Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Next Failed State

Worried about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists?  It won't be long.  In fact the whole nation of Pakistan is within the reach of the Taliban as I write this.  Widespread illiteracy, a deep hatred of the U.S., and an intimidated, weak central government with virtually no control over its tribal areas mean Pakistan could become the next Afghanistan (but with a nuclear arsenal) any day now.  Pakistani moderates are afraid to voice their opinions in public after the latest round of assassinations, and the secular ruling Pakistani People's Party (PPP) rules in name only.  Given the fact that Pakistan is constantly trying to undermine India in any way it can (witness the Mumbai attacks of a couple years ago) via its out-of-control secret police, the least of our worries should be violence after a cricket match between the two.  (India won that semi-final yesterday, incidentally, and now takes on Sri Lanka for all the marbles.)  Remember, this is not some desert (semi-deserted) sheikdom oozing Texas Tea, and with more camels than people.  This is one of the most crowded, dangerous nations on earth.  Apparently there was at one time a golden age of love between Hindus and Muslims in 18th century India - they fought the British together - but since India was partitioned in 1947 things have gone from bad to worse, India emerging as a leader of the developing world while Pakistan is degenerating into an ungovernable failed state.    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Coffee a Harbinger?

"Pretty soon the coffee machine will be cheaper than the coffee that goes into it."  We all know food prices are rising; the result of too many people, depleted soils, a decreasing agricultural land base, expensive fertilizer, desertification, etc.  But when we needed a new coffee machine recently, it was still a shock that the basic no-frills Black & Decker could be had for $19.95 and the 1 kg can of Tim Horton's ground coffee that went in it bought the same day at the same store was $16.95.  (Obviously, we weren't worried about whether the bean brewster had a matte finish, digital timer, Intel CPU, whitewall tires or satellite radio - we just wanted something faster than the embarrassingly slow Paleolithic machine we were slave to on New Year's Day, to the great consternation of those assembled in need of their daily hit.)  Mind you, as an aside I think there is more metal in the 1 kg can than in the whole of the new coffeemaker.  Of course, on the commodity side of the equation, caffeine is addictive so basically its suppliers can charge whatever they want if the conditions are right.  (I used to have a receptionist who drank 6 pots a day all by herself - when she wasn't at the front desk she was either in the coffee room getting a refill - or in the loo recycling Nabob.)  Thank Buddha for capitalism, eh Loofy?  Apparently competition is the only thing keeping java prices from going through the roof.  (And it's also why, on the manufacturing side of the equation, the B&D is made only of plastic - and only in China - these days.)  However, ya still gotta wonder how a machine can be produced (almost) as cheaply as the food (sort of) that goes in it.  A harbinger of things to come?  

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Harper-Williams Strategy?

Although they hate each other, Stephen Harper appears to be taking a page out of Danny Williams' playbook: no more special treatment for Quebec.  (Can you hear the audible sigh of relief out here too?)  The combative Newfie Premier's last act, you will recall, was to sign a deal with New Brunswick to bypass extortionist Quebec re: the transit of Labradorian energy to New York State.  Williams received kudos all around for his end run, and retired from public life mere months after that crowning achievement.  (Quebec even tried to buy New Brunswick's power utility at one point to block le circumvention, but failed.  At the time your humble scribe's B.S. detectors were going crazy - even way out here too - although the reason for the Quebecois sleight-of-hand was at the time unknown to me.  Lucky thing it didn't go through or it would have been another case of my dollars buying Quebec a gift, come to think of it.)  As regular readers of this space will recall, Quebec separatist leader Gilles Duceppe boldfacedly announced last month that the province would need an obscene $5 billion bribe for him to support Stevie's budget.  In past election campaigns a less assured Harper might have caved to such blackmail but, whatever else you want to say about him, Harper appears to have developed some spine where Quebec is concerned.  ("Just say no", Laureen said, and he did?)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bored? Let's Have an Election!

Although the announcement last week that Canada's government had "fallen" was breathlessly broadcast across the U.S. as if we were next in line for a regime change after Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, I'm here to tell ya it ain't so.  First of all, non-confidence motions are a fairly frequent (and gentlemanly) fixture of Canada's parliamentary system - especially when the country is being governed by a coalition.  (And coalitions aren't so bad, folks, they indicate that the country is being run carefully by consensus rather than by an inevitably more insular majority - anybody listening south of the 49th parallel? - although, make no mistake, I do hope the Liberal Party gets their ass kicked.)  Second, things are pretty boring up here right now.  Too snowy/muddy to get out in the yard, no housing crisis, NHL playoffs haven't started (March Madness makes me barf), Afghanistan commitment almost done, banks fully capitalized and the oil sands humming away - nothing much to get excited about over the next five weeks.  Boring.  Borrrrring!  The Bloc Quebecois make no bones about it, they want to be bribed with hundreds of millions of loonies' worth of goodies for la belle province or they won't support the budget, the Liberal Party needs to lose an election before they can rid themselves of stiff and stuffy Michael Ignatieff (who secretly wants to get back to Harvard) at their next convention so they won't support him or the budget, and Jack Layton knows he can spew whatever he wants on the left because he doesn't stand a snowflake's chance in hell of forming a government.  Even Harper and Co. could use a break from the ridiculous "contempt of parliament" decisions trumped up by that opposition-dominated-partisan-joke-for-an-ethics-committee.  With a pretty impressive supporting cast (Baird, Flaherty, and Kenney come to mind) and a 19 point lead in the polls, this is the Conservatives' election to lose.  So relax, America, it's all good up here in the Great White North.  In the meantime, maybe you guys should try some of that consensus stuff.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cheap at Twice the Price!

Only $8 billion needed for "safety fixes" at U.S. nuclear plants?  (Bloomberg News)  Hmmm, I thought it would cost a lot more than that to move them inland - away from the San Andreas fault.  Oh, I see, you're not going to relocate them inland - away from the San Andreas Fault - you're just going to paint big numbers on the sides of 'em to make it easier to tell which ones are ruptured and leaking after the next Big One.  Oh, I see.  I feel much better now.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Utah Names Official State Handgun

"Utah has become the first to designate an official firearm, after Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation this week recognizing the Browning M1911.  'This isn't about a gun,' said Mr. Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom.  'It's about honouring John Moses Browning.'  The .45 calibre pistol, which turns 100 years old this year, is made today in Ogden, Utah, where Mr. Browning was born in 1855.  He designed the gun for the U.S. Army."  (Scripps Howard, The Globe and Mail)   If that's true, Ms. Isom, why not just put up a statue honouring the man, instead of drawing attention to the gun?  (And since when did the American spelling of "honoring" change?)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hugo Says ... Martians!

According to Reuters (via Gregory White of the Business Insider) Hugo Chavez has taken up the study of extraterrestrials when he's not studying which industry to nationalize next - or at least he dreams about those little green men occasionally, culminating in a rather shocking public pronouncement recently:  "The death of a former Martian civilization may have been the result of capitalism, according to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. ... Chavez' remarks were made during a World Water Day speech."  Now hold on here, Yougo, there is scientific evidence that there once was water on Mars - and growing conjecture that there may still be some there, frozen underground (just waiting to be nationalized) - but jumping from World Water Day to a moist Mars to the supposed inhabitants of a moist Mars to the political economy of the supposed inhabitants of a moist Mars to the reason for the demise of the political economy of the supposed inhabitants of a moist Mars is a series of very big (and very convoluted) leaps.  Thanks to this penetrating glimpse into Martian history your credentials as a bona fide wackjob are secure.  (Bets are that wasn't water in the clear plastic cup you were brandishing during the speech in the WWD photo.)  Apparently being troubled by visions of dancing pink elephants after a night out on the town in Caracas pales in comparison to apparitions of greedy capitalist little green men.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

CBLB502: Efficacious and Safe, So Far

A Staff Writer at the Pharmaceutical Business Review reported on May 10, 2010, that "Cleveland BioLabs has completed the dosing of healthy volunteers in the second human safety study for CBLB502, a drug under development for the treatment of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).  Cleveland BioLabs said that CBLB502 is being developed under the FDA's Animal Efficacy Rule [known as "fast-tracking" - ed.] to treat ARS or radiation poisoning from any exposure to radiation such as a nuclear or radiological weapon/dirty bomb, or from a nuclear accident. The approval pathway requires demonstration of efficacy in representative animal models and safety, pharmacokinetic, pharmacodynamic and biomarker testing in healthy human volunteers.  Additionally, evidence of CBLB502's mechanism of action and activity in animal models was published in Science Magazine in April 2008.  Data from 50 human subjects in an initial Phase I safety and tolerability study indicated that CBLB502 was well tolerated and that normalised biomarker results corresponded to previously demonstrated activity in animal models of ARS.  The second safety study included a total of 100 healthy human volunteers randomised among four dosing regimens of CBLB502.  Participants in the study were monitored for adverse side effects and blood samples were obtained to assess the effects of CBLB502 on various biomarkers and to further characterise the pharmacokinetics of CBLB502.  Reportedly, the primary objectives of this study are to gather additional data on safety, pharmacokinetics, and cytokine biomarkers in a larger and broader subject population in order to finalise an appropriate dose to take forward for the large, definitive human volunteer safety study.  Cleveland BioLabs said that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the Department of Health and Human Services has supported the entire cost (approximately $1.3m) of this clinical Phase 1b human safety study as part of contract."  Sounds like something they may need in Japan sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

This is Scary

Read this: Fukushima Engineer Says He Covered Up Flaw At Reactor #4 (Bloomberg News)  There are two interesting but diametrically opposite Japanese business concepts here.  One is the hardworking, obviously intelligent and well-trained engineer "company man" who goes above and beyond the call of duty to save his employer from imminent disgrace and bankruptcy, thereby resulting in much-sought-after recognition (and a big bonus) from same.  The traditional Japanese "salaryman" concept at its best.  The other concept is the much vaunted Japanese "circle of quality" management technique that we heard so much about in the 1980's.  (Some friends of mine literally made millions teaching it to western business leaders back then.)  "Japanese managerial style and decision making in large companies emphasizes the flow of information and initiative from the bottom up, making top management a facilitator rather than the source of authority, while middle management is both the impetus for, and the shaper of, policy." (Thanks, WP)  Thus, as I understand it, information from the trenches is supposed to ensure top quality, and the lowliest employee can halt things if they go awry.  So what happened here?  This is not so much a story of personal blame and personal redemption (the engineer fessed up after the Chernobyl debacle, and certainly wasn't the only employee involved in the cover-up) as it is a story about management failure.  And if this can happen with a nuclear reactor, it can happen with any product.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gutenberg's Hot Tip

"The printing press, as every schoolchild knows, was invented by Johann Gutenberg.  In fact, history may have given Gutenberg more credit than he deserves.  There is reason to believe that movable type was actually invented by a Dutchman named Laurens Janszoon Koster (or Coster) and that Gutenberg - about whom we know precious little - learned of the process only when one of Koster's apprentices ran off to Mainz in Germany with some of Koster's blocks and the two struck up a friendship.  Certainly it seems odd that a man who had for the first forty years of his life been an obscure stonemason and mirror polisher should suddenly have taken some blocks of wood and a wine press and made them into an invention that would transform the world.  What is certain is that the process took off with astonishing speed.  Between 1455, when Gutenberg's first bible was published, and 1500 more than 35,000 books were published in Europe."  Now that's the value of an original "hot tip" picked up from a guy met in a bar - or perhaps in this case a pew.  (But would the idea have passed muster in the Dragon's Den, one wonders?)  "None of this benefited Gutenberg a great deal - he had to sell his presses to one Johann Fust to pay his debts and died in straightened circumstances in 1468 ..."  Another fortune squandered on wine, women and song?  Did the Apprentice manage his money better than the Master?  And what of Koster, was he publishing books on tiddlywink strategy instead of what people were really after?  Quoted passages from Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Twitter At Five

As Bruce Arthur of the National Post points out today: "We are five years into the life of this latest social network, and with 200 million users or so worldwide, it’s clearly growing.  The company has released a pile of numbers on its birthday showing how the network has exploded - 460,000 new accounts per day in the last month, 140 million tweets per day so far this month versus 50 million tweets per day a year ago, a billion tweets per week, etc. - but none of that says anything about whether any of it is worth a damn.  Much of it, surely, is not.  The five most followed Twitter accounts are Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian.  Charlie Sheen has been on Twitter for 19 days, and is about to overtake The New York Times; all three Kardashian sisters are in the top 70.  Clearly, for many people Twitter is like the culture. It is, when you get right down to it, a near-total waste of your time.  And if you think about it, most of what’s said in this world is a waste of time for almost everybody else.  Imagine all the conversations happening in the English-speaking world right now, and then imagine how many of them you’d actually like to listen to.  Not many, is the answer."  Arthur then points out that at least with Twitter you get to choose your sources, which is exactly the point - and exactly why the 140-character phenom will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Currency Curiosities

Question: why, when the U.S. is destroying whole forests printing funny money, can't pay its debts, is in political gridlock, has an unofficial unemployment rate near 20%, and Wall Street is rife with insider trading, flash crashes and flash-trading, isn't the greenback dans la toilette?  Answer: because the rest of the world sees it as a safe haven.  (By now you may surmise I'm not with "the rest of the world" on that.)  Everytime there's a crisis of some sort, money bails out of Troublezania into the U.S. for safekeeping.  Admittedly the shortlist of other safe havens - the Euro, Yen and Swiss Franc - has been reduced to the latter by recent sovereign debt crises (yes, folks, unbeknownst to many the Yen was toast even before the earthquake).  True bastions of strength in today's world, like the Aussie Dollar or Canadian Loonie just don't circulate in large enough quantities to be used as a reserve currency, although they are arguably backed by "in the ground" riches that surpass many a desert sheikdom.  (Another disadvantage, thank you Royal Canadian Mint, is we're stuck forever with that Loonie moniker for our moolah.  Couldn't you have picked a bison or elk or something?  Only the beaver would've been worse.)  Meanwhile Dennis Gartman, of the famed Gartman Letter, says that gold is now effectively the third or fourth reserve currency of the world.  (Something to ponder for your portfolio, perhaps?)  So, which nation in the world has the most gold in it's vaults?  Surprise, surprise, it's good old Uncle Sam.  Which - despite the protestations of American financial talking heads - just may be another reason people around the world continue to hold USD's.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bravo Long John Baldry!

It seems like every few years I somehow manage to bump into (like an old friend from the sixties) the deep, rich, bluesy voice and soul-stirring music of Long (6'7") John Baldry.  The other night was one of those times, on a BRAVO! tribute to the almost famous Brit.  Old guys will know what I mean, but you young folks out there would be doing yourself a big favour to download and listen to the likes of A Thrill's A Thrill, Don't Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock And Roll, Baldry's Out, or You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling.  Of course, those pieces just scratch the surface of LJB's work - but perhaps you'll get hooked (as I am) on his distinctive white boy blues genre.  Acknowledged "discoverer" of Rod Stewart and Elton John (who were members of his various 60's bands, as were Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones) and bosom buddy of Paul McCartney, Long John could never quite sustain the level of stardom his proteges achieved.  Eventually he had mental health problems (who doesn't?) and was institutionalized for a brief time in 1975 - until someone told him his Canadian fans missed him, whereupon he promptly checked himself out of the asylum and headed for North America.  (The 1979 album Baldry's Out was recorded in honour of that event.)  In his later years he moved permanently to Canada, became a Canadian citizen, and made his last few albums at Stony Plain Records in Edmonton.  An inveterate partier, he died in his beloved Vancouver in 2005, the victim of way too much fun, booze, sex, drugs and rock n'roll.  But man, that music!

Friday, March 18, 2011

U.S. Criticism of Japan Over The Top?

It seems to this writer that the talking heads of U.S. media have waxed too critical of Japan's response to the current nuclear crisis.  CNN even ran a segment entitled "Nuclear Crisis: Keeping Them Honest", directly implying that the Japanese officials have been dishonest.  Granted, it could become the world's nuclear crisis - and the Japanese certainly need materiel assistance - but still, let's hold off on the armchair quarterback criticism of Japanese officials just a bit.  I'm confident that there has been no dishonesty on the part of the Japanese government - just a very real lack of hard data from the reactor site.  (Remember, with the back-up power out, these guys were working by the beams of their Energizer-powered flashlights.)  Right now such criticism is just a distraction they don't need.  There are some very brave nuclear (and non-nuclear) Japanese workers risking their lives every hour of every day to contain this debacle.  And although the winds have been co-operative (blowing offshore, so far), the rain, snow and cold of late winter make everything more difficult.  The rest of the world can be assured that the Japanese will hold nothing back in their efforts at Fukushima-Daiichi, because the consequences of a meltdown to their own people and capital city would be dire indeed.  I suspect that some of these workers may be knowingly committing harakiri on behalf of the rest of us, and as a consequence will die a slow, excruciating death from radiation poisoning in the months and years ahead.  And finally, let's not forget one little fact: that some (if not many) of these workers will have been residents of the area before the recent earthquake and tsunami - and probably have missing or dead relatives.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hey, Rush! Only On Fox News!

And speaking of science ... courtesy of The Placebo Journal (link at left), I was alerted to a story that ran on Fox News recently as - you guessed it - serious journalism: Staring At Breasts Is Good For Your Health.  I'll admit it's something I've speculated about periodically (on a purely scientific basis, of course), because every little bit of workout a man's heart muscle gets should be good conditioning for it, right?  Well, (sadly) not in this case.  A little research showed the study behind the Fox scoop to be bogus, which just goes to show the journalistic rigour with which they don't research their breaking news.  But I'm sure Glenn Beck ...no, let's not go there.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The World Needs Nuclear Power

This week's dangerous situation with Japan's nuclear reactors is: a) an "act of god" (the earthquake god, in this case) and b) has nothing to do with nuclear power, per se.  It has everything to do with water pumps and the failure of their back-up power sources - fairly mundane technology which has already been addressed in the plans of nuclear power plants waiting to be built.  Over the past 40 years there have been something like 14,000 reactor-years of safe, clean energy production by nuclear facilities worldwide - a record unmatched by any other power-generating technology - with only 3 major incidents (Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima-Daiichi).  France, which generates 75-80% of its electricity from nuclear plants, has never had a nuclear incident - and, by the way, is energy self-sufficient.  Just as nuclear power plant design changed after 9/11 (reactors are now built to withstand the crash of an airliner), the vulnerability of cooling systems dependent upon power generated on-site was recognized long ago and has been corrected in newer designs.  Over-reaction by those with vested interests (or sub-par intelligence) against the world's only realistic technology for clean power generation is a sad, but telling, commentary on the level of scientific education in North America.  After all, the technologically-advanced Japanese have embraced nuclear energy to the tune of 54 reactors, and they know more than anybody about the dangers of nuclear radiation.        

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

...But You Wouldn't Like It Here

As self-deprecating as we Canucks are, Canada is looking pretty good these days (touch softwood).  A rock-solid parliamentary system of government, respect for the rule of law and property rights, a traditional separation of church and state, universal medical care, real estate values based on ... reality, oodles of freshwater, energy and commodities, a small highly-educated population, enough productive farmland and potash to feed ourselves and the world, strict environmental regulations, one of the world's highest standards of living, an experienced recently-refurbished military, a couple of highly-successful Winter Olympics, and a seemingly endless supply of comedians.  Peace, order and good government.  Sure, we're not without problems: the East is sucking the West dry, our carbon emissions and immigration rates are too high, and we coddle criminals, but other than that we don't really have any major political issues.  (Our legislators are struggling to find one on which to base the next federal election as we speak.)  And the brightest weekly political panel on TV, CBC's "At Issue", recently concluded on air that they didn't have much to discuss because there weren't any - major issues, that is.  Economically, our industries are booming, unemployment and national debt are under control, our currency is strong, our banks are safe, and the world needs everything we have.  Hockey keeps us fit and feisty.  And don't forget the beer - robust and full-strength, it alone is worth the trip.  Sorry about that exchange rate though, eh?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan Will Recover

Having spent two weeks in Japan in 1998, I am convinced that if any country can recover from a disaster like this week's earthquake and tsunami, Japan can.  After all, they've done it before - after the atomic bombs that ended WWII.  Japan is a curious mix of the old and the new.  Sure it has its punk rockers, indoor ski facility on stilts, high-speed trains, Disney Tokyo, and high-tech manufacturing industry.  But it is in many ways an ancient land with ancient values.  People there have lived together in close quarters for eons and have thus developed intricate societal rules based on respect for others.  (One of the biggest insults in Japan is to sneeze or cough on someone, hence the omnipresent surgical masks in everyday society.  And there is no spitting on the sidewalks.  North America, take note.)  Respect for others, cleanliness, punctuality, efficiency, pride in doing your job well, zero tolerance for crime, and an inherently industrious nature are all Japanese attributes I observed while there.  (They are so fastidious that they actually had workers with tweezers picking bits of flotsam out of the bushes everyday along major thoroughfares!)  High-density populations result in highly-interdependent citizens.  Everyone must do their job, do it well, and do it on time or everything comes screeching to a halt.  Japan will survive, and thrive, because they know how to pull together without anyone having to tell them to do so.  In fact, Japanese society is so rigidly structured that anything out of the ordinary (and this week certainly was) is often regarded as an opportunity to advance oneself, so I suspect Japan may recover more quickly than expected.        

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What If That Earthquake ...

... (which has now been upgraded to a 9.0) had happened in the U.S. instead of Japan?  Say, along the San Andreas Fault - the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate?  "... Yuri Fialko (at the University of California) has demonstrated that the San Andreas fault has been stressed to a level sufficient for the next "big one," as it is commonly called; that is, an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or greater.  The study also concluded that the risk of a large earthquake may be increasing more rapidly than researchers had previously believed.  Fialko also emphasized in his study that, while the San Andreas Fault had experienced massive earthquakes in 1857 at its central section and in 1906 at its northern segment (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), the southern section of the fault has not seen a similar rupture in at least 300 years.  If such an earthquake were to occur, Fialko's study stated, it would result in substantial damage to Palm Springs and a number of other...densely populated areas...'The information available suggests that the fault is ready for the next big earthquake but exactly when the triggering will happen and when the earthquake will occur we cannot tell,' Fialko said. 'It could be tomorrow or it could be 10 years or more from now,' he concluded in September 2005."  (WP)  Is the U.S. ready for "the big one"?  Are building codes along the SA Fault as robust as those in Japan?  How many nuclear reactors and other critical infrastructure are in the area?  How much of America's military is controlled from west coast installations?  Would China send aid, stand by - or try to take advantage of the situation?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tweeted: prayforjapan

According to Wikipedia: "The highest estimates suggest that 84-96 percent of the Japanese population are Buddhists or Shintoists, including a large number of believers in a syncretism of both religions.  However, these estimates are based on people associated with a temple, rather than the number of people truly following the religion.  Professor Robert Kisala of Nanzan University suggests that only 30 percent of the population identify themselves as belonging to a religion.  Taoism and Confucianism from China have also influenced Japanese beliefs and customs.  Religion in Japan tends to be syncretic in nature. According to the CIA World Factbook, two percent of Japanese are Christian."  So the question is, if fundagelicals "prayforjapan" as suggested on Twitter, does it do any good when the Buddhist/Shintoist 84-96% of the 30% of Japanese who are religious at all believe in a different god?  Buddha is the man over there, and the big guy may get offended if upstaged by some other deity.  Instead of praying to the wrong god, text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 to relief efforts; the charge is automatically added to your phone bill.  The big guy thanks you.  And so does the big guy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Memories of an Earthquake Past

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan this morning, causing a Tsunami throughout the Pacific, is one of the largest ever recorded.  The loss of life and devastation will be massive to Japan.  As an illustration of what goes on at ground zero, even without major damage and a tsunami, let me recount what happened several years ago when a 6.9 earthquake hit near Maui.  Daughter LEB was shaken awake on that Sunday morning in Honolulu, and we here in Canada called her cellphone (this being the pre-texting era) as soon as we became aware of the situation.  The ironic thing is that we knew more about what was going on in the streets 8 stories below her than she did.  All she could do was look out the window, afraid to step out onto the balcony (although her California roomies did so).  The power in Honolulu was out and the only TV station broadcasting was immediately co-opted by CNN.  With elevators, landlines, lights, etc. not working - and cellphone batteries fading - we were able to tell her that there wouldn't be a tsunami but the streets below weren't safe, the nearby grocery store was only allowing shoppers in a few at a time and only taking cash, etc.  In the end, her building sustained no damage (although it swayed roughly 5-10 feet during the quake) but the older ones across the street showed cracks and loose bricks, etc.  The point here is that we are very dependent on technology in a crisis, and sometimes people halfway around the globe know more about what is going on than the people at ground zero.  (Thanks for the texts from Maui this morning, KAT!)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Move Over Martha, Here Comes The Raj

"The stock market is not fair" is the Number One tenet of Tyler Bollhorn, originator of the StockScores technical stock trading system, and these days truer words have never been spoken.  What Tyler was referring to primarily is the "inside information" that inevitably becomes known to secretaries, family and friends of corporate officers and employees, as well as analysts who spend every waking moment studying company reports, querying the staff, and then picking through the company's trash for tidbits.  (There are lots of other quirks that make the stock market unfair these days, eg. flash trading, high-speed trading, etc. but that's a topic for another day.)  In point of fact, there are so many things that make the stock market unfair (and unstable - witness the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010, for which an adequate explanation has still not been found) that many small investors eschew the big three New York exchanges altogether.  (Ironically, precisely because of the problems there the Big Three may yet be safer than the wild west attitude on lesser-known bourses.  And all of this "unfairness", of course, makes the StockScores systematic approach even more relevant than ever.)  Part of the SEC crackdown after it got caught with its pants down re: the Madoff scandal is a new emphasis on insider trading.  Enter Raj Rajaratnam, Galleon hedge fund guru, Tamil, and the 236th wealthiest American, in chains.  Guilty until proven innocent of course, apparently the SEC has truckloads of solid evidence including wiretaps - which will be up against even more truckloads of The Raj's billion$.  The stakes are incredibly high here.  If the government loses what it sees as an airtight case, investors will view the SEC as impotent and Wall Street as impervious to the law.  If Raj loses, Wall Street will once again be viewed as a bunch of cheats that need stricter regulation to protect investors.  My prediction: this is going to be a lavish seven-course spicy curry banquet that will make Martha Stewart's insider trading transgression look like a peanut butter sandwich.  Hmm...all of a sudden I'm hungry.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cruise Time for Qaddafi?

Libya, the "Jasmine Revolution", oil prices and U.S. credibility are at a critical juncture as we speak.  Qaddafi has not rolled over the way the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders next door did when confronted by popular uprisings in their fiefdoms.  On the contrary, The Desert Rat has dug in, fought back, and by all reports the rebels yesterday appeared to be losing enthusiasm (and ground) due to air-strikes by his loyalist forces.  Obama publicly stated that Libya must undergo a regime change, just as he did with Tunisia and Egypt, and now has to put his muscle where his mouth is - both to save rebel lives and restore U.S. credibility.  (The U.N. has, of course, been taken over by third world autocracies so it is more useless than ever at accomplishing anything, let alone negotiating a solution to any crisis.)  That leaves NATO (smiling global policeman that it is) under pressure to act, but even that bunch is strained and worn-out after a decade in Wastelandistan.  (Hey, you say, how about the "Coalition of the Willing" that helped out in Iraq after their arms were twisted to the breaking point by Bush?  Sorry, they've all exchanged their army boots for wooden shoes again and gone home.)  There are also problems with European intervention because southern Europe trades heavily with northern Africa.  So the U.S. will have to do this one alone.  It's time to show some gumption, Mr. O.  A well-aimed cruise missile or two should do the trick, eh?  Not so fast.  M. Qaddafi has for several days confined the 700 or so foreign journalists covering the rebellion to two hotels in Tripoli - and yesterday kept them waiting for 7 hours before showing up.  Now, you have to ask yourself: why would Qaddafi even be in a hotel instead of his heavily-fortified palace?  And why two hotels instead of one?  And why not arrive on schedule (other than because he's a prick)?  I'll tell you; because he's using these journalists as a human screen against - you guessed it - a cruise missile attack.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Value of Muddling

There is hardly a more dependable coping or survival strategy in my experience than muddling.  Three or four times in my life I've been under pressure to the extent that I thought I needed to take a major action or make a major decision, but wasn't able to figure out whether "to shit or steal second" (as the saying goes) - and have ended up doing: absolutely nothing.  That's right.  Treading water, so to speak.  Going through the motions.  Getting up, going to work, carrying on with my regular routine.  And in retrospect, muddling has saved me from a) over-reacting, b) embarrassing myself, and c) wasting money those several times.  In other words, it was my perception that major action was needed, but the reality was that major inaction turned out to be the best course for me and my family.  I suppose other people might have a different name for it, perhaps taking a "timeout", a "postponement", time to "think things over", or some other such semantic alternative.  But none of those convey the exact meaning I'm after because they imply that a decision will ultimately be taken.  I'm referring to the kind of conscious, numb, repetitive, automaton approach required to take no decision at all.  So I prefer muddling.  How do you know when to muddle?  Certainly not often.  We need to make lots of personal and professional managerial decisions throughout our lives.  At the risk of sounding Rumsfeldesque, I would say that when you are confronted by a major life-altering event and are overpowered by indecision, sometimes no decision is the best decision.  On those rare occasions, just "keep on keepin' on", as we used to say in the sixties.   

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chinese Take-Out?

The National People's Congress - China's "parliament" - opened in Beijing this week (amid great pomp and circumstance) to rubber stamp decisions and programs hatched by the ruling clique.  Given what's going on across northern Africa and the Middle East, cliquers also announced that they would brook no protests in the streets this year (especially during the confab), and followed up with what has been called "unprecedented" police presence everywhere including Tiananmen Square and major shopping areas.  Now as I've said before in this space, I don't trust China (and I don't invest in China).  And it's quite apparent this week that China trusts its own people even less than it trusts foreigners.  The budget passed by the NPC this week has China spending more on internal security than on external defense this year.  And it spends a lot on external defense; the Chinese Navy recently eclipsing the U.S. Navy in size (and, no doubt, enthusiasm for patrolling Taiwan's waters.)  Inflation - particularly food inflation - is only one cause of the massive chafing of the populace, but a highly important one.  If the gap between middle class urban/coastal Chinese and those hardscrabble farmers/dispossessed laborers in the interior can't be narrowed, watch out.  Many a revolution has hinged on the ability of an autocracy to feed the masses.  And don't forget that China's one-child policy means the country has millions of poor young men who can't find a girl to take to McDonald's.  Will that be eat in, or take-out?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Toyota Tough?

I said it (in carefully chosen company) when NATO invaded Afghanistan: "Toyota's are Taliban-tough".  And I'll say it again now; the best free advertising Toyota can get is the nightly news showing Libyan rebels using their little pickup trucks in the current insurrections across north Africa (and other war zones), often with a machine gun mounted in the bed and at least four guys riding back there.  I vividly remember the road to Kabul being littered with boulders, crevices and vehicles, while a BBC reporter and his crew were transported foot by rocky foot through the mountain passes in a fleet of Toyotas.  (The more disgusting images were surrepticious videos of executions in a soccer stadium - the victims and executioners all arriving in Toyotrucks, but only the executioners leaving that way.)  I seem to remember reading somewhere that Toyota produces lower-tech vehicles for the third world, a market where warranties, mechanics and consumer advocates are in short supply.  I'm sure several manufacturers do.  Any way, the point is that you can't buy advertising as good as that, the subliminal effect of which would probably be somehow illegal in the West if it was staged, not real.  But then the question arises: does Toyota seek out regimes like those to sell to in the first place?  Are they the only supplier to that market, or does every auto manufacturer compete for dictator dollars?  Are they really that tough or are they the only vehicles around with a name big enough to see on the tailgate?  After all, you don't see any Nissans, Mazdas or Hyundais on war zone news - just Toyotas.  (We've owned every one of them over the years, with little perceptible difference in "toughness".)  Whatever the case, it can be argued that oppressors will get their vehicles from somewhere so it might as well be Toyota.  And it is great free advertising for other markets around the world.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Fisker Karma is Here

The Fisker Karma hybrid sports car is finally here.  According to autonorth.ca the Fisker Karma will be on a 26-state, 3-province, 42-city roadshow that hits Calgary on June 18th.  Production at the Valmet facility in Finland (Valmet manufactures some of Europe's highest-end vehicles for BMW and others) begins March 21st at the rate of 1500 per month, and delivery of the first of 3000 back-ordered $95,900, 403 horsepower vehicles will begin in April/May.  All the "first drive" reviews I've read have been uniformly excellent.  Mr. Henrik Fisker is the Danish Aston-Martin/BMW designer now living in southern California who has teamed up with Quantum Technologies Worldwide to build a new American sport sedan from the ground up, and succeeded brilliantly if these initial reviews are any indication.  From the twin electric rear motors to the dashboard real wood trim made from 300-year-old salvaged logs from the bottom of Lake Michigan, this eco-car could take the U.S. by storm (and QTWW's stock price with it).  All it took was a three year long campaign to raise a billion dollars from private investors, venture capitalists and an eco-loan from Obama - no small feat.  Move over, Toyota Prius, the California glitteratti will now be cruising Rodeo Drive in a Karma.   

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Tea Partier

Recently I was re-introduced to an American fellow I met twenty years ago or so.  And although we only vaguely remembered each other, because the mutual friend who re-introduced us is so deeply admired by both (and because neither of us was going anywhere soon) despite our differences of opinion - which became evident very quickly - we ended up spending a fair amount of time together discussing our country's respective "political economies".  As a proudly small "c" conservative Albertan online and offline news junkie who loves documentaries and eschews Entertainment Tonight for the latest non-fiction book, I consider myself pretty well versed in said topics.  And I'm sure "Rush" (my nickname for my new buddy) considers himself just as well-read.  The essential difference between us appeared to be where we got our "facts" from.  I like CBC, BBC, PBS, and the financial media, while he prefers Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the Investors Business Daily.  We're both worried about many of the same things; immigration cheats, the morals of Wall Street, health care costs, national debt to GDP ratios, etc.  However I'm not worried about "socialists" behind every tree, and he thinks global warming is a cruel U.N. joke.  And we differ on who we blame for all these various troubles, as well as what should be done about them.  (He loves one of this site's mottoes: "Don't believe everything you think" - and thought I should adhere more strictly to it!)  Which all just goes to show the importance of the media filter we get our information through, as discussed previously in this space.  You are what you read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

M.O.B. of the Year

Already honored as The Most Interesting Woman in The World, we recently saw her in a new light - as M.O.B. (mother of the bride) at a destination wedding in Mexico.  Sans husband, she worked her butt off to make sure everything was just perfect, not only for her daughter but for the wedding guests as well.  She greeted a lot of the guests when they arrived at the resort, made sure their rooms were okay, and even gave brief guided tours thereof.  Of course she had her brother's roofline analysis of the various hotels (a penetrating glimpse into the useless after dark as it turned out) to help her get everyone properly oriented, but she still spent hours guiding newcomers.  Only Buddha knows how many more hours she spent working behind the scenes with hotel staff.  She met people for breakfast, checked out restaurants, and even kept track of The Donald (a.k.a. Dewar's Don) - not an easy task at the best of times.  (And all of this without so much as a Pincher Creek pin as recognition!)  As anyone who has arranged, funded, and executed a wedding these days knows, it is a herculean task and ginormous expense.  I am proud of the job this one incredibly hardworking lady did last week and in the many weeks leading up to the wedding.  I am proud to be her brother.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Seen And Held: Alexander Carlo

Such a perfect little man he is too, at last seen and held by his paternal grandparents.  Congratulations to Ian, Dee and of course, David, the perfect big brother.  As Dr. Peter Schram said, when he delivered LEB, "I am always overcome by of the miracle of childbirth".  And so are we!  Dr. Sig Balfour (Alex's paternal great-grandfather) wrote, in a list of cardiological phenomena supporting his belief in evolution rather than the supernatural, "...the first few breaths of a newborn human baby, which rotates the heart just enough to close off the previously patent ductus arteriosis, and converts the oxygen uptake of the fetus from the placental to the pulmonary uptake of the air-breathing baby..."  Whatever, Dad.  This little guy rotated his heart right into ours.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Continental Gate 35 Battleaxe From Hell

"Not Possible.  The doors to the aircraft are closed.  You'll have to see Customer Service to get on the next flight."  Yours truly had heard "not possible" too many times in one week, started to explode but instead muttered something about missing our connecting flight, and immediatement sprinted the fifty paces to Customer Service, within sight of our brief conflagration.  But MLB stood her ground.  (We had arrived from Mexico in Houston on time and with lots of same to make our connecting flight until we ran into a vast - I've never seen vaster - room of a gazillion other flyers trying to get through U.S. Customs & Immigration, then claim their baggage, take it through security, re-check same, and make their gate on time.  I will spare you, dear reader, my disdain for the intelligence of the average air traveller and security official for yet another day.  We hadn't dillydallyed, even postponed calls of nature, and had arrived at the gate at exactly the last minute - by Continental's own chronometer on the wall - exhausted after battling the masses and speed-walking like Olympians.)  The conversation had continued in my 30 second absence: "not possible ...", "but I'll miss work tomorrow ...", "not possible ...", "but my new grandson in Calgary needs me ...", "not possible ..." and so on.  Just then one of the stewardi, in search of some item of minutiae, opened the door of the gangway and my wife saw her chance.  "Are you sure there aren't two empty seats on that plane, there must be two empty seats - ours ...".  "Sure, we've got empty seats - and the aircraft door isn't even closed yet" chirped the stewardess.  Whereupon the Continental Airlines Gate 35 Battleass From Hell, flummoxed by one of her own, relented with a huff and we were on our way.  Jeff Smisek, you've got an employee who needs some work: Gate C35, flight CO275Y alias UA3834, 28Feb2011, departing 3:43pm from Houston, fortyish, black hair, a real bad ass; so give me a dingle Jeff.  Otherwise it's not possible that I'll ever fly your airline again.