Wednesday, November 13, 2013

New healthcare website is essential for long term viability

It seems here that a completely new U.S. healthcare website needs to be built.  It can be done parallel to all of the multiple patches being done on the government bureaucracy built disaster.  There is here, and and with any responsible tech analyst(not here), almost no hope that the current website will ever work in an easily functional way.

Why not give Google, Microsoft, IBM, or Oracle or the other of the U.S. technology titans a contract to build a completely new user friendly system, not just one that is user friendly and but one that actually works.  The transition in six months or so would hopefully be seamless.   Pay up for all of the administration's mistaken confidence and arrogance and get on with it.  No more management consultants of limited capability or Canadian consultants paid as the greatest experts on earth for our health care system.

WE NEED THIS TO WORK, and not be beholden to an isolated President.  The goals of the Affordable Care Act are laudable, but the details are a morass of questionable ideas and poor, beyond poor, implementation.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

U.S. government far behind the curve on technology capabilities

The U.S. government apparently has invested far too little in useable technology for a long time.  It appears clear that they have been honoring the rigorous time tested completely flawed system of appointing cabinet members and their leading managers based on patronage, media reputation, good looks, vacuous communication skills, and party loyalty.  This is true of both parties.  Now we have the health care website debacle, which as said here weeks ago will in no way be solved by the end of November.  Plus, we have the horrific situation of a 600,000 person backlog in applications from veterans for their coverage after returning from the Middle East wars with PTSD or chronic physical problems.  Recent government commentary suggests that they expect to have the backlog cleared up by 2015(that was meant to be a positive statement), but  that of course is just a guess since more will be coming in.  Can anyone with any experience, personal or with a family member, imagine having the immediacy of feeling mental illness and being told to wait two years before entering the system to get help, most importantly, and eventually some compensation.

The NYT had an article on Monday on the entrepreneur who promised the end of November healthcare website fix.  He has been part of the Obama west wing inside crowd since 2009.  At that time in 2009 when his appointment to streamline federal bureaucracy he is quoted as saying that the government has "largely missed out on the technology revolution".  How clever.  Yet in the last  four years improvements are not evident.  Now Jeffrey Zients, the bureaucrat quoted, is newly in charge of the health care website fix.  By all accounts he has no hands on technology experience.  He is a management consultant.  Anyone who has ever been in big corporate business with open eyes knows the type.  They are obsequious and fawning to senior executives, while endorsing or creating short term plans that will make them appear to be successful.  They are darn good talkers with little substance.  It is not known here if this applies to Mr. Zients, but his background is not encouraging.

The NYT said on Monday that based on most observers comments, there were other candidates that were more qualified but Mr. Zients was "the best of those Mr. Obama and an insular White House were comfortable with".  We certainly want the President to be comfortable.

In fact this just perpetuates the technology vacuum in the U.S. government, not including of course the NSA, FBI, and CIA.  They seem to be comfortable with their allotments, capabilities, ability to do as they please.  This is an Obama issue, a Bush issue, and a Clinton issue.  The U.S. government has broadly missed the boat on technology and we have no one willing to take on the challenge, having real technology experts on board who might speak forthrightly and criticize them.

We seem to intuit here that the U.S. government's senior management cadre's overall understanding of technology may be slightly better than mine.  That is a truly disturbing statement. 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Economic outlook and securities market sentiment are murky at present

Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor in struggling industries, recently raised $100 million to buy four "Ultramax" ships, massive freighters with special loading equipment that allows effective use in smaller less sophisticated harbors and that deliver huge amounts of commodities, whether industrial materials or food commodities.  He has an option to order four more of these Chinese made vessels.  That is certainly a positive bet on both world economic growth and especially emerging markets.

For the U.S. and Europe that growth outlook is not as clear as this emerging markets play is to Ross.  The U.S. has aggressively used monetary policy to preserve stability and raise employment levels.  The question is whether they have used all of the arrows in their quiver with this solution and if pulled back what would happen.  From this perspective, it always seems like the Fed comes up with another new maneuver when necessary, but ultimately there is an end point to that.  When that time comes, what happens?

Fiscal policy has not been used aggressively.  The type of infrastructure spending or investment in research and development in many areas that would be a boost to the economy is not something that can get through the Congress without painful cuts to programs that benefit the poor and the elderly.  Some of these have already been made, most significantly the no interest rate policy environment that gives prudent elderly savers no return on their savings while shadow inflation definitely exists, especially on anything related to healthcare for them and education for their children and grandchildren.  At the same time the value of their homes, always assumed to be a nest egg, has diminished.

Members of Congress who support the no fiscal stimulus trade-off, almost all Republicans and most ardently those who identify with the Tea Party, use an incredibly flawed and simplistic metaphor to explain their case.  They say, as a paraphrase of them all, "families sit around the kitchen table and must balance their budgets so why shouldn't the government be held to that standard".  Are these entitled Fox news folks unaware that American consumer prosperity was built on the acceptance of debt, whether home mortgages of 15-30 year length, car loans of up to 6 year terms, and student loans with generally 10 year payoffs.  While these products were certainly abused by some in the lead up to the Great Recession, they remain fundamental to the growth of the consumer economy.   The country is no different.  It needs fiscal stimulus for short term jobs and long term viability of infrastructure compared to what is being built in many other countries.

The unemployment dilemma is beginning to seem permanent.  As has been written about everywhere, technology has led to a structural change in the U.S. economy that is ongoing.  Job training is not a quick answer.  Consumer spending is relatively healthy compared to few years ago but it is by no means robust and is definitely being held up by the wealthy who have been beneficiaries of strong financial markets.  What if those markets take a break?

With an almost completely dysfunctional Congress, an insular President, a new Fed Chairman on the way(which is not necessarily a negative but does add uncertainty), the U.S. stock market continues to edge up but not due to any seismic shift  into equities from other asset classes as has been predicted by many for the last two years.  According to Sanford Bernstein research there is no evidence of this oft-predicted phenomenon.  It sometimes seems that the stock market is just trading with itself, and any unexpected negative event could lead to a significant tumble.  That is not in any way expected here this year, but 2014 may be a year when caution will at some point be important, or a necessity.

Just looking on from the sidelines here,  we are watching what's already invested and looking for opportunities always and feeling cautious.  Those successful new opportunities seem to be getter more and more short term.  The longer term investments in companies with strong balance sheets and leading market positions have already been made but more could be added.  I am not sure that now is the time.

Going back to the title of this comment, the U.S. equity market outlook over the medium term is murky.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The tedium of filing

What should my Sunday afternoon include?  Could it be be food foraging, cooking, newspaper reading, stretching exercises, continuing turning the pages of the current novel underway, football watching, filing, or writing a short blog.  Filing is the real necessity here but writing a short blog could at least be marginally viewed as constructive procrastination.  What it really is, only pure procrastination.

Filing is a never ending chore here.  Mail comes in 6 days a week, at least for now, and it is sorted from the start with more than half, advertising and unneeded documentation going straight into the trash at the outset.  Some worthwhile financial information is read quickly if carefully and then can enter the pail immediately as well.  Then there is the real stuff that needs to be filed.

It is the put in piles on the left or right side of my desk, in front of the file drawers that they are destined to be in.  That seems easy and organized, but the work begins with the real filing.  That involves seriously looking at what absolutely needs to kept and assessing what is in each file to determine what can be thrown out, shelf life already overdue.  It's time consuming and tedious.

One could say that the wonderful internet should be the solution to this problem.  For the most part everything should be there except for local service people, whether for home repairs, car repairs and maintanence, and yard and tree maintenance among other things.  That is why the vetting of files can be regularly done, but here, perhaps with a bit of irrationality, the tangibility of paper is valued.  Even the remote possibility of a serious hacking attack on a financial account or the arrival of a mega-storm once again makes this filing necessary here, old fashioned maybe but so be it.

Waste of paper and environmentally unsound certainly seems to be worthwhile trade-off to paper  but one that is not convincing enough yet to sway habits here.

Procrastination done, now to the dreaded task.


Friday, November 08, 2013

"Bloomberg Businessweek", a surprisingly good magazine

Clearly there are enough magazine subscriptions here.  They have been cut back in the last year or two but there is still more coming in that can receive a full review.  That leads to skimming tables of contents and looking for the highlights, the must-read articles, and likely missing something that may be of interest.  What it also leads to is a constantly filling box of magazines that needs to be culled regularly.

Subscribing to any other magazines was not in my game plan, but having paid full prices for a "Bloomberg Businessweek" at an LIRR station to have reading on the train, I found something totally different from the "Business Week" of old.  This one has for the most part excellent writing, reporting, and features that are not found elsewhere, at least here.  So using one of those discount cards that fall out of the magazine, a subscription was ordered.

It's looked forward to here now.  In the latest issue there is an article, "The Surprising Sophistication of Twitter" that gives me information about Twitter that had never been seen here, and both impresses and alarms me.  I am not a Twitter user but want to know as much as possible about it.

 There are numerous graphs and charts that accompany articles and are informative.  One on page 24 of this issue one looks at the global wage growth over the last 20 years, dividing the population into twenty groups, from poorest to wealthiest.  While the poorest to the center of middle class have had significant gains percentage wise they are clearly coming off a low base.  What is stunning but is observable intuitively is that the proportion of people in top of middle class and lower end of the high income class, 15% of the total, have had almost no income growth over that time period.  Of course, those in the top 5% did well off of a high base, and as we all know if they had a slice that represented the top 1% were included the rate would be radically higher.

You can see in an October 29th blog here the suggestion that the tax cost of the Affordable Health Care Act would fall most directly on that 15% that can be called upper middle class.

Those are just examples.  My surprise at the quality and varied content of "Bloomberg Businessweek" is genuine and was unexpected.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"The Lowland", a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri's newly published second novel and her books of short stories and first novel all share the same fluent, literate, and direct writing style.  She writes as if the story is her sole purpose and any flaunting of her capabilities is not necessary.  One critic has written that she writes "such translucent prose that you almost forget you're reading."

"The Lowland" follows the life of a family that starts in what would be a middle class family in India without the same material quality that would exist in the U.S.  The family is one of a reliably employed low key father with a mid-level government job, a traditional and opinonated mother, and two sons who do particularly well in high school and colleges focused on science and math.  The family is splintered as the older son goes to the state of Rhode Island in the United States for post- graduate studies and the younger more outgoing son becomes a teacher and also gets involved in anti-government politics and actions.  Though unarmed he is eventually killed by police in front of their house at the age of 24.

That is of course only the beginning of the book, and there is much to follow as it traces the path of the parents, a child born in the U.S., and particularly the son in Rhode Island, who is the primary linkage of all that follows and is bound together with his life challenges, emotions, family issues, and resilience.

This is another welcome piece of writing for anyone with an appreciation for Lahiri, or even beyond that for any thinking person who has ever been a child, ever had a child, lived through the growth changes and relationship changes with a child turned adult, lived through the loss of loved ones, experienced family stress or loneliness, experienced the ebbs and flows of a marriage, so that's to say just about everyone can find ways to identify with this book if the style fits their interest.  The distinct cultural issues are there, but the emotions are ubiquitous.  There is certainly an ongoing pall of sadness in this book but it is neither overwhelming nor does it block out the either the real or reflective upbeat moments and times.  It is indicative of what life is really like, underscoring the long term permanence that is at times unexpected in choices focused on an immediate time period.  

So opinion here is consider going to your local library, independent bookstore, or if necessary Amazon and picking up the latest addition to Jhumpa Lahiri's impressive body of literary fiction.   

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"American Masters, Jimi Hendrix" premiers on PBS last night

This was a program that was impossible to miss.  I heard some great music and even learned a few things that other major fans might have already known.

His music was first heard here in the summer of 1967 when a friend of mine bought his first album.  At first the music seemed so discordant to me that it was difficult to relate to.  That thought did not last long.  I first saw Hendrix in October of 1967 when a freshman in college in D.C.  He played at the Washington Sheraton on Massachusetts Avenue, at the time one of the nicest hotels in the middle of embassy row.

My friend Jimmy and I went which says something about what ticket prices were like in those days as neither of us had much extra money but still saw many great acts in Washington that first year there.  We entered the Sheraton and were sort of shocked to be ushered in to ballroom replete with round tables with white tablecloths and tuxedo suited waiters ready to answer anyone's calls for drinks or whatever.  At the time we thought, "what is this.  Do they think Jimi Hendrix is a lounge act?"

Maybe they really did.  While among some of my close cohorts at college and at home he was well known, that was not necessarily the case with the general public. As learned through the PBS program,  Hendrix had become famous by going to London to begin his career as a lead, as opposed to back-up, performer.  He had only returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967 to participate in the Monterey Jazz Festival where his performance shocked and exhilarated the crowd, much of this shown on the PBS program.  Given the image he projected his recordings, scant that they were at the time, were not seen as Top 40 material or as soul music or blues station material.  He had no radio exposure apart from a few select West Coast stations.  He was also not seen as material for the Ed Sullivan show, the television launchpad for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other major groups.  His music was viewed too strange and his performance too lewd for Ed Sullivan or any other television program at the time so that was closed to him as well.  So word of mouth was the only means of communication and it obviously had not reached the Sheraton.

The Sheraton performance was stunning.  We were maybe two tables away from the stage.  The crowd basically became more and more wild as the show progressed, at times standing on chairs and tables.  The waiters went into hiding.  What a great experience, a life long fan made.  But Hendrix's life was not too long.  The circumstances of his death are not as clear cut as generally understood, and that was not at all touched on.  Conspiracy theories abound, but that would obviously have been too difficult to get involved with on this program.  The program was about his music.

Using copies of letters to his father that he wrote regularly, interviews with former band mates and close friends, managers and producers, and many comments that he made, they piece together a picture of his frantically busy life, his love of women, his polite and almost shy private life that certainly vanished once on stage, and his total devotion to his music.  Apparently he carried a guitar with him everywhere he went, sun up to sundown, from the age of six or seven, and could play anything by ear, not knowing how to read music.  It was fascinating to know that the Star Spangled banner rendition that was played at Woodstock was completely unrehearsed and not discussed with his flexible, obviously, band members. 

The program is well worth the two hours involved to those so inclined and will no doubt be shown many times again as well as being available on the PBS website.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT:  A friend from those D.C. days called after having read this blog and had a few corrections.  Rather than change my original attempt at memory and perhaps confuse readers, I'll leave the original post as is.Here are the notable corrections--- the concert was held at a Washington Hilton on Connecticut Ave., another large criss crossing avenue.  It was in March of 1968, a big difference from my time memory, but that does further highlight the time lag between Hendrix's broader fame and his early beginnings as a lead performer in the U.S.  Also the ticket price was $4, something that was not guessed at in the above other than to say it must not have been too expensive.   Thanks Allen for the information.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Election Day in Nassau County, Long Island

Even though I really did not feel like doing it, civic duty called and I showed up at my inconvenient polling place.  While many of the local elections are difficult to make informed decisions about, that was not the case of the County Commissioner race.

Tom Suozzi, the Democratic challenger, had been County Commissioner for eight years before losing four years ago to the current incumbent, Repubilican Ed Mangano.  Suozzi lost the last election, in this opinion, because he took the race too lightly and did not wage a very active campaign.  I guess he thought that getting the County's bond rating raised multiple times during his tenure proved his worth after years and years of transparently corrupt Republican administrations that dug a deep hole, essentially the machine that Al D'Amato created in local politics before he became a U.S. Senator.  Suozzi was wrong.  His challenger Mangano, a politician with minimal credentials, won that race by 368 votes.

In Mangano's recent four years the County has had three bond downgrades and New York State has taken over financial supervisory responsibility.  Mangano's advertising is blatantly false on almost all counts, whether his depiction of his challenger Suozzi's record or his own "accomplishments".

Nassau County had for many years been assumed to a Republican county, and Mangano has a base that he can count on.  Suozzi has a solid record to stand on, but it seems obvious that he does not have the advertising dollars of Mangano.

This made voting essential.  There was one other race that I had strong opinion on, one in which my vote went to a responsible and effective Republican woman who was being opposed by an arrogant publicity hog on the Democratic side, but otherwise just left about half of the choices blank.  There were six referendums that I was unfamiliar with but made decisions on the spot as I read the summaries, opinions that were intuitive.  I voted for two of them and against four.  The only one that I remember fully now five hours later is that I voted against casino gambling.  We don't need that, and unless you are on Native American tribal land the only thing allowed is slot machines.  Once having been in an an Arizona airport sized hangar of slot machines being fully used, I can only describe it as one of the most depressing things that I have ever seen.

We will wait for the results tomorrow, which I realize are irrelevant to 99% of those that might possibly read this or you have even made it this far.  Voting is an important right and even obligation so that's my two cents worth.


Monday, November 04, 2013

Book reviews of "The Circle" reviewed here

In yesterday's post commenting on Dave Egger's book "The Circle", it was noted here that no reviews whatsoever had been read here before reading the book and writing a commentary.  The book seemed to be an unusual offering from Eggers and there was no influence wanted here.

Last night and today I browsed through what many of the reviewers had been writing.  Never has the word dystopia been so widely used, showing up in erudite commentary in major publications and in semi-literate rants on Amazon's reader reviews.

The reviews in major publications and on major websites tended to be warmly positive but thoughtfully restrained.  The New York Times was schizophrenic.  On October 3 Michiko Katutani wrote a review that added to any dialogue underway in a constructive way.  On November 3 in the New York Times Book Review Ellen Ullman(?) wrote a terrible review, not primarily because it had a somewhat negative slant but because it was 90% just a chronological retelling of the book's story, something a junior high school student might write.

The primary negative commentary in well known magazines and websites came from those focused on the technology world, and they were offended by Egger's lack of technical knowledge and his audacity to write about an area which he admitted to having no major first hand experience.  An exception to that was Nick Kolakowski's commentary on the technology website "Slashdot" which didn't exactly stand up and applaud Egger's efforts but clearly appreciated what he was trying to do, and took the book in stride and with humor.

"Google Blog Search" was a different story.  There were a range of reviews with seemingly little middle ground.  Amazon's customer reviews were similarly divided, but the hostility in the negative reviews was at times extreme.  One even accused Egger's of "laughing all the way to the bank", certainly an original comment and certainly one from someone who knows absolutely nothing about Eggers.

It was an interesting to see what was out there.  I do wonder where my commentary fits into all of this. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

"The Circle", a novel by Dave Eggers

This book is unlike anything that Eggers has previously written.  Since he has no formulaic pattern to his writing that is not what is unusual.  What is striking is that the tone of the book was almost uniformly disturbing or just plain agitating to this reader.  Don't look for much if any wry humor here.  What maintained attention and flow was Egger's straightforward, clear, and precise writing and a subtle build up of tension as the book developed.

On the surface "The Circle" is a book named after the company it describes.  It is a futuristic story about a company that has subsumed the social networking and information gathering capabilities of Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Apple, and other information technology firms, but that is mentioned in only one early sentence of the book and is not the story.  The story is about what the resulting firm's goals are.  That is to be the ultimate force in all social interaction.

Part of its mantra is "Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, Privacy Is Theft".  As the book develops there is little redemption here and fully thought out characters range from megalomaniacs, repulsively self centered hyper-sensitive creeps, brilliant misguided technologists, fully exploited naive managers, and those that fall by the wayside as the bulldozer of The Circle's vision crushes them.  That vision of no more of "the selfish hoarding of life" is one that would lead to "world peace" and the end of the "messiness of humanity"(It should be noted that this book was published last month and thus written much earlier, well before the revelations about the NSA that are now upon us).

What one realizes is that, while the book is set in future, it is analogous in many ways to what is already taking place with social media as it exists now.  Sentences or paragraphs that awake this thought of our current trends are not hard to find if one is thinking about making the connection to today.  Did someone friend you or not, where is the response to my e-mail, why did my ranking on a web site drop so precipitously, what did that person really mean in that comment on my work,  these thoughts are just the beginning.

Dave Eggers is one my most highly regarded writers, both due to his talent but also due to his humanity as he exhibits in his many initiatives and in his work.  When I first started reading this book it was clear that it was something different so there have been no reviews of this book read here, no looking at any comment on Amazon, nothing.  No influence, conscious or unconscious, was wanted on what ended up being this comment.

The book is worth reading, best accomplished in big gulps, even if it is more alarming than charming, with the operative word being ALARM now.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Obama's pronounced credibility decline

The thought above must get out of my system, so hopefully there will not be a need to write about Obama for a good while after this.  There has been too much here already.  He has seriously declined in popularity and credibility this year but, putting that in perspective, taking a look at potential Republican alternatives is a ghastly thought.

In Obama's first term his efforts were made more difficult by Republicans who voted in lockstep against anything proposed by Obama, just as Mitch McConnell said they would.  That was at first just a sideshow as Democrats controlled both houses of Congress in his first two years.  It was then that Obama was able to push though, with the slimmest of margins, the Affordable Health Care Act and the Dodd/Frank financial reform act.  Both included some welcome good initiatives and much in good intentions, but both were larded with earmarks and many minor, some major, regulations that were intrusive, misguided, and others that we will not see the full negative consequences of for several years.  It is unclear whether the President fully read or understood either of the more than 2000 page bills.  For many, even for supporters, there was an undercurrent of the reaction, "I thought we lived in a Democracy, not a Washingtonocracy".

Nevertheless Obama succeeded in passing the bills,  projected a confidence in an improving economy, and handled foreign policy relatively smoothly with the exception of the increase of his commitment to Afghanistan, sending literally airplanes fully packed with U.S. dollars to Karzai and his family while receiving little or no commitment to reform from these incredibly corrupt leaders. His commitment to drones and their regrettable collateral damage was, from a military point of view and the view of much of the U.S. public, mostly successful in eliminating some of the most dangerous terrorists.

This second term has not gone smoothly.  His standing internationally has been diminished considerably.  First he made his "red line" comment about Syrian chemical weapons and then ignored their use until it was impossible to ignore the mass killing in a suburb of Damascus.  Did he react.  No, he decided to wait almost a month until the U.N. inspectors determined that chemical weapons had been used(not really questioned anywhere at the time) while Assad continued to bombard the affected area with conventional weapons.  Obama continued to threaten action as he amassed warships off of the coast of Syria, but the time to act as punishment had passed.  It was the diplomacy of Vladamir Putin, of all people, that defused the situation and got assurances from Syria that they would disassemble their chemical weapons capability over time.  This was no moment of leadership or assertiveness for Obama and the credibility of any future threats he might make is seriously diminished, but thank goodness we did not get involved in another middle east war.  Unfortunately that war rages on, the carnage of civilians continues, and Assad remains in power.  No success there for Obama.

That was a minor event in Obama's international credibility collapse compared to the NSA actions as tip of the iceberg was revealed by Edward Snowden.  While the "all countries do it" excuse has some real truth to it, apparently no one does it anywhere near as extensively as the NSA.  Obama stayed virtually mum on the issue for almost a week and then finally commented that the NSA had overreached.  He left more complete earlier attempts at explanations and apologies for Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.  A more straightforward and direct leadership comment delivered more promptly by Obama himself would have been more appropriate, in fact seemed essential.  His attitude at the outset and even now seems to be "this will just blow over".

On the domestic front the complete breakdown of the initiation of the Affordable Health Care act website and technology in general, plus a lack of clear communication of the program, has been discussed here in detail so no need to say more.  Just as Obama and the Democrats were getting the upper hand over the divided Republicans due the fact that the public rightly blamed them for the 16 day government shut down, now any leverage that Obama may have had to force through an immigration bill before year end that many Republicans actually wanted to support has been lost.

Throughout the year Obama's refusal to give more rational Republicans anything at all to work with, any negotiation where they could claim some victory however minor, has always been putting the immigration bill at risk, and this health care debacle seals the deal.  Now it's next year.  The House Republicans have offered some piecemeal proposals for immigration reform, some of which are just lame and focused on border security and some of which would be seriously constructive moves forward, but Obama will accept nothing but a comprehensive bill.  The cynic could say how would anything but yet another comprehensive 2000 page bill allow for all of the earmarks and political accommodations  needed to sooth its supporters.  As always in this term he accepts no serious negotiation.  This is truly sad.

To complete this I refer you to my prior post about regulating home health care workers, which is just too much federal government intrusion into a difficult issue for many families.  Why make it more difficult.

It's all out of my system now, and hopefully any further commentary on the disappointing Obama will not be here near term.