A Man And His Collection (Or At Least, Parts Of Two Of His Collections)

Neil Rector is an old friend who followed a different path from most of us.  Years ago, he made the decision to focus on collecting art.  It’s fair to say that he is an avid collector, and an extremely capable one as well.  Since he first dipped his toe into the world of collecting, he’s assembled six discrete collections of different types of art from different periods and places — and his collections have curators clamoring for pieces as they assemble new shows.

Two of Neil’s collections are of Soviet-era photography and Russian unofficial art, and parts of those collections — but only parts — have been assembled in a stupendous show at the Columbus Museum of Art called Red Horizon.  It’s clearly one of the best exhibitions at the CMA in years, and today Kish and I were part of a group that got to walk through the exhibition with Neil to hear his personal reflections on the pieces, which was very interesting.  The show itself is fascinating, giving the visitor a peek behind the Iron Curtain at art, and thoughts and perspectives, that were forbidden during the Soviet regime but nevertheless were realized — because the artistic impulse simply can’t be totally quashed, no matter how repressive a government might be.

I can’t begin to capture what Neil described this morning, so I can only urge you to visit this powerhouse exhibition and enjoy it. And you can also reflect on what being a savvy collector might mean.  In Neil’s case it means having that terrific hammer-and-sickle riff on a Soviet style Venus de Milo, below, hanging in your dining room, and also having yourself memorialized in that collection of portraits of Soviet and ancient Roman tyrants, above.  That’s Neil in the lower right, in his best Soviet-style guise.  He was added to the piece, he explained, because artists view collectors and patrons as tyrants, too.

Go see Red Horizon.  It’s at the CMA through September 24.

Way Down In The Hole

The issue of the World vs. North Korea continues to spin out of control.

The North Koreans insist on conducting repeated missile tests for no apparent reason, strategic or otherwise, other than to just try to get the world to pay attention to them.  The world responds by condemning North Korea’s activities and, most recently, by the UN Security Council unanimously imposing additional sanctions on that country.  North Korea tries to up the ante by issuing bizarre threats.  President Trump responds by saying that threats to the U.S. will be met with “fire and fury” — perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, recalling the lyrics about the devil in Way Down in the Hole — and now North Korea has announced that it is “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike against Guam in order to “contain” the U.S. military base there.

4057dec000000578-4509784-image-a-27_1494928848360Oh . . . and the North Koreans also say that America is considering a “preventive war” against North Korea, and warn that any attempt to do so would be met with an “all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the U.S. mainland.”

What is the world supposed to do with North Korea?  We keep expecting, or hoping, that Kim Jong Un and his cadre will react rationally to standard diplomatic practices, like being admonished by its principal apparent ally, China, or being subjected to sanctions unanimously imposed by a world body that almost never acts because its members typically disagree about just about every issue.  And secretly, no doubt, every other country wishes that the starving, deprived, long-suffering people of North Korea would rise up and overthrow the Leader with the Bad Haircut and his military minions — who are always pictured yukking it up, as if planning nuclear strikes against peaceful countries is completely hilarious fun.  But nothing happens, and the North Korean threats continue, and countries that might be the target of a rogue missile launch become increasingly jittery, and the world hopes that we can somehow avoid a stupid, utterly unnecessary military confrontation.

So, what do you do with a North Korea that is run by somebody who is evidently unbalanced, is armed with nuclear missiles, and is intent on doing whatever it takes to attract attention to itself?  How do you deal with a country that is so irrational and is apparently guided exclusively by the whim of an unpredictable, outlandish leader?  And even if you somehow avoided an armed confrontation in this particular instance, how secure would you feel knowing that the unpredictable leader remains in place, ready to escalate things at any time in the future?  We’ve asked these same questions before, but the problem keeps getting worse and worse, with no resolution in sight.

We’ve got some difficult issues to deal with in the world, but a nuclear North Korea is perhaps the most perplexing, and the most dangerous.

Uneasy Chaos

Normally, I’m of the “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session” school of thought.  Because I think the politicos typically just mess things up for the rest of us — whatever their stated or unstated intentions — I normally don’t mind if Congress is thrashing around and not really doing much of anything.

But when the White House seems to be the scene of constant chaos, it’s a different story.  In our modern government, so much power and decision-making has devolved upon the Presidency, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, that the perception of competency, stability, reasoned judgment, and careful analysis in the Oval Office and the West Wing is essential.  In short, we want our allies and our enemies alike to believe that the President and his Administration know what they are doing and have developed and are pursuing a coherent policy, and that those allies and enemies should toe the line with that policy or there will be consequences.

161203153317-john-kelly-donald-trump-super-teaseThat’s why the apparently unending disorder in the Trump White House is disturbing.  We’re not even a year into President Trump’s first year in office, and we’ve already seen the departure of his chief of staff and press secretary and now the firing of a communications director who hadn’t even been on the job for two weeks.  I’m not arguing that Anthony Scaramucci shouldn’t have been fired — in reality, he seemed to be so completely ill-suited to serve in that position that you wonder how he was hired in the first place.  But with the constant uproar, the unnecessary and off-message tweets from the President himself, the many personnel changes, the flood of disabling leaks, and the evident turmoil between and among the President’s most senior advisers, you really wonder whether the important things are getting done — and, more fundamentally, what kind of message is being sent about the United States to the world at large.  Does it embolden North Korea and other rogue nation-states to engage in even more adventurous behavior if they think the White House is the scene of bedlam?

So President Trump has turned to a new chief of staff, retired general and former homeland security chief John Kelly, to try to restore some order in the White House, and Kelly’s first act apparently was to show Scaramucci the door.  Now he’ll try to establish some order, stop the constant barrage of leaks, ensure consistent messaging, and maybe, just maybe, rein in some of the counterproductive tweeting activity by POTUS, too.

It’s a big job, but you don’t get to be a general in the U.S. Marine Corps without having some significant leadership and managerial skills, so maybe Kelly will be up to the task — if he can stay in the position long enough to actually have an impact.  I’m no fan of Trump or his Administration, but for the good of the country let’s hope Kelly can make a difference.  The current state of apparent chaos needs to end.

Failing The Toothpaste Test

If you haven’t paid much attention to the disaster that is slowly unfolding in Venezuela, here’s an indicator:  the economic disruption and hyperinflation is so bad that people can’t even afford to use toothpaste to brush their teeth at night, because a single tube of toothpaste costs half a week’s wages.

empty-toothpaste-tubeIt’s a classic example of the failure of a government-controlled economy.  Venezuela has a socialist government, but it’s a bastardized version that has a lot of Latin American “strong man” elements thrown in, too.  Dating from the days of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s government has so interfered with normal economic functioning that the country can’t even take advantage of having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.  Chavez expropriated industries, used oil revenues to pay for many social welfare benefits, and discouraged private enterprise.  After years of such mismanagement, Venezuela faces chronic shortages of food, medicine, and electricity, skyrocketing crime, and mounting social disorder — to say nothing of hyperinflation, now running at about 700 percent annually, that cuts into the buying power of workers’ wages and makes even a single tube of toothpaste a luxury item to be used sparingly.

The Washington Post story about the toothpaste tells the tale of Venezuela’s downward spiral from the standpoint of the working people of the country, and it is a sad tale, indeed.  The average worker’s income is about $33 a month — which is less than a quarter of the average wage in Haiti, which is one of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere.  People have to stand in line for hours to buy staples like pasta, rice, and flour, and the products they purchase are of poor quality — such as broken-grain rice that normally would be used as chicken feed.  Since 2014, the portion of people living in poverty has increased from 48 percent to 82 percent.  People are down to eating two poor meals a day, and many are starving.

The government’s only response is to dictate increases in the minimum wage, which was just raised for this third this year, this time by 20 percent, to 250,000 “strong bolivars.”  (When you have to name your currency “strong,” it tells you something about how the value of that currency is perceived, doesn’t it?)  Of course, the constant increases do nothing to address, and instead only promote, the hyperinflation that is ravaging the country.

We should all think about Venezuela the next time some politician starts talking about how well off we all would be if the government just took a firmer hand in managing the economy.

The Handshake Analyzed ‘Round The World

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met yesterday at the G-20 summit.  Presumably they had something important to discuss — but you wouldn’t know it from the press coverage.

gettyimages_810247620-0No, newspapers around the world were more interested in the Trump-Putin handshake, and more specifically which of these leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries got the better of the other during the handshake.  The New York Post even consulted a body language expert who concluded that Trump “won on points” because he used the palm-up approach, which apparently is some kind of domineering power-play technique that allows the handshake to proceed to a vise-like grip.  From the breathless analysis, you’d expect that President Trump carefully considered, but ultimately didn’t use, the “knuckle-roll” approach to really let ol’ Vlad know who was boss.

The reporting on this brief incident make it seem as though these two leaders were behaving very consciously during every instant of the handshake encounter.  Perhaps that is so at the international leader level, but for most people a handshake is a pretty unconscious event.  You meet someone, you reflexively stick out your hand — a tradition that apparently stems from ancient times, where the open hand indicated you weren’t holding a weapon — and give the other person’s paw a basic shake.  It’s only a noteworthy incident if the other person’s hand is weirdly damp, or their handshake is incredibly limp, or they try the bone-crusher approach.  Absent something like that, the handshake moment passes by in a flash without a thought and you get into the substance.

In our modern media, though, substance just isn’t as interesting as trying to read “body language” and speculating about what each twitch and eye movement meant and being distracted about meaningless minutiae.  Next thing you know, the media will be asking Putin what he thought about President Trump’s hand size.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin actually focused on something more meaningful.

The Demise Of The Internal Combustion Engine Is (Probably) Greatly Exaggerated

Volvo has announced that it plans to phase out production of automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine.  After 2019, all Volvo car models will be either fully electric or hybrids, and the company has set a goal of selling one million electric or hybrid cars by 2025.

This week, too, Tesla begins production of its electric-powered family car.  And, as the article linked above notes, all of the major car companies are looking ahead to the point where people are routinely buying electric vehicles, and to the “tipping point” at which some electric vehicles are actually cheaper than their conventionally powered competitors.

cq5dam-web-768-768Are we witnessing the end of the internal combustion engine — the hardy invention that, in some form or another, has powered personal transportation in America, and the world, for more than 100 years?

Not so fast!

There’s no doubt that electric cars, and especially hybrids, are gaining in popularity, but I think we’re still a long way off from the day when quietly purring electric vehicles dominate American streets.  For one thing, we don’t seem to have the infrastructure to support substantial use of electric cars, especially for long-distance trips — I haven’t noticed charging stations opening up on busy intersections to compete with those ever-present gas stations, at least not yet — and as the article notes, electric cars remain an expensive proposition.  And there’s also the fact that a substantial sliver of the American population, typically male, really likes the power and sound and thrumming feel of cars powered by internal combustion engines.  “Performance” cars seem to be extremely popular these days, as do grossly oversized and overpowered pickup trucks, and we’re still getting the annual stories about how cheap, or how expensive, gasoline is on the Fourth of July.  Those reports suggest that while we definitely seem to be inching toward a world of more electric-powered vehicles, we shouldn’t be shoveling dirt on the internal combustion engine just yet.

Not Third World

I disagree with Donald Trump about pretty much everything, but I think he’s right about one thing, at least:  many American airports are pretty crappy.  Describing them as “Third World” in quality may be unfairly insulting to our friends in the Third World.

You realize this when you leave the States.  Consider the Calgary airport, for example.  The E concourse looks newly built, and is spotlessly clean and spacious.  Compare it to, say, some of the cramped, beat-up, and overcrowded terminals at, say, LaGuardia, and you get the President’s point.  It’s sn embarrassing comparison.  We should be able to match our neighbors to the north in the airport department.