Friendship, Character, and Jon Polito

Jon PolitoOn this day in 1800, Charles Goodyear was born. He was an inventor of processes for the manufacture of rubber—especially vulcanize rubber. What I think is most interesting about him is the fact that the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was named after him. But the company was founded by another inventor Frank Seiberling. And he did it almost 40 years after Goodyear died.

The great Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was born in 1896. I love his work. But he was a Stalinist who was actually part of a plot of assassinate Leon Trotsky. That does kind of spoil things a bit for me. I’m not a great admire of Trotsky, but he at least maintained many of the ideals of the Russian Revolution. Mary Tyler MooreStalin was nothing but a ruthless dictator. Nothing but the Russian Hitler. And a man responsible for many millions of deaths of his own countrymen. I understand that people on the outside didn’t have all the facts, but I think it is was clear by the early 1920s that Stalin was a bad guy. Siqueiros’ support of him in 1940 does not speak well of him.

The actor Mary Tyler Moore is 77 today. She is best known for the television shows The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran for five seasons, and then The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran for seven. I loved both of those shows, but it was mostly just because they were both so well written. I rather prefer Moore in serious roles. She was amazing in Ordinary People, and even more in The Gin Game. She added a level of fear to the part that was totally absent from Jessica Tandy’s performance of it. I can’t find a clip of that, so here she is in Ordinary People:

The actor Jude Law is 41. By the standards of British actors, I would have to say that Law is not very good. Passable, but that’s about it. The reason I bring him up is that Wikipedia lists him as, “actor, film producer and director.” This is standard practice for Wikipedia and I think it is wrong. Law’s directing credits consist of the “Bird in the Hand, A” segment of Tube Tales. So he directed one-ninth of an 84 minute film. As for producing, he was one of seven who produced the horrible remake of Sleuth and one of ten who produced Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Note that he starred in both the films he “produced,” so the extent of his producing was probably just that his acting contract required that he be given producing credit. Look, I understand. There are actors who really are writers of enough merit to be listed in Wikipedia. For example, Kirk Douglas. But Jude Law is an actor, and a very successful one at that. But he is not a director and he is not a producer. At least, he isn’t either of those things to the level that Wikipedia would list him for them if he weren’t a famous actor. So can we stop pretending? It turns out that Jude Law is also a rock climber. Why not mention that? “Jude Law is an actor, producer, director, and rock climber.” It would make as much sense. And it would be as insulting to professional rock climbers as it is to professional film producers and directors.

Other birthdays: mathematician Thomas Joannes Stieltjes (1856); father of libertarian environmentalism, which is interesting but wrong, Ronald Coase (1910); very interesting physicist and traitor Klaus Fuchs (1911); Bengali painter Zainul Abedin (1914); the great Australian painter Albert Tucker (1914); chicken “nugget” inventor Robert C Baker (1921); actor Ed Flanders (1934); actor Jon Voight (75); musician Rick Danko (1942); actor Ted Danson (66); screenwriter Paul Rudnick (56); actor Jennifer Ehle (44); and actor Danny McBride (37).

The day, however, belongs to Jon Polito who is 63 today. He is one of my all time favorite character actors. He is probably best known for being in various Coen Brothers films. He absolutely steals Miller’s Crossing in the part of Johnny Caspar, the psychopathic gangster with a strong sense of ethics. He is so perfect in that part, because he really doesn’t want to be a crime boss. He just wants the level of respect that is owed to him. And even though he’s the “bad guy” in the film, he’s right. If Leo acted properly, there never would have been a problem with Caspar. And it is sad when he meets his end.

I first saw him in the role of Willy’s boss Howard in the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman. And he’s great. But I would so love to see Polito play the part of Willy Loman. It’s almost like he was born to play it. He would kill the role. The thing is that the role is all subtext—what isn’t said. And Polito is the king of that. Unfortunately, great actors like Jon Polito are generally relegated to supporting cast. And so he’ll likely never get the chance to play the really great roles like Willy Loman or Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men. But as a result, he probably has a better life. He is famous enough for it to be flattering but not so much it is annoying. And he works all the time doing a lot of different stuff. But as a viewer, I miss out. Still, it is a great pleasure to watch him work, regardless of what he does.

Happy birthday Jon Polito!

Otters Beat All Attackers Except Humans

Smooth-Coated OtterLast week, I was watching the great television series Planet Earth, which is the only nature documentary series that I own. As far as I’m concerned, it is the best nature documentary yet made, and I think the producers knew that when they were making it. For one thing, they paid one nature photographer for three years to get footage of the extremely rare snow leopard. And that’s just one example. A lot of money was spent on the series and got amazing video of things like a rare lion attack on an elephant, and an out-of-water great white shark attack on a seal, and a desperate polar bear attack on a walrus that left the bear mortally wounded.

What’s perhaps most amazing about the whole Planet Earth series is that the viewer doesn’t get the idea that it is good versus evil. I often found myself feeling bad for the predators as much as for the prey. For example, that polar bear only attacks the walrus because it is starving and desperate. The more you watch animals, the clearer it is just how smart they are. The bear is making a rational choice. It knows that it has little hope of success, but it has no better hand to play. And it is a tragedy, because not only does the bear die, it is very possible that the walrus’ wounds are such that it too dies.

Since I was a kid, I have been really interested in otters. They are amazing animals. And their obvious playful habits make me think of them as self-actualizing in their own way. One thing about them, though, is that most of them are solitary creatures as adults. But that’s not true of all of them. As I learned from Planet Earth, the smooth-coated otters from southern Asia live and hunt in groups. And as such, they are effectively the top predators in their environment. In the Planet Earth episode “Fresh Water” they are shown harassing a mugger crocodile away. One is even seen biting the crocodile on its tail. One of the producers talks about how they do this kind of thing all the time. Otters are seen riding on the backs of crocodiles; the otters know what the crocodiles can and can’t do. But above all, they know they are a threat that needs to be chased away. Here is some of the sequence:

That’s a triumphant bit of video: the otters chase the crocodile away; it can hunt elsewhere. The following video is rather sad. It isn’t from Planet Earth, but from another BBC series, Nature World. When the video starts, there is a problem. A caiman is blocking the entrance to a bunch of giant otters’ den. In case you don’t know, a caiman is very much like a crocodile. The big differences are that caiman are smaller, but more aggressive. Regardless: very similar and very dangerous. Here the otter children are out in the water and the adults want to get them back into the den before the caiman eats one or more of them. So just like the smooth-coated otters with the crocodile, the giant otters try to chase the caiman away. But it isn’t going anywhere. So an attack ensues that lasts over an hour, ending with a death: of the caiman. You can’t help but feel sorry for the creature. It undoubtedly felt trapped. The following video isn’t graphic, but it certainly shows the bravery and intelligence of the otters:

Clearly, otters rule! Or at least they should.

There are 13 species of otter, although one (Japanese otter) seems to be extinct. Most of the rest of threatened to one extent or another. It’s amazing that an animal that can chase away crocodiles and even kill caimans should be endangered and even extinct. But the reasons for the threats on them are all the same: humans are destroying their habitats. My sister Kim sent me an article in The Guardian, What a Population of 7 Billion People Means for the Planet. It was published two years ago with the subtitle, “With global population expected to surpass 7 billion people this year, the staggering impact on the environment is hard to ignore.” I will have more to say about how that affects humans later on today. But the effects we are having on the other beautiful creatures we live with—the only ones we know that we share this vast universe with—are just horrible. There is more than enough room and resources for all of us: human, otter, and caiman alike. But we humans insist on acting stupidly. When otters work together, they are better. But when humans work together, too often, they behave worse than they would alone. It is so sad.

Why Libertarians Hate Fiat Money

GoldBrad DeLong brilliantly pointed out that, “Underpinning the value of the dollar is… the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the US government…” Ah! Now I think I understand why the libertarians hate “fiat money”! It’s because libertarians are generally idiots. No, really.

As I’ve noted in the past, basing currency of gold doesn’t make any sense. Gold Has Little Intrinsic Value. In that article, I discussed how gold doesn’t stop inflation. And in another article, Gold Is Not a Good Investment—At Least for 500 Years, its value doesn’t keep up with the economy. So why base your currency on gold?

Why “Fiat Money” Really Is Valuable

The one thing that the good old American greenback is good for no matter what is that you can pay your taxes with it. The truth is, that’s a great thing. We all have to pay taxes and as long as the government is fairly large, people are going to need a lot of that supposedly useless paper to pay their taxes. So the baker down the street will at very least sell you some bread for the fiat currency because he is going to need some of it to pay his taxes.

And that my friends is why libertarians don’t like it. They think taxing is theft. Interestingly, they don’t think driving on public roads that were paid for by taxes is trespassing, but then libertarians have never been known for their deep thinking skills. So because taxes are not valid, libertarians think “fiat money” is of no value. The rest of us know that we have to pay our taxes, so regardless of everything else, cash really is worth something.

Live in the Real World

Now what is that “everything else”? That’s the fact that we all agree that cash is worth something. I can go to Walmart today and buy a candy bar for 69¢, just like I could yesterday or last month. We all agree that today, cash is worth about what cash was worth yesterday. But that’s largely due to the government. The government is roughly a third of our economy. This is just like when labor unions were big. It didn’t matter then that only about 30% of the workforce were in unions, the fact that the percentage was so high helped keep wages and working conditions of people not in unions high and good. So given that one-third of the economy accepts the greenback, means that 100% of the economy accepts the greenback.

So the libertarians continue to live in their mythic land where everyone is fairies and elves and there is no government. But in the real world, “fiat money” works really great. And inflation under it has been lower and more stable than it ever was under their beloved “gold standard.” Personally, I’d love to live in the mythic libertarian land and be an elf with a fairy wife. Unfortunately, I have to pay my bills. And they are all due in real “fiat money” greenbacks.