Caught the trailer for Inside Job last the other night before Centurion (basically The Dirty Dozen in second century Britain, and as awesome as that sounds). Looks like it shares a lot with an excellent Planet Money/This American Life/ProPublica collab from earlier this year, right down to the name, which bodes well. While it seems like ‘How did this go to hell so badly?’ vein has been mined pretty heavily as of late, there’s still plenty we don’t know about the bastards who broke the global economy and how they got away with it. If director Charles Ferguson’s debut effort, the Oscar-nominated No End in Sight, is any indication, expect this one to be enlightening, compelling, and utterly devoid of hope for any sort of justice or decency to be salvaged from it’s subject.

Now that the cat is pretty well out of the bag on the ‘Wall Street is Evil’ thing, it appears that stockbrokers are just kind of running with that image. For example, this morning, the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, the Temple Mount of American finance was rung by none other than the iconic face of evil for a generation, Lord Vader himself. Because they could think of no better way to make the world of finance seem decent than by associating it with one of the greatest villains in the history of fiction. Whose history as a manager includes letting the biggest project he was ever entrusted with blow up? Twice? This is who you want people to think of when they think of American finance?

I mean, I’m all for giving props to Star Wars, but you couldn’t have called in Chewie to be the face of the franchise? There were no Alec Guiness look alikes available on such short notice? No? Okay.

Who says that money can’t buy happiness? Well, a couple of psychologists, apparently. But frankly, this would be a more meaningful conclusion if it didn’t suggest that therapy was the only true route to happiness, which is kind of like The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce releasing a study that demonstrates that gambling is the key to happiness.

Consider the source, is all I’m saying.

But realistically, it seems like the researchers involved in this study do have a point. Money, at least money for its own sake, is fairly unlikely to produce true contentment. It is, rather, simply a convenient currency for which real happiness, found most frequently in the in the form of hookers and blow, can be exchanged. Everybody knows that!

Just how shitty is the economy right now? Consumer spending is so deep in the toilet that nobody even got trampled to death at a Wal-Mart this year. Anywhere.

Further proof that we are just a beaten people, unable to strain like salivating animals against security glass, our turkey clogged hearts pounding at the thrill of deals on flat-screen TVs? Or just that major retail chains are devoted to the continuing stagnation of the american financial system, going so far as to sabotage the entire holiday shopping season with lackluster deals that drive exactly ZERO shoppers mad with the promise of savings?

Anyway, congratulations, Christmas shoppers, on not crushing one of your own beneath your avaricious, thundering hooves this year. And by extension, hating America.

The Associated Press is reporting that Wall Street banks, among a variety of other businesses throughout New York, have received shipments of the hard to find H1N1 flu vaccine. The firms got access to the vaccine because they have their own staff doctors, and plan to dole out vaccinations to those employees who most need them: the elderly, people under 24, pregnant women, and the most high risk cases of all – middle aged white dudes who took home 7 figure bonuses for fucking up their jobs in a manner that no one would have even thought possible three years ago.

Before we all shit ourselves, it’s not a ton of doses – 1,200 in all between Goldman and Citigroup – but it does seem like a waste to inoculate Wall Street bankers, as your average Wall Street employee is a sub-human reptile monster whose icy blood is already a poor breeding ground for the H1N1 flu virus.

While we’re on the topic, though, a nod must go in the direction of Morgan Stanley. The investment bank received 1,000 doses of the vaccine, but returned it to the CDC when it became clear that they had received their shipment before the local hospital. And OK, they probably only did it to avoid a PR kerfuffle and not look like the craven, dog hearted fiends at Goldman and Citigroup, who sustain themselves on the suffering of humanity. But they did it, and the bar for these guys is so low at this point, that is enough to earn kudos.

What, you ask, will be the next victim of the dreaded A/H1N1 swine flu? Why it’s the nascent US economic recovery, of course, which will have it’s young life snuffed out as the highly contagious pox applies it’s sturdy, pestilent boot to the throat of the holiday tourism and travel industries.

The theory goes that should people get infected, or just get nervous enough about getting infected, with A/H1N1 flu, that rather than fly out to Aunt Dottie’s for a plague wracked Christmas with the family, people will stay comfortably in their homes, whacked to the gills on nog and Robitussin, giggling softly at the yule log burning away on the television set.

This is a bad thing for the economy, because these legions of happy, healthy, mildly fucked up people will not be buying plane tickets or shopping at Pottery Barn or facing wracking intestinal spasms after a family meal at Old Country Buffet. And that’s BAD FOR AMERICA! It could soften GDP numbers for the all important Fourth Quarter by as much as 1%, which means that next year, instead of Christmas, we will all simply gather around trash can fires and reminisce about the times before the total collapse of the world economic system, and instead of presents, we will just ask Santa to keep us safe from the roving gangs of bikers as who stride the barren wastelands of America like horrific pagan gods.

Is that what you want, you cowardly bunch of drug addicts?

On top of tourism worries, there are concerns that productivity will suffer as employers, many of whom are already working with skeleton crews, will not be able to keep up with increased holiday demand should employees begin calling out sick, crippling American business with their shiftlessness and cough syrup induced hallucinatory shenanigans.

Which is an utterly reasonable concern, considering that I have every intention of calling in flu ridden and spending the birthday of our lord and savior zonked out of my gourd on Nyquil at a matinee of Sherlock Holmes.

Virologists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have completed a detailed study of the H1N1 swine flu virus, and the news is…well, it’s less than good.

The virus, which has demonstrated a filament shape unusual in flu viruses, has the potential to be much more severe than most researchers have thought so far. That’s because, in addition to being more apt to reproduce itself within lung tissue, the H1N1 virus has demonstrated an ability to infect cells deep within lung tissue far beyond that of a standard seasonal flu virus.

This capacity for infiltrating further into the lungs distinguishes the H1N1 virus, according to researchers, including study leader Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who stated that “There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza.” Where most flu viruses only affect the upper respiratory system, the H1N1 bug can go much deeper, bringing about pneumonia, bronchitis and possibly death.

The truly unnerving thing to note about this study, published this month in the journal Nature, is that the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs is something we’ve seen before. The trait was also expressed in the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. The fact that people born before 1918 seem to have antibodies against the H1N1 swine flu further suggests that we’re looking at a flu virus whose closest corollary wiped out significant swaths of humanity almost a century ago, when passing flu from one community to another was significantly more difficult.

In other words – this could be a bad one. And while most people seem to have stopped worrying about it, I’m staying at a Level Orange Alert (at least while we still have one) on the matter of a swine flu pandemic. Not every disease du’ jour is going to be the next big thing in global health crises (see also, SARS, bird flu, West Nile virus) but eventually, something is going to break big, and the current H1N1 strain is a pretty likely candidate for doing some real damage. Add to that the fact that a serious outbreak (deaths, high fear of contagion, etc.) during  flu season in the US this year would deliver a hammer blow to a global economy still struggling to get it’s feet, and set back progress on that front at a time we can ill afford it?

Sound like a worst case scenario? It is. But it’s not at all one that’s outside the realm of possibility right now. And I know I may sound unreasonably doom and gloom, but hey, a paranoid is just someone who has all the facts, right? I’m not saying the sky is falling, but the common consensus seems to be that this thing is no cause for concern, an I just don’t buy that line.

The study does have a silver lining, in that anti-viral drugs seemed to be an effective first line of defense against the virus. But with a working vaccine probably unavailable until the end of the year, they’re also the only line of defense at this point.

Turns out that you cannot stop swine flu, you can only hope to… uh, never mind.

World Health Organization director Margaret Chan opened a conference on the disease last week calling the novel flu virus “unstoppable.” And there’s no more official rendering of that verdict than today’s announcement that the H1N1 swine flu variant has become a pandemic, according to WHO guidelines.

The announcement made health officials in the United Kingdom seem particularly prescient when they announced just one day before that an ounce of prevention may not be worth a pound of cure in this case. On Thursday, recently appointed Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham announced that public health officials had given up on trying to contain the spread of the disease, which is spreading rapidly in Britain. With diagnosed cases doubling every day in the United Kingdom and the possibility of the nation seeing 100,000 new cases every day as soon as August, doctors are switching tack from preventing the disease to managing it’s effects and helping patients to cope.

The task of coping with the disease could prove relatively easy – while it spreads like wildfire, the strain remains a relatively mild one. With more than 90,000 cases diagnosed, only 429 deaths have been reported, with mortality occurring mostly in patients with existing health problems other than the flu. But combating the new strain will be expensive – the British government has ordered almost eight million doses of vaccine for swine flu, which should be available in just a few months, at a cost of 88 million euros. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon estimated the UN will need $1 billion to help poorer nations combat the virus worldwide.

But even in the midst of a global recession, the fact remains that money spent on health care is generally money well spent. After all, if even Europe’s finest sorcery students are susceptible to the H1N1 swine flu, what hope do us mere mortals have of avoiding the coming pig plague?

It’s come to my attention that some grad student at the University of Portsmouth has been assigned for months now to tickle a variety of apes – bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, for instance – and help determine if the noise they are making is actually a primitive form of laughter.

I put it to you that this person has a damn racket going. Even if everybody at their first job, upon being introduced to them, ends the conversation with “Oh, you’re the monkey tickler! Welcome aboard.” I’m just saying, there are a lot worse jobs to be had.

For example.

Being a pharmaceutical company, and therefore mostly evil, Pfizer could use all the good PR it can get. And it seems to have hit the jackpot with Maintain, it’s recently announced program offering free drugs to victims of the latest round of layoffs. The short version is that anyone who has been on one of the drugs on Pfizer’s list for at least three months and can prove they’ve been laid off can get a year’s supply of the drug for free, courtesy of Pfizer.

And while the newly unemployed can get drugs for conditions from high blood pressure to diabetes and even antibiotics through the program, it’s become most notable in the media for providing the recently jobless with that most important of pills – free Viagra.

Depending on what version of the story you believe, Duke Nukem Forever was the most difficult to develop game, most bizarre marketing stunt, or most intricate and expensive practical joke in recent memory.

Whatever it was, the long strange  trip that was the twelve year development cycle of  the saddest running gag in video game history came to it’s fittingly anti-climatic close today when developer 3D Realms went belly up

Though the development rights for the much maligned shooter remain in the hands of Take Two Entertainment, one wonders whether the company would be better off just washing it’s hands of the whole project, which by this point in it’s terrible unlife seems to be a sort of digital bogeyman, sustained by the lunatic ravings of warped minds. Like Dagon, it exists only because of the devotion of it’s tainted servants, who dwell in dark places, whispering ancient curses in dead tongues and waiting for their unclean master to rise.

And really, is that the sort of project you’d want to be associated with?

Following the first casualty in the United States attributed to swine flu and the first case of the disease in someone who has not travelled to Mexico in Spain, the World Health Organization today raised it’s alert level regarding swine flu to five – one short of a full blown pandemic.

What does that mean? A level five alert indicates that self sustaining outbreaks of the virus are present in two or more countries, and that a pandemic is in the offing. In my neck of the woods, swine flu seems to be regarded as a novelty at best, and a high grade irritant to friends who work in the health care sector and find themselves in the unenviable position of talking down people who travelled to Mexico for spring break a year ago and are now convinced that they are plague ships.

But while the news media continues it’s patented freakout, people on the ground seem relatively calm. Even as the situation grows more grave across the world, swine flu has become a running gag, something halfway clever to say when someone sneezes, or an excuse to call in sick to work. Every one seems to be convinced that this is not going to be the end of the world. And I mostly agree. Most cases of swine flu remain farily mild, and drugs seem to keep it under control. But the thing that gnaws at me is this – eventually, there is going to be an outbreak of flu that we can’t do much about, and in a world as interconnected as ours, it’s going to be a real bad one. That’s less a matter of if than when.

But when it does crop up, no one’s going to buy it. We were supposed to be scared of SARS, and we got scared, and nothing happened. Avian flu was supposed to wipe out humanity, and we all shook in our boots, and nothing happened. Now swine flu has reached the highest pandemic alert level ever set by the WHO, and though the media is abuzz, people on the street can barely manage a shrug. Whether it’s because we feel invincible after the last couple of high profile disease scares, or just that we’re tired of being afraid, people just seem to take for granted that there’s nothing to worry about, not really, even though every indication is that the spread of the virus is going to get worse before it gets better, with a coming level 6 alert, denoting a full fledged pandemic, practically a foregone conclusion.

I’m not saying that swine flu is definitely going to be the end of the world. But at some point, something is go to be. So, why not this?

In lighter news, the U.S. GDP  numbers came in today, and the news looks grim at first glance – the overall economy shrank by a worse than predicted 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009. 

But the numbers might not be as bad as they seem at first glance. A lack of government spending and inventory draw downs (companies selling stock on hand rather than ordering more items to put on shelves) pushed the number down artificially. More importantly, the report indicated good news for one of the bellwethers of an economic recovery – consumer spending was up a better than expected 2.2%. This perceived upswing in consumer confidence has some analysts betting on a brighter than expected second quarter, but with the savings rate continuing to rise (inexplicably) alongside consumer spending, that may be an overly rosy scenario. 

Even if this is a bottom, it may not be the bottom, as analysts are predicting that this recession will make a  W shaped recovery, with a false recovery arriving in the middle, just before another, albeit more shallow, crash. And even if this is the beginning of an actual and factual period of growth, the things that most people associate with financial well being – like steady employment – won’t recover for quite a while yet, with unemployment numbers likely to continue trending upward. But for right now, it may be best to concentrate on the good news. Celebrate a little – go buy yourself something pretty. At least until the stimulus package starts working it’s way through state legislatures in earnest, the economics of happy thoughts may be all we have to keep us warm for a while.

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