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September 18
 
What happened to anti-war liberalism? If sides to a conflict can't be drawn with a crayon, Americans don't buy being involved in it. I count this errant Syrian bombing as the third errant bombing in eight weeks. But this one was directly on the Syrian military, not even on harmless citizens.

The recent American militarization of Syria has been an absolute sustained logistics catastrophe – very redolent of Libya, and yes, before it, the endgame that never ended in Iraq. This time it's a catastrophe American media won't talk too much about as they hold their collective breath waiting to get their President away from the scene and their chosen successor elected.

Ordinary Americans, who have seen so much bewildering chaos in the mideast they can't even be expected to know what side we're actually on from day to day, now can do little as they watch errant sortie after errant sortie in a war they have contempt for unfold. This is what inevitably happens when you fight wars from 30,000 feet, controlled from Tampa. Some may even be forgiven for wondering, given all the rhetoric about the "greatest military in the world," how accidental all these accidental bombings that kill so many with friendly fire even are, what with Wolfowiz and all the old line neocons pledging fealty to the former Secretary of State, what with the former Secretary of State courting Kissinger's favor, what with the present President so checked out.

Is there anything ordinary Americans can do? The thing it's most important for ordinary Americans to do is to keep asking our elites exactly what they're gaining by spending our money and putting our service personnel at seemingly perpetual risk. What have we bought for our money, our tech, our effort, our intelligence, our commitment? What have we bought, other than Iraq – Libya – the empty half of Syria?

September 11
 
2990 people died on 11 September 01. The USA subsequently led wars both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those wars killed 491,000 people – and we are still fighting them and still paying for them. Destabilizing Iraq without winning an endgame also created the possibility of the formation of ISIS. Meanwhile, we let a handful of rogue bankers at a smaller handful of under-regulated banks bring us to the financial brink, and now home ownership is at a fifty-year low. All these things are troubling enough, but after 15 years, Americans continue to fall to pieces and even crave revenge when another American disagrees with them or merely calls them a name. 9/11 is a good day on which to take stock of whether your own little bucket might be more deplorable than you think.

September 9

The story won't have much of a shelf life, but Wells Fargo did get fined $185 million yesterday, and is laying off 1% of its work force who may have been complicit in a scheme to open bogus accounts. As these suits were brought in the name of the people, I'd rather see more emphasis on the award to the consumer, and less to the government. But as your former banker who sometimes talks either too much or too little about the trade, let me put the news into some contexts for the curious.

First of all, $185 million is about three days of Wells's net income. Punishment, but not unendurable punishment.

Not even the government knows the scope of harm done to account holders, and probably doesn't feel like it wants to know, since it's getting its own fine money at a few different levels (including City and County of LA – the City of LA first brought the suit). But part of the settlement is also that the money that was churned out of customers be refunded. I would love to hear from people who get any of this kind of credit. As most of the victims were unaware their accounts were being used, and with people's record keeping being what it is, the consumer as usual figures to fall through the cracks of the settlement.

Secondly, laying off one percent of Wells is like laying off one percent of the military. The layoffs fall to lots of privates; not too many generals who hatched these stupid plans are going to be involved. If there's silver lining, the people who will be peddling resumes to B of A and Citi will find very different cultures there should they make a successful transition.

Wells since my own banking days has had a reputation for over-agressive selling of accounts to consumers. It used to be derided as "the bank that puts your money on a stagecoach and takes it to San Francisco." I actually admired a lot of Wells' online banking innovations – they were among the earliest adapters of a "lead with tech" strategy. They are especially good for people with mortgages – I mean mortgages that originated and stayed at Wells, not the mortgages Wells inherited from IndyMac and elsewhere.

But what I have said before and will say again is that the politicians who consider the big four commercial banks a soft target for fines and ready cash are not especially doing consumers favors.

My own City Attorney, Mike Feuer, brought this suit originally, and to put it kindly, he is among those who "doesn't know what he doesn't know" about banking. He loves to shakedown corporations, and we see the results in LA all over: a hit-record mindset for the economy, bigger businesses fleeing, and real unemployment perpetually at around 17%. (Even in LA County, U-6, the soft unemployment rate including those "discouraged" workers trapped in part time, hovers around a staggering 12%).

Feuer was looking for a payday, and he'll get the City about $25 million that it can use towards – well, what does a city government spend its money on? But if a bank like Wells were to get annoyed by the City of Los Angeles because of what has been brought about by Mr. Feuer, it will cost this city's economy 10 times that. Restatement of theme: As these suits were brought in the name of the people, I'd rather see more emphasis on the award to the consumer, and less to the government.

September 3




Small and simple, but seminal; the photographs featured at the Autry exhibit "Revolutionary Vision" are topline representations of five great photographers – Adams, Cunningham, Weston father and son, and Willard Van Dyke – plus one – Richard Misrach – whose own work draws from the earlier legacies. The show's full name is "Revolutionary Vision: Group f/64 and Richard Misrach Photographs." The inclusion of Misrach's work, which is actually two-thirds of the show, throws the early work a little out of balance, but everything at the Autry is always a little out of balance.

The story of Group f/64 to which the earlier heavyweights belonged for a scant two years in the early thirties is not as well documented as the individual photographers themselves. Yet all plainly shared a handful of tenets; enough to release a manifesto. "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form" is the best known statement within it. Which photographs were exhibited even remains a question likely to be ever unanswered. But the work of the photographers from this time exhibits a congruity that indeed suggests a clear understanding of what they were trying to achieve in conjunction with the use of the smallest possible aperture and the largest format cameras to yield the sharpest, purest possible images.

For the purpose of the show, I think of the five west coast greats in terms of their most obvious interests. Those interests for me are these: for Adams, photographs especially from the time of Group f/64 are most of all about identifying awe; for Edward Weston, they identify intriguing shapes; for his son Bret, they express stark contrast; for Van Dyke, they show a modern condition; for Cunningham, they are most of all documents, at times featuring figures or even flora as starkly as might Audobon in his catalog of birds.

Lots of great photographers have looked at these works and drawn much, even too much; Mapplethorpe, for instance, draws so much from Cunningham that some of their respective calla lily photos are nearly interchangeable (you'd be forgiven if you've thought that the image of the most sexualized magnolia blossom is Mapplethorpe's; it's in fact Cunningham's). But the work of Richard Misrach takes elements of Group f/64 and makes it into something recognizably new. His desertscapes remain austere but they are tone poems too; they bring in color to de-emphasize form; there is little of the crispness of image so essential to the old Group. Yet the work remains recognizably similar in spirit to the Group. The underlying commonality is "pure photography" itself; not the purity of awe in nature nor the purity of an embryonic shape of a pepper, nor the documentary purity of one's aged parent sitting absently, but the same kind of purity of purpose that all these previous images aspire to achieve.

The show is worth a look for photographers wondering what they might derive from bringing more photographic purity into their own work, or even for those wondering what pure photography might mean. Whatever it is, you feel certain you're seeing it here; if Misrach is bundled into a better known club, at least we can see how he's after something very similar, at a time more contemporary to ours.

August 26


The White House makes it official: the setting of most of Thoreau's "The Maine Woods" becomes Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It's also the setting of most of my novel "The Fugitive Trail Angel."