September 30, 2008

Okay, so the Dow is finishing up 485 points after being down 777 yesterday, and the government still hasn’t done anything?

Oh, wait.  The government hasn’t done anything about this pending crisis for the five years that it’s been pending since Wall Street began putting bows on shit.  I’m finding myself in the camp of those who think we should just sit on our hands a little longer and watch the market take care of itself.  After all, if a government bailout is so good for the public, then why aren’t major investors lining up to invest as well?  Maybe it’s because they’re so close the smell is getting to them.  Maybe it’s because they know better.

I understand there is a long line at the Lowe’s near Wall Street for hemp rope.  And that Darien, Ct (median income:  $168K) is really going to suffer from the fallout.


September 30, 2008

I go to conferences as part of my job.  One trick I found to staying awake is to sit in the front row, running the risk of embarrassing myself should my mind wander off the speaker.  (For the same reason I sit in the front row at church.)  The conference I just attended was especially boring for all the reasons you read about in those books that tell you how to do presentations at conferences:

  • Non-interaction:  Each speaker spoke for 30 minutes without offering any interaction with the audience.  Not one speaker tried to bring the audience into the conversation.  See photo above.
  • The abuse of Powerpoint:  Slides were overwhelmingly complex.  One slide held the acronyms POM, TCIDS, AN, ISR, c4, TTNT, MADL, ACC, AEHF, IFOG, JSS, AD, and JTRS.  The very next slide had just as many.  No one offered an explanation.  And to boot, the speaker read the slide to the audience, verbatim.

I learn a lot from these conferences – in particular, how not to do presentations.  There are a number of good websites that speak to the abuse of Powerpoint in particular, and many lessons can be gleaned from these sites about how to make presentations both enjoyable and memorable for their audiences.  These speakers would’ve done better with just a little homework.

I picked a bad year to give up caffeine.

Obesity at the Airport

September 29, 2008

From my perch here at Reagan National Airport I can see Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Gorden Biersch Brewery, Ranch 1 Grilled Chicken, California Tortilla, Auntie Anne’s Preztels and a Dunkin Donuts (hmmmm, donuts).  It’s dinner time, and I’m stuck here for a couple hours waiting for my flight because the airport recommends I get here two hours early (or else).  Yet there is nothing here that I could consider healthy food.  I should’ve called my brother and asked him to bring me something.

We are flooded with blatant imagery – from TV commercials to magazine ads to at-store signage – and even though we talk a good talk about the growing obestity crisis (pun intended) we do little to change the social and economic principles that are driving it.

Like the sub-prime crisis, a “cure” will not be found until the problem reaches epidemic proportions.  By then it will be a multi-trillion dollar issue, requiring lifetime care for those unfortunate fat X and Y-genners.

This is the crisis that will bankrupt America.  The sub-prime problem is just a warm up.


September 27, 2008

I saw this homeless guy the other day, head down, asleep:  Wearing 4 jackets but no shoes; a nice-looking backpack to his left, a half-eaten bag of spilt caramel corn in his lap.  A few seconds later a panhandler asked me for change, and a few seconds after that, another panhandler.

The scene unfolded in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S. were it not for its seamy and exposed underbelly.  The homeless problem has plagued the city for years, and city government has not been able to solve – or even slow down – the growth in the homeless population.  It is estimated to be over 7,000, the highest per capita in any major American city.  Lots of ideas have been tried, even special parking meters to provide change to charitable organizations in lieu of giving money to the homeless; but so far the results have not been good.  Most of the San Franciscan homeless are city natives; this is not a problem caused by immigration from cold-climate cities.  The lack of affordable housing is one reason but there are many other reasons.  This article is a great read about what the city has tried, and what it is trying today.

Funny story:  My wife and I were staying at the Parc 55 hotel, just off Union Square in the heart of the tourist area, when around 3 am sirens, honking and generally loud noises emanated from blocks away.  We could hear bullhorns in the distance but couldn’t make out what (we assumed were) the cops were saying.  A few minutes later they got a lot closer, and it was obvious the police were yelling “Wake up!  Get off the street!  You’re going to get wet!  Wake up!  Get out of the way!”

The street sweepers were out, right behind the cops, spraying everything.

No doubt to wash down the smell of urine.

Counties with the Heaviest Tax Burden

September 27, 2008

Niagara County residents carry the heaviest property-tax burden in America, according to a new report from the Tax Foundation.

This week’s Buffalo Business First article (not yet available on line) reports that the average Niagara County household pays 2.92% of the value of their home to taxes.  It amounts to 5.0% of the homeowner’s yearly income, $2,802 on a home valued at $96,000.  [Note to self:  It also means your average home is not worth twice your annual income].

The noticeable thing about this article was that of the top 12 counties, 10 of them are in New York.  Erie County ranks 7th nationally; we pay 4.7% of our income in real estate taxes.  By percentage of home value, the most taxed California county ranked 570th out of 788.

But surely, Californians must pay lots of taxes because their home values are so huge, right?  Nope.  If you rank the counties by amount paid, the first California county to make the list comes in at 25th.  There are 6 New York counties ahead of it (including #1 and #3) and combined, New York/New Jersey take 21 of the top 25 spots.

In 2007 the U.S. median real estate tax was $1,838.  In Erie County it’s $2,822.

When we add school and state income taxes to our annual burden it’s little wonder that our take-home pay doesn’t go far, why businesses have difficulty staying in and coming to New York State, and why so many people leave.  And yet in 38 days, nearly every one of our incumbent state legislators will be re-elected.

I do not expect tax equity to come from within the marble halls of Albany’s legislative complex.

The Surge

September 26, 2008

“This strategy has succeeded, and we are winning in Iraq.”

— Senator John McCain, September 26th, 2008

The Surge certainly appears to have reduced overall violence and death in Iraq this past year.  I am grateful for the reduction in violence.

But is it the Surge, or is it the forced segregation of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and the exodus and displacement of over 2 million Iraqis to other countries that is the real reason?  The eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq will tell.

My bet is that Iraq will fall into a very bloody civil war no matter when we withdraw.  I pray I’m wrong.

Big Numbers

September 26, 2008

My head is just spinning from all the big numbers.

“It’s not based on any particular data point,” a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. “We just wanted to choose a really large number.”

The Treasury spokeswoman is referring to the $700 billion Wall Street bailout number.  Which in reality could be any really big number, like a trillion dollars or even more, or maybe less but probably not.  Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s big.

I appreciated the $600 rebate check that I got from my government last May.  But given the cause of the ongoing economic crisis I don’t see how giving me money (and spending $170 billion total) could possibly have been a solution to it.  But it was only $170 billion.

Then the government gave $29 billion to JP Morgan, $200+ billion to Fannie/Freddie and $85 billion to AIG and is about to give a whole bunch of money to Wall Street; to the same financial institutions who gave themselves $38 billion in bonuses last year while losing $74 billion for their shareholders.  We’re about to reward their greed, and their failure, with a really big present.

There is one group that has publicly stated

We do not support government bailouts of private institutions.

But they will, along with everyone else in Congress because this three-year-old debacle has now turned into a crisis so large that there is no way out.

So the past 72 hours have seen a Congressional debate of historic proportions, based on a number that someone pulled out of his ass, to salvage a set of institutions that gifted their executives in one year more than the entire budget for the National Institutes of Health.

Hmmm.  Very generous.

State of the University

September 24, 2008

UB’s President John Simpson told it like it was:  No punches pulled, no political rhetoric or bias.  He was plainly pissed at how the state of the State of New York has impacted the University at Buffalo.  The University is clearly going to be affected by its $20 million cut in state funding, helpless to generate compensating revenue because of bureaucratic laws enacted 50 years ago, and unchanged since.  Staff cuts are coming.

Simpson made a couple of profound points at this morning’s State of the University speech at Asbury Hall, one of them being not so subtle:  UB is not just the University at Buffalo.  It’s also the University of Buffalo and the University with Buffalo.  He is adamant about growing the Western New York economy by growing the University.  He basically asked the state to either help or to get out of the way.  He got lots of applause for that comment.

Simpson called the state short-sighted by cutting the higher-education budget, calling higher education not the problem, but the solution to New York’s economic woes.

If only the local politicians would get the message, but unless they were hiding I saw only two there:  Mayor Byron Brown and Senator Alphonse Thompson.  Brown’s typical political speech said nothing except that he is the mayor of Buffalo (about 3 times) and that the city of Buffalo is a great place.  Some shill in the front row started a round of applause every time the mayor finished two sentences, regardless of how un-profound his statements were (and they were un-profound).  Simpson got two standing ovations.  I thought he deserved the second one, if for no other reason than for calling a spade a spade.

Simpson’s speech can be read in its entirety here.

National Punctuation Day

September 23, 2008

That’s this Wednesday, September 24th.  It’s a reminder that punctuation, along with grammar and spelling, is still important in the English language.

How important?  So important that if I receive a resume from a prospective employee and that resume has punctuation, grammar or spelling errors, then I will be highly reluctant to consider the resume further.  If the individual cannot care to produce a quality resume, why would I believe that the same person would produce quality work under my employ?  To all prospective employees:  I know many other employers who profess the same sentiments.

Although I’ll always forgive the occasional error – we all make them – one that always makes me cringe is the abuse of the word it’s, which only means it is and nothing elseNOTHING ELSE.  It is never a possessive; If I wrote something about my computer and it’s propensity to crash, I would be cursing myself later for that ridiculous out-of-place apostrophe.  It’s its, not it’s.  We learned this in 5th grade.  Many of us need to learn it again.

Anyway, use the recognition of National Punctuation Day as a reminder to be consciously aware of the common uses of all those little markings that help us make sense of your otherwise run-on and incomplete sentences.  Thanks!

I’m a PC

September 19, 2008

The new Microsoft commercials are an evolving series, I think reminiscent of the old Tasters Choice coffee commercials.  But not nearly as interesting.  And much more contrived.  And they seem to ignore the reality we PC users face daily:  Crappy quality, poor documentation and even poorer support from Microsoft itself.

While Microsoft may be very good at legal maneuvering and creating a monopoly, the promise of really great, high-quality operating systems and applications went out the, well, window around the time of Windows 95.  After that, quality was a sacrificial lamb.  With the abandonment of Windows XP for Vista, Microsoft’s credibility keeps falling to new lows, and an ever-increasing share of Mac users is the result.

So far, Microsoft Vista has not been mentioned in any of the commercials.  I don’t believe it ever will.  The company is trying to obviously brand the phrase Life Without Walls, which for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what that really means.

PCs are in need of a revolution.  I think Microsoft can bring only more of the same old shit.

Campaigns 2

September 12, 2008

Some of the more interesting campaigns are the personal ones.  I’m particularly impressed with this person’s attempt to qualify Barack Obama in as few words as possible.

From just four words I believe I can characterize this individual as

  • Not interested in reading or research
  • Barely able to finish high school
  • A beer drinker who perfected the burp at 14
  • Set in his ways

During this Presidential runup I’m going to scour the Internet for campaign signs like this; it shouts volumes about our electorate.  And it’s fun, too.


September 11, 2008

It’s not about the people; it’s about winning.

It’s not about what’s best for the country; it’s about winning.

The Presidential election is, like all other elections, a popularity contest.  I dread the next fifty-some days of attack ads, vitriol and general lack of specifics that will lead us to November 4th.

The primaries were a warm-up.  It embarrasses me how we run them, and run our elections.  Whatever happened to platforms and issues?

Someone knock on my closet door when it’s over.

Speaking of Winter…

September 11, 2008

Do a Google search for “Buffalo Economy” and you’ll get about 7,680 hits.  Do a Google search for “Buffalo Winter” and you’ll get 9,170 hits.  “Buffalo Snow” gets 15,800 hits.

My company has tried in the past to hire from outside Western New York, and with one exception failed in its attempts.  The number one reason given:  The prospective employee doesn’t wish to put up with the grueling Buffalo winters.

When Harvard’s Dr. Ed Glaeser wrote his infamous article about Buffalo, the one statement that irked me the most was this:

January temperatures are one of the best predictors of urban success over the last half-century, with colder climes losing out—and Buffalo isn’t just cold during the winter: blizzards regularly shut the city down completely.

That bald-faced lie has become a national truth, but as anyone who spends their life here knows, Buffalo has been “shut down” due to snow all of 5 times since 1977, and one of those was in October!  The winters here may produce white stuff in quantities more (94″) than Boston (42″) or New York City (28″); but it rarely has a paralyzing effect.  Contrast that with New York City or Washington, D.C., that effectively does shut down whenever more than 2 or 3 inches fall.

Then there’s Flagstaff, Arizona. It gets more snow on average – 100 inches – than we do.  No one notices.

While we grumble about our lousy economy here, the Google trend – if that means anything – indicates that nationally our weather is more of an attention-getter than is our economy.

I think we should glorify our winter and turn it into a festival to beat all festivals.  A mid-winter Mardi Gras celebration to beat all Mardi Gras celebrations.  Free transportation to Holiday Valley and Kissing Bridge, then to the casinos, a view of the Falls, all-night parties at the convention center, fireworks, ice winery tours.  All we need to do is to make sure there’s enough liquor to last a few days, just in case everyone gets stranded due to weather.

For the Sake of My Hands

September 9, 2008

Today I could no longer take the wrist pain that develops while typing so I purchased the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.

Not that I like Microsoft very much; on the contrary, their gorilla tactics, legal tactics and marketing tactics all leave me wanting for other options.  However, the reviews on this type of keyboard were quite positive, I was at Office Max anyway, and I was desperate.

The pain from repetitive strain injury is alarmingly chronic:  It doesn’t go away for a long time, and mine has been with me for much of the past year.  Most of my achiness was coming from having my hands cocked at a funny angle over a very flat laptop keyboard.  The 4000 lays out the keys so that my hands are in a much less strained position, almost as if I’m trying to shake hands with the keyboard rather than lay them flat.  Although the photo doesn’t show it well, the middle keys (the ones nearest my index fingers) rest on a hill higher than the keys nearest my pinkies.  It took me all of twenty minutes to get used to that hill and the obviously split keyboard.

The reduction in pain was almost immediate, and I recommend this to anyone suffering from even the slightest wrist pain – it will only get worse.  Now, if only they would bring back those tactile, spring-loaded keys like they had on the IBM Selectric typewriters.  Those were the best.

All Your Mortgage are Belong to Us

September 7, 2008

Betcha didn’t see the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout coming, did you?  As predicted, we are now about to live through the recession while paying for someone else’s greed.

Based on the bleak grades given to the Hope Now Alliance [Who comes up with these names?  The Bush Administration sure knows how to color ideas, good or bad, with propaganda phrasing not seen since the Third Reich.  Godwin!] it was inevitable that the Feds would step in and offer a bailout in an attempt to stabilize the housing market, for which the two mortgage giants play a $5 trillion role.  In return for up to $200 billion in short-term financing the U.S. government will receive warrants representing 80% of ownership.  That’s warrants.  Not ownership.

If that’s the game that the Treasury Department is going to play then I want my warrants now, and as a new player in this housing market I demand having the ability to buy and sell my warrants that the government is foisting on me.  But I probably won’t get that opportunity.  I probably won’t even get a chance to determine whether or not the warrant price is reasonable (note to myself:  It probably won’t be).

Instead I’ll pay now through taxes to provide liquidity to the existing shareholder pool, then have to pay again if I want to actually buy shares on the open market at the probably inflated warrant price.

This whole mortgage thing just irks me.  It was obvious years ago that selling subprime mortgages could not be sustained yet risk managers, risk management software and federal regulators all failed to address the simplest of questions:  What happens should the bubble burst?  That they decided that such a scenario had minimal risk associated with it is an understatement.

We are now the proud owners of a huge fraction of the U.S. housing market.  May it serve us well.

In the Meantime, Part II

September 6, 2008

…OJ Simpson goes on trial this coming Monday.

He’s 61 years old.  Yikes.

Misconceptions About Unions

September 5, 2008

This past week’s Buffalo Business First articulates union leaders’ concerns over the public’s misconceptions about unions.

Ask labor union workers about the public’s perception of them and you’ll usually hear something like this:  Union workers are the bearers of a bad rap.

“I think some people think unions are very selfish and only out to achieve what’s best for their members,” said Michelle Pancoe, a fourth grade teacher at Williamsville Central School District who oversees new member orientation for the Williamsville Teachers’ Association.  “But we’re not arguing for class size limits because we want to correct fewer papers.  We’re arguing because students learn better when there are less students in a room.”

Well, when I went to grade school 25+ students in a classroom were the norm, not the exception, and yet somehow I learned that fewer, not less, is the appropriate adjective to use in Ms. Pancoe’s last sentence.  B-minus for you, Ms. Pancoe.

And that B-minus is about the best I can ever give the teachers union, whose union mentality even pervades New York State politics with little but self-serving and self-preservation tactics.

It does not take a (non-union) rocket scientist to understand why today’s Buffalo News article about the current teacher pension system makes most people’s stomachs grind away.  For every altruistic aim that the teachers union touts there’s an example of abuse waiting to happen, of contract clauses unrelated to good teaching that become entitlements – pensions are just one.  Protection of poor teachers and poor teaching methodologies are others.  So is the union’s fight against charter schools (and I always thought that competition was good).  The unwillingness of the BTF to consolidate health insurance carriers to save school district costs is another.  Then the ensuing lawsuit, and the defense of that lawsuit, was taxpayer money down the drain;  I don’t think any kids were helped by that either.  Small wonder that unions get a bad rap.  They deserve much of it.

Unions doing dumb things that stick in one’s craw is not new.  I was told a great story years ago about a work stoppage that took place at Bethlehem Steel in the early 60s.  It turned out that the flag being flown in front of corporate headquarters in Lehigh, PA, had 48 stars and should have had 50, as Alaska and Hawaii had entered the union a year earlier.  The workers walked off their jobs until the correctly-starred flag was raised.

You would not guess from my anti-union rhetoric that I’m very sympathetic to unions, and pro-union in the sense that organization and concern for employees (or members of any large group) is vitally important to make sure that health, safety and employment concerns are heard above the gray din of other corporate issues.  They are critical when it comes to defending against corrupt and incompetent management (as one might find within the Buffalo school district).

But I am hard-pressed to believe that many union members are not simply in it for themselves, that they are at war with management:  Contract negotiations are not at all a town meeting to get issues out into the open:  It’s pickets and cursing, wildcat strikes, name-calling and occasional violence.  It’s entitlement-talk, pensions and health insurance for life in an economy that cannot compete globally because of them.

Several years ago the UAW agreed to a profit-share plan that has, in some years, been very successful.  That approach traded rewards based on corporate success for a little skin in the game.  I think that all unions will need to adopt more cooperative approaches to benefits, or else sit by as their jobs continue to move oversees.

It would also improve their public perception greatly.

Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld Go Shopping

September 5, 2008

While I think this video advertising Microsoft is cute, I don’t get what it has to do about Microsoft.  Is it merely a lead-in to a set of commercials that, as they are released, move Microsoft the company more into the forefront?  Or is this just another Seinfeld schtick on which Microsoft is gambling $10M?  Maybe Seinfeld fans get it.  And Bill Gates is showing his age.

Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials is expected to cost the company about $300M total.  Microsoft’s advertising group better have some followup plans or This campaign is going to be remembered the same way Microsoft “Bob” is remembered.

In the Meantime…

September 4, 2008

…There is OTHER news in the world that does not involve U.S. Presidential campaign politics.  Important news.

This coming Sunday Stephen Harper (he’s the Canadian Prime Minister) will announce new elections on October 14th, the soonest he can call by Canadian law.  His opponents – and there are many:  he’s not the most popular Prime Minister Canada ever had – are making several interesting claims about him, starting with Harper’s attempt to hold these elections quickly to avoid the possibility of investigators uncovering more unscrupulous campaign activities than they’ve already uncovered.  Harper’s Conservative party calls the claims bunk.  The Conservative party has a plurality but not a majority, and may have to form yet another minority coalition government if they wish to stay in power and for Harper keep his position as PM.  This would be the second minority government in a row, something that has happened only once before in Canadian history.  With the Canadian economy in a funk, moving from a surplus to a deficit in Harper’s two years as PM, he is not at all a shoe-in for the job after October.

This is important especially to us border states.  Much of Homeland Security’s border philosophy, for example, comes about from current Canadian immigration policies and, some claim, Harper’s fear-mongering tactics.  In that regard he is often called Canada’s Bush.  Canada is also our largest trading partner.  We get more oil from them than any other country.  Harper and Bush consider each other very strong allies.

It is very unclear if any of the potential candidates from the other three Canadian political parties would be any better with regard to Canadian/US border policy (and by that I mean:  “Would they stand up to the U.S.’s demands to restrict movement across the border?”), but because the Canadian election process will last all of 37 days the election itself will be much less painful to watch and research than our two-plus-year election process.

…Meanwhile, Zimbabwe‘s inflation rate is now estimated at around 50 million percent, the equivalent of a economic half-life every 14 days.  They are now down to bartering gas coupons for anything else tangible, as the currency has essentially no holding power whatsoever.  President Mugabe doesn’t seem overly concerned.  Probably not enough deaths from starvation yet.  Besides:  He controls all the guns.

Lately, I get my news from the BBC and the Toronto Star.  Their reporting does not seem to be nearly so one-dimensional.