Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Unforced Error: Trans-Pacific Partnership

Neither of our presidential candidates had the guts to say something that needed saying this year.

It was this:  The Trans-Pacific Partnership was a good trade agreement.  It deserved our support. 

Both candidates campaigned against it, apparently in a reflexive pander to American resentment over perceived job losses to other countries.  

This close-our-borders/impose-tariffs idea has been tried before, most notably with the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.  The much-increased tariffs may not have caused the Depression, but they sure didn't help.  Between 1929 and 1933, American exports declined from about $5.2 billion to $1.7 billion, real money even in those days.

In fact, the TPP had a number of goals, some of which were pretty darn good.

It included language for protection of intellectual property, chiefly American software, music and films that have been pirated widely in Asia.  (This is probably why Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Twitter, eBay, and Uber all supported TPP.)

Second, it allowed for pushback when government-owned industries tried to manipulate transfer prices or currency values to favor their exports and disadvantage trading partners.

Third, it set labor and environmental standards that we all should support.

Fourth, it increased opportunities for service industry sales, an American strength, in finance, engineering, software, education, legal and information technology. TPP would clear away nationality requirements and investment restrictions that have limited American participation in some TPP countries. 

Finally, the TPP signatories, from Canada to Chile to Australia to Japan, represent a huge trading bloc -- 800 million people, 36 percent of global GDP, 25 percent of global commerce and 28 percent of foreign direct investment worldwide.

A January report from the Peterson Institute said this:

        ". . .TPP will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, 
        or 0.5 percent of GDP, and annual exports by $357 billion, or 9.1 percent of 
        exports, over baseline projections by 2030, when the agreement is nearly fully
        implemented. Annual income gains by 2030 will be $492 billion for the world."

While the U.S.would benefit most, the report added, all the participating countries would benefit. This was a win-win.


There is another benefit that would have resulted from TPP: developing a Pacific counterweight to China, the world's most populous country and second largest economy.  

China has been playing with currency values to promote its exports, as well as dumping below-cost products worldwide for years now.  It also is acting belligerently.  

China has built "islands" on sand reefs in the heavily trafficked South China Sea, claimed the lands as Chinese territory and stocked them with military installations and air strips.  The plan seems to be to control the $5 trillion trade route.  Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam (TPP signatories all) also have claims to parts of the waterway, but little chance of enforcing them without the support of a larger group of nations.  

China also has been meddling for years in Hong Kong politics and seems determined to make sure that voters there only get to vote for candidates pre-approved by the Chinese Communist Party.  

Although TPP is not a defense pact, trade tends to bring closer relations between countries.  It is likely that economic ties among North America, South America and Australia would be valuable to smaller Asian TPP members in a region where Chinese hegemony is a threat.  

In fact, this has been happening recently.

--In the last 10 days, Chinese officials seized nine troop carriers Singapore (a TPP partner) had ordered from Taiwan as the carriers were being delivered through Hong Kong.
         China long has held that Taiwan, an independent country, is a renegade Chinese province; the long-standing cordial relationship between Singapore and Taiwan has angered China.  Singapore also has angered China by resisting its South China Sea expansionism. 
         Singapore played down the troop carriers' seizure.  What else could it do?  Meanwhile, an official Chinese newspaper said the carriers could be melted down for scrap.

--Several weeks ago, the president of Peru (another TPP signatory) suggested in an interview with Russian television that a new Asian-Pacific trade pact -- including China and Russia but not the U.S. -- might be a better way to go now that U.S. participation was unlikely.  (The TPP was structured to be established only if the U.S. joined.)
        China also is speaking of organizing its own new trade partnership, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, without the U.S.

--In October, Malaysia announced plans to buy small military ships from China. The sale was to be discussed by the Malaysian prime minister on a coming weeklong Beijing visit.  The U.S. traditionally has been a Malaysian ally and supplier to its military.  

--The Philippine president, under U.S. pressure for extrajudicial killings of drug sellers, has spent several months remonstrating about American refusal to sell his country 26,000 rifles.  Recently he has suggested he may stop doing business with the United States.
        "Russia, they are inviting us, China also," he told a news agency. "China is open, anything you want, they sent me brochures."

--Last week, the Chilean foreign minister and the Japanese prime minister said they were committed to some form of Pacific trade agreement, with or without the U.S.  

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was on his way to Latin America to promote his new plan.

About Job Losses

It does suck when people find their labor is not needed and their jobs are taken by lower-paid workers in other countries.

But think about Vietnam, a TPP country.  Now that Chinese wages are going up, poorer Vietnam is becoming a go-to place to fulfill orders for items like tee shirts that sell for $10.  
        There is no way that American workers -- earning $15 hourly wages plus benefits -- are going to be making tee shirts again.  

In fact, Americans have become avid consumers of cut-price, low-quality products from around the world.   Do you buy furniture that is manufactured by hand in South Carolina or Ikea particle-board pieces from Asia that start crumbling after a few years?   High-end Italian shoes and handbags or Chinese knock-offs?  Did the washing machines, hoverboards and mobile phones that exploded in recent months come from American factories?  
        I thought not.    

There are trajectories in a country's development.  Japan had one.  After World War II, destroyed, it rebuilt its economy from the ground up.  In the early days, its products were trash.  "Made in Japan" meant cheap crap.  Over time, the country improved its education system and industrial infrastructure, and it began turning out Toyotas, Hondas and a range of innovative Sony products, among others.  Japanese wages went up and up and up.

We were in a better position after World War II.  We had a good industrial base and a good education system.  After the war, we built an interstate highway system and sent returning servicemen to college on the GI Bill.  
        Then we stopped.  
        By the 1970s, Japan could manufacture quality finished steel AND ship it to the Midwest for less than the manufacturing cost here because we never updated our steel plants and we paid their unionized workers more but didn't train them to improve the mills' productivity.  It was the same with automobile manufacturing.  
        Now our schools range from great to mediocre to awful, and the need for people who work with their backs -- in mines, on farms, in forests -- is much less.  We could have set a national goal to become nimble and improve our skills (as tech workers have done on their own) but after several generations of talk, we have spent a lot more money on education but have not got the job done. 

As I said, it sucks, but withdrawing from world trade isn't going to fix the situation.   

Monday, November 28, 2016

MovieMonday: Moana

This is Disney's latest animated princess story for the children's market.  

It is named for the daughter of a Polynesian tribal leader on an island that is succumbing to environment breakdown.  Against her father's admonitions, she sails away in search of a solution to her people's plight.

Moana is drafted into a second story about Maui, a 1,000-year-old demigod in many South Pacific island lores, who has lost his magic fish-hook.  Moana and Maui work together, a pair of mismatched buddies, to solve both their problems.

Like other updated princesses, Moana is her own agent.  She is challenged again and again along her way, climbing tall cliffs, evading serial perils and also learning to sail and navigate by reading the stars.  As in most traditional "young boy/girl goes out into the world' stories, the point is that she triumphs against obstacles.

At least I think that is the point.  Frankly, I couldn't make sense of the plot, which encompasses magic, imaginary creatures and various gods.

About the only cultural references I could spot were 1) Maui's lost fish hook, a source of power drawn from Polynesian lore, and 2) Tomatoa, a hermit crab that resembles the dragon Grendel in the Beowulf tale; like Grendel, Tomatoa hoards treasure, including the fish hook. 

It goes without saying that Moana, who appears to be about 10, is brave and noble and true.  

Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, is a 1,000-year-old character whose bodily tattoos change shape at each plot twist to express his emotions.  He is by turns a good demigod who helps humans and a flawed personality who stops well short of being an actual villain.

In the Maui characterization and other ways, Disney is lightening up some of the childlike sincerity of earlier children's films.  When Moana denies Maui's characterization of her as  "princess," he comes back with the observation that yes, she is a princess because she wears a skirt and has an animal sidekick, in this case a scraggly cat.  A little inside joke, that.

The cartoon imagery is beautiful, and much has been made of the musical numbers contributed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway hit "Hamilton."

It's a good movie for children, who enjoy watching child heroes/heroines in action.  But, again, the plot is thin and in some ways incoherent.  I can't recommend it to a grownup.  

Odds are that it will gross more than $1 billion.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Women's Party Boots

A Short History of Boots

People have worn boots for more than 500 years.  In the early days, boots with heels were favored by cavalry officers.  Then came infantry boots through many wars; these now are called combat boots and are most often seen in light camo patterns.  Farm families and industrial workers lived and worked in protective boots.  Ranchers and then business guys in the American west favored intricate cowboy boots. Then came variations:  Rubber boots for children during the rainy seasons, hip waders for fly fisherman, apres-surf Uggs for Australians, etc.  Sometime in the 20th century, perhaps during the go-go period of the 1960s, boots began the crossover from utilitarian wear to fashion.  

Boots as Fashion

Women's boots now come in all lengths, from booties to above the knee and no longer are made exclusively of leather.  They are worn in all seasons, not just winter, and now are popular in suede and even velvet.  This year, ankle boots are particularly popular.

Fancy Boots

The latest iteration in fashionable boots appears to be patterned boots.

I am not sure where this began, but this Valentino boot from early 2015 may have started the trend.  It is of decorated leather with flowers.

In 2016, Valentino has offered other patterned boots for women in different shapes.

        Astro Couture Suede Over-the Knee

         Ankle Boots with stars

           And, for women excited by this year's combat boot revival, Star Studded Ankle Boots

Except for the last iteration, I believe that girly girls would go for these looks. 

Meanwhile, many other designers released patterned boots in 2016, often in floral themes.

               Giuseppe Zanotti

        More Giuseppe Zanotti

        And more Giuseppe Zanotti 

        Saint Laurent  
        Loeffler Randall 
        Sam Edelman

Aquazzura Fauna (the gold thingies are insect images)

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.


These boots are interesting and nice, but I don't see how most women could use them, except for dressy events.  

Some may argue that a pair of flowered or starred or insect-decorated boots would create some interest in an otherwise all-black outfit, or a black and white one.  This doesn't make sense to me because, the women who wear all black are minimalists.  Minimalists don't do frippery. 

These boots are novelties best suited to fancy events.  A high-heeled over-the-knee number could look pretty smashing with a very short skirt at a cocktail party.  (Assuming people go to cocktail parties these days.)  A flowered ankle boot worn with dressy pants would be nice for an evening at the opera.

As for yield on the investment dollar, these boots do not offer good value for women who do not go out several times each week through at least one full formal season.  The boots are expensive, and their shelf lives are short.

For fashion designers, something like a patterned boot may make sense for a couple reasons.

First it may draw enough interest to a particular design to sell solid-colored examples of the same look.

Second, if it becomes very popular, it will be hard to copy.  The fashion world is full of spies -- taking pictures at runway shows, riffling through merch in high-end stores -- and of manufacturers eager to piggyback on the latest trend.  If the trend involves unique embroidered designs or hand placement of embellishments on expensive fabric, then it will be expensive to replicate with cheap knock-offs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Humble and Kind

I watched the Country Music Awards broadcast for the first time a couple weeks ago.  As a current Nashville resident, I have been reading the local paper, The Tennessean, which has made me a little more knowledgable about current country music.

It was the usual award-type program with tributes to big names like Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks and Randy Travis.  One thing that was different from programs like the Oscar awards was that some award winners mentioned religion.  A couple said their thanks and also "God bless you."  One even used the J-word (Jesus.)

This did not upset me.  In my experience, religious participation is good for people.

And then there was the award for the year's best song, "Humble and Kind,"  from Tim McGraw's most recent album.   McGraw performed the song during the program.

The song was written by Lori McKenna, who writes from Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and five kids.   It's a simple song, mostly a list of advice she wanted to share with her children.

Most important is the refrain: "Always stay humble and kind."

The song was a huge hit, but I hadn't heard it until two weeks ago. I'm not sure it's my favorite song ever, but it seems apt after a political season when humility and kindness were not much on display.

If you were raised Christian, as I was, you know that Matthew's gospel says, "He who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

You also know the parable about the rich man who does not feed or help a poor man named Lazarus.  At his death, the rich man is not admitted to heaven, but Lazarus is.  

Whatever you believe, it's a good idea not to preen about your importance and also to be kind to others.  Even people with secure lives are vulnerable to illness, crime, accidents and simple bad luck. If we try to ease the suffering of others, we may be helped ourselves in moments of need. 

These principles are not unique to Christians.   When it came time to make McGraw's video, Oprah Winfrey contributed footage of people from various  who were part of her television series, "Belief," that was broadcast in 2015 on the OWN channel. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

MovieMonday: The Edge of Seventeen

"The Edge of Seventeen" is a curiously beguiling movie about a critical period in one awkward young woman's journey from childhood to adult maturity.   

It opens with 16-year-old Nadine flouncing into her high school history teacher's empty classroom and announcing that she plans to kill herself.  The teacher, a veteran observer of the adolescent experience, does not call an ambulance but listens and then responds in kind.

From there we learn Nadine's litany of woe:  She has been the odd kid out since early childhood.  Her biggest supporter, her father, died suddenly four years earlier.  Her mother's behavior ranges from distracted to wacky.  Her lifelong only friend has abandoned her and become romantically attached to Nadine's older brother, a Mr. Perfect whom she resents for his apparently charmed life.   

Nadine is smart enough to put her anger and frustrations into words.  Sometimes these complaints are humorous, and sometimes they are obnoxious.  In this, she has much in common with other teenagers.  

(The film has been recommended for parents seeking to understand their adolescent children.  Unfortunately, it is rated R for content deemed inappropriate for actual persons under the age of 17, who might gain some perspective from the story. FWIW, the movie does not congratulate Nadine for any of her immature behavior.)

The traditional coming-of-age movie is the story of gradual character development shaped by the example of principled adults.  This is not that kind of film.

Nadine crashes and burns again and again.  The only stable adult in her life seems to be her history teacher, played well by Woody Harrelson, to whom she returns to report each fresh outrage.  His steadiness and sarcasm don't lessen her pain, but perhaps suggest that none of her mistakes is fatal and that at least someone is there to listen. 

People mature at their own paces, and Nadine comes through finally.  Like many teenagers, she takes a while to understand that other people have feelings too.  By the end, you find yourself liking her and believing that she will grow into a well-adjusted, happy adult.  

The script and direction, by relative newbie Kelly Fremon Craig, are fresh, realistic and economical -- not overly dramatic and without ginned-up, artificial action.  Actress Hailee Steinfeld lets us see Nadine as a girl with promise, even as she trips herself up on a regular basis.  

All in all, a nice piece of work.

Note:  I am not usually a fan of the use of texting in film plots, but the practice is employed to good effect in this movie. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fashion Trends -- Commercial Jets

The Idiosyncratist had occasion to travel through a couple major airports last week on an annoying but necessary excursion that now has ended.  But enough of that.

One thing I observed in the airports was that commercial jets are being given new looks, at least on the outside.  To people in the know (including me, since last week) the look of an airliner is called its livery.

United Airlines

Take, for instance, United Airlines, whose big jets used to look this:

Five years ago, United merged with Continental Airlines.  The combined group took the United name but adopted the more subtle and subtly colored Continental tail fin.

In the example above, a large two-aisle model lost its apparently now-dated horizontal stripes and acquired a more graceful, undulating line that coordinates with the tail design.

American Airlines

More recently, American Airlines and US Air merged.  The American name was retained, but since then the "AA" tail fin logo has been replaced with a red and blue striped design, as seen below.

Again, possibly in keeping with newer trends, the horizontal midsection stripes have been abandoned.

Let's take another look at the new American tailfin.  Some aircraft design devotees (yes, there are such) say the red-blue striping looks a little too rah-rah, like a U.S. flag.

That may be, but the first thing I think of when I see this tail design is a piano keyboard.

American Airlines also had a long history of gray-colored siding, originally unpainted metal.  The idea, I believe was that the color implied speed and, perhaps more, minimized the weight of paint on jet bodies.  Now that the aircraft bodies are made of composite materials (of what colors I do not know), American seems to be sticking with its traditional look.

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines planes used to look mostly like this.

More recently, Delta jets have gone the way of United and American jets, losing the horizontal stripes and substituting a dark blue underbelly, perhaps to suggest a slimmer, more sleek look.

As you can see, the tail image implies a delta shape but doesn't spell out the name of the airline.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest started with a different business model -- all 737 Boeing jets running mostly shorter hops with no seat assignments and (get this!) friendly service people.  Its founders were flamboyant Texas executives, of course.

Its airliners for many years were painted in desert gold with red accents.

Not too many years ago, it switched to bright blue plane bodies, but with the name still on the tail.

The latest look is the same blue, but with the name emblazoned on the plane body.

All this makes me wonder whether the FAA adopted some new, little-discussed regulation about appropriate tailfin designs and striping for commercial jet liveries.  Who knows?

Still to Come

Alaska Airlines started in Alaska and always has had a picture of an Eskimo on its tail fins. Over the years, as the airline has expanded its route structure up and down the Pacific coast cities and then to various eastern destinations, it has kept the Alaskan name and the Eskimo image, which is said to be much loved in its home state.

The image has been updated recently.  Below on the right, is the traditional black-and-white detailed picture.  On the left is the new rendering, less detailed and in shades of blue and green.

But change is afoot.  Alaska is in the process of acquiring Virgin America and, in the process, a much broader route structure.

Here is the Virgin America look.  It is all red and white, and it has the seemingly outdated "Virgin" lettering on its tail.

I can't see a way to blend the two airlines' liveries.  Red and green and blue is probably too many colors.  Plus, combining a picture of an Alaskan native man and the word "virgin" doesn't make a lot of sense.

In fact, this happened before.  Alaska acquired Horizon Airlines, a regional carrier in the western states, in the late 1980s.  Horizon flights didn't adopt the Alaskan livery until 2011.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Traffic Planners Crack Down on Pesky Cars

Above is a map of Los Angeles International Airport.  When you drive or are driven to meet a passenger or catch a flight, you enter the airport from the roads on the upper right and travel to the terminal (1- 8 in the outside yellow numbers) used by your particular airline.

Auto traffic always has been heavy at LAX, but now it is worse than ever.  An article this fall  quoted an airport official as saying this:  Peak  traffic in the summer of 2014 was 89,000 cars in one day at the airport. In 2015, the peak day was 95,000 cars. This summer, there were only 12 days when traffic didn’t exceed 95,000. The loop is handling far more traffic every year. 

(For some reason, Uber and Lyft are being blamed for some of this increase, but it doesn't make sense to me.  Before the ride-sharing companies came along, passengers had to get into and out of the airport somehow.  They certainly didn't walk.) 

There is a plan for some kind of "people mover" to get travelers from nearby parking lots to the terminals, which may replace some of the minibuses that troll the airport loop now.  Still, construction of the people mover won't begin until 2018.  

Meanwhile, travelers coming to and leaving the airport are proceeding very, very slowly.  

How LAX Is Managing the Situation

On Tuesday morning, we Ubered to LAX for our flight home.  Traffic was pretty darn slow.  I mentioned this as I checked my bag with a skycap outside the terminal.

"It should go faster," he said, "but the traffic people have been putting cones near the airport exit.  They have cut down the end of the loop by one lane.  The cars and buses get backed up all the way through the airport." 

Great, I thought.  Thanks, traffic planners.

The New Approach to Traffic Management

For many decades, the solution to traffic congestion was to build new roads or add extra lanes to overcrowded roads and highways.

A couple decades ago, planners started griping that the result was unsatisfactory. The general complaint was this:  Every time we build a new road, people just drive on it.

In a sprawling area like Southern California, traffic volume has increased and speeds have decreased every decade since at least the 1970s.  

The region is in the process of building a light rail network connecting many communities.  This certainly will be helpful, but the larger plan will not be completed for another 20 years, assuming (against experience) that the projects are completed on time.

So the planners have hit on another tactic:  Make the existing road structure more crowded than ever.  Force drivers to make different decisions.

Major LA arterials like Wilshire Boulevard are being retrofitted with fewer lanes and also taller, more densely populated apartment, condo and business towers.  

The idea appears to be to force people to walk, bicycle, carpool or travel by bus.  Maybe it will work, but housing on the Wilshire corridor is pretty darn expensive, and it's hard to envision its denizens standing at bus stops and transferring buses several times to get to business meetings or doctors' appointments.  We'll see. 

Meanwhile, if I knew of a company that manufactured traffic cones, I'd buy stock in it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Movie Monday: Arrival

Humans are obsessed with the idea of life on other planets.  As we learn more about the size of the cosmos and its nooks and black-hole crannies, we also want to know whether there are other civilizations out there. 

"Where is everybody?" the frustrated physicist Enrico Fermi said impatiently in 1950.  More than 60 years later, we still don't know.

This has not stopped us from imagining.  

In 1898, H. G. Wells published a novel called "The War of the Worlds" about an alien invasion.  Forty years later, Orson Welles turned the story into a Halloween radio broadcast that caused a nationwide panic. 

More recently, we have had the "Star Trek" television shows, "Star Wars I - VII,' "Independence Day,"  "Independence Day: Resurgence,"  and an uncounted number of superhero movies dealing with the same general topic.

Arrival, the Movie

"Arrival" is the most recent entry in the alien invasion genre, but it differs in theme from the earlier shows.

The set-up is that 12 great big cigar-shaped, windowless rocklike things arrive uninvited and hover silently above the ground at various locations around the earth. 

This causes curiosity and not a little worry.  The Army seeks out scientists and sets up a camp near the cigar thingie that sits above a Montana plain.  A colonel leading the observation/defense effort brings in an American linguist, Louise Brooks, to study whether the alien thing, whatever it is, has bad intentions.

Because humans are naturally uneasy about the unexoected new visitors and because the task of military forces is the protection of citizens, there are preparations in Montana and worldwide for a potential war.  The Chinese government seems particularly keen to shoot its own spaceship/cigar out of the sky.

Professor Brooks proposes trying to communicate with the new guest/s.  Over time, she makes some headway.  Events proceed from there.

The movie is based on a short story that involves the professor's personal life and weaves that with the global event to form a broader, more thoughtful narrative.  The film resolves itself naturally without any glaringly implausible plot points except, of course, the premise. 

As you might guess, a film involving a female lead and an alien force takes different turns than the kill-them-before-they-kill-us procedure that we have come to expect from alien encounter films.  

"Arrival" is good.  It won't sell more tickets than the Disney Star Wars iteration or a superhero-alien punch-up, but It's worth a watch.  Give it a try, I say.


The famed Stephen Hawking of the Cambridge Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, has spent a career considering  whether there are other life forms than those on earth. He has come to believe there is a high likelihood that other sentient beings and civilizations exist or have existed or will exist. 

At only 4 billion years old, he says, the earth may be a relative youngster of a planet. And our civilization and intelligence may be much less developed than others.

Under the circumstances, he said this year, we should be wary of making connections with distant neighbors. 

A quote:  “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.”

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Election Observations

As luck would have it, I was traveling on Election Day, which suited me rather well.  My political instincts are not good, and the charm of both parties' major presidential candidates had eluded me, to say the least.

Since then, I have read up a bit on the national results.  What strikes me is how completely Americans seem to have segregated themselves into like-minded communities.

Some examples:  

--The District of Columbia voted 93 percent for Hillary Clinton and 4 percent for Donald Trump, a remarkable 89 percentage point differential.

--Tennessee favored Trump 65 percent over Clinton, who won 35 percent of the vote, mostly in Memphis and Nashville. 

--California voted 62 percent Clinton, and 31 percent Trump, but there were splits within the state.  The coastal areas favored the Democrat, and virtually every county north of Los Angeles and east of Interstate 5 (except Yolo County, which includes Sacramento and UC Davis) went Republican. 

--Another western state, Idaho, favored Trump, 59 percent to 29 percent.  Clinton carried only two counties -- one that is that home to the University of Idaho and a smaller one that encompasses the Sun Valley ski resorts.  

It is entirely possible in any of these states, or at least parts of them, that voters never encountered any people who had a different point of view than their own.  This may explain the name-calling that preceded the election and the protests that followed it.  

It's easier to demonize people you've never met, I guess.  Big as the country is, it feels at the moment like a bunch of walled enclaves.  

Ballot Measure Update

I wrote last week about a ballot initiative in Santa Monica, Calif., that would have required a public vote to approve every new proposal for a building taller than two stories.This was seen as a prelude to similar micromanagement efforts in greater Los Angeles and was opposed broadly.  It gathered only 44 percent of the vote, which seems like a sign of sanity.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Movie Monday: Moonlight

This is an achingly beautiful movie about a boy growing up, black and gay, with almost no help from adults along the way.

Let me stress one word:  achingly.

"Moonlight" is a fine piece of work.  The screenplay, acting, direction and cinematography are excellent.

It is the brutal and deeply personal coming-of-age story of a boy named Chiron.  Its three sections show him tormented for his small size in childhood, tormented for his sexual orientation in high school and then, hardened by experience, as a young adult trying to work through the social isolation that helped him endure his upbringing.

Along the way, Chiron speaks very little.  His single mother descends into addiction.   A benevolent drug dealer briefly becomes a father figure in his childhood, offering short bursts of calm wisdom and common sense.  Chiron's only childhood friend turns on him in high school but then, 10 years later, comes back into his life.

The surrogate father and friend are Chiron's only touchstones with normal human relationships.  Remarkably, they are enough to sustain him, and he develops into a careful, thoughtful man, if still a lonely and self-contained one.

The source material for "Moonlight" is a play written by a gay black man who grew up in the Miami neighborhood where the film was shot.  The director, who reworked the play into a screenplay, grew up in the same neighborhood and, like the playwright and the Chiron character, was raised by a mother with drug problems.

Much has been made about the fact that this is an entirely African American story, but its themes -- alienation, sadness, and survival -- are universal.  Its setting and characters may be novelties in current movies, but they are also compelling for that reason.


Chiron (pronounced SHY-ron in the movie) almost certainly is named for a mythical Greek character, a centaur who was regarded as a wise, selfless teacher, and was distinguished from other centaurs by his self-control.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Complicated Life

How do you define a life?

Yesterday evening I visited several art spaces that were opened as part of Nashville's monthly exhibition evening.  The city is a magnet for creatives types now, mostly in music, but in other genres as well.

One show got me to thinking.  Here are some photos of what I saw.

The images were rendered in acrylic on pieces of cardboard, sometimes the insides of cereal boxes.  They were sweet, naive and, to my eye, charming -- the sort of thing you might hang on a wall in a small child's room.

In fact, the artist only began painting in 2014.  Previously he had devoted himself to reading literature and philosophy, and writing stories, longhand, in a broad, almost loopy script.

The show was a memorial for the artist, Gary Bradford Cone, a prisoner who died in April after spending more than half his life on death row following a two-day rampage in 1980. 

The exhibit featured other works of art created in Cone's memory by his death row friends and a memorial book of his writings and his art. 

Gary Cone

As a young man, Cone served four years in the military, including a tour in Vietnam, where he earned a bronze star.  After mustering out, he earned an honors degree at the University of Arkansas. A very high LSAT score gained him admission to law school.  

But he was a troubled person. After his 1972 college graduation, he was convicted for three armed robberies that year and the year before.  He was  in prison until late 1979.

On August 9 the following year, Cone robbed a Memphis jewelry store at gunpoint and fled in his car. He fired at police who were pursuing him, injuring an officer and a civilian.  The next day he broke into the home of an elderly couple, bludgeoned them to death and ransacked their house.  Then he shaved his beard, got a haircut and boarded a plane to Florida, where he stayed with a friend.

At the murder trial, Cone admitted what he had done, but his defense team asserted mitigating circumstances -- post traumatic stress and methamphetamine addiction traced to his time in Vietnam -- to no avail.  Cone was sentenced to death and spent the rest of his life on death row. 

Prison Time

While on death row, Cone worked as the prison librarian.  According to Robin Paris and Tom Williams, college art professors who knew him and arranged the exhibit I saw, "reading books as well as writing offered him a way to 'escape' the life of a prisoner."  

His taste in reading was broad, including literature, history, philosophy and critical theory.  A long list of his favorite writers included Homer, W.B. Yeats and contemporary crime writer Richard Price. 

Again, from Paris and Williams, "He also wrote essays and short stories, and many of these betray his belief that art and literature represent alternatives to the tyranny of prison life and the machinations of courtrooms and legislatures."  

I imagine the relatives of the people Cone beat to death have a hard time seeing him as anything but a cold-blooded killer, which is understandable.

But when I look at the paintings pictured above, I see a gentle sensibility.  When I read some of what Cone wrote, I saw a mind engaged with larger issues.

Paris and Williams say this:  "More than 30 years on death row. . . allowed him to become a different person than the one he'd been at the time of his arrest."

People can do terrible things, but unless you dismiss utterly the concepts of free will and grace, you have to believe that people can change for the better.

I have met several people who have taught writing classes in prisons, who have been prison chaplains and who have taught basic education classes in prisons. They are not naive optimists, but they believe that it is possible for people to change.

I do too.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Southern California NIMBYs

Permission to build this soon could require a citywide vote.

Santa Monica is a pleasant city of 90,000 residents, plus an uncounted number of homeless people.

As regular readers know, I am fond of the place.  I lived there some years ago and now have a condo there, where I spend part of each year.

Santa Monica's planners have done some impressive things in the years since I first took up residence.

     --They opened up a formerly enclosed mall and matched it with an underused walking street called the Promenade, which now attracts locals and visitors from all over the world for shopping, dining and films.

     --They bought a 15-acre downtown parcel from Rand Corp., developed nine acres with a blend of condos and affordable housing and turned the rest into a popular new park.

     --They participated in the construction of a light-rail line that runs from downtown Los Angeles to a stop in the middle of the city and a terminus at the Santa Monica pier, allowing local residents to visit downtown, and even commute to work there, without having to get into their cars.

     --They encouraged the development of three- and four-story apartment and condominium complexes near major arteries and the light-rail stops.

Light rail and greater housing density are in keeping with a broader Los Angeles initiative to build downtown high-rises and more tall buildings along major traffic corridors like Wilshire Blvd.  The effort addresses the decades-old critiques of the city -- that it is too spread out and that its residents are too dependent on cars for their basic transportation needs.

Change is difficult for people, of course, and it always encounters resistance.  And, because it is California, there is an initiative on Tuesday's ballot to head off change in Santa Monica.

Measure LV

You've heard about California's initiative process.  It allows interested groups to collect signatures and put their ideas up for public votes on city, county or state ballots.  (A friend who lives in Northern California told me last week that she had spent hours studying various ballot measures in order to cast an informed vote next Tuesday.)

The relevant issue in Santa Monica next week is new construction.

At the moment, most city buildings are residential and no taller than 36 feet, or two stories.  Getting permission for anything taller, even in commercial areas where zoning allows for such, already requires serious zoning commission and city council reviews.

But the new initiative, Measure LV, would go much further.

This idea behind the measure is to "empower" local residents in the planning process.  If passed, any development of more than two stories -- commercial, residential, public -- would require a public vote to move forward.

    --If a developer wanted to put up a three-story apartment building behind a three-story office building, that would require a public vote.

     --If the local community college, which has grown larger over the years, wanted to add a three-story classroom building, that would have to be approved by city voters.

     --If an earthquake undermined the older buildings downtown and they needed replacement, there would be dozens of decisions referred for public approval.

Everyone from the League of Women Voters to the newspapers to the local fire department has come out against LV.  Even the Sierra Club has challenged its premise that it will limit traffic increases.

It is pretty easy to see what will happen if this measure is passed.  Real estate developers wanting to build in the city will have to factor in extra time, maybe a year or more, and extra costs to lobby the citizenry for any new construction.  Unless they can generate enough extra revenue to cover those expenses, they will decline to build.

The measure's sponsors already have convinced the city to move slow on new housing development by removing the housing portion of the multi-use conversion of an abandoned business and by limiting the height of apartment and condo developments along the light rail line.

(There's an amusing exception to the Measure LV requirement -- it would not apply to construction of 100 percent affordable housing projects.   No one in his or her right mind would site all-affordable housing projects in a place with land as expensive as that in Santa Monica;  there still are areas, including several not many miles away, where land is much cheaper.  Bang for the buck, and all that.)

This year, the average cost of a two-bedroom rental in Santa Monica is more than $5,000 a month.  But the median cost is $6,500, which suggests many of the less expensive apartments are still occupied by people who first rented in the 1970s, when the city's rent-control law was enacted.  (It was modified years ago to allow vacancy decontrol, but some of the original tenants are still in place.)  Everything new is much more expensive, and the limits on further construction would only increase rents further.

The city of Santa Monic proclaims its commitment to diversity and frets over how many of its renters (70 percent of the population) are "burdened" with rents that amount to more than 30 percent of their income.

If the town's voters approve LV, the situation only will get worse.