Monday, September 26, 2016

Lands’ End Finally Ousts Polarizing, Disastrous CEO – But Can It Fix Its Own Stupidity?

With today’s departure of its misbegotten, short-lived fashionista CEO, retailer Lands’ End has a chance to right its past wrongs and rise again.  But can it do it?  Will it, for example, follow the path of a resurgent Apple, or that of its former owner, Sears, thought by some to be near bankruptcy? 

Lands’ End retailer was once a successful and popular seller of well-made and comfortably-fitting casual clothing.  It was founded in Chicago initially as a seller of sailing gear and gradually transformed itself into primarily a clothing retailer.  It expanded with a move to southern Wisconsin and became a strong national brand. 

Then disaster struck.  The first blow was its sale to Sears in 2002.  Quality took a sharp dive no doubt as the accountants squeezed the bottom line.  At the time Sears took over I think most of my dress shirts, polo shirts, neckties, and casual pants, and all my socks and underwear, were from Lands’ End.  My wife was also a big customer in clothing for not only herself but for our kids, and household stuff like bedding and towels was mostly from LE.  But with new purchases after the Sears takeover we noticed gradually cheapening fabric, poorer fit, and declining quality.  We began buying less and less.

Finally Sears, struggling itself, released Lands’ End from bondage in April, 2014, spinning it off as once again a stand-alone company.  Then a remarkable thing happened.  The new Board of Directors decided to abandon the company’s deservedly eroding customer base and transform itself into a retailer of “fashion forward” trendy hipster clothing.  It hired an Italian fashionista of the New York City glitterati set to pursue the transformation.  Out were comfortable shirts and shoes and rain gear and in were stiletto heels.  The new CEO, Federica Marchionni, wondered, peering westward and downward across the Hudson River from her Manhattan penthouse, Bellini in hand, just who in the hell would actually wear the clothes Lands’ End was selling.           

Then came the coup de gras for long-suffering Lands’ End.  To signal their bona fides to all the right people – the bicoastal liberal elites and hipster glitterati – the new CEO and the Board decided to enter the Culture Wars.  Lands’ End celebrated one of the most polarizing figures in America – ultraliberal, radical “feminist” and abortion extremist Gloria Steinem, who once is said to have said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.  The special, prominent catalog homage to Steinem was a marvel of incoherent incompetence – celebrating a woman likely to be anathema to its core customers and utterly unfamiliar to the sought-after young urban hipsters.  Negative reaction was swift, and I posted a note about the disaster at the time (link).  In comments to articles all over the web, outraged customers, those still left, vowed to abandon Lands’ End.  Although my family’s purchases were way down from a decade earlier and gradually declining, we were still occasionally buying some things like sheets and jackets.  That came to an abrupt end and we were done with Lands’ End.

In late July, LE reported results for the three-month period February through April of 2016, the first financials after the late-February celebration of Gloria Steinem.  As only two of the three months in that period were after the catalog’s appearance, the full effect of the Steinem glorification and taking sides in the Culture War is not reflected in these numbers.  Here is the bottom line – LE reported a net loss of $5.8 million, compared to a profit of $1.7 million in the year earlier period.  All in all, a disastrous financial report.

Now today, nine months almost to the day after that ill-fated adulatory splash on Gloria Steinem, the hipster, fashionista CEO is out.  She lasted 21 months. 

The Lands’ End stock price also tells a sad tale.  From February 27, 2015, the last trading day of the month that Marchionni took over as CEO, through September 23, 2016, the last trading day before today’s announcement of her departure, Lands’ End stock was down 51%.  In other words, in the short time that the new hipster CEO was in place, Land’s End stock lost more than half its value.  Furthermore, at the close of trading today on the day of the announcement, LE stock dropped another 14%, investors no doubt fearing that the not-yet-reported recent financials are even worse than imagined given the firing of the CEO.  Losing two-thirds of a company’s stock value in 21 months is not easy, but the LE Board has managed to pull it off.

The articles I’ve read in the past year on this ongoing story typically spun the Lands’ End problem as one of rubes in the hinterlands bitterly clinging to their “frumpy duds” and refusing, like truculent children, to follow the lead of a sensible NYC fashion leader who is simply trying to help them improve themselves.  Rarely a mention of the Gloria Steinem contretemps, of course.  Example: a Marchionni-admiring Wall Street Journal article of May, 2016, is subtitled “At the catalog retailer, frumpy duds are out.”  The Board of Directors apparently buys into all this nonsense.

The sorry saga of Lands’ End, damaged first by Sears and then bled further by an incompetent Board and CEO, provides a well-worn cautionary tale for American business.  It’s as Barack Obama, no doubt a role model for the now departed elitist, hipster LE CEO, once said – “don’t do stupid stuff.”  But as Obama has failed to learn over and over and over again, to America’s detriment, easier said than done.  The Lands’ End saga shows us, not that we need another showing, that not being stupid is, for some people, harder than it looks.  Can the Lands' End Board of Directors fix its own stupidity?  We’ll see.  They could take a promising first step by all resigning.


R Balsamo

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

La Traviata at Michigan’s Harbor Country Opera

You don’t always have to be in a big city to find opera.  The other day we enjoyed a wonderful performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, the world's most popular opera by the world's most popular opera composer, in the sleepy little town of Three Oaks, Michigan.  The hamlet sits amidst corn and bean fields a few miles inland from the Lake Michigan shore in the southwest corner of the state (surprisingly only 90 minutes from downtown Chicago).  The production was the latest offering from Harbor Country Opera.  [“Harbor Country,” for those who might be wondering, is the somewhat fanciful marketing label that the local Chamber of Commerce cooked up for a string of Lake Michigan shore beach towns in the southwest corner of Michigan, an area that contains but a single actual harbor.  Furthermore, Three Oaks is included in this trademarked marketing “region,” despite being seven miles inland.  Whatever.] 

McMurray, Caraman, & Steyer (L to R) in HCO's La Traviata
Harbor Country Opera is a little gem, and its majordomo Bob Swan, an opera singer himself, has been staging productions for a long time.  In recent years, we have taken in, for example, a most enjoyable showing of La Boheme and a wonderful concert by Isola Jones, the famed Met star, along with Bill McMurray and John Concepcion.  That La Boheme was a full production of the opera in the large auditorium of the high school in New Buffalo, the one town in Harbor Country with an actual harbor.  For La Traviata the setting was the small stage at the Acorn Theater, a modest space in a converted factory that once made corset stays from turkey feather quills when whalebone was getting hard to come by.  Fortunately, corsets went out of style before turkeys became hard to come by.  Swan and company put on a production of the major scenes from the opera, with a cast of essentially the three main characters who do most of the singing in the complete opera.  The performers were in full costume, though understandably the set was minimal.  A narrator explained the story line between scenes.  La traviata means "the fallen woman," and the libretto is based on La Dame aux Camélias – The Lady of the Camellias, a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils.  The camellia flower in bloom is an iconic image for this opera.

The voices were strong and clear, and the acting was convincing.  I don’t know how Swan managed to get performers of this caliber to this rural corner of Michigan, but he did.  Christine Steyer was Violetta, the consumptive courtesan, Emanuel-Cristian Caraman was her paramour Alfredo, and Bill McMurray was Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.  All three have extensive performance resumes, and in fact McMurray appeared in the above-mentioned La Boheme as well as in concert with Isola Jones.  The baritone-soprano complex duet between the elder Germont and Violetta, in which he seeks to convince her to forego her loving relationship with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation, is one of my favorite duets in all of opera.  And the touching “Parigi, o caro” duet between Violetta and Alfredo, in her last moments, was splendidly done.  All in all, a wonderful show from a wonderful cast.  And notably, the bar was stocked with chilled Prosecco, a Venetian sparkling wine appropriately served and enjoyed at an opera that debuted at the storied La Fenice opera house in that very city.

At HCO’s “Broadway Blitz” show earlier this summer, Bob Swan introduced the show and mentioned some recent health trouble.  The other day he looked stronger, a most welcome sign for fans of Harbor Country Opera.  Salute, Mr. Swan.


R Balsamo

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Lyric Opera Under the Stars – 2016


The opera gods had their way last Friday and stopped the light drizzle just as the concert began.  It turned out to be a beautiful evening under the stars at Chicago's lakefront Millennium Park for the annual Stars of the Lyric Opera concert.  

The concert, though, was a bit more mixed than the weather.  The new regime at the Lyric does not seem overly-enamored with Italian opera, and the concert as well as the new season reflects that (just two of the upcoming season's eight operas are Italian, with not a single Verdi or Puccini; but in fairness the two chosen – Norma and Lucia – are two of the very best). Selections from four of the new season's eight planned operas were performed, highlighted by mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's appearance in a flaming red dress as Carmen for the habanera, which she sang wonderfully.

Other than the selections from Carmen and Lucia and a crowd sing-along of the stirring Va Pensiero chorus from Nabucco (a highlight of last season), there wasn't much red meat, operatically speaking, on the bill.  No duets or trios, and just how many concerts feature not one but two bass arias?  I was hoping for a selection from the upcoming Berlioz masterpiece Les Troyens (The Trojans), which I have been studying, but no dice, and nothing from Norma.

Nevertheless, a wonderful way to spend a Friday September evening by the lakeshore, gratis, thanks once again to the Lyric Opera.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Is Obamacare a Failure or a Success?

The actual Obamacare statute, as the Affordable Care Act is commonly called, was a disaster from the start – a hodgepodge of tons of stuff, much nonsensible, pasted in by various Democrat congressional staffers and Democrat lobbyists.  No one actually read it all, and probably no one, no one, read even most of it.  Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Speaker of the House at the time, infamously said then that the law must be passed so we can find out what’s in it.  Rational critics knew it would be a disaster, and, in reality, so did the Democrat puppet masters who pushed for it and forced its passage.  For those Democrats, the expectation was that the whole thing would fall apart and pave the way for a completely government-run system.    

Aetna, a large national health insurer (if what is in reality a medical care benefit plan without risk-based pricing can be called in any way “insurance”) just announced it is withdrawing from most Obamacare exchanges because of significant financial losses.  Some say now that this is evidence that Obamacare is a failure.

But to say that Obamacare is a failure is to not understand its actual purpose.  Something cannot be deemed a failure until one understands the true purpose.  If the purpose of Obamacare is correctly seen as an intentional, unstable transitional state primarily designed to hook people on subsidies and the illusion of cheap, comprehensive medical care, such that upon collapse the masses will clamor for a complete government take-over to save their “health care,” then Obamacare so far has been a success. 


R Balsamo  

Friday, August 12, 2016

Crooked Hillary Is the Future, and It Ain’t Pretty

Hillary Clinton is now the nominee of the Democrat Party for the presidency of the United States of America.  How disastrously far that Party has fallen, and how far we have fallen with it.

It should be obvious to all that Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt major American politician in American history, and the depth and breadth of her corruption is breathtaking.  Her husband, since leaving office, has made $150 million in speaking fees, most of that since she became Secretary of State.  No one, no one, shells out that kind of money to the husband of the sitting United States Secretary of State for nothing, and no one born before yesterday could possibly believe that it is honest and legitimate.  Moreover, the Clinton “Foundation” is a fairly obvious money-laundering front to channel the massive pay-to-play piles of cash that big money men, mostly foreign, have given the Clintons in return for favored treatment from the State Department and from their other spheres of influence (see "Clinton Cash," inter alia).   Hillary compromised national security and clearly violated federal law (FBI Director Comey said so, just before he blew smoke in his disgraceful sell-out) in using a private server so that her communications, full of illicit and criminal crap and commingled with official State Dept work, would not be preserved and discoverable on a government system. 

Furthermore, Hillary Clinton is a congenital liar whose every word, including "and" and "the" (to borrow a phrase), is a lie.  From Whitewater and the "cattle futures" Tyson bribe in her early days up to the bribery thinly-camouflaged as “speaking fees” and Clinton Foundation “donations,” she has been a one-woman criminal enterprise.  That an American political party could tolerate, let alone nominate, someone remotely like her is the surest sign, among many, that the "American Experiment" is over and a new era of corrupt, Latin-America-style "strongman" politics is beginning. 

Donald Trump is certainly not an ideal candidate, but his faults are trivial compared to Hillary's.  All this little stuff thrown up against Trump is mostly a series of bright, shiny objects the ultraliberal and socialistic press is dangling in front of Americans to distract them ("OMG, look over here, quickly, over here!") from Hillary's disgracefulness.

We have met the future, and it ain't pretty.  It’s all downhill from here.


R Balsamo

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Death of a Republic – the American Experiment is Over

Not for nothing have so many referred to the United States as “the American Experiment.”  After tens of thousands of years of rule by kings and queens, dictators and tyrants, aristocrats and oligarchs, it’s been an open question whether a people could maintain a constitutional republic, where no one is above a just law fairly and equally applied, such that at the founding, Benjamin Franklin said to the American people “you have a republic, if you can keep it.”  The experiment is over.

There is a law against being “grossly negligent” in the handling of classified material, which must be kept secret as a matter of national security.  On July 5, when the embers from Independence Day celebrations still glowed and the latest memories of this most special American celebration were still fresh, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one James Comey, stepped up to a microphone in Washington, DC, and began talking.  His FBI team had just completed its investigation of alleged serious national security breaches by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.  Comey, himself an Obama appointee, recited a litany of findings that he described showed “extreme carelessness” in the way Clinton and her subordinates handled classified material.  Furthermore, he recited findings that contradicted numerous Clinton statements to the American people and to Congress, under oath, about her handling of classified material. 

Astoundingly, but sadly not surprisingly, Comey then blew smoke over the whole matter. He began talking about “intent” to compromise national security, although intent is not a requirement to be found guilty of mishandling classified information.  He said there was no clear evidence that Madame Hillary had any intent to compromise national security, although, he said, her email correspondents had their email traffic with Madame Hillary hacked by nefarious outsiders.  Never mind that Madame Hillary quite intentionally set up her own unsecured personal server for all of her government emails, contrary to rules and common sense, presumably in order to keep secret her dealings with foreign and domestic moneymen (otherwise known as Clinton Foundation donors) in a pay-to-play criminal operation.  She then lied repeatedly to the American people and then to Congress, under oath, that she never received or passed along classified information.  We know of many of her lies because the FBI has found them out.  Madame Hillary has had intent from the start in this sordid affair.

How’s this for the way Madame Hillary cared for precious national secrets? – “We do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial e-mail accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account.  We also assess that Secretary Clinton's use of a personal e-mail domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent.  She also used her personal e-mail extensively while outside the United States, including sending and receiving work-related e-mails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries.  Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail account.”  Possible?  Rather, a near-certainty. 

But against the evidence and against common sense, Comey then concluded that Madame Hillary had no “intent” to compromise national security, reading the requirement of intent into a statute that only requires gross negligence.  Comey said Clinton and her people were, in their ongoing security transgressions, “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” as if that isn’t gross negligence.  (As an aside, one might ask – if Comey really wanted to clear Hillary Clinton completely, why did he recite her long list of transgressions?  Answer:  because he and the Obama people feared that one still-patriotic FBI agent would go public with it all, so better to bring out all the dirty laundry proactively and then play it down.  A classic trial attorney strategy.) 

To cement the conclusion that this was a political decision to “clear” Madame Hillary of patently illegal (and traitorous) activity, if more evidence is even needed, Comey two days later admitted under oath, responding to pointed questions by certain Congressmen skilled in eliciting the truth from reluctant witnesses, that the FBI did not put Madame Hillary under oath when they questioned her – a shocking admission of a shocking omission.  Furthermore, they shockingly did not record the question and answer session, so there will never be a video or transcript to prove up any false statements.  And the FBI acknowledges but waves away other illegal behavior, such as Clinton’s admission that she shared her emails, many determined by the FBI to contain classified information, with her lawyers who have no security clearance – a clear criminal act, with intent; such as evidence that emails and other electronic documents were erased after a subpoena was issued for them, which would be intentional obstruction of justice.  The FBI then said it would not recommend to the Obama Justice Department that Clinton be prosecuted for her national security breaches, and quickly thereafter the Justice Department said it was ending the matter without prosecution.  The Obama FBI and Justice Department have made it quite clear that Hillary Clinton is above the law.  Their inaction is legally indefensible and morally reprehensible.

Comey is just the latest in a long line of Americans, with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts not far in front of him, who have betrayed their oaths and betrayed the trust of the American people.  [Comey, by the way, in the Bush Justice Department was the one who appointed as Special Prosecutor in the Plame Affair one Patrick Fitzgerald, who disgraced himself (link) by turning the investigation into an unethical anti-George W. Bush witch hunt; so much for Comey’s ethics and judgement, and Bush’s as well.] 

Yes, liberals will roll their eyes over all of this and declare it all to be a molehill.  But they truly do not realize what has ended here, what line has been crossed.  The United States is entering a different era, one of the strongman politics well-known in Latin America, where laws, such as they are, only apply to the little people, the unconnected, and where the societal trust necessary to underpin any democracy is all rotted away.  These American so-called progressives, grabbers of power and privilege like all the aristocrats and oligarchs before them, who peddle their socialistic ruse to the foolable, are only in it for themselves.  American liberals have sewn the wind, and they will reap the whirlwind. 

It can be hard to pin an exact date on many shifts in history.  Just when did the Roman Republic die?  Just when did Athenian democracy wither away?  Perhaps it’s a series of corrosive events, eroding the landscape until after a sudden stumble we look up from a downward slope to see we cannot climb back up.  From now on, when asked whether one should study American law and the Constitution, a fair response would be, to quote Madame Hillary: at this point, what difference would it make?       


R Balsamo

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit All About?

What is the meaning of Brexit?  This from Theodore Dalrymple, a British writer, critic, and retired physician:

For a long time, Britons who wanted their country to leave the European Union were regarded almost as mentally ill by those who wanted it to stay.  The leavers didn’t have an opinion; they had a pathology. Since one doesn’t argue with pathology, it wasn’t necessary for the remainers to answer the leavers with more than sneers and derision.

Even after the vote, the attitude persists.  Those who voted to leave are described as, ipso facto, small-minded, xenophobic, and fearful of the future.  Those who voted to stay are described as, ipso facto, open-minded, cosmopolitan, and forward-looking. 

This from Megan McCardle, an American commentator and currently a Bloomberg columnist, said to be of a libertarian (small “L”) bent (although she supported Obama at least once, so consistency may not be her strong suit):

The inability of those elites to grapple with the rich world’s populist moment was in full display on social media last night. Journalists and academics seemed to feel that they had not made it sufficiently clear that people who oppose open borders are a bunch of racist rubes who couldn’t count to 20 with their shoes on, and hence will believe any daft thing they’re told. Given how badly this strategy had just failed, this seemed a strange time to be doubling down….  [P]erhaps they were just unable to grasp … that nationalism and place still matter, and that elites forget this at their peril. A lot people do not view their country the way some elites do: as though the nation were something like a rental apartment -- a nice place to live, but if there are problems, or you just fancy a change, you’ll happily swap it for a new one.

In many ways, members of the global professional class have started to identify more with each other than they have with the fellow residents of their own countries. Witness the emotional meltdown many American journalists have been having over Brexit.  [….]  …[T]he dominant tone framed [by journalists about Brexit was] as a blow against the enlightened “us” and the beautiful world we are building, struck by a plague of morlocks who had crawled out of their hellish subterranean world to attack our impending utopia.

Whether Brexit will in fact lead to economic damage for Britain (or for anyone else) in the intermediate to long term is of course entirely speculative, and it seems that one could make a high-level argument that it could be of lasting benefit.  Brexit offers to me a sliver of hope for a reversal, through a spreading true-reformist counter-revolution, of the heretofore seemingly inexorable economic and cultural decline of Europe specifically and the West generally.  In the West, the cultural gulf between the elites and the hoi polloi they seek to control seems greater now than it has been in generations, if not centuries.  And of course as well, the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, bien-pensant transnational-minded elites will try to reverse the effects of this vote – after all, the morlocks cannot have their way.

R. Balsamo

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hemingway’s Collected Letters

Ernest Hemingway wrote a great many letters in his lifetime.  They were usually very informal, often full of strong enthusiasms, coarse language, and unbridled emotion.  They were not written as works of literature, or anything close to that.  They were spontaneous and of the moment.  They reveal a great deal about the man, less about the writer.

Hemingway’s letters are scattered all over the world, some in libraries and some in private hands.  After Hemingway’s death, Carlos Baker sifted through what was then available to him and in 1969 published a collection of letters he thought were the best.  But they were just a small fraction of the entire corpus.  Now, a group of scholars is in the process of publishing a multi-volume collection of every known Hemingway letter in existence, fulsomely annotated and carefully documented – The Letters of Ernest Hemingway.  The first volume was published in 2011 and three volumes of an anticipated twelve have been published so far, in beautifully-bound editions by Cambridge University Press.  The letters are being published in chronological order, and the editors supplement them with copious introductions, notes, chronologies, glossaries, maps, and indexes.      

Bruce Bawer reviewed (link) the first three volumes in the February, 2016, issue of The New Criterion, a terrific journal of criticism and commentary to which I subscribe.  He is not very enamored with the letters he has read thus far.  Bawer finds them for the most part uninteresting, often casually written, and not indicative of the great writer’s literary talent.  Bawer sees in the letters a very human, flawed man  – he sees the man behind the curtain and doesn’t like what he finds.

Having now read many Hemingway biographies, most of the letters in the Baker collection, and all the letters in the first two volumes in this new collection, my view is different from Bawer’s.  Although Bawer’s points are well taken, and valid to a point, I find Hemingway the man fascinating, and his letters flesh out that man more than any other source.     

In his letters we see how Hemingway approached his life and his writing.  He may have been economical with words in his serious writing, but he was garrulous in his letters.  We see how his relationships with family and friends (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Archibald MacLeish) grew, blossomed, and deteriorated.   We see his need to be surrounded by friends, with himself as the center of attention, in his frequent urgings to friends to come and stay with him to fish and hunt and travel.  The letters are often emotional, frequently gossipy, and occasionally petty.  There’s bluster, and passion, and anger.  He was very numeric – we see a man continually aware of his finances and his productivity (page counts of works in progress are frequently conveyed to friends and editors), a man who kept detailed logs of fish caught and animals shot, of miles driven and expenses incurred.  He could be very kind and considerate, or a total jerk, and he was definitely not a family man, mostly neglecting his three sons, four wives, and others in his orbit.  We see a man whose friends and family and women are cast off one-by-one along the way, and wonder why.  Hemingway was funny and inquisitive, and very competitive, always exploring, thinking, pushing limits.  He was a man full of vim and enthusiasm, who could not stay in one place (or with the same people) for very long.   

The plan for the series is to publish only letters from Hemingway himself, and not those of his correspondents, providing explanatory notes to help with context.  About 85% of the letters have never been published before, and a great deal of effort seems to have gone into tracking them down all over the world.  At the time of the first volume, letters had been collected from almost 250 sources, not only libraries and similar institutions but from over 175 dealers, private collectors, and individual Hemingway correspondents.  Hemingway himself had saved some material – early drafts and some copies, whole or in part.  He seems never to have thrown out even a scrap of paper with writing on it, perhaps learning the value of saving material from his mother, who meticulously kept detailed scrapbooks on each of her children, filling six large volumes on her son Earnest’s activities through his involvement in the First World War.  Hemingway, by the way, saved a great many lists, from shopping items to camping trip needs, and, like his father, organized himself through them.

Hemingway’s letters in a very real sense constitute his autobiography, however unintended.  He took life his way with passion and vigor, and though the picture is not always pretty, there’s much to be taken away in his letters by those of us more inclined to quiet reading and quiet times.


R Balsamo

Friday, May 20, 2016

Nobody Talks To a Horse Of Course

Alan Young, Wil...burrrrrrrr to his fans, has passed away at age 96.

From memory, after all these years (maybe we should put the stuff we really want to remember to music, in rhyme):


A horse is a horse of course of course
And nobody talks to a horse of course
Unless of course that talking horse
Is the famous Mr. Ed

Go right to the source and ask the horse
He'll give you an answer that you'll endorse
He's always on a steady course
Talk to Mr. Ed 

I've carried this jingle around in my head almost my entire life, through countless courses and exams on a myriad of topics.  And it never got lost in the shuffle; exactly how and why I do not know.

A funny show then through the eyes of a kid, and a funny show still today.  Comedy is hard, but they got it right.

R Balsamo

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Illinois State Workers, the Highest Paid in America. And the Happiest? – Not

So today I drove over to the state Dept of Motor Vehicles to get a new license plate sticker for my car.  My current sticker was expired – two months ago, which I noticed just the other day.  In the past, the Illinois Secretary of State sent out reminder post cards about the need to renew one’s 12-month plate sticker.  But due to a budget crisis in Illinois, as I now have learned, the Secretary of State is no longer does that.  One more thing to keep track of. 

Quite coincidentally, just this morning I read a brief report from the Illinois Policy Institute, a good-government watchdog organization.  Here’s a part of that message:

For years, Illinois taxpayers haven't been represented at the bargaining table between Illinois' largest government union and the state.  Illinois' former governors cared more about appeasing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees than protecting the taxpayers the governors were supposed to represent.  That's how AFSCME workers have become some the highest-compensated state workers in the nation.
    
AFSCME wants to remove the governor from contract negotiations because union officials know [Gov.] Rauner will not agree to [their] outrageous demands.  Union leaders are demanding $3 billion in additional salary and benefits for union members in a new contract.  They're seeking four-year raises ranging from 11.5 to 29 percent, overtime after 37.5 hours of work per week, five weeks of vacation and enhanced health care coverage.  Those additional demands would come on top of the costly benefits that AFSCME workers already receive.

Here are four facts about [Illinois] state-worker compensation the union doesn’t want taxpayers to know:

1. Illinois state workers are the highest-paid state workers in the country [when compensation is adjusted for the cost of living]
2. AFSCME workers receive Cadillac health care benefits
3. Most state workers receive free retiree health insurance
4. Career state retirees on average receive $1.6 million in pension benefits. [O]ver half of state workers end up retiring in their 50s.

State of Illinois workers should be the happiest on earth.  Every Illinois state government facility should be filled with beaming, cheerful workers that would put Disney World, the erstwhile “Happiest Place on Earth,” to shame.  But for some reason, when at the Illinois DMV today it was clear I wasn’t at Disney World.

By the way, the State of Illinois is functionally bankrupt, as are the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public School System, all long-controlled by Democrats and all of which are kept afloat through financial chicanery and legerdemain.  But, as the saying goes, they have all finally run out of other people’s money, and the slight-of-hand isn’t working any longer.  But don’t try to tell that to the Democrat government worker unions.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

At the Jesuit Church in Palermo One Day

The Jesuit Church in Palermo, Sicily
When in Sicily last month we sought out the Jesuit church in Palermo, the Chiesa del Gesu.  We discovered a magnificent space, filled with figures and patterns of stunning craftsmanship carved in white marble.  It is perhaps the most ornately decorated church I have ever seen. 

Inside a wedding was taking place.  From the back we could see the ceremony way up front in the distance.  There was movement and talking.  The priest spoke, in Italian of course.  Then a woman rose and began singing, in a clear, strong voice.  The melody jarred me for a moment, as I recognized it as the hauntingly beautiful wordless vocals used as a leitmotif for the character Jill, the prostitute yearning for a better life, in Sergio Leone's masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (long one of my favorites).  The composer was the great Ennio Morricone.

The melody is first heard as Jill arrives in a very unfamiliar place to attend her wedding reception and start a new life.  As beautiful as the music is, it is sad and melancholic, the most penetrating Morricone melody I have heard.  There's a wistfulness as well, all befitting the emotional state of the character Jill, played by the Sicilian actress Claudia Cardinale.   The film is a story of vengeful justice and the banality of evil, all played out in a most violent way in the old American West.  And Jill is caught in the middle of it all.  But she is a remarkably strong and resilient woman amidst great tragedies and dangers.  

So there it was, in a remarkable church on a sunny April afternoon in ancient Palermo, Jill's Theme, sung strong and clear echoing though the ornate, very Italian space.  A curious choice, perhaps, but certainly a perceptive and assertive one ... befitting no doubt a strong woman, like Jill, arriving to start a new married life.

R Balsamo

Here is a montage of scenes with Claudia Cardinale from Once Upon a Time in the West, with voice-over vocals of Jill's Theme by Patricia Janeckova.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Democrat’s War on Cheap-Energy Coal Claims Another Scalp

It is now apparent that many of Obama’s promises were lies he never intended to keep, or didn’t care if he would keep.  Most have come with an expiration date, as Glenn Reynolds quips.  Consider, for example, “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.  Period;” or “One of the first things I’ll do as president is close the Guantanamo detention camp for terrorists;” or, “my administration will be the most transparent in history.”  But here’s one promise he’s keeping that I wish he wasn’t – putting the American coal companies out of business.

Obama’s plan to destroy the coal companies took a step forward yesterday when the largest American coal producer, Peabody Energy, filed for reorganization bankruptcy.  It’s just the latest coal company to do so.    

The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal.  True, some coal is relatively more polluting than natural gas or oil, but when burned with emission pollution scrubbers, already commonplace, the pollution is almost entirely eliminated.  So why the hate on coal from Obama and the Democrats?  It’s because it represents the cheapest source of energy for Americans.  The world-wide condemnation of coal is a tactic by global authoritarian elites, operating under the ruse of socialistic benevolence, to redistribute wealth from the Unites States to the Third World by making American energy more expensive.  But what people everywhere need, especially those in underdeveloped countries, is cheaper energy, and coal, burned with pollution scrubbers, can provide lots of that.   

Meanwhile, as they also harass the frackers who are making America oil-independent, Obama and the Democrats have poured taxpayer money into “green” energy companies, often run by connected, big Obama money-men and other Democrat cronies; some of those outfits, like Solyndra, have turned out to be over-hyped scams for profit.  And remember that not too long ago Al Gore, on the surface the anti-fossil-fuel crusader, sold his never-profitable, short-lived small cable TV operation for hundreds of millions to Saudi oil interests; the Saudis ran it a while as a show, then recently closed it down.  Well, who has a greater interest than the Saudis (and other Third-World oil producers like Obama’s socialist pals in Venezuela) in seeing the use of cheap coal in the US shut down?  As wise men and women know, whether looking at Al Gore or the Clinton Foundation, which rakes in scores of millions from dark-moneyed interests around the world – just follow the money. 

It’s all one big ruse, and a lot of rubes are still fooled.  

R Balsamo

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Decline and Fall of Us – Dispatch from Peggy Noonan

Ms. Noonan has gotten lots of things wrong in recent years, particularly her infamous support for Obama in 2008 after she became infatuated by the mirage of a man she had concocted of her own fantasies.  Recently she sobered up to write the following trenchant piece pointing out that modern intolerant progressives have pushed regular Americans to their limit, and have no idea of what the reaction might be:

There is something increasingly unappeasable in the left.  This is something conservatives and others have come to fear, that progressives now accept no limits.  We can’t just have court-ordered legalized abortion across the land, we have to have it up to the point of birth, and taxpayers have to pay for it.  It’s not enough to win same-sex marriage, you’ve got to personally approve of it and if you publicly resist you’ll be ruined.  It’s not enough that we have publicly funded contraceptives, the nuns have to provide them.  This unappeasable spirit always turns to the courts to have its way.

If progressives were wise they would step back, accept their victories, take a breath and turn to the idea of solidifying gains, of heroic patience, of being peaceable.  Don’t make them bake the cake. ... Leave the nuns alone.

Progressives have no idea how fragile it all is.  That’s why they feel free to be unappeasable.  They don’t know what they’re grinding down.   They think America has endless give.  But America is composed of humans, and they do not have endless give.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Decline and Fall of Us – Dispatches from the Front Lines

Laugh or cry – or both?  At Indiana University, some students freak out when they mistake a Dominican priest in his white robes and long rosary for a KKK Klansman with a whip.  They don’t know what a priest and a rosary look like – ignorant enough of culture, religion, and history to be supporters of socialist Bernie Sanders.  The Dominican priest serves at the on-campus St. Paul Catholic Center, IU’s Catholic Church and student center.


There's no money in toilets.  Online payment-processor PayPal is cancelling a planned expansion in North Carolina because that state has a new law that basically says a person must use the toilet and shower room that corresponds to his or her genitalia, to prevent exposed adult males mixing with young girls, teens, and adult women who might not fully appreciate such a display.  Paypal standing up for the rights of transvestites to bare their genitals to members of the opposite sex!  Otherwise, discrimination!  Meanwhile, in what will be no surprise to any sentient being who's been paying attention, Paypal (like Apple [which is led by a gay man]) has centers in many countries that execute homosexuals (see link).  To sum up:  According to Paypal executing homosexuals is OK, but males have a right to be naked in girls’ locker rooms.  

Learning from the masters.  The California Attorney General is a supporter of and donator to Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States.  She has now sent "investigators" to raid and harass a film maker who recently helped expose Planned Parenthood’s practice of selling body parts from aborted babies to biotech research firms.  As one PP staffer said to one undercover filmmaker, livers are in real demand and will cost extra.  The AG has learned from the master, when Obama sent the FBI to arrest a Coptic Christian film maker who had made a short video critical of Islam on some pretense so he and Hillary had someone to blame for the muslim terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.    

Woman or man – what's the diff, really? (see above.)  Liberal Time Magazine, thinking it can fool the hoi polloi into thinking it’s an intelligent and high-brow source, proclaims Evelyn Waugh as one of the most-read female writers among college students.  Personally, I’ve much enjoyed his Brideshead Revisited, and the great miniseries film of it that made Jeremy Irons a star.

R Balsamo

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Fighting African Elephants at the Field


On display in the Great Hall of Chicago's Field Museum since 1921.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Like Chick-fil-A Cows, Muslims Migrants in Italy Riot for Chiken

A number of mostly Muslim migrants hosted in a hotel in the northern Italian town of Chioggia [on the south end of the Venetian lagoon] ripped down the Italian flag in protest of an Easter meal of pasta in place of their usual chicken and french fries.  The menu change triggered the anger of the migrants, who then staged a protest. “No pasta, it’s a disgrace. We want our chicken and french fries,” they reportedly shouted.  Some of the migrants then grabbed hold of the Italian flag hanging in one of the common rooms and ripped it down in protest.  The police were called in and sent three patrol cars to restore the calm, finally convincing the migrants to eat their pasta. According to reports, the migrants’ anger may have been ignited by the commemoration of Easter as a holiday more than just the corresponding change of menu, since almost all of them are Muslims.

So far this year, the Italian interior ministry has documented 16,075 migrants crossing to its shores, compared to just over 10,000 during the same period in 2015....  [Since the recent effective] closing [of] the so-called “Balkan route” north from Greece into Europe ... traffickers have been scrambling to devise new routes to bring prospective migrants into the continent, primarily through Italy....  [As] borders have been closed along migrant routes, Italy may be now forced to hold on to the majority of people landing on its shores.....  Italy has struggled to expand its capacity to receive and process migrants. In March 2014, it was hosting 29,000 asylum seekers; by 2015 the number had increased to 67,000, and this March the number has risen to 106,000. This number is sure to increase dramatically in the next several months.

A report from Libya claims there are at least 800,000 migrants on the coast waiting for the right moment to cross the sea to Italy.

The times, they are a-changing.

R Balsamo

h/t: Ed Driscoll

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Twilight of Chicago and the Democrat Model of Government

The days of reckoning draw near for the effectively bankrupt City of Chicago, after more than 50 years of financial corruption by the ruling Democrat Party.  Two baleful news items about the city hit the wires today.

First, the Illinois Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional, under the state constitution, a plan by the desperate Chicago Democrat mayor to reduce some public employee pension payments.  The major driver of Chicago’s financial disaster is the massive annual payment required to fund the current pension plan for retired and active employees.  The mayor’s plan runs afoul of the public employees pension protection provision of the Illinois constitution, says the high court, a provision snuck in by Democrats when the state constitution was rewritten in 1970.  Now those generous pensions – far better than those in the private sector, aggrandized by various abuses such as the notorious and common practices of “pension spiking” and “double dipping,” and underfunded for years by the Democrats themselves who spent the money on other stuff for themselves – have bankrupted the city (as well as the state and many of its cities and other units of government).  To raise cash, Chicago Democrats last year enacted a massive property tax hike, and after today more such increases are likely to follow as the Democrat takers squeeze more and more cash from the producers.  But a greedy parasite that kills the host off which it lives ultimately causes its own death as well.  Chicago and Illinois Democrats have been doing that in slow motion, having learned nothing from the smoldering ruins of the Democrat Party paradise of Detroit. 

Second news item – the top headline today at the website of the now ultraliberal, Democrat-friendly Chicago Tribune:  “Chicago area sees greatest population loss of any major U.S. city, region in 2015.”  Just one more piece of evidence that Democrats have yet to realize that many tax-paying citizens and businesses can simply move away when they have had enough.   More and more workers are work-at-home and thus can live anywhere, and retirees can also pack up and leave for states with less corruption and lower taxes.  And all that is happening.        

The lesson that Democrat takers have yet to learn is that they must control their greed and corruption, since the producers, the people who work to support them in their corrupt excesses, can move away, and a city left with only Democrats trying to live off each other soon collapses. 

R Balsamo

Friday, March 18, 2016

Remembering Edward Everett Horton

Has there ever been anyone funnier in film than Edward Everett Horton?   I first met him, or met his voice that is, early on – he was the narrator of the Fractured Fairy Tales series that was a regular part of the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.  Growing older I’ve come to enjoy his every film appearance.  He excelled in playing cheerful though slightly befuddled and often exasperated characters and was a master of the delayed double-take.  Three favorites:  Holiday, Springtime in the Rockies, and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Then there are his Astaire/Rogers pictures, three of the best, in which he practically steals every scene he’s in:  The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance.  His scenes with the daffy, screwball Alice Brady in The Gay Divorcee are alone worth the price of admission, and as a bonus he has the Let's K-nock K-nees dance number with Betty Grable no less.  The Gay Divorcee, incidentally, features the then new song The Continental in a 20-minute song and dance extravaganza (here's a part); it later won the very first Academy Award for best original song, back in the good old days when such awards were merit-based.  His scenes (link; link) with Eric Blore are priceless.

Per Wikipedia, the New York Times, and other sources, Horton was born one hundred thirty years ago today in Brooklyn to parents of Scottish extraction.  Horton’s grandfather was writer Edward Everett Hale, who was a nephew of Edward Everett, the orator and statesman, and a grandnephew of Nathan Hale, the martyred spy of the American Revolution.  He attended college for a while at Oberlin, until, showing an early theatrical bent, he was “asked to leave” after climbing to the top of a building, and after gathering a crowd below, threw off a dummy the audience mistook for him.  He moved back to New York City, attended Columbia University for a time, and began his performing career in acting and singing.

He started in silent pictures in 1918, and from then on was based on the West Coast.  His first talkie was the 1931 version of The Front Page.  He was an entrepreneur as well – he would lease a theater and produce a play in which he would star; in 1932 he leased the Hollywood Playhouse for a year and put on Springtime for Henry, in which over his lifetime he would appear more than 3,000 times.  From all this he earned enough to spring for a summer home on Lake George in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.

After finding success in Hollywood, he bought 23 acres of land in the Encino section of Los Angeles and established a compound of houses where he, his mother, his sister, and his brother lived with their families.  He was an avid antique collector, acquiring a valuable collection over the years.  Horton died in Encino in 1970 at the age of 84 and is buried in Forest Lawn, the cemetery of the stars.  His work, fortunately for us, lives on.

R Balsamo

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Organized Mob Action Disrupts Trump in Chicago; Cruz Goes Off the Rails

Yesterday evening, an organized mob action disrupted, with some minor violence, a planned rally in Chicago for leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.  The disruption was promoted via social media.  It is politely being called a “protest” by its defenders, but it was nothing of the sort.  Many Trump haters were inside the building and began their disruption there; they were not just peacefully protesting outside.  People have a right to peaceful protest, but not a right to disrupt and prevent others from speaking.  This was massive criminal behavior that the Chicago police seemingly did little to stop.  Watching this on TV one could see among the protesters sombreros, “Muslims Against Trump” t-shirts, Mexican flags, and Bernie Sanders posters, among other things.    

Trump haters say this was democracy in action, and that Trump brought this on himself by his condoning of violence against his opponents.  But that is a lie.  Rightly or wrongly, he has only condoned violence, on a few occasions with off-hand remarks in the heat of the moment, against violent disrupters at his rallies who are assaulting and attacking his supporters.  That is self-defense.  He has not suggested or encouraged his supporters to roam the streets causing trouble for others.  Trump holds rallies, and the anti-Trump mob comes to him, to prevent him from speaking and to assault his supporters.  These neo-fascists are attacking him, not vice versa.  Conservatives and Republicans do not do that to their opponents, they have not disrupted Clinton and Sanders rallies, and they are tired of others doing it to them.  Disruption, intimidation, assault, and battery are tactics increasingly used by neo-fascist leftist groups such as Code Pink, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter.  Of course, they are only following the guidance of Barack Obama, who famously urged his supporters to "get in the faces" of their opponents and "punch back twice as hard."  But most Americans I suspect have had enough of this.   

To blame Trump and his supporters for defending themselves inside their own rallies against violent agitators who come to disrupt their events is too much.  But that is the liberal smear right now.  Even worse, I am very, very disappointed to see that Ted Cruz has joined in that very smear, desperately seeking to score cheap political points by siding with those who hate free speech and who seek to silence their political opponents. 

This anti-democratic mob action to deprive the leading Republican presidential contender of his right to speak to his own supporters at his own rallies will likely only help Trump in public opinion and hurt the anti-democratic liberal fascists.  I have not been a Trump supporter, but after years if not decades of failed Republican Party leadership I very much understand his appeal on some specific positions as well on his apparent willingness to politically fight hard for his convictions.  

And all this should hurt Ted Cruz as well, whom I have supported for president, who should know better than to side with the neo-fascist mob.  Who will stand up with him when the mob next comes for him?    

R Balsamo               

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Weak Horse Romney Attacks Strong Horse Trump

Today Republican Mitt Romney made a big speech denouncing his party’s leading presidential candidate Donald Trump as a “phony and a fraud.”  Of all people to deliver that message!  Mitt Romney had his chance but showed the very weakness before vicious smears and attacks that Trump, to the delight of many long-suffering Republican voters, repudiates.  If Romney were nearly this forceful against Obama four years ago he would be president.  As bin Laden once said, when people see a strong horse and a weak horse they are naturally drawn to the former.  And nothing is more revolting than Republicans like Romney, who, like the presidential nominee before him John McCain, are forceful only when attacking other Republicans while they cower before Democrats.   

After seeing the Trump phenomenon these last six months, about strength and confidence and attitude as much as anything else, how can Republican leaders be so clueless as to think Romney, of all people, is the one to take down Trump?  Romney, the guy who let Democrat operative Candy Crowley, masquerading as a TV journalist, push him around when she jumped into a debate to defend Obama (with misinformation to boot).  Romney let it happen, but Trump never would have.  Moreover, Crowley never would have tried that with Trump because she would have known that Trump would rip her apart.  Weakness, as they say, is a provocation.

If Republican leaders are really serious about stopping Trump, they would induce Rubio to drop out and coalesce behind Cruz.  Rubio’s betrayal on amnesty and illegal immigration still infuriates a large segment of Republican base and caps his upside.  Moreover, he seems too young, too unseasoned, and doesn’t have the intellectual heft that Cruz has – he showed he can be rolled by fast-talking Democrats like Chuck Schumer.  I’m for Cruz.  I know he isn’t a perfect candidate – way too much of that Southern Baptist preacher shtick for one thing.  Yes, Republican leaders hate him because he doesn’t play their go along – get along insider Washington game, but nevertheless their choice is Cruz or Trump if they want a shot to win in November, or rig the convention against Trump and destroy the party.

R Balsamo