Monday, December 29, 2008

You can never let them win...

Milgram Revisited - Decades Later, Still Asking, Would I Pull That Switch? - The linked story tell us people haven't changed. Just as they did in the early sixties, psychologists can still pluck someone from off the street and persuade them to administer lethal doses of electric shock to experimental subjects who are obviously in agony. Two keys to turning John Doe into Torquemada: 1) a strong authority figure - Hitler for example, or just a guy in a white lab coat who says he's running an experiment; 2) up the torture ante gradually - almost no one will flip the switch on a 190 volt shock, unless they start at ten volts and work their way up.

Does this explain Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition? Is all of major league baseball a twisted experiment, existing solely for the purpose of determining how much torture the Chicago Cubs are willing to inflict upon their obviously suffering fans? First you finish last, then 500, then make the playoffs - but you can never win, even when the fans, I mean subjects, are writhing in agony in the aisles of Wrigley.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Tale - Thanks for the Bailouts times 3

Dear Uncle Sam,
Thank you for the trillion dollar gift certificate. We haven't actually used any of the money yet to make loans or renegotiate mortgages or do anything else to help the economy. In fact we fired a few hundred thousand employees just to be on the safe side and really cut back on the old Christmas bonus pool (sorry Santa). Look on the bright side. We still have jobs and we didn't have to give back the huge bonuses we made by reporting income from buying and selling worthless mortgages and writing credit default swaps that nearly sucked the entire country into a black hole.

Next year I want an X-Box 360 and a buyer for some (just a few Trillion $) toxic debt.

Yours truly,
Wall Street

ps - thanks a lot for the coal Uncle Sam, and screw you too Santa. Sincerely, Lehman Bros

Dear Uncle Sam,

Thanks for the $17 Billion. Really, thanks a lot. I knew you always liked Wall Street better. Well, at least you gave me a chance. Not like when you sat around and watched big steel and big rubber disappear. Okay, so I'm not the fair haired boy - at least I'm not a red-headed stepchild.

Wait a minute, you said something about a bigger gift next year when this $17 Billion runs out. But you'll supervise me, you'll tell me how to restructure for a new, green future. Ouch. I'll paint the cars any color you want, but if you think you can do a better job making and selling cars than me, well, just kill me now. Maybe it's better for you if I don't fail while we're all on the cusp of a depression, but for me the pain will be unbearable. Managed by committee, a committee picked by a Congress - is this $17 Billion really a gift or just the first step in a slow, expensive torture that ends in my death as soon as the economy has a pulse again?

If you really want to help, start now. I can't wait for next Christmas. Help me now even if it takes a bankruptcy (a bankruptcy planned in secret and in detail, a Chapter 11 where I never stop operating and never tell my customers until the entire long-term plan, including more bailout money, is in place). Help me consolidate into a Big Two before I'm a Big Zero. Help me get access to PBGC money (or just bailout money if you prefer) to get out from under some of my legacy pension obligations without stiffing my retirees. Help me get out from under the most expensive work rules in my union contracts (I must have been having a very bad day when I signed).

If you want to see me around for a few decades instead of a few years, forget about management by politician. Didn't you read Animal Farm. Just get me on the same footing as those damn Toyota, Honda, BMW and Mercedes operations that seem to do OK in the South.

Your loving middle child,

Dear NY Yankees,

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! If we had you guys in charge of the TARP we would have blown through the first $700 Billion by now, no sweat, and we would known exactly where every penny was spent - on veterans who failed to bring championships to New York.

After two decades of frustration you built a dynasty in the late nineties around young stars from your own farm system, players like Jeter, Williams, Pettitte, Rivera and Posada. Sure veteran acquisitions like O'Neill and Brosius were critical, but they didn't break the bank. Then came that fatal first taste, wins with names like Boggs and - yech - Clemens, and you were addicted.
Giambi, Johnson, Mussina, Rodriguez, Damon, Pavano like any addict you needed to keep spending more just to stay alive, even when you stopped getting high, I mean winning titles. Now your not even making the playoffs so, of course, you need to spend even more.

Now it's On Burnett (despite the suspiciously Pavano like history),
On Sabathia,
On Teixeira
On to the playoffs, the series, the ring
The win is the story,
Cashman's (aptly named) praises we sing,
The bucks are forgotten,
Signing duds was no sin.

But wait, in October there arises a clatter,
it's young teams with young arms,
Rays, Phillies, Sox that matter,
and Yanks with their checkbook so quick
spend another long winter
cursing Saint Nick (or, in the stand-up comedy version - pulling their .....)

Thanks Again,
MLB Players Association

ps - Yankee morons, we did a freakin press release announcing Boras was asking too much for Teixeira. I'd call you up and explain, but that whole collusion business is really a problem. Wake up and smell the coffee. You can't buy a championship but you make it too expensive for the people who actually know what they are doing. Theo

pss - Love you guys. Can't wait to start the season. Thank God there's no twelve step program for baseball executives. Mark, CC and AJ.

psss - Even I thought I was bluffing, thanks for bailing me out. Merry Christmas. Scott Boras

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dear Barack - How to handle a crisis, your pal W

President Bush has almost become a sympathetic character as he prepares to leave office with "favorable" ratings near historic lows. Almost.

Bush Prepares Crisis Briefings to Aid Obama -

Dear Barack:

Enclosed are some scenarios my team put together for you just in case you get bombed, or computer wormed or sarin gassed on your first day. I sincerely hope you never have to use any of this stuff. Anyway, now that you are about to be the decider, I wanted to go beyond the details and pass along the general principles that helped me handle crises like 9/11, Katrina and the recent shoe attack in Iraq.

1. There's always time for vacation;
2. Your public speaking really needs work. Too egghead, way egghead. Fumble around, butcher a few pronunciations - quit showing off, it's all about what America needs. In a crisis, nothing says macho like an incomplete sentence;
3. When making appointments, loyalty is all, competence nothing. The government that governs least governs best and nothing governs least like a bunch of twenty somethings from bible college;
4. When in doubt, pray. If still in doubt, leave it to a higher authority - the Vice President;
5. Always go with your gut (and make sure your entire team knows you've already made an unofficial snap decision - you don't want them bothering you with any inconvenient facts);
6. Don't worry about international law, anything America does is the right thing and the rest of the world will eventually see the truth (although I never thought it would take so long);
7. Never tell the media anything, that's what national security is really all about;
8. Congress Schmongress, keep those squabbling pissants you call a party in line and you'll never even have to take a phone call from a Republican - bipartisan is just another word for loser;
9. Talk a lot about fiscal responsibility but never forget - the budget deficit is really the next guy's problem -oops, sorry, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that one.

Good luck. Call my secretary if you need anything. By the way, sorry I had Blair house booked for my nephew's third cousin, but there's a really terrific Day's Inn not far from DuPont Circle.

Very truly yours,
George W. Bush

Monday, December 15, 2008

Movie Season Is Over - Let's Get Serious About Football

Diagnosis Steelers - Paging Dr. House. After months of media grumbling about the Steeler's running game, the offensive line and Ben holding the ball for too long, the real problem is finally clear (assuming an 11-3 team has a real problem). With the Steeler defense, the running game and offensive line are more than good enough to win a Superbowl. The real problem is the kicking game. Net punt average of 27? Kick-offs and returns leaving every Steeler drive starting inside the twenty-five and every Raven drive starting beyond the thirty five? Even a decent running game won't work when everyone in the stadium expects run because you start three drives inside your own ten yard line. Fix the kicking game and the running game will work. Get the running game working and Ben will start looking like a great quarterback all game long instead of just on the last drive. Get Ben looking great and the running game will suddenly look even better. If the Steelers can just get kick-offs, punts and returns up to the level of the league average, watch for the Steelers to win a sixth Superbowl.

Lifetime Movie of the Week - Chad Pennington has the head, the heart and maybe even the arm of a champion. He finds early success in NY, leading the Jets to the playoffs. Then a series of injuries and regime change leave Chad out in the cold, well the warm really - Bill Parcells finds room for Chad in Miami while the Jets spend billions to sign the beloved but aging Bret Favre. An early season Jets - Dolphins game looks like the heartwarming climax to the Chad Pennington story, but the underdog Fish comeback falls short on the final drive. It turns out that was just another twist in the Chad Pennington storyline, which is now speeding like a locomotive toward a final game showdown between the Jets and the Dolphins with the AFC East title on the line. There are no easy games for the Dolphins, but with the whole roster contributing - like two sacks against San Francisco from Nate Jones - anything can happen. Jones is pictured above sacking San Francisco QB Shaun Hill, not really part of the Chad Pennington story, As Good As News just needed something to counter balance the Plaxico Burress photo recently published here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Plaxico - An Open Letter

Dear family, teammates and anyone else out there who can stop laughing at me for a minute and really think about this mess - Plex knows there must be one or two of you:

I am sick of being a running joke and it's long past time to ignore my lawyer's advice, and my wife's advice (which, Tiffany being a lawyer, is really just a second opinion), spit out the gag and tell people what is really happening. Maybe Plex made a little mistake or two, but look at the facts. What would you have done?

Why did Plex need a gun? One word - Richard Collier. That man did nothing but mind his own business and now he's missing a leg. I'm six foot five with a goatee that looks like I stole it from an actual goat. Any thug can spot me in a crowd. The fact that I'm making millions of dollars is all over the tube. I might as well have a target on my back.

Why didn't Plex get a license? Plex bought that gun legally. I even got a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Florida. OK, I let the permit expire, but I would have revived it if I went back to Florida. I asked around about getting a carry permit in New Jersey or New York. No way, it takes years, you need to hire the right law firm to advise on your application - a law firm where all the lawyers just happen to be ex-cops. Even then, there's no guarantees, especially for a guy like me. I need protection today, not a maybe after a year of pay-offs to the cop's buddies.

Why did I have to go out to the Latin Quarter that night? A man can't stay home every night. Really. Especially when I'm hurt. If I'm around the house for too long, Tiffany gets so she can't stand the sight of me. She tells me to get my sorry butt off the couch and out of the house before she goes after my sore hamstring with the broom handle. Besides, I felt bad that I couldn't play that week because of the hamstring. That little visit to the Latin Quarter was not just for me, it was a chance to build solidarity with my teammates, especially Antonio - he doesn't hang with just any wide receiver you know.

Why not use a bodyguard instead of carrying a gun that night? Even if I could get someone on short notice, how could I trust him. I mean the guards that show up with the rappers look more like mercenaries, little gangs of soldiers prowling for a battleground. Look what happened to Pac-man, I mean Adam, Jones, his own guard squared off with the man. A rent-a-bodyguard would do more harm than good, some of those hulking dudes give me the creeps.

Why did you wear sweat pants, wouldn't something with pockets make it easier to carry a gun? Like I said, I made mistakes. I was getting treatments on the hammy, it was easier to deal with sweat pants - I just never bothered to change. Anyway, it's not like someone else got shot, Plex knows how to keep it in his pants, when necessary.

What about the three and a half year minimum sentence - Who knew? That is some crazy stuff. I wasn't planning a hit or a robbery, the plan was just to keep the gun in my pants, unless somebody messed with me. Worst case, I take it out and show the ladies. A little joke you know, like with Mae West. Maybe I am glad to see you but, look - it really is a gun in my pants. Now the Mayor's already got me convicted and sentenced. Somebody ought to just cap that guy, that would limit his term. This whole mandatory minimum thing has to be unconstitutional - cruel and unusual punishment, right to bear arms, results in racially discriminatory enforcement, vests judicial power in the legislature, whatever. There is no way I can get three and a half years just because I did not change out of my sweat pants. How can the taxpayers afford to put good people in prison for three and a half years for nothing? I mean won't prison be taking the good guys and turning them into real criminals? What happens to their families while they are doing time? This is a first offense, I mean maybe I was late for a few team meetings, but that was just to remind people I was special - I was never convicted of anything. Shouldn't we use the jails for the criminals? Give extra time to people who use guns in a crime, maybe even to repeat gun licensing offenders, but three and a half years on a first offense when I wasn't even doing anything with the gun; who does that help?

So anyway, I'm sorry this whole thing caused so many problems, but really - what was Plex supposed to do?


PS - Tiffany helped me a little, especially with the part on the minimum sentence, but this whole letter is my own idea.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Two Lovers - Can I choose All of the Above

To love or be loved? Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes infatuated with his unstable neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) just as Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the dry cleaning mogul who is acquiring his parent's business, is falling for him. Michelle drives Leonard nuts, pulling him close - then turning him into a confidant - without benefits. Actually, Leonard is already nuts, or, at least a manic depressive. Leonard opens the film with a plunge off a Sheepshead Bay pier, a feeble suicide attempt that atually establishes Leonard's will to live, and possibly reveals a secret desire to join the Polar Bear Club - a family favorite. Leonard is living with his parents, working as a gofer in their dry cleaning business, recovering from a broken engagement, taking his medication and working hard at staying normal. The attractive Sandra offers unconditional love, plus a support system, a shot at a real job in the business that will soon belong to her father - a chance to lead the good life in a conventional way. Michelle might as well have a"Dangerous Curves" sign hung around her neck. She's taking pills on more than a recreational basis. She's fully invested in a relationship with Ronald Blatt, a married lawyer who rents her an apartment, takes her to the opera, buys her brandy alexanders and promises to leave his wife. When Michelle seems ready to give up on Blatt, Leonard finally has his chance.

Michelle or Sandra? Leonard is driven by chemistry and circumstance, with absolutely no visible, conscious decision-making process until he's reduced to accepting his single remaining choice or abandoning life. Although Michelle and Blatt also face the love or be loved dilemma, Two Lovers doesn't shed much new light on this theme. It does create a compelling atmosphere and combine a detailed character study with a resolution that feels tidy but not false. Several elements stood out. The apartment Ronald shares with his parents seems like a place every New Yorker has visited, particularly when Sandra begins to seduce Ronald in the hallway with the family photo gallery staring on from the background. The sound is unusual, often exceptional - the thud inside Leonard's head as he trods down the pier to his opening plunge is reminiscent of the prisoners stomping as Phoenix waits offstage at the beginning of Walk The Line. The wind whistles a constant warning as Ronald tries to connect with Michelle in their rooftop hideaway. The supporting roles were well cast and well played without exception. Isabella Rossellini had one extraordinary moment as Leonard's mother, radiating conflicting emotions as he sneaks off on a perilous journey.

If you are a manic depressive living in your parent's apartment, you must see this film immediately and see it often. Let's face it, the flic is a "how-to" manual, where else will you get pointers on how to end up choosing between lovers like Paltrow and Shaw. If you are a middle-aged, married lawyer trying to start a sleezy affair with a young assistant at your own firm, you must see this movie immediately -another how to tip - watch Paltrow's face in the opera scene, As Good As News is not sure if that was acting. For all others, the film is worth renting and might be worth seeing in the theater if you need something to do on a date.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Where God Left His Shoes - But Not His Screenplay

Most of Where God Left His Shoes is a grim slog into ever deepening poverty with Frank Diaz (John Leguizamo) and his family. Frank is a boxer who loses his shot at the big time when he fails to answer the bell. The family is evicted from public housing and moves to a homeless shelter. Frank works as a day laborer who can't fight back when cheated by his boss (Jerry Ferrara - in nasty Turtle mode). A chance for a new apartment is lost when Frank needs to prove he's employed. He can't get a job "on the books" because he's an illiterate, convicted felon. Frank is evicted from the homeless shelter...Starting to get the idea?
Just when the audience begins to suspect it's a focus group for an obscure torture developed by laid off Gitmo contractors, the film begins to find itself. A Christmas Eve father-son job hunt ends with a few genuine, and very moving, moments in which Frank's relationship with his sometimes smart mouthed step son Justin (David Castro) crystallizes into an extraordinary bond. This single golden strand is quickly woven into a confrontation with Justin's biological father and then a warm family scene on the subway, which features the film's only humor. (As Good As News will gladly spoil a bad plot, but we will not give away the only funny thing that happens in this movie, just keep your eye on the candy bar with the peanuts). Finally (understatement is our watchword), the film ends abruptly, locking into the family uber alles theme it has developed in a last minute rush. A merciful ending, because something had to be done to stop this film, but one slightly less satisfactory than a power failure at the theater.

What went wrong? For starters, too much unleavened bad news. Only disaster befalls Frank, who makes Job look like a lottery winner. Even Frank's hopes (new apartment, job with the City) are false. Only a family food tossing contest, staged by Frank to raise morale, penetrates the gloom that pervades the first two thirds of this movie. A disaster or two, or six - no problem in the service of a good story, but please, mix it up a little. Then, let's get real. Where's Aid to Families With Dependent Children? Why is the patriarch of the construction business that employs Frank so slow to follow his own instincts, overrule his creepy and callow son and give Frank a break? Why can't Frank's wife Angela (Leonor Varela -who is presumably not an illiterate convicted felon) work while Frank watches the kids, or at least take a job for long enough to get the family into City housing again? Where do you find homeless shelters that mingle families with single men? An unrelenting stream of bad news is risky. An unrealistic, unrelenting stream of bad news is a bad movie.

This film had a chance to work. A restrained Mr. Leguizamo chews no scenery here, doing yeoman work in a lost cause. He and David Castro, a kid with adult chops, provide some extraordinary scenes together. The final scene on the subway captures real warmth with humor, but it's too little, too late. Don't even rent this one.