Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"The Economist" Explodes Salary Caps

The latest issue of The Economist does a beautiful job of dismantling the notion of executive salary caps.

In general, The Economist's reporting during this crisis has been remarkably high-quality given what must be extremely tight deadlines. Just generally, it's a great magazine, well worth the steep price to keep weekly issues coming. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking their stance is super-conservative, when it's not at all. It's staunchly, painfully pro-globalist (a stance which colors only a slim portion of its reporting), but socially liberal and politically agnostic. If Newsweek, Time, and US News strike you as light-weight and you crave more in-depth, carefully reported treatment of the week's news, grab a newstand edition or two (or surf
their web site) and you'll be hooked, as I am. I understand the world far better for having been a subscriber for the past couple years.

Writing Direction

Modern languages are written from left to right, so that the writing hand doesn't smear the ink as it advances across the page.

Ancient languages like Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left, to facilitate the chisel-bearing (left) hand's movement across the rock.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Why Honesty's Good

I'm sitting in front of a television watching the Dow drop 700 points as Congress announces its inability to pass a bailout bill. The president, who's gone full out to push this measure, has proven so unconvincing that even his own party has failed to pay heed.

Why did it fail? As the Washington Post just wrote
"Despite the fact that President George W. Bush and the leadership of both parties lined up behind the bill, the rank and file of both parties -- particularly on the Republican side -- rebelled in light of polling that showed the American public is deeply skeptical about a planned $700 billion bailout for the financial industry."
I've expressed skepticism about this measure, my layman's confidence boosted by hordes of distinguished economists who've come out against the administration's proposal. But in this politcal environment, I doubt even wiser solutions will be found, let alone implemented. The president is unable to make a persuasive case to the American people in the midst of a crisis. And that's dangerous.

I can't help but wonder if Misters Bush, Cheney, and Rove are, at this moment, considering the value of honesty. All politicians play fast and loose with the truth, but a politician must occasionally actually lead, rather than maneuver and grasp. At those moments, we are asked to take a leader at his/her word. But if all trustworthiness and credibility have been utterly squandered, the nation's left essentially rudderless in times of crisis.

I have one word for this administration:
wolf


The "Rice Chex" Method to Standing Out in a Crowd

My friend Frank lived at the corner of First Avenue and 10th Street, a druggie nexus at the time. He complained that every time he returned home, a barrage of dealers would approach, hissing "Smoke? Smoke?" at him.

He tried explaining that he lived there, and that he wasn't interested in buying drugs (at least not their drugs). But they all told him that with the hordes of people walking past that corner,it's impossible to memorize every face.

I suggested to Frank that he respond to their pitches by saying, simply, "Rice Chex". Within three days, I assured him, he'd be recognized as The Dude Who Says "Rice Chex", and after that he wouldn't even need to say "Rice Chex" to be recognized.

The story ends anticlimactically, I'm afraid, as Frank foolishly failed to take my advice - too abashed to do anything so weird as to say "Rice Chex" to strangers.

But it'd have worked.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Wit and Wisdom of Stephen Colbert

There's an interesting interview of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Entertainment Weekly (which, naturally, I read avidly). It includes this quote by Stephen Colbert:
After the 2006 Correspondents' Dinner [in which Colbert gave a scathing satirical speech about Bush with the President right in front of him, earning some hardcore Beltway backlash], Jon said, ''You touched it. You got close enough to touch it, and it got on you.'' Then more than a year passed, and I got kicked off the ballot in South Carolina during my brief presidential run. I had actually been on the phone with people in South Carolina, telling me I was gonna be fine. People were on the phone lying to me. And I called Jon and said, ''I touched it...again.'' That was disappointing. I thought I could put myself all the way in it and not feel it, but I did. I realized, ''I understand, maybe, why people end up not being so good.'' Because they get lied to a lot.
Here's a great bonus Colbert quote:
The idea that Lehman Brothers doesn't get any money and AIG does reminds me very much of ''Iran is a mortal enemy because they have not achieved a nuclear weapon. But North Korea is a country we can work with, because they have a nuclear weapon.'' The idea is, Get big or go home.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ron Susskind Interview

"So much of the mayhem...would have been avoided if the United States had just trusted its basic creed, rather than getting into the dark side and the back room, and saying that the only place you win against barbarians is a place where you yourself act in a barbaric way."
Download a wonderful in-depth radio interview (mp3) with Pulitzer prize-winning Ron Susskind, talking about his latest book, "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism".

Susskind, once the senior national affairs reporter for The Wall Street Journal, voices the familiar lament that America has lost its moral high ground over the past eight years, via its institutionalization of arrogance, hypocrisy, and sinister secrecy. But Susskind sees great beauty and hope in multifarious attempts to reboot classic American transparency and morality. He also sees world dynamics naturally drawing our storied ideals out of us as people in developing nations resonate with what we once were and may again become.

I haven't yet read the book, but the interview's a must-listen (fast forward through the first couple minutes of fundraising). It's chock-ful of fascinating digressions, including reminiscences of Bhutto's last days in Pakistan (he was sort of her confidante):
"Make no mistake, she was corrupt right down to her socks and she knew it; but at the end of her life, she actually started believing in these things she'd long espoused."
More interviews with the show's host Scott Harris can be downloaded
here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For a Taste of Governmental Regulation, Consider the IRS

I wrote about the distortive effect of government regulation of business, below. I'd like to stress that I'm by no means a rabid fan of unmitigated raw capitalism. Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand make me downright queasy. But while I recognize the absolute necessity of financial regulation, I'm also aware that it's always a compromise with the devil - the devil being Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Violent Tumultuous Change. 

Regulation creates unintended consequences, because regulators can never anticipate how business will scramble to heed (i.e. work around) a regulation. Worse ills than ever can arise as a result of a given application of medicine. And at times of crisis, when the economy's struggling to find a foothold, aggravating the situation with lots more regulation/distortion is rarely a good idea.

I just read an interesting explanation of how regulation can feel from the business point of view (I especially liked the IRS analogy). The following was posted anonymously to an Internet message board from a top manager at Apple during the SEC investigation of their options backdating issue last year (I've edited for grammar and clarity):

Anyone who has dealt with Government regulation will tell you it's very vague and misleading at times. If you ask the government to tell you what they mean, they will tell you that they can't tell you. You simply must develop policy to address the law or regulation, and if at some time in the future the government thinks you were wrong, they will come after you. They never tell you whether you got it "right", but they will come after you real fast if you got it "wrong"!

This is what happened with the whole stock option thing. They had rules that were not clear, and companies and individuals interpreted them in their favor and now the SEC has said "you're all wrong and will pay."

No different in doing your taxes. Call the IRS up and ask them if you can write something off on your taxes; you'll get ten different answers, and, if you get audited, it does not mater what they said before, the auditor has the final say.
Update: regarding this current bailout situation, while hasty regulation would be a poor idea, the money should definitely come with strings attached (i.e. give taxpayers a piece of any upside for their investment). Bill Clinton was dead right about this in his Daily Show appearance last night.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Finding Old Magazine and Newspaper Articles (and More!)

Many of us have grown lazy, spoiled by the vastness of Google. If Google can't find it, we generally quit the search. We fail to take advantage of other information tools at our disposal, even though lots of the best data are squirreled away in proprietary databases unavailable to web search.

For example, we've all searched for magazine and newspaper articles online and found them to be unavailable. You might resort to pricey Lexus searches, or else traipse to the library, but there's another option. Many (most? all?) libraries offer cardholders use of vast online databases archiving full text magazine and newspaper articles. Just enter your library card barcode number in your browser, even from your home computer. It's amazing.

I doubt that more than 1% of library card holders avail themselves of this content. For an eye-opening afternoon, surf to your library's home page and drill down to the links for online reference (you'll likely need to type in your library card number). And don't stop with the magazine/newspaper article offerings. You'll almost surely find access to other highly useful databases, as well.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the issue comes to my mind because I just scored, in all of three minutes of searching, all three of the wonderful articles mentioned in this Slate article on the late great David Foster Wallace, after spending 30 minutes fruitlessly looking for them on the Web. By the way, some other good Wallace articles are linked to in this New Yorker article.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Executive Salary Caps

It's just been announced that Democrats are proposing to cap executive compensation as part of the bail-out. 

I've been as appalled as anyone by the insane escalation of executive salaries. The vast income disparity has transformed our corpocracy into something more akin to an oligarchy. So I would have favored caps (or, preferably, some subtler mechanism) before this crisis hit. 

But regulatory interference creates distortion (i.e. as companies attempt to cope and work around the regulation, unintended consequences inevitably arise). And, tempting though it is to massively overhaul regulation at this juncture, heaping distortion now on a hobbled business environment will cloud prospects for recovery. 

Regulation set in place at this critical point should be focused on protecting taxpayers' investment and helping the bailout work...period.

Of course, salary caps are something we the masses (i.e. folks who'll be voting in a few weeks) want to see. But in this grave crisis, the Democrats ought to do what's best for the country, rather pander to voters.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cheney's Nickname Is "Management"

Harrowing quick highlights from "Angler", the new biography of Dick Cheney. 


Friday, September 19, 2008

Now They've Hacked Obama's Email

Take a look (and don't forget to hit the "next" button on the upper right of the page)


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Two Strategies For Deflecting Cellphone Loudmouths

1: The Big Shot
A guy next to me in an airport waiting area was doing Lots of Really Important Business on his cellphone. Moving twenty million units over here, billing a hundred grand over there. Very important. Big business. Big big big. Lotsa calls, without end.

Finally, while he was on the phone with Chicago, instructing them to move 50,000 units, I picked up my cellphone, pretended to dial, and calmly said into the phone (just loud enough for him to hear, and timed for one of his pauses), "Uh, yeah, I have information that they're moving 50,000 units."

He immediately got up and walked away. I never saw him again.

2: The Random Boob
I was sitting in my gym, collapsed into a perspirated lump as always after my Tasmanian Devil-ish three hour workouts. I'm too old for such exertion, but one way I handle it is to slump into a lovely ten minute catatonic rest period before showering and dressing. It makes all the difference. I really look forward to it.

But last week, a burly dude was pacing the area in which I was resting. He was arguing with someone over his cell, so immersed in his conversation that he failed to register my presence. Back and forth he paced, the volume rising and falling as he strode back and forth, back and forth. When he passed my chair, where I sat, gaunt and panting, the racket was ear-splitting. Such testosterone was invested in his call that I was positive that if I interrupted to ask him to continue elsewhere, he'd explode and take a swipe at me.

So as one of his pacing cycles started to bring him back toward me, I raised my hand to my ear as if there were a small cellphone in my palm. And I loudly bellowed, into my empty hand, "Hello?!? DONALD?!? HEY, man!!! What's GOING ON?? YEAH!!! I'm at the GYM!!!"

The guy instinctively fled to another room, completely unaware of the manipulation, just out of the pure reflexive need to escape the noise.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Is Walgreens Going All Trader Joe's?

I was in a Walgreens yesterday for the first time in a long while, and was surprised to see such a wide variety of store brands, most bearing the zippy new "W" label in place of the dowdy old "Walgreens" mark.

There were the usual generics - analgesic itch cream (the very term "itch cream" is enough to make you start scratching; properly marketed, this could be a black hole product trapping every consumer passing its event horizon), saline solution, and the like. But I also spotted "W" branded Scottish Shortbread (obviously produced by Walker's), and, miracle of miracles, W 'Ultra' Toilet Paper ("Compare With Charmin"). 

Charmin Ultra, once known simply as "Charmin", has long been the ne plus ultra of toilet paper. As the Charmin line has swelled with downlabel products, and other manufacturers have declined to produce a product of equal quality, its price has boosted ridiculously, to as much as a buck per roll. But, finally, Charmin stopped squeezing the customer: new "W" ultra costs only half the price of Charmin Ultra.

Everywhere my eye looked, I saw surprising and excellently-priced "W" store branded products on the shelves, most of them baldly betraying design motifs of the knocked-off brand. It makes me wonder whether Walgreens is aiming to become the Trader Joe's of notions and sundries.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hypocrites and Yahoos, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about the gaping hypocricies on view at the Republican convention, concluding that "Yes, they are hypocrites and yahoos....but so are the Democrats, in their own way."

Proof came quickly. Here's Joe Biden, part of the team that's going to bring
change into Washington and change into politics, pandering campaigning in Green Bay:
If the Green Bay Packers won, we got out early. If the Green Bay Packers lost, we got homework. I’m a Green Bay Packer guy since high school!
Ah. The refreshment is palpable. 

I have nothing against Biden, but this archetypal old-school establishment relic was as hypocritical a pick for a campaign screaming about need for change as Palin was for a campaign screaming about need for experience.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Kafkaesque

What an odd few weeks.

1. I had my opinion about a beer dismissed by a fellow who puffed up his chest and identified himself as a certified beer judge. When I continued to politely proffer my differing opinion, he asked me whether I'm a beer judge. I said "No, but..." and he interrupted to explain that he's been
trained to taste beer. So it wasn't that our opinions differed, it was that only one of us had a right to one. I've been tasting and writing about beer for twenty five years, but I could see no positive result from getting into all that. So I shrugged and grinned.

2. I attended a salsa dance party that included a free lesson before the band started. The lesson, per usual, involved rotating partners after each step taught. One large, intense woman, who danced in huge cloddish steps bellowing "One two THREE, five six SEVEN" at the top of her lungs, yanked and shoved me through the moves as if I were a rag doll. Guys don't know how to dance, so they must be firmly showed the way. She also condescended to offer me helpful suggestions after each bout. I've been playing salsa music for most of my life.

3. I heard a saxophonist playing jazz in a small town, and while he was only ok, I thought he might have potential. I introduced myself mildly as a NYC professional, and invited him to jam sometime. He told me he doesn't leave his house for less than $400 (he's a fixture on the lucrative wedding/bar mitzvah circuit).

4. I found myself at a party where a corporate haircut guy was chatting weightily about mergers and acquisitions. I piped in meekly to comment about an experience I'd had during a merger (Chowhound/CNET, of course). He paused briefly, sized me up with a withering, incredulous smirk, and proceeded to completely ignore me. I didn't strike him as someone who'd been through any sort of serious corporate merger.

5. I queried the features editor of the Danbury News Times about doing a piece on some great finds up there that I'd been saving up. In case she didn't recognize my name, I included a modest short bio. Her flat reply invited me to send in writing samples (Newsweek, NY Times, Slate, Newsday, et al didn't ask for samples...).


All my life I've taken pains not to come off as anyone special. To my horror, I'm finding that it's worked spectacularly.

My preference would be to occupy some comfortable midpoint between "special" and "bug-like". But human relations are so binary that no middle ground seems possible. If you don't project superiority  - if you're not a pompous, boastful, stuck-up "Do You Know Who I Am?!?" prick, leading with your accomplishments, playing the part, and prepared to pee at least as hard and as far as any alphas in your midst, it's surprisingly tough to be taken the least bit seriously by anyone. 

Saturday, September 6, 2008

United Flight 93

When I first heard that United Flight 93 had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, and that it was long enough after the World Trade Center catastrophe that people both on the ground and in the plane were aware that a similar fate was in store for this flight, and that its path had it aimed squarely at Washington DC, I assumed, as did anyone else with a functioning brain, that it had been shot down. And while I could argue both ways, there was certainly a case to be made for having done so.

I remember seeing on CNN how tightly the crash area had been sealed off, with absolutely no journalists permitted within the perimeters. I remember how the story disseminated that heroic passengers had engineered this result, not military missles. I was skeptical, to say the least.

But when, many months later, I learned that Linda Gronlund had been on board the flight, there was reason to reconsider. The Gronlunds were family friends when I was growing up, and Linda, a race car driver, karate expert, sailor, mechanic, EMT, environmentalist, and lots more, was pretty much the most can-do, resolute, fiercely determined person I've ever met. She called her sister Elsa via cellphone from the flight, and told her that the passengers understood the situation and that there was a plan to storm the cockpit. Demonstrating Linda's cool steely clarity of mind, she remembered to give Elsa precise instructions about where to find her will and other paperwork. Amazing.

I haven't seen the films or TV movies made about Flight 93, but I understand that none of them much featured Linda. I'm absolutely sure, though, that she was on the vanguard of whatever happened on that flight. Linda was born to storm cockpits.

Of course, what's unexplained is why the plane actually went down. One might guess that the hijackers, aware of a mob breaking down the cockpit door, executed a hard dive. But that would only have been a last ditch maneuver, as their goal wasn't to murder airplaine passengers, but to bomb the White House. I can't imagine geared-up fanatics executing an abortive dive without a fight. And, heroic as the passengers may well have been, they undoubtedly were aiming to gain control of the aircraft, rather than ditch it. So whence the downward plunge?

My guess is that both stories are right. I think the cockpit
was stormed (Linda Gronlund would not have sat quietly and failed to take action), and the plane was indeed shot down as it passed over the last rural landscape before entering more populated areas. 

My heartfelt hope is that the passengers hadn't just prevailed over the hijackers when the missiles arrived. I must avoid imagining that scenario. But I bet Linda would have understood even if it had played out that way.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hypocrites and Yahoos

Bill Clinton was derided by the right for having tried pot. But George Bush, a cocaine addict and alcoholic, was accepted without hesitation.

John Kerry was derided for being a flip-flopper. But John Mccain has flipflopped spectacularly on a number of issues.

Obama was derided for his lack of experience. But Sarah Palin, whose entire foreign policy savvy stems from having run a state bordering on the USSR, is to be installed a mere heartbeat from the presidency.

I always try to understand all sides, resisting the urge to think like a knee-jerk partisan. I don't like the polarization in our society, so I try to adopt the more reasoned, conciliatory attitude I'd like to see in others. So while I realize that the blue state-ish answer is that they're just all a bunch of hypocrites and yahoos, I'd very much like to see a deeper perspective. The best I can come up with is that, yes, they are hypocrites and yahoos....but so are the Democrats, in their own way. 

So I suppose my aversion is to hypocrites and yahoos rather than any certain political stripe.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sarah Palin's Future

A media honcho friend who was at the convention last night emailed to say he cringed through Sarah Palin's speech, and that "she should be on Jerry Springer."

Whatever you think of Palin, she's likely to remain on our national scene for another three decades. That's a very long time. She'll fill in the experience gap. Her following, already fervid, will only grow. And she may one day be our Margaret Thatcher.

Giuliani Time, Again

In an otherwise spotty article for Slate about Sarah Palin's defenders, Fred Kaplan brilliantly sized up Rudy Giuliani's latest reemergence:
On ABC TV Wednesday morning, he went so far as to claim that her "executive experience" would have enabled her to handle 9/11 with ease—far more so than Barack Obama or Joe Biden who, he said, have "the least executive experience of any presidential candidate in 100 years.
Well, not quite: John F. Kennedy had no executive experience before running for president. Neither, by the way, has John McCain. By this logic, Palin should top the ticket, with McCain as her No. 2. 
[snip]
I remember, as the Boston Globe's New York bureau chief, interviewing Giuliani in his office at City Hall while the 1996 Republican Convention was going on in San Diego. I asked him why he wasn't there. He said that he didn't go in for that kind of politics, that he had more in common with moderates in both parties than with extremists in either. That was then. I would have figured that, after tanking so disastrously in the GOP primaries—spending $59 million and winning a single delegate for his trouble—Rudy would have given up trying to placate the yahoos and gone back to raking in the big bucks. My guess is he's angling for a job in the McCain administration, either attorney general or director of homeland security. (Watch out!)
My god. He's right.

I can't even think about Giuliani as attorney general, and for homeland security director, I'd prefer Attila the Hun. In fact, this potential appointment concerns me more than the Supreme Court appointments. To read up on Giuliani and understand why he terrifies me, read this
NY Times article, this Salon piece, and this surprising open letter about Giuliani from the NYC Firefighters Union. Those articles (mostly from - or about - the 1990's) shed light on his monstrous tenure as NYC mayor, but bear in mind that, per Kaplan's analysis, the guy seems to have unhinged all the way in the subsequent decade.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Breaking Free of the Adhesion Mafia

Big brainstorm today!

I recently ran out of adhesive to/from address labels. So I visited Staples The Office Supplies Superstore, and found a tidy little house-branded package of them...for like six dollars. I tried to take a deep breath, grab the package, and bring it to the cash register, but it didn't work. The price wasn't just outrageous, it was a deal-breaker, and it totally disrupted the momentum of my buying impulse. Cheeks flushed with indignation, I stalked out of the store, figuring I'd...idunno, go online and find something cheaper. Or something.

Of course, there is nothing cheaper. Adhesive products are apparently produced by some sinister mafia that's conditioned consumers to pay triple what they ought to for the magical property of stickiness. There may have been a time, circa 1920, when "sticky" was a new rage, and products with this magical high-tech property deserved a vast premium. Today, the markup seems ludicrous.

I reuse old Amazon boxes, so writing addresses directly on the cardboard (covered in Amazon graphics) with magic marker is not an option. The correct tool for this job, really, is adhesive-backed labels onto which I can scrawl recipient's address. And, since my boycott has deprived me of the correct tool, unmailed packages have begun piling up in my kitchen.

But I'm no dummy. I thought the impasse through, and struck upon a course of action. I need to find some way to make labels and papers sticky on my own, circumventing the Adhesion Mafia! So I considered options, recalling, for one thing, that Staples The Office Supplies Superstore sells a make-sticky liquid that can be applied to the back of papers to turn them into homegrown Stickie Notes. It is, alas, expensive. And, anyway, for this job, I need something stronger; something that would stick the address label on my package in a secure way.

And then it came to me. Glue! What I need for this job is paper and Elmer's glue. Fabulous! I'm going to save a ton! Please circulate this hot tip!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Buying Eyewear Online

Slate reports on the latest online buying frenzy: high-quality glasses for like $26.

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