Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Living in a dream world

We all know people who fall in love without having their presence - let alone feelings - acknowledged by the object of their love. The 21st century offers these people - at least men - an opportunity to at least have their presence acknowledged and in many cases to have a date. The problem is that the girl exists in the computer, not in real life. Yet, at least in Japan, there is money to be made from people who are happy to date phantoms. In fact, Atami, a town in Japan that has fallen on hard times, is betting that the town can enjoy a resurgence if it becomes the center of romantic getaways for the virtual couple. 1500 Japanese men have come to the town to spend money with their girlfriends.

These guys come to town with their Nintendo device and play a game called LovePlus+, where their girlfriends "live". Some are so involved with the game that they register as a couple and pay for their virtual girlfriend to have a bed to sleep in. It's sad.

Monday, August 30, 2010


You have to know that the title of this post refers to initials of something related to the government. This refers to Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System. This is a database where federal contractors are supposed to input information detailing whether a company may be screwing us because they have violated civil, criminal or administrative regulations.

Need I say that the federal contractors don't like your knowing they've screwed up with spending your money?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Investing in Jobs

Despite the assurances of Geithner & Co. things are not getting better, they are getting worse. Robert Shiller argues that we have to start spending federal money more wisely, mainly in creating jobs. One of the ways to do so is to give more money to state and local governments, most of which are prevented from running a deficit. Lord knows that there is much that needs to be done. Heck, cleaning up our infrastructure alone would generate thousands, if not millions, of jobs; the return on such an investment would be quite high.

Shiller is very clear that it is not a good idea to have Congress determine how the states should spend our money; Congressmen are not really close enough to local governments and local needs to make intelligent decisions in this area. Of course, one could argue what decisions Congressmen are capable of making, but that's a discussion for another day. The issue today is to get people back to work as quickly as possible.

Bringing the Troops Home

"We have brought home more than 90,000 troops since I took office," so announced Barack Obama in his weekly radio address. Should there not be a least one qualifier in that claim: namely,the number of troops and private contractors we have put in Afghanistan? And then there was this, "Like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq is free to chart its own course". But is it capable of doing so? It has been months since their elections and they have yet to form a new government. And the attacks - suicide and other - continue.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


That's the likely number of problem banks that the FDIC is watching carefully. That number is 5% of the banks in this country. These 840 banks have assets of $410.3 billion

Different Ways to Finance a Political Campaign

In Venezuela a candidate for the National Assembly is trying to raise money by having a raffle. That's kind of strange to Americans. Even stranger is the prize - a breast implant.

Hard to believe

This is 2010. Isn't it? Yet a public school in Mississippi has determined that only white kids can be student president and only blacks vice-president.

After a public uproar caused by a parent the school will change the policy.

Pumping Demand for CDOs

The following is taken from ProPublica. It was created by Al Granberg as an accompaniment to an article about some of the chicanery that went on in the "boom" times. It's an excellent summary of the article and a sad commentary on the financial wizards of the day.

A Scary Possibility

Lester Brown is worried by the drought in Moscow this past summer. The drought, which lasted two months, resulted in a loss of about 40,000,000 tons of grain. Brown worries as to what would happen if a similar drought hit our fertile Midwest or China. If the drought hit us, prices of grain would spike. If the drought hit the area around Beijing, China, which had a famine less than 50 years ago (1959 - 1961), would have a problem and in our 20th century interconnected world the world would have a major problem.

Brown is especially worried about China beyond the question of a drought. Its rise as an economic power with the attendant better standard of living has meant the removal of a fairly significant amount of land from agriculture to such items as highways and an increase in the consumption of grain-dependent products.

You have to follow the rules

And sometimes the rules make little sense. That's what politicians in Mississippi and Louisiana say when asked why they have yet to spend $5.4 billion remaining from HUD grants of five years ago. They have a point. Many times rules trump common sense and the need to get a job done well and quickly. This seems to be more so when dealing with the Feds.

Friday, August 27, 2010

First a massive earthquake...

and now 33 people trapped way below the surface of the earth and seemingly destined to stay there for a couple of months. That's been the lot of Chile in 2010. Here's a video showing the trapped miners.

Continuing the series

My son from the Big Apple, suspecting that I have developed a fondness for lost animals, informs me that a baby tiger was found in a suitcase at the Bangkok Airport. The traveler was going from Thailand to Iran, where authorities surmise she would try to sell the tiger.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Where do our long-term strategic interests lie?

Christopher Layne argues that they don't lie with Iraq and Afghanistan. They lie in East Asia in his opinion. You have to agree that he has a point. How we deal with China and Japan and Korea is much more important than trying to bring Iraq and Afghanistan into a 21st century that wants to be less war-riven than its predecessor.

Layne believes that some Muslims hate us because of what we have done in the past - support dictators in the Middle East, favor Israel over the Arabs, maintain a strong military presence in their area. This runs counter to COIN's diagnosis of the situation.

Sherman checks in

That's Sherman the alligator as shown below. He was taken from the Chicago River yesterday. Another gator was found a few weeks ago, also in the same area.

Are reptiles trying to tell us something?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alligators on the loose

Yesterday it was Queens, today it's Brockton. In both cases an alligator - a small one - was found wandering the streets.

This is a democracy, Part 2?

Circuit Avenue is the main thoroughfare in Oak Bluffs. It is lined with all sorts of restaurants, bars, stores and even an amusement center. Tonight the Obamas decided to eat at Restaurant A. That's great for Restaurant A, as they can merchandise the visit for a number of years. However, it is not good for Restaurant B, which is next door to Restaurant A. The problem is that no one is allowed to enter Restaurant B. Obama must be protected at all costs.

Who pays the price of this protection? Through our taxes we pay for the Secret Service, FBI, State Police, Oak Bluffs police. The owner of Restaurant B and his employees pay a more direct price: their restaurant is empty.

Getting more depressed

I haven't read Paul Krugman's column for a while, but, if today's column is an indication of his state of mind, he is depressed. It's another case where one cannot imagine just how stupid and venal are our leaders. Krugman fears that the Bush tax cuts will be made permanent. He has a point, given our leaders propensity to talk rather than act for the good of the country.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Doesn't the Army Have Enough To Do?

Why are they helping to train the Arizona football team? They have been doing it for three years; they spend five days at Fort Huachuca before each season. In the coach's eyes this experience bonds the team. I would think with our being engaged in two wars and supporting troops all over the world the army would have better things to do.

One answer to the question

Courtesy of The Big Picture, which found the cartoon.

"A Sweetheart Deal"

That's a quote from Judge Emmet Sullivan commenting on the deal our government made with Barclay's Bank which had been charged with changing records to hide sanctions violations by Iran, Cuba and other friends. Barclays acknowledged that they had violated the law and were willing to pay a fine of $298,000,000. If the money is paid soon and there are no violations in the next two years, everything will be fine with the prosecutors. No one will have to go to jail or even brought to trial. Despite his characterization of the deal, Judge Sullivan approved it.

There have been several similar agreements which have brought us money but did not result in any bank executive suffering personally by being placed on trial and very likely spending time in prison. How many other violators of the law are so fortunate?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stubborn and Deceitful?

Surprisingly, it looks as though NOAA should answer "yes" to both sides of the question if we are to believe the latest reports from the scientific community as relayed through ProPublica.

The issue is not that NOAA's estimate of the oil left in the gulf was wrong by a fair margin. Here's what the head of NOAA said on August 4:

"The report was produced by scientific experts from a number of different agencies, federal agencies, with peer review of the calculations that went into this by both other federal and non-federal scientists."
And her boss, the Energy Secretary backed her up:
"Can I just add another point? This has all been -- as Dr. Lubchenco said -- been subjected to a scientific protocol, which means you peer review, peer review and peer review."
But there was no peer review. Here is testimony to a Congressional panel from a NOAA official last week:
“Our priority was to get an answer as quickly as possible to incident command,” Lehr explained to the panel; the peer review had been delayed. “We’re hoping to get it out in two months.” 
And then there is a reluctance on NOAA's part to say very much about the data on which their report is based. This does not fill one with confidence.

This is a democracy?

It's been with us a long time, "it" being the imperial presidency. But, you don't really notice it on a practical level until it directly affects you. Okay, Obama & company, which has a staff larger than 90% of the companies in America, is vacationing here on the Vineyard. And, yes, there are tons of media people vying for the story. I can put up with that. But, to create mile-long traffic jams so that the president & company can drive without stopping, I just don't get. This is what happened to me this morning.

It seems that Mr. Obama, who is staying in Chilmark, decided to play golf in Oak Bluffs, which is about 10 miles away. It looked like traffic moving in the direction of the golf course, whether driving in West Tisbury, Edgartown or Oak Bluffs, was brought to a halt by state police officers when he was just getting into his car in Chilmark. There were police officers at just about every major intersection along the way. This was all done supposedly because of the FBI or Secret Service rule that the president's entourage does not stop for anything, which translates into everybody else stops - perhaps to venerate him when he passes.

Why have things gotten to such an extreme? The same situation prevailed when Clinton was here and, I suspect, was the modus operandi for George W. How much of our money is spent on presidential vacations? I have paid 100% of the cost of all my vacations. Why can't he pay a portion of what has to be the astronomical cost of his vacations?

I wonder if Michael Dukakis had won the presidency back in the 20th century, whether he would have taken the subway to work as he did as governor.

Why do we put up with this waste? Why do we need a king? Why do we need a Congress which toadies to big money?

I'm glad I'm old. I would not want to be here in the 22nd century, assuming that we still have the money to buy lunch.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The best lemon sherbet

That was the big attraction for me of Wonderland Park in the early 1960s. Yes, others were attracted there because of the Greyhound races and I did have a betting system (it didn't work very well). The only sure win you could have at Wonderland was the lemon sherbet. I can still taste it 50 years later. Sadly, after 75 years Wonderland is no more.

Say it isn't so, Roger

Alas, it looks as though Roger Clemens, destined for baseball's Hall of Fame, may not get there. He's been indicted on a number of charges related to his appearance before Congress in 2008. Basically, he's accused of being a liar - 3 counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury (how does that differ from 'making false statements'?)and one count of obstructing Congress.

Some Enchanted Evening

Last night on PBS I watched most of the current Lincoln Center production of "South Pacific". I was really surprised at the performance of Kelli O'Hara as Nellie Forbush. I didn't think anyone could be better than Mary Martin, I was wrong. O'Hara really was the show. The only other performer who came close to the South Pacific in my mind was Paulo Szot, who played Lieutenant Cable. Of course, the voice of John Kerr was dubbed in the movie, and Szot has a good voice. There was no way that Emile could be played better than the role as performed by Ezio Pinza on stage and Rossano Brazzi (with Giorgio Tozzi's voice) in the movie and it was not. The current Emile was one of the weakest actors last night.

Alan Alda interviewed some of the people associated with "South Pacific". More than a few of them, including Alda, mentioned that they shed tears throughout the production. I did, too, but it's probably because we are old enough to remember the original production.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Giving It Away

Hugs, that is! I had never heard of the Free Hugs Campaign before today but it's been around since 2004 and is in operation around the globe. It's even been featured on Oprah, so there must be something to it. Here's a clip from the Italian campaign.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Big week on the Vineyard

I wish the grandkids were here this week. Wednesday is Illumination Night, when all the cottages in the Campground illuminate the beauty of their site and the Vineyard. On Thursday the Agricultural Fair opens for the weekend; I particularly like the pan-throwing contest and the horse pulls. Friday are the fireworks.

Oh, also on Thursday we'll welcome some more tourists, the Obama family

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Speaking Sense

Nouriel Roubini has a very simple yet profound article with regards to recovering from the financial mess we are in. First, he states what should be obvious - greed will always be with us. He acknowledges that there are some smart people in the financial world who will spend the time to figure out how to beat the system. Another truth - most CEO's and boards could care less about the stockholders.

His solution has a couple of parts. First, government must intervene in compensation issues more; specifically, bonuses based on the short-term must be verboten. Then, Glass-Steagal or something like it must be restored. Securitization must be drastically curtailed. Third, there are too many conflicts of interest in the way the financial world has worked for the past few years; eliminate or at least minimize them. Finally, make the possibility of loss a reality; forget about 'too big to fail'. Let losers go under.

God works in mysterious ways

For example, the Boston Globe reports on Robert Wilson, who has given millions of dollars to the Catholic Church primarily because he feels that Catholic schools do a better job than the public schools. Mr. Wilson makes no bones about his being an atheist. Understandably, the church has no problem accepting his money.

Now, this is a flood

Steven's Sunflowers in the Garden


Cropped from a photograph of U.S. Senators Tom...Image via WikipediaToday, there's a good comparison of the Bush and Obama administrations in the Washington Post. As we know, Mr. Obama and company have adopted many of the same bad policies that Bush pursued, the worst being the promotion of fear as manifested by the continuation of our wars, the continuation of wire tapping and other violations of our freedom and the failure to close Guantanamo. And, of course, there is Obama's ill-timed espousal of off-shore oil drilling.

What's that saying? The more things change.....

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Outsourcing Drugs Legally But Without Regard For Customers

I've been using drugstore.com for a few years now and have been pleased with the service and accepting of the price increases. Very recently they decided to outsource their pharmacy business to BioScrip, which claims to be "the go-to place for ordering and managing your prescriptions". Well, they may very well be that place for others; they are certainly not that place for me.

I re-ordered a prescription about two weeks ago from drugstore.com and have yet to receive it although all previous prescriptions have been delivered within less than two weeks of ordering. Instead of delivering the prescription to me, BioScrip telephoned me on Tuesday. I should say a BioScrip robot telephoned me. The robot's responses were keyed to my responses to its questions, but its timing was way off so I had to repeat many of my responses. The robot was telling me that my prescription was delayed and said that I could speak to a live person about it. Unfortunately, to reach that live person required me to suffer through an inordinate number of button pushes and, when I did reach that presumably live person, they had no idea why the call was made.

On Wednesday BioScrip called me again with the same message and when I spoke to the live person all she could tell me was they had not received the prescription that drugstore.com had confirmed receiving 8 days earlier. So I called Ron Kelly, the VP of Customer Service at drugstore.com. He was not in but I was connected to a woman who was head of customer complaints or some such title. She said she'd look into it and get back to me within the hour. She did not, but her agent did. My doctor had not yet been called by BioScrip or drugstore.com was her message. They would address the issue.

Well, addressing the issue did not stop the BioScrip robot from calling me again with exactly the same message as the first and second. In all three of the messages it said something would be done within three days if the issue had not been resolved by then. I guess the robot does not understand that three days from Tuesday is Friday and three days from Wednesday is Saturday and three days from Thursday is Sunday.

This experience will make me an ex-customer of drugstore.com. I recalled a similar experience with AARP when they outsourced their pharmacy. To save a few cents they lost a customer. How many customers can drugstore.com afford to lose?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sailing down the river

The river here is the Yangtze. That brown stuff is garbage. The boat is trying to pick up the garbage before it chokes the Three Gorges Dam.

China does have many severe floods during the year. The most recent one has killed more than 1,000 people and caused $26 billion in damages. One city has been without water for two days.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Bribery takes many forms

One form it can take is to give an endowment to a college that has just created a building, an institute, a professorship, a center, whatever. As long as it honors a politician who would be influenced by the fact that company X has donated money in honor of the politician. Click here for a list of some of these statesmen.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Nazi Youth?

The photo below is of Israeli high school kids lounging on furniture removed from the razed homes of Arabs whose entire village was destroyed to make way for a national forest. The students are volunteers in the police civilian guard, a group of 70,000 volunteers who help the government to resolve such problems as razing Arab villages. In this case the kids moved the furniture out before the houses were razed. They also broke windows and committed other acts of vandalism. And, of course, the razing of the village became an act to be celebrated.

Maybe I shouldn't listen to NPR

Driving to work this morning, I was particularly upset at two stories, one about Mexico, the other about Iraq. Both illustrated almost perfectly some major faults in this country.

The Mexico story was one of a series about the effect of drugs on that country. It recounted the effect of the drug war on the media. Essentially, Mexico is in a very, very nasty civil war largely because of our war on drugs.

The Iraq story shows that we are simply substituting highly paid contractors for soldiers. There will be different bodies killed and wounded, but the costs will still be high and, at heart, unlikely to be affordable by us.

Fortunately, before I got to work, I saw a bike rider who was able to read a book while moving down to Vineyard Haven. He seemed at peace.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Multi-talented People should be paid more

I don't think too many of us would disagree with that statement. Of course, it does raise some questions. What fields are people talented in? How much more should they be paid? The question of reasonable compensation arose once more when I read today's NY Times article on the Academic-Industrial Complex, which talks about the role some college presidents play on the board of directors of major corporations. Does the president of Brown University know enough about financial matters to help Goldman Sachs? Is her knowledge worth $470,876 to Goldman? Does the president of RPI have so little to do at the university that she can sit of the boards of five major organizations? Is she worth $1,377,225, $795,001 of which comes from RPI, the remainder from the five organizations?

True, just about all directors of major companies are terribly overpaid and also have another very good source of income. Somehow,you'd hope that university presidents wouldn't be as greedy as the business types that typically populate the boards of major companies. But, the overriding question is what are these directors doing for we stockholders? How can they possible justify the astronomical sums they receive?

Anyway, here's some reading for you. This is a list of the compensation of a few university presidents/directors.