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by Rob Horning

17 Aug 2007

Before the current financial mess, investors and economists would air the question of whether the American economy and the world’s have “decoupled,” that is, whether they would no longer move strictly in tandem and one could hedge risks in the U.S. economy with investments in equities abroad. It was all speculation at the time, but now that markets are undergoing what may officially—and euphemistically—called a correction (10 percent drop in value), we can begin to answer that question: No.

Today’s headlines are filled with reports of carnage in overseas markets as the effects of the subprime mortgage “meltdown” (the preferred word, though debacle and fallout are often deployed) and ensuing credit crisis begin to spread everywhere. If you are wondering what the Indonesian economy has to do with people in Royal Oak, Michigan, and Elmira, New York, defaulting on home mortgages, the chain of events goes something like this, as far as I can figure it out. Once enough defaults were logged to make the CDOs and improperly-rated mortgage-backed securities seem radioactive, institutional investors (hedge funds, especially, it seems) that had taken on debt to leverage their bets in these risky markets suddenly needed to offload them, or found themselves having their collateral called in by their lenders. Sometimes this collateral was in the form of the bad mortgage securities themselves. So to cover margin calls and to preserve access to funds to cover operating costs, etc., big funds and investment banks, etc., had to liquidate whatever holdings they could manage to sell. But no one wanted the bonds (“asset-backed commercial paper”) anymore. That’s because no one knows which are likely to implode, because the subprime risk, on account of CDOs and credit-default swaps and general secretiveness on the part of big funds, has been so carefully disguised. (These are “informational asymmetries” in econospeak, and they stymie markets.) The markets had thus become illiquid, a dangerous financial situation that central banks tried to alleviate last week by pumping in money. And with markets not functioning, no one can use them to determine the price of various assets, which are essentially worth only what you can get for them. This suggests the scary thought that they may actually be worth nothing. And not surprisingly,  this triggers panic.

So to deleverage, banks and big funds had to start selling assets that actually had been performing well in the “real economy”, in which growth is modest and stable and firms’ earnings are generally strong. But in a kind of collateral damage, the prices of these otherwise sound assets were driven down by the fire sale, and then this downward movement spooked other investors, who began fleeing the equity markets for safer environs—Treasurys, money markets, and the like. This prompts a kind of negative feedback loop. And because these price movements are not related to business fundamentals, they wreak havoc on funds driven by automated buying and selling—so-called quant funds. This all has sent American stocks on a roller-coaster ride, and has had a similar effect on equities abroad. Also affecting international markets is the havoc in forex markets, with the yen rapidly appreciating against a host of currencies. Why the yen? Because it is the favored currency to borrow in in order to participate in the carry trade— using cheap money borrowed in Japan to invest in high-yielding currencies elsewhere (New Zealand, Australia, etc.). But now, with the rush to unload debt,  everyone must buy back yen to repay the loans, boosting its value. This unforeseen appreciation then affects the other Asian economies as well. And thus the trouble has made it everywhere. In the long run, these effects may be beneficial—the carry trade shouldn’t work, high-risk borrowers shouldn’t be lumped in AAA-rated securities, hedge funds shouldn’t be so secretive. But as is often noted, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2007

If you ever wondered what Sixteen Candles, the John Hughes teen comedy from the mid-‘80s would look and sound like fashioned after the aesthetic mindset of someone like Kevin Smith, Superbad is the answer. Gloriously profane, single minded in its ‘anything for sex’ approach, and expert at capturing how real adolescents express themselves, this bookend presentation from the Judd Apatow party posse (in this case, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Greg Mottola) proves that 2007 definitely belongs to the former Freaks and Geeks patrol. Though not as consistently funny as June’s jocular Knocked Up, this far more ephemeral farce turns the last days of high school (ala Dazed and Confused) into a wickedly wild walk on the decidedly drunk and horny side of adolescence. It also shows that youth’s impracticality and fearless nature can be parlayed into one helluva good time.

Ever since they were small, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) have been buddies. Pals. Inseparable best friends. They’ve watched each other’s back, and supported one another through many of life’s pre-college pitfalls. But now senior year is almost over and the unthinkable is about to happen. Evan got into Darmouth. So did the dorky tag-along Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Seth must settle for State, meaning he will not be joining his associates in the Fall. And while they deny any possible problem with this arrangement, inside each guy is hurting. Luckily, a hot chick named Jules is throwing a party, and she wants Seth to provide the booze. Since he’s underage, he must rely on Fogell’s fake ID. Matters get a little complicated during the alcohol run, and before you know it, the police are involved, Seth and Evan hate each other, and everyone finds themselves miles away from the ribald revelry.

Like the best elements of the last three decades of big screen comedy, Superbad utilizes smart dialogue, brilliant situational satire, loads of gross out gags, and just a smidgen or post-millennial irony to turn growing up into a spectator sport. So laugh out loud funny at times that you wonder why other so-called humor fests are so haphazard and dull, this incredibly vulgar vamp is the antidote to the current crappy Hollywood excuses for sidesplitting (are you listening, Chuck and Larry???). There will be those that balk at all the boner humor, who hear Seth describe a grade school obsession with drawing male genitalia and cringe at the lack of subtlety in the material. But just as they proved this past June, no one understands the unspoken human dynamic, the part of us that we hide from the rest of the public, better than this clever crew. We may not want to admit it, but something like Superbad expertly exposes what we’re secretly thinking inside.

Granted, the movie has its missteps. The acquiescing cops, the loser law enforcers who end up playing patsies to all the teen shenanigans, really don’t work as characters or creative choices. Played by screenwriter Rogen and SNL’s Bill Hader, they’re very weak links in what is otherwise a solid satiric set up. After all, kids cracking up over their coming of age doesn’t need the support of stunted adults to justify its rule breaking logistics. While they provide some clever lines, they tend to drag the narrative down. Even more troublesome is the second act slip into an odd adult/adolescent standoff. When Evan and Seth accept a ride from a practically pedophilic passerby, his entire in-car conversation is shady. Once they arrive at the promised liquor-rich shindig, things turn ugly quickly. While the sequence does contain one of the movie’s best running ‘gags’ (manifesting all definitions of that word), it tends to destabilize the otherwise jovial juvenilia.

What does work here, and works brilliantly, mind you, is the interaction between Cera, Hill, and newcomer Mintz-Plasse. Years of sitcom saturation have convinced us that teenagers all talk like acerbic standups, using their limited time onscreen to provide worthless one-liners as substitutes for smarts. Here, Rogen and Goldberg give us the true sound of how sexually insecure males speak. Granted, the dialogue is overloaded with words that, two decades ago, kids wouldn’t be caught dead delivering (especially not to girls), but like all good observational humorists, these guys have decided to wisely change with the changing times. This gives Superbad a richness that underscores the complete lack of tact the characters exhibit. In addition, the last act return to their little boy roots is hilarious, since it illustrates how ill-prepared they really are for their future as adults. It’s a nice touch in a movie that spends a lot of time in outlandish excess.

While American Pie may claim the status as first film to make girls as gonzo as the guys pursuing them, Superbad is equally refreshing in this regard. It used to be that females were the object of horny male fantasy and relegated to eye candy, empty and vacuous without a significant emotional or psychological stance. True T and A, that was all. But thanks to a new, more knowing view about the battle of the sexes, ladies are just as lewd as the guys. In addition, the movie also comprehends the need to manufacture a kind of character recognizability. Mintz-Plasse gets the scene stealing sequence surrounding his fake ID (and the soon to be schoolyard mantra, “McLovin”) but we also get Hill’s hilarious lack of inner monologue and Cera stumblebum sweetness. Together they fuse in a way that makes anything they do seem interesting and engaging. If those crazy cops hadn’t shown up every 30 seconds to drag the movie off into the realm of the ridiculous, Superbad could stand as this decade’s American Graffiti. Or, at the very least, it’s Porky’s. This is one of the most insightful films about growing up lost and lusting every made.

Though it seems like a thoroughly modern experience, Superbad does have a delicious throwback mentality, a sense of humiliating history reminiscent of those days in back of the classroom, trading newly learned dirty jokes with your fellow classmates. It’s as smart as it is silly, as warm as it is wanton. There will be a few who shiver at the plethora of blue words, and when all is said and done, the narrative does seem a tad slight. We don’t really learn any major lessons here except friendship is forever and chicks dig dorks who get their butt kicked. Destined to make stars out of its quasi-celebrity cast, this will be a film many remember as their own rite of entertainment passage. If audiences weren’t convinced of the Apatow edge by the one-two punch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up! , Superbad supplies the slam dunk to finalize the thesis. Unlike most makers of movie comedy, this is one group of guys who understand how to make viewers literally scream with laughter.

Superbad - Trailer

by PopMatters Staff

16 Aug 2007

Aesop Rock
Citronella [MP3]

None Shall Pass [MP3] both from None Shall Pass (Def Jux) releasing August 28.


Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass - EPK

Black Dice
Kokomo [MP3] from Load Blown (Paw Tracks) releasing October 23.

The Black Lips
Cold Hands [MP3]

Your Ex-Lover Is Dead (Final Fantasy Mix) [MP3]

The Night Starts Here [MP3]

Jennifer Gentle
Electric Princess [MP3]

by Dan Turner

16 Aug 2007

One of the smaller political furors of the past week has centered around a little-known columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Stu Bykofsky, who previous works include “Philly’s Too Gay for Some Tastes” and “Cindy Sheehan’s Sad Form of ADD”, Bykofsky’s latest ran with the headline “To Save America, We Need Another 9/11” – his thought is that another attack on U.S. soil would galvanize the country and its division (“division is weakness”, he intones). People would die, sure, but they’d be holy martyrs in the service of some mythical unity that, Bykofsky feels, would lead to triumph.

This missive got Bykofsky a notoriety that all small-circulation writers crave. He was pilloried in progressive blogs and invited onto Fox News (where John Gibson approvingly said “I think it’s going to take a lot of dead people to wake America up”) and CNN. Roy at Alibublog does a great job of documenting, and making fun of, the manly approval on the right.

Bykofsky, no matter the outlet, maintained a tenuous defense against critics who said he was calling for another attack. It’s a fine technicality, but it’s true, as he pointed out, that his original column did not explicitly use the phrase “we need another 9/11”. He said that phrase was shorthanded in by the editor who wrote the headline. Such things do happen in publishing, and writers rarely get to write their own headlines.

But what Bykofsky said was “I’m thinking another 9/11 would help America.” Logically, “would help” is indeed not equivalent to “need”, true. But inherent in his actual statement, the one he crafted to lovingly and diligently for publication in a work that carries his name, is the idea that a bomb, an attack, dead civilians, would be a Good Thing.

What does Bykovsky really want? He can’t really want dead Americans, patriot that he is. Or, to be clear, he can’t really want them dead just to kill them – it’s still be good if they were dead, but as unwitting participants to his own goal.

Let’s go back to one of his throwaway statements, the axiomatic “division is weakness”. This is a common trope and talking point tossed out by commentators both in and out of the government.

Bykofsky hearkens back to the “community of outrage and national resolve” following the 9/11 attack. “We knew who the enemy was then,” he adds.

(We’ll leave aside the facts that “we” didn’t really, not so much – the administration had ignored briefings about potential attacks, and to this day, a disconcerting number of Americans believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks.)

But though there was a worldwide sense of unity, a “we are all Americans now” – I saw it first-hand, being in Italy and surrounded by people from around the world who offered me support should I not be able to get back to the States – it was a unity of emotion, an empathy. Not a blank check.

The latter is how the administration took it. Using 9/11 as a club, it beat down any inkling of action that did not hew to its own notions. In the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green wrote, “After 9/11… the administration could demand – and get – almost anything it wanted, easily flattening Democratic opposition.”

This, to the winner who sees only a zero-sum game of politics, can seem like unity.

This is the kind of “strength” Bykofsky, and those who originated the talking points he has partially digested and regurgitated, are talking about. Argumentation, loyal dissent, all the messy stuff that makes the democracy that they so crow about, is by its nature deflating to authoritarianism. And if you want authority at all costs, this seems like weakness.

I’ll leave it to others to parse the weird psychosexual bases and consequences in this political attitude. Digby has offered some historical context, while Dave and Sara at Orcinus have looked into those dark places.

But the overall idea? The path to strength is submission. Kind of kinky, Stu!

by Daniel Ferm

16 Aug 2007

Stand-up comedian Lewis Black continues to make people laugh with his commentary on contemporary politics and trends. Black has invaded our television sets with his “Back in Black” segment on The Daily Show, one of only two segments that still air on the show since its creation. Starting in 1998, he has had three Comedy Central Presents specials, leading to two HBO specials, Black on Broadway and Red, White, and Screwed. In 2006, Black appeared in three films, Accepted, Man of the Year, and Unaccompanied Minors. Most recently, in February, 2007, he received the Grammy award for “Best Comedy Album” for The Carnegie Hall Performance.

From Black on Broadway:

From Red, White, and Screwed:

//Mixed media

Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

// Short Ends and Leader

"What a time they had, Charlie and Rosie. They'll never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren. And what a time we had at Double Take discussing the spiritual and romantic journey of the African Queen.

READ the article