Saturday, April 30, 2022

Here We Go Again? Margot Robbie in a Bubble Bath to Explain What Happened When the Housing Bubble Burst

Have you seen The Big Short? I'm talking about the movie based on the book by Michael Lewis. All too often movies fail to live up to the vivacity sparked by the book. The Big Short is an exception.

Adam McKay wrote the screenplay and directed this remarkable film. Brad Pitt played a role in the film, delivered an important line and also produced the film.

For most Americans economics is a mystery, especially when it comes to Wall Street. Stocks, junk bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, options, derivatives, tranches, yield, moving averages, short squeeze... the lingo is so esoteric that the average clam on the street is clueless.  

Even when we don't know what things mean, we're all impacted by them when the shakedown comes. The tech bubble bruised a lot of peoples' investments and the housing bubble created pain all the way down into the trenches where many Americans exist day to day.

The Big Short was an exceptionally creative means of explaining what happened during the collapse of the housing market. It doesn't really tell the entire story, such as how mechanisms were created to help people who couldn't afford homes were shoehorned into properties that were beyond their means. That is, there was pressure placed on banks to make mortgage loans that exceeded their typical tolerance for risk

Needless to say, the film does a good job of showing how Wall Street insiders were clueless to what was really going on, and paid a price for it.

Early on in the film the director inserts Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, sipping wine, to explain subprime mortgages. 

Basically, Lewis Ramieri's mortgage bonds were amazingly profitable for the big banks. They made billions and billions on their 2% fee they got for selling these bonds. But they started running out of mortgages to put them in. After all, there are only so many homes and so many good jobs to put them in. So the banks began filling these bonds with riskier and riskier mortgages. That way they can keep that profit machine churning, right? By the way, these risky mortgages are called subprime. So whenever you hear "subprime" think "sh*&".

Our friend Michael Burry found out that these mortgage bonds which were supposedly 65% AAA were actually just mostly full of sh*&. Now he's going to short the bonds. Which means 'bet against.'

Got it? Good.

"Let me tell you how it is."
FWIW, Margot Robbie is an actress from Australia who played Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. She's also played Mary Queen of Scots and Sharon Tate in other films I've seen, though I never knew her name.

My interest in seeing this film (I've seen it several times already and read the book) was chiefly driven by the mess we're seeing right now in global markets and on Wall Street. I know that some people believe it's all a big conspiracy, that wrecking the economy is intentional. Somehow my personal feeling is that the decision makers are in over their heads. Things are simply too complicated today and the law of unintended consequences lurks behind every move.

There are a lot of stars in this film. The casting is superb. Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell are the primary heavies, but even the most incidental character is perfect.

As a final note (knowing much more can be said), I also enjoyed the music score, especially Led Zeppelins When the Levee Breaks which summed up the film as the final credits rolled.    

Again, if you've not see this film, I recommended it highly. It's both entertaining and insightful. 

Ever ready to upset applecarts.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Where Have All the Workers Gone?

One of the stories in today's Wall Street Journal 10-Point (a daily WSJ eNews update), has to do with Americans traveling again. An accompanying article carries the headline "Travel Is Back, but Airline and Hotel Workers Are Not." 

In separate article, the same theme rears its head. Railroad gridlock is bogging down U.S. farm shipments. Why? The railroads can't find workers. "Delayed trains and scarce railcars are impeding crop shipments this spring, causing grain-storage facilities to fill up, backing up fertilizer shipments and temporarily shutting down production at ethanol plants. Railroad operators said they are working to fix the problems, but struggling to find enough workers."

Where have all the workers gone? When I did a quick search, the first thing I saw is that a large swath of jobs require Covid vaccinations in order to work there. This may be a contributing factor to many employment situations including the childcare worker shortage. On that particular front there was a push a couple years ago to require childcare workers to have 2 years of college experience. I personally think having experience as a mom would be better than college. College costs money so working parents will make even less money going to work if they pay more for childcare.

When you add up childcare, suitable clothing and transportation costs, one wonders how necessary that second job really is. Especially after taxes. And maybe this is another part of the labor shortage.

I saw a Tweet today that says the problem isn't a shortage of workers, but "a shortage of jobs that aren't awful." 

So here's the another question. Are there systems in place to import workers? Yes, there are. But then we face the next hurdle, the dearth of affordable housing. The lack of housing stock is creating a new housing bubble. Prices are going up faster than wages, and faster than builders have time to build them. (And they have a shortage of workers, too!) 

Here's a Tweet about the restaurant trade. This comment was in response to a comment about high school baseball games being cancelled because of the shortage of umpires. "Same thing with the restaurant worker shortage. People have spent years talking about flipping burgers like it’s the lowest form of existence, and treating people who do accordingly. Now those people are mad that no one wants to work anymore."

Round and round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Robert Lookup's Unusual List of Important Dates In Major League Baseball

The other day I mentioned a meeting I had with Eric Ringsred, a local doctor with whom I have shared a mutual friendship. The mutual friend was Robert Lookup, a unique man, sensitive soul, savant and street person who was part of mine and Susie's life for ten years.

Today is Throwback Thursday, so I am sharing all the events in Robert Lookup's "Important Dates In Baseball History." As they say, "It happens every spring." The birds fly north, the snow melts and a new baseball season begins. (Oh, and yes, people fall in love.)

As is occasionally the case, the 2022 season had some hiccups in preseason, and we weren't quite sure when this year's opening day would commence. Fortunately, it wasn't too dastardly. As usual, there have been some interesting April stories. I just happened to be listening to Clayton Kershaw's "almost" perfect game. He was actually pulled after seven innings... despite the very real possibility of his joining an elite group of pitchers, 23 all-time to have achieved that. Then again, he will be in the Hall of Fame and... well. 

Anyways, here, all in one place, are Robert Lookup's list of important events that I shared a couple years ago. 






September and October

Here is a link to one of Robert's favorite films, The Burmese Harp, which he encouraged me to watch. This is a review (with anecdotes).

Robert: Thanks for the memories, precious all.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Perfect Ad and Several Other Event Promotions @ Wussow's

 This flier stopped me in my tracks. 
I'll tell you why.

As nearly anyone knows who stops in at Wussow's Concert Cafe on Central Avenue in Spirit Valley (West Duluth), it's a happening place. It's more than a java joint or a music venue. It's become established as a respected watering hole and hangout because the activities Jason and Tina have going on intersect with such a wide swath of our community. 

Naturally music is central to most of our lives, as is the simple act of socializing over a mug of coffee or a bite to eat, or agonizing over which menu item to select. (At Wussow's it's always good.)

As you enter the front door there's a corridor that leads to the cafe itself. On the left the management has provided ample space for locals to place posters, announcements and such for other to see. (Duluth Dylan Fest is just around the corner, and a couple of our events will be here!) On the right hand wall (as you enter) Wussow's has its own various posters and invitations to upcoming events.

When I saw the chess leaflet above, I immediately thought it was brilliant. Yes, in part because I was part of the chess club when I was in high school. But more because I have spent my career in advertising and this advertisement pushes all the the right buttons.

First of all, it is targeted to the audience it wants to reach. If you're not a chess player you will walk right past. You do not care. Who but a chess player would try to figure out what the best move for this specific moment in time in a chess game? So, it speaks very directly to the singular audience they are trying to reach: chess players.

Second, it succinctly communicates the purpose for which it has been placed on this wall. "We're chess players. Join us!" And it tells when and where they meet. 

A lot of advertising is about branding. When I look at this ad I see nothing about branding. It's very direct. I have no idea who these people are, but if I am a chess player, I do know that I may have found my tribe.

It closes with contact info so that if you have additional questions and can't participate at the times indicated, you aren't left out in the cold. 

Here are some additional posters on that right hand bulletin board, highlighting upcoming and regular events at Wussow's. You'll note that these posters do indeed have branding. The logo is the key. Logos are symbols we associate with what the brand stands for. When you see a Wussow's logo you know it's all good.

Russ is fun. 
The date is passed on this one, but if you've never seen Jason and Veiko
you're missing something. 

Thanks, Jason and Tina,
for all you do for our community.

The Chess Players, by Thomas Eakins

P.S. Can you find the Ed Newman painting at Wussow's? 
It's one of our former mayors who had a part in helping 
the city honor its native son, Bob Dylan.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Senator Klobuchar Addresses Carjacking Crisis

When a local musician friend who transplanted back to Minneapolis, got injured during a carjacking attempt last year, that hit pretty close to home. For some reason this carjacking epidemic struck me as especially disconcerting. In Mary Bue's case, it was the audacity that struck me. The perpetrators were probably no more than 14 years old. 

The frequency of references to carjacking caused me to make a Google Alert on this topic a couple months ago. It is a remarkably widespread problem, occurring in cities from coast to coast. Two themes that especially jumped out to me were (1) how many of these were being carried out by teens, and (2) how many involved weapons and physical harm to the victim. 

Having one's catalytic converter stolen from your car while you are sleeping is one thing. Being struck in the jaw by the butt of a pistol to grab your keys and steal your car is quite another.

On Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar conducted a roundtable with six police chiefs to address the spike in carjackings. In Minneapolis, the number of carjacking incidents increased by 537% between 2019 and 2020. 

The police chiefs brought up some other concerns, including the need for more resources to deal with the mental health issues here.  

Kudos to the senator for speaking openly about the carjacking epidemic and Minnesota crime, which are visible evidence that our social fabric is frayed and coming unravelled.

* * *

Related Link

Sen. Klobuchar hosts roundtable to discuss spike in carjacking

Our National Carjacking Epidemic and a Few Prevention Tips

Monday, April 25, 2022

Thoughts from the Mind and Heart of French Thinker Blaise Pascal

Creative commons, France.
He had a sharp mind and an influential pen. Blaise Pascal's primary fields were mathematics, logic, physics and theology. And like many others who achieve significance, the secular thinkers of his day wished he'd left his theological aspirations off to one side. Similar complaints were made about Sir Isaac Newton. "Think about all he could have accomplished had he left all that religious stuff in the closet," they'd say, not realize that his religious beliefs gave him confidence in an orderly universe and a foundation for his secular explorations. Pascal was cut from the same cloth.

For some today, "Pascal" is simply a computer programming language developed around 1970. I remember reading about it even if I never used it. The name was assigned to this early programming language because of Blaise Pascal's early success in creating a machine that could do calculations. In 1642, at age twenty, he invented the calculating machine pictured at the top of this page.

In the broader public, I think he is more famous for what has come to be known as Pascal's Wager, a philosophical argument that attempts to use logic to answer questions about God's existence and our purpose in this incomprehensible mystery called life. Here is a pithy distillation of the idea: "If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing."

    You can find a more elaborate explanation here.

    What follows are some insightful statements by Blaise Pascal from his letters and books.

    * * * 

    "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."
    (How many of  you thought Hemingway said this?)

    * * * 

    "It is not well to be too much at liberty. It is not well to have all we want."

    * * * 

    "All the excesses, all the violence, and all the vanity of great men, come from the fact that they know not what they are."
    (EdNote: Am reading about General Douglas MacArthur in David Halverstram's The Fifties. It's stunning the degree to which big egos can lose all touch with reality.)

    * * * 

    "It is a natural illness of man to think that he possesses the truth directly…"
    --On the Spirit of Geometry

    * * * 

    "The art of persuasion consists as much in that of pleasing as in that of convincing, so much more are men governed by caprice than by reason!"

      * * * 

      "People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others."

      * * * 

      "Those honor nature well, who teach that she can speak on everything, even on theology."

      * * * 

      "Few friendships would remain, if each knew what his friend said of him when he wasn't there."

      * * * 

      "Make religion attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good."

      * * *

      "All good maxims are in the world. We only need apply them."

        * * *

        If you wish for more, here is a link to Pascal on Wikiquotes.

        Sunday, April 24, 2022

        Ideas on How to Help the Homeless, and a New Thought About the Unforgivable Sin

        The problem of poverty has become increasingly pronounced in our time, in part because of the ever expanding gap between the haves and have nots. The lack of affordable housing in most of our cities exacerbates the problem.

        Yesterday I had a long insightful discussion with Eric Ringsred, a retired Duluth doctor who has also been a landlord with experience in this area. We began by sharing stories about a mutual friend, a street person who occasionally lived in the basement of one of his properties downtown. 

        While discussing some of his experiences with down-and-out people, he asserted, “I really believe everyone has something to offer," following up with, "The Need is not complicated: a healthy environment, role models and something meaningful to do."

        If ever there was a formula for helping needy people, this is one of the most concise and clear statements I've ever seen. In nearly every case where communities, government agencies or programs come up short, it will in some way violate one of these three principles. For many people it may be all three. 

          1.  A healthy environment.
          2.  Role models
          3.  Something meaningful to do.
        A safe, healthy place is a starting point. Role models can become mentors who show the way to a healthier, productive life. Meaningful work builds self-esteem, an essential mindset or attitude for survival. When we hate ourselves, we'll beat ourselves up till we self destruct. (Each of these can be elaborated on.)

        Dr. Ringsred also shared another pearl. A friend of his once asked Eric what the "unforgivable sin" was. It was a rhetorical question, but I think you will agree it is a big, big question. The unforgivable sin, this man said, was waste, when we waste our lives and fail to do the meaningful work for which we're made.  

        What are we currently doing to make the world a better place? We've all heard how evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Are there things we can do in our local communities to be useful?

        Eric's last comment before we parted: “We should be the best we can be." 

        Friday, April 22, 2022

        Jacques Ellul on Christian Anarchy

        Ellul's last book, important as always.
        It might be worthwhile to make a differentiation between Christian anarchy and Marxism, which looks to anarchy as the path to a new world order. Marxism endorses violence. Christianity cannot. 

        Jacques Ellul, in his book Anarchy and Christianity (Eerdmans, 1988), notes that the achievements of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were accomplished by virtuous means. By way of contrast, the Black Panther movement did not advance the cause of black liberation that it purportedly intended. 

        Political power corrupts. And against this corruption people of conscience must take a stand. 

        Ellul notes that once we rule out violence as an option, we must resort to persuasion, “the creation of small groups and networks, denouncing falsehood and oppression.” 

        Dr. Glenn Martin, in his book Prevailing Worldviews, points out how the institution of slavery was ended in England without violence through persuasion, and the tireless efforts of a few important voices. Even though it took more than forty years, spearheaded by the Society of Friends (Quakers) and politician/philanthropist William Wilberforce, the abolition of slavery was ultimately  accomplished without bloodshed. 

        By way of contrast, the U.S. experienced a torrid Civil War as a result of the activist revolutionary approach to the problem of slavery. Yes, there were some who sought slavery’s termination by peaceful means, but the revolutionary approach ultimately superseded the tireless efforts of the persistent persuaders. According to Martin, actions like the Nat Turner rebellion, which left eighty persons dead, set back the cause of peaceful negotiation, and helped fortify the deeply entrenched status quo of slavery. 

        It reminds me of the story of the wind and the sun. Each made a bet to see who could force a desert traveler to remove his cloak. The wind went first, blowing fiercely, but the more savagely the wind assaulted, the more firmly the man clutched his linen. Then the sun took his turn, and we all know how that story ends. 

        Lest I babble indefinitely, let me cite two additional observations from Ellul’s challenging book.

        1. “Our experience today is the strange one of empty political institutions in which no one has any confidence any more, of a system of government which functions only in the interests of a political class, and at the same time of the almost infinite growth of power, authority, and social control which makes any one of our democracies a more authoritarian mechanism than any Napoleonic state.” ~ p. 22

        2. “Most people, living heedlessly, tanning themselves, engaging in terrorism, or becoming TV slaves, ridicule political chatter and politics. They see that there is nothing to hope for from them. They are also exasperated by bureaucratic structures and administrative bickering.” ~ p. 23 

        Let’s not be lulled into the stupor of non-thinking, quasi-acceptance of all that is, as if it cannot be any different. 

        Thursday, April 21, 2022

        Throwback Thursday: Rivers

        "All rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full."
        ~Eccles. 1:7 

        At one time rivers were the roads. Before the infrastructure of highways and byways, of rails and roads, the rivers were our transportation routes. In other words, geography played an important role in the generation of wealth.  

        In Herman Hesse's novella Siddhartha, the river is a symbol. As he encountered the river in various stages of his life, its wisdom was revealed to him as it reflected his soul. 

        At one time in my life, the word "rivers" meant Larry Rivers, an artist whose paintings made an impression on me when I was a young art student at Ohio University, Athens, which itself was located on a river--the Hocking.

        Larry Rivers. (Creative Commons)
        The best part about one's college experience is the vast sea of influences one gets exposed to. University libraries are just the ticket for getting that exposure. I lived in Scott Quad my first year at school which was possibly the closest you could get to the school's library without sleeping as a vagrant on the main green. Row upon row of large fat books filled with full color photos of art seemed to reach out to me. I explored, found that the number of artists I'd never heard of was countless, and so much of their work fascinating. In this manner I encountered painters and sculptors from all periods of history, favoring the moderns at the time.

        To call Larry Rivers my favorite artist would be a misnomer, but for sure I identified with the originality and passion with which he created his work. As a young art student, I found inspiration when viewing his work. He had studied with Hans Hoffman but rejected abstract art, choosing instead an approach that gave viewers something to grapple with, figures and forms rather than fields of color or designs. 

        A Ukrainian Jew born in the early twenties, he emerged as a successful painter of central influence in the 1950s New York circle with numerous shows and accolades. In the early 1960s Rivers lived in the Chelsea Hotel, the selfsame residence as many other notables like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Arthur C. Clarke and others. 

        If nothing else he was exceedingly productive. Making art is what he did, and I liked the liberated sense with which he attacked his work. You can see examples of his work here.

        Originally published April 2010.

        Wednesday, April 20, 2022

        Margarida Sardinha's Da Vinci Simulacrum: Catch It If You Can

        #10 Heart Sound
        We're all familiar with the story of Christopher Columbus who in 1492 set out to find a passage to India by traveling westward across the sea. While listening to a lecture today regarding the significance of this man's conviction that the earth was round and the challenges he faced, the lecturer made a reference to American author Washington Irving. Most Americans know him best for stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. He was also one of the first magazine editors to publish Francis Scott Key's "The Star Spangled Banner."

        In 1815 a financial disruption prompted him to cross the Atlantic to salvage his family's trading company. After two years he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead of returning to the States, he remained in Europe and pursued a writing career, inspired in part by Sir Walter Scott, author of the novel Rob Roy, whom he'd spent some time with in 1817.

        Irving left England to explore the Continent. At one point, while in Paris, he received a letter from a friend encouraging him to come to Spain. He was told that a number of manuscripts had been recently been made public. Like any real writer that I've ever known, he was always on the lookout for good stories. Being given full access to a remarkable collection of books and documents pertaining to Spanish history, Irving began several books at once, the first being A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

        As I listened to the lecture on Christopher Columbus, Irving's time in Spain was commented on, specifically his time spent staying at The Alhambra in Granada. Naturally, as soon as I heard mention of The Alhambra, a unique palace/fortress in the Andalusia region, I immediately thought of Margarida Sardinha's richly rewarding 2015 art exhibition titled Symmetry's Portal which was inspired by this self-same place. 

        This memory/connection was fresh on my mind due to a recent press release regarding her latest installation titled Da Vinci Simulacrum, which will be opening this coming Saturday, 23 April, at the Museu Ibérico de Arqueologia e Arte de Abrantes (MIAA). The show is curated by Hugo Dinis and supported by Garantir Cultura and Abrantes Municipality, Portugal, in partnership with Figueiredo Ribeiro Art Collection. It will be on display through 25 September.

        The Lisbon-born Sardinha has been receiving much-deserved recognition for her labors in the arts these past two decades. I first became aware of her work circa 2010 and have been perpetually impressed ever since. What impressed me (or attracted me to her ideas) was the manner in which she synthesized and distilled concepts from literature, philosophy, religion, science, mathematics, technology and art. The concepts she wrestles with are expressed in a range of mediums including experimental film and other formats.  

        The imagery on this page is from her current show, Da Vinci Simulacrum. You can see more by visiting

        Other themes from past shows include Wave-Particle HyperLightness, Oxymoron Tiling, Hyperbolic Hyparxis, Symmetry's Portal, London Memory and Darkness Reflexions. 

        To learn more about Margarida Sardinha visit 

        Tuesday, April 19, 2022

        The Surf Ballroom In Clear Lake: A Hall of Memories

        On January 27, 2009, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dedicated the Surf Ballroom as a historic rock and roll landmark as part of their ongoing Landmark Series, identifying locations significant to the origins of rock and roll. The Original Surf Ballroom opened on April 17, 1933. When the Surf burned to the ground in 1946 a new Surf Ballroom was quickly rebuilt across the street to replace it by the following year. Yesterday, 18 April 2022, I finally had an opportunity to go inside and see the place where Buddy Holly performed his last concert.

        Selfie with my Buddy Holly tour guide, Mike Tefft
        In some ways, the venue reminded me of the Historic Duluth Armory, where Bob Dylan and other Northlanders say the Winter Dance Party a few days earlier. No, the two venues bear little visual resemblance to one another. Rather, their connection is more historical. Each became a showcase for countless familiar names, singers and performers. 

        The Surf has plenty of memorabilia for fans of music history. In the thirties and forties, it was a major "go to" for big bands. Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and a ton of others performed here. With the birth of rock and roll, a whole new generation of performers made this part of their stomping grounds.

        Inside the Green Room. Many a famous personality prepped
        in this place. They not only left an indelible mark on their fans,
        they also left initials, doodles and other memorials.

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