Monday, May 31, 2010

May 31, 2010--Long Weekending

I will be back on Tuesday.

Friday, May 28, 2010

May 28, 2010--Not Your Father's Timex

We have a personal connection to tennis star Rafael Nadal. Well, sort of a connection.

He's from the Spanish island of Mallorca and for ten years we've had a place there. One of our close friends is a Mallorquin who was Rafa's first coach. Soccer coach. As a young boy Nadal was a promising footballer and his family chose Sebastian to take him in hand. One day, taking a break from soccer practice, Seb suggested they hit a few tennis balls. And the rest, as they say, is history.

And, I forgot to add, Rona has a crush on Rafa. In fact, one summer we were on Mallorca and she wanted to go to the one-week tennis camp he was hosting, The only catch--it was for children between the ages of 8 and 12. So Rona tried to find a kid of that age whose parents would let her "adopt" him for a day so she could bring him to Manacor so she could cozy up to Nadal. That, unfortunately (or fortunately) did not work out.

Nadal is best known for his success in clay court tennis. As a youngster he won four French Opens in a row, beating the otherwise invincible Roger Federer each of those years. He lost in 2009 but perhaps because of injuries. So this year's French, currently underway, promises to be special--both Federer and Rafa are healthy and appear to be in top form.

But, in addition to all the hungry big hitters, there is another obstacle that Nadal has to overcome this year at Roland Garros--being able to swing through the ball with his usual controlled fury while wearing a $525,000 Tourbillion RM 207 watch. Though since Richard Mille, the French designer of very expensive watches claims it is the lightest mechanical watch ever made, weighing less than 20 grams, or 0.7 of an ounce, including the strap, swinging freely shouldn't be too much of a problem.

The hithertofore relatively innocent Nadal has made a deal with Mille to wear one while playing. Not clamp one on after his matches so they can be on display during news conferences, but to wear one during the matches themselves.

I know that Mille is in it for the technological triumph (20 grams for this kind of watch is truly something resembling an achievement) but the fact that he is making only 50 of these RM 207 babies, at more than half a million a copy, if he can move all of them, that adds up to, what, a cool $26,250,000. And Rafa's cut will be . . .?

Yes, Rafa like every other ranked player is a virtual walking billboard with Nike swooshes on his shirts, sneakers, socks, head and wristbands, and probably jock, but this deal with the watch is just too much.

What is actually too much is what Nadal was quoted as saying after signing on for this shameless display of commercial exploitation and excess:

“It is an honor for me that someone like Richard has chosen me as one of his ambassadors. Since the moment we met there was a special feeling. I know that he has worked very hard to be able to create this very special watch. I am honoured and I am sure it will be a special and successful partnership.”

I am sure it will be very special for this special ambassador. Ambassador?

If this works out let's send Nadal to North Korea or Iran where he can indeed be a special ambassador. To see if he can work out a special deal.

In the meantime, no more summer tennis camp for Rona.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May 27, 2010--One For the Birds

I thought it was a big deal when recently Continental Airlines informed me that I had flown 1.0 million miles and I was thus inducted into their Million Mile Club. This meant that I had a version of elite status and could check in without waiting on line and if first class seats were available I would be automatically bumped up. I was feeling pretty good about myself, especially since, in spite of all that flying, I had managed to avoid deep-vein thromboses.

But I was quickly put back in my place the other day when I read about the world's actually most intrepid, most amazing frequent fliers--Arctic Terns, Bar-Tailed Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, and Bristle-Tailed Curlews. All migrating birds. Serious migrating birds. So serious that the Bar-Tailed Godwits every year appear to fly from just below the Arctic Circle in Alaska to nesting places in Southern New Zealand. And then back again six months later. 7,100 miles in each direction.

Until recently it was thought that while on route these birds skirted the coast of Asia or hopped from Pacific island to island so that they could get some rest and do some carbohydrate or protein packing. But by implanting tiny global tracking devices in a few Godwits ornithologists have discovered that they make the more than 7,000 mile trip non-stop in nine unbelievable days over the open ocean.

They first became suspicious about how they actually undertook such an arduous journey because scientists noticed that just before the Godwits headed south to escape the northern hemisphere's winter they fattened up. Really fattened up. One said they put on so much weight that they looked like "flying softballs."

These and other inter-continental migrators have a remarkable metabolic system. Until reading about them I always had the utmost respect for other marathoners such as Tour de France cyclists who day after day get on their bikes and pedal themselves hundreds of miles up and down the Alps and Pyrenees. They have been tested to show that they have the capacity to raise their normal metabolic rate from what it is at rest to five times that while competing. Amazing.

Bar-Tailed Godwits by contrast routinely elevate their metabolic rate to 8 to 10 times what it is while at rest. And they fly though the night at 40 miles per hour while Lance Armstrong and company are chowing down on whatever delights their chefs prepare for them, curling up in bed for a good night's sleep, and taking their performance-enhancing drugs.

And then, according to the linked article from the New York Times, scientists began to find that other species also make multiple-thousand mile migrations non-stop. Some such as Arctic Terns manage to fly back and forth each year from western Greenland to summer nesting grounds in Antarctica. They have been tracked as flying more than 49,000 miles in a year since before heading north each spring they zig and zag across the Southern Atlantic to feeding places in Africa and South America.

In a 30-year lifetime this means that the tiny Terns travel over 1.5 million miles. Talk about frequent flyers! I wonder what Continental or Delta would do for them.

While we are marveling about what these birds accomplish, isn't it fun to note that ornithologists still do not know how these birds that cross the vast oceans know where they are or how they find their way to where they are headed?

But these incorrigible scientists are nonetheless trying to figure this out. It is clear that birds that migrate over land employ visual landmarks to help guide them and some have the capacity to use the earth's magnetic field as a navigation device. Though it is of limited value when birds approach and cross the Equator where the field lines run parallel to the surface and are thus useless for navigation. Even by man.

But no one yet knows how those Flying Softballs and Arctic Terns year after year get from polar region to polar region and then back again. This fires my imagination and leaves me awestruck, and so I say let's leave some natural mysteries unsolved for us to wonder at.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 26, 2010--Obama Motors

Remember back in early 2009 when Barack Obama said that he would not allow General Motors or Chrysler to go bankrupt and disappear? And with them, much of what was left of the domestic production of automobiles?

And do you remember at the time what Republicans said about his intention to provide government loans to the former auto giants? How the plan would never work, how it was inappropriate in any case for the government to interfere with the free market, how he should just let them go belly up, how he was pandering to the Auto Workers Union, and how his real intention was to nationalize manufacturing in the United States because Obama was a socialist? To accomplish this, these conservatives contended, he would never allow GM or Chrysler to go private again and it would be one more step on the march to socialism or, as some whispered, Communism. As if they knew the difference between the two systems.

Well news about Chrysler and GM has been pushed off the front pages since we discovered other things to occupy our short attention spans and appetite for only one story at a time--health care came to the fore then financial re-regulation then the emergence of the Tea Party and then the Gulf oil spill and then Lindsay Lohan and Duchess Fergie and then . . .

So I thought to check back in to see how things have been going at Obama Motors as Rush Limbaugh, John Boehner, Sarah Palin and their ilk libeled his involvement with the automakers.

Both are now profitable. Both have paid back their government loans. And, according to the linked article from Reuters, both plan soon to issue new public stock offerings. Then, yes, as part of the original bailout deal the U.S. Government (we taxpayers) were given 60 percent of the non-debt GM stock. But, in regard to this, the companies are so far ahead of schedule in their recovery that Larry Summers, also quoted by Reuters, says that the Treasure Department will soon begin to dispose of those shares.

So much for Obama Motors. And socialism.

Have any of you heard a peep about any of this from your Republican friends? I haven't. As usual, they did their political damage through demagoguery and scare tactics and then moved on. It may be working politically but it is hypocrisy of the highest order.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

May 25, 2010--Roaring Virile Fire

If you are inclined to think of China as boring, think again.

Yes, there is a great deal of culturally and governmentally enforced conformity, with the group or collective still emphasized over the individual, but only slightly beneath the surface a good deal of idiosyncracity is lurking. After all the Chinese are human and human nature leaps across borders and is on full display if you know where to look for it.

Case in point, Professor Ma Yaohai.

According to the New York Times (article linked below), on the surface he appears to be just a professor of computer science at Nanjing University who, after his second divorce, spent much of his time taking care of his elderly mother. Thus far, all sounds familiar. But during the past six years he was also a omnivorous swinger. Someone who at age 53 teamed up with a 23 year-old women and through her contacts entered the world of sexual swingers.

With Roaring Virile Fire as his handle (she i known as Passionate Fiery Phoenix, they trolled the Internet in search of swing clubs and other opportunities to get involved in group sex. He alone is said to have organized at least 18 orgies at which he was an enthusiastic participant.

Of course this kind of behavior is frowned upon by the still-strict Chinese authorities and so he was arrested, tried, convicted, and recently sentenced to three and a half years in prison. I assume to solitary confinement. His crime--"crowd licentuolusness."

Call him fortunate because until fairly recently he could have been executed for his behavior.

Again, in a socially repressive society none of this is entirely surprising, though the legal definition of his crime does have some charm. What is unusual is that Mr. Ma is turning his prosecution and conviction into a sort of cause célèbre. He is speaking out in support of sexual freedom. And thus far he is getting away with it.

He is quoted as saying:

Marriage is like water. You have to drink it. Swinging is like wine. Some people feel it's delicious the first time they try it, so they keep drinking. Some people try it and think it tastes bad, so they never drink it again. It's completely voluntary. No one is forcing you.

Don't you just love metaphors?

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 24, 2010--"Sometimes Accidents Happen"

So said Rand Paul, the Republican and Tea Party candidate for the vacant Kentucky Senate seat. He was talking about last month's coal mining disaster in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed.

Yes, sometimes true, blameless accidents do happen--when a volcano erupts or an earthquake hits or when something unexpected occurs at a work site where no fault can be assigned to either the company or the injured worker. But in the case of last month's deaths at the Massey Energy coal mine, since the company had ignored literally hundreds of safety violations, moral and legal blame can be assigned. It was not simply a case of an accident that just happened.

So Rand Paul's take on it, derived from his so-called Libertarian ideology, was an inadequate and heartless response.

At its best, Libertarianism is a set of beliefs, and beliefs they are, that calls for minimal institutional or governmental intervention in the lives of individuals. It asserts that individuals are essentially good and thus should be allowed to live unfettered lives. In contrast, governments by their nature are coercive and thus need to be strictly limited. Applied appropriately, it is hard to disagree with much of this.

Libertarians particularly stress the inviolable property rights of individuals. Everything derives from allowing individuals to acquire, hold, and do pretty much anything they want with their property. Thus, Dr. Paul's take on Massey Energy--it's the company's property and therefore they should be allowed to do with it anything they please. Workers should know when they sign on that they are working at someone else's private property and that whatever happens happens. If they are concerned about things such as safety, don't expect the government to monitor conditions; rather if they do not want to assume the risks, go work somewhere else. In an office, for example. And if the building in which the office is located has asbestos insulation, don't whine and complain and expect the government to come to their assistance, simple find different work.

Rand Paul's comments about the West Virginia mining disaster came a few days after he won the Republican primary. In was an add-on comment to his views about how BP is handling the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, since BP is a private company and is entitled to drill for oil in the Gulf (he forgot for the moment that they have a government license to do so), he was highly critical of the Obama administration for taking a tough stance with BP. According to the linked article in the New York Times he called it "un-American."

In a Tweeter posting, Paul blasted President Obama for insisting that BP be held accountable for the disaster. Or pay for the clean-up. He wrote, "What I don't like from the president's administration is this sort of, 'I'll put my boot heel on the throat of BP.' I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business. . . I think it's part of the sort of blame-game society in this sense that it's always got to be someones fault that sometimes accidents happen."

In addition to his verbal skills making Sarah Palin's seem like she's another Demonsthenes, these absurd comments about Massey Energy and BP place Rand Paul even further outside the mainstream of even 19th century political thought than his more-widely criticized thoughts about the 1964 Civil Rights Act because, under pressure, he did at least force himself to say that maybe some sort of government intervention was required back then if African-Americans were being forbidden from using public accommodations such as toilets at gas stations and lunch counters at segregated restaurants.

Up to know, Libertarianism has had the patina of attractiveness and respectability since, when calling for government to get out of our lives, it also calls for it to get out of our bedrooms (thus, homosexuality is not condemned) and to leave our bodies alone (women should not be told by government what to do about their pregnancies). Even liberals can be enticed to nod in agreement about this.

But when Rand Paul and many others who cloak themselves in the mantle of Libertarianism (his father Ron included) proclaim that the BPs and Massey Energies of the world should be allowed to operate without any government monitoring or discriminated minorities should have to fend for themselves, not well hidden behind that curtain of respectability is a heartlessness and racism that can no longer be ignored. And, with Rand Paul, is being exposed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

May 21, 2010--Worse Than Katrina

Doesn't this sound sadly familiar:

Tensions between the Obama administration and the scientific community over the gulf oil spill are escalating, with prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill's true scope. (New York Times, May 20. Linked below.)

Yesterday marked the one-month anniversary of the disaster. "Disaster," not "spill." And yet the crude oil keeps gushing and neither BP nor the Obama administration has a plan to contain it or the technical capacity to do so. The oil has reached Key West and will soon, it is expected, swing around southern Florida and work its way up the east coast. All coastal wetlands and beaches are imperiled. The eventual economic and ecological costs are incalculable.

The blame-game is in full play. BP blames Transocean, the company it hired to carry out the actual drilling; they in turn are blaming the company (Halliburton) to whom they subcontracted much of the work; and the Obama administration is tepidly blaming all of them.

They are all right. They are all complicitous; they are all guilty.

BP lied when they applied for a license to do the drilling, contending that they had all the knowledge, experience, and capacity to avoid and contain any "incident." They had none of the above.

The Bush administration is to blame because it failed to do any due diligence to see if BP, or any other oil companies drilling in our offshore waters had any of these capacities.

And now the Obama administration is to blame because it failed to double-check the government's ability either to quickly assess the damage from disasters of this kind, and as a consequence are left to depend on BP's own self-serving reporting about the extent of the disaster and how to deal with it, or make sure the government has it own resources to solve problems of this magnitude.

How could Barack Obama just a few months ago announce that he was planning to expand the areas where offshore drilling would be allowed without having done the homework about the government's capacity to take charge of a crisis of this kind? I recall him saying at the time that he felt this was safe technology because during Hurricane Katrina none of the oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico reported any leaks.

Well, this is his Katrina. Actually it is a situation worse than Katrina since it will eventually do much more damage, much more irreparable damage.

So what are we left with? All Obama has done thus far is particip[ate in the cover up and finger pointing. Finally last week, after BP and Halliburton and Transocean testified at a Congressional investigation, he emerged from his Oval Office cocoon and in the Rose Garden squeaked out a few words of criticism:

"I know BP has committed to pay for the response effort, and we will hold them to their obligation. I have to say, though, that I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter."

"I did not appreciated . . ." How pathetic the rhetoric.

Since he uttered these few words on May 14th, we haven't heard another thing from him about this. And all we have heard then was scripted, read off his ubiquitous teleprompter, and lacked any real sense of passion or urgency. I'm OK with no-drama-Obama about a host of issues; but about this, I expect him to express genuine outrage.

More important, I expect action. He and his administration are still allowing BP to report about what is happening (mainly lying about the extent of the gusher and what they have done to contain it--they are covering their corporate asses since massive liability suits are looming) and are standing passively by while BP tries to deal with the catastrophe.

If George Bush failed to act expeditiously and effectively when Katrina struck, Obama is doing even worse about a much more perilous situation. I suspect that he will pay a similar political price.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May 20, 2010--Political Spin

Except for one obvious observation, you can pretty much ignore everything else that politicians of both parties and media pundits have been saying after Tuesday's election results. So let's get the obvious out of the way--

it's tough out there for incumbents or any candidates who appear to be too incumbent-like. But this has been true for some time, From even before Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts. Lest we forget, Barack Obama won the presidential election nearly two years ago in large part because John McCain felt like the establishment while Obama came across as a fresh face brimming with the promise to change business as usual in Washington. Now of course Obama also has the incumbent problem--he is suffering from overexposure, promising too much while delivering too little, and seeming to be just another ambitious politician who is better at promising than accomplishing. That's in large part why Democrat candidates have asked him not to do too much campaigning for them.

But if you look beyond the obvious at Tuesday's results, take note that for both parties the winners or near winners were the freshest feeling candidates.

On the Democratic side the biggest loser was Arlen Specter, the quasi-Democrat who until a year ago, for his first 29 years in the Senate, was a Republican. And the winner in the Pennsylvania primary, Joe Sestak, was, yes, a Congressman but one who seemed young and anti-establishment. And on the Republican side, in Kentucky, hunky Rand Paul won the nomination to run for the Senate because his opponent was handpicked by Mitch McConnell who smacks even more of Washington than poor Arlen. True, it probably didn't hurt among ultra-conservative Kentuckians, who make up the Republican base, that Paul was supported by the Tea Party. But we'll see in November how much that helps . . . or hurts.

Then, in Arkansas, insider Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent, almost lost to a relative unknown in the Democrat primary. The Arkansas lieutenant governor Bill Halter came within two percentage points of toppling her; and thus, since neither candidate received 50 percent of the vote (there was a third candidate) he forced a runoff election in earlier June. My guess--he will win and will have a pretty good chance in November to save the Senate seat for the Democrats.

My other guess is that Barack Obama made the right and intentional decision not to do too much campaigning for either Lincoln or Specter, even though he had indicated earlier that he would do so and is being criticized in the media for not manning up enough to do so. Who do you think has a better chance of winning in November--Specter or Sestak? Lincoln or Halter? If I were Obama, no matter what I might have said in public, in private I would have been hoping that Halter and Sestak would win since in their states they are the better candidates for the general election.

But above all, keep in mind that there was only one real election on Tuesday--the race in the 12th Congressional District in Pennsylvania to replace the recently;y-deceased Democrat John Murtha. The 12th is a very conservative district where voters kept Vietnam war hero Murtha in office for decades because he brought more pork barrel money back home than any other member of Congress. One would think that with his unexpected demise, with no clear heir apparent, this would have been an ideal venue for the Republicans and the Tea Party to pick up a seat in the House. After all, back in 2008, McCain trounced Obama there. But the Democrat, Mark Critz, won big, gaining 53 percent of the vote to only 45 percent for his Republican opponent.

And let us recall that since Obama won his election all elections with real consequences such as in Pennsylvania's 12th have been won by Democrats.

As George H. W. Bush charmingly used to say: Message--don't be fooled, from Scott Brown to Mark Critz, no matter the party, the best candidates who appeal to the fears and hopes of voters will win elections that really count. So my suggestion to John Boehner and Eric Cantor (both waiting in the wings to to take over Nancy Pelosi's Speaker's chair, is to focus on their current members who are busy preaching abstinence while molesting their congressional aides.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May 19, 2010--11 Seconds of Liquidity

I know I am not smart enough to understand these things, but this still seems crazy to me--

According to a report in Monday's New York Times (linked below), though these operations constitute only 2 percent of all trading firms, between 40 and 70 percent of all stock market transactions occur at so-called high-frequency exchanges.

Forget any images you may have of the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where every weekday on CNBC's Closing Bell hundreds of traders can be glimpsed scrambling around frantically buying and selling securities, these newfangled high-frequency places are much less formal and frenzied and operate largely out of sight..

In fact, a number of prominent ones, if "prominent" is the right word to describe them, are set up in guys' bedrooms. I am not making this up--there are a few hundred such exchanges that run parallel to New York's Big Board, mainly in very small offices and more informal settings around the country. Bedrooms included.

All these boys need (and they are mostly boys) is a high-speed computer setup and the right kind of software. This enables them to trade millions, actually billions of shares in micro-seconds; and, though they mainly make pennies or fractions of pennies for each share traded, if you add up all those mills (one-tenth of a cent), over not much time it can amount to many millions of dollars of profit. Last year, in fact, it is estimated that these traders netted nearly $7 billion. The trading volume is that high.

Regulators and members of Congress have turned their attention to these largely unregulated high-frequency exchanges, brought them out of the shadows, since they were likely in part responsible for the micro-stock market crash on May 6th where the Dow Jones average lost 1,000 points in a matter of a few minutes; and to many watching (me very much included) it looked as if the economic world as we know it was coming to an end.

The high-frequency game is all about speed, what the boys refer to as "extremely low latency." Whatever that means. The intention is to be the first to buy or sell at just the right moment. Shares are traded in millionths of a second, and being even a microsecond late can be the difference between making a trade and losing it to the next high-frequency operator.

In the Times piece, the reporter, skeptical about the larger purpose of these places, wondering in what ways are they useful to the larger economy, asked how they help businesses to form or raise money to expand. The traditional purposes of a stock exchange. To a person, the high-frequency traders claimed that they "provide markets with liquidity."

If true, perhaps they do serve a useful purpose. But then when the reporter got them to tell her how they actually work on a day-to-day basis, she learned that at the end of each day they wind up with no position in the market--everything they bought during the day has been sold. Thus, no actual money needs to be exchanged. They therefore do not need any working capital. It's all about the virtual buying and selling.

How does this add up to providing companies with liquidity if at the end of the day nothing remains? And how, since these guys hold onto a position, retain the stocks they buy on average for just 11 seconds, how does anyone make use of the money generated during those split seconds? Other than just to enable the traders to make a quick buck?

But, as I confessed, I'm not smart enough to understand any of this. Let's hope that Congress is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May 18, 2010--Primary Thoughts

Egos and personal ambition are on full flagrant display today in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, and elsewhere where hotly contested congressional primaries are underway.

Perhaps this is a moment to remember, in our time of self-seeking, George Washington's remarkable reluctance on the eve of becoming our first president.

This from Joseph Ellis's excellent biography, His Excellency. There are lessons here for all concerned:

His thinking was multilayered like his earlier expressions of reticence about becoming commander in chief of the Continental army. Modern sensibilities make it difficult to comprehend Washington's psychological chemistry on this score and dispose us to interpret his routinized reticence as either a disingenuous ploy or a massive case of denial.

But in Washington's world no prominent statesman regarded the forthright expression of political ambition as legitimate: and anyone who actively campaigned for national office was thereby confessing he was unworthy of election. What makes then so different from now was the . . . assumption that any explicit projection of self-interest in the political arena betrayed a lack of control over one's own passions, which did not bode well for the public interest. Washington carried this ethos to an extreme, insisting that any mention of his willingness to serve as president prior to the election violated the code. (Emphasis added.)

All the best to you Rand Paul, Arlen Specter, and Blanche Lincoln. Remember, country first.

Monday, May 17, 2010

May 17, 2010--Food Challenge

I am not talking here about a new program on the Food Channel. Food Challenge is not on following Iron or Top Chef. Rather, it is a medical test. The only diffinitve way to determine if one is allergic to a specific food. Here's how it works:

If someone suspects that they have a food allergy they typically take a skin prick test. It is done by placing a drop of a solution containing a possible allergen on the skin, and then a series of scratches or needle pricks allows the solution to enter the skin. If the skin develops a red, raised itchy area called a wheal it usually means that the person is allergic to that allergen.

With a responsible doctor and a willing patient, since this positive reaction, the wheal, "usually" means you have an allergy, if you want to be certain it is time for the Elimination Diet and for you to take the Food Challenge. These are the only tools that can definitively determine if you have a food allergy.

The Elimination Diet, as its name suggests, involves removing specific foods or ingredients from your diet that you and your doctor suspect may be causing allergy symptoms. Properly done, your doctor will supervise this diet over a few weeks.

During this time, you will need to carefully read food labels and find out about food preparation methods when dining out. You'll also need to keep a food diary to record the foods you are eating. If you remove a certain food and the symptoms go away while following this diet, your doctor can usually identify that food as the cause of your problems.

I go into all this detail because of a fascinating and disturbing report in last week's New York Times. (Linked below.) According to it, from a massive study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, though 30 percent of adults report they have food allergies fewer than 5 percent in fact do. Only a small number ever had skin prick tests and even fewer went through the rigors of an Elimination Diet or Food Challenge.

But when those who thought they had allergies were induced by researchers to keep a food diary and to do all the other things required to be certain about suspected allergies, almost all discovered that in spite of what their doctors might have told them or what foods on their own they assumed they were allergic to, after running the tests in the only manner that would verify this, they discovered that in reality they had very few allergies.

Though some actual allergies can be life threatening and others cause rashes and other serious symptoms, when tested properly, it turns out that very few people are allergic to anything at all.

Anecdotally, I have many friends and relatives who claim they have been plagued by food allergies for years but none of them ever went through a battery of skin prick tests or the more comprehensive Food Challenge. Some have had blood tests, but allergy specialists claim that this is the least definitive way to determine if allergies are present. Since so many believe they have allergies, I have known people who have gone to physicians and homeopaths who contend that they can diagnose allergies by testing samples of clients' hair. This also is an even more inauthentic test.

What is this all about? This rush to, in effect, self-diagnosis or accepting a life sentence of what not to eat and drink based on evidence that lacks rigor or credibility? What Dr. Robert Aronowitz, professor of the sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania calls "the career of a diagnosis." A situation where a non-existent allergy can "take over someone's life."

I am aware of the mantra "You are what you eat." And, of course, if this means eating well and sensibly makes good sense. But to avoid looking for the actual physiological and/or psychological causes for ailments and to seemingly so unquestioningly embrace allergies as the answer is perplexing.

Another sociologist, Dr. Barry Glassner of the University of California and author of the Gospel of Food, writes that "We attribute magical powers to food. We believe that if we eat the right foods we will live forever and if we eat the wrong foods we will shorten our lifespan."

Thus, since magical thinking is involved, he is not optimistic that people who embrace these beliefs will allow themselves to be properly tested. Belief and self-deception are that powerful.

Friday, May 14, 2010

May 14, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Monday with the Food Challenge.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May 13, 2010--Doris Travis: The Last of the Salad Dancers

And here I thought it special that my mother is about to turn 102. And a wonderful 102 at that. Fully compus mentus and in terrific physical shape for someone even two-thirds her age.

Then I read about Doris E. Travis who died this week at 106. A remarkable 106, but even more remarkable was the life she led.

Among other things, she was the last surviving Ziegfeld Follies girl. Between 1907 and 1931 there were about 3,000 of them. Those magnificent showgirls who strutted their stuff in gauze and feathers all to the tune, "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody."

According to the New York Times obit linked below she was the youngest Ziegfeld Girl ever, having lied about her age to try out. She was only 14! But some 14. Like the others, she had what was considered ideal measurements--36-26-38. Not today's ideal, not the 38 at least, but just right for the times.

Doris came from a showbiz family. She was one of the Seven Little Eatons, sort of the successors to the Seven Little Foys, who were well enough known that George Gershwin came by to noodle on the family piano and Charles Lindbergh stopped in for tea. But Doris wanted a career separate from the family and so she ran off to try out for the Follies.

Flo himself auditioned and hired her and then put her right to work as an understudy to the show's headliner. But while waiting for her star to be born, Doris tap danced on stage as part of the Salad Dance. Yes, the Salad Dance where she played the paprika part. Times were simpler then. Just think about Lady Gaga's act.

But life as a Ziegfeld Girl didn't last forever. Time can be cruel to such performers, but Doris didn't just look to marry a rich Stage Door Johnny. Though she could have. Instead, after an indifferent career in silent movies and small parts in other shows on Broadway (though in 1926 she was the first to sing "Singin' In the Rain" in the Hollywood Music Box Review), when the Depression hit, though she had opportunities to work in burlesque or as a dime-a-dance girl, after the glory of working for Ziegfeld, she chose not to do that but instead took an opportunity that presented itself and opened the first Arthur Murray dance studio in Detroit where Henry Ford II was one of her most devoted students.

Another student, Paul Travis, who invented a new kind of door jam for cars and made a fortune from it, fell in love with Doris and they subsequently married and moved to Oklahoma where they settled in and bred quarter horses. By all appearances they were a happy, childless couple.

Life on he ranch, though satisfying, was not quite enough for Doris. And so, in her 70s, she decided to work on a high school diploma, something she missed along the way when she ran off to Broadway. After earning that, not to be stopped, she enrolled as a part-time student at the University of Oklahoma and 11 years later, at 88, earned an undergraduate degree in history. She did well enough to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

In 2007, at age 103, Oakland University in Michigan gave her an honorary doctorate. She accepted while singing and dancing "Ballin' the Jack."

But her performing career was not over even at that advanced age. Just two weeks before she died, she appeared as she had in previous years at the Minskoff Theater, not far from the site of the original Ziegfeld Theater, at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS benefit where she once again sang and did a few kicks. That last time apologizing that she no longer did cartwheels.

Inspired by her example, I may try a few later today.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 12, 2010--The Un-Bork

For most presidents in the modern era their favorite thing is the chance to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Even if they are only able to serve two terms, eight years, members of the court they appoint for a lifetime may wind up remaining there for three or four decades and thus represent a living legacy for the president who appoints them.

And let no one fool you--back to George Washington, all presidents have attempted to appoint justices who will help carry out their agenda. In fact, when the Supreme Court of the time began to overturn much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legalization he attempted to get Congress to pass a judicial reform act that would have allowed him to increase the number of justices serving on the court. He was criticized at the time for wanting to "pack" it, and it failed to be enacted.

Further, let no one claim that justices who are "strict constructionists" (ones who will allegedly follow the Constitution literally and thus not seek to "legislate from the bench") are any different than so-called "activist" justices. In both instances, be they conservatives or liberals, by their decisions and written opinions they all want to profoundly influence the direction of the law, politics, and culture of the nation.

No better example from the recent past was the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Gore v. Bush. The conservative majority, overlooking the right of Florida to determine who got the most votes--states rights presumably being a favorite conservative principal--somehow managed to come up with a pseudo-constitutional rationale to take the vote count out of the hands of the state of Florida and found a way to declare George W. Bush the 43rd President of the United States. ironically, no president in the history of our republic has ever been selected so extra-constitutionally.

So take all of this into account as you think about Barack Obama's most recent nominee--since Elena Kagan is only 50. Obama, as his predecessors, wants to have his finger prints all over decisions that may stretch out until the middle of the 21st century. And this is how it should be. Elections, after all, have consequences.

Also, recall, that try as they may presidents are frequently fooled by the decisions that "their" justices come to. John Kennedy, for example, named Byron (Whizzer) White to the court, assuming he would take "liberal" positions, but as Mr. Justice White he soon became a conservative stalwart. Dwight Eisenhower, as another example, appointed Earl Warren to be Chief Justice, convinced he would be a strict constructionist, but he turned out to be as liberal as they come. So much so that the ultra-reactionary John Birch Society devoted most of its energy attempting to get him impeached.

So, when thinking about Solicitor General Kagan, don't be so sure she will turn out to be the person Obama thinks he is appointing.

And on that subject, what does Obama or any of us really know about her? In the tradition of judges and legal scholars and law school deans who dream about being nominated to the Court, Kagan--and it appears she was doing that since literally childhood-- like all of her recent predecessors, is largely an unknown quantity. Intentionally so.

In his column if yesterday's New York Times (linked below), David Brooks got it about right.

Elena Kagan has spent a professional lifetime avoiding saying or writing anything either controversial or meaningful for fear that when the great day came, when she would be nominated, there would be no paper trail whatsoever for members of the Senate to scrutinize or use to vote against her confirmation.

Though I rarely agree with Brooks, he is spot on when he writes that even people who think they know her well report that they have never had a conversation with her, including private ones, in which "she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law."

And for someone who had been a law professor at the University of Chicago and then dean of the Law School at Harvard, it appears she has written just five articles, all insignificant and completely innocuous. It is a wonder that in the publish-or-perish world of academe that she was ever able to secure a university appointment.

This canny approach by Kagan is the result of what happened to Robert Bork back in 1987 when Ronald Regan nominated him. Bork, also a Solicitor General, had published so much that Senator Teddy Kennedy, a scant 45 minutes after he was named, raced to the Senate floor and raged that if Bork were confirmed it would mean the end of civil and women's rights. Women, he asserted, would have to return to back-alley abortions and Blacks would be resegregated.

Kennedy's and others attacks on Bork were so effective, if over-the-top, that Bork was not only not confirmed but his name was transposed into a verb--to "be borked" was forever defined as "a concerted attack on someone's character, background and philosophy."

The ambitious Kagan, like her recent predecessors, took the Bork experience to heart and managed to build a remarkable career without ever saying anything worthwhile or standing for something significant. Just what we don't need in Supreme Court justices.

So what was Obama to do when looking for someone who would likely help advance his agenda?

I assume in his private conversations with her, though it is considered bad etiquette to question potential nominees too specifically--for example, one is not supposed to ask them if they support Roe v. Wade--that Obama and she spoke in code and exchanged lots of winks and nods.

He might have asked her about the constitutional right to privacy (the right on which Roe was decided), hoping she might smile in just the right way to convince him that when the Roberts-Scalia-Thomas-Alito court gets its hands on Roe she will be a strong supporter of a woman's right to choose. Or when he asked about executive authority (code for presidential power) she shrugged her shoulders in a way to indicate that she will support a strong presidency (his) so that he, as his 20th and 21st century predecessors, can carry on as unfettered by the courts as possible.

It is sad that things have gotten to be so blindly partisan that we wind up with publicly empty vessels such as a Roberts and a Kagan and not a Marshall or a Brandeis.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

May 11, 2010--Courageous Restraint

With a good friend who knows a lot about military history and strategy, I had the following email exchange.

It began with an article he sent about a new medal that the Army is thinking about establishing--one to encourage and reward appropriate kinds of restraint when troops are in battle. He attached a note of his own--"I thought this was a joke but apparently it is not."

In part the article says:

A proposal to grant medals for "courageous restraint" to troops in Afghanistan who avoid deadly force at a risk to themselves has generated concern among U.S. soldiers and experts who worry it could embolden enemy fighters and confuse friendly forces.

"The idea is being reviewed at Headquarters ISAF," Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis said. "The idea is consistent with our approach. Our young men and women display remarkable courage every day, including situations where they refrain from using lethal force, even at risk to themselves, in order to prevent possible harm to civilians. That restraint is an act of discipline and courage not much different than those seen in combat actions."

However, professor Jeffrey F. Addicott, a former senior legal adviser to the Green Berets and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, said "It's an absolutely outrageous proposal to our fighting men. They're sending a chilling message to our troops that we are not complying with the law of armed conflict. It's a propaganda victory for our enemies."

Sholtis disputed that the award would limit troops' ability in the battlefield. "We absolutely support the right of our forces to defend themselves," he said. "Valuing restraint in a potentially dangerous situation is not the same thing as denying troops the right to employ lethal force when they determine that it is necessary."

I responded:

Done the right way this makes sense in asymmetric warfare situations, which are now more an more the kinds in which we find ourselves. We "lose" by "winning" when a disproportionate number of civilians are killed and wounded. It's no longer OK to just bomb when the battles are as much cultural and political as they now are. So rather than condemn this kind of thinking out of hand (which of course is quick and easy to do) it would be more helpful to struggle with how best to think about valuing appropriate kinds of restraint.

In turn my friend added:

Actually Steve, we already restrain ourselves to the point at some times of killing our own soldiers unnecessarily. It's part of being a professional soldier. I think the idea we bomb, kill, or shoot needlessly has pretty much been put to bed as a myth. Our poor soldiers are put in many no-win scenarios and they practice incredible restraint daily. This "medal" is a moot point. Restraint is a part of the profession without which a military career will end prematurely.

As usual, I tried to have the final word:

Fair point. Our soldiers do tend to be remarkably restrained, though there are too frequent exceptions that cause us great harm. So to place an extra benefit and reward for restraint in the kinds of situations they face is a good idea. If thought through and done well.

For me, the actual final word was in an article in Sunday's New York Times. About how our use of unmanned drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, though effective in hunting and killing Al Qaeda leaders, because they also kill and wound so many civilians, they are so incensing the population that increasing numbers of them are joining Al Qaeda or minimally providing increased support for their efforts. (Article linked below.)

This is reminiscent of how the military came to conclude that our invasion of Iraq, though it toppled the heinous Saddam Hussein regime, also was used by insurgents as an incentive to recruit more fighters.

Thus, perhaps this medal that the Army is considering to acknowledge courageous restraint (quite a remarkable concept) should not only be available for our bravest troops but also might be awarded to our political leaders, including Commanders-In-Chief, who keep their macho under control when acting on it does more harm than good.

Monday, May 10, 2010

May 10, 2010--High-Frequency [Insider] Trading

If anyone is wondering why so-called retail investors are avoiding the stock market, all one needs to do is contemplate what is thus far known about last week's Dow Jones bungee jump. That 30 minutes where the average plunged 1,000 points and then almost as quickly bounced back about 700.

I say "thus far known" since in spite of all regulator, market officials, and government efforts, no one knows for sure what transpired.

That in itself is enough to scare away average investors--who wants to put any money down in a casino where not only are the odds stacked against you but also where things can run seemingly amok.

And I use "seemingly" advisedly" since the stock market of today in no way resembles the market of yesterday.

If, like me, you thought the New York Stock Exchange either operated as depicted in the movies--with traders racing wildly around the floor of the exchange wearing funky jackets and huge coded badges, frantically waving small slips of paper in the air as they chase after sellers from whom they want to buy 1,000 shares of AT&T--or if you thought that trading floor was where all the investments action is, think again.

Yes, I of course knew that computerization has changed this picture, but until last Thursday I had no idea that the majority of trading in stocks no longer occurs at the NYSE nor had I heard about high-frequency trading where most of the action now takes place.

And, it will likely turn out, that the dizzy gyrations that we witnessed last week emanated not just from human or technological error at one of these new virtual sites but also, since these electronic trading systems exist largely unregulated and under the radar, in spite of their size and the volume of trades that they manage, they are susceptible to nouveau forms of insider trading.

Again, in the past in order to pull off stock trades based on insider information (knowing in advance of the public that a particular company was about to be taken over, bought by another, and that this would mean one stock would rise rapidly and the other drop precipitously), one needed to have that information in hand and then either call ones broker to execute the trade or do so on-line. This took time and exposed you to potential scrutiny and prosecution since to trade this way is illegal. Just ask Martha Stewart.

These days about 65 percent of all trades occur via electronic exchanges that exist in parallel to but separate from the NYSE and much of the action occurs automatically. Especially at the high-frequency places where software is programmed to buy and sell stocks at pre-specified volumes when certain things occur--when an individual stock is available for a targeted price, when this average or that hits a particular level (the Dow, for example, dips below a certain "support level"), when there is a minute difference in the price of the same stock at a different exchange,

It is appearing that all of these things, plus human and/or machine error, was involved in what happened on Thursday.

According to an op-ed piece in the New York Times (linked below), something that goes on routinely at the high-frequency exchanges--where computers scan billions of bits of information in search of variations in the price of the same stock at the various exchanges, variations that exist for just a fraction of a second, and thus there are opportunities for traders since these differences can be taken advantage of by equally speedy automated transactions. If you can make a few pennies per share on huge trades of this kind it can add up to millions of dollars in profits. In addition to this arbitraging, playing the differences in buying and selling prices, in addition to this new version of business as usual, there are also opportunities to cheat.

For example, also all automated, if at one exchange you have an agreement to buy something at a particular price, with that "insider information, you go to other non-NYSE exchanges and buy up all available assets in that company at a better price from your perspective and then go back to the original investor and force him to see to you at the now "inferior price."

But, when a whole lot of this goes on it could contribute to the kind of meltdown we saw last week. And that too--the wild swings in the numbers--was also an opportunity for some (again via the new high-frequency exchanges) to make quick fortunes. When Proctor & Gamble, as one example, plunged $22 a share (37 percent of its value) it was a great time to buy up as much of it as your pre-programmed computer would allow.

This is admittedly a little exotic (with this exoticism too part of the lure and opportunity--impenetrableness itself to mere mortals represents opportunity); but if unfettered greed is what drives you, quite neat.

Some would call this the free market--let the buyer beware--others would call it a rigged casino.

Friday, May 07, 2010

April 7, 2010--"Still A Lot Of Money"

I have an interior decorator friend whose clients are among America's wealthiest families. When the recession hit, I was concerned about how this might affect him.

This is how he put it: "If you had three billion before things crashed and now you are left with only two, it's still a lot of money."

In other words, he was doing OK.

I was thinking about him as I walked down Broadway on my way to morning coffee since the signs of the economic collapse were everywhere evident. The Silver Spurs coffee shop, which is traditionally thriving at this time of day, was three-quarters empty. The waiters and cooks were standing around looking forlornly out the window as if attempting to will passersby in for breakfast.

Half a dozen shops between here and Spring Street in Soho were for rent. When we had left for South Florida in December all had been occupied. It was clear that their business was off, but they were hanging in and the proprietors had told us that the were anticipating a decent Christmas season and they were sure they would still be there when we returned in early May.

But they are all gone. The shelves are empty. In fact, for the most part the shelves themselves are gone and the fixtures have been abandoned. There was no market for them as nobody came to scoop them up at bargain princes since no one with any sense was thinking about taking on Lower Broadway rent when so few were optimistic enough about the future to start a business or had the money to shop.

Our first night back we went to our favorite local Italian restaurant. We have been going there for at least 15 years and know the owners: three cousins all with the same first name--Giovanni. The middle Giovanni was working that evening and greeted us warmly. Frankly, we were not only happy to see him but also to find that they were still there. In this economy, we didn't know what to expect. We did notice, however, that there were many tables available and while ordering tre-colore pasta with pesto sauce, I asked him how they were doing.

"Not so well," he said, gesturing toward the empty tables. "It's been a difficult winter. Business is off 20 percent." He paused to let that sink in. I shook my head in commiseration. "And you know, that 20 percent is the profit. Most all of it." He shrugged his shoulders, slumped, and walked slowly back toward the kitchen to place our order.

The pasta as usual was delicious and we vowed to return frequently to help them get through the downturn.

Back home, on the news was a report about an auction at Sotheby's. The 1934 Picasso, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" sold for more money than any other work of art in history--for it an anonymous buyer paid $106.5 million. More money than 2,000 public school teachers make in a year.

The next day the New York Times quoted the auctioneer as saying there was a United Nations of buyers present. "The [art] market is all about global liquidity. It's brand buying. This group will go for a great Monet just as the will for a great Warhol." (Article linked below.)

But a Manhattan dealer supplied the appropriate corrective, "I was surprised [by the prices] because the material was good but not great. [But] the market is as solid as ever."

Then yesterday afternoon, at 2:45 PM, in about 30 minutes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 1.000 points and then as quickly regained 700 of them. A 1,700 Dow-point swing in half an hour!

We were watching the action on MSNBC in real time and thought we were witnessing the end of the world as we know it. Greeks were rioting in the street since their government had just passed legislation requiring them to pay taxes and not just collect generous benefits as the price for of the thrifty Germans agreeing to bail them out; and one commentator was saying that not only would Spain be next to tumble but the U.S., burdened as we are with Greek-like national debt, might be in line after that. Was what we were seeing the final panic before economic Armageddon?

With only a trace of irony Rona asked, "How much Spam do we have?" She was talking about food, not the spam that infects our computer.

Other analysts were saying that something was wrong with the trading system. Yes, people are nervous, some even panicked, but a movement of this kind could only be the result of some error. It was soon discovered that a trader in Chicago had punched a B into his computer rather than an M, when he offered a few million, not billion, shares of P&G for sale. By why that would cause Tiger Woods' former sponsor, Accenture, to plunge from $40 a share to one penny was not made clear. Even this morning no one appears to know for certain what happened.

But in the meantime ordinary Picassos are going for tens of millions, teachers are being laid off, and the Giovannis are hanging by a thread.

As I wondered out loud while the market plummeted, "Though maybe our decorator friend is right, two billion is still a lot of money, perhaps what happened to Accenture is a glimpse of the future."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

May 6, 2010--Bipartisanship?

Bipartisanship is breaking out in the Senate.

As the bill to reregulate financial institutions is finally being debated, it appears that Democrats and Republicans are actually working together on shaping it. What's going on here?

Didn't Republicans vow to resist any and all of Obama's legislative initiatives after the Democrats passed the health care reform bill by reconciliation? Actually, haven't GOP senators all along been voting in total lockstep against every piece of Obama-proposed legislation even before that happened? Haven't they been guided by the words of South Carolina's Jim DeMint when he vowed that, "We will do everything to bring him down." Didn't he predict that the health care bill would be Obama's Waterloo?

So, again, what happened to bring about all the working together? Just the other day, for example, the New York Times reported that senators from both parties are working in comity on the bill that would, among other things, end too-big-to-fail.

Weren't these the very same Republican senators who were engaging in a successful filibuster to not even allow the bill to come to the Senate floor for debate? Wasn't it Minority Leader Mitch McConnell leading the way, saying that the bill the Democrats were attempting to enact was really a stealthy way to continue to leave taxpayers on the hook to bail out failing financial institutions in spite of the fact that that was patently false? Yes, there was to be a $50 billion fund to help liquidate defaulting banks, but all of that money was to be put up by the banks themselves.

In fact, even Obama was against that provision and it was about to be plucked out of the eventual bill even without the threat, much less the reality, of a filibuster. Wasn't what we were seeing just more intentional Republican intransigence designed to, again, bring down Obama?

Well, it was.

That is until the Goldman Sachs boys were paraded before the Senate Government Affairs Sub-Committee On Investigations after the newly-awakened Securities and Exchange Commission brought its civil fraud suit against the financial giant. Even Republicans, who up to that point were not inclined to agree to any new regulating, quickly did a U turn and joined the growing public demand that something be done to reign in the excesses that almost brought down the world's economy and destroyed the savings of tens of millions of innocent Americans.

Lloyd Blankfien, Goldman's CEO, and his minions were so outrageous in their unwillingness to take any responsibility at all for what they helped to bring about, they were so morally corrupt, that some of the harshest interrogation came from Republican members of the committee.

This was because one thing Republicans are good at is reading the polls that measure public sentiment. When they saw that two-thirds of Americans were clamoring for legislation to end banking shenanigans, they ended their filibuster and ranting about the Democrats socialistic agenda and joined in the discussion to work on a bill that will, with its limitations, bring about some measure of control of this important sector of our economy.

This outburst of bipartisanship, no matter the source of its motivation, is actually improving the bill. For example, rather than setting up the $50 billion fund, through negotiations, Democrats and Republicans are agreeing to something better:

It would be the FDIC that will finance the liquidation of failed financial institutions. Since 1934 it has performed this function for banks and, if the bill passes (as it now surely will) they will do this for non-bank corporations such as Bear Stearns, using the bankrupt companies' assets to help fund the costs associated with the liquidation. This would mean that shareholders and creditors, not taxpayers, would be stuck with the loses. Just what the free market calls for.

Isn't this the way things are supposed to work? With both parties working together to hammer out deals for the sake of all Americans? Of course. But we shouldn't hold our breaths expecting more of this. The Republicans see a political advantage to clamor onto this bandwagon; but after this bill passes, it will be time to get back to the real agenda--bringing about Obama's Waterloo.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

May 5, 2010--Catching Up With My Emails

Waiting for me back in New York were a bunch of emails from some of my South Florida friends. I took them as a measure of affection—now that we can’t casually see each other in the morning, perhaps emails will suffice as a way to stay in close touch.

But missing each other aside, they were quite hot in content and tone. I took that to mean that in part they were motivated by a perception that Barack Obama might just be doing a few things right or the tide, at least, was shifting and some of the things my conservative friends hold to be true were being impeached.

Like how much of the solution to our energy needs involves massive new forms of offshore drilling. As the oil slick from the collapsed BP rig moves inexorably toward Florida—maybe even up the east coast where my friends live—I am hearing that the problem will solve itself (nature will disperse and dilute the spilled oil and so we should not be too concerned) and, as if in contradiction to that, the federal government (i.e., Obama) did not act fast enough to contain and solve the problem.

So, as usual, I was confused: there is no need for government to get involved (the traditional small-government mantra) but where was Obama and the government when all of this was happening.

Echoing this, when I got the TV working, there was Louisiana Senator David Vitter screaming on the tube that the Gulf Coast needs federal aid and they need it now. This from one of the GOP’ staunchest dissenters from any form of federal response to the recession; this from the senator who is best known for being one of the Washington Madam’s most frequent customers.

Then there was Michael Brown who was ranting on Fox News (remember him—the former head of the International Arabian Horse Association and then FEMA CEO during Hurricane Katrina who George Bush famously said, “You’re doing a good job Brownie”) that not only was the Obama administration late in responding to the crisis (he should know about that) but they in fact were “happy” that it occurred since it now allows them to “pander” to environmental groups that want to totally end all use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. At least he didn’t go as far as Rush Limbaugh who claimed that the Obama folks sabotaged the drilling platform, again for environmental reasons.

I guess I was still disoriented from all the driving since I could not make sense of either the logic of that (how ruining our local waterways and coastline was an act of environmental conservation) or the sure lunacy of what both of these Republican sages were peddling. Obama wasn’t adept enough to provide the needed response but was clever enough to pull off a murderous act (17 men were killed in the Gulf) while leaving no traces.

These folks are so angry that Obama might just be succeeding that they are in danger of losing what little credibility they retain.

Another example. This from one my emails. An acquaintance circulated something that claimed that gay people have the audacity to want to be able to sponsor immigrant partners for citizenship. Another friend responded:

It’s a free for all to see how much we can suck out of our country. JFK’s admonition “ask not what our country can do for you, ask what you can do for our country” is dead. Now it’s the exact opposite. Gay groups are only doing what everyone else is doing which is suckling from the public nipple.

When I tried to point out that this is the tried and true way of helping immigrants become citizens what I got back was sputtering. And when I pointed out that in economic terms gays pay more in taxes than they received in benefits (they have, for example, very few children and so they are not a debit on the public education system) and wondered with false naiveté why he used such an angry nipple-sucking image to describe this behavior, I heard nothing in return except that I misunderstood him. He was not bashing gays and was not being homophobic. “I have nothing against gays,” he in effect said.

Well I am not so jet lagged as to believe that and I sense that behind some of the anger, though there is legitimate frustration that many things do not feel as if they going well, I am also sensing that behind it are political and ideological and sadly some racial frustrations.

It is as if they are saying, “How can this left-of-center black guy be getting more and more things right when what the conservative right and their corporate friends have wrought has led to such a global mess.”

Their thinking is so distorted by this frustration and confusion that the Obama administration can’t even get a shred of credit for so quickly capturing the Times Square bomber. “Why did it take them 53 hours? Why didn’t they capture him until he was on the plane? Why . . . ?”

All this from the folks who failed in seven years to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

I think I’ll take a break from reading my emails.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

May 4, 2010--Back In New York

A bit overwhelmed by the city and the things we need to do to resettle and dig out, I will return tomorrow.

Monday, May 03, 2010

May 3, 2010--The Sage of Omaha

At Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting, referred to as the Woodstock of Capitalism, Warren Buffet as usual opined about various subjects. None more widely reported than his comments about Goldman Sachs and its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein. (New York Times article linked below.)

About the embattled Mr. Blankfein, Buffet gushed, "If Lloyd had a twin brother, I would vote for him."

And about Goldman's deal where investors were not told that Goldman was betting Abacus short while selling clients Abacus long, Buffet was quoted as saying that those investors should have done a better job of doing their own due diligence and not just followed Goldman's advice.

Buffet is of course entitled to his opinion; but the New York Times in its reporting about the meeting and what the Sage of Omaha had to say in fierce defense of Goldman should have mentioned a few things about Buffet and Goldman that might have put a different spin on his comments.

The Times said not a word about Buffet's sweetheart investment in Goldman last September when the tottering financial giant sold him $5 billion in preferred shares that paid a whopping dividend of 10 percent. Nor did the Times mention the Billionaire Next Door's classic quote about derivatives: he called them "financial weapons of mass destruction" while investing $63 billion in Hathaway money in just such CDO WMDs.

To its credit the Times did at least report that Buffet, as a result of his deep investment in hedging contracts, is opposed to any new derivatives regulation.

It would, though, have been much better and more responsible to hear from the Times about the rest of the Buffet-Goldman story.