Thursday, April 28, 2011

Relatos Absurdos - Fernando Trías de Bes

El absurdo es la mayor de las fuentes de inspiración

Fernando Trías de Bes es, segun  la tercera de forros de Relatos Absurdos, "licenciado en Ciencias Empresariales y MBA por ESADE y la University of Michigan. Es socio fundador de Salvetti  & Llombart, consultoría especializada en Investiación e Innovación. Es docente en ESADE, conferenciante y escritor. Es autor con Philip Kotler de Marketing Lateral, y es coautor, asimismo, con Álex Rovira Celma, del libro La buena suerte, traducido a treinta y cinco idiomas, del que, en su primer año de publicación, se han vendido más de un millón y medio de ejemplares en todo el mundo." En su página web se enumeran otros 7 libros publicados desde la salida al mercado de Relatos Absurdos, 3 de los cuales fueron comercializados por Alfaguara, casa editorial que ha pasado a ser una combinación de Santo Grial con Vellocino de Oro para los escritores en español.

Dada su variedad de intereses, Trías de Bes hasta parece burócrata de algún organismo internacional metido a bloguero de extrema izquierda o derecha según el humor del que se levante.

Relatos Absurdos es un libro de cuentos brevísimos al estilo de Tito Monterroso o, como se dice ahora, "microrrelatos", eufemismo creado por la intelligentsia que justifica su existencia complicando lo simple y creyéndose más que todo mundo. Este es un libro entretenedísimo que da para pasar una tarde. Con la exactitud del ingeniero financiero que crea un straddle o un risk reversal, Trías de Bes usa la técnica de la inversión, que "consiste en tomar una idea e invertirla, diciendo lo contrario o anteponiendo un 'no'", como fórmula para sorprender al lector.

Se comenta mucho cómo Twitter nos está llevando a ser una sociedad basada en aforismos y apotegmas. Si tal es el caso, Trías de Bes se adelantó unos 8 años a su época. No es de extrañar. El hombre es un experto en innovación...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First off the tee: presidential hackers, duffers, and cheaters from Taft to Bush - Don Van Natta Jr.

"Playing golf with America's Presidents is a great denominator. How a President acts in a sand trap is a pretty good barometer of how he would respond if the hot line suddenly lit up."

Most American presidents since the late 1890s have had at least one of the following two characteristics: they have served in the military or they play golf. 

First off the tee by Don Van Natta, Jr. portrays the game styles and skills of fourteen American presidents. The author tries to link the Presidents' personalities and government styles traits with their playing skills. So, for instance, Bill Clinton's sexual scandals are linked to his recurrent cheating on the green. By linking sports and ethics, Van Natta follows on Albert Camus' famous expression about how he owed to football all he knew "most surely about morality and obligations." 

While golf is still seen as snobish in most of the World, it has been widely democratized in the United States (which is probably an ecocide given the size of a golf field and the tremendous amount of water and energy required for their maintenance , but let's leave that aside). A testimony of the democratization of golf is the fact that First off the tee was named best book by Sports Illustrated, bestseller by USA Today, the Washington Post, the New York Times, (full disclosure: Van Natta works for the NYT), and was picked as editors sports pick of 2003 by It was also praised by the FT, WSJ, Miami Herald, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, The Houston Chronicle, The Hill, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and many others. The Economist actually devoted an entire article to it.

Wikipedia-level knowledge on golf is required, but even without it, the book is funny and engaging.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rambo III - Peter MacDonald

"Can you not stay?"
-Hamid (Doudi Shoua)

If Rambo I & II were about giving the Vietnam vets their place in American society, Rambo III is about anti-Sovietism. Rambo III is also considerably more violent than its predecessors. In the first two movies, Rambo was on creatine; in the third one, he mixed clenbuterol and nandrolone for breakfast.

Propaganda is useful to assess the mood of a given country in a given age and can have some aesthetic value. No one can seriously deny that Leni Reinfestahl's  movies are impressive and masterfully executed even if they are pieces of Nazi propaganda. The Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein are pieces of art even if they have a clear political agenda in favor of communism.

American propaganda movies do not have a good reputation as far as their aesthetic value is concerned. Part of the reason is that intellectuals -including movie critics- hate liberal democracy, which is a system that rewards the most popular, but not necessarily the smartest. The other part of the reason is that Americans have an inherent bad taste. I mean, what can you wait of the country that came up with the idea hanging around in "flip flops" is normal and even cool? American action movies are vulgar, which is part of their charm. But when you mix vulgarity with a political agenda, it's a little bit too much. 

I defended Rambo I & II based on the values that they tried to convey, as well as on their influence of modern action movies. Rambo III deserves to be watched, if anything, because it is a praise of the Afghan warriors who defeated the Soviet Union with American sponsorship, just to turn against the United States a couple of years later. The romantic description of mujahedeen (مجاهدين), as said by a  tribe's leader when Rambo enters Afghanistan ("warriors who have given their vows to die for god and their land...") has  nothing to do with the idea we have of them today.

Rambo III shows what went wrong with the United States' policy in Afghanistan in particular and with American armed interventions in general. The problem with the US interventions abroad is not, as some critics to the left say, that Americans finance illiberal groups who have the potential to turn against the US (as if these critics actually loved liberalism...). If the Wikileaks papers have shown something is that the US diplomacy has some knowledge of the people it deals with. Americans obviously knew who Osama bin Laden was when they financed his movement in the 1980s. What they didn't know (nobody did, actually) was that the Soviet Union would implode so spectacularly after the Afghan War, creating a vacuum in Central Asia quickly filled by Islamism. If politics is the choice between the lesser of two evils, financing and arming bin Laden was the right choice: containing the Soviet Union was necessary for international security. 

The problem with the US interventions is that Americans don't stay to rebuild the country after wars. Haiti, the Philippines, Afghanistan (in the 1980s), and Iraq, are just a couple of examples of how the US just breaks and leaves. And when they stay, they try to build institutions on the cheap, as the current intervention in Afghanistan shows. Americans are good at financing arms purchases but bad at providing loans or grants to build schools. Rambo III is "dedicated to the gallant Afghan people." I bet that none of the proceeds actually went to build a single roadblock in Afghanistan after the Soviets left. The value of Rambo III is that it shows that the Afghans were just one pawn in the Cold War. Rambo could have fought in Mars. It didn't matter, as long as he fought against the Soviets.

Americans could rebuild Afghanistan after the war. They could have build schools, send Peace Corps volunteers, do something. One of the perversions of American democracy is that the weapons lobby can quickly mobilize Congress to spend billions of dollars on arms purchases, but approving appropriations for international cooperation is painfully slow. 

In an alternate ending, Rambo stays fighting with the the mujahedeen. It would have been a beautiful historic irony that this ending would have been preserved: the icon of American liberty fighting alongside the future terrorists of 9/11...

Here's the trailer of Rambo III:

And you can watch here the speech of Colonel Trautman that Americans forgot between 2001 and 2009. The irony is just total. Sad that the embeddding is disabled.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rambo: First Blood Part II - George P. Cosmatos

"I'd die for [the United States of America]"
-Rambo (Sylvester Stallone"

The praise of the Rambo saga continues.

The stereotype of Rambo as a violent all-American soldier was actually born with First Blood Part II, the second part of the story. In this movie, Rambo is sent back to Vietnam to collect proofs on the existence of POWs. The government, however, expected Rambo to fail, so it would be able to close the subject.  Marshal Murdock, one of these Washington bureaucrats, is in charge of the mission. Murdock betrays Rambo, showing the double standards of the government regarding POWs. Contrary to Rambo I, where society in general despises veterans, in Rambo II society (or at least the Vets' families) wants the soldiers back home. In both films, the government doesn't really care about the kids it sent to die to South East Asia. In any case, both films focus on the subject of Vietnam War Veterans and their fate after the conflict. The more I think of it, the more I realize that the treatment of veterans would be completely different without Rambo. 

In the original script, the mission is conducted by a group of "civilian contractors" (mercenaries, in plain English), introducing one more element of criticism to the US government military policy. At one point, Cl. Trautman (Rambo's mentor) calls the people in charge of the mission mercenaries, so I guess that the script was not actually polished...

In addition to the vets' related issues, there are two more reasons that make Rambo a movie worth watching:

1. It shows how wrong the US was about the relation of the Soviet Union with the other communist countries.  The movie shows how Vietnam troops were trained and assisted by the Russians. We now have enough evidence that Vietnam did not have good relations with either China or the Soviet Union. The alarming thing was that the conception of a Soviet Union controlling the Asian communist countries prevailed until 1991... (so, conspiracy theorists, you got it wrong once again: the US intelligence services are not that smart, after all)

2. At one point, Rambo II was the movie with most dead people on screen. All the action movies made since 1985 are directly influenced by it. So yes, Rambo is chauvinistic, machista, and it's actually boring after a while. But it's influential...

Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 - Milton Friedman & Anna Jacobson Schwartz

"The contraction shattered the long-held belief, which had been strengthened during the 1920’s, that monetary forces were important elements in the cyclical process and that monetary policy was a potent instrument for promoting economic stability. Opinion shifted almost to the opposite extreme, that “money does not matter”; that it is a passive factor which chiefly reflects the effects of other forces; and that momentary policy is of extremely limited value in promoting stability. The evidence summarized in the rest of this chapter suggests that these judgments are not valid inferences from experience. The monetary collapse was not the inescapable consequence of other forces, but rather a largely independent factor which exerted a powerful influence on the course of events. The failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent the collapse reflected not the impotence of monetary policy but rather the particular policies followed by the monetary authorities and, in smaller degree, the particular monetary arrangements in existence."

Everyone who has been in the business of economics for a while knows that all data released before 1980 is pure crap.

So, why read a book as ambitious as A Monetary History of the United States, which pretends to tell the story of money (nothing less) between 1867 and 1960?

A Monetary History is more than data gathering -though the data part of the book is amazing even for today's standards: the authors actually devote around 100 pages to explain how they re-built the time series of US money stock. Also, Friedman and Schwartz provide the most exhaustive and comprehensive account of the Great Depression -for which they blame the Federal Reserve. Friedmand and Schwartz argue that the Fed should have lowered interest rates in order to provide the financial sector with some oxygen, which is akin to what Ben Bernanke and his team at the Fed did in 2008 -though Anna Schwarts has publicly disagreed with the Fed since 2008 (here & here; the two links are just amazing).  

But this book is still worth reading because throughout its pages the authors set the basis of monetarism, the theoretical basis upon which central banking rests today. Shortly, monetarism argues that inflation is a phenomenon related with the stock of money (more money means more inflation and vice versa). This is a theoretical proposition that even neo-keynesians accept today.

Sadly, A Monetary History is hard to understand. Friedman and Schwartz wrote the book as a research project to be distributed among experts, and it has remained so since its release in 1973. But that's not the authors' fault, but the education system's, which has been unable to promote economic and financial literacy among citizens.

A preview of A Monetary History is available here.

And here's Milton Friedman explaining the 1929 crisis. In this video, Friedman also discusses Keynesianism. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gish - The Smashing Pumpkins

When it was released, Gish was praised by the press all around the World.

Today, it sounds just like another album of the first half of the 1990s: guitars à la Nirvana, screams, and claims to be misunderstood by "the World".

I used to like The Smashing Pumpkins, but I can't remember why. They're incredibly depressing:

Monday, April 18, 2011

First Blood - Ted Kotcheff

"I didn't do anything"
-John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)

Let's put things clear from the beginning: the Rambo saga is not a masterpiece. However, the Rambo movies are still worth watching for a number of reasons that I will explain over the next days. Let's start by First Blood (or "Rambo I", as it is usually known), the first part of the sequel.

Reagan once said that after watching First Blood, he knew exactly what to do with Libya -he bombed one of Moammar Al Qadhafi's personal palaces, in case you were wondering. Given that Libya will be in the media for a couple of months, which is a good leitmotif to talk about the movies.

I will defend First Blood based on two arguments:

1. Rambo shows how the Vietnam veterans were received once the Vietnam War was over. War Veterans are considered heroes in the United States today: they get student loans at lower rates and can get preferential seats in some domestic flights. That was not the case after the Vietnam War. For all the good things that it brought to Earth, the hippie movement failed to see that the kids who went to Vietnam were basically lied about what war was. The Vietnam vets were as alienated as those who escaped the draft. Unfortunately, the lucky ones who didn't fight didn't show any empathy. 

First Blood is a tribute to all those veterans who, in Rambo's words, were "in charge of million dollar equipment in Vietnam but couldn't find a job parking cars" when they came back. The movie is in fact a critique against the establishment, which is why it was successful among teenagers when it was released -it's one of the first movies where an American kills other Americans consciously. From that perspective, it's really sad that Rambo became a symbol of American imperialism and militarism (there's a nerdy explanation about how Reagan changed the meaning of the movie here). 

2. When people think about action movies they have this idea of multi-million dollar productions with ridiculously huge special effects. First Blood received a small budget, even for the standards of its time. However, economic limitations did not prevent it from becoming a tremendous commercial success. Stallone's stunts are better than any special effects: you can see true pain in his face.

And one final thing: there are no really "good" or "bad" characters in First Blood. But the spectator is still forced to make a choice as to whether Rambo or Teasle is right and wrong.

I actually have to revisit the first paragraph of this post: First Blood IS a masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Adore - The Smashing Pumpkins

Adore is a bad album for two reasons:

1. It is nothing else than a collection of15 re-makes of "1979" the band's greatest hit ever.

2. The music sounds like if the musicians were tired. The album is not energetic at all. It goes without saying, the band split two years after Adore's release.

I guess that "Appels and Oranjes" is an OK song. Forget about the rest. Just play the last 10 tracks of Mellon Collie.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - David Bowie

"There's a starman waiting in the sky"
-David Bowie , "Starman"

Concept albums were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall are probably the most known examples today -thanks to Roger Waters' endless World tour, which is nothing else than the rock version of Cirque du Soleil.

David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust is a vague concept album about some kind of alien who lives in the Earth, which will disappear in 5 years as a result of ecologic exhaustion. Concept albums are disappearing. The main reason is the business model inherent to music in MP3 music, which tries to sell as many units of a song as possible instead of albums. But probably there is something about the existential vacuum lived by people since the Berlin Wall came down: people simply don't have any stories to tell since we are now living in the End of History.

Though Ziggy Stardust is inevitably included in any list of the best albums ever recorded, some of the songs now sound like Wayne's World, which is partly a tribute to Bowie.

Ziggy Stardust represents Bowie's glam period, which can be summarized as shiny and stretchy clothes wrapping an extremely skinny body jumping around the scenario and singing happy songs.  Bowie's success in the 70s was a consequence of his dressing style as much as it was of his music. Marylin Manson would try to copy glam's visual style in Mechanical Animals 25 years later.

Ziggy Stardust must be in anyone's Ipod, if anything else because of its tremendous reputation, and also because it represents an interesting period in popular music: a transition between the happy 60s and the most retrospective 70s. Hang Onto Yourself is probably the best testimony of a song made up of happy music and sad lyrics: