Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Site Stats

Some fun statistics on my blog:

I have now made 108 posts.

I have received 7 comments, only one of which was me responding to another commenter.

One of the comments was spam from some motivational speaker no doubt trying to draw my enormous readership to his blog.

One comment was from a Brazilian(fn1) who I must assume was confused or otherwise mistaken in leaving a one-word comment of no particular relevance.

And the rest are from Salty Girl, usually haranguing me when I stop posting for too long. Most of these date to when she was my sole reader.

Nowadays my ad-hoc estimate of my readership is in the 10-12 range on a good day. All friends and family, of course.

Thanks to anyone who reads and Happy New Year!

fn1: The word "Brazilian" reminds me of the joke about Bush being told that two Brazilian soldiers had been killed in Iraq. Bush's face falls, he's silent a moment and then says "That's terrible. How many is a Brazilian again?"

Last bit of hilarity from Caroline...

Finally we get a glimpse of the powerful impact that Caroline has had and that will hope to have with in the Senate:

NC: So your precise role in the Gates grant was what? You came in at the end...
CK: It coincided with the time that I came into the department, and I think it was important to Bill Gates that I was there.
DH: What do you mean? I don’t get it. Just that you were there physically? Or just that you had arrived?
CK: Well I don’t know, you gotta ask him. But I think I, um —
Who knows what her role was? No one. Not her. Maybe Bill Gates. Because there's no way that it being "important" to him that she was there when the last stage of his gift went through was in any way just a throwaway line to some know-nothing scion of an important family at a cocktail party. No, she had an impact, she made a difference. She's not clear on how, exactly, but just ask her friends: they'll tell you she did just as they've told her the same.

Stimulating my curiosity

I've been ignoring as much as I can Obama's upcoming stimulus plan. I just know that the more I learn of it, the more my head will feel like it's going to explode. And I also know that it will be impossible for me to ignore all the unsavory details as the program gets implemented.

But there's a few things that have been puzzling me as I tangentially learn of his plan.

First, just as a general proposition, now that we're poor how is spending money on infrastructure projects that did not seem worthwhile when we thought we were rich a good idea? This seems a bit like losing your job and deciding to start work on the addition to your house that you felt you couldn't afford when you were employed. Sure, the plan is to put an office in there and start making real money but maybe that's just stupid?

Second, isn't construction one of those "jobs Americans won't do"? Wasn't that what we heard a couple of summers ago when we were told that the amnesty was imperative? That any effort to staunch the flow of millions of illegal immigrants would be disastrous for the construction industry? How is giving money to illegal immigrants to send home in remittances going to stimulate our economy?

Third, doesn't construction take massive amounts of steel and concrete and things of that nature? But don't we import most of that dirty stuff from China now? How is paying China to make steel for Mexicans to install in projects that aren't good investments going to help again?

Lastly, why is Obama calling for economic stimulus at all? Yes, I get that he wants the economy to be better, but wasn't he the one telling us that our consumerist ways were unsustainable and insulting to the rest of the world? Well, congratulations, we are no longer consuming nearly as much as were. But somehow that's now bad too? Kind of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't thing?

But prob. I'm just missing something fundamental.

Not with a bang but a whimper...

Humorous article in the WSJ about a Russian professor -- and former KGB analyst -- who's been predicting the collapse of the U.S. in a civil war for a decade now. He thinks it'll happen in 2010.

I think he's dead wrong. Western Civ. is def. in decline and not long of this Earth. And the U.S. is pretty much the last bastion of Western Civ. But I can't see it blowing up in a civil war. Far more likely to slowly fade away, so slowly that each step into the darkness will hardly be noticeable and it'll only be in hindsight that the few left who care enough to think it through will say, "Wow, where did it go?"

Particularly humorous is his idea that Alaska will be rejoined with Russia. I can see the appeal from the Russian standpoint but I can't imagine the Alaskans going without a fight. I'd picture something like Red Dawn fueled by whatever military advantage the part of the U.S. arsenal parked in Alaska would have over the entire Russian army. Which would likely be a considerable advantage: our military technology is light years ahead of just about everybody else's.

Speaking of Bad Decisions...

All this talk of food assistance programs put me in mind of a an article on the struggle of the poor to get enough food that appeared on NPR last summer. The economic problem then was the high gas prices, I'd imagine things are worse now. It stuck in the memory because the family they used to illustrate this struggle to get enough to eat -- a photograph of whom appeared with the piece -- were morbidly obese. Perhaps not the ideal family to use as a set-piece when talking about the hungry in America, though it does provide a nice illustration of the point raised in the article that Salty Girl linked to about the link between food programs and obesity.

As a side note, it seems that in very nearly every article on these types of issues -- the struggle of poverty -- the families used to illustrate the piece have made many conspicuously bad choices. I have to believe that the reporters are generally trying to find the most sympathetic stories -- that is the ones that best show how the problems of poverty are deep and about being unlucky and the rest -- but it's striking how there is always some egregiously bad decision making that appears in the article as well.

For example, the morbidly obese family is stuck in a town some distance from Toledo. There are few to no jobs in that town and without a car there is no way for them to get to work. Tragic. It also mentions that the family's current adult generation was raised middle class. So clearly, this kind of thing could happen to anyone, right? Well, maybe, but the matron of the family is also described as having "never worked" and having "no high school degree". And they talk about the bad luck of how a car accident "17 years ago" left her "depressed and and disabled" and "incapable of getting a job". But she's 40, so the car accident happened when she was 23. I'm sure it was debilitating and awful but why hadn't she finished high school or had any kind of job by the time she was 23? And given that she had no degree and no job, why was she having kids? Perhaps she missed the part of high school where they explain how babies are made...

And I don't mean to just pick on this one family in this one article. The NY Times ran a heart-string-tugging article some weeks ago describing the tough times faced by four families as they go through foreclosure and other economic-crash related problems. The story was written as sympathetically as possible so you had to kind of pick up the scattered details and reconstruct them for yourself to get a good picture of what went wrong for these people but in every case the way they had structured their lives prior to the crash was not going to work. In some of the cases it might have worked if everything had gone perfectly but that's not planning, that's gambling.

The one detail from that article that sticks most clearly in my mind was the story of the family who has one income of $30,000 now. In happier times, they had two incomes totalling about $60,000. And they bought a house which went up in value so they refinanced and took all of the new equity out of the house. The article didn't specify what they did with all of it but did mention that among their belongings in storage was an $8,000 4 piece mahogany and marble bedroom set that they had purchased just after taking the loan.

I make considerably more by myself than this family does as a whole at the best of times. And I don't have a family to support. And I live with someone who by herself makes considerably more than this whole family at the best of times. And we wouldn't dream of spending $8,000 on a bedroom set. Or, for that matter, anything else. If you're raising a family with 4 kids on $60K of dual income, it might be better to stick to Ikea than treating yourself to extravagant bedroom sets with money taken out of your home.

Now, of course, it's their life, if they want to throw away their security on home furnishings, that's their prerogative. But it does somewhat diminish the power of their story as a "tragedy". If you're hit by a bus while carefully crossing the street, that's a tragedy. If you're hit by a bus because you decided to practice your break-dancing on the median of a busy street while blind-folded that's less of a tragedy.

Now, of course, in a society as rich as ours we should have a safety net to prevent the worst of human suffering, even if self-caused. But we do need to be aware that not all human-suffering is inflicted by random chance and to the extent that you alleviate suffering caused by bad-decision making you are inviting more bad decision making.

This is what's known as "moral hazard" in insurance: the danger that if you remove the cost of recklessness you will get more recklessness. It's why there are things like deductibles and co-insurance, to make sure that just because you've got insurance on your car doesn't mean you feel no need to avoid running into things because it's all free to you.

Relatedly, it's also one of the best arguments against all the bailouts we've seen in the financial world this past year. Which is not to say that there weren't compelling arguments for them as well but it is why the government has been trying to work a little pain into the agreements along with all the cash.

Food Stamps Paternalistic? Heck yeah.

A friend asks on her blog if linking nutrition to food-stamps is paternalistic. She only briefly floats the question but based on the article she links she's wondering if making food-stamps more directly limited to purchase of healthy food is paternalistic.

My answer would be that I don't think it's any more paternalistic than food stamps inherently are already. After all, this is a program that fundamentally says, "You think you need more money. And I agree. But I think if I give you money you'll just blow it on stupid stuff. So I'm going to give you money that can only be spent on what I think you should be spending it on." That's about as paternalistic as it gets. I don't think it's any more paternalistic just because you get more specific about what is "okay" for the poor people to do with their handout.

Note that this is not to say that I think food stamp recipients wouldn't just blow their money on stupid stuff if they received plain-old cash. Just to recognize that it's paternalistic regardless.

I'll finish with one quick prediction: any attempt to regulate the diet of people who you feel are so bad at making decisions that you need to restrict the money you give them to food purchases or have them blow it is bound to fail. Once it does, we'll no doubt have an army of social workers ready to explain how that failure was the fault of neither the program nor the people it was intended to help and that with some retooling and a lot better funding these kinds of problems will disappear.

Am I Nostradamus or just a cynic? Too close to call.

Unintentionally Revealing

The exchange about her money is one of the more humorous parts of the Kennedy interview. First there's this:

NC: Have your personal finances been affected by the economic crash?
CK: Um, probably — yes. (Laughter)
NC: Can you give a sense of how badly?
I'm not her accountant, Nick, but I'd say that when you ask if the economic crash has affected someone's finances and they respond "probably" that's an indication that they haven't been, shall we say, overly distressed about the personal repercussions of the state of the economy.(fn1)

Here's her actual response to the "how badly" question:

CK: You know, I think everybody’s — not as badly as a lot of people’s, but obviously everybody’s been hurt by this, and it doesn’t matter where you live. And, I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home. And my husband still has a job. And that’s not true for a lot of people. So I feel very fortunate, and that’s exactly why I would like to help people who are in those circumstances.

Again not being her accountant it's hard to say for sure, but I'd bet that the "not afraid of losing my home" should actually read "not afraid of losing my homes."

fn1: I heard an anecdote about a fellow who had been a billonaire prior to the recent economic unpleasantness but was, perhaps foolishly in retrospect, invested heavily on margin. Long story short, he is now a millionaire -- low tens. Not the poorhouse, to be sure, but still: that's got to sting. I'm going to guess that if you ask him whether he's been affected by the economic crash his answer will be a good bit more specific -- and profane -- than "probably".

Flotsam and Jetsam

There's a bunch of random posts that I had played with and not posted a few days ago that I'm going to be putting up now.

So that's why it might appear that I'm suddenly interested in the same things again and also suddenly v. prolific...

Life imitates Art inspired by Life?

"Where it began... I can't begin to knowin'..."

-- Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond

NC: Could you, for the sake of storytelling, could you tell us a little bit about that moment, like, where you were, what you said to him about your decision, how that played out?
CK: Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something? (Laughter)
... cutting some inane blather from Caroline in response to a question about what she has against women's magazines...
NC: But there was no one moment you can draw on —
CK: I know I wish there was, I’ll think about it.

-- Caroline Kennedy's interview with the NY Times

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sweet Caroline...

Drinking games taking advantage of her annoying verbal tics aside, her interview with the Times is quite hysterical. For example there's this bit:
NC: It just seems like the only — your interest in this seat coincided with the chance to become appointed to it, which is the easy way into the seat, and so it raises questions. If you really want it —

CK: Actually, I think that actually a campaign would be an easier way, because I think it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, and get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work, you know, kind of...
Ah yes. Elections are soooo much easier than appointments. In the course of an election, one never comes under the kind of harsh scrutiny that she has during this appointment process. On the other hand, if elections are so much preferable, one wonders why she has never shown any interest in participating in one? Even, for the most part, as a voter...

Which is not even to point out the absurdity of her claim that she wishes for an election to let people know about her plans. It's easy to see her point: in an election she might have some highly visible way -- like, say, an interview with the NY Times -- in which to lay out her agenda. Pity that in an appointment situation those opportunities never present themselves...


Here's a fun idea for a drinking game: take a drink every time Caroline Kennedy displays the verbal tic "you know" in her NY Times interview.  I bet you won't make it through her response to the second question before you pass out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Your daily dose of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy...

As a matter of fact, capitalist economy is not and cannot be stationary.  Nor is it merely expanding in a steady manner.  It is incessantly being revolutionized from within by new enterprise, i.e., by the intrusion of new commodities or new methods of production or new commercial opportunities into the industrial structure as it exists at any moment.  Any existing structures and all the conditions of doing business are always in a process of change.  Every situation is being upset before it has had time to work itself out.  Economic progress, in capitalist society, means turmoil.
(italics in the original)

And then this bit from later in the same paragraph:
Possibilities of gains to be reaped by producing new things or by producing old things more cheaply are constantly materializing and calling for new investments.  These new products and new methods compete with the old products and old methods not on equal terms but at a decisive advantage that may mean death to the latter.  This is how "progress" comes about in capitalist society.

It might be dangerous to say it this early in the book, but from my (admittedly cursory) knowledge of the work, this is the nut graph.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Reading

So over my little Christmas break, I'm reading Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the seminal economic classic by Joseph Schumpeter.

Now, as everybody no doubt already knows, the thumbnail takeaway of this book is "creative destruction" which is Schumpeter's description of how capitalism progresses: the old and less efficient is swept aside by the new and more efficient.  This can be an unpleasant process for those being swept away but ultimately benefits everyone with a better use of inputs and thus increased prosperity.  (fn1)

At any rate, I figured it would behoove me as an economic dilettante to at least take the measure of those classics that I have not read and decided that Schumpeter was as good a place to start as any.

All of this is by way of saying that I'm on vacation and so posting will be light.  And what little posting there is will most likely be observations of and from Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

In his (unnecessarily long, in retrospect) discussion of Marx, I've found my lines of the day:
The masses have not always felt themselves to be frustrated and exploited.  But the intellectuals that formulated their views for them have always told them that they were, without necessarily meaning by it anything precise.

fn1 One of the earliest examples of this unpleasantness was the luddite uprisings against the new mechanized weaving industry at the very dawn of the industrial revolution.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Music notes

I recently learned from the band Spoon that I have no fear of the underdog and that this is why I will not survive.

Apparently, I also have my cherry bomb.


"So that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth..." - Abraham Lincoln

"So that poorly made cars assembled by overpaid labor to be sold at redundant dealerships shall not perish from the Earth..."(fn1) George W. Bush

A blogger I read had the humorous observation recently that the plan for the Big 3 seems to be that we bail them out so that we can force them to make green vehicles. This is, he points out, prob. the first time in history that the rationale has been "we have to save them so we can destroy them" rather than the other way around.

fn1: Note that I may be paraphrasing his actual remarks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's wrong with "Compassionate Conservatism"?

Oh, just about everything, according to John O'Sullivan in the latest National Review. He's right.(fn1)

Also, Jonah Goldberg has a good discussion of this piece and Michael Gerson's response on The Corner.

fn1: Oh wordplay!

A little bit better, every day...

I noticed this article in the Wash. Post last week about how the killers employed by Mexican drug cartels have been getting much more sophisticated and thought it was interesting. Not only because hired assassins are always going to be kind of inherently interesting, but also for the way it illustrates a universal economic point: people get better through experience.

Even with all kinds of book learnin', the best way to make yourself a more valuable employee is to hold down a job for a while. You'll learn the ins-and-outs of the job and get better at it. And, of course, as you get better at it, you are more valuable and thus, barring some unfortunate problem, better able to command a higher wage.

The fact that this is just as true -- if not more so -- at the bottom end of human capital as at the top end is why minimum wage laws are another one of those classic governmental programs that seem to straightforwardly advance one interest, raising the wages of poor folk, but actually work exactly to the opposite effect.

The goal seems to be unambiguously good: help poor people make more money. And the means couldn't be any more straightforward: force employers to pay them more.

But here's the problem: if you are not capable of producing value to employers that's worth more to them than the minimum wage, you will not be hired. So, right off the bat you're taking the least able members of society and locking them out of the job market entirely. (fn1)

This is bad for the obvious reason of them not having a job but you might think that this is okay in our modern welfare world. After all, if these people are that low on human capital, perhaps it's best that society take care of them through social safety nets and the like.

Ah, but here's the rub. If you can't ever get that first job, get your foot in the door even for what some rich person might find an appalling wage, you never begin the process of bettering yourself through experience. You are thus permanently less well-off not only monetarily but in terms of personal development.

You see folk who get uber-low paying jobs (yes, the minimum wage ones now, but it would be true of sub-minimum wage employment too, were that allowed to function) by and large do not keep those jobs forever. As they learn their job and develop skills, they move up the income ladder. Perhaps not very far but they do move. If you lock them out of the bottom, you lock them out of the growth.

As an aside, this is also why the selling of minimum wage increases is always so economically illiterate. The number of people who have earned minimum wage over some lengthy period is trotted out and talk about how awful it is that these folk have gone so long (since the last minimum wage hike) without a raise is tossed around. But this is wrong. They are not the same people, most people move on from minimum wage quite quickly and v. few stay at it forever.(fn2)

And that's before considering any shrinkage in the minimum wage workforce that happens as employers trim their employees to avoid paying folk who are not worth the new wage.

Coincidentally, as I was noodling this post I happened across this recent economics paper showing that minimum wage laws do, in fact, have all of these bad effects:
Based on their comprehensive reading of the evidence, Neumark and Wascher argue that minimum wages do not achieve the main goals set forth by their supporters. They reduce employment opportunities for less-skilled workers and tend to reduce their earnings; they are not an effective means of reducing poverty; and they appear to have adverse longer-term effects on wages and earnings, in part by reducing the acquisition of human capital. The authors argue that policymakers should instead look for other tools to raise the wages of low-skill workers and to provide poor families with an acceptable standard of living.
fn1: Interestingly, this lock-out was considered a feature not a bug of minimum wage laws when they were first suggested in the U.S. The people doing the suggesting back then were concerned about the huge migration of unskilled black labor from the South to the North. So they conceived of minimum wage laws as a way of locking those black folks out of the labor market. Ah progressivism. One wonders if the folk who like to use it as a label now-a-days would be as comfortable with it if they actually took the time to learn its history. But that's just crazy-talk, progressives are all about the future and the benighted past has nothing to teach us, right?

fn2: Note that this is a problem with reporting on "quintile" or other strata of earnings more generally. They tend to look at the distribution of income among quintiles in one year and compare it to another year without acknowledging that you are not talking about the same people in both years. For example, young people make less money, on average, than old people. Thus, over a lifetime, people tend to move from lower quintiles into higher quintiles. Obv. there is movement the other way as well, as people retire or scale back their workload or what-not. And, of course, there are lots of other things going on. But when you read a news story about how the income of the lowest quintile hasn't increased in 30 years or whatever, do take a moment to realize that the seemingly obvious conclusion: "OMG! 20% of people have been living on the same income for 30 years!" is flat wrong.

Will the last one left please buy some expensive jeans before you turn out the light...

Sad article in the Wash. Post today about a new magazine in Japan trying to appeal to the "elder boys" to get them to spend money.

Apparently when your demographics fall off a cliff, so does your consumer spending. Who knew?

In the tradition of Japan being the home of all things weird, the magazine is called "OilyBoy".

The good news, I suppose, is that this shouldn't be a problem for too terribly long. After 100 years or so there simply won't be enough Japanese folk left to market magazines to or worry about what their economy is like.

Note to the rest of the civilized world: you might want to take notes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keep trying Tom...

Tom Cruise back on the Today show tries his darndest to be sane:

Jocking my style.

No doubt noticing the explosive growth in my readership numbers, the NY Times Freakonomics blog has decided to crib my prostitution-economics nexus with a post discussing why prostitution is not a Giffen good.

Economics and prostitution, you saw it here first.

The discussion of Giffen goods in the post is quite good, though fairly useless as there has only ever been one found in the wild: rice among desperately poor peasants in China.

The two effects that work together to create a Giffen Good, the substitution effect and the income effect, are very useful indeed, however.

I can still remember the first time I used the income effect to explain an observed behavior. It was way back in college when Miller Lite was in the middle of a particularly fantastic run of advertising. I read an article in the Journal about how Miller was upset because despite this critically acclaimed and v. popular advertising push their product was not selling any better.

Of course, this was during the late 90's tech boom. My conjecture was that Miller Lite is an inferior product(fn1), that is people would prefer to drink some better beer if they can afford it. And in a boom everybody feels like they can afford it so Miller sales stall. And no amount of advertising was likely to change that.

fn1: I feel I should note that I do not personally view Miller Lite as all that inferior in the everyday sense. I prefer it to Bud Light or Coors Light. That said, they are all inferior in that I tend to buy nicer beers. But for certain uses, they are the best. Sports watching, for example, goes well with light beer, not so much with Guinness or Bass.

Meet the new boss...

Got a couple of posts in the pipeline, so hopefully this week won't be as barren as past weeks around here.

For now, though, perhaps a quick prediction.

Call me the worst sort of cynic but I'm gonna bet that this new South African party that has split from the reigning ANC will soon be just as mired in corruption as the old party. Prob. even before they manage to amass any kind of actual power.

As an aside, the article is a good example of at least one reason why newspapers are a dying industry. After the first 10 paragraphs describe the generalities of the split from the ANC and the speeches and chants at their first public meeting, the second to last paragraph almost gets interesting:
Zuma defeated Mbeki in a bitter race for the party leadership last year and is likely to be the country's next president, with general elections expected early next year. Lekota has questioned whether Zuma is fit to be president of the country and accuses Zuma, who would be South Africa's first Zulu president, of fanning tribal tension.

Wow! A bitter leadership race? Allegations he's not fit to be president? Sounds intriguing... but wait, just "fanning tribal tension"? That seems like kind of a let down.

And then this revelation in the very last paragraph of the article:

Zuma has been tarnished by corruption allegations; corruption charges were dropped on procedural grounds but could be revived. He also was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

So the guy leading the party they're splitting off from was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend? Now that's a hook you could hang a "new party splits off" story on, don't you think?

Nah, better to stick it in a brief mention in the very last sentence of the article. Wouldn't want anybody to think we were slopping around in the gutter or, you know, trying to entice readers with interesting pieces about current events or anything...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Unspoken Transgressions

So about a month or so ago when I was down home-ways for T-giving, I went over to a good friend's house for some traditional night-before-Thanksgiving, homemade pizza. The food was delicious, the company was wonderful, a great time was had by all.

While there, the guests had a fascinating discussion on sharing a bathroom with your superiors at the office: the awkwardness, the oddity, etc.

I should note here that I did not introduce this topic of conversation and am somewhat offended that you would leap to that conclusion. Shame on you.

That said, I did relay an awkward experience of my own. Please feel free to stop reading if you're not interested in proper urinal etiquette.

The mens room in my office features six urinals arranged in a row as such:


Now, as any man will tell you, there is a correct order to the use of these urinals. The first fellow should take one end, the second the other, the third one of the middle ones and -- since there are an even number -- the fourth fellow might be better off using a stall or perhaps a sink rather than sidle up right next to someone who's already there. (fn1)

A few days before thanksgiving I happened to enter the bathroom immediately behind a coworker. And there was already one man at the urinals.

The first problem was that the current... occupant (I guess?) had already committed a small violation of etiquette, he had not gone to one end but rather was one urinal in from the end (fn2):

o o o o 1 o

(I'm using "o" to indicate empty as the Blogger software seems to not like spaces used as spacing.)

But this can be regarded as a strip of 5 urinals and there are two fellows entering, so easy solution, right:

2 o 3 o 1 o

This is what any sane person would do: go to the end, esp. realizing that the person who just walked through the door behind you is headed for the urinals as well.

But no.

This guy, in what was the most appalling disregard for the unspoken rules of life I think I have ever witnessed, instead went for the urinal one in from the other end:

o 2 o o 1 o

Yeah. So now I was left in the unenviable position of having to choose one of the fellows to buddy up with or else, perhaps, wave off and hit a stall or pretend to wash my hands or something.

But you know what? This guy, number 2 in our example, had set me up for this. And so I figured: screw him. I went right next to him. I was tempted to have bad aim and leave him with a wet leg but decided not to take it that far this time:

o 2 3 o 1 o

So that was then. It was a bizarre break with what I would have expected were the accepted norms in, at the very least, American mens room behaviour but there it is.

So today I happen to be headed into the bathroom to wash my hands (for real, actually, it was lunch time and I like to eat with clean hands) and a coworker walks in behind me and hits the completely unoccupied urinals. And chooses as such:

o o 1 o o o

What the hell? Am I living in bizarro world? Is this guy some kind of alpha-A-hole (he doesn't seem the type and, really, most actuaries don't...) who is expressing his dominance by trying to take over the whole "watering hole" (so to speak...)?

Unfortunately my ability to remember my younger male coworker's names and faces is such that I don't know if this was the same jackass from my previous encounter but it could be. Either way, it's unacceptable.

fn1: These rules obv. do not apply in crowding situations such as at a ballgame or other heavily attended event. These are for your ordinary bathroom uses, which is to say largely empty ones.

fn2: At the dinner-party discussion of these events the point was raised that the fellow who was in there first might have had good reason for choosing his spot based on the use of the other urinals when he entered. I am willing to acknowledge that it is not impossible but find it highly unlikely. The only acceptable scenario would be every single other urinal was taken and that was almost certainly not the case.


Bill Ayers in the NY Times: I'm not a terrorist and never hurt or wanted to hurt anyone.

Charles Lane (fn1) in the Washington Post: you def. did want to hurt people and didn't only through a combination of luck and incompetence. Stop lying.

fn1: Charles Lane was the editor of the New Republic when the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal broke. He's the guy who fired Glass. He was played by Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass, the movie about the story. I have a weird love of that movie and have watched it an unhealthy number of times.(fn2)

fn2: I think my love of that movie might come from the writing style. It was written by H.G. Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights the book and movie and creator of the tv show.(fn3) The first season of Friday Night Lights was among the best television ever. The second season was still v. solid. The third season I've not seen as it's been shown "exclusively" on some channel only available on satellite tv. And that sucks. Though if the show is getting the money it needs to survive at all through that kind of deal, I guess that's better than the alternative. The show's been one of those "critical favorites that have trouble finding an audience" throughout its run.

fn3: After having developed something of an obsession with the tv show back in season one, I read the book and watched the movie as well. They are both also v. good.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's stuff like this that makes people like me

Call me a wild-eyed libertarian but stories like this one rankle.

In a nutshell, a church's Christmas tree lot was shut down because it violated the Montgomery County law that prohibits sales of Christmas trees prior to Dec. 5.

You can count me in the group who is appalled at how early the commercial sector starts milking the holiday season each year but, honestly, a law?

Here's the best part: "officials could not determine why the law was enacted or even when, only that it was sometime in the late 1960s or early '70s".

Fantastic. Nobody knows why it's a law or even how long it's been a law.

This is why I sometimes think it would be much better if all laws had expiration dates and had to be renewed or cease being laws. You see, legislatures have to justify their existence, same as everybody else. They justify it by passing lots of laws. And those laws stack up. Until nobody knows or even can know them all. And that's when the law can become arbitrary in ways that are antithetical to the rule of law.

And that's not smiles times.

If they all had expiration dates then legislatures could busy themselves by re-authorizing the necessary ones and they wouldn't have to create busy work for themselves by crafting laws to deal with silly things like Christmas tree sales times.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The sounds of the silence...

Busy week at work plus no internet access at home (coming Sat.) equals no posting on the ol' blog. Nothing to be done about that.

So, until I can get back in the swing of things, here's an article I stumbled across and enjoyed.

It's about Jill Price who has a perfect memory. Literally. She remembers every detail of every day since she was fifteen and many of the days before that. It's not all wine and roses:

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. "I don't look back at the past with any distance. It's more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It's like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there's no stop button."

This put me in mind of the v. interesting book The Mind of a Mnemonist by A.R. Luria that I read a while back. It was one of that all-too-rare genre of medical case study written for a wide audience (Oliver Sacks of Awakenings fame is prob. the most well-known and prolific of the genre.) It was about a man who, like Jill Price, never forgot.

In the Mnemonist book the fellow had synaesthesia, the condition where your senses are not distinct from each other: sounds were associated with colors, tastes and smells for him. Apparently many people with phenomenal memories have varying degrees of the condition.

The Mnemonist fashioned a fairly successful career for himself as a memory showman. He would entertain audiences by having them recite random words or sounds or whatnot to any length and then he would rattle them back. Of course, as he never forgot, he could rattle them off for any of his shows no matter how many years before. The book ended, as I recall, unhappily as the fellow eventually went somewhat insane because he could no longer distinguish things that had just happened from things that had happened years before.

And, it seems from the article, much the same thing might be happening to Ms. Price, though she apparently does not possess the Mnemonist's ability to remember arbitrary strings of words.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

And another goes down?

To the extent that misery loves company (fn1), this speculation from a blogger at Portfolio (fn2) that Berkshire Hathaway could potentially face a ratings downgrade in sort of a cascade of self-fulfilling prophecies is excellent news for AIG. (fn3)

There's this interesting bit at the end:
On the other hand, I'm not comfortable with any company -- not even Berkshire Hathaway -- having a business model which requires a triple-A rating. Triple-A ratings should be the consequence of a company's profitability, not a cause of it. If Berkshire lost its triple-A and started playing on a level playing field with everybody else, that might be more sustainable, in the long term, than an attempt to shore up the triple-A at all costs. Certainly there's something very weird going on when CDSs are at 450bp and the credit is still triple-A: one or the other has to be wrong.

The last line is indisputably true: if two indicators are giving you radically different information, one of them is wrong. I could see arguments being made for either (briefly: irrationality in the market for CDS's mean they're wrong verses slowness of updates by the ratings agencies mean that they haven't reflected the most up-to-date information thus they're wrong).

But his overall point about not trusting business plans that rely on a AAA rating seems less obvious to me. I'm not sure it's wrong but it seems suspect. I'd have to think it through. Sadly, I don't have time to do that just now. But someday, someday...

(fn1) Not actually all that great an extent, in my experience. Though that could just be me, I'm not much of a people person at the best of times.

(fn2) Portfolio magazine, which I was only very dimly aware of just a couple of months ago, has crossed my radar many times recently. First, I saw their notice that they were cutting back and thought, "there's another magazine I don't read and never will". But then a friend called my attention to Michael Lewis's excellent piece on the Great Collapse, mere days after that I ran across this older but interesting piece on the troubles facing the traditionally technologically savvy and recession proof(ish) porn industry, and now this fun-filled guess at a potential calamity falling on Berkshire. They're on a roll!

(fn3) As you'll recall from previous posts (if, that is, you like long, rambling discourses...) it was a ratings downgrade that felled AIG.

A Winner!

Sorry for the light posting, I've been up to my eyeballs with work and packing and the like.

But I did want to call attention to the fact that today's 3:00 Dive left the Dow closed below 8,000 for the first time in five years.

Whoever had "Nov. 19" in the "when will the Dow close below 8,000" pool, you can collect your winnings from the man selling pencils on the corner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stupid is as stupid does?

I got my lunch today, as I often do, from Lenny's, an NYC chain of sandwich shops. They make your basic made-to-order sandwiches and do a good job. I like Lenny's.

The one downtown, which is to say the one I frequent when at work, is a mob-scene during the lunch rush, from about 11:30 to 1:30, as are most food places around here. The ones that are not mobbed are not long for this world.

As most of the successful places have, Lenny's has got their ordering system down to something of a science to deal with the crush. You order at one place, take your slip, grab your drink, chips, fruit salad or whatever, and head to the register to pay. The cashier gives you the number to listen for when your sandwich is ready and then you stand milling around with the others waiting for your number and, if you're like me, grumbling when numbers after yours get called before you.

Today I got wrapped up in some stuff and didn't actually head over until about 2:00. When I hit Lenny's it was empty, though the full lunch staff was still working, so you had two cashiers and a multitude of sandwich makers. Having established a routine, of course, they stick to it, so I went through the usual steps: ordered, got slip, grabbed lemonade and chips, paid, got number.

But, again, I was the only customer in the place. Just me and the staff.

So when my sandwich was ready and I was over perusing the selection of ready-made pastas thinking they might be good for a future lunch do you think the lady calling out the number took note that there was only one person in the place?

Of course not.

No, she called it and then paused for approximately 3 seconds -- and did not use those 3 seconds to realize there was not a crowd in front of her, but rather an empty store with one person over by the refrigerated section -- and then called it again and then, pausing for 3 seconds again, read the order. As if someone might have forgotten their number but would recognize their order.

As it happens I had not forgotten my number but it took me longer than 6 seconds to traverse the store. I must say, though, that the level of lack of awareness was somewhat startling.

I think of these kinds of encounters when people make the argument that we need to get dramatically higher percentages of our population through higher education. That this would somehow benefit our economy or our population.

This lady would not benefit in the slightest from college, though I am sure she would enjoy the parties. And she is not alone. In point of fact, I'd say we're already a good bit past the point of diminishing returns in terms of who goes through higher education today. Many of today's "students" would benefit far more from an apprenticeship or other on-the-job training. They have no capacity or use for abstract thought and forcing it on them is much like teaching a pig to dance: ultimately futile and annoying to the pig.

The way people fall into this thinking is, I believe, a classic sort of false logic. They see that people who graduate from college are more productive than people who don't and then make the inference that college must have made the difference. But this is selection bias: smart people are more productive and more likely to go to college, but they would be smart and thus more productive even without the input of college.

There's also a bit of selection bias in that the kind of people who think about these kinds of issues are smart themselves. Smart people tend to cluster, so odds are most of their friends and acquaintances are likewise smart. So, unless they are particularly observant (as is your humble blogger), they have limited encounters with people who would not benefit from college. Combining that with the noble impulse to believe, contrary to all evidence, that everyone is roughly equally capable, you have people who almost literally cannot conceive of stupid people. They just zone them out.

Of course, if there were no stupid people then more college would be great. But that is not reality.

Larry Sechrest, an economist who died recently, wrote a fun little essay on the subject called "A Strange Little Town in Texas". He made his home in a little college in rural Texas where he believe the entire college -- professors, students and all -- functioned roughly at the level of a decent high-school.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Not now, Mr. Obama, I'm concentrating on walking..."

I've noticed this tendency before but isn't it striking that when Bush is shown in a candid moment with other world leaders it very nearly always looks like a not-so-bright schoolboy getting a lecture?

I recall a great one of Gordon Brown just after he became Prime Minister in which he appeared to be using his fingers to show Bush how many ten was.

I'm not a psychopath, I just don't care...

Interesting article in the New Yorker on psychopaths.

Psychopaths are scary but the article does raise the interesting point that at least part of the reason it's difficult to come up with a solid definition of psychopathy is that pretty much everyone is capable of displaying psychopathic traits at one time or another. Who among us has never shaded the truth to get their way? Who among us can honestly say they always take full account of others? Indeed, the author has the following exchange with the researcher he is interviewing:

As I sped along Wolf Road, a traffic light ahead turned yellow. I momentarily thought about flooring it, and probably would have, if not for my passenger; instead, I slowed down and stopped. But the car on my left went flying by, through what was now a red light.
“Wow, look at that,” Hare said. “Now, that man might be a psychopath. That was psychopathic behavior, certainly—to put others in the intersection in danger in order to realize your own goals.”
The difference is one of degree: your extreme psychopath never cares and is capable of going to lengths that the normal person never would. (fn1)

This quote on the first page put in me in mind of the difficulties in teasing out genetic vs. environmental factors in human development:
"Considerable evidence, including several large-scale studies of twins, points toward a genetic component. Yet psychopaths are more likely to come from neglectful families than from loving, nurturing ones."
Of course, this is just what we might expect to see even if psychopathy was entirely genetic: psychopaths would have psychopathic children. Because psychopaths lack normal emotional responses, the homes they create in which to raise those children would likely be neglectful. They would be very unlikely to be "loving" since psychopaths are largely incapable of love.

This difficulty is why twin studies are the gold-standard for genetic vs. environment determinations. Of course, twins being somewhat rare, assembling large groups of them to participate in whatever nature vs. nurture study you've concocted can be difficult (read: expensive), thus the debate rages on. The rapid advance in genetics may soon (fn2) start to end the nature vs. nurture debate in a variety of fields but then again it may not.

(fn1) Note that I don't think running a yellow is beyond the pale, but then I've not spent years analyzing psychopaths. That's got to do bad things to your sense of proportion and normalcy. One of the dangers sited by a researcher is being sucked in by a psychopathic research subject's charisma and heading towards the psychopathic side yourself. I'd say that this researcher is displaying the opposite tendency: he's so attuned to and disturbed by psychopathy that he overcompensates and rates ordinary behavior as far more anti-social than it actually is.

(fn2) Where "soon" is defined as within the next couple of decades.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wasted Opportunity

One real shame about Obama's win last night is that it ruins the punch of this fun fact: on election day 2032 Barack Obama will be slightly younger than John McCain is today.



Congratulations to President-elect Obama.  He waged a good campaign and deserves his victory.

And it is undeniably historic that Americans have elected our first black president.  I do wish it were someone slightly less a man of the left, though.

I sincerely hope that he is a successful president and that his policies are not the unmitigated disaster I fear they will be.

I have the distinct feeling that I will have lots of opportunity to write about misguided, counterproductive government policies over the next few years.  But then, I was going to have that opportunity no matter who won last night.  It's the nature of the beast.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The primary reason I need another room...

From the New Yorker.


Been a busy week. So light posting, sorry.

Here's a quick fun fact for today:
If When Barack Obama finishes serving out his first term as president it will be the longest period of time that he has ever held one job without seeking a higher office.

That is, unless he figures out some higher office to go for. Most people would hold that President of the United States is about as high as offices get but maybe we could come up with a new one for him. Supreme Leader of the Americas? President of the World? Savior of Mankind?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Zombies Beware

Study shows that teens who watch shows with sex in them are more likely to be involved in teen pregnancy.

If this finding is generalizable, then, given the number of zombies I killed on my tv set this weekend, I would have to advise any undead creatures that may be contemplating hanging around me to make other plans.

Friday, October 31, 2008

You're the man now dog!

America's craziest octogenarian senator is back making history.(fn1)

This time he's insisting that he "hasn't been convicted of anything" because, despite the jury voting to convict him on seven counts of corruption, he isn't technically convicted until the judge enters final sentence. That's... wow. Just... wow.

Even better he calls the guilty verdict a "temporary situation."(fn2) You know what else is a temporary situation? Your being a member of the Senate, Senator. How can I be so sure? Because the leader of your party's senate delegation has said there is a 100% chance the Senate will vote to expel you if you get re-elected. Just to be clear, that's the captain of your team telling you to screw off.

But man, what I wouldn't give to have one of the t-shirts his supporters printed up to greet him upon his return to Alaska: "F**k the Feds, Vote for Ted!" Awesome.(fn3)

(fn1) It is perhaps indicative of a general decline in our political system that there are actually enough crazy octogenarian senators that this is a contest. You might not think it's a contest but then you didn't spend a month one summer sitting on the floor of the Senate listening to Senator Byrd (D. - Crazy) give about a 20 part lecture on ancient Roman battles and politics. (fn4) Not, keep in mind, because it related to any pending business of the senate in particular but just because you are allowed to talk about whatever you want during "Morning Business" in the Senate and the man loves his antiquity. Possibly because he was there.

(fn2) How can one let the phrase "temporary situation" slide by without reference to the classic Parliament song about DC "Chocolate City" in which appears the line "they still call it the White House but that's a temporary situation C.C."? One cannot.

(fn3) Awesome as this shirt is, it must be considered only the second most awesome political shirt I've ever seen. Number one? That would be the shirt sported by the young lad sitting opposite my girl and me as we journeyed down to DC by train one St. Patrick's day. The shirt was green and had "I (shamrock) Bob" on it. Apparently it was the St. P's day wear for some congressional hopeful named Bob.

(fn4) Complete with elaborate visual aids that had been printed up. Your tax dollars at work. Not that this was even close to the most extravagant waste of tax dollars ever perpetrated by the esteemed Sen. Byrd. But still.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Almost 3:00! Can't wait to find out which way those crazy, crazy traders are going to jump today!

Here's Mr. Tom Petty giving a voice to current market conditions.

Music soothes...

Recently I've been listening to two albums almost exclusively.

One is the debut from Vampire Weekend, a band of Columbia grads.

They've apparently been described as "the whitest band" by Stuff White People Like author Christian Lander as well as "trust-fund frat rock" by other musicians.

This is probably true. It is difficult to imagine over-estimating the snobby eliteness of a band with songs named for obscure punctuation terminology (the excellent "Oxford Comma"), bizarre architectural details (the also excellent "Mansard Roof") or that uses African pop-music influences to construct a song about WASPY summertime activities (the very excellent "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa").

They've also got a song called "M79" about taking the crosstown bus to meet up with your lady. I've been lucky to always date within my side of the city but being a man-of-the-people, I've taken various crosstown buses -- including the M79 -- many, many times. (fn1)

The songs "A-Punk" and "Campus" are also very good.

The other album I've been listening to, though perhaps somewhat less than Vampire Weekend, is "Under the Blacklight" by Rilo Kiley.

Rilo Kiley is an LA band whose lead singer, Jenny Lewis, was the female lead in the childhood advertising classic The Wizard.

My favorite songs on the Rilo Kiley album are "The Moneymaker" (fn2), the jaunty "Smoke Detector"(fn3), and "15". (fn4)

The songs "Close Call" and "Breakin' Up" are also pretty decent, though you kind of have to be in the mood for them. (fn5)

Both of these albums are many months old, of course, since I am now middle-aged and thus hopelessly behind the times. Such is life.

(fn1) Note that bus-taking is not Stuff White People Like, as evidenced by a friend of mine who is the George Wallace of anti-bus-bigotry and who gets upset when I reference stuff we've talked about without referencing his name. So: WFA. There.

(fn2) The video for which features real, live pornstars! Just to keep the blog's prostitution vibe going...

(fn3) A song that sounds like a slightly dirtied-up early 60's dance tune.

(fn4) The subject matter of which is fairly wrong. And by "fairly", I mean "very". Especially considering that it was penned by a female former child-star.

(fn5) But then again, I suppose that's kind of true for all music, to some degree. Does the song exist that you appreciate hearing regardless of current mental state? I would posit that it does not. There are many songs which have tremendous power to alter mental state, but I would think that even those require certain baseline mental states to be effective. That is, you're not going to go to pieces for "Danny Boy" if you're in the middle of a murderous rage. (fn6)

(fn6) Or ever, if you're me, as I use that song mostly to humorously jibe my friend Danny. (fn7)

(fn7) Wow, I've really kind of gone nuts with the footnotes this time out, huh? Perhaps I'll join a group.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Guns for Criminals Program

Caught a story on NY1 last night about the expansion to Manhattan of a gun buyback program that has apparently been running in Brooklyn for a little while.

I'd just like to point out that gun buyback programs are indisputably stupid. They are a classic example of having good intentions and designing a government program that seems to straightforwardly advance those intentions but actually works precisely to undermine them.

When you buy guns you are enlarging the demand for guns. This increases the value of guns. This will increase the amount of guns supplied. Period.

Imagine it for any other non-gun thing and you will immediately see that it's true. In this excellent post an economist makes exactly this point using sneakers as the example. If the government decided to buy back sneakers, would we expect to see fewer people wearing sneakers afterwards? Or would we expect people to take the chance to sell their old, crappy sneakers and use the money to buy new, nice sneakers?

Why would we expect the same program targeting guns to have any different result?

The best part is that the success of this lunacy is judged based on how many guns they manage to buy. Awesome. You are tallying up the number of people who like to buy guns to whom you have given money to upgrade their gun. Well done.


I think I was at this same wedding... (fn1)
(fn1) Fun Fact about me that you might not know: I love advice columns. Love 'em. I only have two that I read regularly now but that has gone as high as five at various points when I find ones I like.

Line of the Day

George Will today:
The almost erotic pleasure of spending money that others have earned and saved is one reason people put up with the tiresome aspects of political life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One, two, three o'clock... three o'clock rock?

So the Dow took a nosedive right at 3:00 again today. There seems to be a definite pattern of enormous volatility -- usually a price drop -- popping up right at 3:00.

I have no idea what's driving that, just that it's weird.

In other, happy news, I promise to have some more posts soon. I realize I've been light lately.

What can I say, the realization that my blog's readership is up 300% has left me with a bit of performance anxiety...

That said, I've got at least one longish, serious-ish post I'm noodling. And when I get some time to read the NY Times you just know there'll be something to kvetch about. It's the nature of the beast.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nischt, nischt, nischt...

Did you know Amy Winehouse is Jewish? Neither did I. In celebration of that fun fact, here is a middle-aged man performing "Rehab" in Yiddish.


Taking a stance for a friend

You know things are grim when Larry Craig shows up to lend moral support during your corruption trial.

Oh Sen. Stevens, you old coot. Remember when you threatened to quit Congress if the senate took away your $400 million bridge for 50 people? Or the time you called the internet a "series of tubes"?

We're gonna miss you, you lovable ol' curmudgeon, you! (fn1)

(fn1) Fun fact: The first summer that I was a Senate Page I got coffee for Sen. Stevens. I remember it well because it should have taken about 2 minutes but the coffee corner in the Minority Leader's office (This would have been Senator Dole's -- Bob Dole, that is -- office) was out of cups. So I then had to track down some cups which involved a lengthy search through the basement of the capitol.(fn2) By the time I had tracked down some cups and gotten a fresh batch of coffee made the whole thing had taken like 20 minutes or more. I was worried I was going to get chewed out when I finally showed up with the coffee but he had totally forgotten he even asked for it. Someday maybe I'll tell you about the time Strom Thurmond took me to the Senate dining room for ice cream and gave me a long talk about the many positive qualities of South Carolinian peanuts.(fn3)

(fn2) The basement of the capital is a strange and wonderful place. There are tunnels that go practically everywhere. And by everywhere I really, honestly mean everywhere. It would surprise me not at all if some of them led to different continents or time periods a la the weirder reaches of the Dharma Initiative in Lost.

(fn3) Jesse Helms, by contrast, was convinced that there was no better peanut to be found than that of North Carolina. He didn't give me ice cream, though, so I'm a South Carolina peanut man to this day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'll tumble for ya... I'll tumble for ya...

So the Dow is down again today, nearly 8%.

We are living in utter chaos. Up 11% Monday, steady Tues, down 8% Wed. Madness.

What I'm wondering now is how long it takes until this fades into the background and is no longer panic inducing?

I'm paying, perhaps, particular attention, over and above my usual, due to the limbo my various housing situations are in. (fn1) So maybe the dread pit in my stomach that has lived there almost continuously for the last couple of months is just my own unique cross to bear. But I think not.

On the other hand, if there's anything I feel certain of about Human Nature it is humanity's nearly inexhaustible capacity to become used to anything. So now I'm wondering how long it is until chaotic markets and an impending economic collapse just becomes "the way it is" and is no more bother than any other ongoing tragedy of our world.

Honestly, if it goes like this much longer, a collapse will be a relief if only as an end to the anticipation.

(fn1) It's a long, long story. Suffice to say we're now moving on a rental as negotiations seem to have reached the end on the place we couldn't buy. "What negotiations?", you might be asking if you'd heard about our board rejection. That, dear friends, is why it's a long, long story. But for now, at least, I theoretically am moving on two fronts. And the market is tumbling. (fn2) And my stomach is not loving life.

(fn2) The word "tumble" always puts me in mind of the Boy George song "I'll tumble for you". Good song.


Alcohol shrinks your brain.

No proven link to cognitive decline, though, so I'm good.

The post suggests limiting yourself to one glass of alcohol a day for women, two for men. I'm going to assume those are averages and stick to having my 14 per week during a few hours on Sat. night.

CBS reads my blog... or my mind...

So I finished up watching last week's How I Met Your Mother on the web this morning and the ad selection this time around was much better. Rather than a 50-something selling me Viagra they had the hilarious set of ads of Neil Patrick Harris using his "former fake doctor" bona fides to sell me "prescription strength Old Spice -- without a prescription."

Using ads targeted to the same demographic as the show during which they air? Featuring the actor who performs the breakout character of the show? Much better.

I love those ads.

The episode, btw, was one of the best ever. And that's saying something.

"See you guys later, I've got to take a huge New Jersey."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I'm not that old, I swear...

So this morning I finally got around to watching last week's How I Met Your Mother. So far, it is hysterical. It's a whole episode about the rank prejudice that young New Yorkers have against New Jersey. Many of the jokes I and my friends have in fact made ourselves. Genius.

But here's the odd thing. I'm watching it on CBS's website, since I had a scheduling conflict and couldn't DVR it. On the website you get fewer ads but you can't skip them. So what was the ad? Viagra.

A show about 20-30 somethings that is designed to most appeal to 20-30 somethings serves up an ad for erectile dysfunction.

I remember the first time I saw a beer ad with a song I had actually bought. I realized that I had hit the age (not 21, btw) at which beer companies felt it was worth paying attention to what I like. But am I really at the age when ad companies feel I might be interested in Viagra?

I'd note that the guy in the ad was in his 50's at least. I'd bet good money that the over 50 audience for How I Met Your Mother could fit comfortably in my apartment. And the over 50 web audience could fit comfortably in my refrigerator. Which is not a full-size fridge.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ah city life... (updated)

So this morning at about 4:30 my next door neighbor (the apparent prostitute) had a knock-down, drag-out fight with her boyfriend. I'm talking screamed obscenities, thrown stuff, slammed doors, the works.

For like an hour. Then all was quiet for an hour or so and then the fight resumed with all of its original intensity and ended when she stormed out. She came back half an hour or so later banging on the door demanding her phone.

From what I could gather, the fight was about him cheating on her. Why a prostitute would be upset by her boyfriend cheating on her I do not know.(See update below...) I'd also love to know what the intermission in the fight was all about.

Regardless, living next door to people who are regularly up and active during the 4 am. hour during the week is growing very tiresome. Literally.

Happily, we're gone by the end of Nov. come hell or high water. Started looking at rentals yesterday. Saw some possibilities.

Update: So after conversing with my girl and comparing notes, we've decided that the girl who was arguing with her boyfriend was not, in fact, the prostitute. Rather, the boyfriend is apparently holed up at the prostitute's place and this girl found him there and was understandably upset about it. This explains her repeated screams of "what are you even doing here!?!?!?" as well as why she would not have access to the keys to retrieve her phone.

Ah, prostitutes.

What is it with me and prostitutes lately?

So my weekend was slightly weird.

It opened nicely. A friend recently competed on Jeopardy and the show aired Friday night. So a number of us gathered at some friends' house in Brooklyn to watch. He won big, we were all very happy for him.

Then we played poker in the basement (lowest-level, whatever, it's an apt., though a big one). I won. Yay me.

Heading home having had, perhaps, a beer or two too many (let's be honest: perhaps 8 or 10 too many.) I dozed off slightly and missed the transfer from the F to the 6 line to head home. No worries, though, as the F intersects with the E a stop or two later and the E actually goes even closer to my place.

At the E transfer station I missed an E by literal inches and then 10 minutes later it was a C train that trundled through. The C does not head over to the East side. But it was late, I was drunk, so I did what I sometimes do and just took it up to 50th st. on the West side and walked across.

And during my walk, I was propositioned by a prostitute. A huge white SUV ahead of me rolled its window down as I neared and the blonde girl driving leaned over and asked me where I was headed.


"Where's home?"


"Want some company on your way home?"

(Light turns on in my head as I figure out what this is... I was drunk...)
"Oh! No." (Walks purposefully away.)

50th or 51st around Madison. 12:30 at night. When relating this tale to friends, I've heard of similar experiences. Guess they want to tap the i-banker trade but don't want to risk actual streetwalking.

The next day I had a weird conversation (fn1) with my real estate attorney but that's perhaps best saved for another time.

fn1 Non-prostitute related except for the slight overlap of my next-door neighbor being a prostitute. But that fun fact has never actually come up in conversations with my real estate attorney.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

U.S. as banana republic...

Kind of hard to argue with, lately...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Come with me if you want to live...

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" has been a pleasant surprise. Here was a show that I felt sure would suck based on the very vague initial promotional spots. I would probably have never even tried it except that Fox cleverly held back the strike-shortened first season to air in the doldrums of the strike when there was literally no new scripted television on air at all.

With nothing to watch, I gave it a shot and found it was actually pretty good. I mean, here's a show that seems to be an obvious cash-in on a franchise that was looking pretty tired after the last movie. In addition, it features cast members from such notable dramatic successes as "Beverly Hills 90210" (fn1), "Judging Amy"(fn2) and "John from Cincinnati".(fn3)

To say I had low expectations would be overstating things quite a bit: I had less than no expectations. But the show does some pretty interesting things with what is, when used right, a pretty snappy premise.

At any rate, it was my pleasant surprise of the season. I actually had pretty high expectations coming into this season and thus far it has met them.

The only serious issue I'm facing is that I now have 3 overlapping shows that I enjoy on Mondays. This one, "Chuck" and "How I Met Your Mother".

I haven't yet watched the premiere of "Chuck" but I enjoyed last season so I'm hoping it's still good. "How I Met Your Mother" is one of the funniest shows ever and if you're not watching it you are cheating yourself.

The premise is a guy in the future telling his kids about his time in NYC back in the now. Theoretically it's the long story of how he met his wife, the future-kids' mother, but mostly it's just about being in your mid-20's to early 30's in NYC.

And it is awesome. I say this as someone spending his mid-20's to early 30's in NYC. It's basically me with better writers.

fn1) Brian Austin Green. Did you know the 'Austin' was made up because there was already a Brian Green in the SAG? Now you do! (fn4)

fn2) The guy who played her assistant whose name I am not going to look up. I'm also going to skate over the fact that Judging Amy was a guilty pleasure of mine for a long time.

fn3) The guy who played the doctor. Now, to be fair, he was also Jack McCall, the man who shot Wild Bill in the excellent "Deadwood", but still.

fn4) I recently read my first David Foster Wallace piece. It was an essay about a cruise he took. I enjoyed it and have been rocking the footnotes more and more since reading it.

Public Notice: Heroes is possibly the worst show on television

The show Heroes was interesting during its first season but ended kind of weakly.

The second season was almost unwatchably bad. The only reason it gets the "almost" qualifier in there was because of the interesting first season.

The third season was actually promoted prior to its start with the phrase "if you gave up on last season, you need to try it again..." which was somewhat heartening because it at least showed some recognition on the part of the producers of the show about how bad it had gotten.

But still, I was very trepidatious going into this season. No great eagerness to jump in. I finally got around to watching the special 2-hour premiere last night. The show is unwatchable. It's lost the "almost". I will be adjusting my dvr accordingly.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Fences

Living in a modern apartment complex in a big city usually means knowing little to nothing of the people around you. I have neighbors on both sides of me and all I know of them is tiny little stuff based on hearing their interactions in the hall as they and their guests enter and leave the apartments. And, of course, on the rare sound heard through the walls.

The sound heard through the walls is rare because the walls between apartments in my building are thick. Like slow-witted-cashier thick. Often you can clearly hear somebody's TV turned way up from the hallway but find only blissful silence once ensconced in your own living space.

So what have I learned about my neighbors? Odd things. I'll take the one I think is less interesting first.

The apartment to the East of mine is a large one-bedroom situated on the corner. I know this because I took a surreptitious look around when they left the door open when repairing it between tenants a couple of years ago. The fellow who lives there is a tall guy. He has a large dog (black lab, I think, though I'm terrible with dog-breeds). He has a standing order for two cases of the sports-sized Poland Springs bottled water, which appear outside his door in the early morning once a month.

He went to Ohio State and I think he has a job that allows him to work from home much of the time.

The Ohio State factoid I learned shortly after Georgetown beat UNC Vanderbilt (thanks for the reminder Bill) in the NCAA tournament the year before last. I had watched the game at home with a few friends and when Green sunk the game winning shot as the final seconds ticked off the clock there was an understandably boisterous celebration. Boisterous enough, I suppose, to actually penetrate the sound-suppressing walls that my apartment is blessed with. We later went on to beat UNC which meant we would next face Ohio State in the Final Four. The evening after that win I returned from work to find a note from my neighbor taped to my door congratulating me on Georgetown's win and wishing us luck against Ohio State signed "An Ohio State Alum" with his apt. number given.

The working from home I am hypothesizing based on the fact that he orders food in every night at roughly 6:30. As I get home in the 6-ish range this would imply that he either gets home just before me and immediately orders dinner or that he is just home all day. My rare experience with being home sick or otherwise during the week seems to confirm the home-all-day theory.

So that's my Eastward neighbor.

My Westward neighbor is, I am fairly certain, a prostitute. I'm not sure if she is the same woman who has lived there for the past two to three years or if she is of newer import. (I haven't actually seen her since I began to suspect her working-girl status.) However, she routinely receives many, many visitors in the evening. This alone is perhaps suspicious but not proof of working-girl status. Nor are the many candles she lights which I can see reflected in the windows of the building across the alleyway.

Last Tuesday evening, however, I ran into one of her visitors on the elevator. He was a 40-something guy, who I had never seen before, heading for my floor. Nothing suspicious in that, I haven't seen lots of folk who live on my floor. He was polite, holding the door for me as I was carrying armfuls of stuff. Getting off the elevator, he again held the door for me and followed me out.

He headed with me towards my door. There are three other doors in that direction: my Ohio State friend, the supposed-prostitute and a currently empty apartment. Getting close to my door, he was looking at the numbers and asked me if the prostitute's door was F. I acknowledged it was and bid him "have a good night" as I was just finishing opening my door and stepping inside. His reply "I'm working on it" drew my notice to the fact that he was carrying a bottle of wine in the bag from the wine store around the corner. Given that he was a 40-ish guy and she is (based on late-night comings and goings and the timber of her female friends voices) a 20-something, it seemed odd that they would be meeting up for a date. It seemed even odder when that date ended somewhat less than an hour later and he went on his merry way.

And that, dear friend, is why I am firmly convinced that my next-door neighbor is a prostitute.

It's in Belgium.

So a ways back, when the sun yet shone, before the dark times, before... The Bailout, I took a trip to Florida.

We took some Netflix with us. One of those movies was a little oddball comedy that had intrigued me since I had first seen its trailer but, like most movies, I never got around to seeing in the theater or in the first few months of its DVD release.

This was In Bruges.

I am happy to report that I enjoyed it. I should start by saying that I was surprised to even be intrigued by it way back at first viewing of the trailer as Colin Farrell has a long history of making awful, awful movies. Just awful. I'm not actually sure why he's a movie star because in addition to being awful, I'm under the impression that many of his movies don't make money.

You'd think that making bad, expensive, money-losing films would be a career-ender but the ways of Hollywood are mysterious indeed. Maybe I should get a job in that industry next, work my death-touch magic on those big bags of useless.

Anyways. In Bruges.

Very odd movie. Reminded me of a play in that it had very tight dialogue and a fairly intricately woven plot that didn't actually go very far but kept circling over on itself and putting in clever little references to earlier seemingly throw-away lines so that the whole thing ended up being very enjoyable indeed.

I should point out, before everyone goes rushing out to rent it on my good say-so, that it was a very dark and fairly violent comedy. I'm not sure that most people would like it. My girl, for example, was not as taken with it as I was, though she enjoyed it as well.

She particularly liked a certain line of Ralph Fiennes that was very reminscent of a joke I use far too often. If you know me you will likely recognize the joke when you see it in the movie. (Though his character is not using the line in a joking manner, it is clearly a joke in the overall movie.)

I give it three stars. Good flick.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Coherence. I think it's over-rated but who am I?

Here's a run-down of the AIG bailout that doesn't read like the ramblings of a drunkard sometime after 3 am. If you like that sort of thing.

Clearly, I prefer unfinished, multi-part ramblings that more than passingly resemble drunk-talk. Or else why would I keep posting them, right?

Oh, don't despair. I've got some words on old movies that I finally watched and crazy boring econ books I've recently read coming up too. It's just that I've been rather distracted by the tremulous fate of my company and the finance system more broadly of late.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Part 7: Everybody in the Pool!

So now we've got lots and lots of marginal people getting mortgages that they prob. shouldn't have, structured in ways that make it very unlikely that they'll be able to pay them off -- partly because of wide-eyed optimism and hopeful thinking on the part of the government, mortgage lenders and the people themselves and partly because of fraud by mortgage applicants and sellers. Regardless, everybody's fine so long as housing prices keep going up...

Then you have all of these mortgages gathered together into massive mortgage backed securities. These have been given quality ratings by the rating agencies -- partly because of fraud-ish greed on the part of the raters and securitizers and partly because, with housing prices going up, they don't look that risky. And so long as housing prices keep going up, they won't be that risky.

Everybody see where the problem is? Everything is predicated on housing prices going up. But that is predicated on an ever expanding group of people to buy these houses. But we've already come up with shady mortgage structures and tossed out the standards just to get to this point. Where are the buyers going to come from to continue propping up these prices?

The answer, of course, was nowhere. And thus housing prices stalled and declined. And, suddenly, these people who took out the ARM and other loans with payments that jump are facing high new rates and a house that's worth less than they borrowed to buy it. And, of course, it's a chain reaction of sorts. A foreclosure in the neighborhood lowers housing prices which traps still further people in the same boat.

So that's what's going on in the neighborhoods. Bad things. People not being able to afford their payments. People watching their house's value decline precipitously.

But what's going on down the line with the securities backed by all these mortgages? Also bad things.

See, for years companies were making a killing on these things. So, naturally, more and more companies got in on the game. They would buy these mortgage backed securities to hold for themselves. Which means that on their balance sheets, they would have an asset that was backed by all of these securities. And that asset would have a value. So what's the value of that asset? Simple, it's whatever you can sell if for.

Perhaps a bit of accounting arcana? You see, financial firms these days are required to use what's called "mark-to-market" accounting. This basically means that all of the various stuff (stocks, bods, mortgage securities, other derivatives, whatever) that comprises the assets of the firm must be valued each day at whatever they would be worth if you sold them all immediately.

Ordinarily this is not a problem. But it can set up nasty chain-reactions if there's a panic. So when the housing market stalled out, suddenly all these billions and billions of dollars of mortgage backed securities didn't look so hot. So lots of firms became eager to get them off the books. So they started selling them. A lot of them. All at once.

As I think most people can guess, when everyone tries to sell the same thing at once, the price crashes. And so the price of these things cratered. But, again, the firms have to record the value of these things as if they were selling them today. So when the price crashes, the value you record also plummets.

Which means, suddenly, you are not holding as many assets as you thought you were. Which can cause all kinds of problems. The credit rating agencies, yes, those same agencies that told you this garbage was AAA-rated, might look at your newly weakened balance sheet and slash your credit rating. Which would then cause all the firms you do business with to ask for more collateral. Which means you need to come up with money fast. But, since your credit rating has been slashed, it's harder for you to borrow at just the time you most need to. So you might well go under.

This is all much more likely to happen if you happen to be a highly leveraged firm -- which all of the investment banks were. Leveraging is a fun and useful concept but I won't get into it here. Just to say that it's been at the heart of every financial collapse, prob. in history. As with everything else, this does not mean it's a bad thing. After all, the internal combustion engine has been at the heart of every traffic disaster and it is a wonderful thing.

At any rate, this is roughly the position that Bear Sterns found itself in. It was facing bankruptcy because the value of the mortgage backed securities that it was holding were plummeting because everybody was selling them and nobody was buying them.

So why was it saved by the Fed? Simple, the Fed gambled that if it could prevent Bear from going under suddenly, it might nip this whole thing in the bud. You see, if Bear had dropped suddenly into bankruptcy, all of its assets would be sold off very, very cheaply. Which would mean that all of the other investment banks holding those assets (we're primarily still thinking of the huge mortgage-backed positions these banks held) would also have to value them at the very cheap price. Which would put more of them into the same boat as Bear, just as surely as a domino knocking down another domino.

Ignoring, for the moment, the Fannie and Freddie stuff, the very same thing played out later with Lehman and AIG. Lehman was allowed to go under because the Fed saw that their bet on Bear hadn't worked and decided they needed to let somebody fail to remind the market that there's no such thing as a free lunch. But this decision ended up having precisely the effect that they were hoping to avoid with Bear: Lehman's bankruptcy meant that their mortgage-backed securities book was suddenly valued much lower.

AIG had a sizable book of similar assets whose value was thus immediately slashed. But it also was among the largest writers of "credit default swaps" (CDS), which basically functioned like insurance on these mortgage backed securities: that is, other firms would enter into a CDS with AIG that basically stated if the value of the mortgage backed securities the firm was holding dropped, AIG would make up some of the difference.

So two things happened so far as AIG was concerned when Lehman failed: its own book of mortgage backed securities was suddenly slashed in value and the potential costs of honoring all of those CDS's suddenly became much higher, at least as of the current valuation. (Again with the "mark-to-market" stuff.)

This did not sink them. What did was that with these developments and probably fearing that their reputations had been harmed by having their fingerprints all over these sub-prime mortgages securities the big three rating agencies decided to get tough. So they immediately threatened to downgrade AIG's credit, which meant that AIG would have to immediately come up with a lot of money. And come up with that money in a market that was skittish and using a credit rating that was lower. Not possible, AIG would go bankrupt trying.

So why did the Fed save AIG? Precisely because of all of those CDS's. You see, all of the banks with large amounts of these mortgage backed securities could avoid valuing them super-low so long as they had these CDS's on them. Going back to the insurance analogy, they could say: "Yes, we have these mortgage backed securities that are collapsing in value. Last year they were worth $100B now they're worth only $35B. But! We have agreements with AIG that limit our losses to $30B, so we are valuing them at $70B." But if AIG goes away, all of a sudden the full loss has to be recognized. Pushing all of those banks closer to the edge, if not over it.

The thing with Fannie and Freddie is a whole other kettle of fish so even though it took place in between the Bear bailout and the Lehman/AIG fiasco, I'll deal with it separately later...