Thursday, November 30, 2017

"just a 41 year old mum from Bognor"

Donald Trump's tweet of anti-Islam videos received a negative response from British Prime Minister Theresa May.  The President of the United States responded on Twitter to Theresa May Scrivenor, self described as "just a 41 year old mum from Bognor."  That's a seaside town in the southwest of England.  His apparent urgent need to get his rebuke back to the Prime Minister resulted in the humorous, yes stupid, miscue.  The unfortunate part of this story is that what Trump did was not at all funny.

The videos came from a far right fringe political group in England called Britain First.  Using them, Trump has insulted Muslims in general and the intelligence of most thinking people around the world.  It is easy to imagine that many Trump supporters also cringe at his irresponsible behavior.  He is not a credible human being.  It goes without saying that he is a liability in the event of any real crisis, one of which will surely come during his time in office if he can't be removed.

How low can he go?  We don't know.  Does anyone really want to find out?  Sarah Huckabunk Sanders said that "the President wanted to elevate the conversation around terrorism."  Is that another joke?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Reporting on genocide --- Syria and Myanmar, Vice News and PBS

There are many troubled places around the world --- North Korea, Yemen, Somalia, Honduras, Venezuela, the White House --- this list could go on, but there are two places where genocide is openly happening.

The most acute now is in Myanmar, aka Burma, where the Rohingya Muslim minority is being massacred by the country's military, and forced to flee into Bangladesh refugee camps or into boats to nowhere.  This is difficult to understand from afar and due to incomplete information, but that group has two strikes against.  The Rohingya's professed faith is Muslim in a Buddhist country.  That is difficult, but there are other Muslims in the country that are not so specifically being attacked and ostrasized.  The second attribute is that the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group apart from their religion.  One way to relate to it is to compare them to Roma in Europe, a stateless minority that at times no one has wanted.  That analogy may be wrong but it works for now.  The genocide is exhibited in torture, gang rapes, murder, burning of entire villages(crops, animals, and people included),  and government support for this, at the same time that it is denied completely.  The Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi stays quiet.  Either she shares the prejudice or is dominated by the military.  Some hope that she is waiting to have a positive impact in ways that cannot be seen.  Too late.  The genocide is underway.  That the Pope showed up cannot hurt, but does it help.

The most comprehensive and persistent news coverage of the Rohingya genocide by the U.S. media is by PBS News Hour.  Through their own reporting and that of affiliates, they are on the subject several nights each week.  No one else on television news is.  The New York Times does cover the story regularly as it develops.

The other place where genocide has been ongoing is in Syria.  This is both a religious action and a political one. It is the indiscriminate slaughter of Sunni civilians who oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  Entire areas of  cities are blasted to pieces if Sunnis or any Assad regime opponents are there.  Horrific barrel bombs are used, designed to kill and maim as many people as possible and not remotely designed to fight rebel combatants.  The use of chemical agents has been sporadic, and many suspect that it is much more ubiquitous than has been reported.  In recent months hospitals have become prime targets of Assad's air force, with Russia participating.  Iran supports Assad with weapons and money in his efforts to control the country with no regard for life, as long as his wife can continue to shop in Paris.

With 400,000 people killed, cities ravaged, and 5 million people living as refugees in other countries, the  atrocities have been reduced in public consciousness to "what's new" and to most media outlets to "what's news".  

This has been written about multiple times here in the past, but not recently.  The best news coverage, to repeat --- the most comprehensive and persistent ---, has been Vice News on HBO.  They have been all over this story, reporting events that are not seen elsewhere and maybe shouldn't be seen on network television given how horrific some of the footage is.  Vice News is staying with the story.

These particular events may seem hopeless.  Paying attention is still important.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"Loan Growth Is in a Rut" says WSJ

That is the title of a front page article in the Wall Street Journal today.  The phrasing suggests that this is a problem.  Could it be that the headline writer does not understand the article, maybe, or it does suggest that the writer of the article is confused.

Commercial and consumer loan totals on bank books are still rising but the pace of growth is slowing.  The article wonders "why" in this "buoyant" economy, and suggests that financial stocks have been rising based on this expectation.  It could be suggested that financial stocks are rising, in fact, because loan growth is moderating.  Loans can always grow, but once on books of banks, corporations, and individuals they can be sticky.  If loans are not always needed, or granted, that can be good news.

Over the last 20 years in corporate America there has been a massive shift in labor demand and efficiency as technology that required major investment over many years has changed the structural nature of management.  That spending is ongoing but the benefits derived lead to less need for other types of capital spending.  And less people.

The key focus of the article is, in a roundabout way, the profitability of banks and the impact on stock price of weaker loan demand.  A strong economy is not measured by bank stock prices.  It is measured by the prosperity of a society and the opportunities for growth in creativity.  Banks are just one piece of the puzzle.

What was this all about?  The WSJ article simply did not hang together and make any point.  In dealing with that, what is written here has the same flaws but does eventually get around to making a point, admittedly a bit off point.

It's been a long day.

Postscript:    Bank stock prices will rise if a more positive yield curve develops.  Generally speaking, the big banks have enough deposits and loans to benefit significantly from a higher net interest margin.  Small banks that only are in that business will benefit too, but in the long run they are a more risky investment because their dependence can cloud credit standards over time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Thoughts about holiday shopping... a look back

Holiday shopping in New York, meaning Manhattan, was always a looked forward to event.  Interesting stores and markets are abundant of course, and they change from year to year.  Regulars are many, starting with the holiday market at Union Square which has at least 80 specialty stalls selling crafts, items of clothing, spices, foods, cups, scarves, mittens, and on and on, plus snacks for immediate consumption.  Near Union Square is Paragon Sports, the place for athletic wear, jackets, and coats, and almost anything related to sports.  Their selection is exceptional, brands not seen everywhere and prices that are competitive.

Going downtown to the village area there once was Balducci's, a wonderful cramped store full of interesting food made there or imported from around the world.  Its 7th avenue location did not satisfy the next generation of the family owned business so in the late 90's they moved the store to 8th avenue and 14th in a former bank building plus started a mail order business.  It went bankrupt after that and is mentioned because for many years it was a central part of holiday shopping here.

Nearby on Christoper Street is Li-Lac Chocolates, still thriving and after 1999 it expanded, now five stores total around Manhattan.  Its butter crunch was a favorite of all here, and its chocolates are special, all made just for this area.  To my knowledge there is no mail order business and it is well managed still.  Further downtown in Soho shops changed frequently but once there was a sock store on West Broadway that was a gold mine for family presents.  Over on 3rd avenue there is the original Kiehl's store near 14th street, another enterprise that has expanded over the years.  Soaps and lotions from that store were once prized, but now they may be somewhat ubiquitous to knowing shoppers.

Uptown, there are the fancy Madison Avenue shops, most of which now have outlets at a shopping plaza a few miles from here.  In the 80's they did not and very special purchases were at times, say infrequently, made there.  One exception was the N. Peal store on 57th Street near Lex.  The sweaters and scarfs there were first learned about at the Burlington Arcade in London, and gifts from there for family members, parents included, were exceptional purchases.  That falls in the expensive but worth it category for quality and longevity.

Moving down to the 40's, there was the dearly departed and exceptional Gotham Book Mart on 47th street near 6th Avenue.  In business since the 1920's, it had been a haven for the literate, from curious readers to aspiring or successful writers.  The sign over the door said, "Wise Men Fish Here".  After various struggles with ownership and real estate it closed about 10 years ago.  The Grand Central Markets to the east opened in the 90's and with its own food area plus an area for booths akin to Union Square, though far fewer, which made had some usual shops and some shops with artwork that was clever or attractive.  In the Penn Station area at 9th avenue and 35th was B&H Photo, which specialized in cameras, but had other types of audio visual equipment as well.  It fit my interest as well as that of a true camera afficionado and talent here.

During days of shopping, or in the city for any reason, there would often be a stop at 9th avenue and 21st and 22nd street.  There is La Bergamote, an exceptional coffee, pastry, and dessert store at 21st, in larger but less intimate quarters since 2010, and just above on 22nd Le Grainne Cafe, a French breakfast and lunch place where everything is good and reasonable.  The onion soup and salade nicoise were favorites.  The merguez sandwich was special too.

All of that was part of the holidays, some originating with Kathy, some with me, and others jointly.
They are recommended still.  Walking in the city is free and great entertainment on its own, especially in the holidays as people from all over the world roam around.

Postscript, 11/27 --- The shopping expeditions described began in 1981 and continued in their full form until 2012.  One aspect not mentioned --- almost every year part of the last pre-Christmas trip was to visit a fortune teller.  They were a few around the village and up to 14th street.  At times they were amazingly good at their trade, other times not so much.  The good news was that there was never any overt attempt to hoodwink me, or seek information that could be compromising.

Wall Street Journal Book section, 11/25-26

The WSJ's book section has been mentioned here before as often being worthwhile.  This weekend it overshadows the more weighty and influential New York Times Book Review section.  Sometimes it's simply more interesting, even if less well known reviewers with less space are involved.

This week there's a review of a book about Michel Curtiz, the "best film director that most people have never heard of."  A prolific director from the 1930's to 1950's, he seemingly would direct anything that came his way.  "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Casablanca" were two of his most notable films.  He was disliked by many and notorious for being difficult to work with, but he knew how to make films.  The review was informative broadly.

A review of a book about the life Lou Reed, "Lou Reed: A Life", takes the form of simply telling the story of his rise to fame, the influence of his college professor Delmore Schwarz, and the influence of beat generation writers and cool jazz musicians.  His move into the Warhol sphere and his crises of sexuality, family,  alcohol, and drugs speak to his early years as a lower east side rock presence with a cult following.  There's more.  It's unlikely that I will read the book, but the review told plenty.

There's also a review "The Bughouse", a biographical look at Ezra Pound's life and what led him to St. Elizabeth's,  the mental hospital in D.C.  The interactions and friendships of Pound's with T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and many others are mentioned and apparently part of the book, and Pound's embrace of fascism is another major aspect of the story.  Whether this book is read or partially read here is uncertain, but the review made it seem interesting as a combination study of literature, history, and mental illness.  What a current combination?

The point is that the book reviews in the Wall Street Journal can be well done, and do not seem to reflect any of the bias found elsewhere in its pages.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017 --- snooze day

Soon to put Thanksgiving dinner together.  There's food from North Shore Farms, Cippolini Pronto, and our kitchen, black bean soup made yesterday.  It will turn into a dinner of sliced turkey breast, apple and sausage stuffing, NSF's  store made turkey gravy, roasted brussel sprouts(spiced with bacon, a clever way to make them edible and not too healthy), and a salad made with what's available.  This is all done for the purpose of some sort of continuity of tradition.

Off to the kitchen.  Results later.  Oh, cranberry sauce forgotten.  Lapse will probably not be noticed.

It is noted that last year on Facebook I simply wrote "No Politics, Happy Thanksgiving".  That was of course soon after the election.  It received a number of "likes".  The result of a Trump presidency could be foreseen but had not yet been experienced.  Today that thought could not be maintained.  FB entry today was making fun of the turkey Steve Mnuchin.  It's not really funny, but somehow can't be put aside.  He needs to be done, well done.  "Likes" are not expected.

It was a good dinner.  Kathy ate well in her diminished way.  Tradition maintained, so happy Thanksgiving.  Best of luck to tomorrow's shoppers, another tradition that must miss K.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Media control in play?

Not to be alarmist, but is there something to be concerned about when the Trump administration and its politically tinged Justice Department are suing to stop the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, the F.C.C. is looking for a full repeal of net neutrality, and the Koch brothers are becoming bidders for Time Inc., all in recent days.

Certainly Trump has expressed his disdain for the big merger already, but his rationale seems driven by his distaste for CNN.  It does not seem to be based on any rational understanding of the deal and the difference between vertical integration and horizontal integration when it relates to competition.  His view is narrow and personal.  There can be legitimate arguments on both sides of the merger but Trump's is solely based on a power play.  The F.C.C. move appears to put more power in the hands of the more conservatively based traditional telecom companies in order to dilute the power of the Silicon Valley liberals, or in Trump's mind elitists.  This is a complex issue but it is more important than many fully understand(including myself).  Again, it is an exhibition of the administration's direction that is minimally explained.  As for the Koch move on Time Inc, a company that is significantly diminished in its reach relative to the past, that too represents the potential for media control with a bias that is not disguised.  A diminished Time magazine still has resonance, and with the Koch's behind it there could be a revival.  Until recently the Murdoch ownership of the Wall Street Journal had not significantly reflected his influence. In the age of Trump, it is emboldened.  Adding the Koch's to an editorial outlet could be important, and that is not a positive observation.

All of the above together is not trivial.  Trump's attacks on the press throughout the campaign and extending into his Presidency are non-stop.  His appreciation of "freedom of the press" is almost non-existent.  Underestimating what could happen over time would be a mistake.  He may be a freak but he is real.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Today's Wall Street Journal's multiple hedges

The "Heard on the Street" page in today's Wall Street Journal, 11/20/17, has five articles.  Their concluding paragraphs do not seem to bode well.  Then again, could they just be hedges for newspaper's safety or, to a contrarian, indicate the probable continuity of this rising equity market.

What follows are sentences from concluding paragraphs of these articles:

"If investors are almost all confident, there will be a lot of sellers when the environment sours."

"But for bondholders, the pursuit of higher returns is only getting riskier."

"A bubble occurs and ultimately pops when fundamental demand is misjudged and too many assets of poorer quality are mistakenly--or cynically--supplied to the market."

"Schemes to lure credulous investors tend to proliferate near market tops.  Investors should proceed with caution."

"History shows that high levels of confidence usually occur before crashes, as they did before the past two bear markets.  The confidence level is higher now than it was in either of those times."

In the last year the WSJ has become more narrowly and openly opinionated in its editorial pages, from this perspective in an unattractive way.  The license of reporters in the financial pages to give cliched conclusions seems to have been loosened as well.  It's always best to be wrong on the pessimistic side than as an optimist, at least that seems to the guiding principle here.  It does not exactly respect the intelligence of its readership, but who can judge that?  Focus on the facts, little things like operating earnings.  Writers are not analysts.

That said, there is reason as always to be watchful and diversified, but knowing that "you got to be in it to win it".

"A Surgeon's War"

This book is subtitled "My Year in Vietnam" and is written by Henry Ward Trueblood, M.D.  He grew up in the 1940's and 50's, and was part of the generation that was largely not attuned to initial qualms about the war or thoughts about the United States as anything other that a force for democracy.  As he completed medical school he was subject to the draft and served in Vietnam as part of field medical units.

This book is a straightforward account of the war and battlefield from point of view of a surgeon dealing with horrible wounds helicoptered into a makeshift medical unit.  He arrived there in late 1965.  Just being in the area near the war was not safe, notwithstanding the Marines guarding the compound.  A medical professional might appreciate this book at another level, but here it remained a compelling story.  Trueblood writes well, fluently and without excess flourishes.  Written in the first person, he does not seek to set himself up as any kind of hero.  He focuses on the group effort, and the hardship they endured together.  The individual stories about terribly wounded soldiers are wrenching when read from the perspective of one near the age of those men at that time.

Trueblood's experience changed his life and transformed his view of the Vietnam War, one that was increasingly viewed as a terribly misguided cause.  In mid-1966 when the generals of the Buddhist led part of the ARVN starting fighting with the Catholic led forces of supposedly the same army, the futility became impossible to ignore.  As Trueblood and his fellow doctors began treating those soldiers who had not been fighting the North Vietnamese or the Vietcong, but instead each other, they just kept their heads down and did their job.  The futility of the war was obvious.

This book is published by Astor & Lenox, seemingly a first class house of self-publishing with their own editorial criteria.  Reading books that are self-published can be fraught with self-indulgent tales that are mainly of interest to a narrow group of readers.  Some books can be poorly written and challenging to read.  These issues are decidedly not the case with "A Surgeon's War".  With any interest in this era, most readers will be rewarded.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Calls from Apple?

For the last few days there have been multiple calls here(five already today) with recorded messages about a technical problem with Apple I-Cloud accounts.  The phone display identifies the call as coming from Apple.  The repeated calls were a tip-off that all was not right.  Still, I wanted to see what was up.

Staying on the line and listening to the entire recorded message with phone number given to call, at the end there was the option to press 1 and stay in the line for technical support.  That did connect to a human being, one with a strong accent amid background noise that would indicate was a call center.  The accent sounded African, definitely not Indian or Spanish, but who knows.  It could have been an American with a background from elsewhere.  For whatever reason, it was not reassuring.

When I asked if this was really Apple, she did not answer at first, then said that there has been a technical problem with my Apple account.  She asked if I had access to a laptop and could login.  At that point it was just way too fishy.

I made a comment to that effect and hung up.  Then the number that showed up on the phone display with an Apple reference was noted.  Calling, it was the number of an Apple Store in Queens, and they had a recording saying, not exact words, that the phone number had been hijacked and was being used to call customers about a fictitious problem.  This real Apple recording said not to interact with that caller, and notify your service provider or the FBI.  No, think I'll just continue the day.

So for all to know, hoping you are not being harassed as well, that these calls are "fake".  Somehow I feel allergic to that word these days.

Friday, November 17, 2017

"Palm Beach Pop Festival", November 1969

Having watched the HBO documentary on Rolling Stone magazine last week, and again partially last night to see a few parts that were missed, it was a reminder of the "Palm Beach Pop Festival", November 28th - 30th.  That seems to be the name now but at the time it had been advertised as the "West Palm Beach Rock Festival", or is my memory faulty.  The documentary did not mention this festival, as it was something of a bust for the promoter.  Not a bust for me.

This event was after the historic Woodstock festival in the summer, and the promoter's aim was to create a similar event.  It was during a Thanksgiving break from my D.C. college, somewhat extended to make room for this trip, and with four or five friends from my hometown we headed south.  Who arranged this was unclear, but presumably I was one of the culprits.

Driving there we were harassed by police a couple of times, as Florida did not particularly welcome the festival, the drug addled bands that would be performing, or  the dregs of society that would be attending.  At least that seemed to be the thought there.  We safely arrived without incident, but there was one close call.  Does anyone who reads this remember?

The memory that was revived, never lost at all, was of the performers.  First though, perhaps the main similarity to Woodstock was that it rained constantly and the temperature in south Florida was not at all like the Florida remembered from previous trips.  In the 40's at night, with rain, and at times wind.  The crowd was small relative to what was expected.  It was easy to get close to the stage most of the time, especially at night in the muddy raceway field.

The highlight for me was the Rolling Stones who closed the festival, arriving very late in a helicopter due to a rainstorm.  They did a full set, and seeing Mick Jagger pound an iron chain on the stage as Midnight Rambler progressed sticks.  It was 2 in the morning and being close to the stage was not a challenge.  Still being at the concert was the challenge.

Other highlights were Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter playing together, they from the same Texas town, and seeing Jefferson Airplane but they did not seem to enjoy themselves.  Apparently the guitar player Spencer Dryden had missed a plank and fallen into mud and water just before they played and was not too keen on a long set.  Other highlights were the Chambers Brothers during a daytime lull in the weather and believe it or not Iron Butterfly one night in a lightning storm.  They should not have been on the stage and I should have been in my car.  As an indicator of the stretched concert line-up,  King Crimson(who dat) played all three days, while Pacific Gas and Electric and Rotary Connection(who dey) each played two days.  The underappreciated Vanilla Fudge(who) played on the final day earlier than the Stones and the Airplane.

That's it.  Writing about this is now off of my mind.  Who gets to write about seeing the Stones 48 years ago.  Many people could, but it almost scares me as I write this.  Is there such a thing as too many memories.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"a very fruitful trip"

Yes, a 76th word has been added to Trump's vocabulary.  "Fruitful" does not sound like Trump.  Did it come from his resident wordsmith Stephen Miller?  Sounds more like him.

Other than that, Trump's words were the usual.  He described the Asia trip as "red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received", reflecting his unique perspective on history.  Commenting on his trip to the tyrant Duterte's Philippines where he repaired what had been a "horrible relationship", he further noted "We have a very good relationship, I would actually say probably better than ever."  That speaks for itself, as does Trump, in his visit to Vietnam, volunteering his deal-making skills to mediate disputes over the South China sea while badgering that small country about trade imbalances.  He did nothing of the sort in meetings with the somewhat larger China.

On and on it goes...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

GE's fall, the season and the stock

One year ago there was a large position here in GE.  How could this not be a store of value was the thought.  It had challenges, but it also had a large and presumably solid dividend, but with room even for a modest cut if prudence required.  The problems could be solved by a managed restructuring with some asset sales, and spin-offs could benefit a holder.  The upright corporate attention seeker Immelt was on the way out and that would lead to more urgency.  That was the thought.  The lesson --- the market waits for no one.

Giving up about nine months ago, the position was sold in three tranches and was fully gone by the late summer with a modest gain.  Had it not been sold there would have been no gain until some point in the distant future.  One year ago today the stock was at $30.75.  It closed today at $17.90.

The new CEO John Flannery is pure GE.  He does not hesitate to express the need for a break with the past and the necessity of examining core businesses, but he is not a culture changer.  He means well and is surely a smart man.  Right now, he is, without question, surrounded by investment bankers and consultants who want to be part of any securities offerings, spin-offs, restructurings, and asset sales that are certain to come.  It is likely that Flannery needs the outside advice given the strong culture of GE, that strong culture not being a positive anymore.  He must remember that the outside advice is rarely free of cost and conflicts.

Over the last six months, stocks of industrial conglomerates have lagged the S&P by a considerable margin. That GE is part of this composite is a factor but not a dominant one.  With that being a current market inclination, the company has little to support its stock at the moment.  In addition, while GE has always proudly talked about its retail shareholders, in excess 40% of shares outstanding consistently over the last 30 years, the dividend cut could make them weak holders now.  Retail generally does not price stocks, but at the moment everyone is backing away.

GE has some significant businesses, but based on Flannery's team's analysis only around 60% of what they have could be considered core, long term businesses to invest in and grow.  It is difficult for securities analysts and institutions alike to value the stock now.  From this perspective, it could be the perfect opportunity to patiently look for an entry point to an investment in a company that will, in some form, be around for a long time.  There are some exceptional global business franchises within GE today, and getting them at a bargain price is something to look for in the coming weeks or months.  Or next week?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Asia trip by Trump unites Asian nations

The main impact of Trump's visit to Asia has been to encourage nations in that area to work together and with China.  This could not be called an accomplishment by Trump on the trip, but it is surely one result of it.

As is well known, Trump backed out of the 12 nation Trans-Pacific Partnership after becoming President.  With nothing forthcoming from the administration, the other 11 nations are now creating the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a similar trade agreement excluding the U.S.  Just like the pre-Trump agreement, China is not included.  In order to expand its influence, China is now negotiating a possible deal with 16 Asia-Pacific countries to ease trade flows in that overall region.

On this side of the world, Mexico and Canada are now waiting to see if Trump will blow up Nafta, an agreement that has been beneficial to all three countries concerned but that has led to results that bow to competitive advantage and not nationalism.  Both of those countries were part of the TPP agreement and will remain part of the new one without the U.S. 

It is tiresome to constantly point out Trump's short-sighted approach and his willful ignorance about economic decisions that lead to both growth and cohesion in the world.  Trade builds bridges that lead to cooperation rather than confrontation.  Trade rewards the inherent strengths of participants.  The balance of this changes over periods of time, an example being that the U.S. now has an unfortunate competitive advantage in low skill labor costs relative to major European countries.

The rest of the world will go on without the U.S., without Trump.  It is notable that the U.S. is now the only country that has not signed the non-binding Paris Climate Agreement, as Syria joined last week.  Post Trump, whenever that may be, hopefully the U.S. will be welcomed back to global efforts.

New York to New Orleans by train...

Today's  NYT travel section has an article, "Rolling From New York to New Orleans by Rail", that describes a traveler's looked forward to experience.  It's a familiar one in pieces, as going from New York to Virginia via the Amtrak Crescent was found to be a convenient way to travel in the early 2000's.  Traveling from North Carolina to New Orleans on the Southern Crescent in the early 1970's had also been part of my summer job at that distant time.  Chaperoning 20 or more young campers to and from that city to Camp Carolina via Greenville, S.C. was the experience, one that somehow did not seem difficult then.  I can't imagine.  The return part of the trip without the campers was pretty, pretty enjoyable.

Long train trips were an early experience through traveling to Philmont Scout Ranch near Taos, New Mexico at both ages 14 and 16.  We were with a scout leader both times, but free to wander around Chicago's massive station and nearby parts of that city during long layovers.  Again, imagine that license today.

On those 1960's and 1970's trips, meals were a true interruption and a welcome one.  The dining cars were like nice restaurants with tablecloths and nicely arranged cutlery, great service by dressed up waiters, which due to a strong union was one of the best jobs many black men could have.  Based on the experience of the 2000's, the dining cars are only a faint semblance of those earlier years, and the food was strange.  The article suggested as much about today's travel.

Another familiar thing in the article from the 2000's was the issue of priority on the tracks.  Delays were frequent then and are presumed still to be as certain freight had priority over people.  That is not something that is remembered at all from my early trips.  They were on enough of a regular schedule that a great uncle and aunt could reliably meet me at a short stop in Denver for a greeting and a hamburger.

The article was a reminder of what was rather than an enticement to do it again.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Michael Lewis and Larissa MacFarquhar, two takes on rural America

Lewis in Vanity Fair and MacFarquhar in The New Yorker in current issues of the magazines write about rural America from different angles.  "Made in the U.S.D.A." is Lewis's look at the Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration and the new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.  At this point the department is significantly understaffed and what new staff has come in as Trump appointees have little idea about their responsibilities.  In the July 26th issue of Vanity Fair, Lewis did similar look at the Energy Department under Rick Perry.  When he completes his rounds, no doubt this will be an interesting and probably disturbing look at what is being done to the basic administration of this country under Trump's disinterested and cavalier "management" style.

The Department of Agriculture covers food stamps, school lunch programs, meat and food inspections, and significant grants and loans for rural development.  The U.S. Forest Service is also under its umbrella(It was learned that a graduate of Louisville area school where I once taught had been head of this agency under Obama).  One of the many concerns raised is that control of the rural development funds will be jettisoned to a broader financing function or privatized, to the likely detriment of rural needs.

Reporter MacFarquher looks at a rural community, Orange City, Iowa, that has remained vital as a way to shine a light on why many rural communities across the country that have stagnated.  Orange City has not. It has retained its businesses and has been able to keep enough of its young people coming back to the town.  All of the reasons that pull young college graduates away have to some extent been offset by an attractive way of life and an open minded society.  Certainly the small city hailed from here did not maintain any center of gravity for much of its young and educated for a variety of reasons, some related to being in receding industries and some cultural.  The question becomes whether this small Iowa town could be an indication of what could come, what could lead to a resurgence in the attractiveness of small towns.

Both articles were constructive and well written.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

NFL game monotony

Tonight I was giving the NFL another try on television.  Seattle vs. Arizona seemed like a decent match up of teams that were on the cusp of having good seasons.  I was tired enough to sit back and be entertained.  The NBC network's announcers were not going to ruin the game, with Chris Collingsworth being among the most capable color guys.  He actually knows what he is talking about and rarely says anything inane.  Once again however, just as with a Jets game a few weeks ago, watching was slow torture due to the number of penalties called.  Was it just poor play or was is overzealous refereeing.  It does not really matter.  The game has a problem.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Follow-up on prior posts

---The Nassau County Executive race was won by the Democrat Laura Curran, who defeated Republican Jack Martins.  In this generally Republican leaning county, Curran won with a 51% to 49% margin, though at this time Martins has not yet conceded.  It seems that no amount of corrupt manipulation could overcome that margin with 99% of precincts reporting.  Ironically for Martins there is a growing consensus that his hard right Trump style lying about his opponent, as detailed in earlier comment, is what pushed the election to Curran.  More Democrats than usual left their couch and voted, incensed by Martins' approach.  This was welcome news.

---Part two of the HBO documentary about Rolling Stone magazine was well worth watching.  The segment about Jimmy Swaggert, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Mickey Gilley was particularly enjoyed.  Near the end of program, there was an examination of the University of Virginia rape story that Rolling Stone exposed with great fanfare, only to learn after two weeks that their "victim" had fabricated the story.  The article began falling apart almost immediately after publication but their reporter and the magazine editors hung on for two weeks before conceding that they had erred.  The episode brought to mind the New York Times "scoop" on the Duke lacrosse team sexual assault case in which the accuser was ultimately found to be lying while aided by an overly zealous politically needy district attorney.  The general behavior of the lacrosse team may have been repugnant, but there was no crime. In both cases a female reporter was supported to the disastrous end by their publications, and the college bureaucracies were too timid to stand up to the press.

Knowing that sexual assault was an issue on college campuses, the reporters and publications apparently did not want to further damage victims by impugning their statements.  Today in the charged atmosphere generally as the Harvey Weinstein revelations have opened a Pandora's box of victims from the past across the entertainment industry and now the business community, I hope it is not too politically incorrect to suggest that all accusations should not be accepted at face value.  There is a difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment, and further difference between those and unfair gender bias.  The next category would be disagreements over performance reviews, decisions about promotions, and salary levels,  all of which are fraught with subjectivity.  The last category would be outright fabrication.

There is a pervasive and long standing problem but individual cases require individual attention.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Two countries down for the arms salesman

Beyond all of the handshakes, smiles, and congratulations, it seems that Trump's view of his role on the Asia trip is arms merchant for the U.S.  In Japan and now South Korea, he boasts about how much those countries will now spend on weapons from U.S. manufacturers.  In doing this he stresses how much the United States needs these purchases to alleviate the trade deficit.  Since a trade deficit is a sign of weakness to the economically illiterate President, he is in fact voicing his opinion that the U.S. is a financially troubled country.

Is this diplomacy?  Is this being a leader?  Is this seeking peace among nations in whatever way possible?  Is this truly promoting the balanced and mostly effective U.S. economy relative to much of the world?  It is none of these things.  Trump appears to be completely unaware that the leaders of other countries are pandering to his weakness, and that they have long memories.  It is hard to believe that they don't resent this naive fool who visits and brags.  They tolerate him and appease him hoping that he can be managed and contained.

The opinion here is that the world sees what many of us see, a limited man with the needs of a buffoon.  Is that too harsh?  To some it would be as they see his wealth as a sign of his capabilities.  That should not be the end game of a market economy.  It does not confer broad intelligence on anyone.  Trump proves that day in day out.

Now he is tromping blindly through Asia.

"Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge", second half tonight

Some of the first half of this two part documentary on HBO about the history Rolling Stone magazine was watched last night.  The first 30 or so minutes was missed.  Much of what was seen was riveting as memories reawakened.  Some was completely new, at least to these eyes and ears.  The second part is on tonight at 9pm.  Nothing will interfere tonight, hopefully.  What was missed yesterday will need be picked on replay.

36 Hours Prague, travel section finds Soho and Tribeca

Catching up on Sunday Times reading last night, the travel section had a 36 Hours feature on Prague.  The writer spent most of the article directing traveling readers to trendy pubs, bistros, boutiques, a high end Japanese restaurant,  tapas bars, a Prime Burger grill, the Italian bistro and deli La Bottega Linka, fashionable shops from Sweden, Belgium, Berlin, and just about everything one would find in an upscale artsy area of New York or other global cities.

Prague is a beautiful city.  Simply walking around and looking at the buildings can be special.  Historical sites are plentiful.  The article mentions "the city's architectural splendor" as part of the subtitle but then barely mentions any.  When visiting there once, in 1993, the country was just coming out from under the communist system.  Pepsi had obviously been in town and given money to any eatery or bar that would display their advertisements and use their outdoor umbrellas.  That was ghastly but the charm of the city was still completely apparent.  Beers in giant rounded glass mugs were the equivalent of U.S. 5 cents and grabbing a pickled egg or sausage from canisters on the bar were either free or cost next to nothing. Talking to residents was easy and at times enlightening.  That is all said to point out that there was little to distract from seeing the historic buildings, the old churches and synagogues, the ancient sites and monuments, and the people.

Sure the article makes it apparent that one could dine, dress, and drink in a fine and  fashionable way, but would the tourist be able to say "I didn't even know that I was in the Czech Republic."  It almost seems that thought was part of the attraction for the writer.

I would suggest that the Prague that is remembered here is still there and thriving, absent 5 cent beers and free sausage.  The Times columnist found what he wanted and it looked a lot like home.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Born to Run", memoir from Bruce Springsteen

This book was published in 2016 and reviewed positively by many.  Never having been a hard core Bruce fan, it didn't hit the radar here at first.  Just finished, it was an exceptional book of stories and identification points.  Springsteen was born in 1949, and while the circumstances and locations were different, his timeline was identical to mine.  Elvis, Bo Diddley, James Brown, early rock and roll, Dylan, the 60's assassinations, the Rolling Stones, Vietnam, the counter culture, and on and on...even up to attending Jingle Ball at the Garden with a tween.

My first experience with Springsteen was buying his second album, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle".  At that time, 1974, he was being touted by media as it existed then as the next Bob Dylan.  I liked the album, but had to try to like it as much as reviews said I should.  His storytelling was strong, certain phrases were memorable, but overall total identification was not there completelly... not enough blues, too much experimentation maybe.

The memoir follows his career album by album, place by place.  There were some who were major Springsteen aficionados who, like fans of the Grateful Dead, would tell you how many concerts they had seen.  It was not a calling here, though some told me that it should be.  In the early 1980's I  finally saw him live for the first and only time at a concert in Central Park.  Then I understood.  The concert was sensational.  It went on and on until the police told him to close up.  Near the stage, Springsteen was compelling and the band completely together even while the solos seemed completely fresh and interpretive, like jazz?

"Born to Run" is a very personal book and at times could be seen as giving advice.  That's not the way it was seen here.  The details of his life with friends and family are laid bare(at the end he says not completely but it seems that way when reading).  His challenges with periodic depression would not have been guessed but his frankness will help people.  The recurrent descriptions of his hometown and its influence are brought to life in an honest seeming way that many could understand.

His writing is that of a storyteller.  Strands of adjectives that go on and on, multiple verbs in a row, the overuse of certain words(craft as both verb and noun got to me at times), all of that was not important.  Even repetition between certain chapters was overlooked.  Gems of anecdotes were too frequent to worry about that.  Certainly like any writer he had editors, but he did write this book.  It is not an "as told to" and does not have a small cap co-writer.

First given a break by the legendary John Hammond, Springsteen slowly reached superstar status, not a one year or even one decade wonder.  His lyrics must be listened to and he wonders how many people that howl along to "Born in the U.S.A" have any idea what the lyrics are about.  He accepts and appreciates all fans.

So much more could be written, but obviously the book is recommended.  Highly recommended for those with similar time spans.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Follow up to yesterday's post --- a new low even for Long Island politics

Yesterday there was a post about the Nassau County election for county executive.  It was clear from the comment that Jack Martins is not favored here, but the big guns were not brought out when describing this political cretin.  News today shows how awful this man and the Republican party here truly are.

As reported in the New York Times, the following comes from a Martins' flyer being distributed widely.  It says that his Democratic opponent Laura Curran "would roll out the welcome mat" for the violent gang MS-13.  The mailer has a photo of three bare-chested Latinos covered with tats and says "Meet Your New Neighbors".  Martins has defended the ad by saying Curran supports sanctuary cities.  She does not and that is repeatedly on the record, but some groups that support her do as is the case here.  That's enough for the state Republican party that paid for the ad.

Ugh.  Maybe it's reassuring to project that if Martins is elected, he might find his mug in prison someday, joining his buddies Mangano and Skelos .  Will he still be the smiling family man.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Nassau County Executive election, "Cleaning Up Corruption"

It's time for Nassau County, New York to select a new county executive.  The chronically corrupt county, or Long Island as Suffolk County apparently has similar issues, will say goodbye to current executive Ed Mangano whose trial for accepting bribes for county contracts gets underway in January.  Republican Mangano has never been trusted but he has been a success for his party and their friends.  Patronage is a New York birthright for the pols.

When we first moved to Nassau County in 1986, it was an eye opener to see that we received mail every month from the county executive's office that was purportedly a public service.  It was, in fact, promotional material for the then Republican county executive.  The four page glossy color newsletter has his picture on every page at least once.  It was an obvious political advertisement paid for by taxpayer dollars.  Even when buying our house we found out about the system, as to get the sale approved we had to pay an "expediter" what was a presumably off the books fee to get out of date records corrected at the court house.  Other interactions with the county government over the years have led us to interact with clearly lazy or incompetent people who were employed with great benefits and often showed up at their jobs sporadically.

What was interesting at that time is that a Republican political machine was not familiar.  Places like Chicago and New York came to mind as Democratic machine cities.  Then Long Island produced Al D'Amato and the experience of Nassau County demonstrated that machines were not limited to Democrats.

All that is a precursor to next week's election for county executive.  With his possible Republican predecessor Mangano being chased out and an ally, the Nassau County state senator and former state senate majority leader Dean Skelos being convicted(just recently out of jail on a technicality) of corruption, a full time politician named Jack Martins is the Republican running for county executive.  Full page color fliers come in the mail every day --- "JACK MARTINS, Cleaning Up Corruption".   His Democratic opponent has of course pointed out the corruption cases of Republicans Mangano and Skelos but, in a Trump-like move, Martins is promoting rooting out corruption as his main issue.  The Democrat candidate, Laura Curran, talks much more specifically about county management issues and practices that make corruption more likely --- overtime everywhere for everything, nepotism, and fees attached to all services.  

It is preposterous that Martins can look people in the face and run on this lie, but he is.  He has been running for various offices for almost twenty years and is a fixture of the Republican system, smiling with his perfect family.  

Two perplexing items dominating the news--- tax law changes and election interference

---The news related to Russian interference in the U.S. election continues non-stop.  The discovery of apparent use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to influence the election under veiled pseudonyms is ongoing.  The continued unearthing of Trump employees and advocates interaction with Russian operatives continues to unfold.  There is so much news that it is boring the American public into semi-consciousness and leaving politicians confused as to how to handle it.

The big question is whether it influenced the Presidential election results.  While all intelligence agencies agree that Russia meddled, it seems to be the unanimous opinion that there was ultimately no impact on the outcome.  This appears to be like Gore's acceptance of the 2000 election results, graciously taking one for the country.  With the close races in Wisconsin, Michigan, and several other key states, it is unclear how the statement that there was not influence on the election outcome with any certainty is possible.  It is not.  It is simply a concession that all agree must be necessary for the country and the sanctity of future elections.  Is it really?

---The announcement of the tax law changes proposed by the Republican congress and Trump may be happening as this is being written.  The expectation here is that it will be a minimally coordinated set of changes with tax cuts being the most tangible and tax reforms being much less so.  While being proposed as "a great, the best tax overhaul, you're gonna love it" of historic consequence by the vocabulary challenged President, the reality may be different.  The political decisions rather than economic ones may be clear to those who are willing to see it, and to others they could be obfuscated endlessly.  More to come...