Sunday, July 30, 2017

A look at the past...Greece and Istanbul 1982, Part 1

In late 2016 a daughter asked that I write about some family history.  On 10/28, 10/29, 11/6, and 12/8 of last year that was done, but there's much more to tell about the days before children.

As a relief from the news of the day, this looks at a trip and by Kathy and me to Greece and Turkey in 1982, following a trip to Paris the previous year described in the 11/6/16 post.

We flew into Athens on a late summer day, had dinner in Piraeus after being almost assaulted by multiple restaurant employees trying to drag us into their restaurants as we walked through the harbor.  I did not remember that experience from 1971, but after all I did not look remotely prosperous at that time.  We had a wonderful meal.  The next day we did the usual and startling sightseeing and museum touring, plus Kathy did some jewelry shopping at a store near our hotel where the local silver jewelry enchanted her and was not expensive at all.  Without the pubs of London or the cafes of Paris or the chairs in shops, I stood outside and wondered why I was there.   The next day we took a short flight to Crete.

As I understand it, Crete and the rest of the Greek Islands are today overwhelmed by Brits on holiday, an unattractive phenomenon known especially in Greece and Spain.  In 1982 that was not an issue. Crete was a phenomenal place to visit.  We landed in Iraklion and found a nice small hotel with a fine restaurant.  Ordering dinner is when we realized that anything on this large island was affordable, as in cheap, by the standard of the American dollar at that time.  I am embarrassed to say now how much that freedom meant to me.  For those who know my background they know it was totally  new.

Renting a low mileage light brown Datsun the next morning we headed out.  First to Knossos, the supposed center of a great Minoan civilization that was viewed by some as the root of all spiritual knowledge or others as the lost civilization..  Nice ruins, no reawakening.  I adored seeing the place.

We drove east and stopped first in a village on a cliff over a beach.  The consummate shopper Kathy was overwhelmed with the shops of art objects.  Me too.  I bought a woven painting that was incredible and upon arrival home was promptly given to Kathy's sister by her mother... I remember that... and it is probably in a basement storage areas somewhere.

After that was the peaceful beach in Sitia in the east and then two days in Ieapetra, a beach town of sorts where as always our accommodations were fine, a marble encased place that was the only one like it.  It was strange but we were tired.  Our room had a large second floor balcony overlooking the sea.  We went out one night to one of the recommended restaurants in town where Kathy's fish was fine but my decision to order the most expensive steak was ruined when halfway through I learned that it was horse. Tough but ok with sauce.

All of this travel was done with a map but that didn't  mean that the red line on a map meant roads. In that part of Crete then it meant dirt and rock paths, sometimes fording small streams.  That Datsun was a workhorse, so to speak.  We have a wonderful photo of Kathy sitting on a rock over a great view on one of those paths.  I always thought that we were on the right path or else didn't care at all whether we were or not, and Kathy just trusted this travel style that she had never experienced.  I dealt with her shopping expeditions and expertise in the artistic and she dealt with my willingness to get lost.  Foreboding what...

More to come...




Saturday, July 29, 2017

McCain, and the Republican Health Care bill collapse

In fact, there were more than a handful of Republican senators other than Collins and Murkowski who had serious problems with the proposed health care bill but lacked the fortitude to cast a deciding vote.  Would anyone?  John McCain returned from his surgery and on the initial vote said yes to a continuation.  On the deciding vote despite "arm twisting by his peers, Vice President Mike Pence, and even President Trump could sway him"(NYT quote) and he voted no.  That did it.  Even Pence and Trump, Pence the mindless and Trump the malicious, couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The big story is not the backbone and integrity of McCain, but that is one for the record books.  The real story is how spineless much of the Republican Congress is in the face of the bully Trump.  Who wants to risk the wrath of someone who has no limitation on what he might say about a fellow party member and who would clearly put at risk the state focused priorities of a member of Congress. Witness the attempt to intimidate Murkowski on the eve of the vote with threats from Trump's interior secretary about programs in her state.

Trump is projecting the demise of Obamacare as some of its programs collapse, and they will if there is no support of its funding.  Many Americans will be hurt while Trump will watch and gloat.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Scaramucci meltdown

In the post here on Tuesday, the ego fueled meltdown that Anthony Scaramucci had in an unsolicited conversation with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker was not anticipated.  Less than a week into the White House Communications Director job he seems to have imploded.  While, as mentioned in the earlier post, I had at times regular neighborhood contact and in more recent years around town "hellos" occasionally with Anthony, I have not seen him in several years.  I clearly do not know him as well as I thought, or he has evolved in a strange way.  His background is different from Trump but his current behavior seems identical.  He is delivering the Trump message in a crude way that Trump himself would hardly dare to do in public.

More to come....

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Equity market's smooth sailing for now...

There has not been much of note going on in the equity markets lately.  Still, watching each day is a mostly enjoyable habit and a requirement for responsible management.  Other than the ongoing modest slide upward, there is no overall market phenomenon underway.  Individual stocks can trade sharply up or down based on news specific to them, and industry groups, like financial firms recently, can move in tandem, in their case upward.

GE is one of the most notable stocks as it is a state of sustained languor.  Recent advertisements for the firm on national television have heralded the diversity of its workforce.  With a firm this size that would by necessity be true and seemingly that is all the Immelt controlled company can come up with.  He desperately needs some legacy.

The fate of individual stocks can be demonstrated of Boeing today and 3M yesterday.  Boeing reported unexpectedly strong results and is up 10% today, an almost unprecedented move for a mammoth firm.  3M's results yesterday met analyst expectations but the outlook was not a positive as expected, and the stock declined 6%, another big move for a large firm.

Those examples suggest that all is not as easy going with this market as it appears on the surface.

Looking for new investments is always interesting, but with the market's levels now, it is challenging. Time for a small cap dive.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The White House Communications Director

Was there formerly a White House Communications Director?  Maybe it was a behind the scenes management post but that is certainly not the case now.  Since the announcement that Anthony Scaramucci has been appointed to the role, it immediately became high profile.  Coverage of the appointment and of Scaramucci personally has been more widespread than for most of Trump's cabinet members.  Mike Pence seems to have vanished, which arguably is not much of a change, and a new man is in town who "loves Donald Trump".

There is no need here to detail Anthony's career, his many ups and few downs, his time at Goldman Sachs, his years starting and then selling a private banking focused hedge fund, his fund of funds success, and his SALT Conference which began seven or eight years ago in Las Vegas and to many became the most important hedge conference of the year.  All of this has been in major publications in the last week.

This has been watched closely as in the mid-90's Anthony and his family lived on a block of modest houses with, on average, 60 by 100 lots where we also lived at the time.  He was clearly an ambitious guy but also a gregarious family man.  The block was L shaped, with a stretch of approximately 10 homes on each side and then took a direct left where several more homes were located before it funneled into a busy main town road.  In effect the street was a modified cul-de-sac where all families with children knew each other well.  A basketball goal on a telephone pole faced the street, games were played there, small kids rode bikes, and the sidewalks and stoops were places where people chatted.

Anthony joined in and was especially respectful of some of the senior neighbors.  He would call his children at dinner time and at times yell "it's tortellini tonight", or whatever Italian food they were having.  Sounds idyllic in a way, and in certain aspects it was.  I would often see Anthony at the nearby LIRR station and he would always say something positive about the company that I represented, and then say that his fund owned it.  He never pressed me for information, not in the least.

Anthony and his family left that block at around the same time we did in 1997, he to a newly built unobtrusive mansion in a nearby neighborhood of expansive lots, but his was more or less invisible on a short cul-de-sac with many trees.  We moved into an existing house up the hill in the same direction.

To say that I am appalled by what Anthony is doing now is an understatement.  His political ambition had been apparent for years(he was an Obama supporter and fund raiser in 2008) but this is startling.  At the same time it is not surprising.  He is irrepressible.  Seven or eight years ago he self published a memoir of his Wall Street experience that wasn't half bad at times but became a bit too self adulating as it developed.  The local Italian deli with the best hero sandwiches in our little town had the book behind the counter next to a book by LLCoolJ and one about Boomer Esaison, other local residents.  At the time I wondered how Anthony showed up there.  Maybe it makes sense now.

Media reports suggest that Anthony and Trump are similar and maybe their careers and ambitions are to some extent.  As a person there is no comparison of the repulsive hostile oaf that Trump is to Anthony.  Unlike Trump and Bannon, crude, misogynistic, and hateful talk is not part of his vernacular.  Unlike Trump, Anthony started from scratch.  Whether Anthony's ambition and his disappointment over Obama's constant anti-Wall Street agenda lead him to facilitate Trump's poor agenda is a worry, because he could.  He is much more talented than most of the hacks and ideologues that surround Trump.  That makes Anthony either a hope or a substantial danger.

Next up, Scaramucci vs.Bannon.  One will fall.


Thursday, July 06, 2017

Trump to meet with Putin

Today Trump visited Poland and raised the issue of whether the West the "will have the will to defend our civilization."  This is a text obviously written by Steve Bannon to promulgate his nationalist agenda in a way that would appeal to Trump's macho needs.  Trump found time to bash CNN, defend his retweet of the CNN body slam video, trash NBC, and tell the world about "fake news".  Is he a class act or not?  Taking his ego on the road hardly fits in Air Force One.

Putin must relish his opportunity to meet with Trump.  There is no downside for him and every chance that he will tip Trump into making boastful statements plus declarations of his camaraderie with Putin and their shared ideals.  And that's just for starters.  Any actions that Trump may take related to North Korea will almost surely, hopefully surely, be restrained, yet the President will wave his big stick anyway with his small hands.  Don't hold your breath for any Putin compromises on Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, or for sanctions against North Korea.  Whatever Putin says, that Trump will use as a way to showcase his foreign policy chops, will not turn into any action.  If Trump even dares to bring up election tampering with Putin, he will apologize for doing so even as 17 U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously agree that it happened.  Trump said today that "nothing has been proved". That is certainly a supportive statement?

The mainstream press will rush to find away to be "balanced" in their coverage.  That Trump is a complete embarrassment to our nation will not be said.  That Trump is a danger to our way of life cannot be said.




Tuesday, July 04, 2017

"The Long Haul, a trucker's tales of life on the road"

This is a first book by Finn Murphy, who has been a long haul moving van trucker for many years.  At a little more than 200 pages and no deep content it is a quick read, and has its moments.  At times the thought occurred that maybe Murphy or his publisher looked at the amazing success of the thoughtful but somewhat pretentious "Hillbilly Elegy" and thought why not have another educated guy write a book about the working class life who actually dedicated to doing that work.

Murphy's "The Long Haul" does not dwell on a theme but puts down the tracks to consider the perspective of that life.  He writes "I had brilliantly managed to select a career where frustration was the norm...I had been angry so long I didn't know how to feel any other way".  As an aside he notes, "they say a well-balanced Irishman is a man with a chip on both shoulders."

In fact, Murphy enjoys the trucking life yet he doesn't subscribe to what he views as the generally accepted reputation of the profession.  "I'm dispatching a  couple guys from fucking Saskatchewan and they talk like the Dukes of Hazzard.  What is that?" says one character.  He follows saying, "They're perpetuating a myth... a way of looking at the world that doesn't exist, never did exist..."

That's one aspect of the book that is interesting but is by no means brow beaten into the reader. Overall the book is primarily a look at the life of the people who drive those huge trucks on the interstates, smaller highways, towns, and anywhere that someone is moving.  It is an unusual topic that mostly works.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Starz Cinema delivers

It is Channel 347 here and one of the Starz movie channels.  It often fills out evenings.  Tonight the film "Chocolat" was seen.  Released in 2000, it was obviously one of those films that came out during frenetic work years that were unhealthy in many ways as well as limiting as time to see movies.  With Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and others, it was a charming story set in a French village in 1959.  The setting, the music, and the acting all worked.  Last night there was the film "Elle" with Isabelle Huppert in a somewhat disturbing yet absorbing thriller.  It was directed by Paul Verhoeven and had the kinks to prove it. Huppert was special.

Both nights came after relatively full days with, as always, a heavy dose of reading and no television other than news.  Films help round out the day and 347 often does the job.  Now a half hour to read the current book and then sleep.


"Seeking New York"

The subtitle of this handsome paperback from Rizzoli is "The Stories Behind The Historic Architecture of Manhattan --- One Building At A Time".  There are  more than 50 buildings pictured and discussed, representing multiple areas of the borough from Chinatown to Harlem, Chelsea to Murray Hill, Gramercy to Times Square .  To those familiar with the area much may seem familiar, but as the city is a place where the focus when walking is often just getting from one place to another efficiently and safely, some of these building could go unnoticed.  There is simply too much to see.

This book is not a tour guide, but it could be helpful to those interested in slowing down and noticing detail.  There are hundreds more buildings that could have been chosen to represent the diversity of the city's architecture.  This is a perfect start for those with interest.  The stories attached to each building range from rambling historic gossip to tales of historical importance.  This is a book that can read piecemeal, like an attractive book for an end table that any visitor could pick up.

A building very familiar to us is one of  those featured, the Edward Mooney House at 18 Bowery.  It's nice to see.

"American Kingpin", a fascinating story tediously told by Nick Bilton

Among the taglines for this book are "The unbelievable true story of the man who built a billion dollar online drug empire from his bedroom --- and almost got away with it" and "The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road".  The book is written in short chapters of three to seven pages.  At first the book flows well and focuses on Ross Ulbricht, a young man, with strong libertarian views, from Austin, Texas, who created the deep web bazaar for drugs with limited expectations.  As it grew he assumed the pseudonym The Dread Pirate Roberts and the momentum of the site, Silk Road, was unstoppable.  The ability of the site to exist more than two years and not penetrated by or even known by law enforcement speaks to the internet's many tentacles that remain untamed.

As the book develops more characters come into play, most from law enforcement.  Bilton attempts to turn these agents into interesting people like Ross and his girlfriend Julia, but they do not seem to be anything but normal hardworking people.  Trying to turn minor quirks and eccentricities into compelling characters is not easy to do, or to read.  While the accomplishment of writing any book and having it published is always viewed positively here, the writing is not too terrific.  Bilton's observations about life are mundane and familiar, not insightful.  His efforts at a literary style as the book develops stick out like a sore thumb.  Repetition from tiny chapter to the next is annoying.

Yet Bilton had interesting material and the first half of the book works.  He could not sustain it as the tale evolves.  It IS a fascinating story of our time and this book is worth checking out from the library but not a place on the bookshelf.

As to Ulbricht, he was caught, tried, and sentenced to life in prison.  None of the crimes he was convicted of were worthy of a life sentence.  Added up consecutively they are much more than that. While not tried for murder or conspiracy to commit murder,  none of which actually occurred even as agents for the DEA, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and FBI faked false choices for Ulbricht to make that showed purpose if not action, there are some who think that the life sentence is too much and was handed down based on the entrapments planned rather than evidence.

The lead agents for the DEA and the Secret Service both were convicted  of stealing money from the Silk Road site which they had penetrated, about $750,000 each separately done, something they thought would not be noticed.  There were other questionable actions by law enforcement.  The future may hold some hope for Ulbricht, a former Eagle Scout.  In any event he is looking at a long stay in prison.