Monday, December 31, 2007

A year in Grousing, redux

First off, I owe an apology to my few faithful readers, whom I left hanging on December 10th with the following tease:

At bedtime, Natalie, having gotten a jumpstart on 2008 with the January issue of Highlights, burst into Graham's room with some fresh comic material:
"What do April showers bring?" (she asks)
"Ummm.., May flowers" (me)
"And what do May flowers bring?"
I should have known this, but didn't. A trick question. The answer will come in tomorrow's edition.

Of course, the answer did not come, but here it is: "May flowers bring pilgrims." That's good stuff.

Nothing else to retract, though at times I think I'd just as soon retract the whole damned year. We're headed off this evening to a Hogmanay bonfire, into which one can write things one would like to forget from the soon to be done year and throw it into the fire. I may use a legal notepad and die of handcramps before I get there.

No but seriously, 2007 has been a year of much opportunity, capped by a number of high points: Graham's improving allergy numbers and one haircut, Natalie's intense reading and twin triumph over biking without training wheels and swimming, Clark's new bike, ultimate game and job, and Mary's general forebearance. Right here on the blog, we've seen growing traffic as we approach the triumphal 1000th post milestone. And, as many of you will attest, there has been an astonishing deepening of wisdom here in Grouseland, complemented by a certain stylistic grace and an overwhelming modesty that leads many educated observers to term this the greatest blog of all time. God, you gotta love that.

So yall come on back in 2008 and set a spell, y'hear?

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Rockford Files, from the beginning

Correction. The episode described below was not Episode 1. The discs are not well marked. I'm still confused about where he got the nice house. Mor on that later.

Some kind soul decided to purchase seasons 1 and 2 of the Rockford Files for me on DVD for Xmas, and last night he and I sat down to watch the initial episode. Jim was there, looking young and svelte and desperately overdressed for the Socal locale. Rocky was there too, with mugs of hot coffee for distraught sonny boy and suggestions of freshwater fishing. Dennis the cop was also on board from episode 1.

Generally speaking, the series starts out pretty melancholy. Jim walk on the beach alone, sighs, pouts. His sweetheart has been took and whacked by "the syndicate" for something she saw.

What I don't get is why Jim has a sweet if basic crib on a seemingly abandoned beach, a $5 mln house in 2007 terms, when later he's got a beat up trailer. He's already driving his Firebird, after all. Time will tell, perhaps. Maybe he's got money to lose at the beginning of the show, as opposed to later.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Return to the Trial, or, why Western Union sucks

For a recent project I had to make use of Western Union to send some money offshore. I had never used Western Union before, and never will again. For a business which is 100% about trust, it is abysmally run and organized. I'd have reps say they were going to call me back to confirm my home number and then not do it. So I assumed transactions weren't cleared, only to find out later that they were (OK, just one, which I pulled back). Fees were non-trivial, ca 8% for phone transactions, 4% for in-person (probably closer to reasonable).

I sent one transaction over the phone and never got a receipt. I called up and the first rep said she couldn't send an email receipt (why not?), that a snail mail one was on the way. OK. But it never got here. A month later I call back and give some slow French-sounding dude the primary key for the transaction and his system won't let him pull up any details on it. So he transfers me to another woman in West Virginia and she can't find the date it happened. Finally she pulls it all together and gets my email address, then has to forward my case to the
"correspondence desk."

One thing Western Union does do is authenticate thoroughly on the phone to guard against identity theft. That's all they do well. Otherwise the place is a mess.

Most of us need not concern ourselves with this. Western Union is a business for the underclass, a way to get money home easily. But what I saw gives a small window into the quality of financial services being offered to the lower-income set: pretty shabby. I suspect there's opportunity for market entry here for better wire-transfer services at lower fees, using an already existing network such as an ATM network.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Evil white boy

Got on the subway this evening at Wall St, wearing a baseball cap from one investment bank, reading a book about another, in a black trench coat and geeky glasses. So I guess I looked a little malevolent to some. I got a seat next to a 3-year black girl who was stretched out and fast asleep with her head in the lap of her mother, who was listening to an Ipod Nano . She was very cute, very sweet, and I looked over at her and thought how my kids could never sleep like that. I go back to reading.

All of a sudden I hear a voice from across the way. I look up and it's coming from an obese black woman with a classic Ipod and a bad attitude: "I see you lookin at her like you got a problem with it, like she oughta get up." Obviously she had no training as a mind reader "Actually, I was thinking that she looked rather sweet and I was reminded of my own kids." She muttered something to herself, trying to claim the high ground, and put her earphones back in. I resisted the temptation to argue with her more or say something denigrating on the way out.

Fucking imbecile.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Some big surprises

Locked out of my office this morning, even the receptionists didn't come in here at the office hotel. Watching SquawkBox over breakfast. Everybody's psyched about the good consumer spending numbers, then somber about predictions that there might be as much as $100 bln in defaults in option ARM mortgages coming up 2008ff.

Hello! WTF do you expect? If consumers are taking their credit cards to the mall, you know darned good and well they're not servicing their all too-complex mortgages. Two years ago they were taking debit cards tied to HELOCs to the mall. Brilliant.

It's been prima facie evident for years that people have been borrowing too much. There are no surprises here. It's just another opportunity for actors with strong balance sheets to swoop in and grab assets. The problem is, the assets suck. Big-assed houses built off in the middle of fucking nowhere that are exactly the wrong thing for a society that needs to move away from driving big SUVs to malls. Unlike the excess of telecom capacity that we worked off from 2003 forward, this time the assets are just wrong, and should be torn down.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Why me?

Cursed fate today when I got on the wrong PATH train from Jersey City today and went to Hoboken instead of Newark. I mean, I really cursed. Had to retrace steps and then back to Newark and thence to Princeton, by then blowing what I had planned for the last bit of afternoon. I was downright Scroogy, almost even humbugged the smiley people with their suitcases ready to fly off to holiday climes. I'm sure the airport would have put me in good cheer.

Licking seasonal envelopes while listening to some yule motets is doing some good. As are the twinkling lights of the tree.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Racing fools

Bloomberg today ran a story about one J. Kyle Bass and his hedge fund Hayman Capital Partners. Bass is one of the truly smart guys who was ahead of the curve in sniffing out danger in the mortgage markets and took short positions in them in time to make lots of money from the current mayhem. The story tells of how -- as he did lots of hardcore due diligence on companies in the mortgage ecosystem -- Bass singled in on one mortgage lender he just knew had to mean trouble, Daniel Sadek of Quick Loan Funding of California. A key red flag for Bass was that Sadek funded a movie about car racing in which Porsches got busted up good.

The car racing connection took me back to the story of Centrix Financial of Denver, a subprime auto lender that took to sponsoring the Denver Grand Prix race before it ran afoul of regulators and subsequently imploded.

So is association with car racing Icarus-like behavior for the alpha set? Well, on the one hand, Paul Newman has yet to be singed by it. Then again, Jason Priestly messed himself up pretty good on a race track and Colin Powell, well, lets just say that his enthusiasm for the fast ones may or may not be correlated with his basically perjuring himself before the UN Security Council in 2003 with testimony that lent his then-considerable credibility to the Iraq escapade, which may prove to be the moment the United States ejected itself from the drivers seat of History.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Los grits

At a breakfast counter this morning at Chambers and Church Sts. this older hispanic construction worker sits down and orders fried eggs and then asks "tienes grits?" (do you have grits). And the counter guys says "no, we've got home fries and french fries, what do you want?" And the
older guy says "no potatoes." So I'm wondering if grits are popular in the Mexican community, with its corn-based diet. In the Northeast you've historically been able to get them only in African-American nabes, but there's a lot of overlap between them and hispanic ones.

Or the guy could have been diabetic, preferring the complex corn to the simple carb potato. He had whole wheat toast and Equal in his coffee. You never know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


This band is like the Sonic Youth of Russia: the elder statesmen of independent rock. Great live.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Glenn Gould at work

When I was still in college my uncle Ballard out of the blue gave me a copy of Glenn Gould's The Goldberg Variations, the 1981 revisitation of the piece that made him a big star back in 1955. I always thought the piece was deeply soulful, and that Bach must have been written on the occasion of the death or illness of some close buddy of his named Goldberg. Imagine my dismay to learn that it was -- according to legend at least -- a piece commissioned to ease the insomnia of some rich nobleman guy, who had a pianist named Goldberg. Go figure. So really it's just a piece of virtuosity.

Still, listening to Gould playing Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier is an altogether different experience. It doesn't even hint at the depth of the later Goldberg recording. Maybe that's just Gould sensing that his own days are numbered, as they indeed were at the time.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Troitus interruptus

In a demonstration of our truly formidable will power, we have just stopped in the middle of the Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon having just kicked some asset. This series of films reminds me a lot of Bunuel's The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in that nobody ever gets to eat. Or shower. They're too busy hopping on trains and motorcycles and killing people, the staples of good movies.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In praise of J Mascis

Working on my nasty painting project on the landing upstairs, took advantage of empty house to blast tunes. First Arcade Fire because, after all, it's New Jersey and, as I've said, the guy sounds a lot like Springsteen. But then I grabbed an old Dinosaur Jr. record, Without a Sound, a 1994 release of the "J Mascis Experience" period, after Barlow had left to form Sebadoh and J was playing basically all the instruments himself in the studio. This is not his best record, but still...

J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr mark a singular moment in the development of post-punk tunes, having the courage to step out from the phalanxes of Marshall Stacks and bar chords to sing from the heart and express a vision of self with fretboard and kick pedals. J was perhaps the first lyric punk, if not the last.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Moving along

Fast plowing through my pre-re-employment week of rest, when I've been supposed to be working on a painting project on the 2nd floor landing of the house, pulling off old telephone wires put there by generations of dial-up mad grad students, scraping, sanding, caulking, painting. Sadly, I am stuck at scraping and sanding. I took 45 minutes on Monday and sat in the comfortable chair in the corner of the living room and read. Should do more of that. We'll see.

For this week have resisted the call of Manhattan and the many fine people there, instead am concentrating on doing a "farewell tour" of lunches here in the heart of fair Mercer County.

Today took Mary antiquing in Lambertville, then had Graham ride his bike home from school, on which route we passed by a full panoply of Princeton Borough employees (maybe 7 of them) and trucks (perhaps 6), collecting leaves from the gutters with big vacuums, claws, rakes, what have you, the important principle being to use the equipment because, by god, it belongs to the municipality.

Nervously looking towards next week, when the commute into Manhattan kicks off. Will I have to catch a 6:07 train? Stay tuned. Whatever happens, the blog will live on, but it's gonna be harder to feed daily.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Chew your Hallmark

This was the first year Graham really got transfixed by the tree. And he really did.

Meanwhile, down the hill at Craig and Karen's house, they were going a little bit over the top with a gingerbread house. Here's Natalie and Vivian with the tasty masterpiece.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Highlights of the day

Went to dentist. The good news is I need only one cavity. The bad news is that tooth's already so drilled out I need a frickin crown. Which will cost. Luckily will soon have dental insurance. In the dentist chair I was bombarded by bad Christmas country music.

Went to mall to beef up office casual side of closet. At mall was bombarded by bad Christmas music of all varieties. Reminds why I steer clear of mall.

Went to hardware store to pick up caulking and sandpaper brick for project on 2nd floor landing. In the parking lot, came face to face with road rage, Princeton style. A fellow WASP dad, apparently enraged at the lack of parking on one row, gunned the engine of his ca 2002 hunter green Accord and went the wrong way down a clearly marked one-way alley, thus impeding my forward progress. I lay fiercely into the mighty horn of my 2001 S40, but he was not afeared one whit.

At bedtime, Natalie, having gotten a jumpstart on 2008 with the January issue of Highlights, burst into Graham's room with some fresh comic material:
"What do April showers bring?" (she asks)
"Ummm.., May flowers" (me)
"And what do May flowers bring?"
I should have known this, but didn't. A trick question. The answer will come in tomorrow's edition.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Rule of Law

At a conference at Yale a couple of weeks ago on international stuff there was much chin-waddling and brow-furrowing on the importance of rule of law for having a country run smoothly and grow up to be polite. But, I ask, what do you really need for rule of law? Just laws and an independent judiciary, or a populace that internalizes the law? The letter -- which killeth, or the spirit -- which giveth life?

Immediately post Enron / Tyco etc. there was much hue and cry about how US GAAP accounting standards encouraged a literalist bent, which in turn fostered cheating, while the European IASC standards were more principles-based -- which gave us Parmalat and others. Now the same debate goes on between the SEC's rules orientation and the British FSA's principle-based approach. And Sarbanes-Oxley is demonized for pushing firms to list on foreign exchanges.

When is rule of law too much law? Go to Germanic Europe and people get all pissy if you so much as jaywalk. Fat lot of good is does them.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What would Jesus Buy?

Everybody run out and see this new movie, about America's greatest Situationist Gospel choir, with musical direction by our own William Moses. About materialism and America and Christmas. As if people don't want the Peanuts special year in year out: "All it needs is a little love."

In fact, many if not quite all of the great Xmas movies down through the years to some extent satirize the holiday's commercial focus, don't they, from A Miracle on 34th St and It's a Wonderful Life to one of my personal faves, The Homecoming with Ed Asner. The holiday, we learn, all comes back to real human contact and caring.

In the end, I think, these movies are nothing more than palate cleansers after a rush to the mall, a way of saying: "Oh yeah, that's what I meant by the $1200 I put on my card today."

What would Jesus Buy? promises more. Real, hard-hitting, Yes Men like freak you out performance art at the mall. With real singin.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The 20th Hijacker?

It is, in fact, Shel Silverstein, author of children's classics. Coulda fooled me. Doesn't quite look the part, does he?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Parkour Jr.

This morning Graham running back and forth on the 2nd floor landing in sweatpants with his shirt off, twirling the shirt around his arm while shrieking reminded me of some of those Parkour guys I've checking out on YouTube. Fearless. Pearless. Fierce.

If only he could master the dark, fetid one. Or should I say "two"?

Meanwhile, I've been inspecting the Nancy Drew books Natalie inherited from Caroline, and from Leslie and Joan before her. The great thing about these mysteries is there's no messing about. The enigma is introduced in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Someone literally bursts in the door or up the front steps: "Nancy. You won't believe what a mystery I've stumbled onto." And they're off.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Par for the kour

Going through a stack of old New Yorkers today I saw an article about David Belle and Parkour, which is basically crazy skateboarder ninja shit without the boards, the kind of thing I used to speculate about when I was younger and, under the right (or the wrong) circumstances, actually nipped at. I watched some videos of Belle and, though he's incredibly impressive athletically, he's more swagger than grace most of the time. And a terrible moustache.

But this video, of nameless dudes the globe around doing parkour, is pretty infectious. This is fun stuff. Sadly, I am now too old for most of this stuff.