Thursday, June 30, 2016

Words in Flux: Interrogate

Interrogating the old way

I used to think I knew the meaning of the word "interrogate."

An interrogation was something you would observe on a "Law&Order" show when the detectives sat a perp down in an empty room and asked him questions.

The term also had military overtones and was much discussed during the aughts.  It was the subject of a well-regarded 2004 book, "The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda," which was written by a military intelligence officer and a Washington Post writer.  

Serious dictionaries seem to share my understand of the word's meaning .  From two of them:

  "Interrogate, to ask questions of formally  or closely, in examining: to interrogate a witness" 
  Webster's New World College Dictionary

"Interrogate, to ask someone many questions in a formal situation, often in a forceful way that can be seen as threatening: We were stopped at the border and interrogated for hours by the police."
                                                                              Cambridge Dictionaries Online

But the word is being used differently these days.

Change No. 1:  The military/police edge has rubbed off.

Last year, while reading "My Brilliant Friend," an Italian novel that had captivated tutto il mondo, I came upon this paragraph about the narrator's challenging high school:

          "Even Alfonso, although he was very disciplined, had difficulties.  One day he burst
           into tears during the Greek interrogation, something that for a boy was considered
          very humiliating."

My own high school had many bossy, overbearing teachers, but nobody in the place would have called an oral quiz an "interrogation."

Since the novel was translated from the Italian by the highly esteemed Ann Goldstein, who also has translated the works of Primo Levy, it seemed fair to assume that she knew what she was doing here.

So I looked a little further.

The Italian verb is easily derived from classical Latin:  interrogare, to ask ; from inter-, between + rogare, to ask.

In Italian, it seems, an interrogation means a series of questions asked and answered between one person and another. An interrogatorio does not seem to imply an official, presumably hostile questioner.

Change No. 2:  Interrogation now involves only one person:  the questioner.

A few months ago, I watched an American academic discuss her work in a television interview.  She said she had "interrogated" several traditional texts and that this examination had led to her critique.  My ears pricked up at this, but unfortunately I did not note down the professor's name or academic specialty.

Last month, while I was reading an English author's movie review in the New York Review of Books (a publication for eggheads, not that I count myself among their number), I came upon this sentence:

              They are both analysts of power, and how it is distributed: and they both understand
              that power is most poignantly interrogated through narratives about women.

Obviously, "power" is not a person sitting in a police interview room.  It is a concept that is being analyzed and, from the sound of it, challenged.  The examiner, in both these situations, seems to be a critical human working toward developing a judgment.

Change No. 3:  Interrogation has become an intellectual exercise.  

Notions of "interrogate" were floating in my head during a Facebook chat I had recently with a young friend who graduated recently from a fine liberal arts college.  She had made some political statement, and I demurred on its free-speech implications.  

Her answer: 

         I am certainly not against free speech in any capacity. But part of the responsibility of 
         free speech is that we address what people are saying and interrogate bigotry, and know 
         that words lead to actions. . . .

I wrote back:

         I am interested in your use of the term "interrogate," which seems to have acquired a
         new meaning in the last year or so. I'm curious about when and where it arose. Can
         you offer me any guidance?

Here is what she said:

         Sure! My usage of the word "interrogate" began while I was in college, where we were
         asked to aggressively question ourselves and what we were learning. It's what I use to
         critically engage with a text. I think (but I really don't know) that there has been a shift
         in education away from reading and absorbing material and towards reading and
         engaging with material.

         This means asking questions of a text. Who is the author? Who is their audience? What
         are they trying to achieve? What biases, implicit or explicit do they hold? This can lead
         to dismantling of the systems that privilege certain people above others. So when I talk
         about interrogating bigotry, I'm talking about questioning its source. If someone is putting
         forth homophobic ideas, where do they come from? What threat does the open acceptance
         of the lgbtq community pose to the people who would rather us stay silent? Why are
         they disgusted by homosexual displays of affection?

         An easy example would be as a student of theatre, interrogating Shakespeare as a text.
         His plays are full of double and triple meanings, and so if I ask questions of the text I'm
         able to grasp a deeper understanding of not only what Shakespeare meant in his time, but
         messages might be gleaned from a modern audience looking at a play.

         Interrogation of a system, whether it is a system of bigotry or the system of a play,
         doesn't always lead to an easy solution (or any solution) but it does make clear what it is
         we are actually facing. This is why I think critical and analytical thinking skills are so
         fundamentally crucial in our educational system and for our country.


"Interrogate," seems to have been appropriated by those who labor in the groves of academe.  I can see the appeal.   "Interrogate" is a more active, muscular verb than, say, "analyze" or "examine."

In addition, "interrogate" has something in common with the traditional American use of the word.  It implies a critical, probably harsh confrontation with a subject to bring out facts that the subject does not want to reveal.

I don't want to go too far with this, but I suspect that in some ways this new verbiage reflects the 1970s shift in the study of the humanities to deconstructionism.

Where previously a given piece of work was studied in the context of its creator's life and world, the deconstructionist approach evaluates a work against a contemporary, presumably more sophisticated intellectual milieu and often finds the older work wanting.

I can see the both ways of looking at art.  Ideas and mores change over time, of course, and history has not been kind to many historical figures and ideas.  Still, the works that have survived have survived for a reason -- they continue to resonate with people of later periods.

As I noted before, the Latin meaning of interrogate implies a questioning of one person by another person.  This new definition is an an internal discussion within the interrogator alone.

To "interrogate" a work by stuffing it into the frame of a postmodern zeitgeist risks making the work into a reflection of the interrogator's point of view.

There is evidence for this in the real world.  We know that police interrogations sometimes result in confessions by innocent suspects.

This new construction interests me.  I think I would enjoy watching a contemporary scholar interrogate Shakespeare's "Othello," Euripides' "Medea," or Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Interrogating the new way

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Movie Monday: Independence Day: Resurgence

A great big war-of-the-worlds studio release got smoked last weekend by a little fish.

Both movies were sequels, of course

"Finding Dory," a Pixar release in its second week, took in $73.2 million in domestic ticket sales.   It was a follow-on to the 2003 film, "Finding Nemo."

"Independence Day: Resurgence" grossed $41.6 million on its opening weekend, well less than the modest-sounding $50 million that 20th Century Fox had expected.  An early signal of concern was the studio's decision not to preview the film for critics before its release.

What is remarkable about the IDR results is that the movie is a follow-on to the highest-grossing movie of 1996.  It took up 20 years after the first movie and starred key cast members facing a new and bigger alien onslaught.  It had the same director, who also had a hand in developing both scripts.

What Happened?

First off, the biggest star of ID1, Will Smith, refused to join the second movie.  The script says his character, Steven Hiller, is deceased and introduces Jesse T. Usher as his son.  Usher may be a fine fellow, but he's no Will Smith.  At least not yet.

Second, the critics were underwhelmed.

        ". . . an unnecessarily complicated plot that's essentially in place to set up yet
        another sequel," said Molly Eichel of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

        "That dumb-fun spirit of the original can be found . . . but rarely and randomly. . .
        largely a clumpy, vexing miscastrophe, " wrote  Brian Raftery of Wired

        "thudding dialogue lines . . .  razzle-dazzle visuals of destruction . . . . both
        impossible to take seriously or seriously dislike," from Kenneth Turan of the
        Los Angeles Times.

Third, the sequel may have come too late.  Audiences were mostly older than 25 and mostly men, which sounds like people who saw the previous movie 20 years ago.  Perhaps Fox missed a chance by not promoting the earlier film on television to interest younger moviegoers.

Or maybe something else is going on.

Alien Fatigue?

Roland Emmerich directed and  co-wrote both the Independence Day movies.   After the first one was released, he told Variety, "Steven Spielberg told me . . . ‘this will be one of the most imitated movies for the next 20, 30 years.’ And it was, in a way.”

In the last 20 years, there have been at least 30 American movies that pitted humans against aliens:  "Mars Attacks,"  "War of the Worlds,"  three Men in Black movies, two Cowboys and Aliens movies, "The World's End," even 2012's "The Watch," in which "four men who form a neighborhood watch group as a way to get out of their day-to-day family routines find themselves defending the Earth from an alien invasion."

Maybe the alien-invasion theme is getting a little stale.

Given that no alien civilization has been known to take an interest in earth, let alone in destroying it, it is interesting that so many films involve fighting imaginary extra-terrestrials.

Sometimes I wonder whether filmmakers have run out of bad guys to cast as villains.  Westerns lost their appeal 40 years ago.  The Nazis and World War II are 65 years in the rear-view mirror.  Civil war movies have a devoted but not large following; the latest one, "Free State of Jones," flopped in its debut last weekend.

Now, with our society more diverse than ever and huge movie audiences in other countries, it may be that film funders are squeamish about stories of more real-life battles for fear of offending members of particular ethnic or cultural groups.

This does not mean movie audiences have lost interest in conflicts between good guys and bad guys.

Ergo aliens.

(I apologize for the late release of this post.  Events got away from me yesterday.)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

iBooks Settlement -- I Win!

I am happy to report that I am in for some money that I never expected to see.

Yes, it's true; I'm a beneficiary of the big iBooks settlement.  It had been appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused in March to reconsider the case, and now Apple is distributing $450 million in proceeds.

The Issue

The hoo-haw is about a single charge:  that Apple conspired with several major publishing houses to try to force Amazon to raise its prices for Kindle books between 2010 and 2012.   During that effort, Apple raised prices on its iBooks.

This was during a period when books were sold by stores, by Apple, by Nook and by Amazon, which sounds to me like  a good range of competition.  Apple execs and publishers seemed to believe that Amazon was selling books at less than cost on Kindle in order to gain market share.

(One good question is what the market cost is for a digitally transmitted book.  The marginal cost would be pennies at most.  It appears that authors collected about 15 percent of the price paid by consumers.  This would seem to leave a fair amount to be divided between marketers like iBook/Kindle and publishing houses, whatever the price.  Another question is what the heck publishing houses DO these days.)

Anyway, the whole anti-trust effort was aimed at destroying Amazon's flat $9.99 price per book on Kindle.

Interestingly, if the collusion failed, it certainly seems to have had the desired result.

Now all e-books are MUCH more expensive.  A Wall Street Journal article last year reported an 11-cent price differential between paper and digital copies of one best seller.  Certainly I've observed a rise in e-book prices.

So Apple is being punished for trying to raise digital book prices, but book prices are much higher anyway.  Strange how these things work.

Our Protectors

The heroes of this story -- 33 state attorneys general and wonderful, high-minded trial lawyers -- stepped up to stick it to Apple and the publishers and to protect us little people.

Here's how one of the lawyers, Steve Berman from a self-described "national class action law firm," Hagens Berman, described the triumph in a release last week:

"Apple was caught red-handed orchestrating this scheme to inflate the prices of e-books, and we believe this case is a true testament to the tangible benefits the law can bring consumers."

The Spoils

I'm happy to be collecting from this lawsuit because before it was filed and settled, I hadn't realized that I had been a victim of the Apple "scheme."

The compensation for my suffering is $1.57.

Others in the aggrieved class will receive the rest of the $400 million -- some in increments as high as $20.

As for the rest of the money, $20 million will go to the 33 states whose attorneys joined the lawsuit.

The final amount -- $30 million, the biggest chunk by far -- will go to the aforementioned lawyer's law firm.  Remember he's the one who called the settlement "a true testament to the tangible benefits the law can bring consumers."

Let's review:

1.  Apple was sued for colluding to increase digital book prices.

2.  Digital book prices went up anyway.

3.  A bunch of time was wasted negotiating a "deal" that included a fine that amounted to spare change for Apple.

4.  Ostensible victims will collect de minimis awards.

5.  Trial lawyers get $30 million.

Sometimes I wonder whether number 5 wasn't the point of the entire exercise.

Next Up

Last month came news that may turn into more money for me.  Starbucks is being sued for giving customers smaller than advertised lattes.

I drink lattes occasionally at Starbucks.  If this new action swings my way, I'm thinking I could collect in the settlement.  Maybe $2.50.

It's only fair given the suffering I have endured, even if I was unaware of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Get Over Yourself

“I don't care what you think unless it is about me.” 

                                                                                                           ― Kurt Cobain

Several years ago, in a season when the best-seller lists included more than the usual number of self-help books, a friend of mine joked that he was going to write one himself.  His title:  "How You Can Be Like Me."

Lately I have been noticing more self-absorbed first-person writing on the internet and in newspaper op-ed sections.  Often these pieces are written by young people in the throes of becoming full-grown adults.

The traditional rule in writing is, "Write what you know."  Many young writers mostly know about themselves, and so they write about coming-of-age moments that people over the age 30 remember from their own lives but don't need to relive.  Such writing dips a toe into and, at worst, submerges itself in navel-gazing banality.

(Yes, I've been there.  Fortunately for me, my early self-referential scribblings never were published. And, yes, some may argue that too many of my later ones have been published.  I can hear it.)

The real rule for writing is this:  First go out into the world to learn about other people and their situations.  Develop some perspective.  THEN take to your keyboard.

There's a website (which shall not be named) that dumps material into my email inbox every day.  The website styles itself as a platform for several topics, including trivial, self-referential musings that are sincere but, to my eyes, unintentionally humorous.

In the last three weeks, I culled the following titles from that website.  Naturally I plan to unsubscribe after I post this.  Too much is enough.

Why Art Cures the Most Mysterious Disease of All
Art is more than a hobby. Art and creativity cure a problem that we all share at times — boredom. I’m not just talking about commercial…

Make people give a shit — without losing yourself
I’ve been blogging, starting businesses, designing, writing electronic music and playing punk rock for the past 10 years. And the one thing…  I’m sure about is that it’s tough to make anyone give a shit.
      It’s tough to make anyone care about the work that you do and why you do it. 

We're All Going to Be Lonely
Loneliness is a part of life, as natural as birth and death.  Sooner or later, we all go through it.  I've gotten used to my loneliness, and . . . .

Today I had to explain the concept of male privilege and it was profoundly disappointing.
I was talking to a person who, along with being a male programmer, is one of my best friends and someone I trust.
         His confusion stemmed from two . . . . First, he didn't think he'd . . . . 

Mob Lessons I learned from being on the Inside:  How I moved through adversity when I was weak, totally demoralized and didn’t have enough money to drive around the block --
I think our lives are just one BIG continuing education class . . . .

Be a bit f*cked up.  People will like you for that
Let me tell you a story about a young man. He had a job he was good at, and he liked it. He earned a lot, though he wasn’t a millionaire — actually, he never wanted to become one, he knew that having more money won’t make him happier. His car of choice was new Audi SUV, he played squash to stay fit and travelled every other weekend.
       By all means he had a successful career . . . .

I cried all day.
I cried walking to the subway. I cried on the subway. I cried when I got off the subway. I cried while giving a tourist directions to Chelsea Market; I think she may have asked me because maybe only true New Yorkers are comfortable crying in public here. I cried walking to work. I cried at work . . . .

4 Things Investor Rejection Letters Taught Me
They’re not easy to read — but they usually contain exactly what you need to hear to get your business into shape.
      A few years ago, I quit my day job to pursue my start-up dreams . . . .

Against numbness
This feeling of helplessness is not new.  Far from it.
      What happened early Sunday morning at Pulse nightclub in Orlando has happened over and over in America, a result of the same two simple ingredients: a man with an indelible stain of hatred in his heart, and a weapon engineered to mow down a roomful of people in seconds.
      When we hear another atrocity has happened, to the point when even the word “atrocity” has lost its potency, our natural reaction is numbness. “I can’t believe this is happening again,” you might think to yourself . . . .

I Read 3,000 Emails from 2016 Presidential Candidates and I Learned Nothing
Bombarded. Besieged. Tortured.
      These are the three words that best describe the state of my gmail inbox since June 1, 2015. That was the day I began the The Presidential Email Project, in the hope that I might learn something about politics and the 2016 election from the high-minded discourse of the esteemed statespeople running for President of the United States . . . .

How to Be a Father
These instructions are for me. Your mileage may vary.
       In some particular order:
       You are officially no longer priority #1 or even #2. First rule about fatherhood is you never come first anymore. Them the breaks, breeder.
       Baby first. Mommy second . . . .

How I try to stay balanced in a world I can’t always control
I want to be very clear with you. I am not a calm, placid lake. I know it’d be awesome if I was, but the truth is a million miles away.
       Am I a pretty productive person? I’d like to think so. I get a lot done, and I write a lot, and I work hard, and every now and then I accomplish something. But being productive doesn’t put me on some . . . .

How I killed my art practice — then brought it back to life
I started painting regularly a little over four years ago. My depression and anxiety disorders had spun out of control, and in addition to . . . .

You make a choice. One way or the other.
It’s hard to get any kind of direction in your life if you’re waiting for a path to appear in front of you. I wasted a lot of time trying to look for what I was somehow “meant” to be doing, as if there’d be some kind of a cosmic sign.
      This is something people ask me quite regularly. How did I know what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do? How did I know the right road to walk down? The general theme of it tends to be, how did I know what my destiny was? . . . .

I don’t know what my IQ is — and I don’t care
Honestly, I don’t. I’ve never been tested, I’ve never wanted to know. The topic doesn’t interest me in the slightest, and I can’t think of any situation in which knowing it would be of any use to me . . . .


The writing I have described is by no means the exclusive province of young people.  Here is another article I encountered on the same website in recent weeks.

Gray Expectations
Nothing can prepare you for finding your first gray pubic hair. Honestly, how can you prepare for something you’ve convinced yourself will never happen?
       If I hadn’t been so tired, I would’ve . . . .

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Itty Bitty Expensive Bags

Here's a Dior number from the spring 2016 collection.  It's cute, and it was priced around $4,400.  The striking thing, to me, is its size.  The "bag" portion of the bag is 5.5"x 6.5"x3.0". 

Dior and other fashion houses are offering similarly small purses this fall for grown women, not six-year-old girls.  

We all remember expensive bags from five or 10 years ago -- bags so big that they could barely be stuffed into  the overhead storage bins of commercial airliners.  

Fashion trends come and go, of course, and often excessively.  Where in the past the purses were too big, now the new look is bags that are arguably too small.

Another theme in these designer bags is that many are very highly decorated.  You see pasted-on sparkles in intricate designs, different colors of leather and other embellishments.  Virtually all the very high-end fashion houses feature them.  

Here are couple other fancy bags.  Interestingly, given their petite size, they are called "satchels."  

This satchel comes from Les Petits Joueurs  and measures 8.3"x7.5'x4".  Yes, it is decorated with Lego bricks, a common theme in the company's products. 

Here is a prettier Fendi Peekaboo Mini Beaded Flower Satchel Bag, priced at $7,250 and sized 7"x 9"x4.3".

And here are a few other bags, also very small.  As to the designers,  well, I will not name names to protect the guilty.

My dark suspicion is that all the fripperies are added at least in part to frustrate the manufacture of knockoffs in Asia.  

The Realistic Look

Let's face facts.  In real life, women carry black purses and maybe switch them out with straw purses for the hot months.  The basic is always easy, and it always works.

In the new, smaller handbags, the basic look seems to be this:  A neutral-colored bag, almost always with a handy cross-shoulder strap.

Here is one: the Givenchy Antigona Mini Duffel, 7.5"x8.5"x 5.0" and priced around $2,000.  (I know, I know -- mini duffel?)


In a way, I should welcome this new look.  I have three very small handbags of my own -- one sparkly black, one black velvet and one silvery.  They all have shoulder straps.  I wear them for dressy occasions out when I only need to carry a cellphone, a credit card and lip gloss.  

If I only needed to carry a cellphone during the daylight hours, I'd get myself a pair of the still-popular cargo pants with big pockets at the knees.

For my daily routes,  I need something with room for a phone, a wallet, sunglasses and sunblock.  (Checkbook not so much, these days.) 

These little things are interesting, but, for me, they just won't work. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Better Sunscreen -- When?

Last summer I argued for better sunscreens.  FDA approval of such products had been seen as imminent for many years.  

Since then, what has happened?  Nothing.  Zip.  Nada. 

Meanwhile more than 76,000 Americans have been diagnosed with invasive melanoma, the scary skin cancer, and 10,000 more people have died of melanomas that spread to their internal organs.  Better sunscreen, years ago, might have spared us some of this loss.

So here I go again. 

We all know that we should be using sunscreen to protect our skin from sunburns, the fine lines of aging and, more critically, skin cancer.  One big problem is that the most effective sunscreens are not available in the U.S.

There are two kinds of damaging rays from the sun.  One, UVB, can cause sunburns and perhaps skin cancer; most American sunscreens block UVB rays pretty well.  The SPF number on a sunscreen product -- 15, 30, 55, 70 -- tells you how much protection it offers from UVB.

The other type is a little different.  UVA rays penetrate the skin through windows and car windshields as well as outdoor exposure.  UVA is more closely implicated in skin cancer, as well as premature aging of the skin. 

Unfortunately, UVA protection is more limited.  Early sunscreens only worked against UVB, and we now are advised by dermatologists to use "broad spectrum" sunscreens that protect against UVA as well.  

Unfortunately, the term "broad spectrum" does not specify exactly how broad or protective a sunscreen is against UVA.  

Only three substances are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in "broad spectrum" sunscreens.  Many other substances -- some said to block a broader range of rays and to protect for much longer than U.S. formulations -- have been used successfully in many other countries for many years now.

No one seems to know why the more effective UVA-blocking substances have not been approved here, but the battle has been going on for a long, long time.

Below are some field reports from a quick internet search:


Q.  Did anyone hear recently in the news about a sunblock approved in Europe but not here?  Plus why it’s supposed to be so good?  And why it’s not OK’d by the FDA?

A.  There are two new sunscreen ingredients, Tinosorb and Mexoryl, that are superior in UVA protection.  They are available in Europe, but they are still in the process of being approved by the FDA.  Hopefully, they’ll be approved soon.
July 30, 2004


But nowadays everyone -- the American Academy of Dermatology, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and, of course, sunscreen manufacturers -- agrees that the American consumer deserves access to a sunscreen that's as effective at filtering UVA as it is at taming UVB. . . .

The sunscreen ingredient that tops many most-wanted lists, including that of Clay J. Cockerell, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, is Mexoryl. The drug, developed by L'Oreal, has been widely used in Europe and elsewhere since 1993.

Mexoryl, which Cockerell said protects against even the longest-wavelength UVA light and can block 75 percent to 90 percent of that light, is widely deemed more effective than any anti-UVA drug available in the United States.

So where does Mexoryl stand in the FDA approval process? The agency doesn't comment on such matters. Nor does Jennie James, vice president for media relations for L'Oreal USA, shed much light: "All we really say about Mexoryl is that we have initiated a process of discussion with the FDA about Mexoryl and are continuing to work closely with the FDA." 

"Less Than Full Protection"
Washington Post
June 28, 2005


In the absence of new (FDA) rules, consumers are left with sunscreen regulations that date back to the Carter administration -- 1978 -- when the science of sun protection was much more primitive.  The status quo leaves Americans with less-effective sunscreens, doctors and scientists say.

"In the States, we are selling an obsolete generation of sun protection," said Lionel De Benetti, the president of Clarins Laboratoires, a French cosmetics company.  In its European sunscreens, Clarins uses superior ingredients that are not approved for use in the United States, he said, adding, "It's a bit upsetting."

To get state-of-the-art sun protection, some consumers seek out sunscreens from Europe that use UVA filters that are not yet approved by the F.D.A.  Yu-Chi Lyra Kuo, a graduate student at Princeton University, took the trouble to do the research and now uses European products.

"The sunscreens in North America tend to be very effective at blocking UVB rays, but not UVA rays," she said.

"UVA Reform: It's Not PDQ"
New York Times
June 24, 2010


Henry Lim, chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, says multiple UVA filters still awaiting clearance in the U.S. have been used effectively outside the country for years.

"The U.S. is an island by itself on this one," he said. "They're available in Canada, available in Europe, available in Asia, available in Mexico, and available in South America."

Wall Street Journal
May 13, 2013


The FDA hasn’t helped itself on the public relations front. In 2002 the agency developed a new process to speed approval of chemicals that have long been on the market abroad, and FDA officials declared their intent to approve or deny applications within 180 days. In early 2009—that’s more than 2,500 days later—it had become achingly clear that the FDA was not making those self-imposed deadlines on sunscreen ingredients. Pressed by the industry to get moving, the agency promised to process most of the long-delayed applications by the end of the year. That was four years ago, and we are still waiting.

It's almost hard to believe that America is home to some of the most outdated sun protection products in the world. It is, and it's been this way for some time now.

The last time a new sunscreen ingredient was introduced to the US market was in 2002. The Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, making the process for ingredient approval cumbersome. Eight new OTC sunscreen ingredients have been pending in the FDA's queue for more than a decade, while countries in Europe and Asia have been enjoying the same ingredients for years and are constantly introducing innovative new options.

"Burned by Bureaucracy"
Why is the FDA stalling on 
newer and better sunscreens?
April 23, 2014


“We’ve not heard any real objections to the legislation.  We’re optimistic that this is going to be a bill that everybody can get behind and we can get it enacted this summer,” (said Michael Werner, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who advised the PASS (Public Access to Sunscreen) Coalition.

"Critics Want FDA to OK New Sunscreen Ingredients"
June 6, 2014


"Some UV filters actually provide longer and better UVA protection," said Dr. Stephen Wang a dermatologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to Racked. "Sunscreens offer certain spectrums of protection. "The ingredients waiting to be approved can deliver better protection. The US currently has three [ingredients providing] UVA protection whereas there are a lot more available in Europe and Asia."

"Why You Shouldn't Be Buying Your Sunscreen in America"
July 16, 2014

2015 Activity

The New England Journal of Medicine dipped a cautious toe in the water last year, releasing a perspective article for a comment period that ended July 15, 2015.  That article surveyed the damage UVA rays cause as well as the yearslong efforts to allow sales of better products and then says this:

"It's no surprise that the FDA would act cautiously given the scientific advice it's received and a legal structure that essentially provides it with just one tool: authorizing extensive marketing of multiple products and formulations. Understanding the FDA means recognizing that the framework for over-the-counter products is not designed to promote innovation, even innovation with potential public health benefits."

There is a lot more blah-blah-blah about process and then this conclusion:

"After all, the ultimate goal is to make meaningful progress against this public health problem."

2016 Activity

I just looked on the NEJM website to learn whether it had followed up last summer's article.  I didn't find anything.

I contacted two major companies that sell sunscreen products.   A representative at one thanked me for my "input" but told me nothing of its position on the better UVA question.  Nobody at the other firm returned my call or answered my email inquiry.

I also looked on the FDA website; its latest update on approved sunscreens came in 2012.  Nothing new there either.

To be fair, the FDA has a broad mandate and probably is involved in ebola and zika control efforts, if only to assist the Centers For Disease Control.

Still, the FDA has 15,000 employees.  As of 2010, the most recent update I found, the CDC had 9,000 full-time employees and 5,000 contract workers.

That's a lot of people. Couldn't a few of them be deployed to do something about better protection against a disease that kills more than 10,000 Americans every year?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Most-Favored Letter

An amusing bit from, "IS INVESTING ACTUALLY AS EASY AS A-TO-Z?, published May 9 in the Wall Street Journal.

The "A" Team

Companies have long known that a name that starts with A gets attention quicker; that’s why the Yellow Pages have so many A-named locksmiths, exterminators and takeout restaurants. On a grander scale, there are 54 companies in the S&P 500 with names beginning with A—including the newly named Google parent company, Alphabet Inc.—and just three that start with Z.

And in academia, studies show that when the authors of a research paper are listed alphabetically on the report, as they often are, the first author tends to become more famous in the field, with more invitations to be a peer referee and work on conferences, Ms. Itzkowitz says.

The researchers trace this phenomenon to the idea that people tend to be “satisficers,” a word coined from the combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”—meaning people generally are willing to accept something as good enough without doing an exhaustive search to find a better alternative. “People are not computers,” Dr. Itzkowitz says. “They can’t look for every possible option.”

Technology is partly to blame for investors’ alphabetical choices, says Heiko Jacobs, a professor at the University of Mannheim, in Germany, who co-wrote a research paper on letter bias with colleague Alexander Hillert. “In the electronic age, you may rely even more on lists, and the standard sorting scheme is alphabetically,” Dr. Jacobs says. He and Dr. Hillert found that stocks in the top 5% by alphabetical order had 5% to 15% more trading volume.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Movie Monday: Central Intelligence

Nobody will confuse this movie with "Citizen Kane," but it's good-natured and just what audiences have come to expect.  It cost $50 million to make and sold more than $40 million in tickets over the weekend, which was pretty good for a weekend in which the latest Pixar movie sucked all the air out of the cinematic room.

From a couple of reviews:

          It doesn’t take a genius IQ to see what the brains behind the buddy comedy “Central
          Intelligence” were thinking. It’s all about the odd couple.
                Just mix Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s big as a mountain and goofily
          charismatic, with Kevin Hart, who’s pint-sized, overanimated and squealy. And let
          the espionage plot take care of itself.
                Except that the story doesn’t. It’s sloppy and half-baked.
                Even romps must make sense, and this Swiss-cheesy script has holes and slow
           stretches. Yes, the appealing mismatched megastars earn their paychecks with game
           performances. But other than an occasional zinger hitting the mark, laughs are in
           short supply.

Joe Dziemianowicz
New York Daily News

            The real danger with these types of buddy comedies is the over-reliance on
            predictable gags and comic tics. Audiences want to see Kevin Hart being Kevin Hart,
            and they want to see the Rock being the Rock, but they don’t want to be too disturbed
            or challenged. So within that framework, a smart director has to figure out how to play
            with the elements, to bring spontaneity and surprise without completely upending
            expectations. Central Intelligence won’t blow you out of the theater, but you might be
            surprised at how well it works — how genuinely funny it is — given the familiarity of
            this concept.

Bilge Ebiri
LA Weekly

To me, these critiques ring a little hollow.  They get raised almost every time one of these pictures is released.  People who review movies for a living may get tired of buddy action comedies, but so far audiences have not.  

Same Old, Same Old

The buddy comedy has been with us forever.  Laurel and Hardy.  Hope and Crosby.  Butch and Sundance.

For the last 30 years or more, the preferred iteration has been the-odd-couple-fights-the-bad-guys, described now as an "action comedy."  Films with this theme are released very, very regularly.

Last month, it was "The Nice Guys."  Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a down-on-his-luck private eye teams with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a hired enforcer who hurts people for a living. Fate turns them into unlikely partners after a young woman mysteriously disappears. Their investigation takes them to dark places as anyone else who gets involved in the case seems to wind up dead.

In April came "The Do-Over."   Here's the plot line:  Charlie McMillan (David Spade), an unhappily married bank manager reunites with his old high school buddy/FBI agent Max Kessler (Adam Sandler, of course). They spend a weekend on Max's yacht, which makes Charlie feel young again, and the duo decide to fake their owns deaths and assume the identities of two other men, who turn out to have sketchy pasts that land Charlie and Max in some deep doo-doo.

In March, it was "The Brothers Grimsby," in which a dimwitted English vulgarian reunites with his long-lost brother, a deadly MI6 agent, to prevent a massive global terror attack.

These movies follow a formula.  At least one buddy is a gun-toting spy, detective or FBI agent. The two buddies have little in common and snipe at each other in hilarious fashion but ultimately come together to resolve a problem that virtually always involves gunplay.  The shooting simplifies and amplifies the action, but never injures or kills either buddy because the movie is a comedy.


There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course.  People go to movies to be entertained, and the buddy action comedy is a durable concept that allows talented actors to camp it up and make people laugh.

People don't want to go to the cineplex and be surprised to find themselves watching dramatizations of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage." (I don't even want to go to a dramatization of "Mother Courage."  Once is enough, or very possibly, too much.)

There is comfort in understanding what to expect.  By this measure, "Central Intelligence" delivers.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fathers and Sons: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

      "Tis easy to see, hard to foresee."

 Poor Richard's Almanack

Benjamin Franklin was possibly the most resourceful of our founders.  Born the son of a candle-maker, with almost no education, he became a writer and printer, the founder of the best newspaper in the country in its time and a prolific inventor.  He established the country's first libraries and was the joint colonial postmaster general, responsible for improvements in mail delivery in the British colonies.

The oldest of Ben's three children, William, was a bastard whose mother's identity remains uncertain.  Ben married a year later and with his wife raised the boy. William was with his father when Ben conducted his famous electricity experiment with a kite and key in the middle of a thunderstorm.

William Franklin
Ben took his son to England in 1757, at least partly to advance William's career.  Five years later, William had become an attorney, had been awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree at Oxford University and, best, had been named, at Ben's request, to the prestigious position of Royal Governor of the New Jersey Colony.

After returning home and seeing his son installed in the new office, Franklin returned to England where he acted as liaison between several colonies and the British government.   As tensions mounted in the restive colonies, Ben came to sympathize with his American fellows and returned in 1775 to participate in the Continental Congress and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

At this most significant juncture in either of their lives, father and son parted ways.

Ben encouraged his son to join the Americans, but William refused and remained a British loyalist. At the beginning of the war, American militias put him under house arrest in New Jersey.  Later he was jailed in Connecticut and finally released in a prisoner exchange to British-held New York, where he became the president of the Board of Associated Loyalists. After the war ended, in 1782, William returned to England and never returned.

Ben spent the war in France as the American ambassador to the country that supported the revolution most.

The break between father and son never really healed.

In England, William became active in the Loyalist community which, given the War of 1812, presumably was pretty active after the end of the American Revolution.

In France, Ben participated in negotiations for the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war.  He took a very strong position against offering compensation or amnesty to loyalists like his son.

The next year, William attempted reconciliation in a letter to his father.  Ben responded coolly with his own letter.  "[We] will endeavor, as you propose mutually to forget what has happened relating to it, as well we can," wrote the father.

On his way home from France in 1785, Ben stopped in England for a brief visit with William to resolve legal matters.  It was the last time they saw each other.

Benjamin Franklin died a wealthy man three years later and bequeathed most of his goods to his surviving daughter, her husband and their children. There were other bequests for more distant relatives, and generous gifts for public education and infrastructure.

For William, Ben left very little:  some books and papers, forgiveness of any loans outstanding and a bit of land in Nova Scotia that cannot have mattered much to either of them.

Ben was very clear about his reasons: "The part (William) acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no more of an estate he endeavoured to deprive me of."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

2016 Movie Trends

Movie critics and entertainment professionals have been releasing their observations about midyear movie results for 2016.

Since I've been seeing more movies this year, I was curious.  I just looked at the top 20 films in order of domestic revenue through last weekend, and I have a few thoughts.  Here goes:

Superhero Movies Rule

Four of the 10 top-grossing movies for the first half of the year were superhero movies:

The biggest moneymaker was "Captain America: Civil War;" and the second was "Deadpool." "X-Men: Apocalypse" was fifth, and "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," mediocre as it was, came in seventh.

When you consider that three of the four were released before the traditional early May opening of the summer superhero season, that's something.

It's also a lot of violence.  Between the 11th and 20th big selling movies,  are "Allegiant," "London Has Fallen," a Benghazi movie, a fighting turtles story and "The Boss," which features girls in fist fights.  At least there's no Quentin Tarantino film so far this year.

There is a lot of talk about guns in our world, but not so much about guns and violence in our entertainments.  Drama requires conflict to be interesting, of course, but a steady diet of popular film and video war games may give young viewers a false idea of how people resolve their differences in real life.

Sequels Galore

As others have noted already, studios are funding more and more sequels, threequels, fourquels and, this season, at least one seven-quel with an "X-Men" title.

Among the top 20 films, I count 11 that were such follow-ons.   The number is 13 if you regard "10 Cloverfield Lane" as a sort of second "Cloverfield," and Melissa McCarthy's persona as a franchise in itself, which seems appropriate.

In a way, this makes sense.  Movies are expensive to produce, and a property that has been profitable before may bring back past fans, providing a base of sales to cover costs.

In addition, this may be playing to television-viewing tastes.  People now follow the same shows with the same characters for years.  "Mad Men lasted seven seasons, "Downton Abbey" for six and "Breaking Bad" for five.   The "Game of Thrones" audience seems willing to stick with the show for as long as it runs.

In short, we may be more comfortable with the familiar than with something new and different.

Under the circumstances, "Kung Fu Panda 3" makes perfect sense.  So does "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2."  Or maybe not.

American filmmakers are making many more pictures these days -- mostly small-budget productions, documentaries and films that aren't expected to be "tentpoles" for large studios' other offerings.  I generally like these smaller movies better, but most don't find their ways to suburban cineplexes.  Eventually, many turn up later on premium television channels, but it's frustrating to read reviews of a film you'd like to see ("Miles Ahead," anyone?) and to have to wait for months to get the chance.

Movie Stars Aren't Carrying Pictures

Who he?

Not that long ago, top stars could command $20 million per picture/and or revenue participation. If the first films of this year are any indicator, times have changed.

True, Robert Downey and Scarlett Johansson and Ben Affleck appeared in superhero films, but I'm betting the genre's fans are more devoted to Iron Man, the Black Widow and Batman than to the stars who play the characters.  (And the first two of these have made eight-figure fortunes working on various Marvel films, so we should not feel sorry for them.)

My impression is that many films featuring "name" actors aren't doing as well as might be expected.

Some examples:

     -- This spring's "Money Monster," starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts and directed by Jodie Foster, has sold fewer tickets than something called "The Conjuring 2," which was released five weeks later.

     -- A Coen brothers film featuring George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and many other known actors went nowhere.

      -- "Dirty Grandpa," with Jack Nicholson and Zac Ephron went nowhere.  So did "The Brothers Grimsby" with Sacha Baron Cohen, "A Hologram for the King" with Tom Hanks, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" with Tina Fey, and "Mother's Day" with Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson and Julia Roberts. '

Is Any of This New?

No.  I just looked at the top-grossing movies released in 2006, 10 years ago.

That year, two of the top 10 were superhero movies -- "X-Men: the Last Stand" (as if), and "Superman Returns."

Four were sequels -- the second Pirates of the Caribbean (a fifth is due in 2017), the third X-Men, the second Ice Age (a seventh iteration comes out later in 2016) and the umpteenth James Bond movie, "Casino Real."

Three of the other top 2006 movies spawned their own sequels -- "A Night at the Museum," "Cars" and "Happy Feet."

Only one movie in 2006 was driven by the appeal of a movie star:  "The Pursuit of Happyness," featuring Will Smith.


I also looked up the top-selling movies for each of the last 10 years.  Nine of them were sequels or parts of series like Star Wars or Harry Potter stories.  The only one that was "new" was "Avatar in 2009.  Naturally, there are plans to release Avatars 2, 3, 4 and 5 between now and 2023.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Movie Monday: Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping

This mockumentary is the sort of film that might appeal to people who have followed the pop scene for the last 10 years or so, whether they like the music or not.  As is the case with many comedies, the movie's trailer contains the funniest moments.

"Popstar" features members of the parody group, The Lonely Island, whose ha-ha fake rap songs were featured on Saturday Night Live from 2005 to 2012 or so.  Who can forget titles like "I Just Had Sex, " "Threw It on the Ground" and "Dick in a Box?"

In this outing, Andy Samberg plays Conor4Real, a singer who left his band, the Style Boyz, for a solo career.   After a mega-hit first album, he is about to release a second one to what he calls "mixed" reviews.

Conor is a happy dolt surrounded by enablers, and there is a weak plot about unresolved issues among the Style Boyz that calls to mind Samberg's moving past his Lonely Island gig to become a bigger star than his fellows.

There are interviews with serious rap artists like Nas, Usher and Snoop Dogg, who pretend to discuss Conor and his influence on the genre.  Various other celebrities appear in roles and cameos.  Justin Timberlake plays Conor's personal chef, who is particularly talented at cutting carrots into various shapes.

There are new, appropriately stupid numbers from Conor's new album.  One, "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)", was released last month to promote the movie.

         “Finest girl I ever met in my whole life, want to take her home make her my wife, knew
         she was a freak when she started talking, she said fuck me like we fucked bin Laden.”

So yes, it's R-rated and chock-full of silliness.

But no, it's not going to make anyone forget "This is Spinal Tap," which celebrated its 32nd birthday in early March.


Here is Christopher Guest playing Nigel Tufnel in possibly the most remembered scene from Spinal Tap.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"Hamilton," the Tonys and History

Tonight comes the televised presentation of the 2016 Tony Awards for Broadway plays.  The Tonys are like the Oscars and most prize-giving events by self- interested groups -- designed to draw attention to the larger group endeavor.  The presumption is that recognition and prizes will reawaken audience interest and generate new ticket sales for plays that might still have some legs.

This year Broadway ticket sales have been very healthy, and for a single reason:  "Hamilton," the hip hop musical that features black and latino actors in the roles of America's founding fathers.  The play is on its way to becoming the first ever to gross $1 billion in ticket sales.

As such, "Hamilton" is the tail wagging the Broadway dog.  It is nominated for 16 Tonys (including two entrants in the "best actor in a musical" category), and it probably should not win in all its categories.  Its costumes, scenic design and lighting, for example, are just fine but not distinguished.

"Hamilton's" real triumph has been to bring young people back to theater.  The television generations, starting with Baby Boomers, lost interest in live drama over time, and the most reliable group of enthusiasts became senior citizens.

That wall was pierced somewhat by nontraditional musicals like "The Producers" and "Spamalot" and "Book of Mormon" and also by theatrical versions of Disney movies, which drew families to "Lion King" and other shows.

But "Hamilton" is a serious piece, and it conveys its message in a new vernacular.  It will invite more young playwrights and musicians to come up with plays that speak to a broader range of people, including teenagers, young adults and people of color.

Against this larger canvas,  the Tonys are irrelevant.


I do keep posting about "Hamilton," I know, but the play has taken on a life of its own.  

Young people memorize the script and the score before they take their seats in the theater.  People crowd the stage door after each performance to glimpse and, if they are lucky, commune in conversation with the actors.

Reports that the creator, Lin-Manual Miranda, will leave the lead role this summer have driven ticket resale prices, already very high, into the stratosphere.  (The actor who has been substituting for Miranda on Sundays and who most likely replace Miranda has received excellent reviews, but people still venerate Lin-Manual for his inspiration and want to experience the play with him personally.)

There is a palpable anguish that the larger public, people who cannot afford $2,000 theater seats, cannot see the play.  There is sorrow that it will continue as a theater production in various cities, perhaps for years, before it is made into a movie and becomes more widely available. 

In short, the emotional intensity that has attached to "Hamilton" has the characteristics of a religious experience.  I'm trying to think of analogies -- Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik" maybe, the Beatles' first performances in New York, Muhammad Ali and the Thrilla in Manila, Toni Morrison's "Beloved" novel for ardent readers.  I'm sure there are others.  

The point is this:  Hamilton mania will not last forever.  We should enjoy it while we have it.


In fact, a couple Cornell professors of government tried to prick the "Hamilton" hot air balloon with a thought piece published last week in the New York Times.

Their thesis:  Alexander Hamilton was an elitist.

        "The musical’s misleading portrayal of Hamilton as a “scrappy and hungry” man
        of the people obscures his loathing of the egalitarian tendencies of the revolutionary
        era in which he lived."

To illustrate:

        "Many of the (Constitutional) Convention participants feared the 'excess of democracy,'
        but Hamilton went much further. He wanted to bring an elective monarchy and restore
        non-titled aristocracy to America. 'The people are turbulent and changing,” he declared.
        'They seldom judge or determine right. They must be ruled by 'landholders, merchants
        and men of the learned professions,' whose experience and wisdom 'travel beyond the
        circle' of their neighbors. For America to become an enduring republic, Hamilton argued,
        it had to insulate rulers and the economy as much as possible from the jealous multitude."

The professors come down on Thomas Jefferson's side of the Jefferson-Hamilton debate over the establishment of a national bank, citing "Jefferson’s populist resistance to an economic plan that, in his view, supported the rule of commercial oligarchs who manipulated credit and currency at the expense of debtors and yeoman farmers."  (This sounds like something a couple of Bern Bros would write.)

They also assert that "Hamilton’s opposition to slavery — reflected, for example, in his being a founder of New York’s Manumission Society — was not central to his political vision."  (Really?  Hamilton died in 2004, when even freaking England was a slave country.)

There are other elements in their bill of particulars, and I am sure the writers know their stuff.  Their conclusion:

          "Hamilton, with his contemptuous attitude toward the lower classes, was perfectly
          comfortable with the inegalitarian and antidemocratic implications of his economic
          vision. One has to wonder if the audiences in the Richard Rodgers Theater would be as
          enthusiastic about a musical openly affirming such convictions. No founder of this
          country more clearly envisioned the greatness of a future empire enabled by drastic
          inequalities of wealth and power. In this sense, too, 'Hamilton' is very much a musical
          for our times."

          (Did I mention that these guys sound like Sanders supporters?  Hamilton and his crew
          opposed top-down imperial meddling with a self-sufficient colony.  The more serious
          complaints of drastic wealth inequality came 50 years later, when Karl Marx began to
          examine the effects of the Industrial Revolution.)

I have a feeling that, faced with this critique, Lin-Manual Miranda would say this:  Go ahead, professors, write your own Hamilton musical.

The fact is that Broadway plays do not weigh the merits of philosophical discussions.   The genius of "Hamilton" is its appropriation of the man's best qualities to make a statement about the kind of country its creator would like us to have today.

Arguments like these are not new, and they will continue.  Each generation refracts history through the lens of its own concerns.

For many decades, school children were taught that young George Washington, when asked whether he had chopped down a cherry tree, said, "I cannot tell a lie."  It was a complete fiction manufactured for a hagiography published in 1800, back when we still deified our founders.

Since then, Thomas Jefferson, who inherited a plantation and slaves and who spent so much of his fortune on other interests that he could not afford to free the slaves when he died, is remembered for these facts as well as the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.

More recently, we have been re-examining Andrew Jackson, a president hated in his day for his uncouth and populist views, then venerated for them and now held to account for his Native American clearances and his fortune made on the backs of slave laborers.

Woodrow Wilson, much admired for his valiant but failed advocacy of a League of Nations, turns out to have resegregated the federal workforce and to have held other elitist views that could not be expressed in polite company today.

This constant engagement with our history is a good thing.  It is how we try to keep the ideals of democracy alive by re-examining the past and imagining a better future.

I do wonder, however, how long it will be before we condemn past leaders for their failures to support gay marriage and transgender rights.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

"The BFG" Movie - No No No

Disney has high hopes for its movie, "The BFG," which is set to open July 1.  It is a film version of a children's book and is directed by the masterful Steven Spielberg who, the movie's trailer suggests, has amped up the action to make the story even more exciting.  

That said, I hope you will not go to the movie.  In fact, I hope the movie flops.

Instead of buying a ticket to this movie, purchase a copy of the book.  Read it to your five-year-old or to your eight-year-old.  Or give it to any family you know with a child aged five or older. 

In my experience, "The BFG" is just about the perfect book to read to children.  The story provokes their vivid imaginations, and it exposes them to language that they find new and delightful.  It opens their eyes to the possibility that reading can be fun.

The Story

In the opening chapter of "The BFG," a little girl named Sophie is plucked from an orphanage window in the middle of the night by a giant who carries her away to a land inhabited by other giants.  After they arrive at his large-scale home, he explains that he means Sophie no harm.  He is, he explains, the Big Friendly Giant.  

The BFG is not like the other giants, who conduct nightly raids to collect human beings (whom he calls human beans) and eat them.  The BFG is outraged by the other giants' behavior, but he is small, as giants go, and is unable to force the others to stop.

 Similarly, Sophie is a small child stuck in an abusive orphanage.  Together they work out a plan to improve both their situations. 

A key element of the story is the BFG's speech.  He is self-taught and well-meaning, but he mangles the English language and uses made-up words that are understandable but not quite right.   Children love the character while recognizing his mistakes.  They are gratified to be in on the jokes. 

Quotes in BFG-Speak

On the nature of giants:

        “You is about right! Giants is all cannybully and murderful! And they does gobble up 
         human beans! We is in Giant Country now! Giants is everywhere around! Out there us 
         has the famous Bonecrunching Giant! Bonecrunching Giant crunches up two wopsey 
         whiffling human beans for supper every night! Noise is earbursting! Noise of crunching 
         bones goes crackety-crack for miles around!"

On the BFG's frustration: 

       “For years and years I is sitting here on this very rock every night after night when they 
       is galloping away, and I is feeling so sad for all the human beans they is going to gobble 
       up. But I has had to get used to it. There is nothing I can do. If I wasn’t a titchy little runty 
       giant only twenty-four feet high then I would be stopping them. But that is absolutely out 
       of the window.” 

On life in the orphanage:

        "I hated it,” Sophie said. “The woman who ran it was called Mrs. Clonkers and if she 
        caught you breaking any of the rules, like getting out of bed at night or not folding up 
        your clothes, you got punished.” 
        “How is you getting punished?” 
        “She locked us in the dark cellar for a day and a night without anything to eat or drink.”
        “The rotten old rotrasper!” cried the BFG. 
        “It was horrid,” Sophie said. “We used to dread it. There were rats down there. We 
        could hear them creeping about.” 

On the BFG and Sophie's shared circumstances:

       “I is never showing myself to human beans.”
       “Why ever not?”
       “If I do, they will be putting me in the zoo with all the jiggyraffes and the cattypillars.”
       “Nonsense,” Sophie said.
       “And they will be sending you straight back to a norphanage," the BFG went on. “Grown-up
        human beans is not famous for their kindnesses."

Let me just add that when the BFG is happy he starts "whizzpopping," or, in common English, farting.  Kids love this word and the idea that the BFG is unaware that farting is considered inappropriate social behavior.

Reading to Children

I should not have to make the case that it is important to read to children.  Kids value activities their parents share with them, and having a parent take time to read a book tells a child that books and the child are important.  

Lately I have observed an unfortunate trend among parents and young children traveling together.   Once, on a commuter train, I saw a mother pull out a little pink computer tablet for her daughter.  The child sat there watching colorful images and hearing cute child-appropriate musical sounds.  The mother did nothing.

Good grief, I wanted to say to the mother.  Get out a book and read to that girl!  Look out the train window with her and ask her to point to the red car!  Count with her how many people are standing on that street corner!

I can understand the benefit of having a backup distraction for children forced to sit still during long airplane rides.  But time with your children is limited, and it ends much sooner than parents want it to do.  You have to seize those moments. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Our Limping and Unknowable Economy

Gross Domestic Product Growth Slows

A few days ago, the quarterly UCLA Anderson economic forecast estimated that this year's domestic GDP would be 2.7 percent greater than last year's.  The report also left open the possibility that GDP growth could be as low as 1.7 percent.  Six months earlier, in December 2015, Anderson was forecasting 3.3 percent growth for this year.

As Yogi Berra would say, it's hard to predict the future.

The forecast also noted that one trend is likely to continue -- a general slowdown in annual growth.

Between 1965 and 2005, average GDP growth in the U.S. was 3 percent.  Since 2010, annual GDP growth has been about 2 percent.  Economists now think 2 percent growth, or a little more or a little less, is the new normal.

We see reflections of this in various ways.  Gallup tells us economic concerns in this election year rank second only to (understandable) dissatisfaction with government.  We learned recently that more 18- to 34-year-olds live with their parents than with partners or spouses, a reversal of what had been the traditional circumstance for generations.

Job Growth Slows

Recent history also has made people worried about employment.  There were seven financial recessions between 1960 and 2008.  In the first six, the jobs lost were replaced in 2.5 years or less.  After the Great Recession, employment did not return to its pre-recession level for almost 6.5 years.

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the report on new jobs in May.  Economists were expecting about 160,000 new jobs.  Instead there were only 38,000.

There was a big Verizon strike last month that meant 35,000 who otherwise would have been working were off the job.   If we add those people back, then the jobs report looks a bit better -- about 73,000 more people at work.

Still, that is not much.  Let's look at recent job trends, net of downward adjustments also announced last week.

       March new jobs:  186,000
       April new jobs:     123,000
       May new jobs:       73,000

 In 2015, new jobs averaged 221,000 per month; in 2014 the average was 260,000.

Interestingly, even with the low level of job creation, unemployment dropped by 0.3 percentage points, to 4.7 percent.  This is because the labor pool has been shrinking.  One reason for this is the retirement of baby boomers, which was to be expected.

Another reason is that people have given up looking for work.  This notion is supported somewhat by the increasing numbers of workers who have gone on disability since the Great Recession.  While this also may correlate with the aging of the workforce, there is some evidence that people who have lost jobs and cannot find new ones have been seeking disability payments (private and public) to replace at least some of their incomes.

And then, I believe, there is a third reason.  

The Underground Economy

This is a great big unknown, and one that probably grows each year.  Because of its very nature, it is not reflected in government reports.  It has several elements.

One is the unknown number of undocumented or illegal (your choice) immigrants.  It was said at the turn of the millennium that the number of these was 11 million; we still read the 11 million number, but the likelihood is that many more economic immigrants have crossed the border since 2000.

Without green cards or other documents, these immigrants cannot be employed in the traditional economy.  We have no idea how many construction workers, housekeepers, landscapers, restaurant workers and others without papers are making their livings in the US.  There is no way to quantify how many are in the labor pool and how many are working.

In addition, more Americans are working off the books, at least partly because of government incentives.

If you can can generate $500 a week doing odd jobs and you don't report the income to the IRS, you can keep an extra $306 a month in self-employment (Social Security and Medicare) taxes.  That's real money when your income is $24,000 a year.

If you are one of the many people who now can find only part-time work and you supplement your income with $200 by walking dogs or babysitting, you can save $31 in self-employment taxes.  Even small marginal increments matter if your income is low.

If you live in California and start a small LLC (limited liability corporation), which is a good idea if you have a small services company, you pay a minimum of $800 each year to register your LLC with the state, plus the 15.3 percent federal self-employment rate, plus federal and state income taxes, which in California are relatively high.  These things add up, and I'm betting lots of masseuses and party planners and one-person consultancies don't report their income, or at least not all of it.

A side benefit of managing your income downward is that you may qualify for Earned Income Tax Credits and government-subsidized health insurance.

Then there is the matter of illegal work.  Drug dealers and sex workers are expected to report and pay taxes on their incomes just like the rest of us, but my guess is that most of them do not do so.  It is true that Al Capone was jailed for income tax evasion, but that was a long time ago; I don't hear much about it these days.

What Do We Know?

As more people move out of the formal economy, we lose track of the size of the economy itself.   We don't really know how many people are working, and the monthly jobs growth figures become less relevant.  Because many informal businesses don't report incomes,  there is some part of GDP that is not captured in federal reports.

There is some evidence to believe this is happening.  In recent years, for instance, consumer spending has ticked up more than would be suggested by employment and income reports.