Friday, February 27, 2009

Tales from the recession

I had this computer fix-it guy come back by the house today. He had helped me out back in November, I can't recall if I commented on it. Suffice it to say that he is not an exemplar of advanced computer knowledge, I was mildly surprised that they could charge a hundred bucks an hour for him but, I figure, this is what the market will bear. I've seen sys admin guys in a corporate setting who were also not great talents, so this is just how it goes, I figure. And he was an Obama supporter too, which you can't assume in a New Jersey "legacy" demographic (Italian, Jewish, Polish).

Anyway, he got all the data I considered critical, but he missed some stuff I thought I'd never need. Turned out, I needed it for work. So he comes back by the house and extracts the hard drive and connects it to this thingamajiggy and I'll moving data to my laptop, and we start talking. "How's business?" I ask. "Slow, he says. You would think people would be fixing computers rather than buying new ones, but I'm getting like three calls a week." "You got another job?" "Yeah, I work at a WaWa's (a convenience store) on Sunday, just for the extra 60-70 bucks. And I'm living with my invalid 79 year old mother, my family's paying me for that. My brothers have run off to Florida, North Carolina, somebody's gotta take care of mom. And my wife's over at our house taking care of that, so we're separated."

Anyhow, it's hard to convey it within the bounds of a wise-assed blog, but you've got this semi-skilled guy, a tech minor leaguer, kind of a sad sack but fundamentally a really decent human being, trying to retool for the new economy. All good.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reading the samples

The quantity of samples available at grocery stores around here continues to defy the gravity of the recession. Here are some highlights:

McCaffrey's, Saturday:
  • Mild and spicy bbq sauces on chicken chili.  With chips
  • Niblets of corned beef with sauerkraut and mustard
  • Salmon salad with Chicken in a biscuit type crackers
  • Those stupid pretzel chips they always have
  • Cubes of marble pound cake at the coffee bar
  • Carrots or something like that in produce (doesn't really count)
Does that sound like the Great Depression?

Olive Mays, Sunday
  • Vegan fried chicken (surprisingly tasty)
  • Seems like there was one other thing
Read my lips.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Toxic assets

If I hear one more nincompoop up there on CNBC etc. bemoaning our inability to value the toxic assets, I'm gonna puke. Assets don't have immutable values. Ever. Houses don't. Car stereos don't. Securities don't. Etc. Prices are always in flux, period.

We will never know if we overpaid or didn't, or if the banks got too much. The best thing to do is cut through the Gordian knot, use multiple valuation methodologies to establish pricing ranges, compel the banks to accept the transactions, ease compensation rules a little to keep bankers at banks, and then raise taxes on upper brackets in 2010 at the very least to the levels of the Clinton administration. Perhaps including capital gains taxes.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tonight's scorecard

I had hoped Obama would do better tonight. It was a good speech, I just didn't feel like he was able to come up with the narrative component that would make it memorable in the future, the hook. A few years down the road, if we remember it at all, we'll think: "That was the night Obama came out and told us all the things he wanted to do."

Bobby Jindal, on the other hand, played the narrative card hard. "My dad said this... we were hopping in boats to save people that." He crafted that puppy good, so it was great when David Gergen pulled up some numbers that demonstrated that Jindal was basically full of shit. But he was full of the shit Republicans love.

Nancy Pelosi was, in truth, looking a little too happy there.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bad Brains

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Positivity Tsar

I have devoted considerable thinking to the question of who should be dubbed Positivity Tsar: the guy who can play Iacocca to Obama's Reagan, whenever Obama decides he can stop being scary. If you look around the business world, it's hard to find the right person. The only person in finance who's a contender is Jack Bogle, and he's too old. There's no likely candidate from the world of Technology, either. Maybe Larry Page if he would step out. Consumer products also yield few candidates.

In the end, I have settled on Tom Brokaw. The Greatest Generation gives him tremendous cred in the heartland, and it's theme is exactly what America needs to hear: Americans can hunker down, find common purpose, and do tremendous things. It's what we do best, and what we're supposed to do. Brokaw would also appear to be a liberal and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody really hates him. The book and his South Dakota heritage isolate him from "East Coast Media Elite" attacks from Limbaugh etc.

Now, I just have to communicate to Brokaw that he has been selected for this role and figure out how to craft the campaign.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Props to the Economist

In an interview for the weekend edition Nouriel Roubini deflected a question about whether he was the great seer of the bubble bursting by producing a list of fellow-travelling skeptics

  • Robert Shiller of Yale and the Case-Shiller Index
  • Steven Roach of Morgan Stanley
  • Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard
  • Nassim Taleb
All true, they've been at it for a while, though Taleb largely seemed more concerned with promulgating his grand theory than with goings on in the real world.  I think, however, we should remember the Economist in this relation.  Every six months or so there'd be an article about the global housing bubble where it would tell us that the US, the UK, and especially Ireland and Spain, were fucked.  It couldn't correctly project how everything would malfunction, I think only Roubini himself started getting close to what has come to pass in his 2006-7 vintage predictions, which were like:  "we will all burn in the fires of hell."  But the Economist did a pretty good job of covering the crisis as it took shape.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Deep in the woods

Working through a New Yorker collection of food writings. Having finished a Joseph Mitchell piece on "Beefsteaks", a beer and meat only social function from the turn of the century through the 30s where people would eat all they could with their bare hands and get wasted.  Good times.  Next up is a John McPhee article about a six-day trip he took with Euell Gibbons in the mountains of Pennsylvania with no provisions and no fishing or hunting equipment.  They fed purely by foraging for nuts, fruits and greens.  Hard core.

Tonight Mary and I watched the Coen Brothers' Burn Before Reading.  Some critics, apparently, didn't like the movie, but we couldn't figure out what there was to not like about it.  Supremely entertaining viewing with a good cast.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I have in various forums (which is to say, for the most part, my own mind) advocating for positive and even futurist orientations to the crisis at hand. By which I mean, for those of you who've been napping, the financial crisis.

So here's a couple of ideas, probably already in development somewhere

  • A need aggregator for basic service charities. A portal where soup kitchens and the like could go in and give status for what they need: "We're well-funded right now, but need volunteers to serve meals and teach computer skills". That way, if Poughkeepsie is well provided for, I can give money to Toledo.
  • I've read about revivals of local stock markets. What about local bond markets? If a store or restaurant is in trouble why not let them issue some small notes locally? Lord knows there's investment banker and lawyer capacity lying fallow. I'm sure there's some SEC reason not to, but hell, the SEC is going away one of these days anyhoo.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Belief under stress

On the train ride home tonight I sat next to a black woman in red.  First she called some doctor's office and left a message about a bill she had received late because she had moved in the fall.   Then she called a family member, maybe a cousin, who was home alone and was freaking out because her dad had told her she had to move.  The woman in red tried to help her relative calm down:  "You will always be safe and you will always have a roof over your head.  The Lord will provide that.  You may not like everything that happens, but you will be safe and sheltered."  She talked the other woman for a while, and then got out a small Bible and read to her to keep her under control.

It was pretty moving, in quiet way.   We haven't had to deal with anything like that.  Knock wood.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Herd-culling, the carbon hoofprint and the virtues of progressive impoverishment

The news the other day was that 75,000 dairy cows were culled recently to support milk prices as the markets for cheese and milk diminish. If we're killing cows to support dairy prices, we're also reducing bovine flatulence and thus GHG emissions. This is a trivial number, admittedly, compared with 50 million beef and dairy cows in the US, but it's a good start so maybe if this goes on for a bit we can tack diminished cud chewing next to decreased miles driven in the plus column for sustainability.

Similarly, a study in the Times showing that average calories in Joy of Cooking recipes were up ca 35% from 30s edition to today shows that our obesity problem is tied to societal wealth. Again, this indicates that we might be able to impoverish ourselves into some benefits down the road. But we'll probably have to lose a fair amount of aggregate income before people feel too poor to go to McDonalds, which has done well recently.

Certainly, we may hope to see an increased appreciation for and appreciation for food.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lewis on Battier

Just got through reading Michael Lewis's piece on Shane Battier in the Times Magazine. As per usual, good stuff. As with Moneyball, Lewis drives into the numbers-driven culture of sports management, but the narrative is anything other than pallid determinism. Instead, with his Shane Battiers, Bill Jameses and Billy Williamses, Lewis feeds us a new heroic narrative: quiet, quirky, but driven people who figure out new ways to do things, be it from the producer or the analytic perspective, which aren't too far removed from one another.

It's not unlike the Jobs/Wozniak tinker in a garage model, but it's more for services than for products. It upends the quant vs. instinct and guts model presented first in the parable of Paul Bunyan vs. the Steam Shovel and resurrected most famously in Rower Lowenstein's account of the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in When Genius Failed, the book that everybody read but nobody seems to have taken to heart.

In fact, as we come to the end of an era whose beginings Lewis chronicled in Liar's Poker, it may be time to revisit that book to see how much the worldview has changed.

And, as to Battier, I must say that I always thought he would have looked good in a lighter shade of blue.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A musical interlude

This from our West Coast correspondent and one time drummer of the famed Unity Rockers, a certain John Fox. Personally, I don't quite get why the band is so quiet.

Radiohead with the USC Marching Band

Just got off the phone with Guy Whitten, erstwhile lead singer of the same band and now member of the ruling class at the massive Political Science school at Texas A&M, an ecosystem of some 1200 souls with its own IT department. That's no joke. Guy's going to be learning some lessons about life soon with the impending arrival of a first child. So lets all give Guy a rousing ChewYourGrouse welcome into the land of parenting.

One last thing. Isn't it funny how spellcheck in Microsoft Office -- including PowerPoint -- insists that the sequence of letter "Powerpoint" does not indicate a proper English word? Oh, Redmond, how you humor us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An end of innocence?

At Daylife this evening for a presentation by Jeff Jarvis, author of the book "What Would Google Do?" Basically, he carries on about principles for living derived from the omnipresent transparency facilitated by Google, Craigslist, and the rest. Not much revelation there, and then he opened the floor for some idea generation on the topic of a Google restaurant. A bunch of chipper ideas for cool applications of transparency and networking in the food service context gushed forth. "Drill down into menu items to show ingredients and where they come from," "provide data on popularity of dishes," etc.

Everyone was rather pleased with.themselves. But were they way out of touch with reality? Are we entering into an era of fewer gadgets and slower progress. Can we clever our way out of it? Maybe we can, to some extent. The Obama campaign is a good example of technology used well. I talked to one guy who was working on.a framework to help massive amounts of unemployed people connect. He was only just getting started, but maybe he can do some good. At the very least, he was tuned in.
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Foul on Duke

There is a meme flowing around the internet today that the officials in tonight's battle between light blue good and dark blue evil tonight at Cameron Indoor (like they've got an outdoor one) Stadium will call a foul on the Blue Devils of Duke University. I must insist this is only an apocrypal rumor. There have been no confirmations issued, except by John Wofford, President of the ACC.

Some are speculating that the space-time continuum might implode. In any case, it could be more devastating that Lehman's collapse.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A few things

For starters, thanks and praise to Jonathan Moore AKA JMo, whose blog is touted at right.  After I had complained about Blogger/Google being too slack to offer a way to extract a blog to something one could hold locally, he noted that Google did “expose the metadata” in its RSS feed, and he quickly cooked up a Python script to let me expropriate the means of production.  Full on righteous.


In other news, after months of luxuriating in the slack traffic of people visiting the blog via Google images to the post where I mocked Joe Biden’s ridiculous hair.  I have since removed that post to force my traffic numbers back down so as to infuse me with the desire to earn my unique visitors the old fashioned way:  by writing something interesting.  So I’ll be trying to do that again.


But not today.  Instead, I’ll tell you about my reading of the testimony before Congress of one Harry Markopolos, the Boston-based finance guy whose been trying to make Bernard Madoff’s life a living hell for years, but failing, but is now having his 15 minutes of fame.  And then some.


So Markopolos offered up some ideas for reforming the SEC, most important amongst which are

·         SEC staff are desparately underqualified, undertrained, underequipped with print and technology resources and underpaid

·         The SEC doesn’t even let its staff go to conferences to keep up with things

·         The SEC should be made entrepreneurial, with good base pay and bonuses for collars they make


All told it’s pretty damning and cogent, but he goes overboard I think in advocating that SEC people should be paid like bank employees, with a lot of pay in bonuses.  They should undoubtedly be paid better, but the idea of entrepreneurial agencies rubs me to wrong way.  People should elect to work for regulators like they elect to non-profits or police departments, for other reasons.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Winner takes all no longer

The ARod scandal, coming as it does on the heels of the bonus scandal and so many other doping scandal, will mark a new phase in the vilification of the overpaid. ARod famously brought Goldman Sachs in to negotiate his handsome deal with the Bronx bombers.

It was already clear where we were headed when people started objecting to Citi getting its logo on the Mets Stadium. If not Citi, who? Berkshire Hathaway? Walmart? Google? The lists of the deep-pocketed are short. That's $400 million that's not going into the Mets coffers, and it will be reflected in pay cuts to players. And we're gonna see more and more sponsorships get pulled, and athletes will earn less, and maybe, if we're lucky, they'll do fewer steroids.

Nobody's going to object, except the players, but they're not going to be in a situation where they have much leverage. If your Kobes and Lebrons stamp out and bitch, they'll lose the adulation that makes them marketable. I look forward to it.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Dreams of My Father

I've been making my way through the book, and continue to be impressed. Obama is at times a little reductive and corny, but he continue to convey legitimate and earnest questing, and openmindedness. All in all, I'm immensely proud to have as president the guy who wrote this book.

He's gonna make booboos. In the end he will probably rue the salary constraint on the banks, and not vetting people for tax issues will sting. But I really don't see him hauling off alienating the whole world a few weeks after we had everybody's sympathy and starting a completely idiotic and adventurist war because the Vaderesque cronies just promised him it was a good idea. And he'll probably have the good sense not to get blow jobs in the Oval Office. I think we're good.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


The restaurant where my firm meets monthly, which I reported closed a couple of months back, has reopened under a new name: "Williams", after the street it's on. The food is not better, it is in many ways worse. Tonight they kept trying to serve us these little cherry tomato things with tuna inside, which nobody ate. Why?, you may ask. Because they sucked, you could tell just looking at them. The calamari was fried, at least, but they brought us chicken sliders instead of beef. The nerve.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Paying for 2.0

More and more media outlets are starting to think seriously about the disappearance of new media forms with shaky business models. The blogging network Pajamas Media shut down, there's no saying others won't too.

So we have to ask ourselves: how much would you pay for a given 2.0 form for a year? I already donated money to Wikipedia. I pay monthly for LinkedIn already (should probably try to expense it). Would I pay a hundred bucks a year for Facebook? Without blinking. $250? I'd pay it. Compare with the three grand a year I pay Verizon now for the three cell phones and the Triple Play.* Or the $200 I pay for Netflix.

But without Blogger/Blogspot I'd be toast. I've got 1500 posts up on this bitch, and there's no hint that they'll let me export it to a *.csv or something. There's no way Google could figure out how to load balance the millions of people who might try to extract at peak times. It's just too much of a technical challenge for such a frail company of technical and business bleating morons. Way over Google's head.

*I'd ditch cable if it weren't for the Fox Soccer Channel, truth be told

Around the fire, again

Mary and I were out to dinner a couple of years ago with some people, and a woman began holding forth on how nice it would be if we all lived in villages and grew and ate organic produce and had deep and authentic relationships with one another and so on and so forth. And I've had those reveries before, now and again, but that evening something clicked and I oh so very gently remonstrated her that, were we all to revert to these romantic communal ways, it wouldn't be all that simple.

We derive immeasurable benefits from the massive degree of specialization and division of labor in our economy, and the way technology annihilates space and offers up economies of scale. If we went back to village ways, basic stuff we take for granted like low infant mortality would quickly suffer. Just as importantly, outsiders -- homosexuals, black people, Asians, Mexicans -- could quickly be ostracized. That's how clans work.

In recent weeks, as the stark seriousness of our economic situation has become ever clearer, the neo-communal or nuclear familial idyll has reared its head in a variety of places, with commentators from Tyler Owen and Douglas Coupland on down the pike alluding to the return of simple pleasures, being with family and suffering together by the hearth. Back on Walton's Mountain. We can't let ourselves get caught up in this nonsense.

I don't want to go overboard in my negativity. I think between the PWA and the WPA and the CCC and Woody Guthrie and the rest of it left a positive trace in American culture, which we felt when Pete Seeger and Springsteen channeled Woody a couple of weeks back. I looked up the history of the Klan in the Depression, expecting it would be bad, and in fact the sheet wearing goons weren't that active in the 30s. So maybe America will come together in a positive way in the face of difficulty. But there's a real risk that we won't, that contention for scarce resources will bring out the less good, and we must guard against that by not turning in upon ourselves.

Monday, February 02, 2009


On route 22 -- which near Plainfield was America's first divided highway -- saw two rotting and moribund gas stations, a rarity in Central NJ. Doesn't make sense.

On the platform for the outbound PATH train, there were big heat lamps there in the open air. That shit don't play in today's economy. The Port Authority should not be paying for that.

Dinosaur Jr. "Forget the Swan". Still my guitar hero.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Had a moment free and thought I'd tune in for a momement of the Superbowl. Instead, my set, semi-permanently fixed to the Fox Soccer Channel, found something much much better: Superclassico! The game between Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. This is a real sporting event, not some marketing fest.

Destructive creation

Ripping copper pipes and other useful materials out of new houses has apparently become endemic throughout this great nation of ours, though the process has likely decreased since commodity prices collapsed in the fall, along with everything else.

This is actually all good, as it reduces housing stock by driving up the value of existing homes, or at the very least, creates demand for police services. With commodities prices down, we'll have to rely on shooting galleries and squats to rein in housing supply through destruction. The low cost of energy should encourage the development of hydroponic farming of the proverbial "killah" in unoccupied homes, which would help improve our balance of trade by making it less necessary to import reefer from Columbia etc. So we're headed in the right direction!