Smile Cambodia

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Siem Reap and ancient Angkor

It was March 2014 and I was lounging on a couch in an hotel named Indochine, in the small town of a Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was sipping a drink by the hotel pool after a day spent visiting ancient Angkor archeological site and, as I often do on a trip, I was reading about history of the place on internet, when suddenly the cruelty of mankind struck me, like a punch in the stomach.

Siem Reap is known to South East Asia travelers for being the closest town to Angkor, ancient capital of Khmer empire. Its streets are not paved; dry heat and wind raise dust clouds and make breathing difficult for those venturing out in the hot hours. Besides Angkor Wat, the town has a charme of its own and among its landmarks, I noted the French market, with its typical colonial layout, now lined up with tourist restaurants and the old market stalls where dried fish, colored vegetables, spices and Kampot pepper can be bought for as little as 1 USD.

Siem Reap is crossed by the river that bears the same name. The river banks host terraced restaurants where travelers and locals mingle and dine. While going for a stroll by the river banks at sunset, dim electric lights appears here and there while daylight goes down and the town finds itself floating in an uncommon darkness, reminiscing Indochine French colony times.

Ancient Angkor area is a place that forces Westerners, born and bred in culture of European cultural supremacy, to reconsider their beliefs about art, religion  and many other things.

Angkor Wat site plan

While the archeological site is often referred to with the name of the most well-known temple, it encompasses a wealth of other amazing heritage buildings.

Angkor Wat temple initial design and construction took place in the first half of the 12th century, during the reign of Khmer king Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150). Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built as the king’s state temple and capital city. Toward the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat gradually transformed from a Hindu center of worship to Buddhism.

Thanks to Naomi Leeman for her sketches above.

The outer gallery of the Angkor Wat temple measures 187 x 215 meters (614 x 705 feet). On the second level, it measures 100 x 115 meters (328 x 377 feet). The inner gallery is a 60 x 60 meter (197 x 197 feet) square area. The tower above the central shrine rises 65 meters (213 feet) above the ground. These dimensions bring Angkor Wat to top the ranking of biggest religious buildings in the world.

Despite the fact that the temple of Angkor Wat was never abandoned by the Cambodians and continued to be an important spiritual center for hundreds of years after Angkor capital city and Khmer empire collapse, a widespread belief wants that French explorer and researcher Henri Mouhot, “discovered Angkor” in 1860.

I smile thinking of Monsieur Mouhot, in 1860, “discovering” the biggest temple in the world and I like to imagine this happening in the middle of a worshipping ceremony; once again, well done the Colonial history-makers!

I leave to Alison Carter and her well-documented blog the easy task to demonstrate how the notion of “discovery” is usually associated to previously unknown things.

Like everybody else, I was in Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat.

And here comes the part that is hard to swallow, the one that I re-learned by the hotel pool in that March afternoon, thanks to modern technologies and Wikipedia that gives you access to instant knowledge about everything, everywhere. I say re-learned because, while reading, childhood memories awakened and I remembered how words “Khmer Rouge” often resonated in Italian TV news on in late seventies and sounded tragic and mysterious back then.

All facts below are quoted from “Khmer Rouge” Wikipedia page. I invite curious readers to refer to that page and learn more about historical context that lead to such sad events.

Also, movie The Missing Picture by Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities of Khmer Rouge and won the  Un Certain Regard section top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Where Khmer Rouge came from

During the 1950s, Khmer students in Paris organized their own communist movement, which had little, if any, connection to the hard-pressed party in their homeland. From their ranks came the men and women who returned home and took command of the party apparatus during the 1960s, led an effective insurgency against Lon Nol from 1968 until 1975, and established the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.

Pol Pot, who rose to the leadership of the communist movement in the 1960s, was born in 1928 (some sources say 1925) in Kampong Thum Province, northeast of Phnom Penh. He attended a technical high school in the capital and then went to Paris in 1949 to study radio electronics (other sources say he attended a school for printers and typesetters and also studied civil engineering).

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge remained largely unchanged from the 1960s to the mid-1990s. The leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities.

The Standing Committee of the Khmer Rouge’s Central Committee during its period of power consisted of:

  • Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) (died 1998), “Brother number 1”, General Secretary from 1963 until his death, effectively the leader of the movement
  • Nuon Chea (Long Bunruot), “Brother number 2”, Prime Minister, arrested in 2007, high status made him Pol Pot’s “right-hand man”, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ieng Sary (Pol Pot’s brother-in-law) (died in custody awaiting trial for genocide, March 14, 2013), “Brother number 3”, Deputy Prime Minister, arrested in 2007
  • Khieu Samphan, “Brother number 4”, President of Democratic Kampuchea, arrested in 2007, sentenced to life in prison on 7 Aug 2014
  • Ta Mok (Chhit Chhoeun) (died July 21, 2006), “Brother number 5”, Southwest Regional Secretary, final Khmer Rouge leader, died in custody awaiting trial for genocide
  • Son Sen (died 1997), “Brother number 89”, Defense Minister, Superior of Kang Kek Iew. Assassinated on Pol Pot’s orders for treason.
  • Yun Yat (died 1997)
  • Ke Pauk (died 2002), “Brother number 13”, former secretary of the Northern zone
  • Ieng Thirith, (died 2015) arrested in 2007, sister-in-law of Pol Pot, former Social Affairs Minister, deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012.

Destruction of a country

Khmer Rouge, captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 marking the beginning of their four years rule on Cambodia.

  • During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, while executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state.
  • Estimates as to how many people were killed by the regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of Cambodia population).
  • Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into “Old People” through agricultural labour.
  • In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about “two or three kilometers” outside the city and would return in “two or three days”. Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the “threat of American bombing” and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would “take care of everything” until they returned. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people.
  • The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population (“New People”) into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps. Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare; before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare.
  • Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries were seen as “private enterprise” and punished by death.
  • The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.
  • They did not believe in western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead; because of the famine, forced labour, and the lack of access to appropriate services there was a high number of human losses.
  • Commercial fishing was banned in 1976, resulting in a loss of primary food sources for millions of Cambodians, 80% of whom rely on fish as their only source of animal protein.
  • Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity
  • Schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.
  • Anyone with connections to the former Cambodian government or with foreign governments was executed.
  • Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.
  • Deaths during the Khmer Rouge era reduced the Vietnamese population in Cambodia from between 250,000 and 300,000 in 1969 to a reported 56,000 in 1984.
  • Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were not ethnic minorities but ethnic Khmer.
  • People perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses which, according to the regime, meant that they spent too much time reading books instead of working, would be killed. Ironically, Pol Pot himself was an educated man with a taste for French literature and spoke fluent French.
  • Many artists, including musicians, writers, and filmmakers were executed. Some like Ros Serey SotheaPan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth gained posthumous fame for their talents and are still popular with Khmers today.
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai, and other minorities in the Eastern Highlands were persecuted.
  • “Economic saboteurs” – many former urban dwellers were deemed guilty of sabotage due to their lack of agricultural ability.
  • Professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers, were targeted.
  • People would be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.
  • All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs.
  • The Roman Catholic cathedral of Phnom Penh was razed. The Khmer Rouge forced Muslims to eat pork, which they regard as forbidden (ḥarām). Many of those who refused were killed. Christian clergy and Muslim imams were executed.
  • Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other.
  • Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately.
  • Almost all freedom to travel was abolished.
  • Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy; instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune.
  • All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with.
  • In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.

Fall of Khmer Rouge

On April 18, 1978, Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages, mostly in the border town of Ba Chúc. Of the 3,157 civilians who had lived in Ba Chúc, only two survived the massacre. These Cambodian forces were repelled by the Vietnamese.

By December 1978, due to several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Kampuchea, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed.

On December 25, 1978, the Vietnamese armed forces, along with the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members, invaded Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979.

At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade

Despite its deposal, the Khmer Rouge retained its United Nations seat, which was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old compatriot of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary from their student days in Paris, and one of the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name “Democratic Kampuchea” until 1982, and then under the name “Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea“. Western governments voted in favor of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea retaining Cambodia’s seat in the organization over the newly installed Vietnamese-backed PRK, even though it included the Khmer Rouge. Margaret Thatcher stated: “So, you’ll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea.”

Sweden on the contrary changed its vote in the U.N. and withdrew its support for the Khmer Rouge after a large number of Swedish citizens wrote letters to their elected representatives demanding a policy change towards Pol Pot’s regime.

Across the years and until 1998, Khmer Rouge remained active, thanks to military and political support from China, U.S., Great Britain and many others.

By 1980, Eastern and central Cambodia were firmly under the control of Vietnam and its Cambodian, while the western part of the country continued to be a battlefield throughout the 1980s and millions of landmines were sown across the countryside.

Although Pol Pot relinquished the Khmer Rouge leadership to Khieu Samphan in 1985, he continued to be the driving force behind the Khmer Rouge insurgency.

In 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990 and it did so in 1989, having allowed the government that it had installed there to consolidate its rule and gain sufficient military strength.

After a decade of inconclusive conflict, the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government and the coalition of rebel forces opposing it signed a treaty in 1991 calling for elections and disarmament. In 1992, however, the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting, boycotted the election and, in the following year, rejected its results.

There was a mass defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1996, when around half of its remaining soldiers (about 4,000) left. In 1997, a bloody factional fighting among the Khmer Rouge leaders exploded, ultimately leading to Pol Pot’s trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in April 1998. Khieu Samphan surrendered in December.

On December 29, 1998, the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge apologized for the 1970s genocide. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured.

Since 1990 Cambodia has gradually recovered, demographically and economically, from the Khmer Rouge regime, although the psychological scars affect many Cambodian families and émigré communities. It is noteworthy that Cambodia has a very young population and by 2003 three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge era. Nonetheless, their generation is affected by the traumas of the past.

Members of this younger generation may know of the Khmer Rouge only through word of mouth from parents and elders. In part, this is because the government does not require that educators teach children about Khmer Rouge atrocities in the schools. However, Cambodia’s Education Ministry started to teach Khmer Rouge history in high schools beginning in 2009. China has defended its ties with the Khmer Rouge. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “The government of Democratic Kampuchea had a legal seat at the United Nations, and had established broad foreign relations with more than 70 countries”.

End of the story

This is the end of the story: in just four years of ruling, Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate one fourth of Cambodia population. They left a nation inhabited by ghosts and orphans, where men and women bringing the scars of landmines are not an uncommon sight. Still sun rises and sets everyday on the timeless beauty of ancient Angkor stones and kids play up and down those stones and have beautiful smiles on their faces.

I wish Cambodia a future that smiles as brightly as those kids. I hope men will not reach similar levels of cruelty again. I hope things like these will never ever happen again.

Continue reading “Smile Cambodia”

Viva l’Italia

Viva l’Italia

Mark Twain once wrote:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Well, not much prejudice will be left in me when, in a few years, I will reach a moment, where I will have lived longer abroad than in Italy, my home country.

Having spent a long time lately hearing languages I do not understand, eating food I would not be able to cook or struggling to absorb cultures that do not resonate in  me, a light and mellow nostalgic feeling brought me to question myself on the meaning of being an Italian far from Italy, today. Seen from Asia doesn’t Italy look like a small boot, caught in the middle of its walk between Central Europe and the doors of Africa and Middle East? And still, even from a distance, how vivid is this beautiful country in my heart, how much it permeates the way I speak, move, live my life!

So, I asked myself: “what is it like being Italian?” and the first answer that came to me, when I finished sipping my espresso was: “it is simple”. No need to overthink it. Italians are loud, lively, seductive, unreliable, full of passion and everybody will expect you to be like that. Just conform to expectations and they will be happy. They will probably go back home and tell their friends they met a real Italian and he was just like in the movies. Being Italian gives you an extra boost that can make people a bit happier and I am not sure Germans have similar stuff in their toolbox, for example.

But if you scratch the surface a little, reality is bitter-sweet and Italians know how to suffer, as well. To make it simple, our Greek cousins were stranded on our coastline long ago and found landscape and climate enjoyable. They brought with them an unequaled aesthetic taste that Romans managed to corrupt and sublimate at a slow pace, in the millenary cycle of Empire rise and fall. Armored with genius, Romans ruled the world and after the Empire slowly succombed its own contradictions, the soft spot they left in the middle of Europe teased appetite of people from everywhere, who arrived or left Italy to plunder, trade, paint, love, write, sail, plot, play music, build cathedrals, conquer. After all this simmering of arts, ambition, passions, Italian people was born uneven, attracted by good and evil in a symmetric way; our eyes relentlessly chase sin, beauty and other unreachable ideals, like in a Piero Della Francesca perspective.

“After all this simmering of arts, ambition, passions, Italian people was born uneven, attracted by good and evil in a symmetric way; our eyes relentlessly chase sin, beauty and other unreachable ideals, like in a Piero Della Francesca perspective”

The French expression “pourriture noble” could be translated in English by “noble decay” and designates a bacterium exploited in wine making to produce some of the sweetest and most delicious wines. Italy is undergoing a noble decay process for centuries now, and  cycles bring us ripe fruits such as Renaissance and more sterile periods.

“Italy is undergoing a noble decay process for centuries now, and  cycles bring us ripe fruits such as Renaissance and more sterile periods”

So, this is it: for those who want to grasp how tragic and beautiful Italian public life has been in recent past, I have put together faces and images that are an hymn to tragedy and creativity, to Italians we love and admire. To those that from time to time, still managed to awaken our weary pride and distracted us for a moment from our important occupations, like flirting or cooking spaghetti ai frutti di mare!

If I shot a movie on Italy, it would be like this

Original Soundtrack

Francesco de GregoriViva l’Italia

Starring: in order of appearance

Enzo Ferrari and Gilles Villeneuve

Gabriele Salvatores Mediterraneo, Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1991

Architect Renzo Piano

Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti‘s Il Gattopardo, from Tomasi di Lampedusa novel

Director Claudio Abbado

Sergio Leone and Robert De Niro at C’era una Volta in America screening

Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren on Otto e Mezzo shooting

Fiat 500 – Urban scene in Florence

Paolo Rossi and Enzo Bearzot at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Sprinter Pietro Mennea

Giorgio Armani, an icon of style

Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini‘s La Dolce Vita

Songwriter Fabrizio De Andre’

Years of lead

Bud Spencer and Terence Hill

Enzo Bearzot and Sandro Pertini at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Vittorio Gassman on his Vespa

Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese

Iconic Tuscany

Songwriters Giorgio Gaber and Enzo Jannacci

Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider

Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Vittorio De Sica

Legendary Vespa Piaggio scooter

Nanni Moretti on his Vespa in Rome

Writer Dino Buzzati

Writer Umberto Eco

Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile at 1982 football world cup in Spain

Vlora ship in Bari, 8th of August 1991

Milo Manara sketch

Judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both killed by the mob in 1992

Gilles Villeneuve, arguably the most spectacular F1 driver ever, and his Ferrari

Writer Italo Calvino

Songwriters Lucio Dalla and Francesco De Gregori during Banana Republic tour in 1979

Beware of the wolf (of Wall Street)

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The story

Recent investment narrative is dominated by dark stories like 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse. Names like Bernie Madoff and Jerome Kerviel sound familiar to most of us while Jordan Belfort even made it to become a modern days icon in Martin Scorsese The Wolf of Wall Street.

Newspapers headlines screaming of latest Wall Street crackdown trigger our worst fears and effectively spoon feed active fund management business. Anguished by paranoia, many are forced to believe they need a captain to steer their boat in dangerous waters of speculation and run to financial advisors, begging to be ripped off. Simple and effective mass psychology: we get scared by complexity we do not understand and surrender to panic, thinking that a professional investment salesman will “know it better”.

Then come those who believe they’re smarter then others and are seduced by stock picking game. When I came out of uni and was starting my first job, internet technologies created a bunch of individual stock pickers providing online trading platforms to the masses. How ironic is that when internet bubble which gave them the trading tools popped with the power of a Tsunami, self-made stock pickers were washed away by the waves. I was young and irrational back then and I used to say: “I invested most of my money in Rum and Coke and it always paid off”; I still believe Rum and Coke beats stock picking. If you’re tempted by the game, google “stock picking contest”: you’ll find endless stories on how sheeps, monkeys, babies and maids routinely beat celebrity stock pickers.

While paranoid and smart-ass tribes run free in modern investment prairies, wealthy fund managers, banks and salesmen of all sorts look and pile up money waiting for next bonus.

Luckily, there is a third tribe, to which all of us should aspire to belong, which sits at the opposite side of investment strategy spectrum. You all probably know Warren Buffett and his legendary quote:

“When we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever.”

I have to admit that I never heard of John Bogle until a few weeks ago, when a friend of mine dragged my attention to the subject of investment strategy and now I am totally fascinated by his personal story.

I recommend reading John Bogle biography and interview below to discover why this calm gentleman, father of 6, is the granddad we all would like to have.

In a few words, he is the founder of Vanguard Capital and one of those American self-made entrepreneurs that still consider failure an essential ingredient of success. Even more, he debunked finance industry and created the first index fund ever, inventing a model that puts  common sense in the spotlight of investment theater.

Thanks to John Bogle, we no longer need financial advisors: every you and every me can read, understand and apply his pillars to creation of a solid economic future. I stop here, have a good reading!

6 Questions interview to  John Bogle

The interview below is extracted from following URL:
http://www.aaii.com/journal/article/six-questions-with-john-bogle
Interviewer: What is the best recipe individual investors can follow to maximize their long-term wealth?

Jack Bogle (JB): Well, the best recipe for the individual investor, I think, is simple but not easy to do. But you have to do it. Save you must, is the first rule, because if you don’t save anything, you will end up at retirement with nothing. And none of you want to do that. So that’s the number one rule.

When you start to invest, make sure you’re very broadly diversified. Make sure you keep costs out of the equation. Trade the absolute minimum. Trading is ultimately a losing game, so the more turnover you have in your portfolio, the less well you’re likely to do. And keep at that.

I’ve often said, also, when you get those regular retirement plan (…) don’t open them. Don’t peek. And when you do peek—which you’re only allowed to do when you get your final retirement statement—be sure you have a cardiologist standing by. Because you will be so amazed at how much money you’ve accumulated over 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years that you won’t believe it. You’ll probably faint, or something worse, and there will be a doctor there to revive you.

You should definitely start with a base of equities. And by far the best way to own equities is to own them through either a Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund or a total U.S. stock market index fund. Hold it forever—Warren Buffet’s favorite holding period—and you will win.

Doing those things really works in the long run. You will do better than your neighbors. There’s no way around the math, because you will capture the stock market’s return less about five basis points—five one hundredths of one percent. You get almost all of it. The money goes to you, not to the managers, not to the salesmen, not to the brokers, not to anybody else, but to you. So that’s the tried and true formula and it will work. It has worked.

So, do all those things. And then, as I’ve often said, stay the course.

Interviewer: Do you think there are any advantages individual investors have over professional investors? If so, what do you think they are?

JB: Well, individual investors can chart their own course, number one. Now, that means it’s a curious way of looking at things, because professional investors are often running individual investors’ money. But that need not be; you can run your own money. But don’t do things like buy individual stocks or even individual funds, because you’re subject to a lot of risks out there.

I’ve talked a lot about the index fund, but what it does is eliminate the risk of picking individual stocks. It eliminates the risk of picking managers that fail, and it eliminates the risk of various sectors. Is growth going to do better than value, for example? With index funds, you don’t have to worry about those three principal risks of equity investing. In index investing, they’re all eliminated, so it just plain makes sense to do it that way.

Interviewer: What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen investors make? And can you give suggestions on how investors can try to avoid repeating them in the future?

JB: Let me count the ways. Let me count the ways that investors make mistakes when they invest. First, all of us go into investing like we do everything else. We think we’re above average: We’re above-average drivers, and we’re smarter than our neighbors. That’s not true. In the world of investing, we’re all average. We all divide up the stock market’s average. Some of us can do better, but for each one that does better, somebody else does worse. It’s a zero-sum game.

But it’s not a zero-sum game once the croupier, the broker, the salesman and the money manager gets into it, because their costs come out of those returns. So the stock market is a loser’s game. For all of us together, as investors, there’s no way around this so you might as well lose the absolute minimum. So keep costs down as much as you can. Keep fees down as much as you can. Keep sales loads down. Basically, I would say to eliminate them.

Keep portfolio turnover down as much as you can, because activity is the enemy of the investor. It costs money, and it’s often, because of your behavior, counterproductive. For example, we know in this industry, the mutual fund industry, that investors look at fund performance and think it’s a prologue to the future. So when a fund is hot, if you will, they pour their money into it. Then the fund cools off, because all funds revert to the market mean. Then they get out of the fund and get into another hot fund. That’s a way to guarantee that you will not have very much money by the time you retire. So that’s yet another mistake, relying on past performance, because the past is not prologue to the future.

But you should try not to react, because the stock market is a giant distraction to the business of investing. How do you solve these behavioral problems? Well, the way to solve them is not to engage in them. Don’t engage in trading. Here, again, obviously, the index fund comes into play. It’s the one fund that you don’t need to trade.

Still another mistake is listening to tips and rumors, and all those kinds of things.

Another mistake is, I think, the feeling that we need to take action in a very different way than I was just talking to you about. And that is, we react to events in the marketplace. We react to the idea that the Federal Reserve is going to do something, or China is going to do something, or Russia is going to do something. Or the Republicans and Democrats have a debate, whatever it might be.

Our promise, here at Vanguard, is that you will have the same non-manager that you have today when you retire 50 years from now. That’s what the index fund is. People are not aware of this, investors are not aware of this. But in other funds, the typical fund manager changes every eight years. Typically, half the funds in business now will probably be gone a decade from now. There’s a lot of noise in the fund business that you can’t capture.Eugene Fama and Kenneth French, the academics at the University of Chicago and Dartmouth, tell us that a money manager has a 3% chance of beating the market over 50 years. Well, if you own two managers or three managers, that 3% drops to 1% and then probably, finally, 1/10th of 1%. I hardly need to tell you that those are terrible odds. So do the simple thing: Capture the market return and, if you can, just keep that in mind.

Another rule is don’t peek. Don’t look at your statements when they come in each month: your statement from your IRA, or your 401(k), your personal retirement account. Don’t look. It’s just distracting. It will grow; just be patient. And don’t open any of those envelopes until the day you retire. When that day comes, as I said earlier, my strong recommendation is that you have a cardiologist at the house, because you are probably going to have a heart attack when you see how much money you’ve accumulated.

You won’t believe it because the miracle of compounding returns—if it’s not overwhelmed by the tyranny of compounding costs—just produces remarkable returns. Albert Einstein called compounding the greatest economic miracle of all time, or something along that vein.

Interviewer: If you could share one lesson with individual investors, what would it be?

JB: Don’t worry about the complexity of investing. This is put out as a complex business. You hear opinions all day, every day—newspaper, television, magazines, the media generally—talking about the stock market. Ignore it. Do your best to ignore the noise and just go about your own path of investing.

Because this is not a game about the markets; it’s a game about the productivity of American business—the dividend yields that you receive and the earnings growth that follows when the rest of the company’s earnings are reinvested in future opportunities. So right now stocks are fairly highly valued, I don’t think dangerously so. It may take time, if we get a revaluation in stocks, measured by a price-earnings multiple. But over time, it will take care of you. The market will take care of it, just by its internal rate of return.

Interviewer: Many AAII members are near or in retirement. Is there advice you could give them about getting their grandchildren interested in investing?

JB: Well, I’ve done it the easy way. I have 12 grandchildren. And I’m not sure I’d recommend this to anybody reading this, but what I do is put money away for them every year in a Vanguard balanced index fund: 60% total stock market and 40% total bond market. That’s very conservative, because I’m a conservative person. And I’ve been doing that for a long number of years and it’s amazing.

I’m going to have to have it tied up in some kind of trust so that they don’t get it too soon. But they will be nicely taken care of. I mean, it’ll be enough to help them buy a new house or something like that, when the time comes. Or start a business. Whatever they want to do.

I talk to them about it, just once a year. Talk about how simple it is. Talk about the principle of balance. If the stock market has a very good year, I’ll say, “You know, I would’ve been better off having all the money in an S&P 500 index fund, or a total stock market index fund.” And they don’t dwell on it. I don’t tell them the value of their accounts, by the way. Everybody has a different feeling about that.

But, essentially, the way to get children interested is to have stock-picking contests and that kind of thing. I think that’s very unhealthy, because that’s not what investing is all about. They should be thinking about compounding of returns. Show them what a compound interest table looks like. It might be a little complicated for some of them, but just show them the difference between a 5% return and a 1% return and a 7% return or 8% return over a long period of time. Their eyes will bug out, as the kids might say.

Everybody has to do this their own way. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would’ve picked a total stock market or S&P 500 index fund with no bonds. And that’s maybe what you want to do, depending on the age of your children. A lot depends on that. It’s your decision, but it’s basically an asset allocation decision and the decision to totally diversify the portfolio. Keep them posted on the returns of the portfolio (personally, I don’t reveal the actual amounts in their accounts) once a year or something like that.

Interviewer: Are there any personal achievements that you are most proud of?

JB: Well, you know, yes, there are. First of all, I’m proud of my family. I will have been married 60 years this coming September to my wonderful wife. We’re the parents of six children and the grandparents of 12 and various in-laws—grandchildren-in-law or whatever we call them—and we’re happy to see them get through life as good citizens. They’re all doing very different things. Some of them are struggling a bit; everybody has those things in the family. But the idea, I think, is to produce good citizens in this country, and I believe we’ve done that.

Of course, I’m proud of starting Vanguard. There’s a song from Miss Saigon telling about one of the orphans over in Vietnam. “Conceived in hell and born in strife,” is the way they describe it in the song. And that’s the way Vanguard started. It was a very messy start. It took a lot of determination to bring it around. I’d been fired from my previous job. I was basically at sea, disgusted, disappointed, tearful, but I knew I had to find a new way in life.

And that led to starting Vanguard. That led to two of my very best ideas, which are the two I’m certainly the most proud of. One is our structure and number two is our strategy. The Vanguard mutual structure, where we operate the funds for the benefit of shareholders and at cost, is one of the great ideas of all times. And it’s so popular in this industry that after 40 years of leadership we have no followers. Think about that one for a minute.

As to strategy, we immediately focused on the index fund. We had a lot of managed funds in those days—a number of them, maybe half a dozen. But the future was always going to be with the index fund. It was going to take a long, long, long time for the index fund to get anywhere, so we made the other funds as index-like as we could with relative predictability of their portfolios compared to their peers. They have correlations of 98% or 96% with their peer groups, so they don’t depart very much and win on cost.

Those are good ideas. Those are sound ideas. Those are ideas that conform with the relentless rules of humble arithmetic—you know, two plus two equals four. They’re very simple ideas, and they’re very inexpensive ideas, and they’re ideas that are very easy to implement. They, with the help of a few other funds in Vanguard, are basically changing the nature of the fund industry. And I’m proud of the company we have here, proud of the people that work here.

I also have two other totally different achievements that I’m also proud of, and that will end my list. That is, I helped lead the rebuilding of a school I went to, Blair Academy. It’s now one of the strongest independent schools in America. I’m also proud of helping to build the National Constitution Center down in Philadelphia, which has the lofty purpose of trying to make the average American, people like you, understand the meaning and importance of our United States Constitution.

When you get to improve the educational system, in a little way; increase awareness of our national heritage; start a good company with good values, strategies and structure; and have a good family, what else is there?

Five pillars of sound individual investment

John Bogle gave several guidelines for how individual investors can achieve long-term success. Among them are:

  • Save: This is the first rule. If money is not routinely set aside for investing, a person will end up in retirement with nothing.
  • Stay Broadly Diversified: An index fund eliminates the risks of incorrectly picking individual stocks, selecting managers and choosing sectors.
  • Keep Costs Low: Investing is not a zero-sum game with winners and losers, since the investment industry keeps a share of investors’ returns through fees and other expenses.
  • Keep Transactions to a Minimum: Doing so will help keep costs low.
  • Don’t Look at Your Statements: If you don’t open your investing account statements until retirement, you’ll be amazed at how much money you have accumulated throughout your working years.

Le Voyage

Le Voyage

À Maxime du Camp

I

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Un matin nous partons, le cerveau plein de flamme,
Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers,
Et nous allons, suivant le rythme de la lame,
Berçant notre infini sur le fini des mers:

Les uns, joyeux de fuir une patrie infâme;
D’autres, l’horreur de leurs berceaux, et quelques-uns,
Astrologues noyés dans les yeux d’une femme,
La Circé tyrannique aux dangereux parfums.

Pour n’être pas changés en bêtes, ils s’enivrent
D’espace et de lumière et de cieux embrasés;
La glace qui les mord, les soleils qui les cuivrent,
Effacent lentement la marque des baisers.

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

Ceux-là dont les désirs ont la forme des nues,
Et qui rêvent, ainsi qu’un conscrit le canon,
De vastes voluptés, changeantes, inconnues,
Et dont l’esprit humain n’a jamais su le nom!

II

Nous imitons, horreur! la toupie et la boule
Dans leur valse et leurs bonds; même dans nos sommeils
La Curiosité nous tourmente et nous roule
Comme un Ange cruel qui fouette des soleils.

Singulière fortune où le but se déplace,
Et, n’étant nulle part, peut être n’importe où!
Où l’Homme, dont jamais l’espérance n’est lasse,
Pour trouver le repos court toujours comme un fou!

Notre âme est un trois-mâts cherchant son Icarie;
Une voix retentit sur le pont: «Ouvre l’oeil!»
Une voix de la hune, ardente et folle, crie:
«Amour… gloire… bonheur!» Enfer! c’est un écueil!

Chaque îlot signalé par l’homme de vigie
Est un Eldorado promis par le Destin;
L’Imagination qui dresse son orgie
Ne trouve qu’un récif aux clartés du matin.

Ô le pauvre amoureux des pays chimériques!
Faut-il le mettre aux fers, le jeter à la mer,
Ce matelot ivrogne, inventeur d’Amériques
Dont le mirage rend le gouffre plus amer?

Tel le vieux vagabond, piétinant dans la boue,
Rêve, le nez en l’air, de brillants paradis;
Son oeil ensorcelé découvre une Capoue
Partout où la chandelle illumine un taudis.

III

Etonnants voyageurs! quelles nobles histoires
Nous lisons dans vos yeux profonds comme les mers!
Montrez-nous les écrins de vos riches mémoires,
Ces bijoux merveilleux, faits d’astres et d’éthers.

Nous voulons voyager sans vapeur et sans voile!
Faites, pour égayer l’ennui de nos prisons,
Passer sur nos esprits, tendus comme une toile,
Vos souvenirs avec leurs cadres d’horizons.

Dites, qu’avez-vous vu?

IV

«Nous avons vu des astres
Et des flots, nous avons vu des sables aussi;
Et, malgré bien des chocs et d’imprévus désastres,
Nous nous sommes souvent ennuyés, comme ici.

La gloire du soleil sur la mer violette,
La gloire des cités dans le soleil couchant,
Allumaient dans nos coeurs une ardeur inquiète
De plonger dans un ciel au reflet alléchant.

Les plus riches cités, les plus grands paysages,
Jamais ne contenaient l’attrait mystérieux
De ceux que le hasard fait avec les nuages.
Et toujours le désir nous rendait soucieux!

— La jouissance ajoute au désir de la force.
Désir, vieil arbre à qui le plaisir sert d’engrais,
Cependant que grossit et durcit ton écorce,
Tes branches veulent voir le soleil de plus près!

Grandiras-tu toujours, grand arbre plus vivace
Que le cyprès? — Pourtant nous avons, avec soin,
Cueilli quelques croquis pour votre album vorace
Frères qui trouvez beau tout ce qui vient de loin!

Nous avons salué des idoles à trompe;
Des trônes constellés de joyaux lumineux;
Des palais ouvragés dont la féerique pompe
Serait pour vos banquiers un rêve ruineux;

Des costumes qui sont pour les yeux une ivresse;
Des femmes dont les dents et les ongles sont teints,
Et des jongleurs savants que le serpent caresse.»

V

Et puis, et puis encore?

VI

«Ô cerveaux enfantins!

Pour ne pas oublier la chose capitale,
Nous avons vu partout, et sans l’avoir cherché,
Du haut jusques en bas de l’échelle fatale,
Le spectacle ennuyeux de l’immortel péché:

La femme, esclave vile, orgueilleuse et stupide,
Sans rire s’adorant et s’aimant sans dégoût;
L’homme, tyran goulu, paillard, dur et cupide,
Esclave de l’esclave et ruisseau dans l’égout;

Le bourreau qui jouit, le martyr qui sanglote;
La fête qu’assaisonne et parfume le sang;
Le poison du pouvoir énervant le despote,
Et le peuple amoureux du fouet abrutissant;

Plusieurs religions semblables à la nôtre,
Toutes escaladant le ciel; la Sainteté,
Comme en un lit de plume un délicat se vautre,
Dans les clous et le crin cherchant la volupté;

L’Humanité bavarde, ivre de son génie,
Et, folle maintenant comme elle était jadis,
Criant à Dieu, dans sa furibonde agonie:
»Ô mon semblable, mon maître, je te maudis!«

Et les moins sots, hardis amants de la Démence,
Fuyant le grand troupeau parqué par le Destin,
Et se réfugiant dans l’opium immense!
— Tel est du globe entier l’éternel bulletin.»

VII

Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!

Faut-il partir? rester? Si tu peux rester, reste;
Pars, s’il le faut. L’un court, et l’autre se tapit
Pour tromper l’ennemi vigilant et funeste,
Le Temps! Il est, hélas! des coureurs sans répit,

Comme le Juif errant et comme les apôtres,
À qui rien ne suffit, ni wagon ni vaisseau,
Pour fuir ce rétiaire infâme; il en est d’autres
Qui savent le tuer sans quitter leur berceau.

Lorsque enfin il mettra le pied sur notre échine,
Nous pourrons espérer et crier: En avant!
De même qu’autrefois nous partions pour la Chine,
Les yeux fixés au large et les cheveux au vent,

Nous nous embarquerons sur la mer des Ténèbres
Avec le coeur joyeux d’un jeune passager.
Entendez-vous ces voix charmantes et funèbres,
Qui chantent: «Par ici vous qui voulez manger

Le Lotus parfumé! c’est ici qu’on vendange
Les fruits miraculeux dont votre coeur a faim;
Venez vous enivrer de la douceur étrange
De cette après-midi qui n’a jamais de fin!»

À l’accent familier nous devinons le spectre;
Nos Pylades là-bas tendent leurs bras vers nous.
«Pour rafraîchir ton coeur nage vers ton Electre!»
Dit celle dont jadis nous baisions les genoux.

VIII

Ô Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!
Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre,
Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!

Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous réconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

— Charles Baudelaire

En Francais sur ce blog: Chere Lolita est une nouvelle librement inspirée par  par l’heroine de Vladimir Nabokov

The Voyage

To Maxime du Camp

To a child who is fond of maps and engravings
The universe is the size of his immense hunger.
Ah! how vast is the world in the light of a lamp!
In memory’s eyes how small the world is!

One morning we set out, our brains aflame,
Our hearts full of resentment and bitter desires,
And we go, following the rhythm of the wave,
Lulling our infinite on the finite of the seas:

Some, joyful at fleeing a wretched fatherland;
Others, the horror of their birthplace; a few,
Astrologers drowned in the eyes of some woman,
Some tyrannic Circe with dangerous perfumes.

Not to be changed into beasts, they get drunk
With space, with light, and with fiery skies;
The ice that bites them, the suns that bronze them,
Slowly efface the bruise of the kisses.

But the true voyagers are only those who leave
Just to be leaving; hearts light, like balloons,
They never turn aside from their fatality
And without knowing why they always say: “Let’s go!”

Those whose desires have the form of the clouds,
And who, as a raw recruit dreams of the cannon,
Dream of vast voluptuousness, changing and strange,
Whose name the human mind has never known!

II

Horror! We imitate the top and bowling ball,
Their bounding and their waltz; even in our slumber
Curiosity torments us, rolls us about,
Like a cruel Angel who lashes suns.

Singular destiny where the goal moves about,
And being nowhere can be anywhere!
Toward which Man, whose hope never grows weary,
Is ever running like a madman to find rest!

Our soul’s a three-master seeking Icaria;
A voice resounds upon the bridge: “Keep a sharp eye!”
From aloft a voice, ardent and wild, cries:
“Love… glory… happiness!” �Damnation! It’s a shoal!

Every small island sighted by the man on watch
Is the Eldorado promised by Destiny;
Imagination preparing for her orgy
Finds but a reef in the light of the dawn.

O the poor lover of imaginary lands!
Must he be put in irons, thrown into the sea,
That drunken tar, inventor of Americas,
Whose mirage makes the abyss more bitter?

Thus the old vagabond tramping through the mire
Dreams with his nose in the air of brilliant Edens;
His enchanted eye discovers a Capua
Wherever a candle lights up a hut.

III

Astonishing voyagers! What splendid stories
We read in your eyes as deep as the seas!
Show us the chest of your rich memories,
Those marvelous jewels, made of ether and stars.

We wish to voyage without steam and without sails!
To brighten the ennui of our prisons,
Make your memories, framed in their horizons,
Pass across our minds stretched like canvasses.

Tell us what you have seen.

IV

“We have seen stars
And waves; we have also seen sandy wastes;
And in spite of many a shock and unforeseen
Disaster, we were often bored, as we are here.

The glory of sunlight upon the purple sea,
The glory of cities against the setting sun,
Kindled in our hearts a troubling desire
To plunge into a sky of alluring colors.

The richest cities, the finest landscapes,
Never contained the mysterious attraction
Of the ones that chance fashions from the clouds
And desire was always making us more avid!

— Enjoyment fortifies desire.
Desire, old tree fertilized by pleasure,
While your bark grows thick and hardens,
Your branches strive to get closer to the sun!

Will you always grow, tall tree more hardy
Than the cypress? — However, we have carefully
Gathered a few sketches for your greedy album,
Brothers who think lovely all that comes from afar!

We have bowed to idols with elephantine trunks;
Thrones studded with luminous jewels;
Palaces so wrought that their fairly-like splendor
Would make your bankers have dreams of ruination;

And costumes that intoxicate the eyes;
Women whose teeth and fingernails are dyed
And clever mountebanks whom the snake caresses.”

V

And then, and then what else?

VI

“O childish minds!

Not to forget the most important thing,
We saw everywhere, without seeking it,
From the foot to the top of the fatal ladder,
The wearisome spectacle of immortal sin:

Woman, a base slave, haughty and stupid,
Adoring herself without laughter or disgust;
Man, a greedy tyrant, ribald, hard and grasping,
A slave of the slave, a gutter in the sewer;

The hangman who feels joy and the martyr who sobs,
The festival that blood flavors and perfumes;
The poison of power making the despot weak,
And the people loving the brutalizing whip;

Several religions similar to our own,
All climbing up to heaven; Saintliness
Like a dilettante who sprawls in a feather bed,
Seeking voluptuousness on horsehair and nails;

Prating humanity, drunken with its genius,
And mad now as it was in former times,
Crying to God in its furious death-struggle:
‘O my fellow, O my master, may you be damned!’

The less foolish, bold lovers of Madness,
Fleeing the great flock that Destiny has folded,
Taking refuge in opium’s immensity!
— That’s the unchanging report of the entire globe.”

VII

Bitter is the knowledge one gains from voyaging!
The world, monotonous and small, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

Must one depart? Remain? If you can stay, remain;
Leave, if you must. One runs, another hides
To elude the vigilant, fatal enemy,
Time! There are, alas! those who rove without respite,

Like the Wandering Jew and like the Apostles,
Whom nothing suffices, neither coach nor vessel,
To flee this infamous retiary; and others
Who know how to kill him without leaving their cribs.

And when at last he sets his foot upon our spine,
We can hope and cry out: Forward!
Just as in other times we set out for China,
Our eyes fixed on the open sea, hair in the wind,

We shall embark on the sea of Darkness
With the glad heart of a young traveler.
Do you hear those charming, melancholy voices
Singing: “Come this way! You who wish to eat

The perfumed Lotus! It’s here you gather
The miraculous fruits for which your heart hungers;
Come and get drunken with the strange sweetness
Of this eternal afternoon?”

By the familiar accent we know the specter;
Our Pylades yonder stretch out their arms towards us.
“To refresh your heart swim to your Electra!”
Cries she whose knees we kissed in other days.

VIll

O Death, old captain, it is time! let’s weigh anchor!
This country wearies us, O Death! Let us set sail!
Though the sea and the sky are black as ink,
Our hearts which you know well are filled with rays of light

Pour out your poison that it may refresh us!
This fire burns our brains so fiercely, we wish to plunge
To the abyss’ depths, Heaven or Hell, does it matter?
To the depths of the Unknown to find something new!”

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

The most beautiful woman in town

The most beautiful woman in town

Charles Bukowski has been one of the most controversial American writers of the twentieth century, regarded by some as an absolute genius while dismissed by others as totally overrated. Best remembered by his detractors for his habit of crashing parties after heavily drinking, he left among his friends memories of a kind gentleman, making no compromise with celebrity lifestyle, despite his late global success.

In short he was a “love him or hate him” type of person.  What follows is an extract of The most beautiful woman in town & other stories.

Charles Bukowski banner

“Baby, roll me another smoke.”

we were on the top floor, the 4th, floor, high up on a hill, but you can lookout on Los Angeles and get nothing, nothing at all. all those people down there sleeping, waiting to get up and go to work. it was stupid. stupid, stupid and horrible. we had it right; eye, say, blue or green staring deeply through shreds of beanfields, into each other, come.

Baby brought me the cigarette. I inhaled and watched the sleeping city. we sat and waited on the sun and whatever there was to be. I did not like the world, but at cautious and easy times you could almost understand it.

I don’t know where Tito and Baby are now, if they are dead or what, but those nights were good, pinching those high-heeled legs, kissing nylon knees. all that colors of dresses and panties, and making the L.A. Police Force earn thgreen.

Spring or flowers or Summer will never be like that again.”

bukowski small.png

 

I remember how I felt when a very long time ago reading the paragraph above, when the be-bop rhythm of narration slows down and the guy looks down at sleeping Los Angeles. I felt good, as if at times I could really understand the world 😉

You will be missed Henri Chinanski

 

 

 

I would like to be paid like a plumber

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Most of you might not know Steve Albini, and I did not know him myself before looking at a music documentary by Dave Grohl, former Nirvana guitarist.

Steve Albini is a sound engineer, has a real genius reputation and worked among others with  NirvanaPixiesThe Breeders,  PJ Harvey,  Robert Plant and Jimmy PageThe StoogesManic Street PreachersCheap Trick

In 1992, Albini is tasked to produce In Utero, third and final Nirvana studio album. At that time, Nirvana are one of the most popular band in the world, and this is already driving Kurt Cobain towards his final call, but this is a different story. Before accepting the job, Steve sends to Nirvana members a letter that in my humble opinion remains an example of work ethics. Rock and Roll is made by the bands for the people and power should always remain in the band hands. These ideas are a shout in the head of major labels at a time when internet had not yet disrupted music industry and majors could still sell CDs at prices that made a serious difference to average teenager. Letter is a bit long but it’s worth reading, if you believe like me that creativity should always win against money.

Thanks Steve.

“Kurt, Dave and Chris:

First let me apologize for taking a couple of days to put this outline together. When I spoke to Kurt I was in the middle of making a Fugazi album, but I thought I would have a day or so between records to sort everything out. My schedule changed unexpectedly, and this is the first moment I’ve had to go through it all. Apology apology. 

I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal “production” and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved. 

If, instead, you might find yourselves in the position of being temporarily indulged by the record company, only to have them yank the chain at some point (hassling you to rework songs/sequences/production, calling-in hired guns to “sweeten” your record, turning the whole thing over to some remix jockey, whatever…) then you’re in for a bummer and I want no part of it. 

I’m only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band’s own perception of their music and existance. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your head with a ratchet…

I have worked on hundreds of records (some great, some good, some horrible, a lot in the courtyard), and I have seen a direct correlation between the quality of the end result and the mood of the band throughout the process. If the record takes a long time, and everyone gets bummed and scrutinizes every step, then the recordings bear little resemblance to the live band, and the end result is seldom flattering. Making punk records is definitely a case where more “work” does not imply a better end result. Clearly you have learned this yourselves and appreciate the logic. 

About my methodology and philosophy:

#1: Most contemporary engineers and producers see a record as a “project,” and the band as only one element of the project. Further, they consider the recordings to be a controlled layering of specific sounds, each of which is under complete control from the moment the note is conceived through the final six. If the band gets pushed around in the process of making a record, so be it; as long as the “project” meets with the approval of the fellow in control. 

My approach is exactly the opposite. 

I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band’s personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play. I’m quite willing to let my opinions be heard (if I think the band is making beautiful progress or a heaving mistake, I consider it part of my job to tell them) but if the band decides to pursue something, I’ll see that it gets done. 

I like to leave room for accidents or chaos. Making a seamless record, where every note and syllable is in place and every bass drum is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with the patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it. I prefer to work on records that aspire to greater things, like originality, personality and enthusiasm. If every element of the music and dynamics of a band is controlled by click tracks, computers, automated mixes, gates, samplers and sequencers, then the record may not be incompetent, but it certainly won’t be exceptional. It will also bear very little relationship to the live band, which is what all this hooey is supposed to be about. 

#2: I do not consider recording and mixing to be unrelated tasks which can be performed by specialists with no continuous involvement. 99 percent of the sound of a record should be established while the basic take is recorded. Your experiences are specific to your records; but in my experience, remixing has never solved any problems that actually existed, only imaginary ones. I do not like remixing other engineer’s recordings, and I do not like recording things for somebody else to remix. I have never been satisfied with either version of that methodology. Remixing is for talentless pussies who don’t know how to tune a drum or point a microphone. 

#3: I do not have a fixed gospel of stock sounds and recording techniques that I apply blindly to every band in every situation. You are a different band from any other band and deserve at least the respect of having your own tastes and concerns addressed. For example, I love the sound of a boomy drum kit (say a Gretach or Camco) wide open in a big room, especially with a Bonhammy double-headed bass drum and a really painful snare drum. I also love the puke-inducing low end that comes off an old Fender Bassman or Ampeg guitar amp and the totally blown sound of an SVT with broken-in tubes. I also know that those sounds are inappropriate for some songs, and trying to force them is a waste of time. Predicating the recordings on my tastes is as stupid as designing a car around the upholstery. You guys need to decide and then articulate to me what you want to sound like so we don’t come at the record from different directions. 

#4: Where we record the record is not as important as how it is recorded. If you have a studio you’d like to use, no hag. Otherwise, I can make suggestions. I have a nice 24-track studio in my house (Fugazi were just there, you can ask them how they rate it), and I’m familiar with most of the studios in the Midwest, the East coast and a dozen or so in the UK. 

I would be a little concerned about having you at my house for the duration of the whole recording and mixing process if only because you’re celebrities, and I wouldn’t want word getting out in the neighborhood and you guys having to put up with a lot of fan-style bullshit; it would be a fine place to mix the record though, and you can’t beat the vitties. 

If you want to leave the details of studio selection, lodgings, etc. up to me, I’m quite happy to sort all that stuff out. If you guys want to sort it out, just lay down the law. 

My first choice for an outside recording studio would be a place called Pachyderm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. It’s a great facility with outstanding acoustics and a totally comfy architect’s wet dream mansion where the band lives during the recordings. This makes everything more efficient. Since everybody is there, things get done and decisions get made a lot faster than if people are out and about in a city someplace. There’s also all the posh shit like a sauna and swimming pool and fireplaces and trout stream and 50 acres and like that. I’ve made a bunch of records there and I’ve always enjoyed the place. It’s also quite inexpensive, considering how great a facility it is. 

The only bummer about Pachyderm is that the owners and manager are not technicians, and they don’t have a tech on call. I’ve worked there enough that I can fix just about anything that can go wrong, short of a serious electronic collapse, but I’ve got a guy that I work with a lot (Bob Weston) who’s real good with electronics (circuit design, trouble shooting and building shit on the spot), so if we choose to do it there, he’ll probably come along in my payroll, since he’d be cheap insurance if a power supply blows up or a serious failure occurs in the dead of winter 50 miles from the closest tech. He’s a recording engineer also, so he can be doing some of the more mundane stuff (cataloging tapes, packing stuff up, fetching supplies) while we’re chopping away at the record proper. 

Some day I’m going to talk the Jesus Lizard into going up there and we’ll have us a real time. Oh yeah, and it’s the same Neve console the AC/DC album Back in Black was recorded and mixed on, so you know its just got to have the rock. 

#5: Dough. I explained this to Kurt but I thought I’d better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It’s the band’s fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it’s a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band. 

I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There’s no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. 

I have to be comfortable with the amount of money you pay me, but it’s your money, and I insist that you be comfortable with it as well. Kurt suggested paying me a chunk which I would consider full payment, and then if you really thought I deserved more, paying me another chunk after you’d had a chance to live with the album for a while. That would be fine, but probably more organizational trouble than it’s worth. 

Whatever. I trust you guys to be fair to me and I know you must be familiar with what a regular industry goon would want. I will let you make the final decision about what I’m going to be paid. How much you choose to pay me will not affect my enthusiasm for the record. 

Some people in my position would expect an increase in business after being associated with your band. I, however, already have more work than I can handle, and frankly, the kind of people such superficialities will attract are not people I want to work with. Please don’t consider that an issue. 

That’s it. 

Please call me to go over any of this if it’s unclear. 

(Signed)

If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up. Oi!”