Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Bloody Crimes"

Despite the date, this is not a Halloween post.

"Bloody Crimes" is a work of history by James Swanson published last month with the subtitle "The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse".

The reviews attracted my attention and Swanson's prior book, "Manhunt", about the days before the capture and killing of John Wilkes Booth, had been a bestseller. The clincher for purchasing the book, however, was my curiosity about the Jefferson Davis side of the story and what it might reveal about his stay in hometown Danville, Virginia which views itself as the Last Capital of the Confederacy.

The two stories are intertwined in a way that pushes the narrative forward in an absorbing manner. The book is well written storytelling, and the quality of the research is endorsed on the cover by the well known Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. That's good enough for me.

The Lincoln side of the story is focused initially on the last days of the war and the fateful night at Ford theater, but primarily it details the public grief and ceremonies that followed his assassination and the train journey returning his body to Illinois. This is all interesting but the details of each stop on the journey may be more of interest to professional historians than to a lay reader.

The Jefferson Davis side of the book is fascinating because so much of the information is new to me. Davis is certainly not remotely a figure of historical writing and research like Lincoln. Despite growing up in the "Last Capital", attending Robert E. Lee Junior High School and regularly squaring off in basketball games against Stonewall Jackson Junior High just across the Dan River, Davis was almost unknown to me except as the stalwart severe leader of a failed and flawed cause.

Without going forward with some book review type prose, what follows are some interesting facts from the book, mostly new to me if not to whoever reads this.

---Much of Richmond burned to the ground because "The Confederates would, by accident, set their own city ablaze because they burned supplies to keep the goods out of Union hands". This led to a conflagration and numerous explosions none of which had to do with advancing Union forces nearby. A shot did not need to be fired to take the destroyed city.

---Lincoln spent most of the ten days prior to the capture of Richmond near the front lines, wanting to be with the troops. He bravely, or some would say dangerously, toured the city with just a few troops as guards the day after.

---Returning to Washington for initial ceremonies, Lincoln was treated to an outdoor concert featuring his favorite form of music, military bands, and requested that "Dixie" be played twice. This was apparently solely because it had always been one of his favorite tunes and he could now request it again.

---Jefferson Davis's retreat to set up a government in Danville with two trains following each other took 18 hours to cover the 140 miles as the tracks were in such disrepair. His departure from Danville seven days later was chaotic as heavy rains had created knee deep mud around the train station and just getting loaded took an entire night. The 45 miles to Greensboro took seven hours.

---Davis and much of the Confederate cabinet were in Danville from April 3rd to April 10th. They were received openly and warmly by the citizens there. Having to retreat further after Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, they next went to Greensboro N.C. where no one would provide them shelter and no government welcome showed up. They stayed in small rented quarters for a few days, cooking and fending for themselves, not even having enough tin plates, cups, and cutlery. Not only were the North Carolina citizens less supportive of the Confederate government, they were afraid that any association with Davis would lead to the destruction of their city by the advancing Stoneman's cavalry. Charlotte, Davis's next stop, reacted similarly and the only lodging was provided by a transplanted "Yankee" who it turned out was doing so for exploitive purposes, both to promote himself and distort what had happened in sensational ways to the Northern press. So while Davis and his entourage had not given up and still hoped to set up a new place of government, for all practical purposes Danville was the last functioning seat of the Confederate government, no matter how briefly and how out of touch it was with the status of the war due to communications difficulties.

---All of the gold and silver in the Confederate treasury was on the train to Danville. It supposedly continued on with Davis but when he was finally caught in Georgia with just a few wagons and everyone else on horseback there did not appear to be any substantial amount and what was there disappointed but was still looted by Union soldiers. So, somewhere along the way, much of the treasure disappeared and that mystery is not addressed by the book. It was definitely not taken by Davis as he was left with nothing, taking various jobs after his release from prison and eventually he and his family were willed a house on the Gulf coast by a friend.

---Davis, like Lee and Grant, was a West Point graduate, fought in the Mexican War, twice traveling the 1000 miles there by horseback for duty, fought the Comanches in Arkansas, eventually was elected to Congress, was in the Franklin Pierce cabinet as Secretary of War, was elected a Senator, was a founder of the Smithsonian Museum, and was in charge of supervising the substantial expansion of the U.S. Capital building in the 1850's. Like Lee he was a nationalist who worked to contain extremism but chose to defend his native culture when war came. For some reason I knew almost none of this.

---And one last odd fact - in his last years, in his late 70's and early 80's he became a hero and to some extent a healer in the South while living mostly at his Gulf Coast Mississippi home. Oscar Wilde, then 26, was on a lecture tour of the U.S. and for some reason decided that the one person that he wanted to meet in America was Jefferson Davis. So when his tour landed him in New Orleans he visited Davis at his home. He came for dinner and entertained Davis's wife, daughter, and sister-in-law late into the evening but Davis said little and retired early. In the morning his only comment was "I didn't like that man".

There's an accompanying photo related to that and many events throughout the book that add to the overall themes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What's up with Obama

On the eve of the Rally to Restore Sanity and The March to Keep Fear Alive I find myself wondering what President Obama is really thinking. Sometimes it seems as if people have already forgotten the perhaps unprecedented brilliance of his campaign to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and his then unflappable consistency against every Republican angle in the presidential contest.

He is now facing losses for his party in these mid-term elections that will not be trivial, and that may be a huge understatement. Has the Spockian side of his persona already calculated why this is not a big problem and could even play to his advantage. His mind is certainly active. What's his current, and personal, political thinking?

Could it be that he is proud of the legislation that has passed, knows that the next two years will be highly unlikely to offer another such opportunity, and just wants to sit back and: use his veto; fine tune and fix flaws with what has already been passed working with his executive branch policy teams; focus on serious foreign policy issues; and watch the Republicans skewer each other as they finally have enough power to try to do something other than oppose anything Obama.

Using immigration reform as an example of the latter, it is, I dearly hope, highly unlikely that the Republican party can base its policy proposals solely on xenophobia, fear, racism, and hatred. Their policy proposals certainly would have some harsh aspects but they cannot simply ignore the corporate interests, small business owners, and agricultural industries that each in their own way want constructive immigration reform. Having some responsibility to structure legislation, they will either splinter or risk losing any credibility as the "party of American business". The pressure will be on.

Take energy policy as another open issue. Cap and trade would be dead in their proposals(there is debate on right, left, and in the middle on this issue by the way) but the Republicans can't credibly build an energy policy on "drill baby drill", give up our national parkland, and cut off those mountaintops. There are major powers in corporate America on all sides of the political spectrum who see great promise in green energy investments even apart from any heartfelt concern about the environment. They see Germany and China now already leading the way in these major new businesses. Once again, the Republicans would be forced to exercise some judgement and compromise or risk looking like fools rather than the savvy politicians and patriots that they somehow see themselves as today.

Obama can watch the carnage and make an effort to get his own party in order as well such that some of the purely political hacks that undercut his credibility over the last two years can be cleared like Bush's brush. 2012 comes and the incumbant Obama retains the nomination, the Republicans fight like dogs during their nomination process and either come up with some unattractive compromise or end up with a Perot like third party break out. Remember - Perot won just over 19% of the popular vote in 1992 assuring Bill Clinton's election.

So that's one scenario that could be lurking in Obama's brain.

The other thought that comes to mind is one in which he wouldn't mind being a one term President, just as some Senators in recent years call it quits when they see the political gridlock as pointless. Obama's stature would be immense, he would be free from the political gamesmanship that is now required, and with his relative youth and vitality he could conceivably have long term global and national influence of considerable magnitude. Carter and Clinton have certainly carried on in major ways, Carter after achieving almost nothing in office and Clinton after disgracing himself. This may sound completely far-fetched. What makes this thought even come to mind is Obama's continued efforts to demonize the corporate business community and deny that he is doing it.

Just a few weeks ago the White House held some sort of forum with a group of highly influential corporate and investment types, the types of people who can certainly influence investment and EMPLOYMENT in this country, and Ken Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot(where Langone pioneered giving stock to virtually all employees and made many store managers and department floor managers wealthy as the company grew), an exceptional philanthropist, and one of the most respected members of the business community in this country, asked Obama during the Q&A why he continued to attack corporate America uniformly. President Obama denied doing so and then proceeded to trash Langone as if he were a child who belonged in prison. This seems almost like deliberate self destructive behavior. I don't get it.

What's Obama really thinking? Then again, is he, or is he just a hard working, smart, and highly political person making decisions and statements as best that he can each step of the way without any more certainty of the outcome than any other regular human.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Volatility offers opportunity

The equity market's extreme volatility may just be a chance to make changes to a portfolio. Maybe that's just a personal observation. As mostly a buy and hold investor my fortunes are mostly in line with or modestly ahead of the market, with the exception of some major holdings that go stratospheric, Apple or Akamai as examples. Otherwise it's all just in line with or slightly ahead of market averages.

The recent rise in the market has made me more active and the volatility, of collapse yesterday recovery today, just sent me active today. Why not sell a cloud company selling at 80 times earnings, VMWare, with a triple over the last year. I did. Why not sell a battery firm in Georgia, Exide, competing with firms in China and Korea at breakeven after being underwater forever. Once I had a huge gain here but sell it I did. Why not sell a meaningful position in Seagate at a gain after it must be in the hands of the arbitrageurs. I had been down on that one for the last six months and now the takeover talk has it up big.

Maybe I'm moving away from the intensity of stock picking to opportunistic stock selling. Quite a few stocks to deal with now, but maybe Vanguard here I come. That's the direction but that's not exactly right. Recent stock picks like LULU and RAX and NFLX and others that give short term serious, some massive, gains will always be attractive and losers can be sold on these maybe risky categories at a 15% decline if I can be so alert.

That's a risk.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Evil empires compete - Fox and Cable

The standoff between Fox and Cablevision here on Long Island and in the Philly area could be a blessing without disguise. We are relieved for a day of the Fox almost Nazi-like inexcusable exploitation of populist resentment on the one hand and we could see the fall of a private company now run by a spoiled, incompetent, crass, and megalomaniac hier to a formerly fine family business on the other.

I miss the Fox sports. I must decide whether this is it with Cablevision and go to Verizon Fios which is supposedly a better delivery. Problem is if your Verizon phone service goes dead, at least in the past, it could take two weeks to restore, whereas Cable is there within the day if your television or internet disrupts.

The spoiled James Dolan of Cablevision should simply be displaced or bought out. He works through proxies whose pockets depend on him. He fancies himself a rock star. A couple of years ago I went to see a revival of "The Blues Project" at the BBKing Club on 42nd Street. Unknown to me "JB and the 'whatevers'" was the opening act. Since I am no longer a regular at such venues I took it seriously for awhile especially since the audience had been stuffed with applauding Cablevision employees. No fool forever, however, it began feeling like I was at the Danville YWCA at an 8th grade dance, no disrespect to those better performers in Danville intended. I worried, and then came the real act, the real thing, and there was an infinite grasp of the joy of why I was there. This guy James Dolan buys ego time. He is a beyond words. On top of that, and maybe the worst, he has destroyed the New York Knicks, most notably relying on the known huckster Isiah Thomas who knows how to stroke the his ego with perfection.

He and his father blocked what would have been Mayor Bloomberg's signature project, that being a stadium over the far west side yards for sports and conventions(personal opinion is that it was a once in a lifetime sensational project in one of the few cities in the world that could have supported it). The Dolans are so insular and self serving and without any foresight or care about any concerns but their own control that it seems incomprehensible. Tell you the truth, their territory, the South Shore of Long Island, is like Alabama's Richard Shelby territory, it's Al D'Amato's power base, the foundation of Long Island's corrupt patronage government that exists beyond party boundaries, and Cablevision's hier with his record of no achievement as a youngster but lanquid behavior at SUNY Albany is just a part of all of that. How can you blame him. You couldn't if he didn't control a business worth billions.

Murdoch's Newscorp is Dolan on a global scale. A driven, successful, and mean father who succeeds but has no one to truly execute his morality free success except possibly his young asian wife who may be more powerful than her beauty hides. Local and global meet.

I missed the Giants and Phils tonight. I miss seeing McCovey Cove. I grew up a Giants fan as a Danville Leafs minor league fan. One year I knew Willie McCovey from the required distance in those days when he was 18 or 19 and I was 8 or 9 - Danville Leafs. I once leaned over the dugout with Nehi orange soda in hand when Willie was in the batters box and yelled "hit a home run", and he stepped up and swiped a curving line drive over the right field fence. Missing our baseball is a big deal.

I may delete this tomorrow but these guys, the Dolans and the Murdochs are totally...

Purple Haze

There's an interesting story here. I'm not a journalist so the first three sentences don't tell the story.

The October 17th NYT book review section has a review of "Becoming Jimi Hendrix" a just published book about the guitar player icon's early life. I have only read the review. From this perspective, what Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were to jazz in the 50's, Hendrix and Dylan were to rock music history.

Bias presented, the review seemed to have the similar thoughts and the book looks interesting if one is obsessed with the subject. Two thoughts came to mind after, no matter how totally personal.

The NYT reviewer reports his first astounding "experience" with Hendrix live in 1968 which is great. Hendrix's Woodstock blowout was in '69 and he had become a touring phenom before that. His first real U.S. exposure was the Monterey Festival in late June of '07 which really became well known much later after the Pennebaker documentary of '69. While Hendrix became a minor cult personality in Europe in the mid-60's and his first album was released there in May '67 and then in the U.S. in the mid-summer of that year, his advent here was slower than might be expected today.

Arriving at college in fall 1967 there were the mostly a musically ambivalent pop crowd and some from the northeast and philly who were a Doors and Airplane sub-group. There was one blues guy from Cleveland who taught me a lot and maybe I introduced him just a little to Hendrix who had caught me almost immediately. We bonded. Remember that was early fall 1967.

We, D.C. Jimmy and I, found that Hendrix was scheduled to play in D.C. at the Sheraton Ballroom on Embassy Row. Easy tickets that fall, student financial ability accessible. We bought tickets, took a few bus transfers and were there.

The ballroom was set up like a business conference. Big curtained stage, big round tables with nice white table cloths and settings, and black jacketed waiters looking for your orders. Nice place. They were looking for new star lounge act, the Sinatra of the next generation.

We sat a table and it was apparent that the wait staff already knew that this was not the usual crowd. Hendrix and his bandmates Redding and Mitchell came on. The generational era gap and ear splitting sound began, tables turned over, tablesclothes hurled, turned into capes covering girls with little else under, no order prevailed, and Hendrix not only soared but challenged like Morrison as he played his guitar mastabatory style between his legs for extended periods. The performance and music was something that I can never recreate, wish I could.

So much for a lounge act. The music was new. The cultural event and the music was mind bending for a small town guy, even for the big city guy with me.

Postscript - part of the NYT book review mentions Hendrix's stint in the Air Force and his training at paratrouper training, cut short by his honorary discharge due to some unnamed behavioral issue. Maybe this is old news, to me of course, but a recent aquaintance of mine who is a Vietnam vet told me that purple flares were sent to signal paratroupers of their landing spot. "Scuse me while I kiss the sky."

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Every Man in this Village is a Liar", by Megan K. Stack

This is an amazing book.

It is a young journalist's first hand account of her six years covering the wars in the Middle East from 2001 to 2007. It was published in June of this year and has been nominated for the National Book Award in non-fiction. It was unknown to me until last week probably because the New York Times has apparently chosen not to review it. Draw your own conclusion.

Stack has stints in Afghanistan at the onset of the first U.S. invasion as the then 25 year old L.A. Times reporter happened to be on vacation in Paris on 9/11 and with airspace shut down she was one of their few reporters able to get on the scene quickly. The first chapter describing what she experienced there is a stunning beginning to the book and her unvarnished observations were more informative to me than almost anything I have read.

She had assignments over time in Iraq, Isreal, Lebannon, Saudi Arabia, Cairo, Amman, and Yemen. She has no favorites other than the everyday people that she met, interviewed, hid with, and with whom at times she shared danger. Her observations are not ones that derive from some standard political angles.

At times I worked to find fault with the book. Was it overwritten with adjectives in abundance. Was it overly dramatic. In the end I gave up the effort for objectivity and accepted that it was just a brilliant book that had insights that were so obvious that they had been overlooked by most of the war reporting.

This book both confirmed what we know if we think about the Middle East and added a personal story that made it come to life. There have been many reviews elsewhere that preclude this one from going on. Many quotes of consequence could be dug up with more work here. I'll close with just one from the closing chapter.

"Somewhere between Afghanistan and Iraq, we lost our way. The carnage of it and the disorder, all to create a new Middle East. But naturally there would be no new Middle East because the old Middle East is still here, and where should it go? Only a country as quixotic, as history free, as America could come up with this notion: that you can make the old one go away."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Gold as "safe money"

The last post here closed with a reference to gold as "safe money". That is the motivation of investors now and a reason for gold's increase in value. That was the context of the comment, but of course in a broader context it's wrong. Gold is not money. Gold can be highly volatile. Gold, like any commodity, can collapse in price. It can be consciously or unconsciously manipulated by speculators.

"Safe money" is more generally viewed as being short to medium term U.S. treasuries. At the moment the main risk there is devaluation of the U.S. currency and the potential for yield that is below inflation. Oops, what's really safe. At least gold can be held, touched, fondled, and stored away Midas-like in a safety deposit box.

Sunday, October 03, 2010


There is talk now of bubbles in bonds, gold, emerging markets, and high yield debt. The data would only suggest that these investments are going up. So-called bubbles get their name early. The trick is determining when they pop. For the most part they are just normal financial markets events which eventually go across the chalk line.

In 1996 there was a major media and pop analyst discussion about the bubble in tech stocks. In a meeting then with a hedge fund investor, clouded by the incredible inepititude of the head of technology at my own company who couldn't figure out how to log on the internet in the meeting, the simple fact was stated - at least buy Cisco, they are the tracks. At that time the tech bubble had four years to go and lots, lots, of money was made in those four years. Same with real estate in a way as we, the Long Island folks, traded up in our home buildings in 1997, saw surreal values attached to the roof over our heads by 2007, but have settled into some unknowable netherworld now but easily above our basis.

THE POINT IS - what may be seen as a bubble may last a long time. It's certainly difficult, just basic math, to see much upside in bonds, but gold, emerging markets, and well researched high yield debt could have a run for a few years. At some point, yeah, they'll retrace somewhat or even pop, but for now they are the place to be. That's with a base of dividend paying U.S. stock and technology leaders as a foundation.

Of course, some safe money is always a good idea, but that's what gold is all about.