My Favorite Albums

1.– The Doors, their first album. I consider this the most perfect album of the era. It has no weaknesses at all, and was revelatory in its day. As one teen of the day drily observed, “After listening to the Doors, sitting down to dinner with your parents was never the same.”
2.– Surrealistic Pillow, (Jefferson Airplane). The legendary San Francisco sound—in spades. Psychedelic but beautiful, and still sounds fresh today.
3.– Blonde on Blonde (Bob Dylan). With this stunning double album Bob Dylan hit his lyrical and musical peak. All but two of the songs are about relationships with women, surreal and cockeyed. Like picks #1 and #2, this album is deemed a rock masterpiece.
4.– The Beatles Second Album. Everyone who loves the Beatles has a favorite album. This one is mine. It’s full-bore rock and roll start to finish, with the driving rhythms the Beatles played in Liverpool club dives in their early days. McCartney’s vocals, alternately frenzied and honeyed, have never been better.
5.– Bob Dylan (his debut album). When Dylan walked into the studio to record this, he was so naïve about the record business that he thought he had to play the songs one after another, only pausing between them, because that’s how an album sounded. He was twenty years old, an indigent newcomer to the folk scene in Greenwich Village, an “unwashed phenomenon,” as Joan Baez described him. This initial album only sold a few thousand copies, barely enough to pay for the production, and the record company leaned toward dropping him. The executives were persuaded otherwise by Johnny Cash and a few other musicians. Indeed, nothing on this album even whispers, “hit song.” There are no protest songs, no surreal lyrics, no bittersweet memories of star-crossed love affairs. Most of the songs aren’t even his own. Yet something is so elemental and convincing about his voice that enjoying the album in a single go is effortless.
6.– Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd). Where do you begin with an album that stayed on the Billboard charts for over nine hundred weeks? The truly weird part is that this is a philosophical album. It’s about alienation, death, and greed—about mental illness, war, and the elusiveness of meaning. There are dark nights in a man’s life when kicking back and listening to this album is the necessary thing to do.
7.– Magical Mystery Tour (Beatles). The A side of this is the soundtrack of the Beatles film of the same name. The B side has songs the Beatles released on 45’s in the months before they broke up. Even when the songs explore darker themes, the album remains light-hearted. The title really says it all.
8.– 12×5 (Rolling Stones). Every rock critic this side of Mars avers that Exile on Main Street is the best Stones album, with Sticky Fingers a close second. The truth is that almost everything the Stones released until 1971 is still enjoyable. They were so talented that in 1967 they collected rejects from their previous albums and released them under the title Flowers, and it’s a better album than the greatest hits collections of most bands. All those early albums deserve occasional listens, but the one that most often ends up on my turntable is 12×5, their second album. When they recorded 12×5, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were twenty years old and weren’t even dreaming about stardom. They were just putting their energy into re-arranging Chicago rhythm-and-blues songs for the benefit of British teenagers. That’s what they did on 12×5, and today it sounds as powerful as it did then. The production is virtually perfect. There isn’t a single note that doesn’t belong, nor a note missing.
9.– Retrospective (Buffalo Springfield). I wasn’t going to include any greatest hits albums, but this is a classic, and I play it too often to leave off my list. This band only existed for two years, and the members spent most of the time fighting amongst themselves and getting busted for drugs. It’s a testament to the creative talents in the band that they were able to put together such a wonderful set as this album holds.
10.– Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. My record of this timeless masterpiece is by the New York Philharmonic, directed by Leonard Bernstein, but I imagine any production of it is wonderful. The Seventh Symphony is also superb.

Farewell, God, we hardly knew ye.

The simplest way to express a thing is to reduce it to bits—miniscule electronic gates that are either “on” or “off” and nothing more. Those computer bits hold information in its most basic format of zero spatial dimensions. No vibrations, no waves, no cycles — only dimensionless points that are either on or off.

God, however, is not to be discovered in zero dimensions. God inhabits the universe. God lives in four dimensions of reality.

So it is not especially surprising that we humans have become most oblivious to the difference between right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, and truth and lies, at the same time as we have learned to reduce everything to a digital format.

We have all the information in the world at our fingertips, but we have lost its meaning.

Reflections on “The Graduate”

With any kind of story, it is the ending that determines its success. That’s true of short stories, plays, and novels. It applies even to the everyday stories people tell each other: anecdotes and jokes. A lot of weight falls on an ending: it has to pull together all the preceding elements of the story, leave a distinct and lasting impression of it, establish a point in some fashion, and in accomplishing those goals it is also expected to show the story’s value. That is, the ending has to prove that the story was worth the time spent listening to it, or reading it.

That being so, it’s not hard to understand why so few endings are fully satisfying. They achieve varying degrees of success. Most have a modest impact. Not many make it into the uncrowded pantheon of truly satisfying endings.

Curiously, that pantheon is populated by movie endings more than any other medium. The list of unforgettable movie endings is virtually endless; they are not only engraved on our individual memories, but carved into our collective cultural memory as well.

Yet the same can’t be said of novels. Why is it that the endings of novels don’t fully satisfy the reader? Short stories also are a letdown at the end, more often than not. And with anecdotes and jokes, they leave the listener with a vague feeling that he was tricked or cheated, despite his laughter.

What I suspect is that with film, an ending can be more satisfying because it affects the viewer through multiple senses. The director has at his disposal not only words, like the poor novelist or raconteur, but also sight and sound. A picture is worth a million words; sound and music is worth at least a million more. By deftly assembling a gestalt of sensory nuances, the director is able to tie together the conflicts and themes of the story in a neatly wrapped package with an elegant bow on top.

For me personally, novel endings are almost without exception disappointing. Even the best of novels leave me feeling unsatisfied, and I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way. Much of the fault falls at the author’s feet; a fine ending is a work of true art, but true art doesn’t come easy. It isn’t impossible, however. In centuries past, authors writing with quill pens on foolscap took fiction-writing much more seriously than we do today, and wrote better endings to better novels. But even in the late twentieth century masterly endings were written. The finest ending to a modern novel that I’ve ever read comes in the horror story “Perfume,” by Patrick Suskind—a German author whose closing scene is marvellously effective even in translation.

If I had to choose my favorite ending to a film, it would be the vivid scene Mike Nichols gives us at the end of “The Graduate.” It’s a given that most movie-goers favor an ending where the guy gets his desired girl by persevering through ninety minutes of mounting troubles and travails. In terms of this basic formula, Nichols comes through with wry but sensitive humor. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), while in dogged pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), drives his Alpha Romeo convertible from Berkeley to LA, then back to Berkeley, then Berkeley to Santa Barbara, without pausing for a moment’s rest, in his frenetic effort to prevent Elaine from marrying another man. He arrives at the church too late, but in the last frames of the film he and Elaine flee from the wedding in a municipal bus, giddy at first but quickly settling down into their own thoughts, not even looking at each other. “Sounds of Silence” plays as the camera slowly withdraws from them and the credits roll.

What is Nichols trying to say? That Benjamin and Elaine haven’t got a clue what they’re getting into? That within hours they’ll be hurling regrets and recriminations at each other? That their “half-baked” romance will soon crash on the jagged rocks of reality?

Or is Nichols simply giving viewers the sweet triumph of romantic love that they came to see? In which case the reason that Benjamin and Elaine silently stare straight ahead is because they share a love so perfect that they are, for the moment, beyond any need for words. In which case we may assume that although all the odds are stacked against such an impetuous relationship, based as it is on a single date, vehemently opposed by her parents and indelibly tainted by Benjamin’s affair with Elaine’s mother, it will survive and flourish, despite his existential apprehensions and her perplexed fickleness.

The cognescenti of the film world are surely inclined to favor the first interpretation. And yes, I think Nichols allows that the legitimacy of such a cynical view. But I don’t believe he denies the latter, more romantic interpretation. That’s not to suggest he is ambiguous, either by accident or intentionally.

What I think he’s saying is this: “Both of these interpretations are true. I want you to have both of them to take home, and I want you to never say one is true and the other is a lie. I’m telling you something about life here. Not just that we have a choice whether to view the world through the eyes of a romantic or a cynic, but that we must see it both ways—at the same time.”

In short, with the ending of “The Graduate” Nichols gives us a zen koan. It can’t be resolved and the aspects can’t be reconciled. They must be accepted as equal in truth and value, even if they are contradictions. As movie endings go, that’s both hard to beat and impossible to forget.

Eye of a Hurricane

Here’s a graph from Take a look at it. I’m using it to make three points:

1.) Many people have forgotten how close the world came in 2008 to a total financial system collapse. This graph shows how the cataclysm was postponed. Not avoided, postponed. If the collapse had been “avoided,” central bank assets would have levelled off and fallen, while the interest rates would have returned to levels of 4-5%. What has actually happened is that the central banks have continued to swell their balance sheets with bonds (government debt and mortgage bonds), driving interest rates lower in hopes of reviving a moribund global economy.

2.) We don’t know how this is going to end, except that it will end badly. The global economy is at the end of a long credit-debt cycle, and desperately needs to blow off all the bad debts so it can restart the cycle. But the governments of the world are stopping that from happening, for the simple reason that they don’t think the social and political status quo will survive. It didn’t survive the Great Depression intact (see World War II), and the blow-off this time would be far worse. So the Central Banks continue buying up private market debt (mostly mortgage bonds) and public debt (government bonds). They blindly hope that at some point the global economy will begin growing on its own again without monetary intervention. That is kind of like hoping that a man drowning in debt will find such a well-paying job that he can pay off his debts and start consuming normally again. So far, there is no evidence of it happening.

3.) This monetary policy cannot continue. It only works as a short-term fix. What it does is pull forward future demand (via debt) to stimulate consumption. The idea is that by driving down interest rates, businesses will borrow money to expand, new industries will spring up, and the consumer will play his part by spending more, through credit cards and mortgages. But it’s a dangerous game. The low interest rates on bonds are destroying pension funds and insurance companies and retired people trying to live on their investments. And when interest rates are allowed to rise, the governments themselves will be bankrupted because they will have to pay out far more interest on their bonds. So the Central Banks are caught in a quandary. They are afraid to stop swelling their balance sheets, because interest rates will rise and cause defaults by their governments. But if they keep rates near zero, they will cause widespread collapses of pension and investment funds. So they keep on doing what isn’t working, hoping for a miracle.

Considering all this, the best advice is to stay nimble. We are in the eye of a hurricane.

On Easter Morning

Today is Easter Sunday. Everyone loves the Easter story with its theme of Resurrection. Other holidays are opposed by some grumbling faction or another. Thanksgiving gets criticism for ignoring the genocide of Native Americans, and Christmas for being overly commercialized. Halloween has its detractors for promoting Satanism, and New Year’s gets slammed for its Bacchanalian excesses.

No one quarrels with the celebration of Easter. No one, not even most cynical and skeptical among us, gets upset by the idea of dodging death and transporting into eternal life.

There’s a reason why, which is that everyone loves life. To be sure, not everyone loves living. For some, it becomes unbearable. Nevertheless, everyone loves life. And the cool thing about eternal life is that when you reach it, all the big and little things you hate about living simply disappear. No more having to shave in the morning, no more stupid bosses, no more wrinkles, no more common colds. You’re able to enjoy life, pure and simple life, forever and ever, with no downside. It’s a fantasy that’s hard to resist, even for hard-bitten realists.

Let’s raise a toast to Jesus, who died not to redeem our sins, but to give us a holiday we could all appreciate.

A Reminder From Fukushima

Every year, the nuclear power industry generates ten thousand cubic meters of high-level radioactive waste. That waste has to be kept cool in pools of circulating water. If cooling stops, containment fails. That’s what happened in 2011 at the Fukushima nuclear plants. Although the mainstream media have lost interest in Fukushima, it remains a catastrophe. Japan has made no progress at all in decommissioning the reactors there. Actual clean-up is impossible.

With the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the Russian solution was to bury the radiation-spewing reactor under a mountain of concrete. The concrete sarcophagus is cracked and leaking, so the Ukrainians are re-entombing it. They expect the new containment structure to last a century. Unfortunately, the radioactive elements buried there have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. The area will be uninhabitable for a longer period than humans have lived on earth.

The Fukushima nightmare is far, far worse. The nuclear fuel in two of the six nuclear plants there melted down, while another (#4) has been so badly damaged that it’s a time-bomb of catastrophic potential. The amount of radioactive material at risk at Fukushima, most of it in the form of “spent” fuel rods, dwarfs that of Chernobyl—twenty-four times as much. And the facility is so enormous that entombing it in concrete is impossible.

Take into account that there are 442 operating nuclear reactors in the world, a fourth of them operating in the United States. Now try to imagine 442 Fukushima disasters across the planet, each one spewing hundreds of tons of radioactive particles for thousands of years.

That’s what will happen if our civilization collapses. Then there are the stockpiled nerve gases and biological agents, and the lab cultures of lethal microbes. Who will safeguard all of those? Who will make sure the last existing vials of smallpox are incinerated before turning out the lights at the CDC and locking the doors? And what about the millions of barrels of organic and inorganic poisons in warehouses? When these begin to rust, what will stop the contents from leaching into rivers and aquifers, or spreading toxic clouds over hundreds of miles?

In such a scenario, life on earth wouldn’t suddenly stop, but the cumulative damage to DNA would weaken gene pools with mutations. After a few centuries, microbes might be the only creatures surviving. After a few million years, intelligence could re-evolve, but by then there would be no trace left of us human beings.

Because we wake up every morning and everything seems the same as yesterday, we assume that tomorrow will be mostly like today. No doubt the ancient Egyptians and the Romans and the Ottomans were seduced by the same illusion of continuity. But illusion it is, because every great civilization before us has crumbled. Do we think we are so much wiser, or protected by technology, that it won’t happen to us?

We are faced with a terrible truth. The complex civilization that we take for granted will sooner or later collapse. When it does, it may be so devastating that life as we know it vanishes from earth. I realize that everyone today thinks they know what is important, and their views differ. That’s why there are debates about guns, abortion, and e-cigarettes. That’s why some people obsess about getting rich, others about praying five times a day while facing in the correct direction, others about coordinating their fashion accessories.

But I think we have a higher obligation, and that someday soon we will pay the ultimate price for pretending not to notice it, or hoping someone else will take care of it, or telling ourselves that our luck will hold forever… because it won’t.

What I Told Colin Farrell

I ran into Colin Farrell last night. I was standing outside the pool hall in my home town, getting into my car, and Colin walked by with some other guy. Oh, it was him. He was pudgier and not as beautiful as in real life, which gave me a moment’s hesitation. He was already several steps past me when I said, “Colin Farrell?”

He pretended not to hear me and I said it again, with more certainty. He still ignored me, and I said, “Hey, come on, I know it’s you, Colin.” He finally stopped. With visible reluctance he turned. His head cocked a bit to the side and his mouth twisted wryly.

I said, “I’m not going to cause you a problem, okay?” I came forward. “I just want to tell you that I greatly admire your acting. As far as I’m concerned, you should’ve won three Academy Awards by now.”

Colin was still playing coy, but he dipped his head infinitesimally to show that he appreciated that judgment and agreed with it.

“You were poignant in ‘In Bruges,’ and the one I watched the other night, ‘London Boulevard,’ that one, too. And the one about the kid whose brother was killed when he ran through a plate glass window, you were heartbreaking in that movie.”

Colin winced at the memory, his expression telling me he’d bared his soul playing that part.

“But the movies where your character dies at the end, like ‘In Bruges’ and ‘London Boulevard,’ nobody wants to see them, Colin. I do, of course. I always want to see a great movie, and they are great movies. But the end, where the main character dies, people don’t like that. Sure, the girls like movies where a lover dies—Titanic, movies like that. But most people want endings that are uplifting, movies where the protagonist succeeds. They want movies to validate their lives. You have to validate their lives, Colin.”

He was listening, and the words came pouring out of me as if I’d written them beforehand, just in case I ran into Colin Farrell on the street someday.

“That doesn’t mean the main character can’t die at the end. But it has to be meaningful. Like in ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ you’ve seen that, right? I mean, you’ve got Sydney Carton, a loser, a drunk, a man who’s squandered his life, and he dies at the end. Well, he’s on his way to the guillotine, almost there. But Sydney Carton is a hero at the end. His death validates his life. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award, did a great box office, and people loved it. What it is, is that people go to movies to feel like they’re the main character for a couple of hours. They want to feel like they have that kind of meaning in their lives. Validate their lives, Colin. Validate their lives.”

I woke up thinking, man, what a cool dream. I hope Colin Farrell thinks so, too.

Spin That, Mr. Goebbels

We humans live in “symbolic reality.” That is what I call our social environment, because it is so saturated with artificial symbols.

For the most part, lower animals live in “actual reality.” They don’t have to deal with artificial symbolic representations. A tree is a tree, and a threat is a threat. A female in heat is an available female, and available food is available to be eaten. In other words, things are just what they seem to be. Everything that “is”, is what it seems. The animals don’t have to cope with symbolic representations…unless they are pets, in which case they do have to cope with them, because we infuse their reality with artificial symbols such as verbal commands.

But we humans, especially those of us in the developed world, have to function in a landscape of artificial symbols. We’re surrounded and bombarded by words, images, sounds, even smells and tastes, that represent actual things. We have a remarkable ability for creating and understanding symbolic representations. It isn’t going too far to say that that is what separates us from other animals. Without the ability, we wouldn’t have language or math, or culture and politics, or music and art.

Through human history, the use of symbols has been governed by an ethos, a natural sense of right and wrong. Within that ethos, accuracy and precision are the primary determinants of how symbolic representations are made and used. Nobody seriously questions this fact. No one says, for example, that the stop sign should mean to keep driving. No one says that the car speedometer should be calibrated to show incorrect velocities. No one asks for the Cross to be erected over grocery stores. Likewise, it is taken for granted that a piano key will strike the note assigned to it, and that two and two will sum to four, and that a flag with stars and stripes refers to the USA.

But when it comes to words—those symbolic representations that are humankind’s greatest invention—ahh, no. Suddenly, with words it is not only okay to play false with them, but it is believed to be canny, even wise. After all, the skill for manipulating the meaning of words is a sign of intelligence, and manipulating words to one’s personal advantage, and the disadvantage of others, is how one “gets ahead” in this world.

Once upon a time, it was considered a virtue to be “plain-spoken.” Until the twentieth century, in fact, that was one of the highest compliments that could be paid a man. There were a great number of derogatory names given to those who went out of their way to not be plain-spoken: flim-flam man, con-man, fibber, sophist, rogue, knave, swindler, faker, four-flusher, charlatan, mountebank, trickster, sharpster, cheater, and, of course…liar.

I’m not sure when “lying” became “putting a spin on things” or “shading the truth,” but I am fairly certain that the change corresponded with the emergence of advertising as an industry. Modern advertising was spawned by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who is fondly deemed the “father of public relations.” But the real genius behind modern-day dissembling was another man: Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for Adolf Hitler. The liars of today, prevalent and smug in spheres of business, government, and media, should express their debt of gratitude to Mr. Goebbels by erecting heroic statues of him across this nation.

After all, he pioneered their techniques for so perverting symbolic reality that we no longer believe any words we read or hear. But that open admiration, I suppose, might offend decent people, because when Mr. Joseph Goebbels finally ran out of lies in the spring of 1945 and had to commit suicide, he killed his six little children first.

Even the liars who destroy our faith in words can’t put a positive spin on acts like that.

Waiting for Robespierre

I have ventured into “People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn), which escaped my notice until it was recommended by a friend. After reading a few sections of it, and also an interview with Noam Chomsky from 2003, and also some history of Prescott Bush et familia, I can’t remember now in which one of them I came across the idea that our civilization has been immersed in a Hundred Years’ War for… well, the last century.

It’s a radical way of looking at recent history. It argues that there has been a single war going on since the early 1900’s, a war levelled by corporations against human beings. This ongoing conflict has spanned WWI and WWII and the Cold War, and now gallops precipitously toward WWIII.

Here’s one of the most telling observations that can be made about this Hundred Years’ War of the corporations: the truly rich families haven’t suffered significant hardships from the warfare. They have, in fact, succeeded in increasing their staggering wealth. Historically speaking, that is atypical. War has always been a means of transferring wealth from the defeated to the victors (with the conquering soldiers seizing their share of booty). When wars in the past were waged, the rich families suffered the great financial losses, because it was they who owned the wealth for which the war was waged. The peasants suffered horrific losses of crops and livestock (and often their lives), but that was collateral damage, because travelling armies didn’t have supply lines, and they fed on (and satisfied their carnal desires at) farms they crossed while marching toward plunderable castles and cities. This time, it is not the rich who are being plundered, but the peasants—the bottom four quintiles of society.

My own belief is that a small percentage of human beings born are sociopathic, and that they will use whatever methods are available in a relentless pursuit of self aggrandizement. They will take advantage of the culture and technology of their times as they deceive and trick and betray their way to maximum power and wealth. In one period of history, they launch navies and despoil coastal towns; in another they ride horses in conquests across Asia and Europe; in another they invent a priesthood that becomes the government; in another they create trusts and holding companies; in yet another they build vertical and horizontal monopolies.

That is, I’m afraid, the pattern of human history. Eventually the megalomania of the sociopaths so thoroughly perverts the normal processes of social interactions that it either burns itself out or collapses the society that it has inflamed with fever. Psychologically, the sociopath acts as a cancer, furiously replicating his ego in both grandiose displays and actual progeny, without any moral or logical restraint. His effects, however, are like those of a retroviral infection, because he subverts the immune system that should destroy him, triggers fever, and lowers the natural resistance to all kinds of opportunistic infections.

As much as I despair at the triumph today of greed-driven corporations—particularly financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan—I am no more convinced that corporations are the spawn of Satan than I am about long ships, horses, religion, and big industry being innately malicious. Corporations are the tools that the sociopaths use today, that is all. But somehow their ability to do so must be curtailed. If this means that, ultimately, corporations have to be stripped of their personhood, so be it. However, that would be unwise unless there is no other way. I think we should refer to Teddy Roosevelt’s taming of the monopolists: he did not attack them directly, but rather insisted they would no longer be allowed to choke off competition. In the case of the corporations now waging war on people, surely their weapons in the war can be blunted without ending the beneficial aspects of the institution of corporations, which do exist.

Unfortunately, rich and powerful sociopaths so effectively control our government today that we can’t elect an Andrew Jackson or Teddy Roosevelt, which means that…(ahem)…we need another Robespierre.