erik lundegaard

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Wednesday June 04, 2014

Why America Will Lose the War

I thought of this scene from Joseph Heller's novel “Catch-22” while watching the Swedish dark comedy “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” at SIFF on Sunday night. The discussion is between an old Italian man in a brothel in Rome, and Nately, a romantic, patriotic American:

“America,” he said, “will lose the war. And Italy will win it.”

“America is the stongest and most prosperous nation on earth,” Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. “And the American fighting man is second to none.”

“Exactly,” agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. “Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least properous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that's exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly.”

“I'm sorry I laughed at you. But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don't call that doing very well, do you?”

“But of course I do,” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we're still here. In a few years, you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that's what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I'm quite certain Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.”

Review up later.

Nately at the old Italian man in Catch-22

Nately (Art Garfunkel) and the old Italian man in Mike Nichols' movie version. Sidenote: Garfunkel's casting and filming in Mexico led Paul Simon to pen “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

Posted at 02:00 PM on Jun 04, 2014 in category Books
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Wednesday May 21, 2014

Ward Bond: Oaf, Loudmouth, Anti-Semite

Ward Bond doesn't come off too well in Scott Eyman's biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.” He was a member of the Ford-Wayne alchoholic Irishmen club, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about his association with the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance and the Hollywood blacklist. Eyman writes:

Ward Bond was extremely busy; always in demand as a character actor, he now began to function as a self-appointed Inspector Javert, checking out the anticommunist bona fides of various actors, writers and directors.

In 1947, Anthony Quinn came hat-in-hand to Bond. Film parts were falling through for him because he was a member of the Actor's Lab, which the MPA considered a communist organization. “You a commie, Tony, a red?” Bond asked as he sat on the toilet. Right: the toilet. Prefiguring LBJ. Quinn denied it. He said he was true blue. Bond gave him a pass. 

Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter for John Ford's “The Grapes of Wrath,” referred to the MPA as “that Duke Wayne-Ward Bond outfit,” adding:

So many outrageous things went on that made me ashamed of the whole industry ... think of John Huston having to go and debase himself to an oaf like Ward Bond ...

Actor James Lydon piles on:

Duke was just a private citizen and he kept his beliefs private. Now, Ward Bond was a thickheaded loudmouth ... He was the one screaming all sorts of things that nobody else cared about. 

It gets worse. John Ford owned eight acres in Receda, which became a rehabiliation center for both veterans of Ford's movie and veterans of U.S. wars. Syd Kronenthal was the supervisor—he was also hired to help Marlon Brando play a paraplegic in his first film role—and he remembers the Ford team getting drunk all the time:

They were all very right-wing, and when they got loaded they'd start spewing anti-Semitic remarks. The worst of them was Victor McLaglen, and Ward Bond was anti-Semitic as hell. They either didn't know I was Jewish or they forgot.

And I'm only up to page 200.

Ernie and Bert in "It's a Wonderful Life"

Ward Bond as Bert the cop in “It's a Wonderful Life,” a movie the Motion Picture Alliance would condemn for its negative portrayal of bankers and businessmen. 

Posted at 05:59 AM on May 21, 2014 in category Books
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Thursday April 24, 2014

Should Wayne LaPierre Clean Up After Mass Shootings? An Excerpt from Stephen King's 'Guns'

“One only wishes Wayne LaPierre and his NRA board of directors could be drafted to some of these scenes, where they would be required to put on booties and rubber gloves and help clean up the blood, the brains, and the chunks of intestine still containing the poor wads of half-digested food that were some innocent bystander’s last meal ...

”Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, carried a Glock 19 with a mag capacity of fifteen rounds. He had nineteen clips for it. In addition, he carried a Walther P22 with a ten-shot mag. In all, he was carrying four hundred rounds of ammo. He killed thirty-two students and wounded seventeen more before killing himself.

“Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, carried an Intratec DC9M machine-pistol, more commonly called a Tec-9. With an extended box-type magazine, the Tec-9 can fire up to fifty rounds without reloading. Harris and Klebold killed thirteen and wounded twenty-one.

”Like Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner carried a Glock 19. He killed six, including a child of 9, and wounded fourteen. According to one witness to the event that seriously wounded Congressman Gabby Giffords, Loughner was able to fire so fast that the killing was over before many of the horrified onlookers realized what was happening and opened their mouths to scream.

“James Holmes, who killed twelve and wounded fifty-eight in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, was carrying an M-16 rifle (thirty-round capacity) and a .40 caliber Glock, with a clip that can hold up to seventeen rounds.

”In addition to the Glock 10 Adam Lanza used to kill himself, he carried a Bushmaster AR-15, a light, easily handled, pistol-gripped semiautomatic rifle that can fire thirty rounds in under a minute. In his war against the first grade, Lanza fired multiple thirty-round clips.

“As for the Glock: it was pried from his cold dead hands.”

-- from “Guns: A Kindle Single,” by Stephen King. It's a short read, and the first half is so-so (I don't buy his argument on how America doesn't have a violent culture), but the second half makes up for it. Plus it's only 99 cents anytime.

Guns, a Kindle Single, by Stephen King

Posted at 02:50 PM on Apr 24, 2014 in category Books
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Saturday April 19, 2014

The Only Goldman Sachs Employee Arrested by the FBI in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Meltdown

Most of Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” focuses on Brad Katsuyama, his team, and the revelation of how the game is rigged, the high-frequency trading game, and what Brad and his team try to do to fix it. But there's a chapter in the middle of the book about Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian programmer for Goldman Sachs, that may be even more depressing.

Initially I thought Serge would wind up on Brad's team. That's how Lewis handles most of these chapters. He'll introduce someone, give us their background—talents, smarts, disillusionments—and wind the story around to where they hook up with Brad.

Serge's story is different. He's a sought-after programmer that winds up at Goldman Sachs in the mid-2000s.

What does his story reveal? The kind of awful person who thrives in our society:

The programmer types were different from the trader types. The trader types were far more alive to the bigger picture, to their context. They knew their worth in the marketplace down to the last penny. They understood the connection between what they did and how much money was made, and they were good at exaggerating the importance of the link. Serge wasn’t like that. He was a little-picture person, a narrow problem solver. “I think he didn’t know his own value,” says the recruiter.

What else? How little companies and corporations look to the long-term; how all the goals are this year, this quarter, this month, this week, today:

After a few months working on the forty-second floor at One New York Plaza, Serge came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do with Goldman’s high-frequency trading platform was to scrap it and build a new one from scratch. His bosses weren’t interested. “The business model of Goldman Sachs was, if there is an opportunity to make money right away, let’s do that,” he says. “But if there was something long-term, they weren’t that interested.“

A few weeks ago at a nonprofit fundraiser, I heard a speech from a grassroots organizer in which he encouraged everyone in the audience to not think of the world as a zero-sum game. You don't have to fall if I rise; we can both rise. I nodded. Then I thought, ”Except there are people out there who will think of it as a zero-sum game. And you can't change them. And they will always have the advantage because of it."

Here's an example from Lewis' book. Open source coding is a great, utopian concept. You take, you improve, you return. We all rise. But some people just take:

For their patching material he and the other Goldman programmers resorted, every day, to open source software—software developed by collectives of programmers and made freely available on the Internet. The tools and components they used were not specifically designed for financial markets, but they could be adapted to repair Goldman’s plumbing. He discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general, rather than financial, use. “Once I took some open source components, repackaged them to come up with a component that was not even used at Goldman Sachs,” he says. “It was basically a way to make two computers look like one, so if one went down the other could jump in and perform the task.” He’d created a neat way for one computer to behave as the stand-in for another. He described the pleasure of his innovation this way: “It created something out of chaos. When you create something out of chaos, essentially, you reduce the entropy in the world.” He went to his boss, a fellow named Adam Schlesinger, and asked if he could release it back into open source, as was his inclination. “He said it was now Goldman’s property,” recalls Serge. “He was quite tense.”

There's horror in this chapter. Serge gets tired of working at Goldman Sachs, of repairing old code rather than starting from scratch; so when he has the chance to start with another compamy, building their code from scratch, he takes it. The pay is less but he still takes it. He also emails himself some of the open source coding he improved upon at Goldman Sachs. This code would be useless in his new job, which was using a completely different programming language, but he wanted it anyway. Just in case.

You see what's coming, don't you? Just before he leaves he's arrested by the FBI for stealing Goldman Sachs' proprietary information. He's charged and put on trial. And convicted. And sentenced to eight years in federal prison.

All of this is bad enough. But Lewis saves the coup de grace, the final outrage, for near the end of the chapter:

Thus the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested by the FBI in the aftermath of a financial crisis Goldman had done so much to fuel was the employee Goldman asked the FBI to arrest. 

At least there's an appeals process, and, a year later, on the day his lawyer argues before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Serge is released. Only to be—believe it or not—re-arrested for the same crime. Just different code. So no double jeopardy.

I don't know if this story can take more irony but here it is. By the end of the book? As Brad and his team work to create a more equitable Wall Street? Goldman Sachs is one of the good guys. 

Wall Street bull

Posted at 11:12 AM on Apr 19, 2014 in category Books
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Sunday April 06, 2014

Flash Boys: Which of the Wall Street Banks Rushed to Engage in Shitty Practices?

Wall Street bull

Wall Street bull.

So I'm reading Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” about high-frequency trading on Wall Street and what it means. Much recommend, by the way.

Lewis is good at this kind of thing. Not just describing the complexities of Wall Street to financial doofuses like me; he good at telling the stories of people who figure out what the system is doing and/or missing, its market inefficiences, and what these people then do as a result. So Billy Beane exploited the truer, Jamesian numbers of Major League Baseball that other, old school GMs discounted. So Steve Eisman saw the disaster securitized subprime mortgages would become for Wall Street, and shorted them. So here, Brad Katsuyama, the most Canadian of Canadians, the polite, Royal Bank of Canada rep on Wall Street, figured out, with a crack team he assembled like in the best Hollywood heist movies (or in the first season of “The Wire”), how Wall Street, around 2007, became rigged because of high frequency trading. 

Essentially Wall Street firms are using computers and fiber optic cable to do what would be illegal if human beings did it. They front-run trades. It would be as if you wanted to buy something, X, and, as you were buying it, someone came between you and X, bought it, and then immediately sold it to you at a higher price. When you got your credit card receipt back, the price had jumped, and you didn't know why, and you never saw who came between you and the thing you wanted.

It should be illegal. It's not. But it's definitely shitty.

And which of the Wall Street banks rushed to engage in shitty behavior?

To Spread this seemed an obvious restriction: The [fiber-optic cable] line was more valuable the fewer people that had access to it. The whole point of the line was to create inside the public markets a private space, accessible only to those willing to pay the tens of millions of dollars in entry fees.

“Credit Suisse was outraged,” says a Spread employee who negotiated with the big Wall Street banks. “They said, ‘You’re enabling people to screw their customers.'" The employee tried to argue that this was not true—that it was more complicated than that—but in the end Credit Suisse refused to sign the contract. Morgan Stanley, on the other hand, came back to Spread and said, We need you to change the language. “We say, ‘But you’re okay with the restrictions?’ And they say, ‘Absolutely, this is totally about optics.’ We had to wordsmith it so they had plausible deniability.” Morgan Stanley wanted to be able to trade for itself in a way it could not trade for its customers; it just didn’t want to seem as if it wanted to.

Of all the big Wall Street banks, Goldman Sachs was the easiest to deal with. “Goldman had no problem signing it,” the Spread employee said.

Wall Street and financial folks are howling about the book, apparently. Here, Lewis answers back.

More soon.

Posted at 08:01 AM on Apr 06, 2014 in category Books
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