajectory of our self-destruction. The supposed romance of dying gloriously and heroically for one's country may have finally worn thin, and the lesson of Wilfred Owen's poem -- the most famous of World War I -- may finally have taken root in our depraved and warsick modern world:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

We need to note also that the rate of American deaths and total casualties in this war has been relatively low in comparison to earlier conflicts, but that the price paid by Iraqis for our insanity has been extremely high. And I shudder to think what the fate will be of a nation which murders innocent children in the most cowardly fashion, by dropping cluster bombs from 20,000 feet. If there is any justice in this universe, or anything approaching even a minimum balance, the price Americans will eventually pay for these crimes will be inconceivably high.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

He Used to Have a Good Head on his Shoulders

The Book Judith isn't in the Bible. It's one of 
the apocrypha -- those almost biblical books of dubious authenticity or uncertain authorship. It's a sort of re-make of David and Goliath, that story in which somebody humble, but talented and fearless brings down somebody huge.

Nebudchadnezzar was the king of Assyria, a war machine masquerading as a country. He sent out this bigass army to conquer the world, and he said he would "couer the whole face of the earth with the feete of mine armie, and I will giue them for a spoil vnto them." By that he meant he would give the wealth of the conquered territories -- their gold, jewels, and sweet, light Arabian crude, to the men in his big army with a percentage for his financial backers.

"I shal gette all their oyle," he added somewhat lamely.

He also said that the people he conquered, from Patagonia all the way up to the North Pole, had to toss out their gods and worship him instead, or in lieu of that, adopt sincere beliefs in freedom, democracy, and the free market system, by which he meant markets controlled by him.

And he called his head general, Holofernes, the guy with the hard name to pronounce, and says, "For as I liue, and by the power of my kingdome, whatsoeuer I have spoken, that I will doe by my hand." 

So off goes Holofernes leading Nebuchadnezzar's humungous, ferocious, and very high-tech army, and lays seige to the town of Bethulia, which is on a hilltop and kind of the gateway to Judea. And rather than charge up that big hill, Holofernes wisely just cuts off the water supply, and the elders of Bethulia knew they were in deep kim-chee, and talked about giving up in five days.

Then comes Judith, a widow of the town and local major babe, and says "Cool it, fools, and grow some spines, hearts, and brains. If you had any faith you'd know that the supreme being -- what'shisname -- is gonna give us what we need to do what we gotta do."

So Judith, who's been walking around in a muu-muu and ashes on her head for four years takes a long bath, and rubs down with lavender and olive oil, lays on the henna, gets out her earrings -- the big brassy-looking hoops, and about a hundred bracelets, and puts on her homewrecker dress. Then when she's all fragrant and a banquet for the eyes, she takes her maid and goes down the hill to where the Assyrians are and says, "Which one of you guys is Holofernes?"

Up comes Holofernes, rising to the bait, as it were. "How ya doin', big boy?" says the irresistable babe, "I think I've got something you need -- uh, some information I mean."

Judith wasn't just hot looking, but was also smart as Henry Kissinger and just as devious too. She could spin a line of bullshit yards wide and miles long. And after a few hours with her, in the inimitable words of King James's translators and editors, "Olofernes tooke great delight in her, & dranke much more wine, then he had drunke at any time in one day, since he was borne."

Then, when Holofernes had passed out, Judith took his sword and cut his head off. She had her maid put it in their meat sack, and they departed inconspicuously in the wee, wee hours.

When she got home to her hilltop and showed the head to the boys in the city, they all grabbed their blunt instruments and went running down the hill and began to lay into the demoralized and leaderless other-people's-countries invaders. And they sent out messengers to all the other cities in Judea, so that when their guys joined in the fun, the Jews kicked those tough Assyrians all the way "past Damascus."

What's the lesson this fable is teaching us? I have no idea, other than make sure the sword is sharp for easier cutting. But I do know this: we tend to think of ourselves as the guys who have defeated various Assyrians over the years, since we're the good guys and the Assyrians are the bad guys. But the fact is, we've never defeated the Assyrians. We became the Assyrians.

Here's another: in the long run, the Assyrians always lose.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Paper Magic

It came as no surprise Friday when Fair Isaac Corp., the company responsible for determining how much "wealth" modern Americans possess in the form of their credit ratings, announced that starting in September its method of computing credit scores will include measures to neutralize the borrowers' practice called "piggybacking," according to a story by Brigitte Yuille at the website

Piggybacking is done by would-be borrowers with low credit scores, who "rent" space as authorized users on credit cards owned by people with excellent credit histories.

"Fair Isaac uses 22 pieces of data collected from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax [EFX], Experian [GUS], and TransUnion) to calculate a credit score -- 300 is the lowest, 850 the highest," is the succinct explanation of how the company does its crucial work in a November 28 Business Week magazine article. In recent years, shaky borrowers have been gaming the system in increasing numbers by piggybacking their names onto other people's credit cards, thus scamming the three major bureaus' data-collection systems by combining other people's payback histories with their own.

For example, when Alipio Estruch wanted to take on a $449,000 mortgage to buy a house near Fort Lauderdale earlier this year, he found his credit rating of 550 left disqualified him as a borrower. But after paying $1,800 cash to an internet-based company, (ICB), Estruch's name was added as an authorized borrower to the cards of several people with excellent credit histories. They were paid for the space on their cards, and for the $1,800 fee, Estruch boosted his credit rating to 715 overnight, qualifying him for the loan he wanted.

Piggybacking is a great deal for the cardholder renting the space as well. Some are making over $2,000 a month, getting paid between $100 and $150 a pop for each space they rent, usually on seldom-used cards. The rest of the (typical) $900 fee goes to the agency such as ICB who serves as the go-between for the would-be borrower and the reputable cardholder. Those borrowing on someone else's good credit history don't get any personal information, the full credit card numbers they're being added to, or the card expiration dates. Any sensitive information is protected by the agency, and the renters add the users' names themselves, with a phone call to credit card company.

It wasn't very long ago that people with borderline credit histories didn't have all that much trouble securing big real estate loans due to the expansion of the so-called "subprime" lending market. But now that production homebuilders are sitting on growing stocks of unsold houses, and the default rate among sub-prime borrowers whose homes are falling in value continues to rise, lenders have suddenly discovered that their "industry," as James Kunstler puts it, is "rife with irregularities in lending standards!" So the bogus lending practices of the recent past, such as the infamous "interest-only" loans for example, have now been replaced by bogus borrowing practices, such as piggybacking.

All this paper magic and manipulation of numbers only serves to underscore what a scam and a series of self-serving illusions the late capitalist American economy has become. The problem is that if the survival of even a remnant of the housing bubble, the one economic factor that has held up the economy for the last ten years, depends on the continued practices of paper magic of one sort or another.

Kunstler also points out that the housing bubble is collapsing at the same moment as the oil crisis of rising prices is setting in permanently. "These events will be happening simultaneously," he writes. "The housing industry, so-called, will never recover because the oil crisis spells the end of the suburban build out. The cycle is over. The big production homebuilders will go down and never come back."

This is why the end of "piggybacking," combined with the collapse of the "sub-prime" loan market and the rising price of oil, spells big trouble ahead for the U.S., at home as well as abroad.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Disasters of War

I just finished reading Gunter Grass's World War II memoir, "How I Spent the War" in the June 4 New Yorker. Thank God it's online, so people seeing this can read it for themselves.

I don't know how I managed to never read anything by Grass over the last 40-plus years. When I was at San Francisco State in the mid-60's I saw lots of students carrying copies of "The Tin Drum" around for some class or other, and isolated phrases about Grass like "the conscience of postwar Germany" bounce around in odd corners of my memory. That's a possibly true but incomplete description of Grass, who over the years, has carefully cultivated a prodigious mastery of the writer's craft. He's a better writer than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and like Solzhenitsyn has something very, very important to tell us.

Grass's melancholy tale of his induction into the Waffen SS at age 16, very late in the war (September, 1944), of his lucky and completely accidental survival of the collapse of the Reich, of the corpses hanging from trees, the irrelevance of bravery in the face of superior firepower, the sudden deflation of adolescent bravado and naivete under the avalanche of war's overpowering reality, conveys a tremendous sadness which I would imagine has increased rather than diminished with time. Every word of this extremely intimate and wholly subjective memoir is chosen to serve as an indictment of the futility and pointlessness of modern war.

Has there been a war in modern times that could not have been avoided? Has there been one that should not have been?

Grass's war was the same one my father, ten years older than the German author, got caught up in. Pop also entered the conflict late, arriving in France in February of 1945, and mostly dealt with thousands of confused, desperate, hungry refugees and families on the road, and axis soldiers, mostly German but also from various other countries, looking for someone to surrender to. His trip across France and Germany by boxcar and foot ended with his witnessing the opening of the Dachau death camp.

He returned home traumatized and demoralized, intimitaely acquainted, like Gunter Grass, with the depths of depravity to which the race is capable of sinking under the iron reality of war. He was angry, sometimes sullen, and somewhat unpredictable for a couple of years, but after a while he recovered. I guess he decided what he had gone through was worth it, that he, his country, and his comrades in arms had accomplished something.

But for survivors on the other side, the postwar held nothing but the lingering, bitter taste of disaster. Grass's accomplishment in describing Germany's collapse, and the pathetic final attempts of the Wehrmacht to defend itself, lies in his ability to deliver an emotionally overpowering work using bland and objective language. He simply lays out his experiences of the war's last days in the coolest deadpan, and the measured calm of his tone amplifies the devastating effect of the narrative.