Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two efforts with books, and then as a complete surprise "Carsick"

Over the last couple of weeks book reading here has been disjointed and not entirely successful. After the recently commented on "Ghettocide", the next choice was "Bernard Baruch, the adventures of a Wall Street Legend" by James Grant.  After reading a little more that half of that interesting book, it was put down.  At least now there is a good grasp here of who Bernard Baruch was, his financial and civic acumen, his role in negotiations after both World Wars, his privileged lifestyle, and more. Grant is one hell of a thorough writer, at times bordering on repetitive and tedious.  He loves what he is writing about, maybe more than most readers.  The book can always be returned to the top of the reading table, but I needed to drink too much tea to keep on with it.

Then came "My Struggle, Book Four" by Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Some weeks ago a two issue profile of the writer in "The New York Times Sunday Magazine" was commented on here, and reading his latest book, a first try at his work, was looked forward to somewhat eagerly, if eagerly can be applied to anything that is done here now.  The revelation was that this is an autobiography in process, intended to be a completely true account of one portion of the writer's life.  It covers the author's early adolescence into his late teens, and is full of stories that most people would prefer to keep to themselves.  Self deprecating is a description that is too mild.  It rings true, but after 80% of the book was read, interest here flagged, as in ended.  I was exhausted by trying to care about this guy.  Given the huge popularity of the book series, one perhaps could assume that the translation from Norwegian to English did not have the nuance and literary flair of the original text.  At the same time, Ove Knausgaard himself refers to the six book, so far, series as discussing the banalities and humiliations of his existence.  Those Scandinavians.  The book can always be finished.  Several days ago did not seem like the time.  The effort had been made.

Then a few days ago I picked up "Carsick, John Waters Hitchhikes Across America".  Never having been remotely a John Waters' aficionado, the book still seemed interesting as a brief review was read somewhere. The book has four parts --- A Prologue, then a novella written before the trip giving a best version of the proposed trip, then a second novella about the worst that could happen, and finally followed by "The Real Thing".

I cheated, in my schoolboy mind of the past, although books can be read anyway one chooses.  The Prologue was read and then "The Real Thing".  Going too far into Waters' mind with the novellas did not seem necessary. Those two parts of the book were completely entertaining.  His hitchhiking goes in fits and starts. There are periods of great luck in getting rides and times when he stands by the side of an exit ramp for six hours at a time in rain or stifling heat.  Ultimately, being recognized as the celebrity that he is helped lead to his success.  It would have meant nothing here as going to Wiki was necessary for me to see a picture. As one of his secretaries in Baltimore told him after the trip, if you weren't who you are you would still be standing at a roadside in West Virginia.  Nevertheless, his trip could not be called easy.

Among the men who pick him up, he is taken by the fact that most of them like to talk about the success of their marriages and how their wives have been instrumental in whatever success, stability, or sobriety that they have had.  In a comment at one point he notes.  "Like every man that has picked me  up so far, he hates freeloaders."  At another point when he puts up with a woman who is scolding him abusively as he stands by the road until she realizes who he is, and then opens the door and enthusiastically welcomes him and he accepts, he notes "when you are hitchhiking, your usual value system collapses."

As Waters goes from Comfort Inn to Days Inn to other budget highway hotels, he observes the unattractive free breakfast offerings at each place and those people who are eating them.  One example, "I go into the breakfast room for my complimentary meal, hoping some cross country driver will see me and offer me a ride.  But no.  It's a hideously lit area with a TV blaring.  The six or seven grizzled men inside don't make eye contact with one another, much less me.  They look stunned by the grim routine of their lives.  I feel the unfriendly vibes immediately, and with one look at the pitiful breakfast choices this place offers--- white bread, packaged donuts--- not even instant bad scrambled eggs or micro-waved greasy bacon--- I lose my appetite..."

This is a well written book, and unexpectedly one that was thoughtful, charitable in his thoughts about the many different people that he meets, and devoid of any trace of some of the explicit or trashy behavior in some of his more unusual films.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

CNBC's irritating thematic programming

On CNBC two days ago, Monday morning, Jim Cramer was doing his usual "know it all" patter.  The market was looking negative, and when asked about the near term market beyond that day he put on his hangdog face and said something like "nothing good".  He was showcasing his "brilliance" to explain why everything was negative for the equity market.  As often is the case, the market was up Tuesday and is so far today.

It is hard to see how he has the gall to get back on the air day after day when he is so frequently and blatantly incorrect.  He, and CNBC, sell fear to keep viewers tuned in.  That sounds like a broken record here, but it is viewed as intentionally insulting and patronizing to the viewing public. Especially on the morning show, CNBC has some thoughtful and important guests that attract attention, but why they go on the program to be interrupted constantly by hack reporters, and be forced to listen to Cramer's constant obsequious comments when he is in the presence of anyone whose praise he covets, who knows.

A wonderful counterpoint this morning was on Bloomberg television.  They had an uninterrupted 20 plus minute interview with Michael Bloomberg and Lloyd Blankfein together.  Hearing their views with the interviewer asking intelligent questions about the market and society and just letting them freely answer was informative and insightful.  It will be listened to again later here to follow up on all that was so calmly and intelligently said, and to pat myself on the back for already agreeing with almost everything.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


At the Irish dominated bank that was the first banking job here, he was known as Donnie, and the first name of his main banker was Mikee.  They worked together well, and the company financed project after failed project, getting the big fees for the leveraged loans on the front end and the substantial bankruptcy fees on the back end. Donnie was always assumed to have connections with unions and worse, and to get a job done with Mikee, even if Mikee rarely had his a shirttail tucked in completely, and always spoke in profane language that was every other word.  His black secretary Shirley, who he called so many names that were not even printable in the 1960's, always said "that's just Mike".

That Donnie, involved here, is of course Donald Trump who is so well known now and Mikee, a guy who became the President of Equitable Insurance, after it was acquired by Axa.  His boss, Eddie, was a former Vice Chairman of the predecessor bank, and Eddie was a perfectly dressed banker, pocket handkerchief in place, Long Island based,  slicked back banker(no one ever knew if he had any hair) who knew talent when he saw it.  He hired Mikee, made him go to his tailor, had him tucking his shirt in and not cursing everyone in sight, and there he was, Trump's banker in the insurance money.

Why regulators don't look at the massive amount money invested from the insurance industry and just focus on the banks is not a mystery.  Everyday voters deal with banks, and they are an easy target. Most voters have no understanding of insurance.  For that matter, they have no information on most hedge funds.

Donnie can keep on with his shell game and Mikee is retired rich beyond his wildest dreams.  Now, Donnie thinks that he should be President.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The demise of "Hummus World"

"Hummus World" was a small eatery in a nearby town that specialized in pita sandwiches, falafel, homemade soups, and hummus among other things.  In more or less a shotgun shack configuration it had three tables that could seat two people, three if a chair was put in the aisle, and one longer table in the front that could seat six people comfortably, perhaps two more if crammed in.  There were a couple of metal tables outside on a concrete slab for use in good weather.   It was primarily a restaurant for take-out but the owner was obviously pleased when we decided to eat there.

A few days ago we were shocked to find out that it had closed.  It was one of those unique choices that are rare these days, a small family owned business where the owners were always on the premises and recognized their customers.  The loss relative to good food options in the area is tragic. In fact, it had closed in late January but we had not been out and about enough recently to know. It had been a regular almost monthly outing over the last ten years or so.

So it's a goodbye to those chicken shawarma pita, shawafel pita, and falafal pita sandwiches, all stuffed with Israeli salad, hummus, and tahini sauce.  The New York Times referred to them as "big, messy, and terrific".  That's all true, and napkins were essential.  Goodbye to those "crisp Israeli fries", covered in salt and spices and when put in a brown paper bag for take-out, the bag was drenched in grease after our 10 minute drive home.  We always snacked on them aggressively in the car while they were still hot. Another adios to the "sloppy ju", a pita combination of hummus, ground beef, baked fava beans, and mushrooms.  And last but not least, goodbye to the four hot sauces, green, red, yellow, and brown.  A combination of green and yellow worked for me.  Brown was saved for a dare.

Why they closed is a mystery, as they had many loyal customers.  During the lean years of 2009 the large multi-tasking owner - cashier, server, talker, Mets watcher, and phone attendant -  did complain to me about the business barely making it, but it was assumed that must have been related just to that year.  It's possible that he and his wife, who made the soups( the paper menu said "all soups served depending on Esther's mood that day") decided to move home, had health issues, or were worn out from running the business. They were our age is my guess.

The people, the uniqueness of the food, and the personalized atmosphere of the place will be missed here.  There can be no replacement.  K says the closure is "terrible".  We miss the owner, a big guy with always looking for a laugh, and that's what it comes to in friends in this metro world.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"GHETTOSIDE, a true story of murder in America"

This book, written by Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy, is an exceptional portrait  a of phenomenon that is bigger and worse than had been previously recognized here.  That is the mostly black on black murder epidemic in urban centers, mid-sized cities, and much of the South.

To paraphrase and then quote from the beginning pages of the book, black men were the nation's number one crime victims.  "They were the people hurt most badly and most often, just 6% of the country's population but nearly 40% of those murdered.  People talked a lot about crime in America, but they tended to gloss over this aspect---that a plurality of those killed were not women, children, infants, elders, nor victims of workplace or school shootings. Rather, they were legions of America's black men, many of them unemployed and criminally involved.  They were murdered every day, in every city, their bodies stacking up by thousands, year after year."

Leovy's book focuses on South Central L.A., and she is allowed to embed herself in police department homicide divisions in that area to report on what was happening periodically and over several years at time.  What she details is a long term problem of diminished law enforcement in certain minority areas and much more importantly lax follow up on crimes, a plethora of unsolved cases that left communities open to self-enforcement by gangs.

She follows a few experienced, dedicated, and successful homicide detectives, studies their cases, and holds them up as examples of the kind of policing that is needed but that is far from the norm.  She looks back at how the beginning of this type of experience began in the Jim Crow South in the 19th century and then the attitudes there moved to the urban centers of the country.  Black on black crimes that were not deemed as newsworthy received limited police attention in many parts of the country.

The gang phenomenon in this country became more real to me when traveling back and forth to my hometown in southern Virginia many times as my parents aged.  Here in the New York area it would be referred to as a small town but, in that area, with a population of 42,000 and more in adjoining areas, it was still a city.  It is not an especially prosperous city, but it is far bigger than anything nearby.  What I learned at that time from a knowledgeable friend was that there were more than 20 identified gangs in the city, having turf wars, controlling the local drug trade, and being a transfer point to other smaller towns and villages in the region.  My hometown had become a regional shopping mecca in more ways just that WalMart, Home Depot, and many other recognizable national brands.  When reading in Leovy's book about one of the prime murder suspects in the book traveling to North Carolina and staying for a few weeks for unspecified reasons, it reinforced the idea, believed by many in my hometown, that some local gangs had relationships with larger urban gangs, even those from L.A.

My father's assisted living facility, a former college with huge columns in front, where he lived from 2006 to 2009, is a well known part of the city at a crossroads where Main Street divides into West Main Street and South Main Street in front of a beautiful high steepled church built in the late 19th century.  One late night when I was staying there, a full scale shoot out occurred in front of the building.  Police arrived after the shots had stopped ringing out and there was no information the next day as to what happened.  I was told that Main Street at that precise point was a boundary between two gang territories.  The assisted living center had excellent security.

"GHETTOSIDE" brought out that aside from a viewed minor experience here, but it could have led to comments about a fortunately minor but scary traffic accident in South Central when driving back at night from calls on investor clients in L.A., about what were luckily more humorous than alarming experiences in Louisville's West End in the 1970's, or walking or staying in some fringe parts of Manhattan in the 70's and early 80's.  This book is important and can be related to tangentially by many people one could guess.  I would.

The black on black murders and the gang dominance in some areas are problems that still need more recognition and action, and while in L.A. there is some progress now,  it is a problem that is far from being solved there or elsewhere in this country.


Friday, July 17, 2015

"A Most Violent Year", a film about violence and price fixing in the heating oil industry

This is a 2014 film set in the days of a crime filled New York City in 1981.  It is an interesting but not an especially remarkable film.  What makes it worth a comment is that, from experience here, the price fixing, or cartel like price gouging, described in the film still goes on today.

We had oil heat in our first house here in suburban New York beginning in 1986.  Oil seemed expensive and unpredictable in its price movements.  There was already a gas line into that little house so once we recovered from the down payment on the house in a year or two, we replaced the 1924 asbestos covered oil furnace in the basement and converted to gas.

Our current house had oil heat when we purchased it in 1997 and the house had no gas line.  The cost and disruptive process of putting a gas line in from the street seemed unnecessary at first, but when we changed to a much more efficient furnace we chose one that could be converted to gas if we chose.  Spending almost 15 years looking it heating oil bills, and paying them, was exasperating. When the price of oil went down, heating oil did not.  In summers when there was less demand, the price stayed flat and never went down.  When oil prices in the market went up, heating oil went up more.  This phenomenon went on and on.  I called many times to get an explanation and it was always something incoherent, and often different from one customer rep to the next.  The all purpose answer was that the heating oil market was totally unrelated to the oil price market that you read about.  It boggled the mind.

"A Most Violent Year" depicts conflict in the heating oil industry in which prices were rigged and the various oil providers operated like a quasi-monopoly.  If someone stepped out of line with real competition or better service, they were stepped on.  Whether they were mob related or not didn't matter.

While the film was set in the horribly graffiti trashed city of the time, it does not seem as if the heating oil industry has changed in any material way since that time.  Whether the garbage industry, concrete industry, or other formerly mob controlled businesses have changed or not, who knows. With garbage the guess here is no, but that is based on casual observation and not facts.

Eventually we did move to gas heat in our current house.  Hurricane Sandy forced us to get a gas line installed for a generator.  We were never going to go through an experience like Sandy again, hopefully.  With the gas line in, we extended it to the basement and now have reliable, relatively inexpensive, and predictably priced gas heat.

This film was involving enough in its own right, but it turned on that light bulb in my head about our experience with oil heat and it was a revelation.  What made no sense was never meant to.

Postscript:  the film itself was a fictional story about a heating oil company whose owner refused any ties with blatantly illegal activities.  He was an aggressive businessman, but generally above aboard. I say generally since his wife, who was also his accountant, always stressed that they "followed standard industry practices", which meant that they were part of some skimming and collusion but not part of any violent behavior or strong arming.  His struggle to "stay clean" in the business and protect his family is the focus of the film.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The pattern continues for U.S. equities

June 9th was the last comment here on the U.S. equity market.  At the time, CNBC was obsessing over the "summer swoon", pundits, seeking attention and just guessing, piled on, and the market was leaking slowly every day.  That continued for a few weeks and on June 30 the Fidelity S&P Index fund that is used here was allocated more funds.  Through yesterday, that new allocation is up 5.5% in the last two weeks.  Who knows what will happen next.  The final sentence of the June 9th commentary had been "if it(the market) snaps back, the pattern of recent years continues".

Now the S&P is approaching its high for year and the Nasdaq is on a roll today.  Generally speaking, financials with any decent performance, especially the bigger banks, are having a good run. Prospects for a more positive yield curve are a big part of that.  Continued solid credit performance is also important.  The potential for falling legal costs and a decline in the random and harshly punitive government penalties for activities that took place over six years ago is also a positive.  Cynics may say that politicians are easing up because the financial firms, like all big firms in any industry, are big contributors to campaigns.  Some realists may note there are a very large number of people in this country who work for financial firms, and they tend for the most part to be educated voters.

Small caps have been experiencing a mixed performance from day to day, but they are, in general, holding their own.  In that part of the market, some companies that have had large gains over the past several years have been a source of liquidity for new ideas, leading to declines unrelated to current performance.  There continue to be opportunities for stock selection, and one big miss here a few months ago still rankles.  Mistakes are sometimes difficult to shake off.

Transports seem to have stabilized but energy related stocks have not.  Technology and biotech still have their standouts, different almost every day.  See Netflix and Celgene in recent days.

As for international concerns, the deal in Greece is no answer but the financial markets seemed to just want a break from the complete uncertainty, and that is certainly all that this agreement is.  It will also provide some liquidity in Greece short term that will allow the country to function and it's hard to complain about that. The angst over China among seasoned investors does not seem to have spread to the broader market but how that evolves is uncertain as discussed in a July 9th post here.  It appears to be a longer term issue.  The tension between Russia and Western allies in Eastern Europe seems to be on hold for the moment and how to read that is unclear. The Iran deal is another placeholder that the markets seem to view as much much better than nothing.

There are many moving parts, but none are rattling the market today.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Estates, real estate, brokerage accounts, beneficiaries --- SIMPLIFY

Often there are articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and various periodicals about how to save for retirement and then how to manage that money in the safest yet most productive way. How to balance those two objectives is generally boiled down to diversification.

One other important consideration that is only mentioned in some articles is to simplify a portfolio and an estate as much as possible.  Diversification and Simplification.  Over an earnings lifetime it is easily possible to accumulate multiple accounts and holdings.  There comes a time when it is necessary to aggregate accounts, simplify holdings, and deal with inherited assets that may have several partners.  This is a tedious thing to do, but it is a necessary effort.  Estate lawyers, real estate attorneys, brokers, tax specialists, and bankers will all help beneficiaries manage this, at a PRICE, but not leaving all of the work to beneficiaries is the best idea.  Why should they sort through reasonably successful investing that is marked by personal inanity or insanity, meant facetiously, or more accurately the work of hobbyist whose career led to a great interest in investing.  To say the obvious, consolidating and unwinding a portfolio can be a time consuming and tedious process.

Whether needed for next year, ten years from now, or thirty years from now, the suggestion here is that NOW is the time to begin that simplification process for people of a certain age.  Even though NOW is not that much fun, doing it makes for better sleep.  This is especially true of inherited assets in which beneficiaries could, along with assets, inherit a few unsavory partners. Finding a way out is essential, even at a price today.  What a treat.

Why not watch a baseball game instead?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Decision on Greece soon is unavoidable

The European Union and Greece will need to arrive at a deal soon.  Unlike the negotiations with Iran about their hoped for nuclear arsenal and the related economic sanctions, there are real deadlines for Greece. Significant debt payments will need to be made near term and if the European Union can't agree to some plan, then creditors will begin to act.

Tsipras has come back with a proposed agreement to do most of what Germany and the European Union have requested, but EU leaders are unsure about how to interpret his ability to deliver given last week's overwhelming vote against any austerity.  Tsipras and his fellow Greek leaders should also be worried as well, worried about their ability to get approval from the Greek legislature.  One can be almost certain that without that, there will be no funds forthcoming.  The Greeks may think that only the leaders accepting the EU terms will lead some initial advance of funds, but the guess here is that Germany would not agree to that.

Many people in Europe and around the world would like for there to be a positive outcome to this crisis.  Then again, as happened here today, people read things that are so disheartening that it is almost impossible to see how Greece can escape the results of many long term established habits.  It's not just the unwillingness to pay taxes that is shared broadly, but activities like paying "fakelakis" for almost any service.  They are apparently small envelopes of money passed on to doctors at hospitals to get treatment, tax collectors, their version of the DMV for driver's licenses, or bureaucrats in general.  In general, a non-taxable bribe seems to be necessary in Greece to get any important service. From the point of view of a rule based country like Germany, this is reprehensible.

The EU does not trust Greece and Greece has suffered because of it.  Some agreement needs to be reached, and if it is not the leaders of Greece, the wealthy, or successful business owners will not be truly hurt.  It will be ordinary citizens of modest to little wealth who have already been severely impacted by austerity.

This could be sad to watch. In fact, it already is.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

China's volatile equity market and prospects for calamity

China's equity markets finally regained their footing in trading yesterday.  Their performance in the past six weeks has been horrific but, that included, their performance over the past 12 months remains notably positive.  Still, it seems here that China is the biggest issue out there for global markets. Greece gets more attention at the moment but it is such a piker compared to China.  With all of the rapidly announced government support, China may well rebound now, but that does not mean that all is well.

Many investors with a long term positive view of China remain committed, pointing out China's GDP growth rate is still around 7%(the envy of the developed world), its excess currency reserves are substantial, and its middle class continues to grow, though somewhat less robustly.  The question is whether all of that really matters to a grossly overvalued stock market.  In the U.S. in 2000, as the technology bust began, the government had a balanced budget, unemployment was low, and prospects for growth were presumed to be high.  The price earnings ratios of most stocks, even price to no earnings ratios, were at historic highs, and once the decline began nothing could stop a significant downturn in equity markets, and while the drop was brutal in technology stocks, it was also widespread and significant as the tech bubble sucked liquidity from the market in general.

The thought occurs here that China could ultimately face what would be a combination of the U.S. tech bust, the U.S. 1989 - 1990 commercial real estate crash, and the U.S. 2008 - 2009 residential real estate bust and financing fiasco that led to the so-called Great Recession.  It is a fact that commercial real estate is substantially overbuilt in China, even as new building continues in various areas of the country that still aspire to the growth of the capital and the coastal cities.  Remember the "see throughs" of the late '80's and early 90's in the U.S.  They are already built in China. Residential housing is also in a boom that is far beyond the reach and capacity of even China's growing middle class.  Recently it was reported that the Chinese government is already buying up empty residential developments and selling apartments at significantly reduced interest rates and prices to those who are forced out of their homes by continued development --- business districts, dams, roads, trains, and other infrastructure projects to make China more upbeat to the world.

All of this is not to suggest that China is facing some economic disaster now.  Not now and not longer term, but there is definitely a hump to get over at some point, and the pain is unknowable. They are a party dictatorship.  Did I actually write "party".  Yes, I guess so when one looks at overwhelming evidence of Mao party young people with their amazing cars and vastly expensive party lifestyle. Their behavior is in fact repulsive, even more than the Russian oligarchs in London. Widespread word of their behavior on the internet, when accessible, is certainly to be found in China. As in the U.S, this news and behavior is not positive for the majority of the aware people, or should it be said minority in both cases.

China has resources that are substantial and they have the political and military will to avoid anything that overtly disrupts the public, anything that could upset the government's unbending autocratic rule. Unfortunately financial markets that openly trade do not necessarily respect mandates, and given that the Chinese equity market is substantially retail, the worry is that the expected middle class growth will retrench.

China is an opportunity to be watched for more reasons than one.  It can be expected that there will be more news to come from China and what happens there is far more important for global markets than the powerful Japan was in the 1980's or of course Greece today.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

"On The Move, a life", memories from Oliver Sacks

This recently published memoir/autobiography by the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks has been interesting and at times compelling reading here.  After seeing his work in "The New Yorker" for years and occasionally in "The New York Review of Books"when at the library, it is clear now that much of the life of this highly energetic medical researcher, clinician, motorcyclist, body builder, swimmer, skier, and all around generalist of  adventure was unknown to me.

His early life in England(which he still views as his home), his talented family, his education at Oxford, his move to California in the 1960's and his move to New York in the 1980's, where he still lives, are all covered, all important geographic aspects of his life, and that is apart from his travels to all parts of the world.  He has had a life of relationships with smart or highly educated people, in many places.  He has been a chronic risk taker in many ways.  

His practice involves neurology in the first instance, but at times veers into psychology and other areas, as well as his love of playing the role of general practitioner, as both of his brilliant parents did while being specialists at the same time.  He has not been a proponent of the ever increasing specialization obsession in medicine in the last 40 years, and pays attention to interrelationship of the various problems of his patients.  

Sacks has had his own share of medical, neurological, and occasionally psychological problems as well, and as unpleasant as some have been he has viewed most as an experience to ultimately benefit from intellectually and to apply to his practice.  At 85, ill health seems to be catching up with him by all reports, and that makes this writing effort somewhat remarkable.  Many accomplished people aspire to sum up their lives with insightful writing, but a decline in health, enthusiasm, or memory often makes this impossible.  For Sacks, this was not an obstacle.

Best known for his, at times, popular accessible writing(criticized by some in the academic community), this book is still filled with medical research in his past that sent this reader to the dictionary or the internet for definitions or information.  "On The Move..." is without question a book written to be read by laymen as well as professionals, but it can occasionally be a mite bit taxing for those unfamiliar with some of the diseases that he treats.  

In closing I note the following Sack's comments from the closing pages.  "The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing... Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing still seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago."

In this comment on Eyes Not Sold, the surface of this book has only been touched.      

Monday, July 06, 2015

A new and "better late than never" comment from Obama on confronting ISIS

After his meeting at the Pentagon today to discuss ISIS and terrorist threats with the generals, President Obama made public comments.  These included the statement that the fighting against ISIS and the degree of vigilance required will not accomplish our country's goals in the short term.  It will take time and he mentioned "at least two years".  He listed the accomplishments to date in retaking cities in Iraq and in attacking key ISIS targets and supply routes in Syria.  His audience was both the American people and the many nations with stakes in the outcome, and by definition he was characteristically optimistic about the longer term.  Whether too positive about accomplishments to date is a question worth asking, and the answer is generally unknowable.

The one new comment was one said casually as if it was normal, but it definitely was not.  He said that the U.S. would be working to fund and arm "tribal groups" like Peshmerga and moderate Sunni tribes.  One can be sure that the Kurdistan province leaders who fund and lead Peshmerga were not thrilled to be called a "tribe", but maybe that's just Obamaspeak for avoiding any insult to the Shiite Iraqi central government that he continues to favor.

Eyes Not Sold has called for Obama to arm and fund the Kurdish army and moderate Sunni tribal groups for over year, maybe two years.  Whether this was just a political statement by Obama and he is simply asking the Iraqi Central government to pass on weapons and funds to those groups or whether the U.S. has the will and takes the initiative to use power to do it directly is unknown.  If not done directly from the U.S., this is just an empty statement.  If the U.S. deals directly with those fighting groups it will be welcome and necessary.  After the Iraqi "Army" gave up billions dollars of U.S. supplied equipment to ISIS last year, moderate Sunnis and the Peshmerga, "actual fighting groups", have been at  a disadvantage.  Will Obama finally follow through on providing real significant military aid and money to these groups and not solely rifles, food, and medical supplies? What he said implies that he has finally changed course.  Or did he just say it?

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Deluge from Facebook

Sometime in the last week or two Facebook began sending all posts that are just "liked", "tagged", or "commented" on by anyone on my "friends" list.  Since some people on this "friends" list are apparently Facebook obsessives, the Facebook notes received here have gone from maybe 10 each day to maybe 50 or more each day.  Nothing has been changed in the settings here.

There are days that Facebook is not used or looked here at all.  Now when opened there are overwhelming number of posts, making notes from my actual friends difficult to find.  It may be time to drop Facebook completely.  Their added advertisements are one thing, but this sharing of full posts of every like, tag, or comment makes this site almost useless.

With a significant gain in the stock, it may be time to sell as well.

Postscript:  I have looked at my settings and spoken with a couple of Facebook friends and do not think that this is the case with my "likes" or "comments",  meaning that to the best of my knowledge "liking" something does not mean everyone on my friends list gets that complete post.  If anyone knows other wise, Please let me know.  Why all of a sudden this has happened to the Facebook page here, the deluge, is still a mystery.

Friday, July 03, 2015

"Shun Lee and the Poet", a film

We watched this mostly low key and gentle film last night and enjoyed it thoroughly.  It fit us.  The film is set in an island fishing village near Venice, a city of experienced dreams, and is the story of a Chinese immigrant working in a Chinese owned osteria to pay for her passage out of  China and to arrange for the eventual possibility of having her 8 year old son in China join her.  The film has subtitles and the languages used are of course Italian and Mandarin.

Because K's eyesight has trouble with sub-titles, I read parts of them to her, and while somewhat diminished she has more understanding of Mandarin than she acknowledges, both literally and intuitively.  She likes to hear the language and that kept her engaged for the entire film even though it was definitely not action packed.

The film was first released in 2011 or early 2012, and won recognition at several European film festivals.  Tao Zhao, who played Shun Li, won best actress at a prominent Italian film awards event.

The basic story is one of fitting into a role in an Italian village without in any way getting too friendly or involved with any of the Italians whose sensitivity and, among a few, some small town prejudice that could lead them to misinterpret the Chinese residents' intentions.  Shun Li becomes platonic friends with a regular customer, an aging retired fisherman who is nicknamed the "Poet".  They are both lonely and isolated and they enjoy chatting when possible in the osteria and infrequently meeting at public places in the small town to talk and console one another.  They even take a ride in his antiquated fishing boat, an action which ignites unfounded rumors.

Through a town bully's miserable behavior this eventually ends badly, but that leads to one of the village's few quietly well off residents who witnessed what happened to anonymously pay off her debt to the ubiquitously predatory snakeheads and have her son as ransom successfully brought to her safely and legally. That is surely a happy ending.

While there are only brief glimpses of Venice during an unusual one day off visit by Shun Lee, the filming of the coastal village is charming in its own right.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

My Saga, Parts 1 and 2, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard is relatively new to me as a writer, but when he had articles in the newly revamped Sunday New York Times Magazine on March 1 and March 15, it caught my attention.  His writing did not at first, and curiosity was delayed as the two magazines sat in the "to be read" pile for almost three months.   Then, in a spate of book buying on Amazon necessitated by my current need to be at home much of the time, I purchased Knausgaard's latest book that had been translated into English in hopes of catching on to his literate audience's adoration.  It occurred to me that the magazine articles should be read now, and the book whenever it comes up in the ever growing queue.

The Times hired him to travel across the United States to visit areas inhabited at times by those of Norwegian ancestry, from the Vikings and onward.  It turns out that Knausgaard is the kind of writer whose reflections are mostly personal, and they are interestingly forthright.  At first he spends as much time writing about the mistakes he makes, the bad food he eats, his poops, and all of the things he manages to misplace or lose as he goes about his travels, which begin slowly for various reasons. Comparing what he was seeing to Nabokov's "Lolita" travels and Kerouac's "On the Road" is a thoughtful and unique approach, as both books are classics and both books begin their quasi-fictional travels of America in 1947.

What Knausgaard writes is not meant to be repeated here in any detail, or explained.  He writes, "The identical workers are replaceable and the products are identical...Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within."  For Knausgaard that is observation, not criticism.  He is regularly fascinated by things that he sees, some of the people that he meets, and the occasional breaks in the dismal landscape of the plains states where he almost inadvertently travels.  The Swedes and Norwegians ended up in Minnesota and neighboring states for reasons unknown here.

He constantly comments on the "sameness", same motels, same restaurants, same stores, same... he writes that "nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America."  When he looked at supposedly historic sites he noted that it "didn't matter if it was authentic or not --- hadn't this entire country been built on the promise of avoiding this question?"

All of what has just been written may make Knausgaard sound like some kind of critical foreign jerk, but if you actually read what he writes he is not.  His writing and the translation work well.  I look forward to reading "My Struggle, Book Four" which now sits in a pile next to my main reading chair. His observations there will focus on himself and it is expected that he will be creatively written and entertainingly candid.

Personal postscript:  it could be wondered what he would have thought about traveling through the south and southwest of the U.S.  My experience in Minnesota and nearby states was one of the worst and most bland food that has ever been tasted, bland hopelessly content people with no opinions of substance, newspapers without news, and the almost complete lack of differentiation except for presumably among the very wealthy. There are other parts of the country that are quite crazed and unpredictable, in a creative and positive way mostly, but with some downside as well.  As said, this is a personal postscript.