02 February 2016

RUBIO RISING

it is increasingly likely that Marco Rubio will win the Republican nomination for President. He has considerable momentum coming out of the Iowa caucuses and will only grow stronger as the primaries move south after New Hampshire. At that point it would be time for the two-percenters to drop out given their low showing in the polls and rally around Rubio as the “establishment” candidate. 

It is ironic that Rubio is now being viewed as one of the Republican establishment candidates, given that he rose in Florida politics as an insurgent. He became speaker of the Florida House of Representatives at a very young age, and then challenged the man who was in fact the “establishment” candidate in the race to be Florida’s Senator, former Governor Charlie Crist. At the time it appeared that the senate seat was Crist’s for the taking, but Rubio’s insurgent campaign prevailed and he won the nomination. He was in fact the anti-establishment candidate, and unless one considers anyone elected to office as “establishment” simply by virtue of the position they hold, it is ridiculous to give Rubio that label. It is true that Rubio did engage in horse-trading with other senators, involved himself in the legislative process and occasional compromise, but that is what senators are supposed to do. 

The back story in this reveals why many grassroots Republicans do not trust the establishment. A man like Crist was a typical moderate, establishment Republican figure. But when he lost what did he do? He switched parties and became a Democrat but subsequent lost with  that designation anyway. If the political situation is this fluid it is understandable why some people mistrust establishment figures. Nevertheless the establishment encompasses a broad range of individuals with different viewpoints. All they may have in common is a willingness to work within the existing system, traditions, and conventions. 

The alternative is to behave like Ted Cruz, not only not playing nice with others but attacking them as well, based upon purity of principle; to the point where none of his colleagues can stand him. That defiant stance may win the Iowa caucus but will never win the presidency. If he improbably did win we would have the same situation that has prevailed with Obama throughout his presidency, namely the inability to work with congress, due to disdain for that body in Obama’s case or ideological rigidity in Cruz’s case. A President cannot dictate. He must persuade, lead, and compromise when necessary to get anything done.

Rubio offers the prospect of young, dynamic leadership that could restore the essence of what this country has lost while at the same time move forward. He would be wise to consider composing part of his cabinet from some of the other impressive candidates. Ben Carson could be Surgeon General or head Health and Human Services, Carly Fiorina could be Secretary of Commerce, and Chris Christie would make a great Attorney General, among others, and a number of the other candidates would also make a good Vice-Presidential choice. 

At this point he would contrast well against the Democratic candidates spiraling towards left-wing irrelevancy. He could win against Hillary Clinton, or not improbably, Joe Biden if she is deposed by legal problems. When the primary dust settles Rubio will be the one left standing, and his ascendancy will only be starting. 


27 January 2016

CONSERVATISM OR RIGHT POPULISM


The American media is so obsessed with presidential election politics that significant trends elsewhere, especially in Europe, are being totally missed. Right-wing populist parties are increasingly doing well, whether it is the National Front in France, UKIP, or similar parties in Eastern Europe. Uncontrolled Islamic immigration and terrorist attacks have upended the usually sleepy political climate in Europe and it is hard to tell where things will wind up. In the US Donald Trump has tapped the same disenchantment and continues run strongly in the polls. 

The question is whether all of this represents a conservative trend, or something else. Whatever they are, the right populists are not conservative, although claiming the mantle is unsurprisingly in keeping with stretching the meaning of political terminology and identity. Since all of these candidates are calling themselves conservative but are far apart on many subjects it essentially just show how meaningless political labels have become. 

If we look closely, the only areas the right populists and conservatives have common ground is some disposition towards nationalism and the traditional culture of their societies. We may find these things favorable in moderation. The problem with the further right is that there is always a danger of driving over the cliff, as all the countries that participated in the disaster of World War I certainly did. That along with the second world war made nationalism unpopular in Europe until recently. Thus there is a difference between patriotism and chauvinism, (a term so misused in this country most people don’t have the foggiest notion of what it really means. It originated with critics of a 19th century French figure who was so over the top in sabre-rattling and near loony extreme nationalism that the term chauvinism stuck). At the same time there is nothing wrong with patriotism or pride in one’s own culture. The problem in the west is an intellectual class that despises their own culture, and become horrified when people react accordingly. 

But there similarities end. The populists want action, which usually distresses conservatives who abhor social disruption. No one is making much of an economic argument but here again populists are tapping into real feelings about stagnant incomes and elusive prosperity. Trump has managed to channel a good part of this sentiment, and when responsible establishment figures attack him it seems to have the opposite effect.   For there are some problems in the way this righteous indignation has come across on two levels. First, we have the problem of loss in faith in institutions across society, be it the political class, what passes for “intellectuals” in this country, the media, etc. etc. whose scolding of Trump only further reduces their tenuous legitimacy while inflating his. 

I am hardly a supporter of Trump but in this sense find his critics annoyingly hysterical. He could hardly be worse than the past couple of presidents, he might do more to serve the interests of the working class, he’d get along well with Putin and probably cut a favorable deal with the Chinese leaders. The president after all can only exercise real power in foreign affairs, being otherwise hemmed in domestically by strong constitutional limits. However in other places where the constitutional order is less strongly embedded there could be problems, even somewhere like the Fifth Republic (France). 

Trump, like the other populists, is not invested in the system, a fact that is working in his favor at present, but could backfire if he were to come into real interaction with it in office. In such an eventuality given how moribund the Democrats are, I could see the principal opposition to Trump coming, ironicallly from conservatives. Given the way things are going, and indeed have almost always gone, we would be a lot better off if it didn’t matter so much who was president. Perhaps that will be the net result of all of this, but at this stage the only thing we can reliably expect is the unexpected. 

14 January 2016

A BEAUTIFUL LITTLE SOUL

Our little cat Cleo left for cat heaven after spending nearly twenty wonderful years with us. After all, given how genetically related we are with other life forms, if there is a heaven for humans it is not unreasonable to presume there is one for cats. For as Herodotus speculated 2500 years ago, if humans have gods in their own image, then is it not possible that cows, dogs, and other animals have gods in their own image as well? We can never know, but if we have souls, then animals must have some less developed equivalent life force. 

We sense this especially when we have pets, and we recognize that they have clearly distinct personalities. They are unique individuals and can become as much a part of our lives as any human. That is why their loss is so painful, because we truly have lost a little individual with whom we have shared so many memorable experiences. It is not merely a cat that has died, but a particular, well-known individual that has passed on. 

The last period of Cleopatra’s life was trying as her abilities declined sharply to the point where her demise was inevitable and painful to experience. It is for that reason that some people won’t consider adopting another animal, for the fear of the pain of loss is too great. Yet in perspective that is but a moment in what could otherwise be a long, happy life full of treasured experiences that transcend that momentary loss. What I wrote of her brother Caesar when he died three years ago still rings true and can easily be substituted for little Cleo: 

There are millions of feral cats who live short, miserable lives. My cat Caesar, who just passed away, was far more fortunate in that he lived as good a life as any creature ever had. That doesn’t assuage the sense of loss, but does provide some perspective on how painful life always is for most living things. When we take in pets we free them from the cruelties of nature and in the process they become something more. A bond is formed. We give them names and they adapt to us as we adapt to them. Then we come to realize that this is, in some sense, a sentient individual with a distinct personality. 

Caesar was a source of endless wonder and joy to me. He had perfectly refined features, and even at the end the vet remarked how handsome he was. He was a very loving cat, unusually good-natured, gentle, and provided endless fascination in the way he interacted with the world around him. He became an intimate part of our lives, so that with his passing there is a deep sense of loss. 

This is something that anyone who has pets inevitably has to deal with, and our tendency is to feel sorry for them. But if we have treated them well, the sorrow is all ours, for death and loss is mainly painful for the living. Of course I will miss Caesar, but inevitable loss is a part of life that we have to deal with. That is far outweighed by the precious, immeasurably rich experience of having shared a part of my life with him. 


It is equally the case with our little Cleo, who so constantly enriched our lives and will surely be deeply missed, yet ever stronger will be the memories of all the good times we shared with her.

12 January 2016

DON'T DRIVE IN NEW YORK CITY

The other night we went to the Metropolitan Opera, holding some of the best seats in the house,  looking forward to a nice night on the town. It wasn’t. The restaurant we ate at close to Lincoln Center was the noisiest place I’ve ever been and it was impossible to carry on a conversation with everyone else shouting to be heard above the racket. Then the opera, Die Fledermaus, was presented in English and took considerable liberties with the libretto. Opera sung in English always sounds stupid to me, and there’s no reason for it since they stream translations across the back of the seat in front of you. 

Every time I’ve been there I look at the hall and think why can’t we do better than this modern blank edifice, say like the old Met, vastly superior halls in Europe or even in other cities in the US. That is also true of the other venues, including what was Avery Fischer Hall, now renamed David Geffen hall, but is still just Philharmonic Hall to me. I don’t see why anyone should get a tax deduction for plastering their name all over things; the ego gratification doesn’t warrant it. If you’re coming to visit New York you can skip Lincoln Center, except for the overall architectural view; the individual halls are nothing to write home about. 

Earlier in the evening I thought I was lucky to find a parking space like in the old days before they stuck meters on everything, so I could avoid paying $46 for a garage. There was absolutely nothing to indicate the parking was illegal so I thought I was home free. But after the concert when we got to the spot the car was gone; either stolen or towed. I called the city number and yes, it had been towed, for allegedly parking in a bus stop. However there was not a single sign indicating that, and there was no yellow line on the sidewalk, so there was absolutely nothing to show it was allegedly a bus stop. But the damage was done, we had to grab a cab and head for the 38th street pier to retrieve the car after paying a $185 towing fee, and there was also a $115 ticket on the car on top of that. Most of the people there after midnight were clueless out-of-towners with rental cars that had been towed. This is nothing but a revenue racket, and the appeal process is deliberately convoluted. 

It was 1 AM when we finally got home, and due to alternate side parking I had to find a space on one side of the street. I drove around and around several blocks but there were no spaces, even on the wrong side. Finally after half an hour I found a small space I had to squeeze into with only inches to spare, and still on the wrong side so I would have to move the car in the morning. 

Last week we were on our way to another event but never got there because I hit some sort of obstruction that wasn’t there before nor was it demarcated and had to get two new wheels. 


The point of all of this is that this city not only discourages cars, it is hostile to them. On that basis don’t drive in New York City. Those of us who are natives have to live with this, but travelers beware. Something is bound to go wrong and spoil your evening, never mind being shaken down for parking, and honestly there’s nothing that great here anyway.  

15 November 2015

PHOTOGRAPHY: LEGACY FILM TO DIGITAL


Major changes have occurred in photography in recent years, and what follows will primarily interest those who are enthusiasts in the field. Everyone knows that the greatest change has been from film to digital photography, and the impact is even deeper on the equipment we use. Until shortly after the turn of the century you could count on higher-end photo equipment  to last indefinitely. For example, I have a Canon F1n, one of the best cameras ever made, that still works fine after more than four decades. 

When digital finally provided acceptable resolution, though still nowhere near that of film, it was time to buy. We had long been treating  photos digitally anyway via Photoshop, so that more and more the output was digitized. In addition we had virtually unlimited shots without film and didn’t have to pack thirty rolls of film on a trip or project while begging airport security not to x-ray them. There is also the almost too easy access of photos on computers and electronic devices which can evaporate into nothingness if they are not meticulously backed up. Then there is the trend towards lower, rather than higher resolution through .jpg compressed files and online storage that does not support anywhere near the capabilities of most cameras today. While not as sharp as film, the best cameras are getting close enough, at least in terms of what the eye can discern unaided. 

But these days  good digital SLRs sell for nosebleed prices, and worse, have a pretty limited lifespan and appeal since every year new cameras are introduced with ever higher resolution, making last  year’s model seem suddenly obsolete as well as steeply depreciated. Thus your 10-15 mp camera is blown away by a newer 20 mp version and there is unfortunately no upgrade path. Value really resides in the better lenses now because they at least are transferable. 

Once photographic work is digital we then face the problem of digitizing everything we did before, by scanning slides and negatives. I’m pretty much up to date on this, but unless it was for a project I’ve left a lot of casual, family photos, etc. untreated, the result being there are boxes of slides that no one has seen in decades. Scanning thousands of slides is tedious, and I’ve tried just about every method conceivable. There are plenty of scanners selling for around $100 but they all suck if you’re serious about photography. The other low-cost method is to buy an attachment for the front of your SLR which enables you to copy each slide quite well but is totally impractical if you have a large quantity to digitize. The next alternative is to spend several hundred dollars on a Plustek converter, which does a good job, but also has an unfortunate tendency to stop working after around a thousand pictures. Since there is not a large or ongoing market for such devices there isn’t much competition, so the best are very costly and can run well over a thousand dollars. Even used Nikon scanners are in that range since the company no longer makes them. There is a company that still makes scanners for this market- Pacific Image, one of which I’m currently using to convert batches of slides automatically, although I have to use it with a PC because the Mac version doesn’t work. It’s also clunky, noisy and made of too much plastic considering its hefty cost, but the results are good so far. It’s not worth it if you only want to do a few slides, in which case another alternative is to use a service, but you need this kind of thing for large volume. 

I’m processing some slides now that are more than forty years old, and the results vary with the film type and processing. Those from cheaper labs are faded with a red cast. Many can be restored, but require considerable time and effort. On the other hand the results from Kodachrome slides are stunning. They look as though they were shot yesterday. It is sad that this film is no longer made due to market conditions, for its superb results prove it to be the best film of all, this side of Technicolor. Serious photographers in the past gravitated towards Ektachrome or comparable films from other manufacturers which could be developed by anyone, whereas Kodachrome was considered more of a “consumer” film, processed only by Kodak. With digital the “processing” is, of course, within photo editing programs, with limitless possibilities. Unfortunately there is a tendency towards dumbing down here too. Apple recently introduced a simple program called "Photos," while incomprehensibly ending support for their pro-level program called "Aperture," which I will continue using as long as possible. Apple clearly wants total integration with the IPhone and IPad which now dominate the company. The Mac is almost an afterthought, forced into emulating these devices. It is shortsighted considering that most creative professionals use the Mac, and few are gravitating to the new MacPro “garbage can” cylindrical design. The previous MacPro was one of the best computers ever made, which is why there is such a strong aftermarket for five+ year old machines whose capabilities have yet to be exceeded. 



20 August 2015

GETTING TRUMPED

Anyone who has known Donald Trump in New York will recall that a draft Trump movement would regularly appear  floated entirely by Trump himself. In the previous four attempts  it was as an Independent of some sort, which quickly fizzled. But this time, in his current incarnation as a Republican, he has managed to gain a good amount of traction, due in no small measure to overreaction by spineless corporations to remarks he made that were not all that egregious. 

He has now firmly established himself as someone who “says what he thinks” in the minds of many people, and has garnered the mantle of the anti-politician at a time when the public has little faith in the political class. The real problem is whether he truly believes what he says, or whether he is simply saying what he thinks people want to hear and parodying conservative concerns. Since he has been all over the map politically not much of this can be taken seriously, so he ironically is attracting the most ideologically inclined supporters while in truth remaining the least ideologically committed of all the candidates. As President he might even perform as a bold decision-maker, but without much underlying rationale, and if he did get the nomination it is very likely that there would be a loud clatter  of skeletons popping out of closets everywhere. 

It is truly unfortunate that he has been able to dominate the selection process for the moment, because the current Republican candidates represent by far, the finest field I have ever seen in my life. They are a talented, diverse, youthful group, and look even better alongside of the geriatric retro-left Democratic candidates, who, unlike the Republicans, lack even a rudimentary bench of potential candidates. The Republican field can produce any number of appealing tickets, i.e. Rubio-Walker, or Walker-Rubio, or any of the others, most of whom would fill out an excellent cabinet. I believe the next President will likely be a Republican, unless they get trumped, by among other possibilities, an independent third-party run by a man whose “Republican” credentials are tenuous enough to permit that. 


But as I have written many times before, it is just ridiculous to be focused on an election more than two years before it actually will occur. This is a truly awful situation that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The result is the we have all politics all the time, there is little room for anything else that might actually constitute real “news,” and an obliviousness to anything happening elsewhere in the world. It has resulted in sharper ideological divisions as candidates must appeal to the “base” of their party, who usually are its most extreme elements.  It gives us candidates who are good at running for office, but not necessarily at governing. Huge financial resources must be raised, and a whole industry of campaign consultants, media people, advertisers, news people, political junkies, etc. etc. are invested in the system. 

But for everyone else it is simply one long headache. Ideally we could fix this to a considerable extent by the logical step of allowing elected officials to nominate the candidates of their party, and/or limiting the length of time over which a campaign can take place, as they do in Britain.  That would limit the noise level to some extent, and I don’t know who is better suited to nominate candidates than public officials themselves. The primary system is a very recent phenomenon, taking root only around 1960 and this whole system attracts people who are so full of themselves that they believe they should be president, with or without the good judgement and respect of others. There is no greater group of presidents than the first five, none of whom ran for office and would have considered it to be undignified. They were called upon by respect and admiration of their peers, based upon their accomplishments and character. If we can’t go all the way back to that at least let us reform the electoral system to produce better candidates, shorter campaigns, a less politically charged atmosphere, and an end to the long, tortuous, never-ending political cacaphony.  

29 June 2015

MEANWHILE IN THE REST OF THE WORLD......



While people in the US have been preoccupied with domestic concerns there are ominous clouds gathering in the rest of the world. There is the fiscal crisis in Greece which will be addressed separately, three terrorist attacks in different places on the same day, ongoing slaughter by ISIS that has now apparently become too routine to report on it, mischief making by Vladimir Putin, and worst of all, the turn things have taken with the Iranian nuclear talks. Normally there might be good reasons for the US to take some action on all these fronts, but with the possible exception of Greece, at this point in time we are better off doing nothing than acting due to the fecklessness and incompetence of this administration. 

It increasingly appears as though they are caving in to the Iranian ayatollahs in the nuclear talks. It is just unbelievable that a French Socialist government is taking a harder, more realistic line with regard to Iranian nukes than the US because they are concerned that this administration is going to give away the store. What does it tell us, when the Europeans, for the first time in memory, are taking a harder line than the US? Meanwhile Israel is in the doghouse due to contempt for Netanyahu, who increasingly is being proven to have been right all along. No deal is better than this deal. All other missteps are containable and remediable, but not when it comes to increasing the chance of blowing up the world. 

Also ominous is the the massacre of 38 European tourists in a Tunisian resort, because of the terrible impact one evil actor can have on a country’s economy. Tourists are leaving, canceling trips as a result of this seriously damaging the country’s economy, and harming all those poor people who work in that field. The Tunisians I have interacted with have all been good and gracious individuals, identify with the modern world, and simply want the opportunity freely live in it like everyone else. They don’t deserve this. 

With regard to terrorism, we should remain vigilant, but hold off any significant action until this administration leaves office. It makes a lot more sense to hold your fire than to mobilize action under an incompetent command. This is clearly no longer our problem, but the entire world’s. From Europe to Russia to Arabia to India to China to Africa and beyond, we are all in the same position, and fortunately on the same side, something we unfortunately have failed to make any use of to any significant degree, but if properly approached would go a long way towards putting an end to this. This is something the President could and should have pulled off, given the expectations and good will he had coming into office, but instead of utilizing that credit to pull everyone together on this, he went around the world disparaging his own country, apologizing to Muslims who did not ask for it, criticizing Christians, sowing more division and chaos, and achieving even lower US standing the world than his demonized predecessor. He has also improbably managed to enable Vladimir Putin to represent himself as a more plausible beacon of western tradition. 


Americans, at least those who are politically concerned, waste an undue amount of time and energy contesting domestic issues that the President actually does not have much power over. It is in foreign affairs that the President wields more power and can determine the direction of things, sometimes for better, be just as often for worse. Policy is no doubt important, but not as much as competence, which has been in pretty short supply, not just in this one but over the past few administrations.