synthetic zero

April 22nd, 2009

Heather Anne and I had an interesting conversation today about ways of speaking and writing, and she brought up this Emerson quote from her post:

I have been writing with some pains essays on various matters as a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness. But the poor work has looked poorer daily as I strove to end it. My genius seemed to quit me in such a mechanical work, a seeming wise—a cold exhibition of dead thoughts. When I write a letter to anyone whom I love, I have no lack of words or thoughts. I am wiser than myself and read my paper with the pleasure of one who receives a letter, but what I write to fill up the gaps of a chapter is hard and cold, is grammar and logic; there is no magic in it. I do not wish to see it again.

She was saying that she wants to be able to write to “anyone whom I love.” This is something I really have to remind myself to do … it’s so easy to get pulled into a certain way of thinking, speaking, and writing that is natural for a lot of people but not so much for what I’m interested in doing. It reminds me of my two really important criteria for a good conversation: one is that it’s open to both the sublime and profane, the everyday and the intellectual, the deep and the frivolous … all accepted as part of a single fabric, not just juxtaposed but seen as one and the same thing, part of the play of conversation in life. The second is that it be an open-ended, creative endeavor, a kind of mutual collaboration towards the unknown or the unknowable, where both people are open to the possibility that it may go where neither initially imagined. It’s not just about one side convincing the other, but about both sides challenging each other yet being willing to build on what the other has said, towards an unbounded undetermined destination. Writing, I think, can be a participation in this kind of conversation, but it’s delicate … it’s so easy to get pulled into binary oppositions, into attempts to explain too much. Heather Anne’s idea of taking a cue from Emerson and writing to anyone whom you love is lovely, a way of protecting your voice and that infinite space of vibrant creative interchange which writing and conversation can be part of.

I’m excited that my Roku now can stream HD rentals from Amazon (in addition to the SD rentals it could do before, and the SD and HD rentals from part of Netflix’s catalog). The Amazon HD rentals are quite good, they look better than the Netflix HD rentals which are a little grainy. Watching Chinatown in HD right now… beautiful.

A trackback reminds me to remind you to check out Magdalena O’s thoughts.

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April 17th, 2009

I’ve always resisted having a theme for my shows.  It’s not that I’m opposed to all art shows with a theme, as that would mean being opposed to nearly every art show, since they almost all have themes. But I find that quite a few shows suffer from the “contrived theme syndrome” — the curation doesn’t really have an organic coherence, but rather the works just seem to be selected because they share a certain curatorial ingredient on a superficial level.  For this and other reasons I personally eschew having an explicit theme for my shows (not that I will never have a theme in the future — it’s just that, so far, I haven’t felt moved to do so) — yet, despite this, my shows do tend to hang together organically, often surprisingly so, perhaps driven by a combination of synchronicity and my own curatorial instincts.

For example, one of my pet peeves are the (to my mind) awful theme shows often on display at the Whitney.  They might have one really great show devoted to a single artist, then on floors 2 and 3 a couple of generic “theme” shows (such as the shows they have up now).  The theme only serves as an artificial contrived overlay, in my view, grouping together work in a rather haphazard manner.  The work itself is usually quite good, taken individually, but as a collection it makes me think of “Iron Chef Art”!  Everything has to have the same ingredient!

Curation for me is a form of art, a show is an artwork in its own right.  My objection to having a conscious theme is the same as my objection to programmatic music or fiction with a “point”.  One of my favorite essays on a related idea is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” … as she puts it, most bad stories she comes across are “essays with a plot”.  Naturally, this doesn’t mean stories never ought to have a title, or that titles are always contrived — it’s just that I see this too much in shows and I want to avoid that in my shows.

I’ve seen themes that work quite well, of course.  In fact Laura’s show, Stranger Than Fiction, that’s up now in my space (open through the 23rd, email me if you’d like to see it), works very well, as do a lot of other shows — one of my favorites was a show I saw years ago, in Portland, called “The Map Show” … the theme was maps.  It was very low key and DIY, but the work was excellent, one of the best art shows I’ve seen anywhere, in fact. A wide variety of different work on the theme of maps, accompanied by experimental film. But, in that case, the artists actually created work FOR the show, for the most part.

I suppose it may be that I’m not so much opposed to theme shows as I’m opposed to bad shows, and most shows are bad in my opinion; and many are bad because of the contribution of the “theme” towards a contrived and arid experience. Perhaps, if I ever decide to title or “theme” one of my shows in future, I’ll choose to do so after the show has come together, like an author who titles her story after writing it. That’s far more likely than me titling a show in advance.

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April 17th, 2009

For those of you who don’t know or can’t remember the ancient days of the Internet, way back in the years 1999 - 2001: There was once a lovely, intriguing, and fascinating blog called LemonYellow, written by a lovely, intriguing, fascinating woman named Heather Anne Halpert. Many of my friends read her site regularly, and it was in my mind one of the best blogs at the time and to this day. She and I became friends and we still work together even now, but for many years she did not keep a public journal. Those years have, thankfully, come to an end, with the opening of her new site: www.blurryyellow.com … she’s written several weeks of posts already, but the site is only now being opened to the public. Please check it out!

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April 16th, 2009

I recently decided I wanted to get better speakers. My grandfather used to be into high fidelity, and then my dad; I have fond memories as a child watching my dad happily bring home a new amplifier, or going with him to the stereo store to buy a new set of speakers, where we carefully listened and chose a pair that sounded best.  For some reason these memories really stand out for me.  We’d bring them home and listen to music — a lovely experience.  And speakers last — they were a constant reminder, year in and year out, of a certain commitment my family has to aesthetics, something I was proud of.

When I was in my 20’s I owned a fairly good set of speakers, DCM TimeFrames, and a decent amp, but that system didn’t have a lot of punch, and when they were stolen I never really replaced them with anything exceptional, although what I had was far better than what most of my friends own. It seems the era of high tech has made people less interested in high fidelity. People listen to compressed mp3s on cheap earbuds, or, even worse, on laptop speakers, which sound even worse than the boom boxes of the 80’s.  I’ve been to many parties where the main entertainment was a laptop playing YouTube videos through tinny speakers.

I’d been making do with inexpensive subwoofer + satellite computer speaker systems. Recently, however, I had some savings and decided the time had finally come for an upgrade. I spent quite a while researching online, and I listened to a bunch of systems in the store, and even took some home (thank God for return policies), but the first two systems I bought just didn’t quite have the “wow” factor I was hoping for. With each excursion the price crept up … but I finally decided if I’m going to get some really good speakers and a good amp, I should make the investment, go for something truly beautiful. Speakers can last years, even decades, so in fact the cost, when you think of it, is relatively small, less than the price of a few lattes a month. Even if that weren’t the case, however, I think certain things — beauty, visual or aural, are worth it.

So … I finally settled on an interesting setup. A pair of Polk LSi9 speakers with a relatively inexpensive subwoofer (a PSW110). These are difficult-to-drive speakers that take a lot of power; the audiophile forums all suggested I get an external amplifier, but for now I found a high current receiver, an Onkyo TX-SR806, which can handle these speakers. The reviews for the Polk LSi line of speakers are amazing … for both the LSi9 and the LSi15 (which by all accounts are similar, despite the fact that the LSi9’s are bookshelf speakers and the LSi15 is a much more imposing tower speaker — the LSi15 is very close to being an LSi9 with a subwoofer built into one cabinet).

Of the LSi9, Soundstage said:

I really liked the combination of having a punchy and lively presentation, but also having the refinement and smoothness that I expect in a top-notch speaker. This speaker jumps to life like a Spring Break party, but retains the sophistication of a black-tie dinner. This combination is something you rarely find in small speakers at any price. The LSi9 also images with precision and provides a level of robustness that is thoroughly captivating.

On the LSi15, Onhifi.com gushed:

Quite simply, the Polk Audio LSi15s sent showers of neural sparks coursing through my brain, stimulated my corpus callosum, and produced endorphins by the bucketful — or, to put it in lay terms, they made music.

Most reviews consider the LSi line “audiophile” quality — sounding as good as speakers twice their price or more.  When I got them home I hooked them up — after some adjustments … I was floored. As Katharine said when she heard them … “Is there something wrong if it sounds even better than live?” With a system like this it becomes excruciatingly clear that mp3 files are significantly different from CDs … playing music from my iPod sounded good, but when I hooked up my CD player digitally directly to the Onkyo … you could hear details in the music that I didn’t think possible: the sounds of fingers brushing strings as the musicians played, tiny nuances in vocal performances, and certain recordings just jump out at you, not in a harsh or fatiguing way, but sounding natural, smooth, rich, and full.  I’m going to have to reencode a lot of my CDs as lossless or high-bitrate files, something I never thought I’d need to do.

The overall effect of listening to this is dramatic, striking. It’s far beyond my expectations. This is by far the most impressive soundsystem I’ve ever owned, and the price turned out to be higher than many would pay but well below the upper ranges of what some audiophiles spend. It’s worth it, I believe.

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April 15th, 2009

The basic problem, I believe, is that people forget that money is an abstraction. The “real” economy is making things; money is just a mechanism for the allocation of effort. The fundamental problem is far too much of our effort got allocated to the task of manipulating this abstraction in order to siphon off a rake while not contributing themselves anything of real value to the economy as a whole. This is just a fundamental drag on the economy.

In some sense we’re all hostages to this system, and I think it’s obvious the system needs to be dismantled. However, causing a panic in the market (which would happen if a major bank defaulted on its obligations, which I am quite certain would cause a massive and immediate series of cascading defaults) would stop the abstraction (money) from moving around nearly entirely, which would then stop actual production from occurring, leading to real damage which would take years to repair.

That’s why I am not upset at Geithner and Obama for saying, we can’t afford that. Even if your goal is to dismantle the system and recreate it, which I share with Galbraith and others, I believe that we need to find a way to do that which doesn’t cause real production to halt. Keep in mind that our circumstances differ this time: when FDR came to office unemployment was 25%. Now, it is below 10%. We have a little more breathing room.

I believe it will take time and delicacy to both dismantle the system as it exists today and not cause real production to come to a grinding halt, which would take years to recover from. It will take months to design and implement such changes. For example, one radical option might be to simply abrogate all credit default swap contracts, and then make most of them illegal. All the banks have these big guns pointed at each other — the CDSes, yet what if they all cancel each other out? Even if they do, if one of them defaults then they all default, in a cascade, but if they all “default” at once by government fiat? The problem is, many of these are international contracts so the US would have to act in concert with foreign governments, which is very likely impossible.

Another option is to simply make most of these instruments illegal going forward (particularly the totally synthetic CDSes, the ones not based on any underlying ownership of collateral) and move to gradually take them off the balance books of the banks. The irony of all this is that, high as foreclosure rates are today, they still represent a tiny fraction of the total number of outstanding mortgages. The reason this tiny fraction has created a total destabilization of the world economy is that the rules allowed the bankers to essentially multiply the risk by orders of magnitude through complex securitization that I believe even they didn’t understand, so even a small drop in housing value caused the entire market to come crashing down.

The end result needs to be getting rid of most of the gambling sector of the financial services economy, which is a drain not only on money but on talent and intelligence. However, I agree with Geithner’s instinct not to let this crisis spill over into the real economy at a rate even higher than it has so far, to give us time to dismantle the fantasy economy. I am not sure yet whether he and Obama have a plan that will dismantle enough of the fantasy economy as we need, but, I do believe both of them understand the need for something along these lines — it’s been something Obama has explicitly raised in a number of his speeches and also something Geithner has talked about in public, including his most recent public appearances.

There is a crisis in the real economy as well, insofar as we have a lot of industries (the auto industry, for instances) with outdated management practices, bad product design, undereducated and undertrained workers, etc. On the other hand, we also have some industries (tech) which remain far ahead of the rest of the world, and while our educational system is crap, we still have the best universities in the world, etc. All in all, a mixed bag.

But I believe the main reason for this came from the financialization of the economy. That is to say, more and more resources were siphoned off the top by the financial manipulators, which means less was available for investment in real innovation, research, development, training, education, and so forth. It also siphoned off the “worst and brightest” into the financial services sector, a brain drain into a largely unproductive sector of the economy. I say largely because I believe venture capital is an exception — they’re investing in the real economy, directly, which is generally quite salutary and something we ought to continue to support. As for most of the the rest of the financial services industry, it’s literally as though a large percentage of people just ended up, after graduating from Harvard and Yale, working for casinos in Vegas instead of startups in the Valley or auto companies or anywhere else.

But the crisis in the real economy is a slow, long decline. The immediate crisis is a blowup in the fantasy economy, the financial gambling economy. If we hadn’t had such massive deregulation we would have had more money and talent going into the real economy, and we would also not have this current crisis. What I think we need to do is dismantle and outlaw through regulation much of the fantasy economy, encourage and support investment in the real economy (including venture capital), and at the same time find a way to defuse the bomb that the fantasy economy has become without blowing up the real economy. My view is it would be better, if possible, to do this by trying to gradually neutralize and unwind the fantasy economy (get rid of the credit default swaps and get the CDOs off the balance sheets of the banks, etc.) without causing the real economy to come to a halt in the process. Maybe that isn’t possible, but given that the bubble is in an abstract economy I don’t see why in principle it isn’t possible.

If we make the fantasy economy far less large through regulation and by making many synthetic instruments illegal, then it seems to me the natural result will be the gradual recovery of the real economy, because resources will flow to the real economy by default.

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April 14th, 2009

Like a lot of you, I’ve been discussing the economy with quite a few people, and I wanted to blog my thoughts on it here.

First of all, I tend to think that the efforts the Administration has put into place so far to deal with the financial crisis may well be insufficient, as many have argued. However I do not believe their approach is a mistake, at least as a first step, for a number of reasons.

Quite a few people have argued that we ought to force many of the big banks into FDIC receivership or some other form of nationalization as soon as possible, in order to clean them up and sell them back to private investors, so they can begin lending again. The argument that Geithner has been making is that they don’t want to do this except as a last resort, because the resulting panic might well destabilize the global economy at just the wrong moment. There’s a lot of anger out there at the banks, and at bankers, most of it quite justifiable. Many people are incensed at the idea that bankers are getting bailouts while the rest of us out here are dealing with an economic debacle.

First of all, it seems to me that Geithner is a bit too close to Wall Street and has made some politically unwise recommendations. However, I do believe that he, and Obama, are motivated by trying to stabilize the economy. I think they really believe that premature bank nationalization of the largest institutions could lead to a panic that would make the Lehman Brothers panic look like a walk in the park by comparison; and furthermore I think they have good reason to think this.

But more importantly I think we’ve been looking at the wrong targets here. The problems we’re facing are not simply the result of a small number of selfish bankers. They’re due to a larger, systemic problem. Yes, executive pay in nearly every industry, particularly in financial services, is totally out of control; it’s obscene. But the reason for our current predicament is not that a bunch of evil bankers tried to fleece us all — it’s because a bunch of relatively selfish, greedy bankers tried to maximize their returns in a short-sighted way, playing by the rules as they’ve evolved over the last few decades of excessive deregulation.

The idea that bad things happen just because some bad people screwed things up is rather naive, in my view. If we focus on that, we might get rid of one batch of bad guys but just have another gang come in to take their place. It’s a kind of Hollywood notion, that there are good guys and bad guys, and bad things happen just because of the bad guys. I think that’s just not reality.

Sure, the worst management teams ought to be replaced; the worst boards should be replaced. But if you’re relying on some “better” bankers coming in and saving us, that’s going to be a long wait.

We need to focus not so much on who’s playing the game but on the rules of the game itself. We need to roll back a lot of the imprudent deregulation since Reagan and we need to come up with new, better regulations for the future. The changes we need to make had better work whether or not we have good guys or bad guys in charge of the banks. Relying on good guys to do the right thing is clearly not workable. Sure, I agree that many bankers were selfish, irresponsible, greedy, and on and on … but that was inevitable, given the rush to deregulation we’ve seen. The system is what made it possible for these guys to operate in the way they have. Just punishing the evildoers here won’t do nearly as much as changing the game.

Why not nationalize right now, fire the boards, etc.? Well, I think Geithner is right to go slow with that. First find out with some confidence which banks are insolvent. If we have to nationalize some of them or force them into receivership, we ought to know which ones really need that and which do not, so we can avoid sowing panic in the markets. If the government forces Citigroup into receivership but there’s uncertainty about which bank is next, a panic could well ensue, forcing all of us to pay a heavy price. Instead, let’s start to try to get some pricing on these CDOs via Geithner’s public-private partnership and then see where we are. The key thing is whatever intervention is necessary ought to happen when we have some clarity about the financial condition of these institutions, so panic can be averted. I’m all for punishing the bad guys but I’d rather not do it by burning the city down at the same time. Let’s put out the fire first THEN figure out how to rebuild so we’re not as vulnerable next time.

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