Saturday, January 07, 2017

Snow today

The expectation was that we would have from one to three inches of snow today, which would have been immaterial.  There must be at least a solid three or more for our driveway plow guy to show up. He will surely be here early tomorrow morning as it's likely that there are at least six inches on the ground tonight.  That's the perfect amount of snow.  It is not disabling but it is the real thing.  Winter wonderland arrives.

It is perfect for driving, something that has always been enjoyed.  Driving in the snow is a challenge and an adventure.  They say it's the other guy that needs to be watched out for and that is surely the case, and worth the risk.  Getting things done, doing errands, or visiting someone seems like an accomplishment, the routine becomes a reason to smile.

Tomorrow will be in the low to mid 20's all day so the snow will stay, children will be out sledding, and roads will take care. Monday it begins to warm up and by Wednesday it is expected to be in the 50's.  Enjoy while it lasts, and be glad that it wasn't a huge storm that created real problems.

Friday, January 06, 2017

"The Death of Bees", a novel by Lisa O'Donnell

This book was a gift.  Otherwise it is likely to have never been noticed.  It was somewhat charming, a bit disarming, at times unpleasant, at others humorous, and ultimately gives an appearance of being redemptive.  Written in brief choppy chapters from the alternating perspectives of three characters, it is the story of two sisters, one 12 and the other 15, whose completely dysfunctional drug addled parents leave them on their own.

The writer is from Scotland and became an L.A. screenwriter.  The tale is set in and around Glasgow for the most part.  What it depicts is completely believable as much of Scotland can be rough territory.  In the heart of Glasgow and Edinburgh near the posh investment offices of Scottish trusts one can walk a block or two off the beaten path and see junkies shooting up on street corners and people that don't look too healthy or trustworthy to say the least.

In order to stay away from state sponsored child care services or foster care the children live on their own when abandoned and fashion a life that gets them by with an outward appearance of normalcy. It is not at all normal.

Any more comment could begin to be a spoiler for this simple yet engaging book.  The writing style is such that short bursts of reading did not work.  Those short chapters need time to build into something.  When they finally do, the story pulls one along quickly.  The resilience of the children depicted is well done and credible.  If this were non-fiction, the truth would still be grim. 


Thursday, January 05, 2017

"Hold Still", a memoir by Sally Mann

This memoir is filled with photographs.  Born in Lexington, Virginia and firmly rooted there for much of her life, this widely known photographer reveals more than most would about her life, her family history, and husband and children.  It is an engaging book, and her family history was not at all as expected of someone growing up in a Shenandoah Valley town of 7,000 people, daughter of a country doctor.

As one part of the book, it as expected deals with the provocative photographs of her children on their farm in the late 1980's that drew praise as photographs from many in the arts but derision from many observers for the nudity that was shown.  Major publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal drew attention to this and opined about the morality or immorality of it all.  The name Sally Mann became well known, but the bulk of her photographic work was not.

She meticulously details her work process, other focuses of her work, the allure of the South and its mythology and culture, and the network of artists that she cultivated.  Cy Twombly was a Lexington native that visited each year, a collaborator and supporter.  Other artists were in residence at Washington and Lee University in Lexington from time to time.  She regularly traveled to meet with others in New York and abroad.  Her commitment to her farm and family was pervasive, but she was not isolated.  The Southern nature of her writing definitely leads her to a fixation on tradition, nature, destiny, and death.  Her education at the prep school Putney in Vermont may seem to belie her southern roots, but, as sometime happens, it may have only made them stronger.

This is an exceptional family history.  In particular, her father and his family history could be a book on its own.  For a local doctor available at all times for all people, his experience in culture, art, and literature was broad.  His acquisitions of artwork that began the late 1930's were prescient and no doubt financially rewarding to someone, maybe someday.  They were certainly their own reward on the walls of country houses.

A connection was felt here simply because she lived in and participated in the same times, she and her husband were traveling in Europe and staying in hostels in 1971(same year for me and my friends), she was nurtured in the same state, she lived along the now I-81 valley corridor in Virginia that connects my paternal grandparent's family hometowns in Tom's Brook and Lebanon, and a photographer from my hometown, Emmet Gowin, was clearly an early influence on her work.  He was born in 1941 and not personally known to me.

Opinion here is that the writing is well done with interesting detail and humor when it works, but it occasionally borders on being a bit overreaching in more flowery moments.  The same could be said for some of the photos, but knowledge of photography as an art form is not a specialty here.  The many photographs in the book, both hers and many family treasures from the past, help make this book special.

This book was published in 2015, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a winner of a Carnegie medal for excellence in non-fiction.  That recognition must have been rewarding, but in researching Mann for this comment it was learned that her oldest son Emmett took his own life at age 36 in June 2016 after years of struggling with mental illness.  Apparently she rarely leaves the farm now, and that is a sad end to this book comment.



Tuesday, January 03, 2017

"401(K) Pioneers Lament..."

A front page article in the WSJ today discusses 401(K) plans and how they have weakened retirement security for many since their genesis.  The much lauded 401K began in the 1980's as an enlightened method of saving for retirement.  Partially matching contributions by many companies enhanced the attraction.  The result was that they supplanted the traditional defined benefit plan in much of corporate America, something the corporates wanted as a cost saver.  That has led to more uncertainty for many retirees, and a feeling of less security.

There are several problems with 401K products, or maybe the word should just be "issues".  First, they must be capably managed by someone.  Second, the costs associated with that must be restrained. For many savers, investment management is not a skill that was required in their work life. As a saver ages, managing the increasing value of a 401K can become treacherous.  One downturn in the market at the wrong time could cripple a long thought through retirement plan.  Generally that leads savers to be too conservative and forego growth of one their primary nest eggs.

Another issue is that all distributions are taxable, as the money directed into a 401K is not taxed going in.  That can lead to a false sense of security, especially in states with high tax rates.  As at certain income levels Social Security distributions are also taxable, that can be a double whammy that limits the realization of a "comfortable retirement" contemplated by the middle class.  That's again especially true in areas with a high cost of living.

For those who have a defined benefit pension, which now is predominantly public sector retirees, it has become something more dear.  No need to worry about management of investment choices or economic downturns as long as the distributor is solvent.  Many boomers may share a similar experience of having a defined benefit commitment from the early years of their corporate work life when they had modest earnings to now having a much larger 401K value with the associated uncertainty.  With the general rise in life expectancy over time, the defined benefit now feels like a gem.  If inflation returns it could be seriously diminished.  Some seniors joke that by the time they are in their eighties their defined benefit payments could be just enough to buy a turkey sandwich with fries for lunch every day.

There is much to think about here, and for many it is the last thing that they want to confront.  Given the limited savings of many, this eventually(five to ten years out) could lead to a broad crisis that will make student loans look like a zit on an elephant and rival the 2008/2009 mortgage debacle.  Whether this will be primarily an economic event or turn into a significant political event is open to speculation.

This is one of the intuitively felt fears that led to the voters' choice in 2016.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The holidays must be over

If only life were like that great William Bell song "Every day will be like a holiday...".  That was soul music at its best and love was the theme as almost always.  This holiday season, based on the calendar, is done.  Love can still be a theme.

Cards came in as usual, nothing surprising but all enjoyed.  The full story is often not told by a card, as the whole point is a positive wish and a pleasant greeting.  It's always nice when a card has a written note but few do these days. Photos of children are wonderful, and there are less of those now. This year most of the ones that we sent were without notes of consequence. Getting the carefully chosen cards out and mailed on time was the overriding goal.

Christmas visits from adult children were pleasant and enjoyed, but too short of course.  They are accomplished in their own unique ways and stay busy as we understand.  What we do have still here is enough sweet food and spicy snack food to last us a few weeks at least, some purchased to make sure we had enough for visitors and some sent to us as gifts.  In that way the holiday season will linger.

Some of the remaining special dinner food will be turned into a fine meal in a few minutes, as soon as the typing stops...


Saturday, December 31, 2016

"The agony of hope", the Holiday essay from The Economist

Catching up on magazine reading today, this article finally was read.  As it is the December 24th issue, newstands are not likely to have it now.  It is a six page review of and commentary on the Presidency of Barack Obama.  It is well written and allows the reader the room to have opinions. While it will probably not be liked by the obsessives on much of the right or the fringe far left,  it was a thorough and thoughtful review of a thoughtful but politically aloof president, or as much as can be done in six pages of the magazine.

It does not end on an optimistic note.  Obama was aware of the limitations of power and it is not clear that our country is at the moment.  The first family was a model of good behavior.  The coming change is already evident, and many are bracing for it.  The popular wisdom says that our institutions are much stronger than any one person.  That may be tested soon.

Happy New Year?   Yes, Happy New Year must be said.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Shoe Dog", a memoir by Phil Knight

This book is a history of the founding of Nike, originally Blue Ribbon, in 1964 until its initial public offering in 1980.  It is also a life story of the founder Phil Knight.

This is a straightforward and easily readable look back .  Knight is trying to both tell his story and the company's story, and it starts off a bit awkwardly.  The beginning details an around the world trip taken by Knight after graduation from business school at Stanford when he did not know what he wanted to do with his life. He discusses the many interesting places that he saw and lists the books that he read along the way.  This must be why in the positive comments on the book's back cover by Andre Agassi he refers to it as "literary".

After that beginning, the book starts the real story.  On that post college trip Knight began his quest to build a sports shoe company by visiting a few manufacturers in Japan.  When he returns home months later he works on an arrangement to import shoes from Japan and distribute them.  That start begins with no office, a lawyer, Knight's college track coach, and a couple of his friends selling on commission.  It advanced to a point of having an office/storeroom in a big room with broken windows to having a small core of employees, Knight, another former college track friend, a track devotee who became a paraplegic in a car accident, and a CFO, an in-house counsel, and a head of marketing each of whom weighed over 320 pounds, working for a fitness company.

It's the story of the culture of the company and the somewhat eccentric group that created it.  It would be a perfect airline or train read, not too intense, while interesting and informative.

While reading, I wondered about a co-writer or someone who helped shape the style.  There is no doubt here that Knight was the source of the book.  There is a continuity that suggests help and there was some.  In the acknowledgements section at the very end, Knight mentions J.R. Moehringer "whose generosity and good humor and enviable storytelling gifts I relied on through the many, many drafts of this book."  Moehringer played the same role with Andre Agassi for his book "Open".  Moehringer's own writing includes a highly successful book about a local pub about a mile away from here called "The Tender Bar".  It should be noted that Knight appears to have audited writing classes with a professor at the University of Oregon which suggests diligent preparation.

This book worked here.  It's definitely being sent to a former cross country runner who has three young children and no time to read it, but he will sometime.  Completely coincidentally I gave him five shares of Nike stock for a Christmas present many years ago, maybe when he was around 10 years old.



A beautiful pair --- Donald Trump and Don King

It was nice to see the President-elect and the former ostentatious boxing promoter/hustler outside of Trump's Florida resort for photos.  King, the of course widely admired, socially conscious, and honorable businessman, is certainly a voice that will be important during this busy transition period. As Trump said, pointing during one of his rallies in front of one his typical crowds during the campaign, "Where is my black man over there?"  Yesterday he was on his front porch.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Tex McCrary", a life and a book of opinionated history, politics, relationships, and gossip

The subtitle of this rambling and entertaining book is "Wars . Women . Politics     An Adventurous Life Across The American Century".  It was published by Hamilton Books, a self-publishing company, in 2009 and written by Charles J. Kelly who became a friend of Tex in the 1990's when they were trying to draft Colin Powell to run for President.  Apparently Kelly, who is little known, thought that Tex should write his memoirs, Tex didn't want to focus on the past, and Kelly met with Tex many times to write the story himself.

Born in 1910, McCrary had a busy and active life as is detailed in the book.  It is in some ways a story of the old boy's networks that existed across the country and across borders in his era.  Born and living until his early teens in Texas, John Reagan McCrary went to Exeter and Yale and often stayed in Manhattan with the proverbial rich uncle.  He somehow early on became close friends with the much older Bernard Baruch.  Tex, nickname earned at prep school, became a journalist, a risk taking war reporter in World War II and in Korea, and between 1946 and 1951 an early days talk radio host and then pioneering television personality with his wife the model and actress(and Miss Rheingold) Jinx Falkenberg.  He was an early supporter of his former boss Dwight Eisenhower for President, and with his wife raising early funds and having the first major rally for Eisenhower at Madison Square Garden.

This part of the book, more than half, is fascinating even if not written like other history books.  An astute editor would have been helpful.  The rest of the book has Tex staying involved in politics and having contacts with major leaders, but on the periphery.  While remaining interesting, the book becomes a little bit of a "where's waldo" tale, with the writer always placing Tex in the middle of events.  It seems that he always was around them.  At 9/11 he was living in an apartment building at Battery Park in Manhattan and, when the planes hit, he at age 90 with his reporter's motivation went out on the streets to take photographs. When the first of the buildings collapsed he was blown into unconsciousness, and woke up in a hospital in New Jersey where the injured were taken across the river.

The interest in this book started with the unexpected death of my friend Paddy McCrary, Tex's older son, several months ago and a few day's before his 70th birthday.  The last time we saw him was in the town Rite Aid as we stood in line waiting for prescriptions, maybe a year ago.  We chatted with him and he seemed perfectly fine.  I have no idea what happened.

 He was my older daughter's first instructor at the area tennis academy, and went from being an acquaintance to a good friend around town. He had grown up at a house on the nearby Whitney estate.

This book is not for everyone, but it was enjoyed here.  The opinionated history was found to be refreshing even if not always agreed with.








Friday, December 23, 2016

This is just impossible...

When the President-elect talks on Twitter about upgrading nuclear warheads, it seems beyond the fringe.  After trying to back off and accepting what has happened, this man is no representative of a life that is known for my family.  What is this going to mean.  He seems to be intent on initiating his most extreme campaign positions.  Is there a reason to be afraid, as in the silly learn how to hide under the desks in elementary school.  That was more real than we knew.  What about this reckless man?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas coming...

As always at this time of the year, food is plentiful here, not too much as it can be spread out over the holidays, but definitely more than usual.  There are two boxes waiting to be delivered upstate, and there are more cookies around than we can eat at the moment.  They are wrapped so can wait.

Cards have arrived, more than last year.  Fortunately the card sending tradition here cannot stop, and almost everyone has been covered.  Still, each day's mail can arrive with a surprise or a news update.

Deciding on tips to those who provide services here is the usual source of angst.  Too little, too much, what a waste of mental energy.  It is unavoidable and should not be an issue.  The goal is to reward well but not ostentatiously.  Why should giving be difficult.

It is not that way with charities, but the research needed to decide is daunting.  That leads to fallbacks like MSF and local community funds in this town and hometowns.  That is still being decided. Certainly charity should not be driven by tax time, but the documentation of it is required.  Not a strong suit here so under reporting is a tradition as no problems are wanted.

Just a holiday note from here of little consequence...




Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ad selling on fake sites

The business section of today's NYT had a lead article about fake internet sites and ads sold on them. It is clearly a problem.  The bigger problem only tangentially focused on by the article is that some search engines seem to enable this knowingly.  Yahoo is the major culprit seen here.  For historical reasons it is a screen site here with various personal attachments.  There are no passwords or other secure data attached knowingly, but the site itself is rife with trash.

Their formulas for determining what should be seen here have always been wildly off base.  In the past golf stories showed up constantly for little reason.  Now the site is radically worse.  After a lead story or two that are legitimate, many items opened lead quickly to unwanted and unknown sites, without any action by the user.

Yahoo is not only fading.  It is corrupt.  Buyer beware.  That means that Verizon must continue extreme due diligence.  And, can we finally close the book on so many trying to make excuses for Marissa Mayer's abysmal performance.  She is surely attractive looking, but is that why the scrutiny of her management skills has been so lax.  Does the media go out of its way not want to penalize her for being attractive. It seems that she still gets a pass.  There should be no question that she has not done well.

While the stock has greatly appreciated from the lows that she created three years ago and we caught that move here, the firm is not attractive now.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Update...

A few crisis events here and there, in our home and around the world, and little has been posted here recently.  Last night, Woody Allen's "Cafe Society" was watched, which was an entertaining break. Jesse Eisenberg actually plays the Woody Allen role to a tee --- intonations, gestures, and body language that lead to the conclusion that the writer and director no longer needs to be on screen.  He has created his image.

Yesterday's terrorist events in Berlin and Ankara are beyond concerning.  Little events start big events unexpectedly.  The assassination of the Russian ambassador at a photography exhibit in a museum, an exhibit that was meant to highlight a connection between Russia and Turkey, was brazen madness on film for the world to see.  This does not rise to an Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment, but reminds us that something could.  The Berlin festival murders are more alarming, as the German right wing is already calling what happened to those festive shoppers "Merkel's dead".  Those types of pop up Christmas shops and food venues at Union Square and Columbus Circle were favorites here in Manhattan for many years.  Today they were no doubt fortified.

Meanwhile, back at the U.S. financial ranch, the news networks cannot get enough of the possibility of a Dow 20,000.  It's a news event and not a financial event.  It could easily happen this week absent any consequential news, and that will be followed at some point by the hedge fund shorts moving in later to wipe out the enthusiastic retail investors and the prospectus constrained mutual fund managers and drive the market back down.  So it goes.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Financial markets freeze

With the exception of some givebacks that were obvious and a few gains that were justified, the equity markets in the U.S. were stable today.  "Stable" is not a word that comes to mind to many investors whose worry is palpable.  The issue is, "where is the safe move?'

Some see the President-elect as a boost to the economy.  Even among those who doubt that, it is the ruling thought for the moment.  Go with it incrementally the market is saying, and there are few sellers now.  Everyone just sits.  Buyers just pick off weak bids for good companies that are out of favor.  That overall picture is not leading to robust activity, even as the robo-traders keep volumes up.

Here, gains are so obvious over the last three years that there are few losses to take for tax season. That's a welcome problem.  It's also a vexing one.  It is a reason for a pause, and a reason to what...

 A Trump presidency could be market destroying.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Nitpicks, or more

---Kanye West showing up at Trump Tower and looking somewhat miserable as he left with Donald Trump is explicable.  A serious talent, popular musician, and black entertainer who, by all accounts is psychologically troubled of late, is embraced by Trump in his lobby as a "very long time friend".  Put an adjective on this.

---Earlier here last year, Lester Holt was endorsed by this writer as a replacement for his egomaniac automaton predecessor.  Now he is a news reader automaton as well.  That was ok at the outset, but now he seems to be grasping at the opportunity in a way that would make his predecessors in the past gag. Not only does he read the news with no hint of understanding, he hosts a weekly show, Dateline, that highlights horrible murders, assaults, and grisly events.  The constant advertising is "Don't Watch Alone".  This persona would be anathema to the anchors of old.  If this is his price for being an anchor, he should be pushed out.  He is clearly not a serious person.

---There is an Alzheimer's Foundation that solicits donors.  We have been contributors in the past. The leadership of this organization should be investigated for their salaries and their governance. Needless to say, many people support their supposed mission.  As former donors, we now receive at least two letters each week, no exaggeration, requesting contributions.  The charity has a current fund raising television advertisement on nightly news programs, not cheap to pay for out of donations, saying "Be the first to benefit from a cure." Alzheimer's and the variations of dementia do not have a cure underway.  All reputable neurologists concur.  The onset of these diseases begins well before their acute manifestation.  For this "charity organization" to suggest that contributions could lead to a "Be the first" outcome is reprehensible.  They are exploiting this horrible condition for some benefit. That is the assumption here, and they should be watched. Their leaders salaries and benefits should be a focus. They have an easy target as their beneficiaries and caretakers want any good news and the researchers, as doctors, are presumed to be indiscriminate in their view of sources of funds.

---John Allison for the Fed?  Cato leader from North Carolina elites?  Born into a family of small town banking wealth and Ayn Rand self serving blindness.  This type of entitlement in the south is too well known here.  Opinion here is that he is not a person who has earned any position of government responsibility.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Books of the Year

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications have been in "book of the year" mode this week.  What is somewhat odd to see from this perspective is that fiction is completely overshadowed by non-fiction.  Really well done literate fiction is preferred here, but nothing stands out at the moment even as all of the lists are read.  There must be something being missed here.  Non-fiction is well represented by books that are entertaining, informative, or influential enough to be required.

Among those non-fiction highlights are "Evicted"(uncontested exceptional), "The Fractured Republic"(thoughtful for the most part), "Shoe Dog"(entertaining business story with interesting characters),  "Hillbilly Elegy"(both thought provoking and self serving but necessary to read given attention paid to it by so many), and "Dark Money"(as unfortunately expected, but well delivered).  Some of the broader fiction lists include "The Noise of Time", "The Sympathizer",  "White Sands", "Nutshell", and "All That Man Is", books read here with interest, but none of these knocked my socks off, so to speak.  A great fiction book of 2016 seems to be missing. There is not even a genre book that did the job completely.

Are these observations at all widely held?  Time will tell.





Thursday, December 08, 2016

A look at the past... New Orleans first time

New Orleans holds a special place in my life.  My first time there was when my friend Rob and I decided to take a trip driving around the South in June of 1970.  We were both on summer break from college and my tennis teaching job didn't start until July.  The trip was more or less random, but the idea was to drive south to Florida, then west along the gulf coast through the Panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi, to New Orleans, back north to Memphis, to Louisville, to Cincinnati for baseball, and then back home to southern Virginia.  All of that was accomplished, but in a time frame that was somewhat abridged, as once in New Orleans we stayed for over a week.

We drove into New Orleans early one evening and found our way to the French Quarter, sight unseen.  At the time driving was allowed on Bourbon Street and we crawled along the street at maybe 3 miles an hour.  Then the unexpected.  On the sidewalk, there was a guy with long curly red hair hawking an alternative newspaper of some type.  He was yelling "Buy the NOLA Express.  Learn how to spell LSD."  The "unexpected" being that he was Ed, a friend of mine from Georgetown, always the joker, who had dropped out of college the year before and seemingly disappeared.

We yelled hello and found a parking place on a nearby street, which was still possible then.  Then we met up with him and he said that we could stay with him if we wanted.  We wanted.  He lived in a typical shotgun quarter frame house on St. Peter, a block and a half from Bourbon.  His place was the attic.  This was June in New Orleans and the water heater was in that attic.  It was unbelievably hot, so that meant that we stayed out at all times, until around 3 or 4 in the morning, late at night until the attic had cooled down to moderately miserable.

New Orleans never shut down so there was no problem finding music to hear, free clubs to enter, and street friends of Ed's that we met, the most constant one being a friendly professional hustler of sorts named Fraho.  He was always good for a laugh or a direction for a new place to go.  He would order and we would pay, a reasonable trade really.

The atmosphere in New Orleans for "hippies" at that time was not tolerant.  While Rob and I did not have especially long hair or any outlandish appearance, we wore the standard jeans and dressed neatly, but since we were young and from elsewhere we were suspect.  We were told that run-ins with the police were common and they were.  Once when the cops were beating the crap out of a long haired guy with their sticks just off Bourbon Street, I ran over.  I was shoved up against a wall, face into it, and told to go away.  Another time when we were driving uptown, my car was stopped and searched extensively.  The cops found nothing but they were not pleasant.  As we were leaving the city at the end of our stay and we threw our trip bags into the trunk, a police car pulled up and asked why we had closed the trunk so quickly.  Searched again, roughed up a little, and we were finally glad to be leaving.  New Orleans cops were notoriously bad.  Always have been and still are.

Other than that, most people in the city were really hospitable.  Most I say, as some of my tennis students at a camp in North Carolina lived in the Garden District.  I called one of them who was all of 12 and he said come visit.  We wanted to see that area anyway, so ok, we went to his house.  We were not allowed in by his mother.  It must have been my silver grey boots.  We shot some hoops in his backyard and left.

One highlight of living in the quarter was going to the Buster Holmes restaurant that was a short walk from Ed's attic.  For 30 cents there was red beans and rice, a slice of French bread, and a glass of cold water.  For 40 cents more there was a piece of smoked sausage.  What a deal when we woke up in the late morning.  The other culinary treat that was easily affordable was at the famous Cafe du Monde, where a coffee and a beignet allowed relaxed reading, people watching and meeting out of the sun.

I was back in New Orleans a few weeks later to pick up more than 20 campers and tennis players, and escort them on the Southern Crescent train to Brevard, North Carolina, and then I took them home six weeks later.  Both times I found my way to the quarter and old and new friends there.  When Mardi Gras in February 1971 arrived, I convinced four of my college housemates that we should go, and off we went in the middle of the night.  Two more cars followed.  Our meeting spot was Burgundy and St. Peter.  We all arrived, eleven students that had mid-terms approaching, within an hour of each other and a raucous few days followed.

That was the beginning of a long relationship with a unique city.



Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Comet Ping Pong, a pizza joint that obsesses appointed National Security Adviser Flynn and son

It's fortunate that the National Security Adviser role is a presidential appointment and does not require Congressional approval, fortunate for former General Flynn it should be said.  Among the many bizarre stories accompanying Donald Trump into his President-elect status, this is one for the record books.  Some media wags even accepted the alt-right name of the accusations as Pizzagate. Now this term has become widespread.

Less than two months ago, Comet Ping Pong was neighborhood known bar, pizza restaurant, and ping pong emporium on Connecticut Avenue in northwest D.C.  Their thin crust pizza was highly regarded, wine by the glass or carafe listed 12 choices on the menu with a chardonnay and a pinot noir looking especially attractive.  Esoteric beer choices in bottles or cans were available.  Ping pong tables filled more than half of the industrial looking space and local art adorned the walls.  It was for all practical purposes a community center for hipsters.

Then somehow fake news stories linked the spot to Hillary Clinton and her senior staff and a pedophilia sex trafficking ring that was supposedly based there at the pizza parlor.  It was baseless, it was false, but it was out there on Twitter and on some websites devoted to alt-right trash.  Among those who perpetuated this fake news was both former General Michael Flynn and his 33 year old son.  Both have held positions on Trump's transition team, big Flynn as a player and his son as an aide.

Even after the restaurant was attacked by an armed gunman who drove up from Salisbury, NC to deal with it on Sunday, the younger Flynn continued to retweet messages supporting the allegations, saying that the mainstream media was trying to "normalize pedophilia".

This afternoon the younger Flynn's association with the transition team has apparently ended.  His father's mental health should be questioned as well.  He certainly should not be in a critical government position advising an incoming President with little foreign policy or intelligence experience.

This would all be laughable if it was not taken seriously by so many.  The media will be intimidated into letting this pass it seems, but Flynn is clearly too unhinged for his new role.  Obviously.  His kid was making his father proud.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Articles that begin pushing the rock back up the hill

As many of us are just beginning to come to terms with November, there were two articles, one yesterday and one today, that had some helpful observations.  There was nothing earth shaking about them, but they did articulate thoughts well, and in a way that made sense and did so with a historical perspective.

The first was in the December 4th New York Times Sunday Magazine.  With the title "Exit Wounds", the piece by Ian Buruma discusses the election results from the perspective of the United States and Britain.  Its subtitle is the starting point.  "For seven decades, the United States and Britain defined and defended a vision of democracy and freedom that profoundly shaped the global order.  What happens when their own citizens opt out of it?"  Buruma's succinct writing deals with complex issues in an intelligent way.

The second was in the December 5th online New Yorker.   "The Frankfort School Knew That Trump Was Coming", written by staff writer Alex Ross, looks at Europe today and its political revisionism and compares it to what has just happened in the U.S.   A thought of consequence was "the combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity" had the effect of  "mass distraction masking elite domination".  There is much more to the commentary in this opinion piece based on ongoing events.

They both were worth reading here.


U.S. equity market advance continues, as does anxiety among some

On November 20th, there was a post here entitled "U.S. equities at highs but...".  The commentary looked for a "significant correction" at some point but added "when is unknown".  That is still the thought here but the "when" keeps get putting further out.  It is a bit unsettling although how can "you fight the tape", as is said by traders.

The most alarming aspect of our current dilemma in thinking about this situation is the ongoing deterioration in global politics.  Add to that the impulsive statements by the President-elect that are defended by his servant the Vice President-elect with mind numbing explanations, and the message to the world is not reassuring. Here's the rub.  If there is any type of international incident that requires attention, who will take charge?  As is his right and obligation, it should be President Obama.  Will Donald Trump try to step in and give conflicting signals?  Will spokesperson's for Trump jump in with comments?  This could be awkward.  Trump has no awareness of boundaries.

One can do all of the work they want on equity valuations, and they will be meaningless if there is a sense that the U.S. is fractured in its actual approach, rather than bluster, to an international issue of immediate consequence.  Markets broadly will sell-off.  As an investor, it is unsettling to be living on this type of edge.

The market may continue to rise but safe harbors will be popular as well.  There is no good hedge for this screaming unknown here.  Long term investments will be maintained, new smidgens will be sought, but to continue the tune in the preceding post here on this past Thursday, "Gimme Shelter".

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Demagogue in Chief

At just after 8pm tonight and flipping through channels, I landed on CNN and there was Trump beginning a speech.  Listening but half paying attention, my thought was "why are they replaying one of Trump's old campaign speeches?" and flipped the channel.  A few seconds later, remembering Trump's "thank the voters" tour that was beginning, I returned to CNN.  It was "now" in Cincinnati, and President-elect Trump was engaging in the same, if not accentuated, demagoguery that he used in his most unhinged moments of the campaign.

"Demagogue --- an orator or politician who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people."

 Tonight he was attacking the press with abandon calling them "dishonest and ugly people" and mocking them, pointing to them, as he boasted about his victory.  His self-adulatory speech tonight was a catalogue of his misleading "facts" from the campaign trail.  His statement that he, yes he, would restore all of the industrial jobs lost in the Rust Belt since the year 2000 was oblivious madness.  Has he no concept of technology and its ongoing impact.  Does he want to continue to raise hopes by saying things that are impossible to accomplish?  How cynical is that?  This was painful to listen to, but masochistically I continued, hardly believing that he was not moving on from campaign rhetoric to comments that are more thoughtful and aspirational, while being just a touch realistic.

There was so much to his comments that were was cringe worthy.  There was a rant about how well "we" did with Blacks, with Latinos, with women, as if they were all huge supporters.  When an audience member apparently reacted vocally to his comment about women's support, and was in the process of being removed from the event, he commented "where do these people come from?  They should send her back to mommy."  This is a President?

Trump was immensely relishing his role as entertainer and rabble-rouser, as a celebrity playing to a willing crowd.  He loves attention.  We know that.  One could expect something better than that, but they would be wrong.

As Trump finished his half hour of bombast, the Rolling Stones song "You can't always get what you want" began on the speaker system.  That was the one completely true aspect of the presentation from a superficial point of view.  Does he have the Stones permission to use their music as an anthem for his stage persona?  Has he ever listened to the words beyond the title and the refrain?   Has he heard the words "practiced at the art of deception"?  The answer is almost certainly "no" to each of these questions.

The comment here is not a political party comment.  It is a comment about our democracy.  Trump is not part of our American tradition.  He has no understanding of it, none it sadly seems.

"The Trip to Echo Spring"

This book's additional title is "On Writers and Drinking".  It is written by Olivia Laing, a British journalist who has worked for "The Observer" and writes for "The Guardian", "Granta", and other publications.  It was published in 2013, so this comment is late to the party.

While many writers are mentioned in this book, it focuses primarily on six --- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver.  There is interesting commentary about the lives of these writers, their relationships, their travels and domiciles, the arc of their careers, and the situations that led to their finest writing.

The common theme connecting this tale is the alcoholism of each of them.  They all were fueled by and tortured by the condition.  Only two ever reached any lasting recovery, and that was late in the lives of Cheever and Carver.  Hemingway and Berryman were suicides, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at an early age, and Williams of alcohol and pills after surviving in a diminished state until his early seventies.  In general, their lives were difficult despite their success.  That is an understatement.

The author, Laing, intersperces stories of her own life and the travels that she took across America while doing research for the book.  At times, her story became intertwined with the theme of the book in an unusual way, occasionally almost confusing and at other times extremely well done and entertaining.

For those with an interest, this is an informative and insightful work.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Another Donald Trump on the horizon? Tilman Fertitta?

Is Tilman Fertitta already there?   CNBC has a large advertisement on page A5 of the New York Times lauding their program "Billion Dollar Buyer" with Fertitta as its star.  Apparently there were a few episodes of this show broadcast last year, and now it is back with an expanded schedule.

Not familiar with Fertitta.  He owns Landry's restaurant chain and four or five smaller ones with well known regional names.  He owns casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere, the Golden Nugget.  His Wiki page can explain all of this, but that can be managed and it seems to be, some might say manipulated.  A May 1997 feature story in the Texas Monthly seems to be a much more honest version of Fertitta's path to success, and he is certainly a success, a hard charging highly competitive businessman with a blunt demeanor.

Sometime in the mid-nineties Fertitta began to be noticed in a national sense, and not just in Texas, Louisiana, and Las Vegas.  I asked the CEO of a Texas bank at that time if he did business with the firm, thinking that would be something to strive for.  His reply was straightforward and his words were more or less "we don't do business with people like that."  He added other information sparingly that led me to believe that all was not on the up and up with Tilman.

Reading now I see that his family and some relatives with Sicilian roots were associated with a mafia like syndicate in the Galveston, Texas area in the middle part of the 20th century.  They controlled many parts of commerce, some legal and some not, in that area and it was generally speaking good for business and the parts of the community, based on what is read here.  How that was accomplished was not detailed.

That said, Fertitta does not seem to have ties to any such organization although he would clearly have made contacts with those who had in the past due to his family ties.  Like Trump, he purportedly leads a healthy lifestyle, but it surely includes red meat.  Unlike Trump, he and his wife do seem to be documented contributors and participants with multiple charities.  His political views were once liberal on issues like poverty, the minimum wage, and healthcare, and like so many high rollers in the late '80's and the 90's, he was friends with Bill Clinton.  He now may be more comfortable with the Republicans based on some current associations.

While the Democrats and the Republicans may be short on bench strength, the phenomenon that elected Trump may not be, as it could have a 59 year old successor waiting in the wings.



Postscript comments, 11/30:  Not included at all in Wikipedia is the fact that Fertitta had a close call in his finances in the late 1980's.  His aggressive expansion and use of leverage was not an approach that fared well in that period.  This is not unlike Trump during that period.  They both recovered, using legal settlements to minimize their debt and government programs to support their recovery.

Unlike Trump, Fertitta does not appear to be one who favors over the top extravagance in his lifestyle.  He does live large for sure, but gold leaf is not on everything.

It is certain that many others have much more knowledge about Fertitta than is known here.  This was written on a whim, initiated by the aforementioned advertisement.

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death"

This HBO documentary was watched here earlier tonight.  While it is a portrait of a land of despair, it is also somewhat invigorating.  The people are real.  Their needs are striking but their plight is somewhat endearing, and that thought is not meant to be patronizing.  They say,"We are not just any country, this is Cuba."  That suggests not only a strong sense of identity but also the severe limitations of their lives.  Cuba appears as not just a step back in time because of its cars.  The step back in time pervades everything.  In the words of one of the participants, a writer, it is a country as a mausoleum.

This film was worth every minute of the time watched, although that may not be saying much here. One could think that if life in that country gets a chance to improve, the resilient residents will thrive. They undeniably have suffered but some of what they missed may have been worth missing.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

More comments on the election...

Most of the ongoing news related to the election and the transition has become tiring.  At times it seems like watching a car crash in slow motion.  So apologies for making more comments here.

The question now has become, "who is the spokesperson for the Democratic Party?"  That more or less falls to Barack Obama, our outgoing  President who is already in closing out mode.  His time spent with David Remnick of the "New Yorker" recently makes that clear.  He is working on making the best of a bad situation, the transfer of power to Trump.  That is certainly not easy.

Bernie Sanders came from out of nowhere in 2016 and was the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time.  He became a political celebrity during the primary.  His reach to a broader population is unlikely to grow.  The Clinton's are now moving off of the stage whether they like it or not.  John Kerry is doing the same.  Younger stars have not been nurtured as this election result was not anticipated.  Tim Kaine did not make a major impression nationally, and in his one debate he followed the Clinton team advice and seriously diminished the best qualities of his personality and approach to politics.

On the Republican side of things, Mitt Romney now looks like the desired player by the moderates of the Republican Party, if there is such a thing.  Even more bizarrely, Kellyanne Conway is openly campaigning against him on social media.  Rudy Giuliani is campaigning for himself intensely. Secretary of State is an important job, and this is difficult to watch.

One could wonder if Trump is already feeling some cognitive dissonance.  He wanted to win, he loved the attention, and now he needs to make something work?  He cannot manage the presidency in an "out of control" manner like he did in the campaign, so the concern is that someone else will.  Will it default to the at times delusional extreme right wing funder Robert Mercer's hired hands of Bannon and Conway?

Friday, November 25, 2016

Facebook overload

Not a big user of Facebook here although it is followed every other day, more or less.  During the rush to the election there were five or six posts from here, before that maybe five or six over the prior six months.  Now when I check in, the flow to me is overwhelming.

Everyone is forwarding everything to everyone.  This experience over the last few days is not an exaggeration.  To find a reaction to an interesting post read the prior day may take many minutes of scrolling.  Perhaps this is the desire of many users or of FB.  Whether this lack of algorithmic choice is good, or chosen, or if it does not exist, may seem well and good to Facebook users who want to see their name spread widely.  Admittedly, most people have a touch of that.  But, but, never start a sentence with "But", what is going on is becoming incoherent.

My two cents of expertise is that the company, FB, has a choice.  That is continue to expand exponentially and drive away non-obsessive users who may have money or put some limit on the forwarding, like no second uncles.  Non-obsessive users may be their best choice for advertising.  I am a non-obsessive user, so this is completely biased territory.  If they are reluctant to go to Facebook because so and so and so and forwarded an old friend's perfect Thanksgiving floral arrangement or long ago acquaintance's family photos, or a photo from a tennis friend of the past of him with Vitas with twenty people in different photos, then they are not there for the targeted user.

That concerns me about Facebook.  I have no need to invest in FB or to sell it.  I was there at the beginning after the big dip from the IPO. I am seriously in.  Still, this is a stock with potential. Selling FB in any major way would be like selling the future, an awkward sign like endorsing Mike Pence as an alternative.

There was a post on FB from here wishing the few friends of mine who choose to be on Facebook a nice Thanksgiving.  With so few friends, my response rate of "likes" was around 20%. How nice. Could have been a player statistically?  No looking back  Hope that your leftovers are as good as mine, almost always better.  It's no stress eating.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Equity markets shed no light

Today's U.S. equity market was stable.  Now, just before the Thanksgiving weekend, accepting that there should only be modest trading on Friday, there was no sign of short selling or short covering in balance.

Lilly was hit big on its trial's failure with an Alzheimer's drug, and was a buying opportunity later in the day.  Small caps settled down.

Heavy eating was anticipated, one could guess.  No thoughts here, but observant and less than reassured.

Diverted by books being attempted

Recently, there have been books that are not finished, mostly for good reason.
 --- "His Final Battle" is a non-fiction account of the last year of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.  It is informative to a fault.  The writer, Joseph Leyveld, is a former New York Times writer who has done thorough research.  If a project on Roosevelt were underway here reading would be continued, but the detail is overwhelming for this reader at the moment.  It's fine, but will remain bookmarked for a return later, maybe when snowed in at some point.

---"Island of Vice" is the story of Teddy Roosevelt's effort to clean up New York City in the early 1900's as its police commissioner.  It may still be read on some intensely sunny day.  Unfortunately the copy received from Amazon has such small print that no amount of light in the bedroom is sufficient for a relaxed read.  Later... somehow.  Richard Zacks is an exceptional writer of history.

---"A Voice in the Night" is the latest detective novel from Andrea Camillera.  Once his books were a source of relaxed pleasure.  Now one could wonder if he is still the writer.

---"The Sellout" by Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize recently.  That is amazing.  Try as one might, almost halfway through it could not be continued.  It is a lame book.  How it won a prize can be explained but that will not be done here.  There is some humor to be found, but it is difficult with the every sentence attempts at sophomoric laughs.  If this is an attempt to recreate Ishmael Reed's wonderful 1970's "Mumbo Jumbo", it fails.

New books are in hand.  They look like opportunities to get lost in good words again.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

U.S. equities at highs but...

Comments about the equity market's resilience continue.  After a one night Trump win related dive on November 8-9, stocks have been, in the aggregate, on a consistent rise.  Looking at SPY, the S&P index fund, it is well above an all time high.  Short interest is at 26%.  Then looking at QQQ, representing the Nasdaq, it has just this week passed its all time high which was set in the early 2000 tech bubble.  Short interest is at 16%.

These "all time high" numbers are somewhat misleading.  They do not take into account inflation and they do not take into account the comparative cost of capital at various periods.  Nevertheless, they are interesting benchmarks.  They do reflect basic proven valuation analysis if one believes in a market that is relatively efficient over time.  So prices measured by return on equity, the cost of capital calculated based on interest rate levels and perceived risk, and the expected longevity of current returns are all factored in, theoretically speaking that is.

The most subjective aspect of this type of analysis is the length of time the equity is determined to be able to maintain its competitive advantage.  Determining this is complicated by the environment in which a firm operates.  Currently the market is projecting that Trump as president will benefit business as regulations are modified, corporate taxes reduced, and penalties for repatriation of profits relaxed.  For the moment, the market is ignoring other concerns.

Those concerns are related to the stability of a Trump presidency and the coherence of his policies. They relate as well to his appointments that are ongoing.  These will affect the valuation of the market no matter how well firms are doing today.  How long will the market do well if Trump doesn't settle down and show a predictable management style?  If the market is discounting a six or seven year continuation of global competitive advantage that may be fair now, but will it be generally viewed that way six months from now.

There are doubts here, and that view leads to the thought that the market is due for a significant correction.  When is unknown, but stable investors will not view unstable leadership as a positive for overall valuation.  The coming weeks and months could see the indexes strong levels at risk.  The shorts are there for a reason, and the market seems too high to have much of a short covering rally. What is the risk/reward here?  It may not be attractive.

We will watch with caution.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Vice News tonight"

This recently started HBO news program at 7:30pm each weekday night is watched here.  After a month of it being on, it is finally remembered most nights.  The half hour program makes no attempt to cover all of the day's news events.  It chooses a few relevant topics and digs in.  At times the choices of news to highlight are what might be mentioned here on ENS as well, not that there is any regularity here.

While PBS Newshour is still on at that time, that reliable program has been using more and more panel discussions that seem to have recurring panelists, sometimes with little of interest to say. There is still great news on PBS when they choose to or can afford to cover it.  Vice News offers an attractive alternative.  Choice is good and the program is well done.