Thursday, April 29, 2010

Crist Goes Indie

Not exactly the greatest of surprises. He was going to get (as Mike Allen put it) "shellacked" by the hard right.

I agree with Allen that this probably isn't going to help him. Incumbents are going to be under fire in November; an incumbent without the benefit of party identification is only going to be that much worse off. It was inevitable—Republican primaries actually mean something—but he's still not in good shape. He might lose the seat, and the Dems might win it.

In the long run, though, this only benefits the conservatives in the Republican party. They've demonstrated their power. They've pushed the party to the right, and they've made the politicos that much more worried about them. When the Republicans regain control, that's going to ensure that conservatives get much more of a say than they would otherwise.

For progressives this should prove...instructive. If they're willing to learn the lesson.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

M.I.A's Disturbing "Born Free" Video

Yes, it is disturbing. Very much so. SO much so that it was pulled from YouTube. (You can see it on Vimeo.) But, like the Wikileaks video, it's the kind of disturbing that is worthwhile. The kind that is necessary. If you are an adult and willing to deal with shocking content, I'd recommend you see it. You aren't going to like it, but you'll have appreciated seeing it.

Pretty much anybody with a clue (and, who, especially, knows anything about the UK's cultural idiosyncrasies of prejudice) will know instantly what sort of allegory is going on here. It's about showing how minor prejudices can become major ones, and about how the sort of prejudices that you cavalierly ignore or explain away—because you don't identify with the victims—can be brought to vivid life when they're people that you can identify with.

(If nothing else, I'm never going to see certain episodes of South Park the same way again.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Goldman's "Big Short"

Emails have been released that show that Goldman, contra their assertions, made a whole bunch of money by shorting in the face of the banking collapse.

From Huffpo:

In a July 25 email that year, Gary Cohn, the firm's chief operating officer, wrote Viniar to update him on the firm's mortgage market activities. The firm lost about $322 million on residential mortgages -- but it made $373 million on its bets against the market, bets that increased in value as the market tanked.

About 25 minutes later, Viniar wrote back, "Tells you what might be happening to people who don't have the big short." The firm made $51 million that day.

"There it is, in their own words: Goldman Sachs taking 'the big short' against the mortgage market," subcommittee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a statement accompanying the release of the internal emails.

"Investment banks such as Goldman Sachs were not simply market-makers, they were self-interested promoters of risky and complicated financial schemes that helped trigger the crisis," Levin said. "They bundled toxic mortgages into complex financial instruments, got the credit rating agencies to label them as AAA securities, and sold them to investors, magnifying and spreading risk throughout the financial system, and all too often betting against the instruments they sold and profiting at the expense of their clients."

Levin's panel points out that in the firm's 2009 annual report, Goldman Sachs stated that the firm "did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products."

"These e-mails show that, in fact, Goldman made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market," Levin said.
Whoopsie. Pretty sure that out-and-out falsehood in your annual reports ain't gonna do much for your reputation.

Still interested in seeing where this goes. The real story isn't so much the revelations coming out now. We knew all this stuff, it is simply being (finally) proven beyond doubt. The real story is how the hell Washington handles it, since they're absolutely choked with both GS alumni and people who are beholden to GS alumni. The public knows that this thing is going on, and this situation is pretty easy to understand: "GS helped create a bad investment and then bet against it" is not going to be too tricky for even the most low-info voter to grasp.

They're already angry at the "big banks", and this will crystallize their anger. The only question is who to be angry at: and if the Dems (or the Republicans!) don't work damned hard to distance themselves and be seen to punish the bastards, they'll be punished themselves.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Are the British LibDems...Winning?

Maybe yes, maybe no. The Sun (care of the BBC) has them polling ahead of the other two parties following Nick Clegg's victory in the PM debate. People are tired of both Labour and the Tories, and are taking a fresh look at Clegg's crew. But Britain's first-past-the-post system means that it doesn't necessarily matter: the LibDems would have to crush the other parties to win a majority. They aren't crushing. Yet.

It's starting to feel like it might happen, though. The other parties are so tired, and the whole business is so tawdry, that a lot of Brits can be forgiven for wanting a change or three. Certainly a Labour/LibDem coalition is possible, and that could make a lot of big differences. But it's still early days, of course. Who knows what will happen next week.

(Makes one wonder about America, too. England has a third party, and they're doing pretty well. America's system isn't that much different...)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nice Response to Ebert

Found a good response to Ebert's latest at Gamasutra.

Thing is, I don't think that it matters all that much. Ebert's writings on this are notorious mostly because they're novel. Most people, if they think about it at all, wouldn't have too much trouble with the idea that games are art. The objections appear to come mostly from those who are defending other forms from being "sullied" by games. Since most people under the age of 30 don't see games as "sullying" anything, I doubt that that perspective will endure.

It's a question of time. Nothing more.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ebert: Still Disappointing

What's disappointing about Ebert's latest whinge about people daring to define computer and video games as "art" isn't so much that he tortures the definition of "art". (Though he does)

No, it's that he tortures the definition of at least two genuinely creative works in doing so: Flower and Braid.  For Flower, he just moans about how he doesn't know anything about the game, and therefore it cannot be "art". But for Braid, well...

Her next example is a game named "Braid" (above). This is a game "that explores our own relationship with our encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there's one key can't die." You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.
Yes, in Chess, that would be "taking back a move". Braid isn't Chess. The two aren't even really comparable. Various forms of time manipulation are the entire point of the experience; they ARE the "discipline of the game".  There is far more to Braid than "taking back a move", and it takes only a cursory examination of the game to reveal the sort of life experiences, emotions, and frustrations that the creator is drawing allegories to.

Ebert isn't even just ignorant here, though: he's being willfully ignorant. He's not only utterly dismissive in a situation where it isn't warranted, but he's clearly not interested in even paying attention to the counter-argument. He talks about how he enjoys the advantage of "response after consideration", but betrays not the slightest moment of consideration in the first place.  Anybody who had ever even heard of the Sims, for example, wouldn't claim that all games are winnable; yet Ebert does it over, and over, and over again, since victory conditions apparently (somehow) deny a game the status of "art".

(No, he never explained that one, either.)

It's not surprising. He's practically built his entire critical reputation on this fight these days. For reasons which baffle me, he has spent more time, energy, and devotion on tearing down games than he has building up film. One wonders why he is so devoted to it, but whatever the reason, he simply cannot be convinced otherwise at this point. He simply has too much at stake, and never did have the temperament to suffer a demeaning climbdown on the subject. Nobody who was trying to engage the subject fairly would make the sorts of rash dismissals that he does on a regular basis. He doesn't appear to want to engage it fairly, because it allows for the possibility that he may be wrong.

In any case, here's the TED talk he was responding to:

I disagree with this in one key respect: I do think that Chess is a work of art. Otherwise, it's excellent stuff. I can see why Ebert was compelled to respond. I'm just disappointed that he made such a hash of it.

Edit: Just as an added point: Ebert really, really mixes up the question of whether something is GOOD art with the question of whether it is art AT ALL. By any logically consistent definition, even bad art is art; bad art contains within it the possibility that it could have been good. 

It is also unfortunate that Ebert seems unwilling to fairly engage the question of interactivity and involvement. Winning conditions do not determine games. As I noted above, many of the most popular games (The Sims, Spore, and the multitudes of "massive multiplayer" games) have no victory conditions at all. They cannot be won. If that means they are not "games" as Ebert understands them, then that shows how limited his conceptions are, not ours.

What defines these games is, instead, direct engagement. You cannot separate that out: that would be like taking the gutters out of a comic, or editing from a filmmaker. It is what defines the form. It's what makes games like Flower and Braid unique. It's also what makes Chess unique: a Chess set is inert until somebody sits down to engage it. You cannot sit outside of the experience: you must become a part of it. And, as anybody who has played Braid can attest, becoming part of that experience will affect how you perceive yourself and the choices you have made in life. That's the point. That's the art. The "victory conditions" are in its service, not the other way around.

Sachs Problems Ramp Up

Honestly, this is incredible. It looks like the entire GS edifice is starting to crumble:
Accusations that Goldman defrauded customers who bought investments tied to risky subprime mortgages have only just begun to reverberate through the financial world.
The civil lawsuit that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman on Friday seemed to confirm many Americans’ worst suspicions about Wall Street: that the game is rigged, the odds stacked in the banks’ favor. It is the first big case — but probably not the last, legal experts said — to delve into a Wall Street firm’s role in the mortgage fiasco.
It is a particularly sensitive time for Wall Street. Washington policy makers are hotly debating a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations, and the news could embolden those seeking to rein in the banks. President Obama on Saturday stepped up pressure for financial reform by accusing Republicans of “cynical and deceptive” attacks on the measure.
The S.E.C.’s action could also hit Wall Street where it really hurts: the wallet. It could prompt dozens of investor claims against Goldman and other Wall Street titans that devised and sold toxic mortgage investments. On Saturday, several European banks that lost money in the deal said they were reviewing the matter. They could try to recoup the money from Goldman.
And it raises new questions about Goldman, the bank at the center of more concentric circles of economic and political power than any other on Wall Street.
Come to think of it, this is somewhat surprising. It had looked like GS and the rest of them were going to get away with all of it. Sure, Matt Taibbi has been shooting holes in GS like an expert marksman, but their influence still dwarfs his.

At least, it did. They are in a fair spot of trouble:

On Friday, Goldman’s stock took a beating, falling 13 percent and wiping out more than $10 billion of the company’s market value. It was a possible sign that investors fear that the S.E.C. complaint will damage Goldman’s reputation and its ability to keep its hands on so many sides of a trade — a practice that is immensely profitable for the firm.
It is unclear whether the S.E.C. can prevail against Goldman. The bank has long maintained that it puts its clients first and, in a letter in its latest annual report, it reiterated that position. Goldman said it never “bet against our clients” in its trades but rather was trying to hedge against other trading positions.

The transaction cited in the S.E.C. complaint cost investors just over $1 billion, relatively small by Wall Street standards.

Still, Wall Street analysts said Goldman and other banks, having navigated the financial crisis, might now face a new kind of risk: angry investors. Most major Wall Street banks also created collateralized debt obligations, which are at the heart of the Goldman case. C.D.O.’s, which are essentially bundles of securities backed by mortgages or other debt securities, turned out to be among the most toxic investments ever devised.

“Any investor who bought these C.D.O.’s and lost a significant amount of money is probably looking at their investment and wanting to know: what were the details behind the sale?” said William Tanona, an analyst at Collins Stewart. “Will they contact the S.E.C. and say, ‘Here’s the transaction we participated in, and we’d love to know who is on the other side of it?’ ”
That's it in a nutshell. The SEC's actions may amount to nothing. They will probably amount to nothing. It doesn't matter. This will open the floodgates, and everybody who even suspects that they were taken advantage of will be baying for GS's blood: both in America, and around the world.
The sweetest piece of this whole thing? They're being treated like gangsters:

The S.E.C. complaint named just one Goldman employee: Fabrice Tourre, a vice president in the bank’s mortgage operation who worked on the questionable transaction.

But securities lawyers say Mr. Tourre appears to be a small fish. Federal investigators may try to gain his cooperation and extend their investigation to other Goldman employees. On Friday, Mr. Tourre’s lawyer did not provide a comment on the complaint.

A big question is how far up this might go. The S.E.C. said the deal in its complaint had been approved by a panel at Goldman, the Mortgage Capital Committee.

“It’s typical that they’d start with someone lower down on the chain and try to exert pressure on that person,” said Bradley D. Simon of Simon & Partners, a white-collar defense lawyer in New York. “Is it really conceivable that no one else was involved in this?"
This is what you do to drug dealers. You hit a small fish and roll your way up by getting them to cooperate. That they're using the same technique on GS speaks volumes of exactly how trustworthy, how honest, how law-abiding they think that GS isn't.
But all of this raises a question: how did the SEC even get the go-ahead to do this in the first place? It's inconceivable that they made this decision in a vacuum. GS alumni and allies are in every branch of the Obama administration. The SEC head had to know that; he had to know that this would need the go-ahead from the administration. He must have got it. But, in a million years, I never would have thought he would have got it.

First bit of good news in a while. First time in ages that I've actually been optimistic about something. It may pass, but it's a nice change, isn't it?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sachs Up on Fraud Charges

Not sure if anything will come of this, but it's apparently playing merry hell with their stock price:
The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday charged Goldman Sachs & Co. (GS 160.70, -23.57, -12.79%) and one of its vice presidents for defrauding investors by misstating and omitting key facts about a financial product related to subprime mortgages. The SEC alleges that Goldman Sachs structured and marketed a collateralized debt obligation that hinged on the performance of subprime residential mortgage-backed securities. However, it failed to disclose the role that a major hedge fund, Paulson & Co., played in the portfolio selection process as well as the fact that the hedge fund had taken a short position against the CDO. "Goldman wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio, while telling other investors that the securities were selected by an independent, objective third party," said Robert Khuzami, director of the division of enforcement, in a statement.
 So they let a short-seller dictate what they put in a CDO, so as to cash in when the thing tanked.

And they wonder why people now think of Goldman Sachs as a particularly gooey type of pond scum.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Polish Tragedy

You don't need me to tell you what happened. I'm sure, by now, that you know that Poland has lost much of its leadership in a plane crash. Not all; the Prime Minister and many others are still fine. But the President is gone, among many others.

I'm concerned, however, over whether the tragedy will be compounded by regional instability. All signs point to the crash being nothing but an unfortunate accident. But Russia is already suspected of foul deeds by its neighbours, and the President of Poland was a notable pro-Western figure in the country.  Russia has, by all accounts, been careful and respectful. But already one Polish MP is blaming Russia for the crash. The man is a notorious crank, but I suspect there will be others.