Sunday, March 18, 2007

More Jules Verne

We're having a Jules Verne fit here, after the article on the subterranean body of water (see my post, Jules Verne was right!). So we thought we'd rent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Netflix. Well, the search on Netflix turned up a treasure which I highly recommend. Did you know that in 1916, there was a blockbuster movie version of 20,000 Leagues, containing the first underwater photography sequences in movie history?? They're fabulous - it's too bad they aren't in color but you can't have everything, and they are clearly live underwater sequences of coral reefs.

The movie is a total hoot. Apparently Verne's plot wasn't enough for the filmmakers, so they incorporated another whole story, about an evil ship captain, a bereaved Indian prince (not Native American), a Child of Nature (female of course, and wearing a
sort of leopardskin dress) living on a Mysterious Island, and four American Navy men in a balloon, also marooned on the Mysterious Island when the balloon blows off course. I spent about half the movie asking, "Who are these people??" They tie it all together in the last reel, sort of.

And the submarine! The submarine looks amazingly like a modern submarine. I guess form follows function
, although Captain Nemo's cabin seems to have more wood paneling and hangings than the U.S. Navy would provide. They even have diving suits, and "self contained oxygen tanks" which allow them to stay under the sea "indefinitely" (they look about the size of a small propane tank). You scuba divers, quit giggling. This was 1916. There are a number of sequences of people in diving suits with lead shoes, walking around on the sea bottom, and one where a couple of guys suit up, climb down to the bottom, and walk ashore, and then help each other take the suits off. It's obviously quite real, this was much too early for trick photography, and I have no idea how they did this with a hand-cranked camera. They have wonderful footage of circling sharks and barracuda, shot from below.

The best of it is - you don't have to listen to Kirk Douglas singing "A Whale of a Tale."

Been There, Done That

I thought I'd written on this subject before, but as I look back, the last time I quoted George Santayana ("those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") had to do with Prohibition and the war on drugs, not real estate. However, it's real estate - specifically the current melt-down in the so-called "sub-prime market" - that brings the quote to mind now. I guess when you're right, you're right all the time.

Everyone is now freaking big-time over the fact that the housing market has flattened out, and you can no longer buy a house for a mortgage you can't afford, wait 4 months, and sell it for enough to cover the outrageous amount of money you borrowed and put a little extra loot in the bank for yourself. Apparently everyone thought the housing market was going to continue heading skyward indefinitely. Let me repeat another old saying that's still true: what goes up must come down. Isaac Newton only dealt with physical objects; but this also applied to skyrocketing markets. In fact, to date in human history there has never been a skyrocketing market in anything in which the bubble hasn't eventually popped, causing a large number of investors to lose their shirts and everything else. But every time a new bubble comes around, everybody convinces himself that "it's different, this time." No, it isn't.

The infuriating thing about the looming massive defaults on sub-prime home loans, which have already taken down a number of
  • Lenders who specialized in sub-prime loans because they're so profitable
  • Investors who bought "securitized" sub-prime loans because the interest rates are so high
is that we have been here before. Recently. In fact, we were here in my adult lifetime, in the late 1980's, when that iteration of the housing bubble popped, doing exactly the sort of damage this one is doing, and incidentally bringing down the entire savings and loan industry in the U.S., which had to be bailed out at great expense to the taxpayer. That would be you, and me. I wonder who we'll be bailing out this time.

Yes, I remember all of this from the '80's: the negative amortization loans. The low-to-no down payment terms. The adjustable rate mortgages where nobody bothered to ask if they could afford the payment after the adjustment. The desperate scramble to buy a house on any terms, for any price, just to get "into the housing market." I
even think I remember "no doc" loans, where the lender just asks how much you make and writes it down; I understand these are called "liar loans."

The real tragedy is that the loan companies, investors, possibly the U.S. economy itself if things get really bad, are all secondary victims. The primary victims are the people who took out these loans, which they couldn't possibly afford, which a rational lender would never have offered to make to them, in order to buy a house to live in, which they assumed would be an investment to protect them in retirement. These people will now lose the house, ruin their credit rating and their personal financial position, and probably never be able to retire in comfort at all. And all because of the bubble madness.

You can say, they should have read the fine print; and they should have. But if you aren't very well educated (and there's a whole generation or two of Americans who aren't), the fine print may or may not have made it clear to you that you were not going to be able to make the payments on this loan. The lender certainly did not. And the housing market is now going down and sideways, and you can't refinance, because you owe more than the house is now worth; and besides, interest rates have gone up, although not as much as your adjusted rate has. In short, you the borrower are screwed, and you're going into foreclosure Real Soon Now. And it's only poetic justice that the lender who loaned you more money than you could rationally expect to be able to repay is also screwed.

166 years ago, in 1841, Charles Mackay wrote a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It's still in print; it is regularly reissued with new material. The latest edition I see on Amazon was reissued sometime in the mid-90s. It should be mandatory reading in every school in America. Assuming American schools still teach students how to read; but that's another rant.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Great Minds Think Alike

The synchronicity is delightful here. Just about the time I was drafting the last post, on the well-known evils of the passive voice, Kyrie O'Connor was on WWDTM discussing the "passive exonerative"!

I haven't heard it yet - I was at a rehearsal this morning during the broadcast, and my husband told me about it. I'll have to download today's podcast. But what a WONDERFUL term for it! I Googled the phrase and find it's used quite a lot and has turned up on DailyKos and in William Safire columns. The latest relevant use, actually about Awful Alberto, is a very similar post last Wednesday in Jeff Weintraub's blog, So It Goes. It's also called the "past exonerative" and "past passive exonerative."

The So It Goes post ends with a summary that is better than I could have written:
Politicians who use it think they're dousing a fire. They should all remember the teachings of their composition teachers. Because when the rest of us hear "mistakes were made," we know the fire has only begun to burn.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Hiding Behind the Passive

"Mistakes were made." That's what our Fearless Leader has to say about the U.S. attorney mess. Let's set aside the implications of the Attorney General of the United States firing U.S. attorneys because they were insufficiently politically pure and zealous. That's too obvious to bother with.

The point here is the appalling obfuscation caused by - the passive voice. Anyone who has stayed awake in English class knows the difference between the passive and the active voice, but for those of you who slept through it, here are examples:

Active: I hit the ball.
Passive: The ball was hit by me.

A little thought will tell you that you can't write a sentence in the active voice without making it crystal clear who is doing what to whom. I hit the ball.

When you write in the passive voice, though, you can obliterate responsibility entirely, merely by leaving off those last two words, "by me". The ball was hit. Who hit the ball? We don't know. A man was killed. Who killed him? We don't know, unlike when Bob Marley sings, "I shot the sherriff."

This is why politicians adore the passive voice. It's very rare that you'll find one speaking - and certainly not writing - in the active voice. You'll know when you do find one because ... they will be more interesting to listen to. Writing or speaking in the active voice, you tell a story. Writing in the passive voice, you produce a government report, or a political speech, in which no one is responsible for anything. This is why you'll never see Alberto Gonzalez stand up on his hind legs in front of cameras and say, "I blew it."

And of course, if you never have to admit responsibility, you also never have to repent for any errors that "may have been made". You never have to look inside your soul, or your karma, or whatever you have, and consider that you might possibly not have handled that last incident in the best possible way. Because you didn't make the errors: they "were made."

The other two groups who dote on the passive voice, and use it almost exclusively, are academics, and business management types. The business management types, of course, operate under the same imperatives as the politicians. No business executive ever wants to come out and admit that he screwed up, big time; "mistakes were made." Also, neither business executives nor politicians (two groups which interbreed regularly) ever ever want to report bad news up to the next level. The boss must only hear good news. The boss wants to know that the situation is completely under control; so that's what his juniors tell him. In the passive voice. Regardless of the actual facts on the ground.

It's that nearly universal business practice that makes me almost willing to believe that the board members at Hewlett-Packard genuinely did not know what their underlings had commissioned the private investigators to do. Nobody wanted to tell the boss anything but what s/he expected to hear. (Almost willing to believe...)

I haven't been around academics enough to know why they use the passive voice. Maybe they want to sound like people in power. But it seems very odd to me that the most powerful people in both business and politics, deliberately express themselves in a way that makes it impossible to tell what they actually do, or whether they ever do anything. Maybe they don't, and that's the whole point.

This is a selective phenomenon, by the way. Not all politicians do this. Read the Gettysburg Address. Or any of FDR's fireside chats. Or Winston Churchill's speeches.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Jules Verne Was Right!!

I knew it! In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne's characters go down through endless caves and finally come to a huge underground sea (which, remarkably, they can see to navigate around...). Well, in today's Yahoo News, we see an article entitled Huge 'ocean' discovered inside earth. There is apparently a huge body of water deep in the earth's mantle, under east Asia. In fact, it appears to be centered under Beijing.

They don't say anything about the giant whirlpool Verne described in the middle of his underground ocean.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rocking and Rolling

It's funny, just today I was discussing the USGS Earthquake web site with a colleague at work. Then this evening (about 40 minutes ago), I was sitting peacefully reading the newspaper when the whole house started to rock and the windows rattled. This quake was located 16 KM deep and 2 KM NE of Lafayette, CA - which is about 10 miles from my house. Maybe 12. It was magnitude 4.2, which is a healthy shake, enough to make the house creak really well.

If you've never sat through an earthquake, they're very unsettling, because your house isn't supposed to shake under you like that. Also, they create a weird form of time dilation - the seismograph traces (available on the USGS site) show that the shaking lasted for 12-15 seconds, but it felt like about 5 years. And this was a relatively minor shake; I remember the Loma Prieta quake (6.9) which I would have sworn went on for 30 seconds or longer (but Wikipedia says it was 15 seconds; I'm still not sure I believe that). There's always a point in a quake where you ask, "Isn't it done yet??" and it's not.

With all that, it's over now, and nobody was hurt, and nothing even fell off the shelves (at least not here). At least we don't have tornadoes.