Thursday, February 26, 2015

German debt sold at negative yield

How does one interpret this with all of the recent financial news.  Yesterday German state five year financial bonds were sold at negative 0.08%, with buyers holding the debt and paying for the right for repayment.  Here we hold funds in banks below the FDIC insurance level for the same reason and understand the concern, or is this indicative of a more latent fear that hovers over these supposedly robust financial markets.

We know that the German bonds were sold as liquid trading vehicles, and bought by professional investors and not seen as buy and hold paper, but for trading and hedging purposes.  That's  the only way to understand this.  Otherwise, there is big trouble on the horizon.

"Gray Mountain" yet another book by John Grisham

On the anniversary of my mother's passing nine years ago, it seems appropriate to comment on this book.  She was more committed to social causes than anyone that I have ever known, and she enjoyed Grisham's books as leisure reading.  She was a legal secretary who spent the great majority of her time doing briefs for the attorneys on health care litigation, hours that they could bill on their time.

"Gray Mountain" continues Grisham's focus, during the second half of his book writing career, on important issues for the oppressed.  The most recent book of his read here a few years ago was about a black teenager wrongly convicted of murder, and treated horribly in the Texas penal system.  Being somewhat familiar, it was clearly a true as fiction can be account of the horrific behavior of that state(personally never experienced thank God).  Grisham currently moves to the coal industry in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky and details the abuses by that industry of the land and the people that work for them.  I wondered during the first third of the book if Grisham's regular readers could stay with it.  The detail about the coal industry was intense, and the classic style Grisham story was slow in evolving.  Big Stone Gap, Whitesburg, and other locales were all familiar.

Like Stephen King, Grisham is on the cusp of the literate and just popular novel.  Why both are different from Richard Price, featured on the book section of the NYT last week, is a mystery.  Their work is that of great storytellers, even as the dialogue in this most recent book can be somewhat flat, just a service to the story and not compelling at all to character development.  Price's work is faux hip, tedious to read as he recounts all of the haunts of Manhattan, so well known here.  Literate, I think not and wonder why he is viewed as so special.

Grisham's "Gray Mountain" is eventually the usual good quick read, but it brought to mind something else.  My great grandfather, on my grandmother's side, was a well to do attorney in Lebanon, Virginia, in coal country.  He was immensely wealthy apparently, and not only had the biggest house in town(now a small hotel of sorts) but also owned the funeral parlor.  My grandmother told me that he took her to New York when she was a young teen and they stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, so well known here, but that was sort of amazing for a small town lawyer in the early 1900's.  I never knew that great grandfather as he died when my father was 12, and his legacy was lost his three of his sons and my grandfather bet all of the inheritance money on a cattle ranch out west just before the Great Depression.

I do wonder, upon this reading, whether he was one of the coal industry lawyers.  His father came from Ireland to the U.S. in 1865, and he became wealthy somehow, last name Finney.  How this happened is unknown here and I do not even know his full name.  I do know that he adopted the child of servants who were killed in a car crash, Tyler Snodgrass was his name, and he went west to found Snodgrass Supply, a predecessor to Safeway.

What a wandering post.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Axis Bold As Love"

Earlier today, the ritual of shaving, showering, and attention to dry skin was not accompanied by the usual 1130 Bloomberg radio, the ubiquitous 1010 Wins, or NPR on 93.9 fm.  There was on this occasion a certain feeling, and Jimi Hendrix's album "Axis Bold As Love" was dialed in.  That was his long awaited second album after the mind altering of American teens by "Are You Experienced?" in 1966.

It was more fresh than expected, and in particular "Little Wing" and "One Rainy Wish" which were as topical here as they could possibly be now, touching and positively a bit painful beyond what was expected. "Castle Made of Sand" retained its eloquence.

The one missing ingredient this morning was Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower".  That is a classic of the time, still of our time, and leaves us knowing that all of the mysteries are still the same.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Plan to retake Mosul may be flawed, but at least it is well known

The title of this post is meant as a bit of cynicism.  The total organization by the U.S. of a plan to retake Mosul, in northern Iraq, is deeply flawed.  It was announced on Thursday by American officials who detailed timing and the number of and source of troops involved.  As anyone should have known, this detailed disclosure was viewed as much too transparent by many, releasing war plans two months in advance. Under pressure, the defense department said that both the Obama White House and their new Secretary of Defense had not been briefed on these announcements.  What?  Is that meant to be a
positive comment? The hands off Obama management style has apparently infiltrated the culture of the Defense Department in an untenable way.  Can anyone imagine George W. Bush, who, to his credit or discredit, enjoyed starting every early morning with war briefings, or Bill Clinton, with his incessantly hands on management style, not being informed about such announcements and not being part of the decision making process.

While defense department officials spent Friday making up reasons why this announcement was a good idea, the thought that they would scare away ISIS militants seems remote, and beyond naive in its being part of this ongoing discussion.  If 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS militants can hold a city of 1 million people hostage, there is something bigger going on here.

Why is the plan flawed?  First, the statement is heavily based on the expected support and strength of the Kurdish pesh merga forces.  After months, more than a full year probably, of this blog(this important blog, Ha) repeatedly pointing out that the Kurds are fighting without adequate military support from the U.S. and its allies, meaning without up to date tanks, rocket launchers, reinforced  new trucks, and other equipment, they are a force that can only do so much.  ISIS has all of the best and newest equipment, all laid down by the Iraqi Army in its collapse almost a year ago.  Why the Kurd's dilemma?  They do not have the weapons because: 1. Obama continues to have some pipe dream of a completely unified Iraqi state, not even a set of federations under the umbrella of the Iraq state, and does not want that idea threatened and 2. supposed ally Turkey does not want a better armed Kurdish territory nearby, and 3. Iran, with whom the U.S. is in constant negotiation, doesn't mind a permanently hobbled Kurdish army either.  So the only defenders of Iraq with organization, discipline, and skill are given better rifles, medical supplies, and clothing, but not the weapons only they could and would use well against ISIS.

Second, the plan to draw 10,000 troops from the five most experienced Iraqi brigades and put them through several weeks of special training is a joke.  Several weeks?  The Iraqi army is permeated by a culture of corruption that does not just disappear in several weeks.  Most soldiers are only there because they are being paid, clothed, and fed.  Loyalty and commitment are not part of the deal, or at least it seems that way from here. The military leadership has looted the U.S. aid.  It is hoped that this view is wrong, or out of date but it is likely not.

The alternative comes down to bombing and partially destroying a city of 1 million people as was done with the much smaller Kobani in Syria, a Pyrrhic victory at best that is of course possible, accepting great loss of civilian property, health, and life.

The issue with the Iraqi army can be extended to the armies of Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Ukraine. All of those too were nurtured under a culture of immense corruption and they are not functioning or will not function in any cohesive and effective manner. They have little credible leadership within the ranks of the military.  All of the talk in the world will not correct that quickly, if at all.

That is a grim and sad assessment of the situation but, when looking at facts, it seems to be true.

Oscars to which films?

We will be watching the Academy Awards tonight out of curiosity as much as genuine interest. Entertainment would be an added benefit but is expected, as always, to be uneven.  That fact allows for snacking and computer checking on a regular basis.  If the show becomes too tedious, "Grantchester" will be on Masterpiece Mystery at 10pm.

Due to circumstances here of late, going to theaters has not been part of our repertoire of activities. We have seen only one film nominated and that was "Boyhood" just last night.  That is a remarkable film, immensely enjoyed and made uncannily realistic by the aging of the stars throughout the 12 year production.  By most accounts,  that film and "Birdman" are the lead contenders for best picture.  "Boyhood", despite its almost uniformly positive reception, may be slightly hobbled both by being somewhat stale at this point, and by an ending that is more wistful than powerful, more ironic than life affirming.  That is part of the strength and truth of the film, but who knows what the Academy voters want.  This is Hollywood. Then there is the one dangling piece as, of the four major characters, only Samantha is left without any shaped lingering image.  Those thoughts are not an issue here and, despite no first hand comparisons, an Oscar for Richard Linklater's film would be applauded.

"Birdman" may be the lead contender at this point, and long shots that would benefit from a divided ballot would be "American Sniper" and "Imitation Game".  The guess here is that "Citizen Four" will win best documentary, Julianne Moore will win best actress and Patricia Arquette will win best supporting actress.   Other than that we will be watching, and wondering who Neal Patrick Harris is.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A balky brokerage in an estate settlement

We are working with our attorney on gathering the assets of an estate in order to reach an administrative settlement, and be done with it.  One well known mid-sized brokerage firm has been particularly difficult to deal with.  While not wanting to call it out explicitly but to give a clue to those who want to know, this firm absorbed Brown and Company years ago.  Brown and Company was one of the brokerage firms that my in-laws dealt with.  It was started as an arms length brokerage subsidiary of Chemical Bank, and for some reason Chemical Bank had been the preeminent major bank in New York's Chinatown for many years.  There is a good reason that Buick in the past was the most desired car there, as that was the leading American luxury brand in China in the 1930's and 1940's, but Chemical Bank?  Who knows, they must have known and hired the right people.

The general requirements for moving brokerage assets into an estate is to send the appropriate documents and full instructions to the firm with medallion signatures of the trustees.  In this case, for Goldman Sachs and Fidelity it worked smoothly, but for this firm it was only the beginning.  They did not respond promptly, and when our attorney called they said that one document was outdated and needed to be replaced.  That just required getting transferred to a supervisor and pointing out that this was incorrect.  Then a few days later they said that the instructions to liquidate the account must come over the phone, with a trustee physically present as they would not work with the attorney without the approval on the phone by the trustee.  Over a week later a suitable time was determined for all and, after thorough identification of all, the firm proceeded to liquidate the securities one by one, and on each security they needed to hear K's voice say "agreed", and then "sell".  That was in late January.

After three weeks with settlement dates long passed and no funds arriving for the estate, we became concerned and with our attorney called again.  The initial call was with someone who would "try" to help us.  That was not good enough.  A second responder, now in the right area, also said that he would "try", in a situation that was completely obvious.  We did the "speak to a supervisor" routine, I shut up, and our attorney was finally on the phone with a woman who seemed alert.  He became more animated in tone that I have ever seen him and explained that his clients were putting pressure on him and could not understand why the funds were so late.  He said he may be forced to call someone outside of the firm if this could not be resolved(he was just winging it as he had no idea who we would call.  FINRA is an impotent facade created by the brokerage industry).

For whatever reason that got their attention, or maybe we had just found one of the few smart people in the firm.  Within a few hours she called and apologized on behalf of the firm, and said that she would overnight the check, which means that it should arrive Monday.  Seeing will be believing.

I once invested in this firm when a new management team that I knew well took over,  but that was not a good investment.  This was a case of timing is everything, the timing here was wrong.  The former managers had tried to boost returns in the mid-2000's by investing some cash in mortgage backed securities, and that was not well disclosed.  My friends stabilized it but after a two year agreement  they chose to depart.

Today the firm has recovered from those dark days, but when one looks at the coverage of analysts, things don't look so great. One of my favorite research firms is evaDimensions, founded and run by Bennett Stewart, and a former business acquaintance.  Using his methodology, the firm is rated a sell and they say "ETFC's pronounced volatility and vulnerability combine for a very high 98th percentile R score(R = risk)".  100 is the highest in Bennett's model, and in looking at the analysis by his firm over the years I do not remember ever seeing a 98.

One could wonder if this brokerage firm's behavior was intentional, and doing this over scores of accounts is aiding their liquidity.  That's an explanation that may or may not be better than stupidity.

Postscript:  to those who could easily identify the company discussed, funds received today.
The unnecessary effort and anxiety is over.



Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gong Xi Fa Cai

That's this household wishing a happy, healthy, and prosperous Chinese Lunar New Year to all readers.  My late father-in-law taught me to say this many years ago but not to spell it, so the Mandarin wish in the title required some help to write.  He said that the actual translation was "Good Luck, Make Money". It made him happy, and he was pleased to view me as a convert.

It's the year of the sheep, but there is consternation about that by some.  Today's Google home page cartoon has the year celebrated by an animal with a sheep body and a ram's head.  Wife K always thought of it as the year of the ram, as that was what it was generally called in New York Chinatown. In other places it is called the year of the goat, as the Han Dynasty from which the calendar originated many centuries ago was based in a region of goat herders.  In fact, sheep, goats and rams are all part of the same animal family, and it is said that in Han China there was not the distinct separation of the species.  Today, those born in the year of the sheep can take heart, and know that they have the tenacity of a goat, the strength of a ram, and their own gentle nature.

Among Chinese this day can be a frenzied festival of hung bao giving, hot pot eating, firecracker popping, gong banging, and moon cake bribing, or otherwise it is often simply an almost sacred time for extended families to get together and do just about the same thing.  It's the most important day of the year, a new beginning.

What a time it can be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

U.S. government's "serious" efforts on identity theft, hacking etc.?

There are frequent high profile conferences and meetings held by the government these days on issues that lead to identity theft, fraud, and cyber theft.  All of them are focused on the internet, computer hacking, and various types of technological chicanery.  What about the old style of looking into a consumer's pocket.

One incredible government practice, that seems simply blind, is that most Medicare card numbers today are a holder's social security number plus a dash and then a letter of the alphabet.  This card is given to any clerk who requires it in any doctor's office or any hospital.  It is entered into the system, sometimes copied, and given back, or maybe held until after service.  How easily this system can be exploited by those who know how, as the millions of medicare participants need to give it to any medical employee who requests it in order to insure benefits. Generally any co-payment can be made with a credit card.  Of course those thousands upon thousands of clerical and administrative workers are no doubt trained to be discreet and trust is nice, but it is not adequate.

When the files of Target, Home Depot, a financial institution, and whatever large business are broken into through computer fraud, then shoppers, customers, and clients are usually notified in a mailing that a breach has occurred, and while it may not be a danger, one should be aware and report anything inappropriate.  With a social security number, an address, and a credit card number, it is generally said that a skilled criminal in identity theft has just about all he or she needs.

And yet, this medicare card practice is current "government" practice.  Changing this and other protocols that are similar to it would seem to be a basic starting point to preventing identity theft and fraud, one that could have and should have been done years ago, no cyber-security experts required.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Welcome Lester Holt

With the departure of Brian Williams, NBC weekend news anchor and frequent substitute main anchor Lester Holt, has been named as interim weekday anchor for a six month period.  He is a much needed new face in an anchor chair at a major network, any cable network, and even PBS.  While he will operate under the strictures of a network news format and its limitations,  he has been viewed here positively.  It seems as if he knows what he is talking about and is not playing some made up role, that he is being himself.  He does not appear to be robotic, or totally scripted for words such as the slightest aside or joke and even for facial expressions and intonation, or full of himself.  These attributes may apply in different ways to some of his competitors.

Without getting into saying personal things about some of the regulars, or too much so, here there has been a distinct lack of identification with or interest in most of the people in these roles.  When choosing to watch network news, the 30 minute shows to cover the world that have six minutes of commercials, 16 minutes of real news (sort of real news as they often obsess about one news item for 8 minutes of the 16),  4 minutes of random "human interest" stories, and 4 minutes of cute dog or baby news, it had not been an easy choice of late.  Sort of sad, "and that's the world today".

What was focused on here in recent years was NBC, solely due to the Middle East reporting of Richard Engel, solid smart brave reporting.  Then in late 2012 he and his crew were captured in Syria by either Assad militia or some random anti-Assad force and for five days were not treated well at all. They were fortunately released, but the ordeal seemed to have had a significant impact on Engel as it would on almost anyone.  He had taken huge risks for years, but had been fortunate.  After what he went through, he did not seem the same for awhile, but now he's back in good form as an analyst but maybe a little more out of harm's way.

His trauma meant switching around for the last two years if watching at 6:30pm, or relying on PBS News Hour which does not completely work with me for several reasons(though both Judy Woodruff and Margaret Warner can be exceptional), or waiting for a few sound bites from Jon Stewart to come on at 11pm.  Holt's appointment is perfect timing for now.

For the first time ever tonight I watched or mostly listened to Entertainment Tonight on NBC at 7pm and if you don't know the show there's nothing missed.  Tonight the teaser for the show suggested that part of the 40th anniversary SNL show after party would be shown, a part with Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Taylor Swift leading a band of blues musicians.  The maybe 10 second clip suggested that it would be worth seeing.  So I left the television on while sitting in an adjacent room on the computer.

The teaser event never came on, but what I did hear were three mentions by the inane hosts of this "NBC" show that Katie Couric was interested in William's former job, and even finally a brief interview with her doing a sort of sweetie talk about "oh not me".  This was annoying.  Lester Holt is a capable and experienced reporter who may prove to be the best choice for the job.  That he would be undermined by his own network on the second day of his "interim" assignment is unseemly.  We will see how he does in the ratings and since he really has no competition, he may do well.

He will be tied up by the rigidity of the network news system at the start, but if he would eventually be given more flexibility, there is the belief here that he has the capability to put a more human face on an anchor chair.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The collapse of the Costco/American Express relationship

The decision by American Express to break off the Costco relationship has been costly to Amex shareholders.  In the last two trading sessions the stock has lost almost 10% of its value, and is down more than 15% since the beginning of 2015.  It seems fair to say that major shareholders were blindsided.

Looking at the Amex shareholder base, six of its seven largest institutional investors are discretionary holders, not indexers.  This is exceptionally rare for a company of this size.  Seven of its top ten mutual fund holders are also discretionary funds.  Amex gave the appearance of  a steady and ever growing company with a highly visible brand, and the consequential endorsement of Berkshire Hathaway with 14% of shares outstanding and Charlie Munger on their Board.

Now hindsight rules.  Has Amex been innovative enough in recent years.  Have they focused too much on the ultra high end of the card market with their new offerings.  Had they missed opportunities, as indicated by the power of Priceline and Expedia in the travel market.  Several weeks ago an analyst on CNBC said "that market once had been Amex's to lose".  Did Amex just now overplay its hand with Costco, not expecting to be rejected?

Costco's comment was that the decision was all a matter of price, and if so didn't the management, directors, and advisers of Amex see the pain that would be inflicted in the stock market if they didn't concede, or compromise with, Costco's demands, whatever they were.

Here it can only be concluded that Costco no longer wanted the relationship that required Amex card exclusivity, other than debit cards, in their stores.  The continuing downward pressure on the wealth and size of the middle class in this country can't be ignored, and Costco cannot ignore those customers.  They are their core.  We shop at Costco occasionally and there is no exclusivity to their customer base.  How many of those customers would rather use a low to no annual fee credit card, still get a large hot dog with all the toppings and a soda for $1.50 or a whole freshly roasted chicken for $3.99.

Just a quick example...for many people in the lower half of the perceived middle class, their expenses are paid out of earnings on a month to month basis.  They get by adequately but there is little extra. In a month when they need to pay college tuition, take care of larger than expected dental bill, or have reduced income due to illness or an unexpected event, a debit card is of no use as their bank account may be limited. Using their relatively costly Amex card could be done, but why be chained to that?  Not cost but exclusivity was the breaking point of the negotiations is the guess here, and Amex made a big mistake.

Did they never learn that sometimes sharing is necessary?  American Express will remain strong company, but whether the heretofore highly regarded Ken Chenault will remain CEO as this decision is digested is not an unfair question.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Our area, and how we fit in, or not

Today we went to the major shopping mall in our town one mile away, except that it is not a mall but a large series of shops all outdoors known as Americana(how "perfect" is that now as you will now see). Our destination was Cipollini Pronto for take out sandwich and salad, exceptional little place.  We usually find a convenient parking space in front of "Bottega Venata", what it sells I can only guess.  To the left is a huge "Gucci" store and then a massive "Louis Vuitton" place.

Since we have lived here for 28 years the area is familiar but has changed.  There was once quasi exceptional diner named "Swensons", not expensive and with great soups and tuna sandwiches on rye.  There was a sneaker store and a regular clothes store that sold jeans that cost less than $100, far less.  I order online now, and as K shrinks we need to go elsewhere.  Not Americana, as all of the women's pants are too tight, and I will not embarrass us with a description of her trying to put them on.  Off to Eastern Mountain Sports, REI, or Orvis 10 miles away we go.

Six weeks ago we went the the "Hermes" store in Americana to get a calendar refill for K.  For the 34 years that I have known her she had always carried this same small red, now faded red, leather Hermes calendar book which rules her world, day to day, plus has all addresses, birth dates, somehow she had kept everything in this small book with tiny writing as befits her, some of which she still does.

We went in to the revamped store and yours truly, in my usual jeans, polo shirt and sweatshirt, and sneakers garb, was met by large man and followed, large man was always standing or sitting next to me.

How changed things are.  I have never dressed differently from my casual to my work dress.  I made not insignificant purchases for K's Christmas and birthdays there in the past at this place, at Tiffany's and a few other shops there, wearing just the same.  Now I am to be watched by a bulky man who touches my arm at times?   I did not buy anything, but could buy some things as I once did.  I will not.

Welcome day of bright sun

Some snow may come later in the afternoon, but that is just normal winter weather.  We will be out and about, with piled up snow on the roadsides being the only impediment.   Other comments will follow in the usual haphazard manner, and this is just a test comment after the scare from Google and its temporary blogspot shutdown.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Big gap there, but problem with blogspot is fixed for now, be forewarned, "GOOGLE DOES NOT SUPPORT BLOGSPOT"

Now the sidebar of past posts is back up, and the permanent damage to this site seems only to be a huge white space gap between the 11:59 post on Friday and the 6:26am post this Saturday morning. Whether all of the frantic efforts to restore the site here had any impact or not is unknown.  What is known is that after a 45 minute wait on the speaker phone while eating lunch, I finally reached a representative of some type who put me on hold for another 5 minutes(even worse music).   When she came back she informed me that Google "DOES NOT SUPPORT BLOGSPOT".  I repeat "GOOGLE DOES NOT SUPPORT BLOGSPOT'.

Now, as if I didn't have this need already, I urgently need to find a computer expert to look at issues with our computer and to get on the cloud and independently supported.

For those who know us, please call with advice.

In the meantime we will look for the right opportunity to sell our large and profitable investment in Google stock.  I do not invest in companies that I do not like, regardless of their financials.  We will think about this carefully, step back before making a rash decision.

The streaming of past posts on the home page seems to be changed...

for the moment but all past posts can be accessed through the side bars.  To say that this is not a good way to start my morning is not an exaggeration.  Morning?  Sleeping did not work last night, too much going on...

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The frustration of fixing a credit card bill mistake

This is probably not an unusual experience to many readers here.  What is required to get an obviously incorrect credit card bill adjusted can be agitating to say the least.  This has always been the case at most firms other than American Express, but the question today is how could it have become so much worse after years of this issue being well known.  It is both laughable and hard to digest in our supposedly technology advanced world.

K's  credit card from a financial firm where we both worked at various times had an obvious error this month.  She was double billed, same amount to the penny and same day, what should be an obvious error.  Complicating that was that she remembered the sandwich, soup, and salad Italian take-out food shop swiping her card twice and saying it was getting no response, and then paying cash.  We go there twice a week at least so some kind of fraud is unlikely. The fact that she ended up paying cash is not relevant to this post because we never advanced that far up the food chain of intelligent life to discuss it.

K and I called the customer service number on the bill.  We received the usual automated voice, with a continuing list of choices after entering identification information.  Nothing there would allow a choice that involved explaining something to a person.  I tried the same number again to see if I had somehow missed some way to reach a person on the first call run through of the menu two times, while regularly saying "representative".  A second call was made to a different customer service number on the back of K's credit card.  Hey, I knew that automaton as I had just spoken to her.  She showed no recognition of me, and should I have felt slighted?  I queried multiple automated choices that had nothing to do with what we wanted, just hoping to reach a human being.  No such luck.

Then we decided to call our local private banker at the related firm to explain the situation, and ask if we were doing anything wrong, or if there was a better number for the credit card division.  As luck would have it, she was out of the office for four days on business, and my personality is such that once something is on my "To Do" list, I want to get it done before it gets lost in the maze of financial, parental, estate, and medical paperwork here.  It sometimes does.

That led me to transfer to one of the private banking call centers, this one in Arlington, Texas, and explain the situation.  That was of course the inability to correct the credit card bill and the fact that we were not an insignificant client of the firm.  She was responsive and polite, and put us through more than the usual paces of identification, and then she looked up the problem and we discussed it. She agreed that it was a problem, something we already knew, and said that she would transfer us to the credit card division.  Not much progress so far.

We did then reach a person in the credit card division.  We only discussed the double charge with her and did not take the mind stretching advance to the fact that both of these charges were likely wrong. We did not know the capacity of the person to which we were speaking, and wanted to keep her engaged.  That then to led the same and even more extensive requests for identification, even K's late mother's maiden name, which has two different spellings and thus can create confusion.  After being on the phone for well over five minutes with that person she said, "I don't handle this type of situation, it is not my area, so please hold while I transfer you."  How could she have not said this at the outset when we explained our purpose?

As anyone who knows me can imagine, my patience was running thin.  We reached the supposed "right area" and then again we began the identification process for the third time.  I unfortunately uttered a profanity and expressed my frustration in clear terms(once in Texas years ago, in the 1980's, an airline lost my luggage that was supposed to arrive with me in Houston, while I was scheduled to drive west in a rental car to the upper edge of hill country.  In phone calls to find my bag, I once again used the same profanity of exclamation, one that is used as verb, adjective, adverb, noun, etc. in most parts of Texas, and was told by the agent on the phone, "If you can't keep a civil tongue in your head, this call is over").  At least this call center clerk did not admonish me, but she ignored my comment and went right back to her rigid protocol fulfillment of questions as if  I was interested.

We were not, and just gave up, as in said "thanks" and hung up.  More than 35 minutes after the effort to deal with $78 of incorrect charges, it was no longer worth it.  We will call our capable local private banker when she returns next week, and hopefully pass the baton.  This chore remains on my list, which seems to only lengthen.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

No attempt to achieve anything in Washington

The stalemate continues unabated in D.C.  Republicans and Democrats both are focusing on the unobtainable and refusing to look at anything that could actually be accomplished. What's wrong with small steps in the right direction, instead of their all or nothing approaches?

The House of Representatives, dominated by Republicans, once again voted to abolish the Obama health care bill in its entirety.  The health care bill may not be perfect, is not perfect especially given its daunting complexity, but there are some parts of it that the majority of Americans do find have benefit, as examples the ability to cover family members up to the age of 26, requiring coverage of mental health and substance abuse issues as diseases that should have the same coverage as all other afflictions, and taking account of pre-existing conditions that should in some way be insurable. The Republicans absolutely refuse to come up with a bill that looks at only certain aspects of the bill that may be flawed and go with proposals the are focused, and the Democrats refuse to work on or discuss any kind of creative compromise that could get more states to allow the expansion of Medicaid.

President Obama's State of the Union address was delivered in good style and at first it rang of an attempt to create some consensus or shared goals, but it then morphed into his "middle class economics" explanations that were clearly partisan positions aimed at 2016.  Stressing tax reforms, there were none that actually were constructively creative, just ones that would transfer wealth, most of which would come from the upper middle class and the lower end of the wealthy class.  For people who live in vibrant but high cost, high tax areas that need to make so-called upper middle class money or more for an adequate lifestyle, this is just a kick in the teeth by Obama for political purposes.  His estate tax proposals were poison for small business owners or farmers who want to pass on a tangible legacy to their next generation.  As an alternative, why didn't he focus on raising the low taxation rates for hedge funds with their many high, high net worth individuals.  It's simple, or so it seems.  The Democrats want their donations, just as they pamper the vultures on the trial bar that are the largest contributors to the Democratic party, the party that obviously blocks tort reform legislation whenever and wherever possible.

Now Obama is turning these comments on taxation into proposed bills that have no chance of being passed.  The purpose is purely political and cynical, aimed at achieving nothing.  How is this different from the Republican actions of recent years?

Immigration policy is something that could be taken in smaller steps rather than grand steps.  There may be consensus brewing on some issues, but Obama's executive actions on issues that were long overdue to be addressed have given most Republicans the idea that they should thwart any helpful and constructive action.  Everyone conspires, leading to no action.  Anyone who can fog a mirror knows that, despite all of the talk, there is zero chance for an agreement on any type of much needed comprehensive tax reform.  And while almost all politicians profess to support desperately needed infrastructure spending, they can find no way to agree on how to fund it.  Do they even talk about these issues seriously or, more importantly, to each other across the aisle except with near meaningless sound bites meant for the media.

The political parties are individually moving almost uniformly in lockstep.  Some congressmen break out for reasons related to popularity needs in their own states and districts, and maybe a few out of strongly held principles, but if they were actually important to a vote of their party it is believed here that they would just stay in line.

The frustration outside of the Beltway remains palpable, something like disgust.  There is not an end in sight to this.  Everything is focused on the 2016 Presidential election, as a Republican win there by one of their more tea party leaning candidates, while retaining control of Congress, could be earthshaking, and that is as in an earthquake with associated destruction.

Why not focus on the present for once?  That's all that really exists.  It has been said that the long term is simply a series of short terms.  What is going on now in the short term is ridiculous.  Thanks Mitch McConnell for setting this state of affairs in motion over 6 years ago.  Your actions are pathetic.  While passing out tongue in cheek plaudits, how can one forget Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for their arrogantly divisive leadership in the two years that there was a newly elected Democratic President, with the wind at his back, and both Chambers of Congress under the Democrat's leadership, their leadership.  The damage was done and it definitely lingers.

I once considered myself to be a Democrat, and choose to remain registered that way.  Now, being democratic in the choices that are made and the policies that are preferred is more accurate, and has nothing to do with being a member of a political party.  That thought is such a luxury in this country. If there are 20 more years of this type of dysfunction, this time, these last six years of discord on any constructive policy, will be seen as the undeniable beginning of the decline of the American era.

Trapped by the cold, and trying to be entertained

Now we are having real winter weather here.  It had not been missed after last year, and December and most of January had seemed promising.  On Monday eight days ago we had our first real snow, about a foot here, but it seemed like a fortunate snow as forecasters were looking for much worse plus high winds, and the Mayor of New York City somehow came up with his own unique forecast of three feet of snow. One foot was limiting to activity, but the wind did not come, the dry snow could be plowed, and we could move about, with great care, until early evening Monday and were back on the road by mid-day Tuesday.

This most recent Monday was not so manageable.  We only had about six inches of snow that began on Sunday night, but by morning it has turned into something in between hard freezing sleet and icy rain, if there is a difference.  With a temperature of 21 degrees at that time, driving would have been stupid.  Even if it could have been managed here, I am always tempted, four wheel drive has nothing to do with ice and some SUV drivers don't seem to stretch their minds around that concept.  They are more dangerous than the roads.  We stayed in that morning and missed K's day of classes.

We stayed in that late afternoon as well as the temperature stayed in the 20's and another four inches of snow fell and covered the icy parts of the road that salt, sand, and plows had not dealt with completely.  It was a long day.  It's not that there are some days when we don't go out, there are a random few, but not having the ability to choose to go out was stifling.  Walking anywhere would not even have been safe.

That was exacerbated by an unusual coincidence.  Most of the time I am reading one or two books and have at least a couple waiting to be read, but occasionally there is a drought.  This was the wrong time for that.  I had started a book, "The Man From Berlin", that seemed promising, "An amazing first novel" said a review, but trying as much as possible, I was not amazed or interested despite the decent writing style, and after a few chapters gave up.  From the library, then was "The Laughing Monsters" the latest Denis Johnson novel, a writer whose book "Tree of Smoke" was a hit here some years ago, but after a third of this short book the characters were of no interest and I did not care what happened, and it was a "NYT notable book". That was a letdown and then this latest snow and ice came.  Now I am reading "Corridor of Darkness", another first novel set in 1930's Nazi Germany and, while not riveting, the historical detail is exceptional and the story has potential.  It's not the all consuming kind of book that is needed right now, but I'll take it.

Today we were out at noon to the gym and to a grocery store but that's it.  With the temperature below 20 and most parking on roadsides unavailable as it was occupied by plowed snow and ice, we elected to head back to our garage and house.  Last night we were rescued by the film "Dinner Rush", a film from 2000 that was new here, a combination of a gangster film and at times humorous foodie restaurant film set in the Tribeca area of Manhattan.  Nowhere near as good but diverting here tonight was the FX program "Justified".

Snow again soon, supposedly on Thursday and then again on Monday.  We will be out and about tomorrow.  We need to be out.