Monday, May 31, 2010

Acupuncture, Part II

Okay, so Dr. X didn't work out.  Back out here, struggling to maintain an open mind re: acupuncture, I pulled out my list of certified Alberta acupuncturists who are also MD's, map-quested them, made a few inquiries, and phoned for an appointment with Dr. Y - a Canadian-born and raised MD less than three hours away who had spent a full year becoming certified in China, and had been shortlisted by Dr. X.  He practiced both conventional western medicine and acupuncture.  Sure his office wasn't fancy, in fact it was right next to an industrial area, but hey - maybe he's just the down-to-earth type, thought I.  His extensive medical history (and lack of luxury sport cars in the parking lot and bored, wealthy housewives in the reception area) made me feel immediately more comfortable.  Nice guy, no "Dr. Y is wonderful" repeated by rote by a staff member, no palmistry.  So far, so good.  I told my story and Y thought he might be able to offer relief for my back pain, using acupuncture points on my head - on my head!  (Mostly ears, that is, but there were a couple above the nose between my eyes too.)  No electrical stimulation this time, and only $45 per quarter hour.  "Let's do it", I said.  Well, for the uninformed, ears are largely made of cartilage under that normal-looking exterior.  And needles stuck in cartilage cause: a) pain, and b) bleeding.  A more painful quarter of an hour I can't recall since having appendicitis at age 11.  I bled like a stuck pig.  Thanks, Dr. Y, but I'll stick with back pain.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Acupuncture, Part I

Years back I was persuaded to try acupuncture for chronic back pain.  As the recipient of CE literature re: the same from a naturalized Canadian MD who practiced acupuncture full-time and taught at a prestigious medical school (though he was originally from China), I thought "this guy is the perfect place to start".  (I refuse treatment of any kind not supervised by a qualified MD on principle).  After a six hour drive I pulled into the parking lot of an old mansion converted to his clinic, and parked amongst the myriad Porsches, Vettes, and Beamers there.  Upon entering the reception area it became obvious to me that acupuncture must be the current rage among bored wealthy housewives - not a good sign.  A too brief medical history completed, I was ushered into one of at least 8 treatment rooms (all in use all of the time at $60 per quarter hour - not covered by thy plan) by a nice little girl who gushed a bit too routinely about how wonderful Dr. X was.  When X entered the room, a too brief glance at my medical history was quickly followed by a request to read my palm - read my palm!  (He thus correctly surmised that I had a wife and three children.)  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but was relieved when X asked me where the pain was and commenced treatment (needles in my back and legs stimulated by electric current for exactly 12.5 minutes).  I suppose it could have been the acupuncture (or the long drive) but I dozed off and not so miraculously felt better when awakened.  "I'll need to see you the next four days in a row" Dr. X proclaimed, to which I said "Sorry, I've got a full slate of appointments tomorrow six hours from here", to which X replied "that drive will undo all of my healing anyway, so I'll refer you to someone closer to home".  Thus ended my first acupuncture encounter; unimpressed, poorer by $60, but a believer in palmistry.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Art Cashinisms

One of the few voices always worth listening to on "CNBS" (as I prefer to call it) is the exceedingly sage call-it-as-you-see-it Mr. Art Cashin, Floor Director for UBS at the NYSE.  An authentic character in an age of talking heads and silicone boobs, he is interviewed daily usually just before or just after the market opens at 9:30 am EDT.  Art has been around the stock market a long time and is worth listening to (the green bowler hat, bow tie and Irish whiskey-laced coffee on St. Paddy's Day notwithstanding).  Some recent Cashinisms:
"It's not where the market opens that matters, but where it closes."
"If he (Greece) can still get his allowance without cleaning up his room, why do I have to?"
"Even a broken clock is right twice a day."
"The Compaq deal so far looks like it's been relegated to the Compaqtor."
"The market remains psychotic.  It can't get a trend that lasts more than a day."
And most importantly, after 43 years on Wall Street, he's usually right in his market prognostications.  Keep it up, Art!

Friday, May 28, 2010

My Very Own CO2, Methane and Nitrous Oxide

This week was supposed to see the arrival of my steers - that is if I hadn't fallen ill, the rain hadn't socked in, and my fences had magically mended themselves!  Oh well, maybe next week.  Even though the cattle aren't here yet I've already named three of them "CO2", "Methane" and "Nitrous Oxide" after the three worst greenhouse gases (GhG's) - and in honour of a recent study by Dr. Klaus Butterbach-Bahl of the Karlesruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.  I'm sure by now that you've heard the complaints against bovine flatulence (ie. methane) making the GhG problem more acute.  Dr. B-B has now determined that grazed grassland actually produces less nitrous oxide than ungrazed pasture because long grass accumulates snow cover which insulates the microbes that release nitrous oxide.  (So when grass is cut short by animals the ground freezes and the microbes die, ie. I'm supposed to be happy about the freezing temperatures and snow we got out here yesterday!)  Apparently nitrous oxide emissions from temperate grasslands account for up to 1/3 of the total amount produced around the world every year.  In terms of perniciousness, nitrous oxide is the third most important GhG after CO2 and methane.  I guess this makes me an enviro-angel.  Who woulda thunk?  Just doin' my part, Festus.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Key Biscayne Appy

Many years ago, while doing a week of continuing education on Key Biscayne, some fellow students and myself stumbled into a sleepy out of the way "locals only' marina with a bar/restaurant, both of which had obviously seen better days.  Peeling paint on the outside, a hole in the ceiling inside with a palm tree growing up through it, a tailless cat due to a run-in with the pet monkey that lived in the palm tree, Jimmy Buffett on the cassette player, and a rooster who strutted around the establishment constantly - you get the picture.  Both hungry and thirsty after hoofing it around the key (just off Miami, it's home to Richard Nixon's Summer White House, the Miami Seaquarium, and the Lipton Pro Tennis Tourney), we didn't care.  Burgers and beer ordered, we were only too happy to dive into the only appetizer offered: a bowl of original Triscuits (salt and all), a second bowl of flaked white tuna (not sure whether they were caught in dolphin-proof nets or not), and a bottle of Frank's (hot sauce, for the uninitiated).  Well, scoop a little tuna onto a cracker and add a few drops of Frank's - and you have possibly the fastest, cheapest, bestest-tasting appy on the planet!  Even better, your guests can build their own if you're caught off-guard by surprise.  Cheap too.  Our summer favorite - try it, you'll like it!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

From The Left: Watering Daze

I live in a small community with a water management plan which for the past 6 years has involved watering 3 days a week (probably 2 more than I'm currently doing) and next year having meters installed to more accurately gauge each household's usage. I already feel guilty as it is, hauling the hose about my yard, furtively setting up in the dark the night before so I can turn on the tap at 5:00 the next morning and scoot back inside before I'm noticed. I sheepishly admit to tsk-tsking at those on my block who water the street. Ominously, I've recently developed an annoying and persistent habit of keeping track of households which consistently water on their incorrect days, and am sorely tempted to report them to bylaw enforcement (halted only by my wife's threat to tell my friends that I have done so.) You see the trouble these restrictions can cause, however well intentioned. My wife's car hasn't see a wet rag in years. Don't even start on me about those who insist on washing their vehicles in their driveways, hoses running all the while. I'm beginning to think I need psychiatric help. I don't know about you, but I'm seriously considering xeriscaping just to preserve my sanity.

Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar Games is estimated to have invested 80 million dollars in this replacement for the highly successful yet morally repugnant Grand Theft Auto series.  Yep, Festus, a "duster" video game set in 1911 - just modern enough to allow for some early electronics as telephones started to replace the telegraph.  Receiving a 9.5 out of 10 by the industry's rating agency, Red Dead Redemption has blockbuster written all over it, and undoubtedly a movie based on the game is already in the works.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a gamer (although I know at least one hardcore shoot-em-up advocate and there may be more "in the closet") - and I doubt that I'll darken the doorway of the store that sells this one - but there are some interesting societal implications here.  For instance, are we yearning for a time when life was "simpler"?  A time when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black ones instead of weird Korean jumpsuits?  When working sunup to sundown wasn't a matter of getting ahead but of survival?  When the barbed wire was put on the outside of your posts to keep other people's cattle out, not on the inside to keep your cattle in?  When wolves, bears and coyotes were recognized as the vermin that they are?  Saddle up, Kemosabe, buy some Take-Two shares, and hi-ho Silver away!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Skin Cancer or Sunscreen Cancer?

Skin cancer rates are on the rise.  Many years ago, I recall skin cancer was 10 times as frequent in Texas as it was in Alberta according to the scholarly journals, and the obvious conclusion was that the intensity of the rays in the lone star state was the cause.  In fact, there is a boatload of research that links skin cancer to sun exposure.  Yours truly (lazy by nature and quick to tan thanks to genetics) has rarely been persuaded to slather on anything other than the occasional spilled beer - unless the wind is up and I'm sailing for some distance under a blazing sun.  (In actual fact I much prefer staying under an umbrella with a cold one when on the beach.)  It occurred to me about ten years ago that sales of sun block probably paralleled those of skin cancer rates - and thus a natural question to ask would be whether sun block could be causing rather than preventing skin cancer.  And, facetiously of course, I stated as much upon more than one occasion.  Imagine my surprise when I heard a news story reporting that the FDA has found that a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, present in about 40% of all sunscreens, may accelerate the development of skin cancer!  You can read more, including a list of good and bad sun goops at www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen/.      

Monday, May 24, 2010

Part 5: European Dominos: Global Cascade?

"Precious metals will reign", according to Leo Isaak at www.minyanville.com : "Currency debasement will continue to push gold (and silver) as it becomes the reserve currency it was hundreds of years ago...So what does all this mean for the markets?...[Europe's] decline is well on its way.  If things move as fast as they have on other issues this year, it means that we could see declines of perhaps 15-25% in the second half [of 2010] alone.  850 on the S&P is roughly 25% down from here....the economy is, in fact, not doing that well....It's obvious to me that the public won't tolerate more indebtedness by the government.  For the last two weeks, I've been slowly selling my long positions, or hedging them while opening new short positions in line with the macro thesis I've laid out here.  I think it's possible we try to make one more stab at 1150 or 1200 (though we may have just seen it...), but any move higher is an opportunity to sell....To me, there's no reason to be in stocks right now.  You will get another opportunity, but that opportunity won't be there if you're out of capital.  I certainly hope that I'm wrong, but I'm incredibly bearish over the intermediate term (with no real opinion short term).  Without drastic and immediate changes in fiscal policy both domestically and abroad, we're in for a heap of trouble."  I encourage you to read the original article at www.minyanville.com.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Part 4: European Dominos: Global Cascade?

"With the rest of the world in turmoil, can America really continue on a positive path?  The dominoes will hit American shores - the question is when."  So sayeth Leo Isaak at www.minyanville.com.  In short: "...have you noticed how Gold has been soaring along with the dollar?  That isn't supposed to happen, but it is and everyone should be paying attention....People are voting with their feet...If a debt-laden Europe is seeing these kinds of problems, the US will eventually see them as well....Yes, the US can print money at will, but that is as much of a negative as it is a positive....[US] still sells bonds, and at some point velocity will catch up with us, driving down the value of the dollar and driving up interest rates...until rates match investor requirements...Right now Greece should be paying at least 15% on its sovereign debt....The Fed won't raise rates ... but the market will do it for them.  Inflation will finally trump deflation....Deflation coming from stagnant wages, tight consumer credit, and economic slack is being offset by rising prices in the cost of government, medicine, education, and other things we "need" versus things we "want", plus the massive amount of money that has been printed to date (and is sitting on bank balance sheets).  Austerity will be welcomed by many in America....the Tea Party movement didn't just arise out of thin air...Sacrifice ... no longer exists in Europe.  [We'll] see if it still exists in America."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Part 3: European Dominos: Global Cascade?

Has Germany saved the Euro?  Leo Isaak (www.minyanville.com) thinks not.  Click on the link to read the full story, but here is another precis: "As Greece was the first domino in Europe, Europe will be the first domino for the rest of the world."  To wit: "Europe is China's biggest customer....their economies will forcibly slow...and...that means lower spending on imported goods from both China and the US....The first sovereign default will set off a debt devaluation that will rock the continent and more....it could happen in 2011 as just Europe and the US have between $7 trillion and $8 trillion in debt to rollover by the end of this year...Slower China will reduce demand for hard commodities....reduced demand plus a higher dollar equals lower prices for crude, copper, cement, steel, etc.  These sectors are by far the most dangerous right now....Collapsing Euro will eliminate any chance for a Yuan revaluation....[otherwise their goods will be too expensive for Europeans]...Slowing Europe and continental Asia will also hit Japan....Japan is a titanic mess with debt problems that are actually worse than everyone else's...A lower Euro and slower China make it tougher on export-oriented Japan....its debt service will become unbearable, causing a true collapse in the Yen and possibly even a default for Japan....That is staggering."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Part 2: European Dominos: Global Cascade?

Thursday's market crash even has Larry Kudlow (champion of any green shoot - however limp) unnerved.  He's "hoping the world financial system survives the next sixty days" it will take to implement circuit breakers into the U.S. index computers.  So what exactly is wrong with Europe, according to Leo Isaak at www.minyanville.com ?  (I recommend you read the original article in its entirety.)  "Massive amounts of sovereign and corporate debt....Where is the economic growth (to pay it back) going to come from?...Tax hikes will only serve to slow recovery even more....Rampant Unemployment....Spain (has) 20+% unemployment and near 45% unemployment for those under 25....Greece is no better and the backroom dealings and corruption add a seedy and impossible layer to the whole system....No commonalities in tax system, retirement, social ideology, etc....Greece has no effective tax collection system making it impossible to properly fund the government, France works 35 hours a week (punishing those who are more industrious), and Germany is continually forced to play big brother to all of them.  Without commonality in retirement age, work hours, how taxes are both assessed and collected, and more - the EMU will fall.  The differences are just too great."  Not to mention deadly riots over austerity measures!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Part 1: European Dominos: Global Cascade?

A May 19th article by Leo Isaak on www.minyanville.com caught my eye.  Even for a guy who admittedly reads too much doom and gloom this one shocked me to my core.  Isaak lays out his thoughts about how the globalized economy could play out in light of the current Euro mess.  "I think Europe could very well destroy any hope of a recovery that we thought we might see.  Not only that, I think it could push the world off of a precipice of debt that, if it were to occur, would create something resembling outright disaster.  Austerity combined with savage debt service issues and crushing currency devaluation is impacting the entire world, and we're now starting to see the economic domino theory I wrote about a month ago.  Frankly, I'm nothing short of terrified.  These aren't words I use lightly.  In fact, the last time I uttered them was July 2008 in an email to my closest friends warning them of an impending crash."  Over the next several days I will attempt to summarize Isaak's rationale for being so "incredibly bearish" (his words), and where he thinks investors might find some protection.  Even better, click on www.minyanville.com and read the original article yourself.  Canada is looking like the best place in the world to live not only now but in the near future.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ad hominem

Ad hominem, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin: "argument toward the person" or "argument against the person") is an attempt to persuade which links the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise.  Formal arguments or debates demand adherence to formal logic.  Ad hominem is known as a classic logical fallacy, the fallacy of logic in this case being the personal attack part of the argument.  It is not a personal attack, gratuitous verbal abuse or "name-calling" by itself.  "You are just an ignorant twit" is verbally abusive, but it is not part of an argument so it cannot be ad hominem (or a classic logical fallacy of any kind).  "You are just an ignorant twit, so your evidence for creationism is hogwash" is an ad hominem attack.  Dan Barker in Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists observes: "A strong clue that a person is arguing from a position of weakness is when they attack character rather than arguments and facts.  Bertrand Russell pointed out that ad hominem is a last ditch defense of the losing side."  Now you know.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is the Risk of Global Contagion?

We all know that the VIX, a measure of stock options activity, is known as the Volatility (or fear) Index.  The higher it is the more uncertainty, volatility and fear there is in the U.S. markets.  But is there a measure of global volatility, ie. global fear?  Private investor Bill Luby authors the "Vix And More" blog at http://vixandmore.blogspot.com and seems to have come up with a pretty good proxy to measure just that.  He compares the VSTOXX, the volatility of Europe's STOXX 50 index, to the VIX in a ratio.  The farther the ratio rises above 1.00 (the more divergence there is to the upside between the two volatility indexes) the more the problem is restricted to Europe and the less is the danger of global contagion his theory goes.  Conversely, as the divergence between the two indexes decreases (approaching 1.00) the danger of global contagion increases.  Furthermore, historical data going back to the market peak in late 2007 show that as the ratio went below 1.00 the problem was initially seen to be a U.S. volatility problem.  I love the original thinking behind this simple ratio, and applaud Mr. Luby on his effort, which has gained a good deal of attention this week.  It may be a bit of a stretch for some to equate the action of these two indexes to "global" consequences - but not this observer.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A & W Restaurants

Invest in what you know.  So sayeth Warren Buffett.  In that vein, A and W Restaurants keep impressing me.  Not because their fast food recently rated #'s 79 to 86 on a list of 88 trans-fat fast foods, not because they hire Phillipinos who are pleasant, clean and cheerful, and not because they are scrupulous about getting rid of poor franchisees.  Actually it's because of all those things, but what impresses me most is their market penetration.  There is not a one-horse hick town in Canada I've seen that doesn't have a recently-constructed Albert and Walter's.  And their 50's nostalgia theme may be lame to GenXers but to an increasing demographic (baby boomers, to wit) it probably is subconsciously comfy.  As a top-ranked income trust, AW.UN.T has some re-structuring to do before 2011 but it is highly profitable and should continue to yield well thereafter.  Finally, it's a recession-resistant business; when steak and seafood become out of reach there's always the A&W Burger Family.  (I once knew a fellow whose last name was Burger ... hmm, may be there's a freebie in there somewhere.)  As always, you didn't hear it from me, and do your own diligence.  This is not a recommendation to invest, just to try a different burger and root beer float.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Joy of Freshwater Sailing

A prairie sailor am I.  Yes, I know that only saltwater sailing is real sailing.  But freshwater sailing yields many of the same delights as sailing "asea" - the principle one being that you can do it out here.  It can be just as serene in a light wind, just as exciting in a blow, and just as challenging when caught off guard by a gale as saltwater sailing is.  The idea of using free energy to move your craft the way the ancients did appeals to me, and of course with space age materials and design you get all the joy with much less work.  I'm not intimidated by the fact that there are many more motorboats around here than sailboats.  In fact, I secretly relish the fact that I know something they don't.  Any idiot can - and many do - turn the key of a motorboat and push the throttle forward.  Wow.  (Now who's being elitist?)  I enjoy the absence of the odor of fuel and exhaust fumes, not to mention engine noise.  And learning to sail on the prairies means you're a leg up when you rent that Hobie cat in Hawaii or are invited to crew that fifty-footer in the Caribbean.  Its been a couple of years now since I've sailed Tingle IV, my Laser II, but the urge never goes away.  Maybe this summer.  Aye-aye, Cap'n.  Coming about...lee-o!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Buffet Plan

Jimmy, that is - not Warren.  A couple of years ago we were invited to spend a week in Phoenix, and a glorious week it was.  Around noon one day as we toured the city we stumbled upon the Grand Opening planned for "Margaritaville Phoenix".  Asking a few questions over a Landshark and googling the Son of a Son of a Sailor we determined that JB and the Coral Reefers' show was slated for none other than that very evening.  What luck!  As far as we could determine it hadn't been advertised on the airwaves or in the papers, so we actually had a decent shot at tickets!  We excitedly reported the news to our wives, leisurely got prepared for a great night out, and arrived at the venue about three hours early in case there was a queue a mile long.  Imagine our great surprise as we crossed a parking lot full of parrothead paraphenalia from an obviously wild and crazy tailgate party that had preceded the concert - which itself had ended a mere half-hour before we got there!  JB's Margaritaville live events are evidently so popular that only members of his fan club can get tickets, or at least get first dibs on them.  The rest of the populace is kept in the dark, if not purposely misled, to prevent such a small venue from being overrun.  So here's a tip from The Balf: "Margaritaville Calgary" opens north of the Stampede grounds next summer so join the Calgary Parrotheads.  You heard it here first.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Whistling Past The Graveyard"

Here's a great old expression I haven't heard for a long time, with several different slants to its meaning.  One meaning is trying to remain cheerful in difficult or dire circumstances.  Another interpretation is to proceed (cheerful or not) with the task at hand while ignoring an obvious hazard.  Alternately it can mean to enter a situation with little or no understanding of the possible consequences.  Lastly, it can imply being cheerful or optimistic in a situation that doesn't warrant cheer or optimism.  Most interesting of all is its Etymology:  It is a great temptation to try to cheer oneself up by whistling or singing in a dark and lonely place...The notion that one should whistle in difficult circumstances to show that one is not concerned or frightened can be found in Robert Blair's The Grave (1742): "The Schoolboy...Whistling aloud to bear his Courage up".  From the Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Atheists Aren't Good People?

Apparently churchgoers volunteer and donate more than non-churchgoers according to Statistics Canada, as reported in Maclean's.  The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1038 versus $295 for the rest of us, and 2/3 of churchgoers volunteer for non-profit causes versus 43% for the rest of us.  And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering.  Furthermore "this past January saw the launch of a new charity specifically designed to disprove the alleged parsimony of non-believers.  The Foundation Beyond Belief aims to 'encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists'.  So far, its 447 members have raised $18,760.  Or about as much as 18 churchgoers give in one year."  Well, Batman, what's going on here?  First, Robin, you can't assume all churchgoers are religious (and vice versa, double-negatively speaking).  But the key to understanding these "damning" figures is that "non-profit causes" includes both religious and non-religious organizations - ie. pious paper probably pads the pews and promises the pious Pearly Passage.  Holy statistician-speak!  But what about those volunteer hours, Batman?  Easy.  Religiosos have several ulterior motives in volunteering; (not all, but many) are out for converts, as well as that warm fuzzy feeling, and to keep up appearances.  Back to the bat cave, Robin, I feel the sinister presence of - The Flamer!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Speculation: A Buck For A Good Book

No, not the good book - I said a good book!  Bargains still exist out there (if not out here).  The other day at a university bookstore I happened upon the $1 book rack (the "just get 'em the hell outta here so I don't have to recycle 'em" rack).  The usual garbage languished there in literary purgatory, but my eye was caught by Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor.  Now you're talking to a guy who can barely resist the latest hardback new release of substance in any number of subject areas (good thing the nearest bookstore is 75 miles away) so this was an easy decision - even compared to the Michael Baigent book I bought earlier on this trip (hardback) for $5.98!  Chancellor does a good job tracing the history of financial bubbles from tulipomania to dotcom, as well as the psychology of speculators.  A quote: "When I was young, people called me a gambler.  As the scale of my operations increased I became known as a speculator.  Now I am called a banker.  But I have been doing the same thing all the time.  (Sir Ernest Cassell, banker to Edward VII)"  Remind you of Goldman Sucks CEO Lloyd Blankfein?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Flagrant Flatulence: Thoughts on Natural Gas

No, not "fragrant" - I said "flagrant", and I mean it.  The incidence of people publicly letting loose a fart, windy puff or natural gas bomb, whatever you want to call it, is alarming.  And where such a spew used to be a guaranteed source of embarrassment and ostracism, it now has perversely become a source of pride, even adulation in some circles.  So please, move away from me when you "let one".  I myself always try to find an empty aisle in the grocery store, or move out onto the deck at a dinner party, and almost always roll down the window of the car when the urge is unstoppable - at least in mixed company.  (Of course, inevitably some poor slob turns the corner and enters that grocery store aisle or follows me out onto that deck to admire the view just as I've left but - hey, I've at least tried to show some decorum and mitigate the situation.)  And I never light my natural gas with a match as my college roommate inevitably used to do during Hockey Night in Canada.  What people don't realize is that this naturally-occurring aerosol is not just gas, it also can't help but contain particulate matter, minute chunks of that which created the gas in the first place, so above all don't let loose a windy puff into your favorite cushion - they don't get laundered once a week like your boxers!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Too Greek To Fail?

Angela Merkel's government paid the price yesterday for the Greek bailout by losing a crucial byelection back home in Germany - but that's minor in comparison to what's coming.  Here's a prediction.  The Greek people find out the details of the austerity measures demanded by the IMF and the EU on Wednesday.  Riots ensue.  Eventually the Greek government falls.  Eventually Greece defaults and/or Greece is kicked out of the EU.  This will end badly.  You heard it here first.

Give QTWW Another Look

Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc., the Irvine, CA, company that developed the Q-Drive plug-in electric powertrain system for Fisker Automotive (the green American car company that Quantum co-founded with an ex-Aston Martin veteran) is worth another look.  At their recent annual meeting, a representative from General Motors was elected to the board, in keeping with the strategic alliance between GM and Quantum.  (GM's recent repayment of the Canadian and U.S. governments is also a good sign.)  But QTWW is not a one-trick pony.  They have acquired Schneider Power, an Ontario developer of wind and solar projects, are affiliated with solar manufacturer Asola in Germany, and were recently approved for bidding on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power renewable energy projects - in addition to building alternative energy military vehicles!  Yet their real ace-in-the-hole, I think, is the reburbishment (by Fisker) of that mothballed GM plant right under Washington's nose in Joe Biden's home state of Delaware to mass-produce a Fisker electric car for the average American family - facilitated by a $535 million low interest loan from the Obama government.  Remember, you didn't hear it from me, and do your own diligence.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

David Rosenberg: Volatility Ahead

Economist David Rosenberg wrote in late March that: "... the current rebound in the economy is a statistical mirage orchestrated by record amounts of money and fiscal stimulus that are simply unsustainable and actually risk precipitating a very unstable financial and economic backdrop in coming years.  From our lens, the rally of the last 12 months smacks of the 1930 snapback, and ... the S&P went on to hit new lows in subsequent years ... Deleveraging cycles take years to play out, even with massive doses of government intervention ... It's remarkable how so many people still refuse to accept what history has taught us about post-bubble credit collapses - they do indeed require ongoing government support, but even then we endure five to seven years of economic stagnation.  And that flat line will involve periods of growth followed by periods of contraction, but the lasting theme is one of volatility (my italics) ... As was the case back then, the investors who end up succeeding are not the ones who are able to play the flashy bear market rallies but the ones who opt for strategies that minimize volatility and optimize risk-adjusted returns.  Income, whether it be from paper assets (bonds, dividends) or hard assets (oil and gas royalties, REITs) is going to emerge as king in an environment where the primary trend is one of deflation, which is indeed the case as private sector credit contracts."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Right to Screw Up

Everybody has the right to screw up, whether on something as small as a household project (I've exercised my right to do so too many times to count) or as large as their entire life (seen a few of those too).  The biggest reason I screw up: not asking for - or accepting - advice.  From do-it-yourself books and the internet to do-it-my-way friends and relatives, there are endless sources of advice out here.  So where's the line at which one should (or shouldn't) let someone exercise their right to screw up?  My litmus test is whether a potential screw-up could cause physical harm or substantial financial loss.  The fact of the matter is that learning by doing is an innate pleasure - at least as satisfying as "book learning " in my estimation.  (In fact most of us probably read enough to ensure that we're not going to screw-up big-time - and then we go ahead because we're excited to "get at it".)  Accomplishing something by yourself is a real source of pride, although involving others may ultimately end up being faster and more successful.  I'd like to publicly thank all those who have advised me in the past, whether I've taken their advice or not.  I have some pretty handy friends and relatives who, as I approach middle age (!), can still teach me a lot and I'll continue to ask for your advice.  But I reserve my right to screw-up.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Beatniks

The beatnik; a (usually) young person (back then) who participated in a social movement of the 1950's and early 1960's which stressed artistic self-expression and the rejection of the mores of conventional society.  Etymology: American slang, 1958.  Author's Note:  Wow, here's a blast from the past!  About 1960 or 1961 Buddy and Elvis made me take guitar lessons every Saturday morning in the basement of Doug's Music store, a basement which had been converted to a club called "The Grotto".  It was a "beatnik" club, with an entrance in the alley lit by a single light bulb, dark colors inside with a few purple accents, wonderful abstract murals, a stage with bongo drums, those little round bar tables with ratty chairs and a candle - and the pervasive impression that something wonderfully cool and subversive had gone on here last night.  Beatnik music was jazzy and bluesy and revolutionary.  I exhibited zero musical ability back then, and can only play the stereo to this day (although I play it exceedingly well), and can't help but wonder if I was too distracted by my surroundings to concentrate (lame excuse, Balf).  The beatnik culture was drowned out by the British Invasion (the Beatles probably began as beatniks), but may be considered the ideological precursor of the hippie culture to emerge later.  That's a bus I didn't miss.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Word For The Day: Antidisestablishmentarianism

"Antidisestablishmentarianism" at 28 letters, is the longest non-coined, non-technical word in the English language.  It refers to a 19th century political movement that opposed the disestablishment of the Church of England as (what else) the state church of England.  Author's note:  No, I don't think I'll go there just now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Yucca Flats

Said to be named after the place in New Mexico where the United States detonated its first underground nuclear blast, this version of lemonade lives up to its name in spades.  The toughest part of making this delicious summertime concoction is finding a 128 oz. wide-mouthed glass jar - the type that restaurants used to get their pickles, mustard or ketchup in.  (The last one I located was in a secondhand store.)  Once you've located said jar, herewith is the original 1970 recipe:
7 small lemons, quartered, squeezed and dropped into the jar (or 5 large lemons, or 6 medium lemons)
3/4 cup of sugar (no more, no less!)
26 oz. vodka (cheaper the better)
1 small jar of maraschino cherries (including the juice)
Pack the jar with ice cubes, screw on the lid, and wrap a damp tea towel (folded in half lengthwise first) tightly around the body of the jar.  Shake the jar with the tea towel around it (music and a group of thirsty friends helps) until the tea towel sticks to the glass and voila!  A little YF goes a long way.  Make sure everyone gets some fruit and ice too - especially the osmotically-charged maraschino cherries.  In a pinch, as often happens, other fruit than marachino cherries can be used (for instance, blackberries).  And please use a designated driver.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mangia Mangia

Key West, FL, is home to this little beauty.  It's not on Duval Street or Front Street, in fact it's nowhere near the infamous Captain Tony's but rather lies nestled in a residential area of Old Town near the Eden House Inn.  Mangia Mangia means "eat eat" in Italian, and the name couldn't be more apropos.  The cuisine is to die for yet simple and very reasonably priced too, so come hungry.  The wine list is extensive and interestingly their cellar appears to be off-premises yet close enough such that the somewhat colorful full-time wine courier gentleman can hustle in the front door of this charming establishment within minutes of you ordering, with that bottle of your favorite Chianti cradled lovingly in his arms.  Probably because it is off the beaten track, informal, and high on the delicioso scale, Mangia Mangia has become a sometime hideout of celebrities when they're in town - so go early (before 6 pm or you'll be waiting outside on the street), keep your eyes peeled, and "Mangia Mangia".

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Seven Bridges

Located in Jacksonville, FL (where there are seven bridges across the St. John's River as it meanders into the Atlantic) this bar, restaurant, micro-brewery and pool hall is my fave hangout "down here".  A great menu supported by award-winning beers brewed on the premises (including their six beer sampler for under $5) are reasons enough to stop by, but there's more - much more.  Live entertainment (try to catch Toots Lorraine and the Traffic if at all possible), a great patio and billiard tables complete the picture.  Oh yes, did I forget to mention that at least one professor at the U of North Florida Chemistry Department actively advises the proprietors on their brewing process, and is usually on hand Friday nights?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Day When All Things Seem Possible

Graduation Day.  The first day of the rest of your life.  A day to reflect on all of the hard work, emotional roller-coaster rides and expense it took to get to this day in your life.   "How hard can it be?" say those who haven't been there and done that.  And I suppose that depends on what your innate abilities are, how successfully you "learn to learn", how hard you are willing to work, how well you cope with exam stress, the nature of the didactic material you're trying to master, the support group around you, etc.  Not that there haven't been brief respites here and there in your paper chase.  But graduating from university is still a major, major accomplishment - at least doing so with a decent average - and one that is getting harder to achieve with every passing year.  The competition is brighter, the professors more inaccessible, the classes larger, the requirements to graduate more complex, and the fees higher.  So enjoy this day.  Bask in the warmth of friends and family - just as they are basking in your glow.  You've earned this day.  Congrats, graduate!