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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008
by Alex Rodriguez

By Alex Rodriguez


Chicago Tribune (MCT)


SYKTYVKAR, Russia—Savva Terentyev doesn’t hide his disdain for police. The anger threading through a rant he posted on a friend’s blog made that clear. Bad cops, the young Russian songwriter wrote, should be taken to this city’s downtown plaza and burned alive.


Terentyev meant his remarks for a small circle of friends who vent and muse on each other’s blogs. He had no idea local police were watching.


The blog on which Terentyev posted his message was run by Boris Suranov, a Syktyvkar journalist whose newspaper had irked local authorities. Police were regularly checking entries on the blog when they came across Terentyev’s posting.


Terentyev, who will be tried this week on charges of inciting hatred and faces up to two years in prison, says he never dreamed his Web comments_no matter how coarse—could constitute a crime.


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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008

Watching Saturday Night Fever got me thinking about this. The film’s usually remembered as the film that launched disco into the mainstream, but it’s a pretty disturbing, dark film, full of class-inflected racism and misogyny. It climaxes with a gang rape in the backseat of a car while Travolta, thwarted in his own rape attempt, sulks in the front seat. Then the Bobby C., the kid who got a girl pregnant but doesn’t want to be forced to marry her, jumps off the Verrazano Bridge, seemingly trapped by her refusal to get an abortion. The woman-hating is pretty raw and only partially redeemed by the implication of the final scene, that Travolta escapes juvenile mediocrity and working-class self-sabotage by learning to have a mature friendship with a woman, his dance partner who has already made the symbolic leap to Manhattan. The unpleasant ending all but obliterates the vicarious liberation supplied by the peerless dance sequences (now no longer kitschy but just incredible), leaving viewers feeling trapped with a bunch of narrow-minded bigots and misguided dreamers who don’t have enough sense to hope for the sort of things that we watching can approve of. It’s uncomfortable, but does it serve any useful purpose to confront us so starkly with the limited horizons, the doomedness, of the people it has chosen to depict and give an aura of reality to? Is it some kind of implied critique, or are we still vicariously thrilling, only to something else, something meaner, the kind of harsh reality we are happy to see inflicted on other classes (making us feel a bit immune from it)? In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the film fits in to the late 1960s-early 1970s “discovery of the working class” by the middle class interests that control the media and have a lot at stake in fashioning a working class other to demonize and contrast themselves with. And it certainly sets up admission to the middle class as maturity, the prize for rejecting the hedonistic life of the disco and the immediate gratifications it caters to. But is there also a critique of misogyny in all the female hating throughout the film, or simply a reinforcement of its alleged inevitability, or of the hopelessness of trying to changing it?


I want to give the film the benefit of the doubt and view it as exposing underlying misogyny that most films have built into their structure. Something Shulamith Firestone points out throughout Dialectic of Sex is that sexism often manifests in forms we’re trained to regard as appealing and pleasant, or as harmless fun; this is how it gets replicated and reproduced for generation after generation. For example: “Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of ‘cute’ it is much harder to fight than open oppression.” Cuteness is a form of infantilization and self-trivialization, but there can still be something irresistible and fun about cataloging cute things and cooing over them. It would be curmudgeonly and false to deny their appeal, only they have become intimately connected with setting out the boundaries of gendered behavior. Firestone responds to the way men often demand smiles from women (and children) and mask their aggression with this request that seems to them innocuous, almost a favor (she’ll be so much prettier if she smiles) by earnestly calling for “a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.” Of course, I, like most white middle-class men, have been enacting the smile boycott my entire life and never understood it to be a politically motivated action. The freedom to express one’s feelings naturally is not automatically granted. In fact, it’s finding out who experiences that freedom and takes it for granted is a good way to identify who has privilege in a society.


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Sunday, Mar 30, 2008

The latest strategy by major labels to monetize downloads comes from one of their consultants, Jim Griffin, who’s proposed that the Internet providers add on a service charge to their customers. The money would then go to the labels and everyone will be happy, right? Not exactly.


The Tech Crunch site calls this plan ‘extortion’ on the part of the labels. A bit harsh but maybe not too far off the mark. Since they found that they’re not selling enough albums and singles online to make up for the overall loss of sales (especially of CDs) and obviously since the RIAA lawsuits are meant to be a symbolic deterrent, they need to come up with another scheme to make money.


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Friday, Mar 28, 2008

Charles Frazier remembers Anthony Minghella
Fascinating piece in the LA Times by Cold Mountain author, Charles Frazier, detailing his friendship with the late Anthony Minghella. Minghella directed the film version of Frazier’s book, and chose to make Frazier a key part of the film’s production. The men were colleagues and close friends:


The next January, we spent a wet week driving around North Carolina, hiking in the mountains, talking about books, staying up late watching movies—“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” for one. We drove all through the mountains and down to the Atlantic, 700 miles at least. It was like a college road trip.


Frazier’s article is a wonderful insight into Minghella’s artistic desires, his sensitivity, and, particularly, his adoration of writers.


Investment banker is India’s most successful English-language author
We thought it was Salman Rushdie—how wrong we were. The New York Times this week profiled Chetan Bhagat, author of the Nick Hornby-esque Indian hits Five Point Someone and One Night at the Call Center. One Night is India’s fastest-selling novel.


The article outlines Bhagat’s return to India (he wrote his novels while living in the United States), and his desire to make a difference in his country. Bhagat also reacts to his critics. From the Times piece:


“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here.


But he has touched a nerve with young Indian readers. Mr. Bhagat might not be another Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy, but he has authentic claims to being one of the voices of a generation of middle-class Indian youth facing the choices and frustrations that come with the prospect of growing wealth.


“I think people really took to the books mainly because there is a lot of social comment in there,” Mr. Bhagat said. “It’s garbed as comedy.”




Real-life Book Thief caught by determined librarian

Rob Lopresti, the librarian at Western Washington University in Bellingham, has become something of a hero in his community—and perhaps to book lovers everywhere. Rob’s refusal to accept that his library had been the target of a simple, run-of-the-mill theft, he put on his Sam Spade hat and uncovered a veritable ring of library such thefts across the US and Canada.


The Great Falls Tribune reports:


About 100 volumes of a book series called the Congressional Serial Set, dating back to the 1830s, had maps and other pages ripped from them. In all, the thief ripped 648 pages of historic lithographs, maps and other materials from the WWU library’s collection, according to the magazine article.


Lopresti found the documents listed for sale on eBay. He decided to purchase a handful of them to match with his lost property. His detective work paid off, but now, he notes, all valuable items in his library are now locked away from public view.


Maynard and Jessica to become a major film
Hot-shot producer Scott Rudin has purchased the rights to Rudolph Delson’s excellent Maynard and Jessica, according to Reuters Canada. The book details the evolving relationship between the titular characters throughout 2000-2002. It’s told from the very strange perspectives of more than 30 characters including Maynard and Jessica’s family members, their friends, a Russian scam artist, birds, and an emergency brake on a train. 


According to this article, Delson is happy with Rudin’s choice of screenwriter, Liz Meriwether, but he says he won’t be involved in the adaptation. Perhaps Scott Rudin could take a lesson from Mr. Minghella…


 


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Friday, Mar 28, 2008

Sorry for the hiatus—was busy moving. But it’s been business as usual in the lending industry: This story from The Oregonian, details the tricks used to circumvent Chase’s automated underwriting system, Zippy. It lays bare through one particular example how we have ended up in this full-blown credit crisis.


Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, originates mortgage loans itself but also operates a wholesale arm that underwrites and funds loans brought to them by a network of mortgage brokers. The “Cheats & Tricks” memo was instructing those brokers how to get difficult loans approved by Zippy.
“Never fear,” the memo states. “Zippy can be adjusted (just ever so slightly.)”
The Chase memo deals specifically with so-called stated-income asset loans, one of the most dangerous of the mortgage industry’s innovations of recent years. Known as “liar loans” in some circles because lenders made little effort to verify information in the borrowers’ loan application, they have defaulted in large number since the housing bust began in 2007.


The story is always the same. No one—not the borrowers (who wanted a house), the mortgage brokers (who wanted their cut for getting the loan made), the banks who supplied the money (who wanted to sell the loans to Wall Street), or the Wall Street firms who repackaged the loans (who wanted more-enticing yields for the securities they made out of them)—wanted to interfere with the subprime lending, despite the obvious skepticism about the ability of the borrowers to repay. They were like tobacconists facing down the medical studies linking smoking to cancer. As Barry Ritholtz argues, “Anyone with even a modicum of experience in the mortgage industry will confirm the rampant disregard for lending standards and the corner cutting and shortcuts that were all but official corporate policy during the boom years. There was headlong rush to originate, process and securitize mortgages—and the ability to repay the loans be damned. (Predatory Borrowing my ass!)”


Martin Wolf, in an FT column, noted what Bernanke has come around to saying about subprime lending:


Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, famously understated, described much of the subprime mortgage lending of recent years as “neither responsible nor prudent” in a speech whose details make one’s hair stand on end. This is Fed-speak for “criminal and crazy”.


Everyone seemed to countenance fraud, perhaps figuring that the fraudsters would come up with new frauds to keep payments coming in or that rising house prices would allow refinancing to keep up payments. Or maybe they wishfully believed that the fraud risks would be spread thin enough across the many, many securities derived from mortgages that they wouldn’t matter in the end. They would be lost in the shuffle. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because eventually everyone caught on to the counterparty risks because everyone knew all the tricks that everyone else was pulling because they were pulling them too—so banks stopped feeling comfortable about lending to other banks on the collateral they knew to be dodgy. Tyler Cowen asked the relevant questions last week:


Does herd behavior, combined with agency problems, make things worse?
Is it the standard story that everyone is afraid of the other trader’s knowledge?  Or can liquidity crises become more acute in a hyper-informed world?  We like to think: “market—trade—liquidity—good, etc.”, forgetting the Glosten-Milgrom point that liquidity often rests upon the presence of fools.  Informing the fools eliminates one business cycle problem but creates another.


It’s hard to fool people when everyone is trying to do the fooling.


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