gall and gumption

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Delicious Irish Moss

So perhaps we can regard these long silences as intermissions. I'm working on something (takint way too long over it as usual). Anyway while you're waiting for that piece, enjoy your Irish Moss and other tasty treats from the snack bar, and here is an update from the Sofa Wars.

First, I have lost the Sofa Wars. It's temporary, but there you are. No violence was used. Just attrition and deviousness combined.

Second, I may have mentioned this before but if I sing "What's It All, About, Alfie?" to Misha, substituting in the word "Misha" for "Alfie" and modfiying the rest of the words so they're all about sleep and having a nice nap and a good dog, she goes to sleep. I mean, instead of looking anxious and troubled, she puts her head down, takes a deep breath, and relaxes. Sleep follows. I've tried other tunes with more or less the same words, but they don't have the same effect. Also, as some of you already know, I can't sing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

buckner: More on Modern/PoMo

In relation to Harold Rosenberg’s The Old Age of Modernism I found this in Van Gogh’s letters to Theo:
I can hardly say that I share your thoughts which you express in the following words: “To me it seems quite natural that the desired change will occur.” Just think how many great men are dead or will not be with us for long—Millet, Brion, Troyon, Rousseau, Daubigny, Corot—so many others are no longer among the living; think further back, Leys, Gavarni, de Groux (I name only a few), still further back, Ingres, Delacroix, Géricault, think how old modern art already is, add many others who have already reached old age.

Van Gogh wrote this letter in November 1881.

This is from a book review of The Nancy Book, by Joe Brainard in the Nov. 3 New Yorker:
The guileless heroine of Ernie Bushmiller’s long-running comic strip “Nancy” is an unlikely icon in contemporary art, recurring in work by postmodern cartoonists like Bill Griffith…

Zippy the Pinhead is postmodern?

On a different subject, here is another interesting thing from Van Gogh’s letters:
The sooner one tries to master a certain profession and a certain handicraft and adopt a fairly independent way of thinking and acting, and the more one keeps to strict rules, the firmer the character one will acquire, and for all that one need not become narrow-minded.

It is wise to do so, for life is but short, and time passes quickly; if one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things into the bargain.

And here is Marvin Mudrick from Mudrick Transcribed:
If you learn how to know something, if you work hard in a particular area and seriously, you will learn what it is like to know. And once you know what it’s like to know, you will never mistake partial knowledge or ignorance for knowledge. And then you’re in a position to learn anything you want.

Mudrick had recently read and written about Van Gogh’s letters.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Bottom Line

I am making an effort to clear my browser of web pages that have been sitting there open for weeks that I always meant to blog about but didn't get to.

I think this piece by Alain Badiou is still timely. As the economic horrors pile up it may be getting even more timely.

The return to the real cannot be a movement leading from bad "irrational" speculation back to healthy production. It is the return to the immediate and reflective life of all those who inhabit this world. It is from that vantage-point that one can observe capitalism without flinching, including the disaster movie that it is currently inflicting upon us. The real is not this movie, but its audience.

So what do we see, if we turn things around in this way? We see, and this is what it means to see, simple things that we've known for a long time: capitalism is nothing but robbery, irrational in its essence and devastating in its development. Its few short decades of savagely unequal prosperity have always been at the cost of crises in which astronomical quantities of value disappear, bloody punitive expeditions into every zone that capitalism judges either strategically important or threatening, and world wars that brought it back to health.

Here lies the didactic force in looking at this crisis-film. Faced with the life of the people watching it, do we still dare to pride ourselves in a system which delegates the organisation of collective life to the basest of drives – greed, rivalry, unthinking selfishness? Can we sing the praises of a "democracy" whose leaders do the bidding of private financial appropriation with such impunity that they would shock Marx himself, who nevertheless already defined governments, a hundred and sixty years ago, as "the agents of capital"? The ordinary citizen must ‘understand’ that it is impossible to make up the shortfall in social security, but that it is imperative to stuff untold billions into the banks’ financial hole? We must sombrely accept that no one imagines any longer that it’s possible to nationalise a factory hounded by competition, a factory employing thousands of workers, but that it is obvious to do so for a bank made penniless by speculation?

In this business, the real is to be found on the hither side of the crisis. For where does this entire financial phantasmagoria come from? Simply from the fact that, by dangling miraculous credits before their eyes, people devoid of the means to afford them were browbeaten into buying flashy houses. These people’s IOUs were then sold on, mixing them, as one does with sophisticated drugs, with financial securities whose composition was rendered as scientific as it is opaque by battalions of mathematicians. All of this then circulated, from sale to sale, its value increasing, in ever more distant banks. Yes, the material measure for this circulation was to be found in the houses. But it was enough for the real estate market to go bust and, as this measure became less valuable and the creditors demanded more, for the buyers to be less and less able to pay their debts. And when finally they couldn’t pay them at all, the drug injected into the financial securities poisoned them all: they were no longer worth anything. But this only seems to be a zero-sum game: the speculator loses his wager and the buyers their homes, from which they are politely evicted. But the real of this zero-sum game is as always on the side of the collective, of ordinary life: in the end, everything stems from the fact that there exist millions of people whose wages, or absence thereof, means that they are absolutely unable to house themselves. The real essence of the financial crisis is a housing crisis. And those who can’t find a home are by no means the bankers. It is always necessary to go back to ordinary existence.

Most likely I found it via Wood's Lot.

Update: I probably should have said this before, but in case I didn't make it clear, this is just a taste, not the whole piece. The whole piece is here. I do recommend the whole thing, too.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

God Is My Banker

Often, it's the letters to the editor of Caribbean papers and web sites that tell you any of the stranger things that happen there.

As I recall, the most famous prophet of them all, one Phillip Phinn, hung up his mantle after his famous Portia and Hillary prophecies fizzled out like damp fireworks on New Year's Eve, and sought solace in managing other people's money in a foreign exchange fund called Faith. Well, we know how those fortunes went, and will wait to witness the promise of payouts in the months ahead.

The list of predictions is laughably much more vague than your average daily horoscope and its tepid non-committal statements lend it an air of mystery (or is it doubt?). The prophets and prophetesses feel constrained to leave a charming disclaimer to protect God from disrepute and themselves from public ridicule, just in case His words do not come to pass.

One thing they have never omitted over the years is their dire warning to the nation's leaders, businessmen and congregations far and wide, to tithe. God wants that 10 per cent!

And here is where it always gets ridiculous: the size of the seed you sow can be affixed to the numbers of Psalm or Jewish year! The 'word' claims that "God wants to give His people revelation in order to get wealth."

Pity God did not give His people any revelation on the collapse of Cash Plus and Olint, but these prophets are banking on the short memories of their readers.

This was such a refreshing change from the usual. But who was this writer talking about?

Impossible not to look up (Rev.? Dr.? Bre'r? Father?) Phinn, because that Faith foreign exchange fund sounds a bit rich.

He appears to be quite the all-round guy.

From the bio near the bottom of the page:

Dr. Phillip Phinn is currently President General, Chief Executive Officer and Chief UN Representative of the Word of Life Ministries International and International Third World Leaders Association (ITWLA), General Overseer of the Word of Life churches and Senior Pastor of the Kingston-based church; Executive Chairman of the National Intercessory Prayer Network of Jamaica and Executive Trustee for the International Third world leaders Association based in Nassau, Bahamas. He serves as Director and Advisor to several Organisations around the world. He is special envoy of Word of Life Ministries International to the Office of the Governor General and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Jamaica. In July 2004, the America Biographical Institute - National Honor Society - conferred the noble Order of International Ambassadors on Dr. Phillip Phinn, with the right to use the word Honourable and the Letters OIA* as part of His official title.

(Link added by me joy joy joy joy joy happy dance.)

He is the author of four books and several publications. Dr. Phinn has appeared on several telecasts and spoken onradio MUSTARD SEED PRINCIPLE. He had been sharing this principle with thousands around the world and many, who have applied it, have testified to substantial financial breakthroughs. As a result he was invited to
participate in the first United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development for small Island States (SIDS) in Barbados, 1994 and the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1995.

In November 1996, under his leadership Word of Life Ministries International was accredited by the United Nations under the follow status: "NGO in special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nation' (ECOSOC)

I am not sure I want to know any more about all the affairs that this man gets himself up into.

But I see that he has a really big sword. Well, I mean, a picture of one.

The Lord pays regular visits unto him and, in what with all due respect I am yet compelled to call a rather weird way of talking, gives the Hon. Rev, Dr. the news, before it has even happened.

"Know of a surety that my hand is upon this land. I am about to heal this land, about the revival that I have promised you: I will send it" says the Lord God Almighty. "You can declare it, you can proclaim it. It has begun even this night, for I am about to do my signs of wonders and my mighty deeds" said the Lord God. "Yes" said the Lord, "I will put my hand upon this land, and I will remove kings and I will set up kings", said he Lord God Almighty. "I will put my hand upon this land and I will apprehend the wicked and the treacherous" says the Lord God, ‘and I will root them out and I will deal with them." said the Lord God Almighty.

"Yes", says the Lord God, "Jamaica will see my hand, my hand will be felt, and THERE WILL BE A NATURAL PHYSICAL SHAKING BUT NOT A DEVASTATING SHAKE;

The Lord's grasp of formal English and seismology do not inspire me with confidence. Frankly, I am a little disappointed in Him. I would have thought He, of all people, would have had command of these things as well as of the fishes of the sea etc. And the use of all caps in that way I should have thought altogether beneath His dignity. Well, nobody's perfect I guess.

Or possibly something of the nuance is lost in translation from Tongues.

So what is the mustard seed principle? Um, it has actually been around for a long time though not perhaps with that name. Bear with me for a minute.

I picture the circulating world of money as twofold. There is the economy you read about in the business pages, where big money circulates, business, rise, fall, eat one another whole or in pieces, get loans or sell shares, etc. But there is also another, less formal, marginal economy that you don't read about. This is the economy of the poor. In the US, dip into it when you hire a couple of guys from the Day Laborer's hangout behind Goodwill to do some yard work. It's everywhere and takes up a bigger or smaller share of the time money spends moving around in the world. The funny thing in Jamaica, at least, is that the harder life gets, the bigger the economy of the poor gets. One reason is that as times get harder, people from the big economy begin to find it convenient to "drop into" the little economy; there's a guy with a rum shop who can change currency at a better rate than the government is giving; a friend who has migrated to New York flies home for a visit with several pairs of sneakers she bought in the wholesale district; A gives B a small loan; K. has a car trunk full of grapefruit; M. has a suitcase full of new fan belts from Miami; G. fixes cars in his back yard on weekends cheaper than a regular mechanic; the lady down the corner supplements her salary by making wedding cakes. This economy has certain real virtues: leanness (not a whole lot of money to spend on advertising or market research), adaptability, speed, inclusiveness, low barriers to entry, resourcefulness, and resilience, openness to diverses forms of commerce like barter, and the necessity of communication and trust. Without this informal economy, life in Jamaica would have been a lot harder over the past 30 years or so. There's some risk that the good or service may not satisfy, but chances are if it does you won't go back to the regular economy, for all sorts of reasons.

And yeah, it may provide cover for some illegal activity such as money laundering or substandard electrical work or selling produce of dubious provenance, but these things are not its purpose.

The Hon. Rev. Dr. really has this one genuine economic insight: he has noticed what the poor do to get on. It's the same thinking behind microfinance--development via small, really tiny loans to entrepreneurs.

What has happened, meanwhile, is that this informal economy got big. Big enough for central bankers and development banks to start paying attention, for example, to the incredible sums of money that were flowing into developing countries in ridiculously small remittances -- a couple hundred dollars at a time, from the poorest workers. And big enough, now, to have its own investment schemes, taking advantage of the convenient proximity of so many offshore financial centers.

These schemes seem to take the form of crazes. Foreign exchange trading was huge. About a year and a half ago I was hearing about all these people who were investing in something called Cash Plus, that was delivering fabulous returns on foreign exchange trading. People in Jamaica were investing, and Jamaicans abroad were taking money to Jamaica to invest. You can see that this alternative economy is not strictly a "poor" economy any more. The typical investor might look like a lot of successful first-generation immigrants: not college educated, and even if he's been living and working here for 30 years, still feels himself to be inside of a little social bubble world of fellow immigrants. Made some shrewd purchases in real estate in a down market and now he is comfortably off, even if the only evidence of it is that he has a new truck every year. Aside from his city government job which secured him a pension, and his habit of saving, almost his entire financial life is conducted in this informal economy. It's where he really lives. Sure, now he deals with banks and lawyers and building inspectors because he's got all this rental property, but his financial home is that fringe world and as far as possible he wants to stay in it. And of course he has a reputation at home for financial shrewdness, so when he decides to invest, it's is a great vote of confidence in the scheme and encourages more.

So it should not come as a surprise that there are lots of these little investing groups and schemes, all of them on a continuum from perfectly legal and integrated into the formal banking and investment system (as Olint was), to some little private investment club to, well, whatever human ingenuity can cook up.

Are you getting sort of a picture here? In early 2008 the Jamaican government's Financial Services Commission (FSC) issued a warning about 15 "unregistered investment entities."

And we see that the Hon. Rev. Dr., the former Central Banker, is operating one of these entities. Or not. Possibly.

Phinn dismissed the FSC's claim as "completeley wrong", and suggests that the commission may have gotten confused with a "Phillip Phinn" that is apart [sic] of a registered investment club overseas.

"'Phillip Phinn' the individual is apart [sic--for the love of God, people!] of a church group club that has been registered, since December, outside of Jamaica," disclosed Phinn to this newspaper. "'(However) Phillip Phinn International' as a forex club is completely wrong.

"We only got notice from the FSC in February, saying that they 'suspect' something," he added. "Based on their suspicion, they published the notice."

Phinn did not say whether the referred "Phillip Phinn" from the registered church club was himself.

God only knows, then...

In the second half of 2008, Cash Plus and Olint went bust, after a series of actions taken by banks and the government in Jamaica brought all this to a screaming halt, and lots of people were wiped out financially. You could think of it as a dress rehearsal for the miniature financial Armageddon we are experiencing now. The loss of the banks' confidence was fatal to Olint, even before it began to emerge that the "investment scheme" had been a con.

And at least one of the Hon. Rev. Dr.'s financial schemes also went bust, a whole other one separate from the "Phillip Phinn" entities of mysterious ownership and purpose.

How many of these things does he have? Possibly their numbers are legion.

The Daily Gleaner, as the letter writer above points out, has given generous space to Dr. Phinn's prophecies. The Observer, in the meantime, apparently sends out their most trusting and gullible reporter to cover the Reverend:

A source close to Faith International Investment said Phinn, who came to fame as a prophet, had been deeply troubled by the failure of the investment scheme.

"He has been in much prayer that a way be found to repay the many people who had put in their hard-earned savings and appeared to have lost it. He is a good man and a true man of God," the source told the Sunday Observer. [highlight added - kp]

Young man, was this the person who spoke to you?

Update:These people are doing excellent work. I'd love to see more service blogging like this in the Caribbean.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


I bought some Stilton at Trader Joe's a week or two ago and it was rather ripe when I unwrapped it yesterday evening. And this is what I cannot understand: how is it that something that smells like that and looks like that tastes so good? With fruit? Why does Stilton cheese on the side make pears taste less boring? If you told anyone this they wouldn't believe you. But there it is.

You know, there is that old joke about English cooking, how it's supposed to be so awful. Well, I went to an English boarding school and some of the food was awful -- but it was generally better than fast food and better than stuff I have had in American chain restaurants, and some of it, well, if I could come home on a winter evening to the rhubarb crumble served with a pitcher of freshly made hot plain vanilla custard to pour over it -- talk about comfort food! (It was powdered custard, worse yet!) But really, no one who eats frozen food or who eats in most "chain" restaurants in the U.S. can have a thing to say about British cooking. If you go to certain types of places in England the food is horrible, just like here. Only here the horrible is masked under salt, grease, and high fructose corn syrup.

I think I've mentioned before that my stepdad, who is English, knows how to cook good English food. He is a genius at dessert. And it is good, especially all the fruit-based desserts. Years ago we even had to go pick the berries and currants ourselves, at some U-pick farm out in the country, for him to make desserts and jam with. And what is even more amazing is that if you even go to Marks and Spencer's you can get delicious desserts like Bramley apple pies (the best apple pie in the entire universe) and a trifle that is almost as good as homemade. Even my stepdad gets these and he was a fanatical food purist when being a fanatical food purist wasn't cool.

But Stilton.

I learned something new about it tonight. When I unwrapped it, it had an effect on the dogs that was like getting religion. Both of them, in their distinct ways, were having some kind of intense olfactory experience, a glorious mystery. This would be for them, smellwise, as if I had opened the fridge and unwrapped the sort of delicacy that I am always shooing them away from when we're out on walks: the flattened squirrel, the cat turd, the rotting half burrito or container of beans. I mean, they were immediately convinced that anything that smelled like that had to be for them. So they got very serious and thoughtful and kept their eyes (and noses) very close to the cheese, and Sweetie even started to get that slightly cross-eyed, demented look she gets when she decides something needs to be guarded from Misha. All far beyond their usual method of scrounging when I'm eating, which they don't do much with me because it doesn't pay.

I only gave them lentil-sized pieces: I'm not sure it's good for them, and I was very sure that I did not want to find out about stinky-cheese-powered dog flatulence in the middle of the night.