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Touching the Face of God

I love space.  I love looking out into the vastness and imagining what is out beyond what my eyes can see.  I love how small it makes us all seem.  And I love the idea of exploring it.  I’ve always been a fan of our space program.  The men and women who build–and ride–the incredible machines that push the boundaries.  Their intelligence and bravery leaves me in awe.

Yesterday (Thursday, January 28) marked the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  While America’s space program had lost lives before that tragic day in 1986, this was the first time it had happened off the ground, and it was the first time civilians were a part of the casualty list.  That day, as America watched, 7 brave men and women were killed when their spacecraft exploded 73 seconds after liftoff.  This was not the first space shuttle launch for NASA, nor was it the first launch of that shuttle.  The January 28, 1986 launch was the 25th launch of the space shuttle program, and the 10th launch of the shuttle Challenger.

I still remember walking into the living room, groggy and ready to start the day, when I saw my dad glued to the television.  Dad was no couch potato, but he loved space as much as I do.  He looked at me and all he could say was “it exploded.”  I sat next to him and we watched the coverage together, not saying a word.  I was 18 years old.  President Reagan was scheduled to give a State of the Union address that night.  He cancelled that speech and, instead, spoke to the country from the Oval Office.  He named each of the brave astronauts and told a mourning nation they had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

Following the Challenger disaster, the space shuttle program was put on hold for a while.  NASA conducted its numerous investigations, and America waited anxiously for the resumption of our space program.  It was a wait that would last for years.

The 26th launch of the space shuttle program took place on September 29, 1988, when NASA sent up the shuttle Discovery.  I also remember that day–it was my 21st birthday.  I was working on a roof in the Southern California sun with a Vietnam veteran.  As the radio stopped its music and broadcast the countdown, we put down our hammers and sat silently.  And as the awesome shuttle lifted up, like the rest of America, we waited…and waited…and waited.  We waited for what seemed like forever.  And when we had waited for what we felt was long enough, we thrust our fists into the air and let out a loud, celebratory cheer.  Our glorious space program had resumed.  Though it was still early, we packed up our tools for the day, and he took me to my first bar.

That, however, is another story.

What were you doing on January 28, 1986 and on September 29, 1988?

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Movie Review: The Big Short

We all know the story of the 2007 collapse of the housing market and how it ends, so there probably aren’t any spoilers below. Nevertheless, read at your own risk.

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If the bursting housing bubble of 2007 taught us one thing, it’s that the world of finance affects each and every one of us each and every day of our lives.  We might not think about it every day–and if you’re like me, you might not know jack squat about it–but our ignorance and complacency doesn’t lessen its affects.  In fact, it probably increases them.  This is one of the big lessons in the fantastic new movie, The Big Short.  The film follows four parallel stories of people who saw the bubble that had been created and speculated its burst with the practice known as “shorting“.

The movie begins with the character Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling: The Notebook, Drive, Gangster Squad) quickly describing in 5 minutes the rise in home finance banking that began in the 1970s.  The story then introduces hedge-fund manager, Dr. Michael Burry, M.D. (Christian Bale: American Psycho, Equilibrium, 3:10 to Yuma), an eccentric numbers man who takes the time to examine each account that gets bundled into a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) and sees that if even a small percentage of the individual loans default then the bond becomes virtually worthless.  Burry sees a lot of potential for default so he visits several banks, setting up a credit default swap–a sort of insurance policy against the housing market.  Believing the market to be stable, the banks are more than happy to take Burry’s money.

Word of Burry’s bank visits gets back to Vennett, and he starts to also invest in credit default swaps.  A wrong-numbered phone call gets a hot-tempered and hyperactive hedge-fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carell: The Office, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Foxcatcher), into the picture. Baum has a personal beef against the banks and wants to get even by taking their money.  He and his team go out and do field research and find the same as Burry–that high-risk home loans are being bundled into CDOs, creating a bubble that is perpetuated by the fraudulent practices credit-ratings companies rating the CDOs.  Burry teams up with Vennett to enter the credit default swap game.

The relative late-comers to the story are Charlie Geller (John Magaro: Orange is the New Black) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock: Masters of Sex, American Horror Story), a pair of up-and-coming investors who get lucky and find information of Vennett’s actions and want in.  Lacking the experience, credentials, and money to get into the game, the two contact a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt: Se7en, Fight Club, Troy), who provides them with all three and gets them in a position to make credit default swap deals.

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The film moves very fast and jumps around quite a bit in setting up these stories, which is not a direction strategy I tend to prefer.  Making things even less linear are the regular interruptions by Gosling and other non-character personalities, who look and speak directly to the viewer in order to explain the many intricate concepts of finance.  I found this style by director, Adam McKay, to be annoying at first.  But upon reflection, I realized he was using this device as a teaching aid for the audience, while maintaining the integrity of his character development  These are people who are experienced in the field, and it wouldn’t wash to have them explain to each other the meaning of ISDA and the like so the viewer could be brought up to speed. Once I realized that, I thought the strategy was brilliant.

The film’s pace slows down quite a bit in the second half, but the story does not.  As the characters–and viewers–learn just how big the bubble is, their investment strategies get more and more aggressive, which worries their investors and employers.  Threats of lawsuits and firings abound and each of the characters is forced to convince others–and sometimes themselves–to hang on just a bit longer and wait for the burst they believe is inevitable. In waiting for the burst they all know should already be happening, they all learn just how corrupt the entire system really is.

I really enjoyed this film.  I find the world of finance to be fascinating and one of which I am almost completely ignorant.  Even if some wish to argue about the historic timeline of events or politics involved (which does not enter into the story), the movie offers quite a bit of great information to viewers interested in the topic.  The writing was very well done, however there was a lot of vulgarity that I thought was needless to the story and to character development.  I also thought the acting was superb and the actors really drew me in to the characters.  And, while it is often billed as a comedy, and there are some humorous facets to the writing, I don’t think it’s a comedy, at all.  This is a serious story about a serious topic.  The movie might not be as appealing to those who know more about the field of finance, but to this ignorant viewer, it was a fascinating glimpse into a topic that has the power to shape our lives every day.

The Big Short is still playing in theaters, but this is not the type of film that demands viewing on the big screen.  With that said, however you choose to watch this film, if you are at all interested in investing, finance, or the collapse of markets, you need to watch this film.  This is the best movie I have seen in a while.

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My Political TV Oasis and the Hillary Sex Speech

With All Due Respect

My friend and former political blogger Huck has been taking over blogging duties here lately. His film reviews and pop culture takes on politics have been great and have inspired me to knock off a quick TV review to end the year. As a bonus, I’ve drafted a speech for Hillary to deliver since Trump has her rightfully in his cross-hairs.

First some quick background. From the late 70’s I was a fan of the various incarnations of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s film review programs. Once Gene died I stuck with Roger as he went through a few co-hosts and stayed on the air until poor health forced him out from in front of the camera. We have since lost Roger too. There was something about two guys debating their opinion on a topic that was fun to watch.

Well, film has changed to politics and Siskel and Ebert has changed to Halperin and Heilemann and the show is “With All Due Respect”. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of the two “Game Change” books have the same bouncy back and forth on things political that Siskel and Ebert used to have on things cinematic. Halperin is the nervous one with facial ticks and a certain obnoxious stubbornness to his interview style. Heilemann is the laid back pot smoker. Mark appears moderate, skewing perhaps a wee bit conservative. John seems pretty clearly liberal.

This is pure inside-baseball folks. You don’t get the impression that either Mark or John give that much of a rat’s ass about the good of the nation or the world. This show is not about preaching. It’s about politics as a game and how it is played. Who is winning and who is losing. It reminds me of the great WordPress blogger ChenZhen of years ago who really was just in it for the horse race. When the race got boring he retired. I stuck around trying to argue the right and wrong of things. I think I missed the point. Right and wrong only exist on a personal level. On the macro-level, sadly, it is just a game and we can either be entertained or watch in disgust.

The leading GOP candidate is a master of branding with little else to show. The leading Democratic candidate is a woman most find untrustworthy but will still inexplicably support. How can one approach this political season with any sincere hope for a good outcome? That is why I turn to my oasis in the political desert, a show where the game is indeed just a game and the analysts know exactly how to call the play by play. On a side note, I’ve caught plenty of hell from the bar patrons on my MSNBC habit. “With All Due Respect” broadcasts on the Bloomberg channel but effective January, 2016 the MSNBC snarking will begin again as the show does a dual broadcast on Bloomberg and MSNBC. Regardless, “With All Due Respect” gets five stars from me.

The Hillary Sex Speech

Donald Trump, God bless him, says the stuff everyone wants to say but is afraid to. When Hillary calls Trump crude and sexist, Donald fires back with a hat tip to her philandering husband and former POTUS Bill Clinton. In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus gave an unconvincing argument as to why Trump was not off base. It seemed to suggest being married to a pig made attacking a pig less credible. Fine, but the better argument is Hillary’s own behavior. Hillary viewed Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony” and asked that her opinion be documented, as discussed in Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article from last year. Let’s be clear. Bill was a workplace predator. Lewinsky was a victim. Hillary lashed out at the victim, never publicly acknowledging the harm done to her.

So now in reaction to Trump, I suggest Hillary deliver in prime time, the equivalent of 2008’s Race Speech by Barack Obama. This one should be called The Sex Speech and it goes something like this:

What goes on in a marriage is nobody’s business but the people in the relationship. Donald Trump’s comments about my husband’s behavior are intrusive and rude. But I would like to take this opportunity to address an article published in Vanity Fair last year that expressed the emotional damage done to Monica Lewinsky, the intern whom my husband sexually harassed. I have zero tolerance for workplace harassment and my husband’s behavior back then was inexcusable. I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Miss Lewinsky for the pain and suffering she has gone through. I also want to apologize for not addressing this sooner. As women, we must stand together against workplace harassment. I know that Bill is sorry for his behavior. He and I have made peace with it. I hope that Miss Lewinsky can find peace also.

Of course, Hillary is way too arrogant to ever give such a speech but I think in the words of Halperin and Heilemann, it might be a game changer.

Happy New Year,
Rutherford