Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year

I mean it.  Best wishes for all who read this and when the morning breaks tomorrow may you have one of the bright reddish blue dawns that we have been having here recently viewed though a stark sycamore tree in front of the living room window.  2014 was not the greatest of years here for many reasons, maybe just one major reason.  2015 will be a year of acceptance.

Maybe we will get K's passport renewed before February expiry and escape to Switzerland like everyone from Nietzche and Mann to Keith Richards, or maybe we'll just take our trip to the totally familiar little hotels on Rue de Seine.  "We've got to get out of this place..."

So 2015 will be a good year of everything possible here I hope, and for all who read this.  My golf story, for those who read it, sort of told one metaphorical version of my life story.  There will be other versions, but now I'm an open book.

What a relief, and a way to start to a "Joyous New Year" as a friend said in another New Year's comment.  Now for the real HAPPY NEW YEAR, and to paraphrase a Chinese New Year's wish, "Good Luck Make Money".  For those of us who can I would like to add "Good Luck Make Money Give Money Give Time".   


Whistle-Blower awards --- wish this NYT article could have been written here

Today's NYT Business section(B3) has an article, "Whistle Blower Awards Get Results, but Also May Lure Wrongdoers", that highlights both the purpose and the risks of awards to those who tell authorities about possible business wrongdoing.  This topic has been thought about here for quite a while, but without enough good information it has never been addressed.  This NYT article fills in the picture well.

In a recent PBS news program, there was the story of a woman who was demoted and eventually fired from her job at a mid-size pharmaceutical company for bringing information about potential fraud to management.  Her job was in the compliance department so she wasn't stepping outside her area of expertise.  She spent seven years working on research to document her claim, and working with attorneys to dispute her firing.  She eventually was given a $7 million whistle-blower award by some area of government.  There is no problem with that here at all.  After-tax, and after seven years of living expenses, the award was helpful to her but it didn't make her ludicrously wealthy and the government received far more in penalties from the company.

What gets attention are the awards for $30mm, $50mm, $100mm, and sometimes much more.  These are related to the size of the amount the government receives but they seem outsized, so much so that it is obvious that these types of settlements could attract people whose goal from the outset is to find a way to sue the company.  No one is going to find $30mm lying on the street, and a tiny few win the lottery.  When these awards go to people who were complicit in the underlying fraud and then have a magic awakening to being a conscientious citizen, that is at a minimum unseemly.

The article does a good job of detailing these risks and the almost complete lack of oversight over what the courts, the SEC,or other regulatory agencies do in handing out these awards.  Why are the awards a percent of the total government gain?  Isn't the risk to reputation, the risk to employment opportunities, and the stress of the situation roughly equal for a $7mm whistle-blower award as it is for $100mm award.   The lack of transparency on this issue could easily lead to the government strong arming companies in a way that is, or should be, short of legal.

A comparison could be made to the government's obsession now with subpoenaing every e-mail in a suspect department of a company that they are investigating.  The government then takes the glib comments of mid-level and low level-employees as examples of widespread company policy, and essentially extorts money from companies under scrutiny.  When it comes to financial companies and their trading in bonds, fx, derivatives, or whatever, the government seems blind to the tradition of "floor talk" which is, or was, essentially one of bragging, cursing, and all manner of politically incorrect remarks.  Maybe that is much less the case now, and if not it should be.  "Floor talk" in no way is emblematic of senior managements thoughts or strategies in most companies excluding, from this point of view, Angelo Mozilo, late of the Countrywide portfolio that is still costing Bank of America an ongoing fortune.

That's another issue and another way of putting companies in the cross hairs of zealous and ambitious regulators.  If one has interest, reading the NYT article on whistle-blowers is informative and provides the best discussion of this almost taboo topic that has been seen here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Age of Ambition", by Evan Osnos, an informed look at China now

This book by "The New Yorker" writer Osnos won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2014. It is hard to imagine that there was any other book within striking distance.  I have no idea about that, but this book turned my head around several times.  With my family's interest, K's family's substantial direct experience, and my daughters' frequent travels there, there was an impression that I was well informed about China.  Relatively speaking that's certainly true, but absolutely speaking "Age of Ambition" taught me otherwise.

Osnos's work as the China correspondent for the magazine from 2008 to 2013 was followed here with interest.  Much of what was published in those articles is covered in this book, but the book is, in its scope and depth, much much stronger than the stand alone columns.  Those came across as human interest stories set in China, fascinating and at times provocative, but they gave no hint of the bigger picture that Osnos was working on and that is unveiled in this book.  One could think that he waited until he was safely out of the country, and his assignment was completed, to give his view of the full picture of China today.

The subtitle of the book is "Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China".  Despite thinking of myself as well informed about China for many reasons, even the opening section of the book has me resetting my mental clock.  My father had been a Kunming based member of the Flying Tigers as part of the Army Air Force that took over from the secretive OSS in 1942.  Despite being shot down, safely crash landing, he had enjoyed the experience of being in China immensely.  When China reopened in 1978, he and my mother signed up for one of the first "friendship tours", arranged in a joint effort between the Chinese government and a few U.S. travel businesses.  They had experience with this type of touring as they had taken such a trip to the Soviet Union in the mid-seventies.  My mother's curiosity was immense and my fathers willingness to go on adventure travel was unlimited. They enjoyed that trip to a China totally frozen in place from the past, so much so that they went to China two more times on more open trips, in 1986 and 1992 to the best of my recollection.  What I realized in reading the Osnos book was that China had barely budged in its overt development during that time.  My parents loved China as it once was, and will never be again.  The intense development and devotion to market capitalism that characterizes the "New China" did not even begin until the late '90's. Since then it has steamrolled across the infrastructure and the culture of society.

With that as an economic backdrop, Osnos goes on to detail the somewhat well known corruption that overshadows almost all activity in China today and a level of censorship and government control that the adjective ubiquitous cannot adequately describe.  It is hard to imagine that this degree of oversight over such a huge country has ever existed before.  The harsh penalties for those seen as going beyond the accepted government norms are extreme.  There is almost no latitude in deciding whether to heed government warnings, which are never ending for the media and for artists.  The picture of this way of life is sharply drawn and fully developed in "Age of Ambition", and while the sustainability of this system is questioned, Osnos does not suggest that it is seriously challenged. It, in fact, does not seem possible any time soon.  The internet and information technology are the biggest threat to the hegemony of government mind control, as the effort required to stay one step ahead of this force is huge.  Even minutes count, and unapproved thoughts continue to seep through.

In the Epilogue of this book, Osnos writes, "Thirty years after China embarked on its fitful embrace of the free market, it has no single unifying doctrine - no "central melody" - and there is nothing predestined about what kind of country it is becoming."  After reading "Age of Ambition" I would call that an optimistic statement, certainly in the near term.

What a book!  It is a fascinating read with more humor and insight than one could hope to find in a book of both recent history and a chronicle of near term current events.  Osnos takes all of the isolated insights that are common knowledge about China today and puts them into a mosaic that is profoundly more interesting.  He does not tell the reader what to think but he gives a picture that allows broader interpretation for those with the inclination.  The endorsement of "Age of Ambition" here is not remotely subtle, it is wholehearted.

Tangentially related postscript:  Osnos continues to do incisive reporting as a Washington reporter for "The New Yorker".  His article on Samantha Power in the 12/22&29 edition is freshly informative and attention grabbing reading.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Golf, a personal odyssey

Why write about golf today?  The idea started in a post on Marissa Meyer and Yahoo last week that tangentially mentioned golf and it has germinated into a full blown thought in recent days.  I fully realize that those who tell long golf stories, or worse yet detail their most recent rounds hole by hole, can, mildly speaking, be grinding bores.  Maybe this will get the idea out my system and maybe, and this may be a stretch, it could be amusing or familiar to some readers.

At times, I really liked playing golf, really loved it.  Playing with friends, playing on a well planned course, being outside on a beautiful day or even a challenging day, golf could be beyond enjoyable. Hitting a perfect slightly hooking drive bending down the middle of the fairway, putting an iron shot on the green in some proximity of the hole, or sinking a putt with some interesting break were to me like that occasional feeling on the basketball court when before the shot went up I knew it was in. There were great feelings to be had in golf, but almost any but the best golfer knows the flip side of this.

Golf here began at the age of 11 when my father's antique refinishing hobby seemed to come to a natural end when the house was full, and he decided somehow that golf would be his next off work obsession and in turn should be mine as well.  He worked as an accountant at a textile mill that had its own picturesque hilly hardscrabble golf course and we joined. The textile mill also had its own YMCA at the time, and we took lessons there from a mill worker and former low level pro golfer and skilled teacher, Fred Main.  Actually moving from the cage at the Y to the course was an embarrassment of huge proportions at first, but we settled into an adequate style of pathetic play within a few months.

The table is now set for the highlights and lowlights of my golf career.  Well, almost set, as it took about a year and a half of determination, useless anger, and adolescent club throwing before a round could be relaxed into.  The first real highlight was playing in Florida on our once every two year August trip to the Daytona Beach area, actually Ormond Beach.  Near there was a course built by the Rockefellers that was open to the public for a reasonable fee considering how beautiful the course was, built just beyond the dunes and a two lane highway from the ocean.  It was heaven.  Never had I imagined such lush fairways and perfect and true greens.  With the ocean breeze and the, at the time, welcome bright sun my game improved dramatically and my temper all but vanished.  That was my introduction to the seduction of nice courses.

Then came Christmas of 1962 when my "Santa" gift was a set of new Haig Ultra woods.  I already had a used set of 1957 Haig Ultra irons, and this was a completely unexpected gift of some new and top of the line golf equipment.  These helped my game and my attitude, and led to participation in the 18 and under city tournament at the oldest and most traditional developed golf club in town.  I have a newspaper clipping that shows the scores after the first round and as a 14 year old my score of 85 was better than the middle of the pack.  Names behind me have now dedicated much of their free time in life to the game and long ago surpassed my skill, but I like to look at those scores and think "yeah, you may joke about my game now but..."  By the way, I had an eagle on the third hole in that round, a completely unexpected and lucky first.

Soon, however, came the decision that was the point of no return for becoming an accomplished golfer.  In our huge high school, 2000 students, getting the right to a sports "letter" for jacket or sweater, or both, was a huge motivation.  In my mind at the time, if possible in sophomore year it would be a coup.  There was no chance, absolutely zero, to get a letter in golf as players from the prominent country club had a great teaching pro that they had been working with from a young age.  He was an influential teacher because he created both great golfers and for the most part really fine people. They were shooting rounds in the mid-70's in the tournament that I just mentioned, and several were younger than me. The fact was that there would never be a "letter" in golf for me, and maybe not even a spot as a substitute on the team.

That leads this extended golf comment to a brief mention of tennis, which became my letter sweater salvation that year.  I switched sports to tennis early that spring before matches began.  I had played tennis since seven years old, as there were some wonderful city maintained clay courts within less than two short blocks from my house.  I had never taken a lesson, but when our high school had good teams many of the best players, much older than me, hung around those courts.  I watched, and they occasionally gave some tips, briefly, very briefly.  Our school no longer had a strong team, so I tried out.  Through athleticism, stamina, and a competitive streak rather that any well developed tennis skills, I ended up as fourth man on the tennis team that season.  Tennis became my primary spring sport, and my primary tournament sport at any time during the year.  Golf would never again get so much of my time although I did play in the 18 and under golf tournament each year  and stayed in that middle, while several friends improved their games markedly.  I still enjoyed it.

I won the local 18 and under tennis tournament two years in a row after that first year competing, and then played as the number 4 man on a strong freshman team in college.  That was ok, but with both academic demands and an active social life there was not enough time in college to play a sport so that ended.  A distinct benefit of tennis was that teaching it was my job each college summer at a well financed camp in Brevard, North Carolina.  Among the other teachers was the former tennis coach of Clemson and the future tennis coach of Davidson.  They continued my tennis education as we all taught the youngsters.

With the tennis conversion I only played golf casually and infrequently, but when moving to Kentucky for a job in 1972 my clubs were packed with me.  There I played maybe eight rounds a year of unspectacular but pleasant golf with friends, usually scoring in the high eighties and rarely embarrassing myself.  Off to a master's program in Arizona in 1979, again my clubs were stuffed into a small totally cram packed Toyota Celica.  There were a few games in the desert and there I had my first and only hole in one.  It was on a dead straight 110 yard hole with a table top flat green.  The hole was so boring that I didn't make a peep and just walked ahead.  My friends were aghast.  "Why no shout, why no celebration?"  I was thinking "why did this simple hole on this lousy course get to produce my first hole in one."

The next major event in my golf life occurred in 1982 when working in New York and living in Manhattan.  I did not play at all at that time, as my position was not yet high enough to require client golf and my interest in the game was not such that I would take the time and money to play in the suburbs somewhere.  As a vacation, pre-marriage K and I drove down to the Outer Banks in a rental car for five or six days in the late spring to relax, swim, see the sights, play miniature golf, and eat fresh seafood. She went with me to the driving range a couple of times but golf was not natural to her, and I mostly whacked a basket or two of balls.  After the Outer Banks, K flew back to New York and I drove on to my hometown in the Piedmont area of Virginia.  My father of course wanted to play golf when I arrived there, so the next day I went out with him and two of his regulars to the mill golf course, our home course.  I had not played a round in two years.  What I was, was physically fit, as my New York job was not yet too demanding and I played in a regular basketball league right across Park Avenue from my office most weekdays.  That was the St. Bartholomew's church gym.  K and I also rode bikes most weekends at her family home on Long Island.  As play commenced that day my first drive went straight down the fairway and ended up about 50 yards from the par four green.  I was unexpectedly hitting the ball well and longer by 30 or 40 yards than ever before.  By the 17th hole I was at even par.  Before that I had only broken 80 once to the best of my recollection, and that was a 78.  The 18th was a long dogleg left over a creek.  I botched the hole and had a double bogey six.  At least I could still use the phrase that it was "par for the course" in my golf life.

In the mid-eighties I played quite a bit of client golf in Ohio, the corporate territory that I was covering.  None of it was remarkable, but a few of the courses were.  Client golf with investors in the late 80's the 1990's was not usual but it was necessary at times.  I once played the famous Winged Foot course in Westchester with a relatively poor result.  Those small undulating greens were a big problem.

There was one investor outing that did turn into a remarkable experience.  With a small investment bank as our host, in 1993 I had arranged for the CEO and the CFO(my direct boss) of our company to go with me to Edinburgh for an outing with a large number of Scottish investors.  It was not difficult to convince my seniors to do this, and we took the Gulfstream.  We played the round with investors, with related after golf social time at the Caledonian, and that was a day of mediocre golf for me on the Gullane course.  The following morning we were scheduled to fly to London for more investor meetings, but the Chairman decided to change that's day's meetings until later and wanted to stay and play another round at Gullane that morning.  I at first tried to defer but you don't say no to the Chairman.  The course on a bluff overlooking the Firth of Forth was colder than the day before and the winds were whipping up to 50 miles an hour.  On the first hole, a 300 yard par four neither into or away from the wind, my low hooking bouncing drive ended up just to the back left of the green.  I played probably the best golf that I have ever played from a ball striking point of view on that day, and in that unrelenting wind had a spectacular 91 that included my not uncommon last hole debacle, a quadruple bogey as a high drive that was hijacked by the wind led me to beating through two foot high weeds for several strokes. Going into this little hut at the end of the course for a pint of lager, I remember the 6'7" CEO's big smiling bright red face with what hair he had sticking straight up.  So that was real golf in Scotland.  It was exhilarating.  "Golf in the Kingdom" by Michael Murphy, my favorite golf book, had prepared me well for that day.

Golf was rare after that.  I worked too much and when vacation time came it was always family trips, many overseas, but several to Hawaii where I played the seaside courses that were part of the Maui Prince several times and those were terrific outings.  Still golf was not on my agenda for the most part and my clubs were becoming prehistoric.  I distinctly remember my last three rounds of golf. First, in 1996 I played a round at the well known Baltusrol in New Jersey with a loquacious company acquaintance who was a friend of Bill at Georgetown and two of our stock specialists. I was playing really well on that difficult course and was eight over par after 16 holes, when we got backed up behind players dealing with a challenging 17th hole.  As we waited my counterparts all lit up their cigarettes and offered me one which I occasionally accepted and did this time.  I may as well have taken heroin.  After the wait I had an abysmal 11 on the par five 17th and a 7 on the par 4 18th.  That was it for golf I thought at the time.  I've had it.

The second to last round was at a gathering of about 20 senior members of the finance department of the company in 1997 at the CFO's home course in New Jersey.  The early Saturday morning drive there from Long Island was tiring and it was a damp and foggy day to start.  With the CFO joining my group for the first nine, I had a hopeless nine of 50 and just wasn't in the right mood.  The CFO moved on to another group for the back nine, the sun came out from behind the clouds and I had a 37 on the back nine, hitting a seven iron stiff to the flag just behind a deep bunker for a birdie on the final hole.  That was satisfying and I said to myself, "that's it for sure for my golf life, a nice way to finish".

Five years later, in 2002, I was lured back into a game by three of my close college friends at Georgetown, again in New Jersey where my golf life must be buried.  Again a long ride, but on a beautiful day, I arrived somewhere in that state to a beautiful, long, but not too imaginative course, and joined my friends.  Two of them had all of the latest clubs, snazzy golf bags and head covers, they had spent some serious money and must know how to play I thought.  I still had my mid-20th century clubs while the fourth had some clubs that he may have inherited from his father as they looked older.  We were a banker, a lawyer, a high tech equipment leaser, and a CFO of a New Jersey executive recruiting firm.  The CFO kept score precisely.  I had a few memorable shots during the day but was overwhelmed by the sheer length and mind numbing monotony of the par 5's.  In the end I holed a ten foot putt on the 18th for a 99.  My three partners were in the 120's.  Why play?

That's simple.  It's a wonderful game if it fits with one's life.  The camaraderie can trump all if a group is cohesive.  There are hurdles to playing that are not insignificant, such as other competing interests, family, work, and last but not least temperament. Playing golf well takes some consistent commitment, and here playing golf poorly when it happened was rarely enjoyed.  In short, I loved it when it worked but was never ready to buy a new set of clubs.  Could that time come?

It is easy to see a tinge of nostalgia in these comments that is not so subtle.  In a different location and with a wrinkle in my health ironed out, who knows, I may move back into golf with a focus only on who is played with and whether it is a nice day to be outside.  It's unlikely but not unthinkable.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Joyeux Noel"

Tonight we watched this 2005 French film.  Not only is it a great film, but it was also the perfect evening to watch it for the first time.  It provided a healthy dose of classic Christmas music that had been missing from this season here to date, as well as being a story that echoed the meaning one could think was originally intended for Christmas.

In short, it was a fictionalized account of a true story from 100 years ago, and that is the 1914 Christmas truce that occurred on various parts of the trench lines in WWI.   In an unplanned and slowly spontaneous way, French, Scottish, and German soldiers laid down their arms and met between the trenches for talk, handshakes, good drink, and even a mass by a Scottish priest in the Latin that all Catholics on both sides knew and could repeat.

The music was a highlight, as a German soprano with a major Berlin opera company and her lover,who was a tenor with the same ensemble before being drafted into the army, found themselves at the front under unpredictable circumstances and the Scottish bagpipers were armed not only with their guns but also with their pipes which they brought out on Christmas Eve.

It was a pleasant end to our Christmas Day, 2014.

Christmas 2014

Lingering around in my sweats this morning and reading the newspaper, it has already been a nice Christmas, a bright sunny day.  With a bit of a late start, we had a special, for us, Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon, whole wheat toast with black cherry and almond preserves, a few slices of bacon, and what I call Mrs. Bridgforth's Christmas scrambled eggs(finely chopped red and green peppers provide the seasonal look).  A robust "Celebration Caffe" in a bright red small package added an extra punch.

Last night the moment of return to form by our small family together was the time of opening presents, as the adult girls sat on the floor and commented on each of the modest gifts and we chatted together as a fam', as younger daughter might say.  Wrapping the presents the day before was definitely worth the effort, an effort that eventually caused me to take off my sweater as the focus was for some reason a bit warmly taxing.  K's gift wrapping skills remain perfect and with some flourishes of paper cutting tags, while my wrapping ability is completely undiminished from the past, as if that were possible.

Happy Holidays to everyone out there who chooses to or by chance reads this comment.  May peace get a chance to prevail in this world more consistently for all in 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Yahoo's challenge with Marissa Mayer

The December 21 New York Times Magazine has an engaging article about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer entitled "No Results".  Mayer, a former Google wunderkind, took over as CEO of Yahoo two and a half years ago with the stock price at $15.90.  The stock slipped a little from there at first and it was suggested in a comment here as an opportunity.  The stock today is just above $51.  Revenues have fallen during her tenure and the article highlights her recent erratic behavior.

Investors generally and almost completely accurately think that the entire increase in the Yahoo stock price is due to the Yahoo investment in Alibaba made well before Mayer.  That's an "almost" because Mayer's hiring did create an attitude of promise in the investment community.  Then there was the IPO of Alibaba in September of this year and Yahoo stock dropped from $44 to $39.  There was a pervasive attitude among media observers and some investors of "that's it".  In a September 23 comment here it was suggested that the stock could go up to $50 as the remaining Yahoo Alibaba shares plus the value of Yahoo Japan provided a significant base that attributed little value to Yahoo itself.

The irony now is that just as Mayer's arrival in June 2012 created a bump in Yahoo's stock price, the thought of Mayer's exit now has created a bump of some consequence as well.  The NYT article highlights some of her mistakes which become humorous, at least here, as they have been observed closely for investment reasons.  Yahoo is my internet login page so that their "progress" can be watched.  Whatever algorithms Yahoo uses, if any, to relate to a home page user have pegged yours truly as a golf enthusiast.  Many days the lead stories are about golf.  I admit to being interested in the game but watch no golf except for the final rounds of the four majors.  I have not played a round of golf since 2002, and no miniature golf since maybe 2000.  What are they thinking?  Are they thinking?

The article highlights two of Mayer's terrible major hires.  One is Katie Couric as head content editor at a base of $5mm a year, that's Couric who has never had any currency here and seems to have little elsewhere.  The other was a self important advertising executive from Google named Henrique de Castro to be head of their advertising efforts and Mayer assured the Board of his qualifications and did not vet him at all.  It seems that Mayer did not really know anything of consequence about de Castro.  It turns out, according to the article, that he was known at Google by many by the name "the Most Interesting Man in the World" a joke based the Dos Equis advertisement.  He was generally seen as an arrogant pedantic nincompoop.  Mayer paid him $109mm before being forced to fire him after 15 months. This is too funny and potentially too libelous to not be true.

Otherwise Mayer's erratic behavior in the last year of often being hours late for meetings and requiring everyone in the world, literally the world, to be on her schedule is hard to fathom.  Her background in programming at Google as employee number 20 was exceptional.  Her management talent and vision now appears to be limited, and still here there is a latent desire to want to believe that somehow she is doing something right that as yet has not had time to fully form.  Now I am not at all sure of that.

Fortunately the September 23 comment here did express some concern and said "If she can't do it(turnaround the core Yahoo) somebody else will".  That is still the case and here it is believed that if the Board has some spine and does not allow her to do anything truly destructive, the stock still has room to grow, $60?, and maybe much more if she would go?

For whatever reason, for those who decided to invest when she came on, it's been a good ride.  Someone else is now needed to provide real value, that is unless as said there is some magic in her touch that has not yet been divined by the investment community.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Now about those cards..."

Those words closed a December 3rd comment here that discussed the preparations needed or wanted for our style of Christmas a this time.  The point was to enjoy writing about the past and the present and to suggest that this year all seemed under control.  Now it must be said "almost".

The wreath has been up for almost three weeks and our other modest decorations have slowly surfaced.  All presents have been bought with only a couple expected in the mail within a day or two.  K and I more or less treat ourselves jointly as we realize certain things need updated or replacement and the holidays are a great time to splurge a bit, although there may be a surprise or two.  This year we have received enough cards to ring one large foyer opening, better than last year.  As mentioned on December 3rd our cards are chosen and in house but, they sit unsent.  There was undoubtedly some usual procrastination involved here, as finding that exact right mood seems important.  What was not anticipated in any way was that earlier this week yours truly would clumsily trip on a driveway curb and take a tumble.  It was absolutely nothing, no scrapes, scratches, or bumps, but I braced myself as I went down on concrete with my right hand, my writing hand.

As previously mentioned my capacity for clear handwriting has diminished over time.  With a banged up wrist at the moment it is barely legible and so embarrassingly old looking.  I can't even open a Vitamin Water or a Poland Spring with any ease at all, but those Vitamin Water's have always been a challenge.  Maybe that company wants to send a message that one needs more of their product.

So the cards are not in the mail.  K and I will make a joint effort to get the job done tomorrow for Monday's mail, but the dream of for once getting our cards out early is lost.  For those who read this and had expected a card, it will come, maybe on Christmas Eve if we are lucky.  If not, save a place.

(As is obvious, typing is unaffected)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Sunday mornings

Sunday is a different day, a welcome day for many whether one works or not, is retired or active.  In our little town some stores are not open and some restaurants close in mid-afternoon.  The Sunday New York Times is not delivered until 7:30am at the earliest.  If one is not obsessed by football, Sundays are a time to reflect and meet other people.  That is the personal goal and the ideal.

Today is no different with, as we so carefully watch, no weather related interruptions imminent.
News of note here includes:  "Puerto Rico's Pork Perfecto" a rift on a smokey roasted pig; the fact that two "I Love Lucy" reruns, one rarely seen and one always seen, will be on a major network at 8pm here(one of my late mother's favorites); a human interest story, why not "human", in the NYT sports section about an overlooked football player who persevered with his family to make it to the majors, albeit with the dismal 2014 New York Giants;  another as usual supposed "expose" by the limited Gretchen Morgenson in the NYT business section backed up by unheard of sources; news? that China is vastly corrupt; and advertisements that entice me to buy one last ring or necklace for K.  Maybe it's the right time.

On to the gym for K and then to a read of a new book here.  Of course we will go to the nearby grocery store, an almost everyday event due to our foresight, or lack of it. Other never ending shopping events will no doubt take place.  The rain has stopped, the wreath is up, and we are set to go.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay, a surprising National Book award winner

"Redeployment" won the National Book Award for fiction at the ceremony on November 19th.  Phil Klay is the author and he served in the Marines in Iraq as a public relations officer in headquarters offices.  This series of short stories about Iraq veterans and their experiences in war and back home may perhaps be the best fictional account of Iraq war experiences thus far but its choice for this award was somewhat of a shock here. The stories are told from the point of view of soldiers with varying roles in Iraq and the writing is straightforward and for the most part not laden with unnecessary flourishes.  Thematically, many of the stories carry the same message, as in the thought that all returning Iraq veterans are not damaged, but changed.  Also the thought, well known, that this was a different type of war, more random and with less of a personal feel than those of the past.  To many the unique nature of this book, as the Iraq war has not produced much fiction while non-fiction books have gushed forth from great journalists, must have been the attraction.

Some reviews have compared Klay's book to the fictional work of Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien about the Vietnam War.  From this perspective there is absolutely no basis for at all for a comparison as equals with Herr's brilliant "Dispatches", and the comparison to O'Brien's work falls short as well.  "Redeployment" may still pass the test of time as it is straigtforward reading and will likely be picked up by high school English departments for years to come, but it is some distance from great literature.  That it was picked over Anthony Doerr's masterwork "All the Light We Cannot See", that has been read here and other finalists that have not, is hard to fathom.

It has to be considered here that Klay did a capable job of self promotion.  His scalding review of Dave Eggers' most recent book "Your Fathers, Where are they?  And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever" in a strangely given opportunity to this novice author in a June New York Times Book Review reminded me at the time of one of Huey Long's maxims.  The exact words don't come to me, but the thought is that if one has thick skin they should always attack the most powerful person in the room, the state, or the country if you want to make a point that has a chance of  resonating widely.  With observations about the reviewed book by Eggers such as "I guess this is supposed to be provocative but it mainly comes across as ignorant", or "The issues Eggers approaches may be serious but their treatment is not", and "the book is political only in the degraded way that cable news is political", Huey would be proud.  This type of review in the NYT could not have been uniformly approved but may have been seen as for a greater political good.

While basically criticizing Eggers for using the book, in Klay's mind, to highlight his own opinions, Klay ignores the fact that this book too is fiction and characters in fiction are created to voice a certain tension.  Certainly recent books from the prolific Eggers like "The Circle" and "Hologram for the King" work solely as creative fiction without Eggers personal voice, so why would Klay presume that "Father... Prophets" is all of a sudden a sophomoric airing of his opinions. Klay was staking out pure ground for himself in that review as his book deftly handles what could be a  political topic in a non-political way.  They are two different books with different purposes, but it is Klay contrasting himself with Eggers in a bold move that may or may not have influenced the jurors and others who could be above such a ploy, but could have influenced general opinion, as in who is this guy publishing his first book who writes this type of attack.  That Eggers certainly is not universally adored doesn't hurt.  And never underestimate a Dartmouth guy, Klay, who perceives that a competition is possible.

Klay's book seems designed to come up with powerful sentences to end important paragraphs, ones that stick in open minds and have the potential to become instant cliches. There are many but one that can be easily found because it is near the end of this just finished book is, "A human being in pain is just a screaming animal".  Heavy.  By the way, for a book with great unexpected powerful sentences that attack the reader's consciousness try "The Narrow Road to the Deep North".

Ok, enough from here.  "Redeployment" is worth reading.  It is a valuable document of the Iraq war and its impact on the lives of American soldiers and their families.  So read it and enjoy it, or be saddened by it, but the thought here is that it is not a book for the ages.  Certainly there is bias here as I am a big fan of both Dave Eggers and Anthony Doerr.  Doerr's "Memory Wall" of 2010 was a book of short stories that were linked together in a way that was powerful and not transparent, powerful in a way that "Redeployment" is not.

It is difficult to understand the judges' award unless it is in some way an empathetic vote for an attempt to understand the impact of the Iraq War on human beings and not on the politics of the mess.  That would be noble, but not necessarily in line with what was expected.    

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Iran steps up its role in repelling Islamic State fighters in Iraq

A front page story in the New York Times today, "U.S. and Iran Both Attack ISIS, But Try Not to Look Like Allies", describes the more public role that Iran is playing in helping Iraq fend off Islamic State fighters.  The reporters write that Iran's military role "has proved essential in repelling the advances of the Islamic State".  Of course the U.S. is concerned about what Iran's longer term ambitions and goals could be and the reporters also write that "The Obama administration has made clear that while it welcomes Iran's help in fighting the extremists, there is no actual coordination."  That is the responsibility of the Iraqis, to be told who is doing what and communicate to make sure that there is no conflict between the actions of the U.S. and Iranian advisers and forces.

On October 19th, in a post here on ENS it was written that the "only viable option seen here to stop ISIS is to allow Iran to send in their highly trained Revolutionary Guard troops."  The comment went on to say that such a role was probably politically impossible as it would inflame tensions with the Iraqi Sunnis and disturb neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia, the great non-participant.

In recent weeks, or longer, Iran has used their 1970's era fighter jets to bomb targets inside Iraq, but the role that their ground forces are playing is unclear.  Whether they are just advisers and suppliers of arms and equipment or in some cases direct participants in the conflict is not known here, and is not part of the information in the article today.  One Iraqi politician and Shiite militia leader was quoted as saying, "If there were an honest coordination between U.S. and Iranian advisers, Iraq could be liberated within a week."  To the contrary, a leading Sunni lawmaker said that a U.S. and Iranian agreement on the fighting would mean that "the Americans are handing over Iraq to Iran."

This situation is evolving.  The Times story was revelatory, but much more remains to be told it seems.  More than anything yet, this holds promise for some reconciliation or at least better communication between the U.S. and Iran, and even perhaps more constructive dialogue on the nuclear issue.  What an optimist I am, or would like to be.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Here comes Christmas

Christmas and the holiday season are upon us.  All of the seasonal traditions need to be considered.  What's important now?  What will we enjoy and what will be unnecessary work?  What will others appreciate and what will just be overdone or silly?

These are not trivial questions at a time when all messages tell us that it should be a time of celebration and joy.  Do we want to make sure that we participate in the traditions but still avoid the anxiety of living up to the past?  Of course. We may be in good shape this year.

The Christmas front door wreath has not only been ordered but was received yesterday.  It sits in its box in the garage awaiting a day without rain to enjoy putting up this official declaration to the world that yes, the Borden residence is aware that it is the Christmas season.  What we do is the absolute minimum around here.  When my late parents would come here for the holidays and I would take them out for a drive to look at "the lights", my father would always say on each turn down a new street, "they really go all out here".  "They" do.

Christmas cards have been ordered and are in the house as well, but if the past is any guide that does not guarantee that they will be sent in a timely way or at all.  To avoid procrastination to the point of inaction, the plan is to begin writing out addresses and crossing off a list this weekend, knowing that finding addresses and writing them neatly enough for the post office to recognize will be a multi-day task.  The reliance on e-mail seemingly has a ruinous impact on penmanship.  If this task is accomplished, the goal would be to then write something in the related cards, chosen from three different new types this year to avoid the risk of sending last year's card or one from another previous year to the same person.  No duplicates this year from this house, you can count on that if this job gets done.  Then there is the challenge, meant to be overcome, of writing something in the card other than our names and other than an additional "Best for the New Year" to the card's own "Season Greetings" or "Merry Christmas".  That can really baffle a sender who has not seen some of the usual recipients for a decade or more.  It must be faced.  People like to receive cards still, I think, especially if they say something, anything.  For many years we had a custom of ringing the foyer doors with cards.  If we could receive enough cards this year to ring a single foyer door that would be better than last year.  I should note, call us old fashioned, that e-cards don't do it.  Less cards are sent now, and when one misses a year as has been done here, the returns diminish.  Then there is the problem of the "greatest generation"  that faithfully sent cards, and they are less in number and those around at times don't have the handwriting or vision to keep up the practice.  All the more reason to make sure that they receive cards if addresses can be found.

Enough on cards.  Now we get to that most famous tradition of all, the Christmas Tree.  It is admitted that that we have deferred on that one for the past few years.  The first year that we missed younger daughter did put a pencil drawing of one on the window before which the tree always stood, but that was not much of a substitute, although it was a clear message.  The entire process of buying a tree, setting it up and littering the foyer and living room with pine needles and small branches, and then decorating the tree was for many years mostly a joy.  Christmas songs by Elvis, Koko Taylor, BB King, Mojo Nixon and others were played for the event, as well as a cassette or two of the traditional ones, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, etc.  Seasonal beverages kept the process merry and children participated to a great extent, then to a lesser extent, then not at all even though they still wanted a darn tree.  Here today, I could still get into the mood for that whole event and having a festive tree in place for a few weeks.  What can't be conceived of is the opposite of that which is taking the tree down, repacking and storing the ornaments and cleaning up.  That is a tedium that is not needed at the moment.  If there is ever a need for this tradition to be revived boxes in a basement closet will have what is necessary.

Except for young children, almost everyone it seems is perfectly happy to not feel the reciprocal obligation of giving presents.  Young adults like money.  We still buy some presents and take our chances, and often do fairly well, but most of it is purchased online now or through mail order special food items.  How efficient that is and what great choices can be found without leaving the house or carrying bags through crowds.  The majority of that shopping is now done or planned and it's only December 3rd.  Thoughts will continue to come but don't need to be acted on unless they are compelling.  Relax on presents!

The one completely open ended tradition is Christmas or Christmas Eve dinner.  The major feast is not practical unless the table is surrounded by people.  Plans are not yet set and it is no rush.  The cooking and cleaning up after a big meal is not too much fun unless everyone hangs around.  We are flexible and await information.  No matter what, cooking is enjoyed here whether it is small amounts or larger, but not too large.  Good meals will happen, maybe not turkey but good cuts of steak or grilled fresh fish are able substitutes. We are free to serve cornbread stuffing with anything.

Finally there is the holiday tradition of charitable giving.  Whether that is due to the end of the tax year approaching and the realization that deductions make donation power much greater or due to the opening of one's heart due to the season is unclear, but it is a tradition and that too is already underway.  It's hard to mess that up.

Now about those cards...    


Monday, December 01, 2014

Today's U.S. equity market fulfills direction of Friday's trades

U.S. equities varied widely today in their reaction to the drop in oil prices and subsequent reductions in the overall market's liquidity.  Friday's 9:30am to 1:00pm day wasn't  long enough to finish the thought.  Today was a logical follow-on as the impact of a roiled oil market affected energy related names in general and seemed to see specific parts of the market as either sources of liquidity or as profit taking protection.

It was a weak market today in general, but small cap and mid cap names took it on the chin.  They were the source of liquidity, or the victim of the absence of buyers as investor's wallets were not open to allocations there.  Technology titans that had been doing well or had been showing momentum were another sector that had pronounced losses.  Look at the Googles, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, and Twitter as examples of investors backing off.  The exact rationale is unclear other than taking money off the table in names with high valuations like FB and TWTR, doing the same with other solid major stocks that had been attracting buyers in recent months.  Oil related stocks continued their falls from Friday, but Big Oils like Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron stayed steady at first and then rose after Friday's decline.  That was interesting.

Tomorrow will be interesting as well.  The market will say whether this was a one and done, over two days, reaction to OPEC's push down of oil prices, or whether this is a market mood that will spread into other sectors.  The thought here is that the market will steady and then ease back up as the week develops, with some incredibly oversold oil service and oil related names having a visible bounce back, not to pre-Friday levels but appreciably above where they ended today.  Small caps and Mid caps may continue to face a lethargic market for their shares near term as the bigger caps names attract the attention in the sorting out of the energy market impact.

Of course this is just speculation here with only a little skin added to the game in this very near term outlook.  One market move today that certainly catches one's eyes is the turn up in gold and silver.  Is that a cause for worry, or just long overdue, and ready to move up with any market uncertainty.  It's one more market to sit back and watch, which is the main activity here.