Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Yet another take-out night

It's more or less that I cook fish or we buy take out here.  More not so bad Chinese tonight from a neighboring town, pretty good food.  I don't seem to be able to eat beef any more, as much as a great steak and a great bottle of red wine in a mid-town restaurant was my ultimate meal for so many years.

Today is a day off from cooking swordfish, grouper,  salmon, cod, whatever.  My decision has not led to a totally happy start to the evening.

Rodman as our ambassador

In one of those completely absurd moments that happen in international politics with isolated nations, Dennis Rodman, with his heavy tats and unpredictable behavior, seems to have become our unofficial ambassador to North Korea.  He is once again going to the country to see his "awesome friend" Kim Jong-un.  Kim, by some accounts a big fan of basketball, wants to continue his discussion of the sport with Rodman.

While a controversial and at times hostile personality, Rodman was a fierce rebound leader in the NBA and is a member of the NBA Hall of Fame.  His visit follows the rejection a few days ago of a visit by a senior American diplomat to discuss the release of a Korean-American missionary who is a prisoner of the regime.

Any evidence of a cosmopolitan understanding of the world by young Kim is missing from this.  We all know the antics of Rodman well, whether smart or the opposite it's hard to tell.

We know all too well of North Korea's nuclear capacity, allowed by the other major totalitarian power in region, the much larger and more prosperous China.  Three quarters of the North Korean population are starving or in horrible prisons, all something that the cynical self serving Chinese are aware of and essentially sanction, but it is unclear if Dennis Rodman has any clue.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Apple's new arrogance

Apple is a phenomenal company, one that has provided significant shareholder returns to my family.  Steve Jobs had a right to some arrogance, his brilliance led the company.  But now, with recent experience, Apple stores are filled with employees with unusual arrogance, and perhaps ignorance, who demean potential customers and backtrack on claims of what they can do.  Their beautiful stores are boxes of unhelpful people in many places.  Here in New York that may be an anomaly as I am told by a friend in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina that store employees go out of their way to meet every request by a customer and answer any naive question. If the arrogance here by any chance spreads, it's an epidemic that will destroy the company in the long term.

Postscript:   I'll let stand the above comment, but after a call by yours truly on behalf of my wife and with the information from Apple users elsewhere, the store called back with the only sensible solution, one that was denied us for the afternoon by arrogant staff.  Thank goodness for finally a reasonable response after a day of frustration.  They do have a management issue, but with tenacity one that one seems to be able to break through for now.  

"Lincoln" and "Djanko Unchained"

It was Labor Day, and while there is no labor here in any traditional sense, writing, reading, and rithmitic keep a busy schedule.  My "to do" list is filled with requirements related to the house, the cars, the existing technology, the financial accounts for five people and the health needs of all of us, it's non-stop.  Labor Day was taken as a day off.

While immensely enjoying films here, seeing them in theaters is often overlooked, even with a cool arts theater in our little town.  It's the timing.  Seeing films in the darkness of the light of day is just not my style and K's early night time hours plus our dinnertime rituals make evening films difficult to see.  "Blue Jasmine" is now one of the films at our local theater, has been for three weeks, but we have yet to make time to see it, gorge on popcorn, and pay $4 for a bottle of water or an insipid but caffeine loaded Pepsi or Mountain Dew.  We hope to see it in the next day or two.

Yesterday, the timing of Netflix receipts worked perfectly.  "Lincoln" and "Djanko Unchained" were seen on yesterday's Labor Day, an indulgence.  "Lincoln" from this perspective, was on the whole a dismal film.  While historically accurate, it accentuated Lincoln's penchant for storytelling as if the director thought making this apparent was groundbreaking.  It was not to any well versed reader about the civil war.  We all know that Lincoln had a long battle with depression, but the film showed it while shedding no light on it.  The film missed any incongruities of  behavior that would have lightened the atmosphere, like "Dixie" being his favorite song, not for the words, just the tune that was played at events during his Presidency.  No light moment was allowed in this film and based on most historical accounts his relationship with his wife was treated gently.  After his death she refused to leave the White House for six months and eventually had to be removed, however gently by force.  To accentuate the positive, the entire sequence leading to the passage of the 13th amendment was gripping and incredibly well done, and not in any way dated given our own gridlock today.

That was the morning.  In the evening came "Django Unchained", directed by and Oscar winning screenplay written by the inimitable Quentin Tarantino.  Despite the dire subject, this film was pure entertainment from beginning to end.  The use of the music from Sergio Leone films put it all in perspective, all of the violence, near the end, if that clue was needed for anyone.  The cinematography was gorgeous in parts and the pace of the film was such that I actually stayed awake, a problem sometimes since 5:30am seems to be my wake up time no matter when I fall asleep.  It is well known that in the deep South, the slaves were treated with extreme cruelty compared to what was more common, still awful, in much of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina.  This was on full display in the film, a reminder of a legacy that we would all like to think is behind us.  Apart from the violence and cruelty on display, and a necessary part of the story and the indulgence of Western movies, the film itself, from this point of view, was exceptional.

These were the highlights of a day with no labor.  No waits in lines of cars to lie on a towel in the dirt and get skin cancer anymore, despite some of the eye-catching natural beauty around. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Pending new information, stocks set for strong day on Tuesday

There is no Labor Day in the rest of the world.  Markets were open and active.  The response to Obama's pullback on Syria from doing something too late and too predictable may be a big part of this.

Today the DAX, the German market exchange, was up 1.7%.  If there is any good proxy in the world for the U.S. market, this is it.  The Euro Stoxx 50, large caps in Europe, was up 1.9%, and the FTSE in Britain was up 1.5%.  Add to that Asia, with the Nikkei up 1.4%, the Hang Seng up 2%, and the ASX up 1%.

On top of that, or part of it, was the Verizon/Vodaphone deal that tantalizes investors about heightened merger and acquisition activity.  Then too after many tries, 64 year old Diana Nyad became the first swimmer to go from Cuba to Florida, 103 miles, without protection from sharks.  Amazing.

Tomorrow's markets will reflect many factors.  At this point, the wind it is behind our backs.  Whether it stays that way tonight is a bet that retail investors have no way to make.  We'll just wait and see.

Timing is important --- 2008 decisions compared to today's on Syria

President Obama's decision to wait until Congress approves any possible action on Syria is "prudent", and that includes several interpretations of that word.  No matter what happens the time to act has been missed.  Obama waited for the U.N. inspectors to determine if there had been a chemical attack, and is still waiting.  Their mission is not to determine who or where it emanated from, just that there was a chemical attack.  How absurd is this.  Was it an unusual occurrence of acid rain?, a major case of food poisoning?, an act of God?  It was obvious to all that it was a chemical weapons attack from the beginning and it was obvious to all from the beginning that the almost certain source was the Assad government who had the means to attack and wanted to test the U.S. mettle to deal with it after multiple smaller uses in recent months in other parts of their country.

The time to take any assertive punitive action was immediately.  Immediately has now been lost, and any action now must have a strategic plan that does not exist and a rationale that no longer has any sense of outrage, anger, or a sense of upholding common sense, not only opposition to the use of chemical weapons in any way, but unbelievably against civilian populations .  That sense of outrage would have been the reason for a quick reaction. 

It is a reminder here of the fall of 2008 when Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, supported fully by President Bush, called on the Congress for an immediate injection of liquidity into the financial system by the federal government in order to halt a chaotic decline in financial markets and business activity.  This was the famous three page document that was ridiculed widely by Congress, led by limited, biased and self righteous thinkers like Senator Carl Levin.  It was not even taken to the floor of Congress.  How could any financial action of that magnitude be taken without the opportunity to attach multiple earmarks by Congressional leaders.

This huge mistake underscored the lack of almost any financial markets understanding by most members of Congress.  Financial markets move in their own time frame.  Immediate action as Paulson wanted could have removed many of the toxic assets from the market before many more credit default swaps were written by poorly managed firms like AIG, having lost their real leader to the evil Spitzer's self serving venom(Hank Greenberg was eventually exonerated of all of Spitzer's charges but the company he was forced to leave was in a shambles without his leadership).  During the time it took to finally pass a bill that added liquidity to the system, financial markets virtually collapsed and business activity, small and large business, came to a halt.  I had written here that even our town's local diner, the meeting place for all, was almost empty for two months with no one parting with the money to get their $6 tuna on rye and $2 cup of pea soup at lunch.

Paulson's urgency was what was absolutely needed at the time and could have had the chance to halt the market meltdown in its tracks.   By the time Congress passed some earmark loaded bill to do something, it was far too late.  The damage had been done.

This analogy to today and Syria could be viewed as imperfect or incorrect.  That is not the perception here.  Timing is important.  Any action to hold Syria accountable is now improbable, and if eventually taken will have no impact on the situation overall.  It makes the U.S. look impotent already and Obama look incredibly weak.  His "red line" statement was just big talk, with no big walk behind it.

At this point any action may just be counter productive, or just a nod of our willingness to confront Assad in a minor way to our allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan while displaying the U.S. weapons capability for a day or two.   

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Vanity Fair's feature writing

It sometimes feels embarrassing to me to have a subscription to "Vanity Fair", with its incomparable number of pages of fashion ads for the really wealthy, people maybe with money to burn and perhaps a questionable purpose in life, or so it seems to me.  I choke on it, but really like the magazine.

While "The New Yorker" has no challenger from this perspective as a combination of  feature writing, opinion, news, enlightened criticism of books and films, and published fiction, "Vanity Fair" has some feature writing in every issue that is worth the minimal price to have a home subscription for these weighty tomes of ads.  Finding the good stuff can be a challenge as the magazine does not seem to be diligent about page numbers, and the ones that are there need a magnifying glass to be seen, is that an age thing.  That, in a sense, must be by design to force a reader to comb through and see all of the advertisements while looking for some of the best feature writing available in any magazine.

The writers that they attract must indicate that they pay well.  Generally speaking each issue will have two or three relatively serious feature articles that are well written and worth every penny for the subscription, and several more that are focused on their advertising client base but, despite that, are well written as well, and interesting despite their subject.  Money porn about fashion, royalty, affairs, and real estate for the wealthy or aspirational or just curious I guess, and I must admit that I am not above reading parts of it.

I was catching up on these features in the last two month's issues this morning to clear the mess around my reading chair and make the recyclable bin many times heavier than usual.  That is the genesis of this short comment.