Predators and Prey


White-topped Pitcher Plant

White-topped Pitcher Plant

Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants whose prey-trapping mechanism features a deep cavity filled with liquid. This is known as a pitfall trap. Insects such as flies are attracted to the cavity formed by the cupped leaf, often by visual lures and nectar bribes. When moistened by condensation or nectar, the rim of the pitcher is slippery, causing insects to fall into the trap. Liquid contained within the pitcher traps drown the insect, and their bodies are gradually dissolved. This particular Pitcher plant was found in the Mediterranean House at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.

Speaking of prey, Commerce our everyday bank, has settled a class action lawsuit and Dave, Anne and I are in their preyed upon class. According to the notification that we received, Commerce improperly posted debt card transactions from highest to lowest dollar amount to increase the number of overdraft fees charged to customers. We three have all been negligent of not studiously monitoring our bank account balances, but I can remember one weekend trip from Rochester to Toronto that Dave made. He had miscalculated his available funds, but because he was on holiday he was freer than normal with his debit card. There were several hundred dollars in overdraft fees and all for a sum total that was less than a single fee. Here is an example; Dave would purchase a candy bar for $1.39. Commerce charged a $25 overdraft fee for that transaction. We’re not done though; because this was an international transaction a few cents transaction fee was also charged, along with its own $25 overdraft fee. This pairing was repeated way too many times and all for less overdrawn money than a single overdraft fee.

The bank robber, John Dillinger was once famously asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is”, was his reply. Dillinger used guns to steal with, but his theft only ran into the thousands. According to our notification, Commerce is on the hook for $18.3M in settlements. 30% of this settlement goes to the lawyers, but that still leaves over $12M in damages. Our actual damages were not so great, but if there are also punitive damages, cha-ching!

Let Toonces Drive


Beaded Jaguar

Toonces, the Driving Cat is a fictional sketch character from Saturday Night Live. Created by SNL writer Jack Handey, Toonces was the family pet of Lyle (Dana Carvey) and Brenda Clark (Victoria Jackson), a couple who would allow their cat to drive the family car. At first, they were delighted that their cat had such an ability, but were always horrified to discover (too late) that Toonces was actually not a good driver. Inevitably, Toonces would drive the car over a cliff. This sequence was characterized by someone in the car yelling “Toonces, look out!”, followed by stock footage of the car sailing off a cliff. – per Wiki

Obama wins the election, the stock market pulls a temper tantrum and Republican congressional leadership returns to the mike after remaining silent for months. A lame duck session of Congress is in the offering, with the main agenda item on the table being the fiscal cliff.

The so-called fiscal cliff is really a series of escarpments. Broken down this precipice encompasses several parts. First, there is sequestration, the compromise from last year’s debt ceiling deal. Sequestration would cut the federal budget, but the main complaint about it is that it will cut as with a maul and not with the prefered scalpel. Second, are the payroll tax cut that were implemented to stimulate the economy and an extension to unemployment benefits. Finally, there are the Bush-era tax cuts.

It is generally agreed that allowing all of these tax and spending changes to occur would be a bad thing. It could possibly lead us back into another recession. There is the rub though. As a loyal American only wishing the best for my country I would whole heartedly endorse such a deal. Except that we will be dealing again with the very same tricksters, who for the past two years have done nothing, except to our obstruct government.

Once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow – Chuck Colson, Nixon consul

The Republicans have proved themselves way too adept at spinning these sometimes too arcane financial debates. The Democrats just can’t seem to hold their own water when it comes to debates like this. I have a simple prescription, let Toonces drive. Let’s dive off this fiscal cliff. Come late January, when the new Congress is sworn in, they can address these problems properly.

Except they won’t be the same problems. The Democrats won’t be arguing to raise taxes on the rich that will have already been done. Instead, the Dem’s might even exceed to an upper class tax cut, albeit a small one. Budget cuts will have been already made, we will just leven them with some intelligence. We’ll want to cut middle class taxes too. The markets will gyrate, but in the end rebalance. Is this not a Grover Norquist dystopian future?

To the more milk toast of my Demo brothers and sisters, I offer the following sop, Toonces in a happier younger time. I also want to offer a belated Happy Birthday to Dr. Alice. This blog has totally gone to the dogs. I mean cats.

Surfing the Winds of Change


Bay Area Wind Surfers

A year and a day or two ago the Perma-Bear wrote a note to me on a Post-It note. It said, “Ask [me] about Starbucks Indicator”. It also set the date to ask this question, September 2, 2012. That date fell in the middle of this year’s Labor Day weekend, so I’ve delayed until now to do as I was requested. Consider it asked.

For the casual reader, let me add a bit of background. In the depths of the winter of ’09, I could walk into my neighborhood Starbucks coffee shop, saddle up to the register and immediately place my order for a Grande Latté. There was no line, there were no other customers in the store, there was just me, Aaron, the store manager and his two associates. This ritual was repeated often enough for its innate strangeness to finally permeate the consciousness of my un-caffeinated brain. Kudos to Starbucks for keeping this staff through the depths of the Great Recession.

Though 2009 and 2010 I noticed a gradual change. Customers began to reappear. A veritable line began to form. I actually had to queue to place my order. It was about this time that I coined my version of the ‘Starbucks Index’. Others had preceded me, but I believe that mine is still unique. Simply put, I count the number of patrons ahead of me in line when I enter the door. Customers will race each other to the front door, but past that portal it is all courtesy and grace. It is both a simple and easy measurement. I noticed and would report that the line continued to grow.

Then came the summer of 2011 with its political bickering and market down turn, I marched into work on the first Friday in September, full of bravado and tossing off claims of how great my Starbucks Index was that morning. This must have ticked the Perma-Bear off, because he wrote the note. You see folks; the Perma-Bear is a student of history. He has read the histories of the Great Depression. Both Hoover and Roosevelt struggled mightily to right the economy then. Save the advent of World War II, who know how long those struggles could have gone on.

A year has passed since the note was written. The economy has not tanked, the past has not been revisited. Between now and then the DOW has increased 2,000 points. The S&P has matched pace. With 20/20 hindsight one can see that the note was written at the nadir of a minor correction. With all this exposition I don’t really expect a response. I’m just glad that he was wrong.

Power of the Purse


Purple Purse

That’s what this post is all about, money. You’ve got it and I want it. I’m talking at you Mister 1%. You with your big black Escalade, I be fiending on you. No matter how much you claim you produce, you’re just a net-oxygen consumer.

“The best things in life are free, but you can keep them for the birds and bees. Now give me money, that’s what I want, yeah!” – Money, Beatles

Medicare will go bankrupt when I am 70 years-old. Social Security will follow when I’m 79. I’ll be an old man and you’ll still be crying out for more tax cuts. I’m guessing that you will have stolen my 401K by then and looted my pension too, leaving me either destitute or dead, or both.

“Money, get away; get a good job with more pay and you’re okay. Money, it’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” – Money, Pink Floyd

Thirty years ago, you Mister 1% were content to earn forty times your lowest paid employee. Now you’re only content with almost 400 times that same poor employee. You are probably on a first name basis with her by now and wish her “Good evening, Gladys”, on your way out the door. She of course replies with respect, “Good night, Mister 1%”.

“Money, money; lie for it, spy for it, kill for it, die for it.” – Money, Michael Jackson

The power of the purse is traditionally a ruling power. Purple is a royal color. There is a referendum this year, an election. Mister 1% has nominated one of his own, Mitt. The incumbant has been less than effectual, the banks are bigger, the rich are richer and the poor are poorer and more numerous, but do we have any other choice, or chance?

OWS


Occupy Wall Street? No, Octopi Walks Shoreline. Checkout the YouTube video, Octopus Walks on Land at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. It is a pretty amazing home-made movie. This little guy, but not as little as the finger in the frame might indicate, crawls out of the primordial sea, crosses an expanse of land, deposits a crab carcass on shore and then slithers back into the water. The questions abound around this movie. Why did he/she leave the safety and comfort of the sea? What’s with the crab? It has gills, right? Does that mean it was holding its breath all through the movie? Is there a marine biologist in the house? The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, where this movie was shot, is located at Moss Beach, CA, located just southwest of San Francisco. I was there a few of years ago and shot the following photograph of some of the tidal flats.

Continuing along with the meme line, I offer up this news item, courtesy of Facebook friend Josh, and the Onion. The gist (read jest) of this “article” is that the Labor Department has announced that the economy created 4 million new jobs last month, but unfortunately they were all created in Saint Louis. Still this job growth brings down the national unemployment rate to 6.5%. The article says that these jobs are being created in the high paying fields of engineering, medicine, and manufacturing. It goes on to warn that this employment boom means that all these people will have to actually move to Saint Louis, with its “high crime rate and lack of culture”. (What about baseball? That’s culture, sports culture) You know, there is a grain of truth to this article, at least where I work.

This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. - Voltaire

Last Week, the Oxford University Press (OUP) announced its global word of the year, “squeezed middle”. According to Slate author, David Haglund’s article, this word choice is neither global, a word, or of this year. Last year, British MP, Ed Miliband coined this phrase, which describes how the British middle class is feeling pinched during this global economic downturn. According to Mr. Haglund, in America, this phrase has more to do with cookie filling. I must agree with him on how poor a choice OUP has made this year. Going down the list of the other finalists, Arab Spring, Fracking and Occupy, all seem like better choices for the global word of the year, in my humble opinion.

My Bourgie Index


bour-gie [bo͞o’zhi] adj. (comparative more bourgie, superlative most bourgie)
From Bourgeoisie or Bourgeois, from French; compare bougie.
1. (usually pejorative) used to describe middle-class values in their attempt to give the semblance of discerning taste.

Although there were more reasonably priced bottles of wine, they chose an expensive Malbec not for its flavor, but for its bourgie appeal.

I feel so bourgie these days, when I drive up to Starbuck’s in my brand new 2011 Toyota Prius, but not as bourgie as I feel when I actually place my order for a Starbuck’s Grande Latté. It only gets worse as I await my frothy beverage, for I pass this time, by surfing on my Apple iPhone. This collection of possessions, Prius, Latté and iPhone, has combined to define my personal bourgie index, at least on my morning commute, and this index is high.

Back in the day, when we had just graduated from college, and were beginning our careers, our friend, Evelyn, coined the term bourgie index. As we were setting up our households, aided by the influx of fulltime employment cash, possessions began to accumulate in our respective households. We would chide each other on our respective bourgieness. Buying a Cuisinart food processor was more bourgie than buying a Krupps coffee maker, but most bourgie, was the purchase of my baby Trans-Am, a Plymouth Arrow.

The Arrow was certainly not my most sober or well thought out automotive acquisition, but it certainly made heads turn. It was black and trimmed in gold tape. It really did look like a baby Trans-Am. In the intervening years, under the tutelage of my Spovely Louse, I have been slowly weaned from such testosterone fueled consumerism. We eventually bought a modest house, had two boys and settled into parenthood. Raising children only accelerated our consumerism, but in retrospect our bourgie indexed tended to slope downward. Then the kid’s college years came along, which in some respects continues on to this day. College’s drain on our cash flow inhibited our bourgie tendencies better than a cold, wet slap in the face. We are now working ourselves out of college debt and find ourselves these days with a little bit of extra cash. Hence, the Prius and this post’s faux lamentations about a bourgie index.

In truth, I enjoy the caffeine fueled, daily morning ritual of the flashing of the bling. The fact that I can do this in the banking sector, all the while accoutered in engineer’s garb, only adds to my pleasure among the blossoming suits. Politically, the combination of Prius, Latté and iPhone, speak of a liberal persuasion. I embrace this stereotype. It fits the neighborhoods and haunts that I frequent and makes a statement elsewhere. Effete, liberal, Democrat, tree hugger, whatever, call me what would you may, I revel in your stereotypes. Tag me as you will, but don’t you dare touch my new car.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet


Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.

It isn’t Superman folks, but don’t tell any of these self-professed masters of the universe that, they wouldn’t believe you anyway.  This post centers around two of these self-appointed supermen, David and James Barksdale.  James Barksdale made his fortune and name running one of the original internet browser company’s, Netscape.  His son, David Barksdale is CEO of the startup, Spread Networks.  Netscape was once the dominant web browser, but has since subsided into obscurity, but not before James Barksdale got rich.  Spread Networks is now poised to make its economic mark too, in its niche market.

The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good

Last month, Spread fired up its network.  Compared to normal network providers the Spread network is somewhat peculiar.  It only connects two cities, Chicago and New York.  Why did they do this?  The speed of light in finite and inviolable and hence the speed of information over a fiber-optic cable is likewise finite and inviolable.  If you can’t run a race any faster, then your only hope of getting to the finish-line faster is to take a shortcut.  Geometry teaches us that the shortest path between two points is a straight line.  This is the path that Spread took.  Normally it costs $200,000 per mile to lay high-speed fiber networks.  It is estimated that Spread paid a premium $300,000 per mile, to chart the course that they did.  Over a route of 800+ miles this equates to almost a billion dollar premium.  Spread Network’s fiber is estimated to be a total of three milliseconds faster than all other networks.  So why pay almost a billion dollars for just three-one-thousands of a second? 

Someone reminded me I once said “Greed is good”.  Now it seems it’s legal.

The answer of course is the phenomenon of high frequency trading, also know as computerized trading.  In the arms race of high frequency trading, a three milliseconds time advantage is an absolute advantage.  Spread Networks is poised to make a lot of money.  None of the investment houses that operate between New York and Chicago can afford not to sign up.  Spread’s network is obviously a smart idea, but is it a good idea?  Does it create real wealth?  I don’t think so.  It makes the Barksdales and their client’s richer, but does not increase the real wealth of our nation .  They are playing a zero sum game.

Bulls make money, bears make money and pigs get slaughtered

Conversely, the Obama administration broke ground this last week on a high-speed rail line between Saint Louis and Chicago.  This rail line is expected to reap a cornucopia of economic and environmental benefits.  This line is slated to cost $3.1B versus the estimated $2.5B that the Spread network cost.  I ask you folks, who is investing most wisely for our country, our federal government or our investment community?  This is not just a rhetorical question, because our country in its economic woes is vulnerable to eclipsing from our economic rivals, Europe, China and Japan.  The high-speed Voodoo securities trading that has become the de jour needs to be curtailed, if not eliminated.  An individual investor stands no chance against these cyber trading demons.

I think that with the two examples that I have laid out here, that the ineffectual, bumbling and costly federal government has come out on top of the private sector.  Putting money into something is better than wasting money on nothing.  Our stock markets are broken.

Yes, it’s Superman – strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman – who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights the never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Thanks to the PermaBear for this storyline.  The pictures with this post first stress the emergency nature of our current economic situation and second show some tangible production in our backyard. I like to think of the supermen, the Wall Street titans, as the grasshopper upon the pumpkin, claiming all the credit for what lies below it.  I have quoted Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko throughout this post, because he epitomizes the evil that lurks in Wall Street.  Wall Street II also opens today.