Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Invisible Hand ... of Phil and Bill!

From "What Created This Monster?" , an examination of the Bear Stearns bailout and "the private trading of complex instruments that lurk in the financial shadows ...," by Nelson D. Schwartz and Julie Creswell, the New York Times, March 23:
A milestone in the deregulation [of derivatives] effort came in the fall of 2000, when a lame-duck session of Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. The bill effectively kept much of the market for derivatives and other exotic instruments off-limits to agencies that regulate more conventional assets like stocks, bonds and futures contracts.

Supported by Phil Gramm, then a Republican senator from Texas and chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, the legislation was a 262-page amendment to a far larger appropriations bill. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton that December.

Mr. Gramm, now the vice chairman of UBS, the Swiss investment banking giant, was unavailable for comment. (UBS has recently seen its fortunes hammered by ill-considered derivative investments.)

"I don’t believe anybody understood the significance of this,” says Mr. Greenberger [Michael, a former senior regulator at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission], describing the bill’s impact.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Words Fail Her (And Us)

We suppose Wednesday’s “no contest” plea by Priscilla Slade (looking strangely like a younger version of Sanford and Son’s Aunt Esther in the daily newspaper’s front page photo of Thursday) brings her saga of taxpayer-funded home makeovers to an unsatisfactory conclusion, but as Official Grammarian-in-Residence of the Greater Houston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area we remained unsettled by the tortured illogic of the “statement” the former TSU president was forced to deliver in court before she was allowed to, as she put it, “move on with my life to bigger and better things.” It was a strange little ditty that went something like this: "
"I accept responsibility as the president of Texas Southern University with regard to the expenditures described in the indictment as misapplications and not ensuring that Texas Southern University policies were followed. If I had the opportunity to do things differently, I would do so. My thoughts and prayers are with the Texas Southern University family to whom I apologize."
Ordinarily, a person admitting guilt or seeking credit would say she “accept[s] responsibility … for” some deed, not “accept[s] responsibility with regard to” the deed. The deletion of the preposition “for”---and you can bet it was deleted in whatever negotiations led to the parsing of Slade’s statement---also renders the second half of the first compound sentence nearly incomprehensible: “I accept responsibility … with regard to … not ensuring that Texas Southern University policies were followed.” Then check out the way the crimes for which Slade “accepted” responsibility with regard to are described: “the expenditures described in the indictment as misapplications … ” We know that "no contest" is not an admission of guilt, but this "statement" puts Slade about as far from an actual admission of responsibility/guilt/whatever as possible within the confines of the English language.

As we noted previously, that Mike DeGeurin (looking strangely like Prof. Irwin C. Corey in the daily newspaper’s front-page photo) is a hell of a defender. No wonder he and Aunt Esther were grinning so madly.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Wages of Assimilation

From "Neurotic Who Makes Scary World Her Banquet," a review of Patricia Pearson's A Brief History of Anxiety, the New York Times, March 19:
... the worship of reason and science, by encouraging the notion that human beings can control their environment, has created a terrible fault line in the modern psyche, although not all societies suffer equally. Mexicans have lots to worry about but don’t. The World Mental Health Survey, conducted in 2002, found that only 6.6 percent of Mexicans had ever experienced a major episode of anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, to their north, 28.8 percent of the American population has been afflicted with anxiety, the highest level in the world. Mexicans who move to the United States adapt, becoming more anxious.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Myron Anderson’s Listening Back: Another Good Thing about Houston

One in an Ongoing But Very Sporadic Series On Our Town’s Many Fine But Perhaps Not Readily Apparent Qualities and Attractions, Which We Often Overlook as We Spend Seemingly Interminable Moments Going From There to Here and Back …

A month or so back, when only but a select few bloggers were calling attention to the somewhat overripe commentary of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, we heard Sen. Obama declare that the choice facing Americans is between “marching forward or looking back.” At that moment an image bloomed in our mind’s eye and we could see them, the Obamaphiles, coming just over the rise, hut-hutting along, lockstep, brimming audaciously with hope, resolutely fired-up and ready to go, somewhere, while the very air seemed to billow with the strains of some jaunty martial music---was it the theme from The Bridge Over the River Kwai they were whistling? At the head, of course, was the senator himself, sporting a Lincolnesque stovepipe and pair of vintage Chuck Taylors and tossing his baton into what seemed like the upper reaches of the stratosphere.

The mind’s music was alluring and we felt the pull---we could see our self teamed with the senator in an old man’s game of two-on-two, us raining downs 3s from way behind the line, like World B. Free in his prime, Obama using those sharp elbows to clear the lane and put back our rare misfire, or kick the ball back out to us with Russell-like precision, and after two decisive to-11-by-ones victories we’d knock off for some green tea and foreign policy discussion---but ultimately we knew that we must open our eyes again and draw the blinds on the passing procession, for we are a “looking back” sort of individual and attended too many Mardi Gras parades as a youth.

Fortunately, the next day was Friday, a day we were once forced to observe by the consumption of fish at the L.J. Alleman School cafeteria (frozen fish sticks or an ice cream-scooper of a substance passed off as étouffée, which we believe was a lump of white rice doused with ketchup and containing two or three “shrimp”) and which we much later voluntarily welcomed with early-evening rounds of “Jack” and billiards while the unpleasant, hectoring sound of the Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See wafted through the smoke-choked rooms of The Brass Rail. But these days, the days of our early dotage, we celebrate Fridays not with dated religious superstition or barroom debauchery but with a quick morning listen over our car radio to Myron Anderson’s Listening Back show on KTSU, 90.9 FM. It’s a definite improvement on our previous Friday rituals.

Mr. Anderson, or Myron, if we can be so familiar, has been on the air since 1981 (we believe that’s what we heard him say during his last anniversary show) and since the show’s debut there has been much more music produced for listening back. In fact, Myron says he plays music for people who came of age in the “’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s”---a declaration we found sobering when we realized that persons whose salad days passed in the 1990s might now be listening to “oldies.” Yet Myron seems to stick mostly to the music made by black Americans from roughly the early 1960s through the mid 1970s, and for that we and other H-Town oldsters are grateful.

On some Fridays, when we must ferry our 14-year-old Obama supporter to school, we find our self fighting for our right to listen back as the middle schooler presumptuously switches the dial over to 104 or 96-point-something, whatever it is. Ordinarily we shrug and let it pass---radio, after all, is for the young---but on Fridays we must slap her hand and assert our parental prerogative. We tell her to listen closely and learn. Greek and Latin may no longer be necessary, but an educated person should be able to speak with knowledge of Gamble-Huff and the Philadelphia Sound and know the words to every song Otis Redding ever sang, even the obscure shit that wasn’t released until 30 years after his death.

On the morning after we heard Obama delineate the choice facing modern Americans we were riding alone, running late and cursing the red lights and the other motorists who had the gall to be out driving on the same roadway as us. Oblivious to our plight, Myron and a sidekick were reminiscing about great blaxploitation (not a term Myron used) flicks of the early 1970s, the ones we so enjoyed as a Young White Negro-in-Training, and playing music from those movies. He spun Bobby Womack’s swelling theme for Across 110th Street, then concluded a mini-Star Set with Womack’s strangely beautiful Hairy Hippie (“I’d like to help a man, when he’s down, but how can I help ya, Harry, when you’re sleepin’ on the ground? Sorry, Harry, you’re just too much weight to carry 'round.”), which was attached to no movie but was a great song nonetheless. Then Myron spoke lovingly of The Liberation of L.B. Jones, reeling off the names of all the actors and giving special mention to Lola Falana, who, as he observed, had “some legs.” We heard no more, for we had arrived at our destination, but we needed no more, for Myron had set us in mind of the Fridays when we were young, full of Jack and free of cafeteria fish sticks, and the whole world---perhaps even Lola Falana’s legs---seemed open and beckoning.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Urban Hygiene

Our wife reports that she was returning from a field trip with a contingent of high schoolers recently when the portside of the bus erupted into raucous laughter and energetic rubbernecking near the intersection of Fannin and Richmond. The cause of the commotion was a woman who was nonchalantly shaving her legs at the bus stop. Apparently aware of her audience, the woman raised an arm and gave her pit a vigorous swipe or two with the razor. After the bus moved on and the laughter subsided our wife used the occasion for a hastily improvised admonition on the importance of staying in school, getting good grades, taking AP courses, etc.---lest you wind up shaving at a Metro stop, y’understand---although it seems an equally valid lesson to be drawn from the encounter is the need to keep one’s self spruce, even when one lacks a fixed address. Whatever the case, we suspect the spectacle was much more entertaining, and educational, than the visit to the theater.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Great Days Are Over, But the Love Remains

We were surprised to learn of the fancy-pants journalism award recently bestowed upon the executive editor of our hometown newspaper until we recalled that under his leadership the daily implemented one of the most exciting innovations on today’s media landscape, one that has stanched the loss of subscribers and advertising and reinvigorated the entire enterprise.

As you probably guessed we’re speaking of the paper’s “Relationships With Whit” column, which debuted to much fanfare back in [whenever it was] but which has since been relegated to a small, anonymous corner of the butt-end of the paper’s generally substance-free Star section. We confess that we haven’t been a faithful reader since … well, since the first column … but on Sunday past we arose way too early (the time change must discombobulate our internal rhythms) and drank too much coffee and therefore were able to spend more than the usual 12 to 14 minutes (not including coupon-clipping) that we devote to being reminded how uninteresting the Sunday edition of a major metropolitan newspaper can be. Thus did our lonely eye turn to Whit, whose mug shot accompanying her column projects the sort of predatorily feral look that we seek when pursuing structured transactions under the alias Client No. 9.

Headlined ”The Real Star of the Show,” Whit’s column seemed to be a valedictory for her recently ended two-year tenure as host of a show on Channel 11 called Great Day Houston. We’re sorry to relate that we never had the opportunity to watch Whit on Great Day Houston, an omission we deeply regret after reading her tribute to her TV co-workers:
For the past two years, there has been a small group of remarkable people who work on changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of you right here in Houston.
Let’s see: there’s 4 million or so TV-ready souls in the Channel 11 viewing area, and the audience for Great Day Houston is but a teensy-tiny percentage of that number, and … hell, we’re too drunk to do the math, but needless to say those are Osteen-like stats when it comes changing lives. How did Whit & Co. do this? What were the good works? Is it enough to get them into heaven when it’s time to go knock-knock-knockin’ on the door? Let’s see:
To start, they've happily married off a couple of couples, given away two half-million-dollar homes, a new car, a Rolex watch, diamond necklaces and rings, plus trips to Hawaii, Mexico and Vegas … helped droves of women lose hundreds of pounds while teaching them how to live healthy and happy lives … made over throngs of moms, dads, teens and 'tweens in need. … worked tirelessly to raise money and awareness to help fight the battles of breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, lupus and autism…. joined with community groups to help save children from sexual predators and gave parents the tools, knowledge and resources to help their children live safe, alcohol- and drug-free futures …
… sent dozens of young girls to prom as if they were rock stars, with new dresses, shoes, hair, makeup and limo rides … introduced Houston to all types of music and taught the two-step, salsa, square and ballroom dancing … showing Houstonians how to sing, skate, ski, sew, golf, garden and grill … roped in all sorts of animals from horses, cows and goats to snakes, lemurs, lizards, ferrets and frogs … From supermodels and superstars to super-moms, hundreds of Houstonians have strutted their stuff after this group got hold of them.
And so on.

If only we’d known, we would have been watching Great Day Houston and strutting our stuff against autism and tween obesity instead of being so goddamn down all the time. But now it’s too late: Whit is gone, at least from the tube (hopefully the newspaper gig’s not ending, too), and we never felt the love:
When I walked through those doors to a studio overflowing with the people whom I have grown to love and peered into those cameras to say goodbye to the people who have grown to love me, it was both exhilarating and excruciating. Moving on and saying goodbye always is.

But as the saying goes, "The show must go on." And it will, no matter who walks through those doors as your new host, looks into those cameras, works with those wonderful people or wishes you a great day, Houston. It's apparent to all who the real star of the show is: It's you, Houston.

Thank you.
No, thank you, babe. And remember: our door is always open, and you won’t need a key.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The 7’ 6’’ Elephant Not in the Room: Is It Possible the Rockets are Better Off Without Yao? (Just Askin’)

Leave it to Clyde Drexler, of all people---Clyde Drexler!---to be among the first to publicly vocalize a potentially uncomfortable truth about the Rockets’ current success. If he said it once he said it at least three times (that we heard) during Saturday night’s FSN broadcast of the hometeam’s highly entertaining victory over Chris Paul (“the black Steve Nash”) and the Hornets, offered as punctuation to some remarkably fluid ball movement resulting in a Rockets’ basket:
You can do that sort of thing when you don’t have anybody setting up down in the lane.*
Now Clyde appeared to be just making another passing observation in his role as color commentator---maybe he was remarking on the necessity of the Rockets having to resort to that sort of thing---but the Glide said it so often, and with several different variations (“When you don’t have anybody, etc. ….”), and with such a gleeful charge in his mellow-fellow voice, that we assumed he was suggesting what he’s too damn nice to come out and say:
“The Rockets move the ball a hell of a lot better without the lead-footed Yao bumping in and out of the paint, all the time waving his big greedy hand and clogging up the middle … and that opening up of the court allows the full genius of T. McGrady to flower … ”
Something like that.

You’d never hear a remotely similar suggestion from the local sportswriting clergy, who, in their effort to offer neat little sermons of uplift through sport, attribute the post-Yao continuation of the team’s win streak---6 since the ever-fragile Chinaman went down for the count (again), 18 altogether, as of this writing---to the grit, tenacity, determination, “heart,” what have you, that the remaining Rockets have shown during the big stiff’s absence. But let’s face it: They looked to be playing better with Carl Landry on the court---Carl Landry!---before Yao managed to rack up another lost season.

We understand the sporting press digs Yao because he’s accessible, he’s humble, he’s hard-working, and, as former Houston Chronicle sports hack Mickey Herskowitz approvingly noted 4-5 years ago in what was even then a weirdly dated and race-conscious observation, he doesn’t wear those big gold chains around his neck, etc.** And yes, he was having a banner All-Star year, stats-wise, but is it possible the team’s on-court chemistry is enhanced by his absence? Yes, it is possible. And we're pretty sure that Clyde would concur, in so many words.

*It helped that the Rockets were knocking down 3s the way that Roger Clemens used to knock back Vioxx-as-Skittles.

**We like Yao, too, and we write as a someone who once made the near-fatal mistake of dining at his parents’ eatery (is it still open?).

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Expunged, Purged, Deleted, Not Available

A sharp-eyed reader who wishes to be identified as “Anon.” points out that a Houston Chronicle op-ed piece to which we linked in our last posting apparently has been removed from the newspaper’s on-line archives---lost to history, much like the faces of wayward capitalist roaders that were excised from formal group portraiture during the Soviet era. The two-week-old piece in question was penned by a local lawyer named David Berg, who hopped upon his large white steed and, to a great flourish of trumpetry in his mind, called on Hillary Clinton to abandon her candidacy in favor of the callow Obama. (While reading this work we recalled that a perceptive political operative had once given the author the nickname “Static Cling” in recognition of his weather vane-like talent for attaching himself to the winning side in a local election after his candidate had lost.) Although the Feb. 21 op-ed itself is no longer available except in frayed and yellowed editions of the Chronicle's dead-tree product, proof of its existence does live on in an archived correction the newspaper ran the following day:
In the article "Road to redemption for Clintons: Embrace Obama," by David Berg, on Thursday's Outlook page, B9, a sentence was edited incorrectly. The sentence should read, "If she needs more proof, take it on faith from one who has lived here forever: She's going to lose the Texas primary, too."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Dispatches from the Precinct Caucuses of Our Mind, and Other Locations

We ran across this unpaid political message---and we don’t fully endorse the sentiment---while cycling Sunday morning ’neath the bridge over the bayou at Stella Link and South Braeswood. Context clues suggest that it was the handiwork of neither the Clinton campaign nor the Harris County Republican Party but rather a lost cell of the Young Spartacus League or some other crypto-Marxist outfit; nearby graffiti of a similar style proclaimed “Revolution Is the Solution” and “Evidence, Not Piety” (a sentiment we fully endorse).

SOMEWHERE IN SOUTHWEST HOUSTON – History will record that the Clintonites routed the Obamaphones among the Democratic primary voters who assembled in the smallish library of the Philip K. Dick Elementary School. (“They had a lot more books when I went here,” observed one 40ish Obama backer.) Creamed ’em. The vote was something like 80 to 50, a sum of caucus goers that according to one older-timer was 126 more than turned out for the after-hours precinct get-together back in ’92, when the other Clinton was eventually nominated. We figured it would be a pro-Hillary bunch: overwhelmingly white and tending to the old side, slightly frayed but mostly good-humored, lots of middle-aged women by their lonesomes or with kids in tow---teachers, nurses, social workers, accountants, etc. (no Obama Girls)---and a goodly representation of vaguely ex-hippieish saggy white guys (besides us). Two dudes in union T-shirts. A husband-and-wife lawyer combo. Our neighbor, Blanca, an ex-community college administrative type who sort of assumed the spearheading of the Hillary effort in the neighborhood (the Clinton campaign actually had stationed a nice lady from Boston in the precinct for organizational purposes, but she properly vacated the premises before the caucus began). Some of the peckerwoods from down the street who, we were surprised to learn, can sign their names. A dozen or so African Americans, six of whom voted for Clinton and one of whom bore a striking resemblance to the Carver character on The Wire (there’s always a Wire angle: We were so flush with fellow-feeling that we button-holed the dude after the conclave to inform him of his look-alike-edness and suggest he check the show out on DVD “if you don’t mind a lot of cussin’ ”; before hustling quickly away he assured us he would). Three or four really old and hard-eyed Caucasian gents in ball caps who we’d bet are Rush listeners but pissed off enough to go Democratic for real this year (all caucusing for Obama). Our wife, who somehow was involuntarily elected secretary for the evening. And us, a very nominal, foul-weather Democrat and first-time caucus attendee, previous employment situations having precluded us from taking such a lofty profile in partisan politics.

We had to flip a coin in our mind before we came down for the Missus Clinton, despite our aversion to the boss-lady shadings (if we were gonna vote our convictions---anti-war, anti-amnesty---then we would have gone for Ron Paul, but we decided we wanted our vote to count, and then we’re not really clear on how we’d fare under a return to the gold standard). While we’re sure that either Democrat would be dipping deeper into our pocket to buy more artificial hair weaves for Sheila Jackson Lee (a metaphor, that), we’re also fairly certain that either would steer us toward a slightly saner policy in the Mideast than the one dictated by Bill Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. And not mouth “free trade” as if it were the inviolable word from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Or maybe not. It’s an imperfect world, and we are an imperfect vessel.

The caucus ran smoothly until it didn’t. After the tally, the chair-gal, a comely ingénue with much stage presence but, as it turned out, a loose grasp on the rules, asked for a vote of unanimity on a resolution to do away with the caucus system, and it was loudly so moved before one wild-eyed nay-sayer could get his say in. He was royally pissed about that---he looked a little like the Unabomber, sans hoodie---and, hopping off the library table he’d been squatting upon, confronted the chair-gal in a most ungentlemanly manner: “I’m 71 years old and I’ve been to 18 caucuses,” he bellowed, literally getting up in the young woman’s face, “and I don’t need some 25 year old telling me what to do.” This elicited much hissing and razzing from the assembled and moved us to the loudly expressed opinion that the old crabapple was “fucked” and “a good example of what turns people off about the Democratic Party---like it’s an exclusive club for the insane” and other bon mots that drew approving nods from nearby fellow caucus goers. The guy went on about how it’s good for neighbors to get together and see each other and such---all sentiments we heartily endorse---but the more he talked the more bitterly deranged he sounded. Like some outlanders crashed his little party. He finally relinquished the floor and the chair-gal, perhaps rattled by the confrontation, let the meeting adjourn without attending to the crucial business of electing delegates to the Senate district convention. Some of the old-timers, most vocally the husband-and-wife lawyers (they brought a calculator!) moved to right the ship, and the delegates were duly selected (although a good half of the attendees had split). Earlier, when someone had noted the unprecedented turnout---the library was crowded, and close---someone else shouted from the back, “Yeah, and it makes me proud to be an American!” A sentiment we all---Obamaphone and Clintonite, true believer and marginally committed, sane and insane---fully endorsed with loud applause.

Update: MSNBC just called Texas for Clinton, a stunning rebuke to this blowhard.