Friday, April 17, 2015

A test of Russian censorship from this relatively unknown blog

Until August of 2014, the largest non-US country of origin of page views for this blog was Russia. At that time this blog got personal about Putin, exasperated by that tyrant's actions in Ukraine.  The "page views" from Russia stopped after that, going to maybe one or two a month as compared, on average, to 50 or more a month before.

In fact, I have no idea what page views, in Google's sense, mean in the vacuum of welcome information that they provide about blogspot.  It is certainly not just everyone who happens onto the website and jets on, but is it one's who take a specific post and make it singular for printing, reading, or forwarding.  That has never been known here and is not the purpose of the writing done anyway. It, however, certainly does interest me.  The hits from Russia recently have risen significantly, to 147 in the last week including 37 yesterday morning.

On purpose, but out of  interest in the subject matter as well, yesterday a post was written here about a motorcycle gang whose leader is reportedly a good friend of Putin, and their circuitous trip through mostly Eastern Europe for the 70th anniversary of the Russian assault on all women in Berlin.  It was not complementary about Putin or about anything that revisionists say who want to write about WWII Russian history.  It definitely views Poland as a long term victim of Russia, and questions Putin's intentions.

Guess what?  There were no Russian page views today.  Is this another six months of solitary or just a blip on the screen.  It will be interesting to watch.

"St. Vincent", the film

When this film was released this past October it looked interesting here, but as going to theaters has not been a regular event for us this past year it had to wait.  Finally the soaring stock Netflix, which is only in lucky younger daughter's account, gave us the chance.  We saw it last night.

If I had seen this in a theater, it might have been a disappointment as some wonderful scenes and classic Bill Murray moves turned into a "feel good movie" that had a not so subtle touch of emotional manipulation.  Seen at home, relaxing in our den and not full of popcorn and one quarter of a giant soda needed to wash it down, there was no reason to be judgmental.  The film was enjoyed immensely.

Murray's role as Vin was perfect for him.  He did it with his familiar swagger that has not always been as visible in some of his recent films.  As overreaching as the character may have seemed, it came across as a depiction of reality here.  Certainly so in the behavior, maybe not as much so in the way that Vin thoroughly enjoyed his, on the surface, chaotic lifestyle.

The acting was all fine and, in fact, some of Naomi Watts lines led to big spontaneous laughs.  What a nice evening break this was for us.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Putin plans for Russian bikers to provoke Poland on circuitous route to Berlin

There is an interesting article on page A14 of the NYT today.  It details the plans of a Russian motorcycle gang, whose leader is closely allied with Vladimir Putin, to travel from Moscow to Berlin to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Soviets' victory over Nazi Germany.  Something about this seems to be in incredibly poor taste, or worse.  Their path will take them through Poland, which just adds insult to historic injury for that country, at a time when all of Eastern Europe is on alert for any Putin land grabs or meddling in their countries' affairs.

For Poland it is a reminder that the Russian "liberation" of their country by Stalin's eastern Russian hordes was just as much a nightmare as was Nazi occupation.  The only difference was that the Russians had no biases.  They attacked and killed the Polish people indiscriminately and raped almost every female from the age of 8 to 80 in villages that they ransacked, ritually hanging the leaders in each town.  It was a physically drained Roosevelt who gave in to Stalin's demand for Soviet control of the Eastern liberation over Churchill's objections at Yalta.

The gang's route will be circuitous, taking them through Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and on to Munich.  Putin's agitating behavior is relentless.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"The Good Lie"

This film released in October 2014 was watched here last night.  It was not familiar to us, and was a fortunate find.  The tale of a few of the "lost boys of Sudan" is reminiscent of Dave Egger's book of 2006 "What is the What" in many ways and tangentially related to Philip Caputo's "Acts of Faith" from 2005, both thoughtful reads.  This is film of course, a different medium, and it was handled exceptionally well.

Unfortunately this meaningful movie was a complete flop at the box office.

The big names related to the film were Ron Howard as a producer and Reese Witherspoon as a job placement counselor in Kansas City, where three "boys" arrive after surviving the wilds of Africa and the horrific conflict there.  The real stars of the film are four actual "lost boys" and one "girl", all of whom survived the ordeal well enough to engagingly recreate their emotions in this compelling film.

It's well worth a look.  The film made me feel fortunate, or maybe just lucky.  I'll take either.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Can Hillary Clinton win?

That may seem like an odd question to some, given the Democratic Party's lock on a broad swath of the electorate in presidential election years, the ultimate popularity of the Clinton's while husband Bill was in office, her attractiveness to the women's vote, and her vast experience on her own as Secretary of State.  Her presidential run, however, is not without some hurdles.

One of those is the possibility that voters over a long election cycle could get Clinton fatigue just as Jeb Bush on the Republican side has a risk of Bush fatigue.  There was a distinct desire among voters in 2008 for something new, and that sentiment could be revived in 2016 as the economy offers still stagnant wages for most and there is a foreign policy that has seemed to be unclear to many from both parties.

Clinton also carries with her concerns about her age through no fault of her own, her genuineness and likeability,  the Clinton's now significant wealth, and, once again, now with no viable competitors within her party, a possible aura of entitlement.  The Republicans are now heading toward a robust primary campaign that has a significant youth component and will have as many as ten candidates, at first, competing to see who can attack Hillary and the Democratic Party with the most success, all on prime time.  This will mean lots of dead space for the Democrat's to fill, without the advantage of having a sitting President running.

The Hispanic vote was owned by the Democrats in 2012, but the Republicans have three candidates with Hispanic links running, two genuine and one through marriage and Spanish language ability.  To the some extent part of that growing ethnic group could be becoming more prosperous and looking for someone that they can identify with.  On the margin, that could have an impact, even while some states with large Hispanic populations like Texas and Arizona, unequivocally are already dominated by Republican voters.

The Black vote has been almost close to unilaterally in favor of the Democrats, especially in the last two elections, but the success of the Democratic Party in pushing parts of that significant voting bloc forward into somewhat higher levels of education and prosperity has led to a sense among some that their fealty is not guaranteed.  Certainly this too is only on the margin, but that could be meaningful in some states, especially if the Clinton campaign veers too far toward the center looking for support from parts of the downtrodden white lower middle class.

The newly important millenials are all over the voting map, but a significant number, more than any other voting group, will cast their vote based on environmental, gender equality, and gay rights issues.  The Republicans are clearly no challenge on these issues unless one of the more libertarian candidates takes up these causes, even in a cautious manner.

All of this is to say that the Democrats and Clinton will be running in a competitive campaign.  Whoever the Republicans choose, it will not be someone with an elitist and wooden projected image like Romney.  The election may be close enough that the candidate will not be the major issue.  The state of the economy could be.  If there is some major economic or market disruption in the next 16 months or so, voters could vote for change regardless.  If the economy stays on track and wage gains begin to kick more noticeably, voters could want more of the same.

It will be interesting.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Waiting for another market week

The earnings season begins tomorrow for public U.S. corporates, big and small.  It's almost as if it promises to be boring, which is not really a good outlook.  The ups and downs of first quarter economic performance ended up being more or less neutral.  Good stock picking and mostly staying put was rewarded modestly and the performance of both stocks and bonds is in the midst of a widespread investor head scratch.

Two examples of the danger of not staying put were certainly not prosperous moves here in recent months.  About six months ago a decision to reduce exposure to Japanese equities by approximately 35% was exactly wrong, perfect bad timing.  Having become worn down by the lagging up and down, never interesting, Japanese equity market, that was a decision based on that country's recent government efforts to stimulate consumer spending, an effort that seemed once again to be doomed to failure.  It's still unclear that it has been effective, but the strength of the dollar and some moves by influential international investment funds looking for stability turned opinion around, irrespective of the outlook here.

The other trade that really gnaws at me was the selling of all shares of a company that has been traded in and out of for at least 20 years. It always seemed as if it was collapsing and it always came back.  Once a reasonably strong company in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, the word "strong" could not remotely have been applied to it for many years.  It was, however, resilient, no doubt about that for a long time.  The stock was trading just below a dollar a couple of months ago.  Bailout was what now seems like a rash decision.  At this point it looks as if the sale was done at a bottom, and all of the reasons that the stock was traded here for so long turned out to still be true.  That's at least in the short term, but missing out on a significant short term gain is not enjoyable.

It feels like the time to begin paring back stock positions somewhat, but the results of those two decisions makes sitting on my hands seem like the best play.  I'll do something, but I have no idea what at the moment.  Please Mr. Market, no big surprises in the next few weeks.  The mental preparation here is not fine tuned enough, not even close.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


A close childhood friend of mine died yesterday.  It was a shock.  He was, when last seen in New York, a robust man who would insist that I go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central with him and eat that heavy New England clam chowder that was almost indigestible.  He ate it with gusto while my order would be cole slaw and the more soupy Manhattan clam chowder.

His family moved near mine when he was in the seventh grade and he was almost immediately my best friend.  His entire family became a bedrock for me, as with no siblings in a small place my adolescence and my father could not house me well.  Touch football in the street was a ritual for all in the neighborhood.  I almost lived with his family at times other than meals.

My friend, the oldest of their tribe, was with me almost all of the time for a couple of years and we went camping together at their then lot, soon cabin, in Wildwood, a preserve on a lake in nearby North Carolina.  Who picked us up and dropped us off I have no idea.  We talked and talked about our thoughts and dreams, our childhood predicaments, and nothing touching on the present, and we made foil wrapped steak, carrots, and potatoes the Boy Scout way in a campfire.

As we got older our pathways diverged somewhat and we drifted apart a bit, although we remained completely tied together through his family.  In the 80's, our business contacts and travels brought us close together at times, in both New York and Denver, and the follow ups were mostly completely welcome and reaffirming.  We were especially great friends at Jazzfest in New Orleans almost each year in the '80's and 90's, which was an unexpected priority for both of us. He would meet up with me there, and at times with my parents on the balcony of the then Noble Arms where they always stayed, room 7, and they tremendously enjoyed his company.  We would sit on that balcony waiting for my predictably late friend as he walked down the street near Royal happily whistling loudly to himself but for all to hear.

Those were wonderful times for the most part, reinvigorating that childhood friendship.  In the year 2001 and 2002, maybe not precise, we met up in our hometown, with my younger child and his children at the time at their family house.  Once they all went sledding in their steep front yard. My good friend was a bit taciturn and preoccupied at times, maybe due to his then new assumed patrician role, but with their hospitality, first his wonderful senior mother, my friends his siblings, and the extended family, it was completely welcoming. As always it felt like a second home. Another time on a summer visit we all played card games as a group late into the night and his children were a joy, as was my one there.

That's it.  My friend lived in his world out west and I lived in mine here in New York.  We both discontinued our relationships with major companies at about the same time in the mid-2000's, and as far as can be known here he continued to be able to have a good lifestyle with his assets and his aspirational deal making.

Now he has just died.  No reasons yet but a guess from a brother suggests maybe lifestyle wear out. That is troubling.


Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"Dead Wake"

Erik Larson's book about the sinking of the Lusitania is a workmanlike retelling of the calamity.  It is well written and entertaining, and the perspective of the passengers that it chooses to highlight are interesting representatives of a time period. That, however, seems to be a sort of wealth worship story for the most part.  Unlike previous books read here by Larson, there is no significant revelation of new facts or a retelling of a not widely known story.  It is a pleasant comprehensive read about a tragic event, but not groundbreaking.  One could wonder if the book was a publisher's idea, with a tidy advance to the author, to have such writing coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of that majestic ship.

To the contrary, "In The Garden Of Beasts", Larson's last book was an incredible tale of an obscure U.S. ambassador to Germany during the rise and ultimate domination of the Nazi's in that country.  Who could have known this story outside of highly focused historians, and Larson made it come alive as he includes the ambassador's family to spice up the action.  His other most well received book, "The Devil in the White City", was an informative account of the historic 1893 Chicago World's Fair combined with an account of a serial killer that haunted the event.  Here the World's Fair history was enjoyed, but the graphic detail of the serial killer's work led the book to be closed forever at the midway point.  There was no interest in that stuff.  The idea was digested but it went on and on.

Passing on "Lusitania" to K was an easy choice, as the reading was entertaining here even if the background of the story was not big news.  

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Duke vs. Wisconsin, eloquence vs. efficiency

Now it's down to the final two.  Two very different teams will take the floor tomorrow.  Wisconsin wins with rough intensity while Duke wins with cool consistency.  Duke's easy win in the semis and Wisconsin's retribution against Kentucky provide a set up that at first glance would favor Duke.  Wisconsin risks a let down due to their celebratory conclusion of the Kentucky game, as if that was the title.  It was not.

Veteran coaches Ryan and Krzyzewski will have their teams ready and calm if history is any guide.  Duke will need to start out strong and not give up an early lead.  Wisconsin needs to establish Kaminsky as a threat at the beginning to open up the outside.  Wisconsin's highly experienced team of juniors and seniors will at first have an advantage over a Duke team that starts three freshman, but the exceptional talent of Duke's freshmen could ultimately overshadow Wisconsin's capable but less naturally talented line-up.

No predictions here.

Postscript:  a post here yesterday about the relationship, however tangential, with the final four teams was inadvertently deleted.  It was a darn good post and it cannot be retrieved or recreated.  Too bad.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Pivotal Battle for Yemen

For those following events in Yemen, one could wonder whether this has the potential to be the Sarajevo 1914 for the Middle East, turning into a conflict that could eventually lead to an uncontrollable cascade of events that would have whole region divided and actively hostile.  That is possible but unlikely, as the Saudis only want to huff and puff, and do not seriously want active conflict with anyone capable.

From this perspective the Houthis of Yemen had been viewed as much like the Kurds of Iraq.  That view was that they were a semi-independent Shiite region in the north of the country that was the strongest opponent of Al Qaeda in the entire country.  With the Sunni government of Yemen being corrupt and their military not remotely competent without U.S. advice and drones, the Houthis were a potential ally of the U.S., an experienced battlefield force, and if allowed to defend and even expand their territory they could ultimately act in the best interests of the region and themselves simultaneously.

Now Sunni Saudi Arabia has deemed the Houthis to be a pawn of Iran.  That has not been the case historically in any way, but in recent years they have accepted aid from Iran to defend themselves against Al Qaeda and the corruption of the anointed central government, now in a shambles as they have lost control of the capital, Sana, and the U.S. anointed President Hadi is believed to have fled to Saudi Arabia.

As a result of the Saudi offensive against the Houthis and the disintegration of central government, Al Qaeda has recently been reinvigorated and has taken control of the capital of an oil rich province in the east.

Yemen is now in a chaotic situation.  If the informative but muddled story in the New York Times today is any indication, there is no clear path out of this mess at the moment.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

What if Hillary decides not to run?

That may seem like a preposterous April Fools Day question.  Of course she will run.  She has been on this path for most of her adult life.  That's the biggest trait that she and her husband have in common.  Her experience has prepared her for this.  What's more, there are no other Democrats even remotely on the screen, especially if you look at the national election in November 2016.  Who are the up and comers in the Democratic Party.  It's easy to name a distinct handful or more in the Republican Party and all have built up some broad name recognition.  Obama has tended to his own star, and that of no one else.  If Hillary did not run, the default would be Joe Biden and he is unlikely to be a viable candidate in a national election.

Hillary has no choice.  She must run for the sake of the Democratic Party.  One could wonder whether she would choose to do so if she had the opportunity to make a decision.  She has had a long political life and the campaign will be a grind like all campaigns.  That will be compounded by the fact that many Republicans not only do not like Hillary Clinton, they detest her in a way that is hard for an outsider to understand.  The election will be a minefield of false charges and a dredging up of a mostly imagined events of the distant past that have no relevance today.  Then, if she wins, she will likely inherit a Republican House and Senate that will make her governance difficult at every turn.

There is of course a personal side to this, if she is allowed to have one.  She is a grandmother.  She does not want Chelsea and her extended family to get dragged into an ugly campaign.  Bill is obviously not physically as strong as he once was, although his mind apparently still never stops going and his mouth rarely stops moving.  His need for attention is rarely satiated.  That is a danger for this campaign as it was for her last.  He would be her most visible Achilles heel.  With all of the wealth she has, Hillary could choose to write, give presentations, and influence public policy while at the same time enjoying life out of the fast lane.  Remember that she had that concussion two and a half years ago, and regardless of what some may say, concussions can take a lingering toll on stamina, especially for older people.

All of these personal concerns will be swept aside by her own ambition, one can almost be sure.  Is she really ready to go the distance?  Can she create a different singular persona and not show up in Mississippi with a faux southern accent and the cadence of a preacher or in West Virginia with the standard poverty photos and sad lament for the people there.  Can she rise above her usual "hit the mattresses" mentality when confronted with a challenge?  Will she use her vast international contacts in photo ops as if most voters in America cared about that.

The Democratic nomination should be hers easily, but it is surely possible that there will be those from the left who will show up to undercut her from the outset.

This will all be interesting to watch and nothing is necessarily preordained.