Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Inside Look At The Banking Meltdown

Sherman Oaks, California

Although lengthy, these two posts (one, two) by Captain Capitalism take you into the belly of subprime beast. An excerpt:

"And then I realized what was happening. Jimmy was new. And in being new he foolishly held onto some romantic notions of running a good business, making good loans and doing what was in the best, long term interests of the bank. He, like I did before, somehow thought that efficiency and profitability were the primary goals of the bank. That the bank existed to make a profit. And that because of this, management would presumably prefer to avoid bad loans. In other words he didn’t understand the true business the bank was in. That it was not there to make a profit, serve the shareholders or conduct good business, but that it was there first and foremost as an employment vehicle for castes of senior managers and bankers. That profit and efficiency were truly secondary, if not a complete ruse. Nothing more than sweet nothings to be whispered into the shareholder’s ear."

(Flash of the Knife to Instapundit.)

The Real One Is Outside Danang

Sherman Oaks, California

There are many stories of the Americans in Asia. This is one.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"What Geopolitical Forces Create Soviet Bloc Supermodels?"

Sherman Oaks, California

Anne Applebaum answers the question in Slate. Excerpt:

"Though this is a fairly frivolous question (OK, extremely frivolous), I am convinced it has an interesting answer. To put it bluntly, in the Soviet Union there was no market for female beauty. No fashion magazines featured beautiful women, since there weren't any fashion magazines. No TV series depended upon beautiful women for high ratings, since there weren't any ratings. There weren't many men rich enough to seek out beautiful women and marry them, and foreign men couldn't get the right sort of visa. There were a few film stars, of course, but some of the most famous — I'm thinking of Lyubov Orlova, alleged to be Stalin's favorite actress — were wholesome and cheerful rather than sultry and stunning. Unusual beauty, like unusual genius, was considered highly suspicious in the Soviet Union and its satellite people's republics."

Then 1989 changed everything.

Pictured: The improbably but correctly named Andrea Lehotska.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Suharto of Indonesia Is Dead

Sherman Oaks, California

The most corrupt dictator of the 20th century is dead from multi-organ failure at 86.

Jakarta Post news, announcement of mourning and analysis.

Also: NYT. WaPo. BBC.

From the Archive: Slate's "How Did Suharto Steal $35 Billion?"


Friday, January 25, 2008

Government Needs To Do Something!

Sherman Oaks, California

"We live in an age where a person with a $20,000 truck in the driveway of his $150,000 house eats a steak, surfs the net on his computer, and then sits down and curses at the politician he sees on his 50-inch Plasma screen TV because he thinks that the pol isn't doing enough to make his life better."

-- The Ten Most Annoying Things About The Race For The Presidency" by John Hawkins


George Carlin On Airport Security

Sherman Oaks, California

He's not impressed.

Highlight: "As far as I'm concerned, all of this airport security, all the searches, the screeners, the cameras, the questions, it's just one more way of reducing your liberty and reminding you that they can fuck with you anytime they want as long as you put up with it, as long as you put up with it -- which means, of course, anytime they want."

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The LG GSA-E50L: It Plugs In Good

Sherman Oaks, California

I’m inherently distrustful of any product that comes with a pre-printed Declaration of Conformity.

This particular declaration certified compliance with Part 15 of the FCC Rules, but a Declaration of Conformity sounds like something the government issues when you and your pregnant wife buy a station wagon.

The declaration was one of several pieces of paper that came with my new tool, the LG Slim Portable External Super Multi DVD Rewriter, also known by the catchy model name GSA-E50L (pictured).

My computer does not have an optical drive. I work on an IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad x60 (soon to be upgraded), one of Lenovo’s “ultra-portable” notebooks. It weighs less than three pounds, and one of the reasons it’s so light is that it lacks an optical drive. Since I only use the drive to load software or read data, I don’t need it every day.

The E50L is reputedly one of the smallest and lightest external optical drives on the consumer market. It’s about six inches long by about six inches deep by less than one inch high. Weighs less than two pounds. It’s powered through the USB cord attached to the computer, so there’s no need to lug around a power unit. It’s a DVD±R/DVD+RW/DVD-RW/DVD-RAM/WTF/WTF/WTF. It’s cool looking in an Apple trade dress violation way. $138 total from Best Buy.

I am generally terrible with gadgets. Peripherals and accessories make me red when they don’t connect or there’s a compatibility problem. In my enchanted kingdom, they should magically work. So I was wary when I plugged in the E50L.

It started right up. The software that came with it loaded quickly, and I was watching a DVD within minutes. The device was able to read a CD full of documents I recently received from a government agency.

We’ll see how it runs in the long term, but it’s working fine on the first two days.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's "Rip Off Knife Tricks Day" At Gawker Media

Sherman Oaks, California

Dear Nick Denton:

I see that your blog Fleshbot posted today about Carla Bruni's intolerant attitude toward clothing after noting yesterday that sexy mistresses make politics more interesting. I did the same post (all at one time!), linking to the same pictures, more than a month ago.

Coincidence? How about the fact that your blog Gawker illustrated a newspaper industry piece today with the poster for the movie Newsies. I think I saw that somewhere in November.

This is the thanks I get for tipping your writers off to the ghost haunting Candace Bushnell and Janice Dickinson?

So, Denton, would you rather cut me a check per page view or retain me to keep the kids less than 30 days behind the curve?


Dark Lord My Kitchen

Name Checked At WorldHum

Sherman Oaks, California

Noticed today that WorldHum's Joanna Kakissis name checked my Portfolio quotes in October. Because every media reference to me must be duly noted.

Japanese Banking News

Sherman Oaks, California

From Knife Tricks correspondent Howlie of Asia:

Following the problems in the sub-prime lending market in America, economic uncertainty has now hit Japan.

In the last 7 days Origami Bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly-up, and Bonsai Bank announced plans to severely cut back its branches.

Yesterday, it was announced that Karaoke Bank is up for sale and is likely to go for a song, while today shares in Kamikaze Bank were suspended after they nose-dived.

Furthermore, 500 staff at Karate Bank got the chop, and analysts report that there is something fishy going on at Sushi Bank where it is feared that staff may get a raw deal.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An M.B.A. In Mediocrity

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, And Join The New Rich by Timothy Ferriss (Crown 2007).

Most of us would like to work half a day a week, generating enough income to spend the rest of our time traveling.

Most of us would also like to live with ourselves.

Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek explains how to do the former but not the latter.

Ferriss’ plan is basic: Identify a product that someone else makes. Sell it online to a niche market. Have the manufacturer ship directly to the consumer. Only accept payment by electronic fulfillment. Empower your surrogates to address customer concerns unilaterally. Your job, after the start up, is to let the money roll in, freeing time to take tango lessons in Buenos Aires.

Ferriss’ principal argument is that Americans’ lives are dominated by “time famine,” with people spending thirty years working with colleagues they don’t like in order to buy things they don’t need. Many people would be happier if they downshifted to a less consumptive lifestyle that allowed them to spend more time during the primes of their lives engaged in creative or spiritual or intellectual pursuits. While they’re at it, everyone should throw out or donate to charity the 80% of their belongings they haven’t used in the past year.

“The rules most follow are nothing more than social conventions. There are no legal boundaries stopping you from creating an ideal life,” Ferriss writes. He’s correct. I used to tell law students that, if they wanted to practice entertainment law, all they had to do was practice entertainment law. Same goes for sailing through the South Pacific or living in Africa for a year. Make the necessary preparations and do it. It’s that simple.

I agree with Ferriss’ ends, but I’m appalled by his means.

Ferriss’ book advocates the Taylorization of mediocrity. Ferriss has no interest in being good at something if he can merely be good enough.

“’Expert’ in the context of selling product means that you know more about the topic than the purchaser. No more,” Ferriss states. If you want to learn something new, “read the three top-selling books on your topic and summarize each on one page.” To improve your “credibility indicators,” go online and “join two or three related trade organizations with official-sounding names.”

I have a term for people who operate this way: bullshit artists. The world needs fewer salesmen who can’t answer questions about the products they’re selling. The market can do without more lowest common denominator products that pretend to be, but aren’t, specialized for the niche user. For once, I’d like to see the morning show anchor ask the expert guest what university degree entitles her to the prenomial “Dr.” and which peer-reviewed journal published her field work.

Ferriss uses the example of a friend who, after three weeks, was able to call herself a “top relationship expert who, as featured in Glamour and other national media, has counseled executives at Fortune 500 companies on how to improve their relationships in 24 hours or less.”

That copy might fool a few people fresh off the plane from rural Moldova, but most of us can see it for the non-resume it is. No academic degree in the field. No significant work experience. No publications (that Glamour piece could be a quote – not that there’s anything wrong with that). Put it all together, and it’s another minimally qualified person passing herself off as an expert.

Ferriss appears to have approached his book in the same manner. His ideas are interesting if you’ve never encountered them before, but, if you know what he’s talking about, his advice is thin and his corner cutting is obvious.

For example, Ferris challenges the common American misconception that extended foreign travel is expensive (when, in fact, it can cost significantly less than living in the States). One of his examples is a person who allegedly said, “I’ll only work in consulting until I’m 35, then retire and ride a motorcycle across China.”

Memorable quote. So memorable that anyone who’s read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts will recognize it from the first chapter. The quote is adapted from Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street, and Potts pointed out that, to most Americans watching the film, the quote barely registered, it seemed such a truism. In reality, Potts noted, a janitor in Sheen’s office building could afford a Chinese motorcycle expedition after working six months.

I have no personal use for Ferriss’ advice. As a lawyer, I’m expected by my clients to have an understanding of the field that goes well beyond having read the three top-selling books (and you know how the bestseller lists are jammed with novelizations about the Copyright Act’s writing requirement).

Even if pressure to perform didn’t come from the clients, I would hope it comes from inside. The people I respect want to master their jobs, not perform at a level a touch above getting fired.

Ferriss’ methods might be a workable way to improve efficiency, but I doubt they're the path to happiness and fulfillment. Who wants to wake up every morning and say, "Today, I'll do the minimum."?

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Election Ads: "The Bear"

Sherman Oaks, California

Once upon a time, presidential campaign commercials were about ideas. The candidates took firm stands on controversial issues and treated voters like adults. At the end of the commercial, you may not have agreed with the candidate, but you knew where he stood and you respected his principled stand.

No, I don’t think it was ever like that, either.

But this commercial came close. “The Bear” addressed with clarity the most important issue of its time. The spot is about a philosophy; it’s not a laundry list of proposed government giveaways like today’s commercials.

The ad is about an idea. The last line hovers in the air, seemingly incongruent, forcing you to think about what you’ve seen. Whether you agree with the candidate or not, you understand what position he’s taking and, more importantly, why. All in thirty seconds.

Those were the days.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Confessions Of A Rogue Travel Writer

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of A Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson (Holt 2007).

Everything you are about to read is true:

“Like Bangkok, Jakarta and a handful of other festering, beggar-laden Third World megatropolises, Manila is one of the great sprawling shitholes of Asia, a reeking mess of poverty, traffic, smog, crime, corruption, and filth. Bursting with people who somehow maintain a bulletproof optimism in the face of decay, disorder, and daily tragedy, these are frenetic slum-cities where everything, from blow jobs to military coups, can happen at any time. Cities that you love just slightly more than you loathe. For those unacquainted with the region, ‘sprawling Asian shithole’ is employed as a term of endearment.”

So says Chuck Thompson in his book of travel sketches Smile When You’re Lying.

Says I: Amen, brother.

Many of the great cities of Asia are great because they’re anarchic dystopias. Nothing invigorates the spirit like the realization that, as long as you’re not maiming or murdering someone important, you can do anything you want and there is nothing the constabulary can or will or cares to do to stop you. The locals figure this out by the age of three, which is why some of East Asia’s merchants can’t be bothered with the detail of unscrewing the Russian license plates from the stolen Mercedes sedans they’re selling.

Your opinion of Asia’s scruffier cities may be different, but, warns Thompson, if your opinion isn’t blandly complimentary, don’t bother pitching your vision as a story idea to a travel magazine. The editors are only interested in non-threatening articles which put the readers in a buying mood and attract advertising from the travel industry – which doesn’t appreciate it when a tourist magnet like Bangkok is referred to as a “sprawling Asian shithole” (which it is, and I say that lovingly).

Thompson argues that the problem with much of the writing in travel publications is the complete absence of authorial perspective or point of view. “The most memorable experiences – getting laid, sick, lost, home – always seem ‘too negative,’ ‘too graphic,’ or ‘too over the heads of our readers’ to find their ways into print,” he writes. In addition, “the writer who dares make anything other than holistically supportive judgments of any foreign culture (not counting Arab) risks career suicide.”

Which might be why Thompson decided that he needed his own book to make observations like this one:

“Americans are the new Germans. Around the planet, ‘America’ has become a byword for the kind of pushy, greedy, arrogant, ignorant, scheming, intolerant, hypocritical, violent, militaristic, goose-stepping, blood-gulping, Limbaugh-worshipping bullies that civilized people since time eternal have despised and occasionally battled to the death. All you 82 million Germans can start thanking the United States anytime now for taking those goat horns off your heads.”

Thompson grew up in Juneau, Alaska, as one of a small number of humans who thought of Canada as being to the south. He describes his time as a hard-partying assistant sergeant at arms in the Alaska House of Representatives, then various adventures in Japan, Latin America, East Asia and the former Soviet Bloc.

And don’t forget the Caribbean:

“I find myself wondering why anyone – much less the 35 million people who go to the Caribbean each year – would blow presumably limited vacation days and budgets on a place where the definition of ‘paradise’ is fluid enough to include sullen service, neglected hotels, and restaurants where waiting forty-five minutes for a small mango juice is considered an immense honor. The whole place needs a fresh coat of paint, a platoon of chefs who understand how to prepare sea food, and a ban on thirty-year-old white women having their hair cornrowed by fourteen-year-old black girls.”

Thompson’s not all negative. He loves Latin America and regrets the fact that his countrymen are too timid to travel there because of “the overcautious zeitgeist of an America in which half the population now behaves like insurance adjusters.”

OK, even when he’s being nice to one region, he’s swiping at another, but Thompson’s goal is to present a personal, uncompromised opinion – the travel industry be damned.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Receipt Preferences

Sherman Oaks, California

Borders Register Clerk: Do you want your receipt in the bag?

Me: Where else would I want it?

Clerk: In your hand.

Me: No. In the bag, please.


Me: What difference does it make?

Clerk: Some people don’t want it in the bag.

Me: How many people actually express a preference without prompting?

Clerk: A lot. Some will even grab it out of the bag and put it directly in their wallet.

Me: Oh.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Watch Where You're Pointing That Thing

Sherman Oaks, California

The Brisbane Times last month ran what appears to be a file photo of Everybody's Favorite Communist Mouthpiece, Edwin Maher, in his former life as a wacky Australian weatherman. Decide for yourself which job is tackier.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Why Do Newspaper Travel Sections Suck?

Sherman Oaks, California

In a 2003 essay in Columbia Journalism Review, Thomas Swick defined newspaper travel writing first by what it includes and then by what it omits.

According to Swick, the stories published in the Sunday travel sections suffer from a banal sameness.

"To serve their purposes, without appearing too utilitarian, newspapers have created a standard type of travel story that is generally about a person who goes to a place -- as opposed to being about a place -- often with a spouse or companion," Swick wrote.

"In this genre, a variation on the phrase 'my husband, Ken, and I,' is pretty much de rigueur by at least the third paragraph. These two prim sojourners invariably stay in good hotels ('elegant' if in a city, 'rustic' in the country), and eat in fine restaurants, savoring the 'succulent regional cuisine.' They visit the museums and other sights, which allows for the inclusion of pertinent historical facts, as well as helpful touristic information. 'The following two days were packed with visits to Neapolis, the Greek theater, and the Latomia del Paradiso (an ancient quarry, now overgrown), never leaving us time to use the hotel's inviting private beach' (from a New York Times story by Ken's wife, last September). The author may express to his or her companion admiration for ancient skills or practices, which, it is sometimes added, are sadly lacking today. They stroll cobblestone streets, palm-fringed beaches, hedgerowed lanes, patchwork fields (pick your picturesqueness); they drift blissfully through a 'land of contrasts.' Though sometimes baffled by strange money or foreign telephones, they are never in any danger. They leave enchanted and refreshed -- though rarely moved or permanently altered -- frequently vowing to return some day. It is the travel story's equivalent of living happily ever after, and it leaves a reader with the sense that something is missing in this fairy tale."

What's missing, among other things, is reportage about unpleasant realities, a sense of the present (as opposed to the well-tended past), humor, dialogue and, Swick noted, people, flesh-and-blood imperfect people. Instead, most newspaper travel pieces are as non-threateningly "exotic" as the photograph posted above.

Swick's essay goes a long way in explaining why I read stacks of travel books but go months without picking up a Sunday newspaper travel section.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Short-Sighted Politicians

Sherman Oaks, California

Critiquing the Newburyport City Council.