Deepwater Oil Slick

For those not following the story: a huge off-shore deepwater oil drilling rig owned by Transocean and contracted to BP called “Deepwater Horizon” exploded on April 22th. Initially they claimed the disaster was contained but it turns out the rig is spewing oil underwater. According to the White House report (released this morning), 1178 people have been deployed, 76 response vessels are in the area, and five staging areas set up to contain the mess. It’s effecting four states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Yesterday, people in New Orleans claimed smelling intense fumes.

The US has called out the Navy and the Air Force.

Roundup of images and links:

NOAA on Deepwater Incident with a huge list of pdfs and images.

Earth Observatory images from NASA of the slick over several days. The best pictures of the oil slick from space are from the Earth Observatory here.

US Coast Guard Deepwater response videos and photographs.

April 25th, the oil slick from space, close up view, courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA.

NOAA, US Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, US Coast Guard, BP, and Transocean have put up a response page. Looks like it was hastily tossed up on a server at speed but it does link to the press releases. The NOAA site is the best for information.

Some news:

Oil Spill From Sunken Rig May Be Serious from National Geographic.

Pictures; Gulf oil spill larger than thought (Examiner — Dallas). Contains slideshow.

Wall Street Journal on the business effects of the slick (all harshly negative) with more charts.

If you are joining the “Iced Tea” Protest

If you are a liberal who is upset over the new Arizona Immigration Law and you want to join the “Iced Tea” protest and refuse to drink Arizona-Brand Ice Tea to show your support for unformed anger pointed at more anger:

They’re not in Arizona.

They’re from Long Island and they manufacture in Ohio. It says so on their web page which is merely a google search away. (Click on About… Contact.)

Bobblehead Obama sez: Don’t be an idiot, hippies. Support local in-US businesses.

The Arizona Immigration Law

The new Arizona Immigration Law is a hot talking point on the Internet right now with everyone (even me!) having an opinion. Unfortunate as it is, we are facing an ugly confluence of events that are coming to an uglier head:

* Unemployment for the under-educated and only high school educated is at 31% while the fully educated (graduate school) are below the rate for full employment making for a very have/have-not recession*. The manufacturing jobs that used to bolster that percentage of the unemployed or underemployed have disappeared, many over the Mexican border.

* The US’s insane drug laws are having some very nasty and long-reaching effects, especially on the drug wars in Mexico.

* Demographics are changing rapidly. What used to be a majority white nation is rapidly becoming a sort of tan nation and with that comes a loss of racial identity. Soon Caucasian populations will be another minority.

* TV news media is tapping into this undercurrent and resentment and feeding it back on itself.

The natural outgrowth of anger and resentment is scapegoating. For Arizona, it’s scapegoating brown (or ‘driving while tan’). True, a real immigration issue along the border exists and the complaints have validity. There is a real organized crime and drugs issue bleeding over the border. No one has put any solutions on the table. Pressure has built. Frustration leads to resentment leads to anger leads to repressing a legitimate minority** with the tool the majority controls: the government and social services apparatus.

The short term effects will be:

* A bigger drop in the Arizona economy as businesses pull out;
* More frustration as the recession deepens;
* Law suits against municipalities and the state for arrests and attempted deportation of legal citizens who have no ‘papers’;
* Paranoia and fear and more anger.

Even if this law is struck down in Court:

* The local police force will still feel empowered by the State to “deal” with the problem, because their local boys gave them the power even if “that Muslim Alien Obama” took the power to “deal” with the problem away.

* In the short term, the new immigration law will turn into electoral successes for the hard-right politicians in Arizona because they are “doing something” about the problem while “standing up” to the Federal Government who is “repressing them.” The Hispanic population of Arizona is 30%. Even if they all out en masse to vote, they still wouldn’t vote anyone out of office. They would need other minorities and some sympathetic majority. Right now, the majority is sympathetic to the law.

* The hard right will become more shrill. Activist Judges “take away the power to legislate from the people”. Rep. Duncan Hunter wants to repeal the 14th Amendment. The far left will become just as shrill in return and the shouting will become louder.

I wonder where this road ends and, historically, it never ends anywhere good. In 20th century extremes it ends in brutality. In this case, does it end with enormous Detention Centers? People being forcibly chipped?*** Finding bodies in the woods? Does it end with mandating everyone carry some sort of “citizenship card” that can be queried by authorities at will, not unlike living in China or other repressive regimes?**** Does it end with the circle widening from “brown people” to “brown people who are Hispanic and Islamic” to “people who do not uphold our community standards?” What are those community standards?

I am stumbling on an end here because I have nothing except to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. I believe this is bad for the State of Arizona in the short term and very bad for the US in the long term until we start turning off the TV. Empowering cops to randomly pull people over and demand to “see their papers” on suspicion of “driving brown” is not good for anyone.

Wow. Meandering post.

* According all of the statistics I’ve seen, the recession for engineering ended in 2001. There was an ugly blip in 2008 but it’s been over for some time for the technologically inclined.
** The legal Hispanic population of Arizona has most certainly lived in that area far, far, far, longer than the white population. By several centuries.
*** This was seriously suggested.
**** The security implications of a ‘citizenship card’ for identity theft is enormous, dangerous, and terrifying. It is one thing to have one’s bank account pillaged. It is another to be accused of being illegal, arrested and shipped off because someone hacked a database online. Don’t think it won’t happen — because these things will become incredibly valuable on the street if such a thing existed. Passports certainly are.

Mad Men

Right off the failure of Treme (which I’m still mildly disappointed), Netflix delivered to me Mad Men. And I have to say, the show is glorious. Remember: I was addicted to the Sopranos, even when it became tawdry and lame. I have great fondness for terrible, awful, reprehensible characters. I love Don Draper and his tribe of moronic droogs. I love Joan, Queen of the Secretarial Pool more.  It’s like a horrible Clockwork Orange set in a 1960 advertising agency.  Yes, I am coming to it late — I know it is in the middle of its third season — but Netflix will catch me up. If I was home right now I would be marathoning Mad Men.

AMC has Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In October, it will have Walking Dead which I am looking forward to (and directed by Frank Darabont). I wonder — is AMC of all places the new hotness?

Goodbye, Treme

Having done a multi-year highly scientific study, Eric figures I can only keep track of two hour-long TV shows at a time. After that I wander off. For several years, I filled this with some high-quality TV — the Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, various HBO Sunday Night dramas. I haven’t had anything since the end of the last season of True Blood, so I thought I would give the new David Simon show Treme a chance. He wrote the Wire. How bad could it be?

My limit are three shows before it is voted off the island. If I am not grabbed by three shows it is time to walk away. And, after three shows, and this is three hours of HBO TV and not broadcast TV, I could not say what the hell this show is about. I think it’s about New Orleans after Katrina? Sort of? A long time ago I read John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” and within Garp there’s a book that Garp wrote as a book within a book — except it’s boring as hell and I cannot for the life of me remember what the book within book is actually about because it isn’t about anything. It’s kind of like that. Bwah! I was complaining last night that I was trapped in a Norman Mailer novel with no way out except screaming myself to insanity.

It’s not that Treme is bad. It’s merely deathly boring. It is one of the dullest shows I have ever seen. After three hours of television I am not certain about the names of the characters but they seem to have very full lives doing nothing but wandering around in various states of upset. It has one or two plotlines that might be interesting but they are on screen for 5 minutes an episode while the show cuts away to (admittedly good) music. Nothing develops except the “we hate people who come to help us because we’re massive jerkwads” plot — which might be true but it’s just not good TV. I’m pretty sure that by the end of three hours of Deadwood there had been some quality swearin’ and killin’.

I know the media snobs over at the Slate Culture Gabfest loved this show but I pour my unending scorn upon them for leading me astray. I am giving high quality HBO drama — one of the staples of my life! — the boot for, most likely, this season’s Dr. Who because it’s written by Steven Moffat, and he could write a show full of static and I would still watch it*. Why? Extremely good TV.  I want my brain to be filled with stuff, dammit!

To slake my TV lust I have a bunch of episodes of Breaking Bad queued up that I am guaranteed to enjoy. I just feel so guilty. How can I not like an HBO drama? One given a second season sight unseen? But it’s so boring. Maybe it gets a plot and I can check in next season. Or something.

Goodbye, Treme. You were lame.

* I love Coupling. Irrationally.

In Which I Recommend Comics

It is no great secret that I am an enormous comics nerd. (Or maybe it is? WHO KNOWS.) I was recently asked: if I could recommend any comics to someone to get them started, what would I recommend? The big bookstores now stock full walls of comic books next to the Impossible Walls of Manga with no introduction what to buy or what to start. Does one buy Batman? Avengers? Daredevil? Where does one start?

In considering the question at hand, I swiftly removed anything that required 30 years of comics of multiple different lines to figure out what is going on in today’s issues. It’s hard to recommend, for example, “Grant Morrison’s JLA run” without having background in JLA. I dropped anything with excessive T&A, ridiculous violence, or anything requiring a certain level of pre-assumed nerdiness. I also removed any comics like Planetary which require an understanding of the comics it references. Then I peered at my comics shelf.

My Quick Cheat Sheet:

1. Bill Willingham’s Fables. While some are not thrilled with the overarching metaplot that develops in the later collections of Fables, the original collection, Legends in Exile, is accessible, well-written, well-drawn and requires knowledge only of the standard children’s fairy tales. Some disagree, but Fables has won approximately 15 billion Eisner Awards.*  My #1 pick for a starter comic line.

2. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. I adore Hellboy. Everyone I have ever recommended Hellboy to has also loved Hellboy. It is physically impossible not to adore Hellboy. Sure, it has violence, but the stories are some of the best weird tales ever to appear in comic book form. Read Hellboy.

3. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Sandman is the old standby, the original gateway drug. When comics went down the dark hole of T&A and ultraviolence in the 90s, the DC imprint Vertigo brought intelligence back to comics storytelling with Sandman. Start with Preludes and Nocturnes. It’s what got me back into comics after a many year hiatus…

4. David Peterson’s Mouse Guard. Only Series Fall 1152 collection is out in paperback. Winter 1152 is still hardcover. Regardless, Mouse Guard is wonderful — beautifully illustrated with a wonderfully written story about the perils of mouse Paladins defending their homes against mouse uprising. If you get anything off this list, it should be Mouse Guard. Go check out the website here and give David Peterson all your money to encourage him to make more.

5. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim. Yes, it now has a movie and a video game coming out. And I avoided it for years because it was ‘too hip’ but this was a terrible horrible mistake. Scott Pilgrim is indeed about this guy who meets his true love and must fight her seven evil exs. In manga-style. With kung-fu and sword fights. And sound effects. With the power of RAWK. One of the funniest comics ever written.  Sheer brilliance in comic form.

6. Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers. In a world where people with super powers that are relatively common, two cops follow up on “Powers homicides.” One of the cops used to be a super-hero but now he lost all his powers — although he still have deep roots in the “Powers” community. Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl? is one of my favorite comic book stories of all time. It’s beautiful film noir and cop procedural set in a super power universe.

7. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and Palestine from Fantagraphics. This is probably not to everyone’s taste but Joe Sacco blends embedded journalism on the ground with his art to make very compelling graphic novels. His Footnotes in Gaza is up for (yet another) Eisner this year. I find his work fascinating and combining on the ground political reporting + drawn pictures gives the tales emotional impact. Also, Fantagraphics offers Love and Rockets, often popular with the “I love comics but not superhero comics” set**. Unfortunately, not often stocked at the big box stores.

8. Alan Moore’s From Hell. Yeah, it’s a classic but of all of Alan Moore’s work, From Hell stands out as my favorite.*** It is a complete novel, it’s about Jack the Ripper, it’s fascinating and extremely well-written with an enormous bibliography.

9. Garth Ennis’s Preacher. It has been re-released into bigger compilations!**** The story of a Preacher whose congregation was murdered by a supernatural creature named Genesis and now crosses the United States to (literally) find God. Also from the 90s but one of the best of the 90s. Has a beginning, a middle and an ending. A complete story.

10. Brian Vaughan’s Y the Last Man. Yorick’s story about a disease that wipes out all men in the world except him and his cross-US journey to get on a boat and get to Australia to find his girlfriend is clinging tenaciously to my list. It’s a great road-trip comic books which includes Another fine Eisner winner and another one with a start, middle and ending.

There’s other stuff that I really enjoy but I could write this post for the next year and never get through them all. I mean, there’s no JMS Rising Stars on this list.***** Nor is Walking Dead. Nor some of the indie stuff I love like Two-Fisted Science. So there’s 10 series — enough to empty out any bank account and fill a shelf with dead trees covered in print.

I was going to limit this list to 5 but then I got typing… sad.

* In 2008, it was 30 + a Hugo. It is nominated this year again.
** I have only read small amounts of L&R so I cannot recommend it.
*** Watchmen is great but it needs so much context to ‘get’ it that it instantly fails off my ‘easy to recommend’ list. I don’t love V for Vendetta. I don’t love Swamp Thing as much as From Hell.
**** So on my birthday list.
***** I have heard your criticism of putting Y the Last Man above Rising Stars and have moved on. It was a fight which one got the last spot.

Open Letter to Book Publishers

Dear Book Publishers (all of you):

I am not a huge believer in the universal maxim of the long tail but it has some merit because I have given in to it. Convenience of the online world makes it both realistic and generates sales. While I understand that music != book publishing, imagine this scenario:

– Someone online refers to me a band. In this example we will use the Indie band Mogwai. I look up Mogwai on youtube and listen to several songs.

– I like these songs. Instead of spending the next month hunting down Mogwai in a mass-market record store, where I will surely fail, I fire up iTunes and give $9.99 for the album. Certainly Apple takes their cut but some of this flows to the band.

– It goes to my iPod where I inflct the songs on everyone around me.

– I enjoy these songs and I tell others to look into it, generating more instant sales.

– I like Mogwai so much I look for “bands like Mogwai” like, say, Explosions in the Sky.  I may indeed spend more money!

More listening, more downloading, and perhaps more purchases in the halo of one person mentioning one band. I love music; I do this often. Yes, CD sales have crashed but easy access to the media for a reasonable (lower than the CD itself) price has ensured that not only do I not pirate and will not pirate, but I am happy to fork money over. $9.99 for a complete album of indie goodness is, to me, a reasonable price point.

But right now in books this happens:

– I find a book from a book review (usually, let’s face it, NPR) I would like to read.

– If I am exceedingly lucky the book is available for my Kindle and I download it.

– I enjoy the book! I look for “more like this.”

– The old NOT FOUND sound from Family Feud* plays. Either not found or exceedingly expensive. More often than not, not found.

– Sure I could order a dead tree book from Amazon or go on a quest but I am reading off my Kindle where life is simply simpler for me.

– I will not buy “books like this.” Sale lost.

You know, I am supremely irked at the lack of back catalog available on the Kindle. I realize that getting these books into digital format with professional layout is what we call a “jobs program.” But you cannot tell me for a moment that all those, say for example, Pynchon books** sitting in the literature section (read: book report section) of the bookstore actually sell and that you won’t at least get halo sales by people simply clicking on the “books like this” link in electronic form, in a form that takes up minimal space on a HDD RAID Array somewhere.

I totally want a publishing industry. I want gatekeepers to hold back the tidal wave of crap. I want editors. But we need to acknowledge that it’s the content that’s important and not the paper. Sure, I really would prefer all my books to be in dead tree form with that rippling sound of the pages and the satisfaction of a book mark moving further in a book but reality is that I want to read AND run around like a maniac and I want to give you money and the device is fitting into my lifestyle. Just like it is fitting into other people’s lifestyles. I am hardly alone.

So look. Start scanning in that back catalog and not just the stuff available from Penguin Classics. Stop fighting over the price of new releases and embrace the long tail. Price them reasonably. Because right now, you’re losing sales and your friendly customers are all hunting for that long tail book as a badly formatted PDF on bittorrent out of sheer frustration.

I understand there may be contractual issues that need to be worked out but I want to give you money. Why will you not take my money? I am boggled.

Love, me.

* I’m old.
** GRRR. And no Nabokov — DOUBLE GRR.

Landscapers

We were stood up by A&J Landscaping of Laurel, MD who did not bother to keep their appointment. I waited all day for them to show up and they just simply did not. If you need a landscaper, do not call them.

I am in dire need of a landscaper because we have dead trees from the storm that need to be taken out and a hole under the porch. This is the sixth local service I have tried to get out to our house. I’m am a little floored — contractors literally do not want my money.

Does anyone have any recommendations for someone to call? Someone who shows up? My bar is pretty low right now. All I need is someone to show.

The post is brought to you by lekhonee v0.7

[Review] David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace is an acquired taste, a bit like hot sauce or sushi. I started with the essay Consider the Lobster in the now sadly defunct Gourmet magazine. Actually, this isn’t true. I found some other essay online that I read and greatly enjoyed but now I cannot find it again so I will start with Consider the Lobster.

After Consider the Lobster, I worked through his collected essays to get to Infinite Jest, a 1000 page tome of a book with 200 pages of absolutely essential footnotes. The closest work to Infinite Jest, the Internet tells me, is Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and if you like Pynchon you will like DFW. This is undoubtedly true; both specialize in dense and complex works of weird non-linear fiction. The difference is DFW is on the Kindle and Pynchon is not to spite me and me personally so the one on the Kindle got read and the other one did not.

The best way to describe the book is a dense post-modern surrealist novel that is often not surrealist at all. It focuses on strong themes of depression, drug addiction and recovery, fall and redemption, tennis, Quebecqois separatism, terrorism, adolescence, suicide, LARPing, film theory, philosophy, and other fun topics all set to a tone that is best envisioned, bizarrely enough, fully animated. The world is science fiction the same way Vonnegut’s worlds are science fiction: it is a vague near future where even the years have a corporate sponsor, everyone is wired into their ‘entertainments’ and New England has been turned into an enormous toxic waste dump for electoral reasons. The future is full of American’s inalienable rights to consume and consume until they cannot consume any more, pleasure and fulfillment, and the Infinite Jest being the ultimate pleasure, a movie so pleasurable after watching it once, a victim will kill to watch it again and again and again.  Now if only someone could weaponize infinite pleasure in the form of a DVD…

The story follows two separate storylines — one at an Elite Tennis Academy high school and one at a drug and alcohol addiction recovery halfway house down the hill.  The cast of characters feels vast at first and impossible to track with their special ticks and personalities but this turns out to not be an insurmountable task. Both the Ennet Recovery House and the Enfield Tennis Academy are populated with dozens of characters, each with their own special personalities that manage to come through on the page. Some characters show up and hang around for a scene and wander out again. Some are given full and rich backgrounds until they, too, drift away. But through it the two main threads of story never quite touch except in one paragraph possibly in a flash-forward early in the book — although several characters from the two threads often cross.

Like Catch-22, Infinite Jest is not in chronological order. The story jumps around showing a future scene and then flashes back to show the full runup to that scene. (Arguably, the entire book is a run-up to the first, opening scene.)  Sometimes a chunk of essential narrative is told in a long footnote.  This is where the ‘challenge’ comes in — sometimes it is difficult to tell where in the cut-up machine of Infinite Jest a certain scene fits. The narrative jumps around point of view from character to character. One long stretch is told entirely in script-form with puppets. Another is the story of a particularly strange LARP played with tennis rackets and giant maps. The book is not difficult to read, not in the way a dense text from Victorian England can be difficult to physically read. The text itself is quite easy and quick to read. The book itself is structurally challenging.  This is not a band thing.

Infinite Jest is highly referential in places — Dostoevsky, Melville, Shakespeare, Joyce.  The Enfield Tennis Acadamy is full of Hamlet references in the last half of the book. Even the Ghost of the Father! The skull! Gravediggers! The Queen and Polonius! The final scene as Hamlet goes off and Horatio is left behind. Read or refresh Hamlet before picking up Infinite Jest.  Most of the play is embedded in the book.

My favorite part of the book was the last 150 or so pages of Don Gately, the main character of the Recovery House arc, laid in a hospital bed hallucinating his life and the Ghost and the truths to complete his Redemption cycle. It is probably DFW’s very best writing and it is deeply compelling writing.

I want to recommend this book. Obviously I enjoyed it. I read the whole book and the required footnotes. The formal requirement is you must like strange, unconventional, and weird literary books that do not conform to the basic novel form.  I would say — start with the essay above, and then the other essays, and then the short stories, and kind of eeeease into it. It’s a very cool book but it is extremely mind-bendy and challenging.

The SEC vs. Goldman Sachs

The banner across the Wall Street Journal this weekend was “SEC SUES GOLDMAN SACHS FOR FRAUD.” It was everywhere this morning — across blogs and on twitter and on news sites. The gist is straight forward:

– A couple of guys in the mortgage packaging side of the business figured that this housing bubble nonsense could not go on forever.
– They worked with some hedge funds to package up the crappiest of the absolute crap in mortgages, stuff clearly going to fail, into securities.
– They got the ratings agencies to brand it all ‘AAA’ platinum safe and secure.
– They went and put insurance on all off these securities through AIG.
– They sold ’em to investors.
– They collected millions in fees for billions in business.
– They placed their own short sell bets on the securities.
– Bubble burst!
– They launder taxpayer money through AIG to cover the insurance bets AND they pay off handsomely in their short sells.
– Profit!

This whole little bit of shenanigans is covered awesomely in Episode #405 of This American Life, the Inside Job put together with our friends at Pro Publica, where covered Magnetar Capital, the King of Utterly Crappy CDOs. They even wrote a little song!. It’s catchy! It is show-tuney! Granted, the current SEC fraud case is not against Magnetar but against a division called ABACUS but as this investigation spreads out, it will certainly pull them in.

Part of me thinks this is a political maneuver from the White House to go after the Big Kahuna on what is essentially fraud and money laundering to sell their Banking Reform package and use political pressure to get that passed. The other part of me, the part of me that still has this sad little shred of Hope, thinks the SEC grew a pair and they wouldn’t issue a throw down if they didn’t have the evidence in hand.

My hope for someone growing a pair is slim.

Best Case Scenario: The executive suite of Goldman Sachs gets taken down on Fraud. Several C-levels perp-walk. Goldman Sachs is used as a big stick for pulling apart the investment banks from the depository banks and the derivative market gets regulated. I do not think this will happen, sadly.

Probable Scenario: Goldman Sachs settles with the SEC behind closed doors for a small slap on the wrist fee of a few hundred million — and considering they are handing out $3.5b in bonuses this week for 3 months worth of work, a few hundred million is change between the couch cushions for them, it goes back to fleecing us all in business as usual. No one goes to jail. Or if anyone goes to jail, it’s some low level flunky.

I do want the US Government to grow a pair. A President has gone after a big financial institution and won before. But it means a pair of cast iron steel and I’m not seeing it.

… but then again, the Germans are starting to look into this too, and they are merciless bastards. Hope springs eternal! In the form of the Germans getting vengeance for bringing down the Euro with their steely knives.