Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quote of the year

It was late August. I was on my way home from the DNC in Denver. Since I was traveling, I hadn't been paying attention to the news. I caught a picture of Sarah Palin on CNN, and thot to myself "Did John McCain really choose her as his VP?", but didn't have time to watch it and confirm. Then, as I was walking into my apartment, my brother Ted called me. I had been staying with him in Denver. Right off the bat, he asked me this question:
"Who the hell is Sarah Palin?"
Of course, we all now know the answer to that question. But the confusion and anger generated by that choice of McCain's is, I think, perfectly captured in my brother's question. Which is why it is, for me, the quote of the year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

HSX: Christmas Day

We have several movies opening on Christmas Day. One reason for this, of course, is that lots of people have free time that day, after opening presents, to go see movies. But it's also the last possible day of the year to open a movie and have it qualify for the Oscars. A movie has to play for one week in a Los Angeles County theater in the calendar year to qualify for Academy Award nominations. If a movie is still playing when the Oscar ballots go out, presumably it is still very much in Academy members' minds, which will hopefully increase its chances.

That doesn't apply to all of the movies opening this Thursday, because some of them are clearly not in Oscar contention. Primary among those would be:

Bedtime Stories. Adam Sandler stars in this Disney comedy (BEDTM) about a man who tells stories to little kids. The stories start to come true. It's an interesting idea that could be very funny. Adam Sandler is very much a man-child, innocent yet raunchy, so there are possibilities. However, it's trading at H$104, down from a high of H$131. I shorted it. The strike price is $35 million, which sounds about right. The market mostly agrees with me. I'm long on the call and shorting the put.

In serious contention for Oscars, however, is:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, directed by David Fincher (BBUTN). This should be good. I don't like the movies that David Fincher directs (Seven, Panic Room), but that's mostly because I'm just not a fan of the genre. However, I love his music videos (Madonna's Vogue, Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted Snake). Stylistically, we can expect this to be very interesting. It's also down, trading around H$55, down from H$73. I bought it at H$1.14, so I have a 4,700% profit. I'm somewhat optimistic, because this is a good cast, and it's a unique idea (based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story). Strike price is H$15, which actually sounds a little low. I'm long on the call and shorting the put; market is sending the same signal.

In the Very Serious Drama Department, we have:

Doubt. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a drama about a priest and a nun; she thinks he is sexually abusing a young boy. Highly relevant these days, unfortunately. A little too heavy for me, particularly around the holidays. It's already been released; it's now going wide. It was sinking for a while, but it's been going up steadily for the last couple of weeks, and is now trading at its high, H$15.91. Looks like a good one to hold long, which is what I am doing. Since it's already been released, there are no options for the opening. Talk about Oscar bait.

In the heartwarming category, good for Xmas, we have:

Marley and Me. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson (although she's been getting vastly more attention for this than him) (MARLY). This is moving up very consistently, and is up H$6 today, to H$82, which is a new high. The buzz must be great. Very strong signals to go long and stay there. Strike price is H$20, which sounds even better than the H$15 strike price for BBUTN. The call is at H$4.47, another strong signal. I am, of course, long the call and short the put.

For the fanboy crowd, we have:

The Spirit. Another movie based on a comic book (SPIRT). This is tanking badly. It's up H$4 today, to H$25.92, but that's a bounce from the rock bottom price it hit yesterday, and down from a high of H$60. That's about the worst possible sign imaginable. I have it short at H$24. Rarely have I seen a stock sink so badly. Yesterday was the low for the year. That's almost unheard of. Must be terrible. Which is too bad, because I like Scartlett Johansson, and I bet she plays great noir. Strike price is H$10, which might be a record low for a movie based on a famous comic book. I have the call long and the put short, which is against my position on the stock. The last thing I am going to do is check this on Christmas morning. I don't think it's going to matter much.

Last, and probably least, is:

Valkyrie. Tom Cruise plays a Nazi (VALKR). A good Nazi, one who tried to assassinate Hitler, but a Nazi nonetheless. I knew someone once whose father was part of this plot. I also have a friend who is familiar with the German press' take on this. They aren't happy. I shorted it a long time ago, at H$40. It then went to H$80, which means I would have lost a ton of money, but it has since dropped to H$46. I expect it to keep dropping. I just can't see an audience for this. Strike price is H$15, which is right in line with the recent price. Still, I'm shorting the call and going long on the put. That's against the market, but I am very cynical about this movie. I like Bryan Singer (USC grad) as a director, but I think Tom Cruise looks like an idiot in the Nazi uniform with the hat.

Way late update: I was mostly right about this week. I was wrong about the options for BEDTM and SPIRT, and wrong about VALKR generally. That's a surprise. Otherwise, tho, it was a pretty good week.

GOP having trouble attacking Obama

Pity the poor Republicans. Masters of the political attack, the negative ad, are now faced with a President who seems to be made of - what's that nonstick stuff again? - oh yeah, Teflon. Maybe sort of like Reagan, except that Obama is smarter and a better politician than Reagan. From the NY Times:

Two months after Barack Obama’s election, Republicans are struggling to figure out how — or even whether — to challenge or criticize him as he prepares to assume the presidency.
Hee hee hee hee.

The GOP tried to link Obama with Blagojevich, to very little effect. How badly did that backfire?

“I was saddened to learn that at a time of national trial, when a president-elect is preparing to take office in the midst of the worst financial crisis in over seventy years, that the Republican National Committee is engaged in the sort of negative, attack politics that the voters rejected in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles”
That's from Newt Gingrich. When Newt Gingrich criticizes you for being too negative, you are off the deep end and heading for the abyss.

The GOP will figure something out. There are some unresolved issues just waiting to be exploited, particularly around education. Democrats are big supporters of public education, and teachers' unions, but frustration with teachers' unions is mounting in the general public. Public employee pensions are a ticking time bomb. Unfortunately for the GOP, those are mostly local issues, and Obama won't have a great deal of influence over them.

But for now, the GOP can't even figure out how to criticize Obama. That's part of the price you pay when your ideology collapses in a sodden mess of greed, fear, incompetence and ignorance.

Monday, December 22, 2008

And now for some good old-fashioned myth-busting

The LA Times has a very welcome report on some myths/urban legends that could use debunking. These are from the British Medical Journal and Lancet. Herewith, therefore, some things that you have probably heard, and may even believe, but are not, in fact, supported by scientific evidence.

1. Poinsettias are not toxic.
2. Suicides do not increase over the holidays.
3. Sugar does not make kids hyperactive.
4. Coca-cola is not an effective contraceptive (although it is a spermicide). Sperm are faster than carbonated beverages.
5. Not wearing a hat does not mean that you lose body heat faster.
6. Eating at night is not more likely to pack on the pounds (glad to hear about that one).

There's also something about Wales winning a rugby championship predicting the death of a pope (also untrue) that I don't quite get, not being a fan of Welsh sports generally.

Good to know all this stuff! More things not to worry about.

No more VHS for you!

You remember VHS tapes. I'm sure you do. I certainly do. I still own some VHS tapes. I have a couple of movies on VHS that I don't think I could get in a DVD format. I even still have a tape player, just in case I want to play these tapes.

There was a time, oh not so long ago, when VHS tapes were a great new technology. You could watch movies at home! On your own time! You just had to go out to Blockbuster or your local movie rental place and get them there. Then the prices came down, and you could afford to buy them!

No longer. The LA Times reports today that, as of last October, VHS tapes are officially dead. No more. Kaput. None are being sold in the United States. Some guy named Ryan Kugler, one of those bottom-feeders who buy "distressed" inventory, and then ships it to places like 99 Cent stores, moved his last truckload of tapes a couple of months ago.

Hey, if you have any left, they might now be collector's items. I donated my last batch to my church rummage sale. Apparently Amoeba in Hollywood stills buys and sells them. They're hardy. The ones that still exist will last. And there are billions of them. So maybe they won't be collector's items.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A short history of the UAW

Trapper John has an excellent post over at Daily Kos about the history of the UAW. His basic point is something that I have long suspected: that the UAW is one of the institutions primarily responsible for the creation of the middle class in the mid-20th century. He writes extensively about Walter Reuther, who was president of the UAW for 24 years, until his death in a plane crash in 1970. I know something about Walter Reuther; he was my grandfather's roommate in the 1920's. Gramps was very conservative, and hated unions with a passion. But he always said that the most honest man he ever met was Walter Reuther.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor

Obama has chosen Hilda Solis as his Secretary of Labor. She is currently a US Representative from East LA. I haven't been commenting much about Obama's cabinet picks, partially because they've been coming fast and furious, partially because I pretty much agree with them.

Solis' nomination is notable for me for a couple of reasons. First, obviously, she comes from LA. Second, at a moment when the UAW, bastion of white American male manufacturing prowess, is in deep trouble, there is something telling that Obama chose a Secretary of Labor about as from the UAW, geographically and demographically, as possible. That deserves a deeper look, but not now.

Harold Meyerson, former executive editor of the LA Weekly, wrote a nice piece about Solis in the LA Times. He compares her with Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor. He also provides some explanation for why Solis was chosen, and what it means for the future of labor. The labor movement is alive and well in LA, and is, in some part, being driven by Latinas. The head of the LA County Federation of Labor is Maria Elena Durazo.

But the most important thing about Hilda Solis, as far as I am concerned, and the best possible indication of her future greatness, is that she has a Master's degree from the University of Southern California!

Barack Obama's cabinet is finally complete - gotta have a Trojan in the house!

On a personal note, this is my 7ooth post.

Meghan Daum: Obama on Facebook

Meghan Daum has a very funny column in The LA Times about Barack Obama and all of his friends on Facebook.

My favorite:

- Barack has 83 friends in common with Bernard Madoff.
- Rahm Emanuel has 820 friends in common with Bernard Madoff.
- Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton have 2,894 friends in common with Bernard Madoff.
This is also good:
December 5:
- ♥ Barack is now listed as "in a relationship" with The U.S. Auto Industry.
But wait! On December 11, we find out that:
- ♥ Barack has changed his relationship status to The U.S. Auto Industry to "it's complicated."
Which reminds me, I have to see if Meghan Daum will be my friend on Facebook . . .

Friday, December 19, 2008

HSX: Weekend of December 19

I'm blogging about this after the stocks have already halted, but I want to keep up my tradition as well as I can. This weekend we have three very different movies opening, all with solid ambitions. Seven Pounds (7PNDS) is a Will Smith. I've never been able to figure out what it's about, but it looks heavy. It's been dropping for weeks, but when it halted it was up H$5, to H$67.16. That's a good sign. I'm looking for an opening weekend of about $23 -$25 million. I'm holding it long, with my fingers crossed. The strike price is $25. I'm shorting the call and going long on the put, which looks like the right bet.

The Tale of Despereaux (TDSPR) is an animated movie about a French mouse. Sounds familiar, and reminds me of a French stew. This doesn't have the Pixar pedigree, it's been dropping steadily, and it was down H$3.34 at the halt, to H$43.98. I'm not optimistic about the opening weekend, but I found the trailer charming, so I am somewhat optimistic about its long-term prospects. I'm thinking an opening between $12 and $15 million, but my guess is that it will have legs, and will delist above the adjust. I'm holding it long. Didn't have a chance to short it this morning, which I probably should have done. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised, and the market will be wrong. Unfortunately, it looks like I will be completely wrong about the options. The strike price is $20, which now looks highly optimistic. I'm long on the call and short the put, so I'll probably lose some cash there.

Yes Man (YESMA) is a Jim Carrey comedy, and it looks like it. I didn't find myself laughing at the trailer. It scored 44% on, and the positive reviews have only faint praise. Like the other two, it's been dropping, and halted at H$71, down H$2, and down about H$25 from its high. I'm holding it long, but wish I had shorted it about a month ago. Jim Carrey can still work some magic, and the world certainly could use some laughs, but this doesn't look strong. The strike price for the options is $25. The call is H$3.30, and the put is at H$1.35, which suggests an opening around $30 million, but they've been moving towards a little less than that. I'm just slightly on the optimistic side, I'm going to predict an opening between $27 and $29 million.

Update Monday: Well, I was almost completely wrong. They all adjusted down by more than H$10, and I lost a point in the rankings. My bad for blogging about them after the halt. So I hereby resolve to never do that again. I am also going to start printing out the calendar at the beginning of every week, to force myself to pay attention to HSX when I need to, and to do some basic planning.

Rick Warren at the Inaugural: The Obama Rules

Many people are still upset about Obama's decision to invite Rick Warren to participate in his Inaugural.

What no one seems to realize is that this is exactly according to Obama's plan. He wants to precipitate a vigorous debate. He knows that, given a fair fight, advocates of equality for same-sex couples will ultimately win.

He believes in promoting that equality. There are many tools at his disposal to do that, and he will have many options to make policy decisions to advance that.

But more importantly, he knows that his side will win in a fair fight, and it's his job to make sure it's a fair fight. This is a completely different approach from Bush, who did everything possible to make sure it wasn't a fair fight.

Many liberals (and a few conservatives, notably Andrew Sullivan) are going to be criticizing Rick Warren. They will be holding him and his followers accountable. There will be much heated discussion, not just between religious conservatives and liberals, but between many people of different faiths and political persuasions. Some people may change their minds. Some people may appreciate the perspective of another side. And some people's views will be hardened, and they'll be bitter and angry.

But the debate will be healthy. And one thing Rick Warren and other conservatives will not be able to do is criticize Obama. They will have to respect him. Earning the respect of your political opponents is a very, very good way of accumulating political power.

So I think it's great that many people are examining Rick Warren's record, taking him seriously, criticizing his ideas. That is precisely what they should be doing. And it is precisely what Barack Obama wants.

We are now playing by Obama's Rules. Welcome to the future of American democracy.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren and Obama

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, is giving the invocation at Obama's Inaugural. Many liberals are upset about this. Gays in particular aren't happy about it; Andrew Sullivan has been struggling with it all day.

I can obviously appreciate why many of my compadres are not pleased with this choice. I don't know much about Rick Warren, but I clearly disagree with him on a fair number of issues, particularly gay marriage.

The fact that this is coming in the wake of the passage of Prop. 8 has colored much of the reaction. If Prop. 8 had failed, the tone of the debate would be very different; triumphant liberals would be a lot less angry. There is still a great deal of unfocused anger lingering in the political air around the issue of gay marriage. Unfocused anger is the worst kind, because it means that whoever is carrying it around inside themselves is looking for an excuse to be angry at someone, for almost any reason. Obama gave people a reason to focus their anger both on Rick Warren, and on him. I'm not sure he was expecting quite this reaction, but I doubt he was surprised.

My reaction is simple: this is exactly what I was expecting from Barack Obama, and I'm fine with it. If you're outraged at Obama about this choice, get ready to be pissed off once a week or so for the next four to eight years.

Barack is the President-elect of the United States of America. Emphasis on United. He is not the President-elect of the Liberal States of America or the Democratic States of America. If anyone missed Obama's emphasis on reaching out to people he disagreed with, then they weren't listening. This has been his message since that historic keynote address in 2004. Lee Stranahan put it well today in the Huffpost:

There's something bigger at play here and you can't say Obama didn't warn you. He talked about reaching out, about expanding our politics and that crazy bastard actually meant it. Nobody on the left or right quite knows what to make of it. We want to cram Obama into our old, divisive, two toned ideological and political frame and if he doesn't fit, we'll attack him too. Attacking is what we're used to doing.

But in the long run this new politics benefits us all. Ironically, it benefits the minorities and marginalized and ill-treated the most. I know this may be hard for many to see right now but the truth is that this sort of symbol is what America needs. Not seeing just Warren on stage or just Lowery but seeing both of them of there at once.

Obama said it in the abstract time and again during the campaign. Now he's showing us. Seeing the things that Pastor Rick Warren and Reverend Joseph Lowery have in common is more important than seeing the things that separate them. America needs to see that. It's a step down the road where a majority of us see the things that straight Americans in love want are the same things that gay Americans in love want, too.

I think part of the problem that many liberals have is that they are used to Bush, who used occasions like this for the exact opposite reasons that Obama is using them. If Bush invited someone to give the invocation at his inaugural, you knew darn well that he was sending a message that he agreed with that person's politics, and he was using the occasion to send the message that he considered that person's politics correct and superior to anyone who disagreed with him.

Obama has listened to Rick Warren. He knows him personally. He believes that he is a good man, with whom he has many disagreements. He is not sending a message that this is a man who the rest of us must agree with. He is sending a message that the rest of us should respect, listen to, and engage him in dialogue, not despite the fact that we disagree with him, but precisely because we disagree with him.

Joseph Lowery, the "dean of the civil rights movement," is also going to be at the Inaugural, giving the benediction. I'm not sure what the difference is between the benediction and invocation, but they both sound very important.

I found out that Lowery was going to be giving the benediction when I read the second-to-last paragraph of this NY Times article. I don't know much more about Lowery than I do about Warren, except that the former founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.

But the fact there has been far more emphasis on Rick Warren than on Joseph Lowery says something unfortunate about the debate. The fact that someone of Joseph Lowery's stature is part of this celebration is something that liberals should be very happy about. Concentrating on Warren slights Lowery, at a moment that is the culmination of what Dr. Rev. Joseph Lowery has been fighting for his entire life.

By far the stupidest comment of the day on this controversy came from the normally very astute Kos:

If we shut up, [Obama]'ll take the path of least resistance. And that path of least resistance is kowtowing to the conservative media, the clueless punditocracy, and bigots like Warren.
I understand what Kos means: it's up to liberals to keep the pressure on Obama to fight for equality for gays and lesbians (and all other sexual minorities).

But I can't believe that Kos actually used the phrase "path of least resistance" and "Barack Obama" in the same sentence. There are many things that can be said about Barack Obama. But taking the past of least resistance is really not his style. Really, really not his style. I do believe that this is a man who enjoys a good challenge. Like, say, running for President.

Obama has pissed off lots of liberals with this move. I'm glad that he did. This will make things more interesting. Overcoming this anger will be a challenge for Obama. Which is exactly what he wants, and which is exactly what I want him to have.

Quote of the day

From a Daily Kos post about George Bush's response to the shoe-throwing incident:

Bush's opinions about "democracy" and "freedom" have always been on the far side of odd.
My version of this is "the wrong side of enlightened," but this works for me as well.

Becerra's justification

As the world knows, or maybe just political junkies and trade policy geeks know, Rep. Xavier Becerra turned down Barack Obama's offer to be U.S. Trade Representative. The LA Times reports that Becerra said that he felt that he could be more effective as the No. 5 Democrat in Congress. This has the benefit of being true. He would also have to focus exclusively on trade, whereas in Congress he gets to deal with a wide variety. Trade is but one of many issues the Obama administration will be facing.

I think Obama played this particularly well. I hadn't heard any gossip about who was being considered for Trade Rep, because that's just not my focus. I was a little surprised Becerra got the offer, because I don't know him as being particularly focused on trade. I know something about his focus, because he's my Representative. He does pay attention to US-Korea relations, because Koreatown (where I live) is in his district.

My guess is that Obama wanted him as Trade Rep, but also would not mind Becerra staying in Congress, because he's a good, competent Democrat. So Obama wins either way, and in fact comes out of this looking great. Becerra is, of course, grateful to Obama for asking him; it raised his profile for a couple of weeks, which any politician always appreciates. He got to spend some face time with the President-elect, not a bad thing. Obama, meanwhile, scores a point or two with Hispanics for reaching out to a very prominent Hispanic for a job that would require a great deal of interaction with Latin America. Fun for the whole family!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Becerra says no to being US Trade Rep

Xavier Becerra has turned down Barack Obama's offer to be the next US Trade Representative. Good for him. I was opposed to the idea, because I think he will do more good in the House, and I think he has a very bright future in the House. Also, I like having him as my Representative. So this is a bit of good news. I'm sure Becerra would have done a fine job as USTR, but I'm sure whoever Obama eventually picks will do a fine job, as well.

Caroline Kennedy? Huh?

Caroline Kennedy is now openly campaigning for the Senate seat that Hillary will vacate if she becomes Secretary of State. I find this bizarre. At first, I wasn't sure why she would want it. But it should be obvious: her good friend Barack Obama is about to become president, so serving in public office would be fun in a way that it hasn't been for a long time. Okay, I get that.

But it strikes me as rather arrogant and egotistical to think that you can just jump into being Senator. Caroline Kennedy strikes me as a very nice woman. I'm sure she's smart, I'm sure she has good political instincts, and I'm sure she knows a lot about politics. But after a week, I'm still not sure what her qualifications are. Hillary herself, of course, benefited from her famous name. But she also had a record of holding responsible jobs in public service, and she campaigned for the position, and won. She may have been a carpetbagger, but she did win the election, and reelection. Obama, of course, was accused of having a thin resume, but at least he had held elected office.

Nicholas Kristof thinks this is disrespectful to the other women in New York who have put in the time in elected office. I agree. It's not just disrespectful to those women; it's disrespectful to the people of New York. Who know something about respect and disrespect. There is a real question of whether or not Caroline Kennedy can actually do the job. Electing any governmental representative is not just a question of voters judging them on their policies and beliefs. They are also judged on their qualifications. Being a United States Senator requires a particular set of skills. It also requires that the person not merely have those skills, but have them at a very high level. It's not enough to be smart and a good networker. There's a reason just about every senator holds some other office before being elected to the Senate.

I saw Caroline Kennedy when Michelle Obama came to UCLA during the campaign. I liked her, but I don't remember thinking "Wow, SHE should run for office!" If she's so passionate about public service, where has she been all these years?

It's not personally relevant to me, since I don't live in NY any more, but if I were David Patterson, I would tell Ms. Kennedy thanks, but no thanks.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Detroit newspapers in trouble

The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News have announced that they are cutting back on home delivery; they will only be delivering on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. How this is going to work is something of a mystery to me. Are they going to have part-time carriers? That's going to be a little weird. I have some nostalgia for both papers, although more so for the Free Press. I delivered both papers for years when I was in junior high and high school. So did my siblings. I prefered the Free Press; it was more liberal (it had Doonesbury), and it seemed like a better paper.

At least it was back then. When I go home to visit my parents, I'm saddened by what I see. The Free Press is a shell of what it used to be. At least that's the way it looks to me.

As we are debating whether or not to save the Big Three, it occurs to me that it might be better for Detroit if one of these papers bites the dust. Los Angeles has one daily newspaper, and it's still a good paper.

Ted Turner realized years ago that newspapers consume a great deal of energy, as they are produced and delivered. That's one reason he started CNN; it's a much more efficient way of delivering the news. Or at least parts of the news.

The problem of efficiency is one that newspapers just can't seem to get a handle on. In many respects, newspapers are horrendously inefficient. I read a story a while ago about a guy who advertised for a clerk for his laundromat business in San Francisco. He put an ad in the paper; he got 4 responses. He put an ad on craigslist. He got 400 responses. Guess which one he uses now.

Consider the energy/resources used in both of those. Let's assume that the guy runs an ad in a SF paper with a circulation of 400,000, and he runs it for a week. That ad will be printed 2.8 million times. If he gets 4 responses, that's one response for every 700,000 times it's printed. That's a huge amount of paper. But if he posts it online, no one has to actually print out the ad at all.

The online ad is orders of magnitude more efficient in terms of energy and resource use. It's also vastly more efficient in terms of being relevant to the person looking for it. It's much easier to find a classified ad on craigslist than it is in a newspaper. It's also easier to reply; just clink on the link.

On the other hand, a newspaper delivers lots and lots of ads, and, in some respects, it's easier to read than something online. I read most of the LA Times every morning. It's easy to scan several articles on each page and decide what you're interested in. And there are pictures to help you figure out what happened. Kobe's excited! Lakers must have won.

So newspapers are inefficient, but lucrative. As of right now, Websites are efficient, but not very lucrative. Megan McArdle makes a good point:

[I]t takes a while to figure out how to make advertising work in a new medium. The original television ads were simply transplanted radio ads, and they were dreadful--just as the original radio ads consisted of someone reading a print ad, which didn't work very well. We may just be waiting for our advertising revolutionary who can show us how to make webvertising work.
Web advertising is, of course, constantly improving. With, unfortunately, a few false starts. One of the best things about Webvertising is that there is a huge range of ads, from one-line text ads on Google to 30-second commercials on Unfortunately, that range isn't always taken advantage of. I can think of a few Web ads I have seen far too many times. That cute but serious Indian woman in a white shirt in the SAP ad? Boring. Seen her more times than I care to remember. Several weeks ago, I spent some time doing a lot of trading one day on HSX. I kept seeing the exact same ad, for Soul Men. By the time I was halfway through my trading, I was thoroughly sick of the ad. The fact that I remember my disgust is an indication of just how ineffective the repetition was. There has to be technology available for varying the ads sent to a specific computer.

The upside of this is that newspapers have a couple of advantages on the Web. First, because articles are mostly composed of text, their bandwidth and server costs are lower than, for example, YouTube or Comedy Central. Second, they have massive archives. The NYTimes was a leader in this respect. Putting all of those old articles online is a huge expense, but once it's done, it's done and paid for. I don't understand why every newspaper in the country has not followed in their footsteps. Every decent newspaper in the country has decades of content that no one else has. Once all those articles are online, it's a matter of programming and management ingenuity to figure out how to slice and dice it all to find value in it. Third, as the costs of technology go down, newspapers will be able to realize, one assumes, ever-greater cost savings. Fourth, as high-bandwidth connections proliferate, more and more people will be able to watch high-value video ads.

It's not a pleasant experience watching proud old companies face possible extinction. I'm cautiously optimistic about the future of newspapers. I'm not that impressed so far with current management, but I am also a firm believer in the old saying that nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of a hanging in a fortnight. Like the Big Three, newspapers are burdened with legacy costs. Even if GM shuts down a plant, they're still paying the mortgage on it. Same with newspapers. They still have large printing facilities that have to be paid for. There is still a large demand for printing for things besides newspapers. Hopefully they will be able to figure out how to make money with their idle printers. But it's time to start experimenting and rethinking how the business is going to work.

HSX Nominoptions

HSX floated Nominoptions last week. Nominoptions are options for betting on who will be nominated for an Oscar. There are options in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay, and the Acting categories. There are 12 Nominoptions in each category, for a total of 96. The hottest one so far is for Heath Ledger to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing The Joker in Dark Knight. I'm sure he'll be nominated; apart from the sympathy vote, he simply played one of the best villians in the history of cinema.

Trading will be halted at 9 pm EST on January 21, in anticipation of the nominations being announced on January 22. That's two days after the Inaugural! That's going to be an exciting week.

I love Nominoptions because, first of all, it's a fun word to say, and second, because they represent Hollywood gossip in its purest, most raw, unadulterated form. Gossipy gossip at its gossipiest. Rumor, innuendo, hearsay, dreams and delusions of grandeur. Ridiculous ad campaigns for nobodies with a chance, or even famous stars with even less of a chance. Inflated egos, fingers crossed, thousands of people obsessively reading the tea leaves of obscure critics' awards, hoping for a sign of great things to come.

Then there are the denials, the dismissals, the absurd protestations of "Oh, I just don't care," "I'm excited just to be in a great movie with so many wonderful people," "It's all about the work," "I would be thrilled, of course, but there are so many wonderful writers/directors/actors/actresses/movies out there right now, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda . . . "

Some of which protestations might actually be true. Some of them actually mean it when they say they were excited to be in a great movie with lots of wonderful people. Others might be cynical enough not to care about winning an award. Others mights actually be secure enough not to worry about whether or not they are going to win an award. And still others know that they really aren't that great, they just look really good on screen, but they're thrilled to be making a lot of money playing around at being other people, and they have come to terms with that a long time ago, so they really do know that they don't stand a chance in hell at winning an award against people with real talent, and they're fine with that because they're married with great kids and they drive a nice car and live in a nice house and don't have any debt because they're actually decent, responsible people.

This last is a rare breed, but they do exist.

And then there are the people who actually deserve it. And some of them will be nominated. And some of them will deserve the award that they will win. And some people will think that all of the hype and nonsense and wailing and gnashing of teeth and bruised and battered egos and superficiality and obsession with fashion and who wore what will be worth it, because at the end of the day there are a few movies - just a very few - that come out every year that make you go "wow."

And one of those people who think it's all worth it will be me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bing and Bowie

David Bowie and Bing Crosby sang "Little Drummer Boy" way back in the '70's. I've been thinking about posting the video, but Andrew Sullivan beat me to it. Here it is, anyways.

Sullivan isn't appreciative; he posted it as part of his "Christmas Hathos" series. He defines hathos as "the attraction to something you really can't stand; it's the compulsion of revulsion." He's one of those people who find the sentimentality of Christmas a little much. Too bad for him.

I disagree about this video. It may be cheesy, but that's probably because it's from the early 1970's. I like this because it's a little bit of an antidote to the political correctness I experienced in college. Way back in the late 1980's, it was very cool to be opposed to anything traditional. As we tended to do in college, we occasionally took that stance of principled opposition a little too far (sometimes a lot too far), which sometimes made it emotionally complicated for me to try and resolve my status as a descendant of and beneficiary of a lot of those traditions.

So it was refreshing for me to discover that someone as impeccably hip as David Bowie could have enough respect for someone as resolutely old school as Bing Crosby to actually work with him.

While I'm on the topic, I want to provide my own definition of political correctness in college. Liberals tend to dismiss charges of political correctness as a conservative conspiracy to discredit liberal academics. I find some truth in both charges. I agree with conservatives that there are a lot of very liberal academics, and they tend to skew discussions. I had a fair number of professors like that. But I also found that, if I challenged them, some of them listened. Not all of them, and I'm highly doubtful that there are that many who would buy my take on political correctness, but at least some of them tried. So my take on political correctness is that conservatives are right, there is an atmosphere of liberalism on most college campuses. But I can also see the liberal point that the conservatives just want to use the charge of political correctness to bash people they disagree with.

What both sides miss is that political correctness is not really a function of what goes on in the classroom; it is a function of what goes on outside the classroom, in every other area of college life. Political correctness is liberal peer pressure. That's it. At politically active colleges, you've got a bunch of very intense but unfocused young people, who are both compassionate and angry. They're looking for some way to change the world, but they're also looking for someone to blame. Sometimes their targeting computer settles on the nearest target, which is usually the person next to them in the dining hall, or in their dorm.

So this is why David Bowie singing with Bing Crosby is such a relief to me. He meets Crosby literally and figuratively on his own turf; he goes to Crosby's house, and he sings in his style. Sentimentality, in this instance, is a powerful antidote to cynicism.

Raining in LA

It's raining right now in Los Angeles, which is a great and wonderful thing. We're in the middle of a drought, as we seem to have been since I moved here eight years ago. We always need rain. Almost always - there was a period a couple of years ago when it rained for two weeks straight. That was a little much. But otherwise we really appreciate rain here. It washes the streets clean, replenishes parched reservoirs, and lets us all feel a little less guilty about taking long showers.

The downside is that there might be flash floods. Because we have so many fires, there is usually a hill or two or ten without sufficient groundcover to prevent mudslides. So that's something we have to watch out for.

One upside, on the other hand, is that it looks like there is snow in the mountains, which is good, because I am determined to go skiing in LA County sometime this winter. Also, I can see mountains from my office (on a clear day), and mountains with snow are an even better site than just mountains.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


So the Senate Republicans killed the bailout of the Big Three. It's not quite mind-boggling, for a couple of reason. First, I can understand free-market ideologues being opposed to the government helping out companies in trouble - it's a direct challenge to their beliefs. Second, I can understand that the Big Three are about the least sympathetic basket cases out there. They have known that the Japanese were serious competitors for decades. They haven't done enough to build better cars or repair their reputation. At this point, some people think a rescue of Detroit would be a waste of money - what guarantee is there that they will actually return to profitability. And a number of the Senate Republicans are from Southern states with foreign car plants, but not American car company plants. They aren't hearing from American car company employees among their constituents.

But from a political perspective, this strikes me as incredibly stupid on the part of the Senate Republicans. The UAW folks are the original Reagan Democrats - blue collar workers who are culturally conservative. Does the GOP have any idea how many UAW guys are also hunters? For the last two or three or decades, a lot of heartland working class people voted Republican because of cultural issues. Democrats usually found this frustrating, because this meant that these blue-collar workers were also usually voting against their own economic self-interest. Bill Clinton got that and managed to connect with them, in part because his background was working poor. But many blue collar workers were also comfortably middle class, so the economic issues weren't as important. The UAW had done its job of fighting for its members extremely well.

In this case, however, the GOP is voting against the economic best interests of blue collar people in the heartland in about the strongest way imaginable. This isn't an esoteric debate about economic theories or future debt obligations. If GM goes down, there will be massive trauma across the Midwest. Even if Bush provides assistance, as he just about has to do, the political damage has been done. There are many people who oppose the bailout for legitimate reasons. They'll be happy that it went down.

But they will also forget. My guess is that most of the people opposed to the bailout of the Big Three also don't have a lot invested in it; they don't drive American cars, they don't know anyone who works for an American car company in any capacity. They've heard the reports about billions, and they don't want to see their tax dollars going to companies that have failed. Give them a couple of months, and something else will grab their attention. Vote on this issue? I doubt it.

People who are staring into the abyss of seeing themselves and many of the people they know lose their jobs are not, however, going to forget. For the UAW, this will be a defining issue for years. Of course, the UAW itself has been very much a stalwart of the Democratic party. Now, more than a few members who have strayed from the fold are going to return. This is a "you are with us or you are against us" moment.

It won't just be the UAW. The LA Times reported that, as anyone would expect, the Big Three gave a lot more campaign contributions to Republicans than to Democrats. And how did that $100 million investment in free market ideology/cocktail party invitations work out for you guys? Not so well. Ooops. So much for money buying influence.

I know car company executives. I know of some who are good liberals, but there are far more who are conservative Republicans. The same is true, of course, of the executives at their suppliers. They've seen a Republican administration trash the economy, run up massive debt, get us into a horrible war, and ignore the rule of law. For many people, the rejection of the bailout will be a tipping point. They will not forget. Nor will they forgive.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Grammy Museum

I went to the company holiday party yesterday. Normally this would not necessarily be a great subject for a blog post, but it was held at what may well be the coolest spot in Los Angeles right now: the Grammy Museum. It opened less than a week ago, so we may have been the first group to have a party there.

I wasn't really expecting much. I like music, but I have no musical ability, and I wouldn't call myself a huge fan. I'm not sure I've ever watched the Grammys.

But damn is this a cool museum. Our party was on the roof, which has a nice view of downtown LA. Wolfgang Puck provided the food, which included a blood orange cream puff with ginger cream. That gets my vote for Dessert of the Year, although I would consider adding a touch of lemon.

The museum occupies four floors, three of which are for exhibits. I only saw the fourth floor, but it was very hip. There's an interactive exhibit, laid out on a table, that takes you through the history of music, genre by genre. You can browse through related genres, so you can go from progressive rock to indie rock to punk, and end up at hardcore. I think I listened to more kinds of music in that 20 minutes than any other short timespan in my life. It felt like I was finally experiencing a museum really using new technology in a great new way. Welcome to the 21st century.

If you've ever been in a Hard Rock cafe, you've seen walls splattered with music paraphrenalia: Madonna's bra, a guitar played by one of the Monkees. They're usually kind of cool, but not really amazing.

This place had one exhibit that is unlike anything in any Hard Rock cafe. Miles Davis' trumpet, Louis Armstrong's trumpet, Buddy Holly's guitar (which actually said "Buddy Holly"), Jimi Hendrix's bass, B. B. King's guitar, Elvis' guitar, Yo-Yo Ma's carbon fiber cello, and a bunch of other stuff that really impressed other people, but which I didn't really recognize. Talk about priceless.

So I can strongly recommend the Grammy Museum. I found one detail that took me way back, to a time before I was born. In the sidewalk are plagues for each year of the Grammy's. One of them, from I think 1962, said "Best New Artist - Bob Newhart."

Welcome to the past, and welcome to the future. Here in LA, we constantly struggle with the tension between art and commerce. And every now and then, we remember which one is really important.

Obama and Swarthmore: Rejection city

Just found out a bit of Obama trivia that is relevant to me: he was rejected from Swarthmore. It's a bummer that I can't claim that Obama went to Swarthmore, but I have a feeling it might have been good for him.

HSX Week of 12/12/08

HSX recommendations for today: Short The Day The Earth Stood Still (TDESS), and short it now. I'm a little bummed I didn't do that a couple of weeks ago. Go long on Nothing Like the Holidays (NLHOL). Go long on Delgo (DELGO) if you feel like it, I've never heard anything about it.

Update Monday morning: All three performed below expectations, and all the stocks adjusted down. This wasn't a disaster for Nothing Like the Holidays or Delgo, which didn't have much room to go. It was a major downgrade for The Day The Earth Stood Still. I'm just glad I shorted it. Brandon Gray at has a good analysis of why TDESS didn't do well; he blames the marketing. I'm thinking of seeing it just so I can have the fun of reviewing a bad movie.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Takedown in Illinois

What is it about Illinois politicians? Among them are the best (Obama, Lincoln, Paul Simon) and the worst. A month ago we elevated one of the best to the Presidency. Today we saw the arrest of one of the worst, the governor.

Talking Points Memo has the video of Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference:

What is it with this guy? How stupid can you possibly get? He knew he was under investigation. Josh Marshall thinks he might try an unusual defense:

I think Blagojevich's best defense is probably going to be an insanity defense based on the evidence of his idea that he was setting himself up to run for president by appointing himself to serve out Obama's senate term.
Yes, I would describe that as insane. Clinically off the deep end. Talking Points Memo, btw, has completely comprehensive coverage of this story. They are absolutely all over it. This is a great example of how blogs can do a better job on some things than even the best newspapers. This from The Daily Beast (via TPM) is priceless: a comparison of quotes from Rod Blagojevich vs. Tony Soprano. I honestly could not tell the difference.

But back to the analysis. We have known for a very long time that this kind of thing went on in Chicago. I've advised people to treat data on their computers like voting in Chicago: "Save early and save often, like vote early and vote often." Morris Udall wanted to be buried in Chicago so he could politically active when he was dead. We have suspected for a while that something nasty was going on with this particular governor. But some people have managed to come out of Chicago politics looking good, like Obama. According to the NYTimes,

Throughout his career, Mr. Obama has adroitly straddled the state’s bruising politics, forming alliances with some old-style politicians even as he pressed for ethics reform. But Mr. Obama had long been estranged from the governor
So how did Obama come out of Chicago politics with his integrity intact, while this guy set new standards for sleaze? Obviously keeping his distance from this slimeball was a big help.

I think it's a case of old-school politics being slow to die. There will always be people like this in the world. Always. But we are more aware, much more aware, of how individual politicians operate these days than we were in the past. So it's harder for them to get away with this. Which, you would think, would mean that they would stop doing it. Apparently not. Maybe Blagojevich grew up under the influence of people who DID get away with it way back when, and he just didn't understand how much times have changed. That's my best shot at an explanation. Obama, of course, is new-school politics.

It takes a healthy ego to run for office, particularly one as powerful as governor. Fortunately, the fact that there is always competition in politics usually introduces a dose of humility in a politician's psyche. If you stay in politics long enough, i.e. at least one term in a high-profile office, you are going to be wrong, and you are going to be wrong in public. And your opponents are going to be right. That's not because you, whoever you are, are stupid. It's because you are human, and you will make mistakes. So if you want to stay around, you have to be able to realize it when you are wrong, you have to admit it, and you have to be able to change. Otherwise you might end up like Ted Stevens. Or Rod Blagojevich.

Good politicians understand the necessity of balancing that healthy ego and the humility that comes from healthy competition. But it's also easy for someone to not balance those all that well, or to pretend to balance them. At which point they sometimes make headlines. Like today.

A great man from Illinois once said that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Apparently the current governor did not learn the lesson from Mr. Lincoln.

The great thing about democracy is that politicians can be held accountable. The bad thing about democracy is that occasionally holding politicians accountable is a very painful process.

There are thousands of elected officials at all levels in this country. If we are to enjoy the possibility that our politicians will be great leaders, we must be willing to accept the possibility that some of them will be crooks and slimeballs. I am thankful that there are always far more of the good ones than the truly bad ones. I am also thankful that our system allows us to take those lessons we learn from days like today and pass laws that cement these lessons into our system so that, slowly but surely, we build a better system.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Interesting obits in the LA Times today

There were several interesting obituaries in the LA Times today. First, Nina Foch, actress and acting teacher, died. She taught directing actors at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where I went. I didn't take her class, but most of my friends did, and I know they all learned a great deal from her.

A couple of bits of rock and roll trivia: Jim Morrison's father died. He was an admiral, and reportedly didn't appreciate his son's career. The obit does say, however, that he viewed his son's "success with pride." So that's nice.

In other tangentially related Doors news (and really, isn't that the best kind of Doors news?), Elmer Valentine, founder of the Whiskey a Go Go, also passed away. The Doors were one of many rock bands that played there. I saw a friend's band play there once. That was the only time I went there, but it was cool to see a friend's band at such a famous place. I think it was their debut as a band. Apparently the term "go-go" comes from that club. So now I know where one of my favorite bands gets its name.

I know it may be a bit depressing to read about three deaths in one post, but I think of it as lots of history.

Brewer out at LAUSD

David Brewer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, announced his resignation today.

That was fast. There have been grumblings about Brewer for months, but it's just been in the last couple of weeks that he has lost the support of the Board. The president of the Board, Monica Garcia, tried to get rid of him last week, but couldn't quite do it. But she wouldn't have made that move unless she knew she had enough support. It helps that she has the support of the Mayor, and Brewer doesn't.

To his credit, Brewer, who is black, made it clear that he did not want anyone to see his resignation in ethnic terms.

"As an African American, I've experienced my share of discrimination," he said. "I know what it looks like, smells like, and the consequences. Although this debate is disconcerting and troubling, it must not become an ethnic issue. When adults fight, it can manifest itself in our children. This must not become an ethnic or racial battle that infests our schools, our campuses, our playgrounds. This is not about settling an old score; this must be about what is best for every LAUSD student."
I was a little surprised when he was hired. He was a retired vice admiral, and he said all the right things, but he had no background in education. Which would mean, in part, that he wouldn't be able to bring in his own team with him.

The traditional liberal explanation for failing schools is lack of money, but that doesn't really fly here. LAUSD has passed five construction bonds in the last few years. Money for construction is not a problem. Of course, money for ongoing operations will be a problem, given every government's lack of resources in the current economic climate.

But the big issue in LA is the exceesive bureaucracy. That's true of large urban school districts across the country, and LA is no different. Brewer did nothing to address that problem. Green Dot schools is making a difference on that front with Locke High School, but they are doing it from outside the system.

Whoever can crack the nut of redefining school bureaucracy in this country will be a hero. Now that Brewer is gone, Antonio Villaraigosa might take another stab at it. He tried to take over the school system when he was first sworn into office, but didn't manage it. He now has a majority of the school board as allies, so the next superintendent will be selected with input from him. Rumors are constantly swirling around Antonio about what office he will be looking for next. Many people think he will run for governor in 2010, when Arnold will be term limited out. I'm not sure - I think he might want to stick around and dedicate himself to transforming LAUSD. He's certainly got the energy and the constituency. It might be a stepping stone to higher office, like governor or senator. At the very least, it would be a great, great legacy.

As we big au revoir to Adm. Brewer, we cross our fingers and hope for better luck this time. Much, much better luck.

Tribune Co. declares bankruptcy

The Tribune Company, the Chicago-based media group that owns the LA Times, has declared bankruptcy. Apparently it needs to restructure its debt. It took on a fair chunk of that debt last year when Sam Zell took it over.

Personally, I thot that was a stupid move. Sam Zell is apparently a great entrepreneur, but the newspaper business is going through some historically unprecedented changes, and I think it would be helpful at a time like this to have someone with some experience in the business, which Mr. Zell apparently does not. I agree with Josh Marshall that this turn of events should not surprise us. The newspaper business has been struggling with how to deal with the challenge of the Web for years. I'm not sure Sam Zell has recognized that.

I just performed an experiment. One of my favorite columns from Dan Neil, the LA Times car critic, was of the Ducati 999R, a wickedly fast motorcycle, published November 3, 2004. The more interesting the ride, the more interesting his writing. To wit, his comment on how powerful the engine of this demon bike is:

Its 150-hp V-twin motor runs on damned souls and is lubricated with the fat of unbaptized children.
My experiment was to find that article by running a search at I typed in "Dan Neil Ducati" (no quotes), and got 45 responses. Narrowing it down, I typed in "Dan Neil Ducati 999." Nothing.

Then I typed "dan neil la times ducati 999" in Google, and the article that I wanted was at the top of the search results. Perfect!

So Google could find an article in the that the LA Times search engine could not. That's just pathetic. Any wonder why they are losing money?

The LA Times has a lot going for it. It's still a good paper, it still puts a good emphasis on solid investigative reporting, and it's been innovating over the last few years. The Op-Ed page has changed significantly, I think for the better. Besides the political commentators, they have some great cultural commentators on the Op-Ed page. I think Jonah Goldberg is a joke, but, then again, William Kristol at the NY Times has been making a fool of himself as well, so there seems to be a paucity of intelligent conservative pundits these days. But Meghan Daum and Joel Stein are distinctly LA writers, and I love reading them both. I even went to a book reading by Meghan Daum.

Cultural criticism at the LA Times is particularly strong. Just about all of their cultural critics are top-notch. Mark Swed on classical music, Ann Powers on pop, Christopher Hawthorne on architecture, Mary McNamara on TV, Dan Neil on cars, it's a great lineup. I thot they made a mistake letting Carina Chocano go, but Kenneth Turan is good.

The Times also seems to be innovating on the print side of the medium. After the election, they sold extra copies of the election day issue. They also sold posters of the front page, and aluminum printing plates of that page. I went there the day they started selling these. It was a mob scene. Hotcakes never sold so well. They kept selling them for the next two weeks. I think they made a small fortune.

So the demand is there for the LA Times. One thing that confused me about Sam Zell loading up the Tribune Co. with debt was that it seemed like an odd strategy. Normally a business needs significant cash flow to deal with that kind of debt, but newspapers have been losing market share and subscribers for years. Didn't he see this coming?

David Geffen was one of the bidders for the Times when Zell bought it. I hope he's still interested, because I think Geffen would be a much better owner. He's resigned from Dreamworks, he has time. I just hope Sam Zell hasn't ruined it for him.

Update: I forgot to mention Booth Moore, the fashion critic at the Times, who I think is a very good critic.

Friday, December 5, 2008


So I saw Carmen, at the LA Opera. I'd never seen Carmen before, but I knew the vague outlines of the story. I was pretty clear on Carmen having non-traditional views on relationships and sex. I wasn't quite clear on what exactly her views are, but I knew they got her into trouble.

This was the first time I've actually been to an opera, and I have zero musical ability, so I'm not quite sure how valid my critique is. For a professional's take on it (with which I mostly agree), check out Mark Swed in the LA Times. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was up in the balcony, the area for which they sell those operas glass (binoculars were on sale for $5 in the lobby; I should have splurged). So I can't tell you just how beautiful Carmen was.

What I can tell you is that I found the performance of the singer who played her, Viktoria Vizin, unexpected, but in a good way. Swed describes her as not particularly flirtatious, but also as very centered. I have always thot of Carmen as neurotic, perhaps bordering on the psychotic, at the very least a woman with some serious edge. Uncontrollable passions bursting through, that sort of thing. Vizin instead plays her as a smart, focused woman, who knows exactly what she wants, and will manipulate the hell out of any man to get it, particularly a pathetic, spineless wimp like Don Jose. Maybe the part is written that way, and I just picked up the wrong bits and pieces from the zeitgeist. Maybe this is the 21st century.

I liked it. It wasn't the sexiest performance I could imagine - far from it - but there were a couple of moments where she simply smoldered. There is something deliciously dangerous about a woman with a voracious sexual appetite who has her own peculiar sense of ethics and is smarter than the men around her. But I like my danger with a bit of chaos.

Some of the men metaphorically around Carmen in this production were the director, Javier Ulacia and most of his crew. This production originated at the Teatro Real de Madrid, created there by Emilio Sagi. An origin appropriate, of course, for an opera that takes place in Spain. But I think we might have been better served by an original LA production. In the first act, costumes for the women were mostly white, with accents of pink and peach, while the men wore khaki, light blue, and muted greens. The entire stage looked like a J Crew catalog, circa spring 1996. Note to M. Domingo: when the color palette suggests a Malibu beach party, rather than old Europe, you might want to have a long conversation with the costume designer. The set pieces in the first act were huge and vaguely Mediterranean, which didn't help focus the action.

Which needed some help with focus. Swed describes the staging as sloppy, and I unfortunately have to agree. The phrase "undifferentiated masses," which sounds like something from a high school chemistry lesson, leaps to mind. The size of the crowds, while lending weight to the collective sound, was visually confusing. "The more the merrier" did not apply. Maybe I've seen one too many perfectly choreographed music videos, but I could have used more precision prancing. Sometimes less really is more.

Less being more would also have been a good guiding principle for the set design. I'm left with a nagging sense of tilted scale and disproportion that did not work to the actors' advantage. Of course, being in the rarefied air of the distant environs I was in didn't help, but for this opera particularly, a sense of intimacy would have been nice.

But these are details. The set and costumes in the second and third acts were much more diverse and interesting. I don't want to quibble too much about the few things I can actually criticize when the music sounded so good. I felt enlightened and moved. Don Jose's passion came through, even though he is a noble twit (the singer was an understudy, and I can't find his name, but he was good). I was joking with a musician friend beforehand that I would probably recognize some of the music and say "Oh, THAT'S Carmen!" I think I could recognize more music from a single Beatles album than the entire classical canon. But now I do, in fact, recognize a couple more pieces. "Oh, THAT'S the song about the toreador!" And now I am looking forward to watching another interpretation of Carmen.

Update: The singer who played Don Jose was Diego Torre. He's from Mexico.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

HSX: Weekend of Dec 5-7, 2008

This weekend is a slow one for movies. The only wide releases are Nobel Son (NOBEL) and Punisher: War Zone (PUNS2). I didn't think I had any interest in seeing either, but Nobel Son sounds like it could be a wild ride. Roger Ebert liked it, not a bad sign. Looks like this is going to be a love it or hate it indie film. I might take a chance on it in the theater. Gotta love Alan Rickman as a nasty Nobel Prize winner. On HSX, I covered my short and went long today - it's been going up at a meteoric rate over the last month. There are no options, probably because the price has been so low.

I am much more certain that I will not be seeing Punisher: War Zone (the sequel to the first Punisher), largely because I had absolutely no interest in seeing the first, and have not had any regrets whatsoever about that decision. There are mixed signals from the stock and options. The stock has been tanking for a while: I shorted it, and am making money on the short. The price of the stock is H$25, which suggests an opening weekend of $9 million. But the call ($10 strike price) is at H$4.88, which predicts an opening weekend north of $15 million. Strangely, the put is at H$2.78, which means an opening weekend below $7 million. I checked two funds, to see how they are playing this. The Action Fund is going long, but bought it at H$28. The Comics Fund is shorting from $H35. Both of those make sense. I'm going to hold off judgment until I see what happens tomorrow morning. Probably staying with my short of the stock and the call, and going long on the call. I just can't see a big audience for this movie.

Update Monday: Cadillac Records and Nobel Son both adjusted down slightly, although they were both up today. I think Cadillac Records will probably build slowly, so I'm still holding it long. Same with Nobel Son, although I seriously overestimated its appeal. It really is just a minor indie release, I should have treated it as such. But since the price is so low, there wasn't much risk either way.

Punisher, though, is a bomb, and I was right to short it. It cratered. I shorted it at H$30; it's trading at H$10. Made only $4 million this weekend. So I was right, there wasn't a big audience for it.

Megan McArdle has customer service issues at Sears

Megan McArdle has been having a lot of trouble getting Sears to fix her washer. She spends a fair number of pixels ranting. I can sympathize, as I think just about any American - or, indeed, any resident of a modern society - can. How bad was it?

Obviously, they have lost a customer in me. Though I have reluctantly agreed that if my car breaks down in a remote northern town where Sears is the only repair vendor, they can fix it, they'll be holding ice festivals in Beelzebub's back garden before I will voluntarily purchase so much as a $1.59 box of nails from them.
I'm going to take a stab at a economic/historic explanation.

Let's go back 50 years, to 1958. Let's take a look at the technology in the average American home, the kind that requires a repairman. That would include a car, washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, TV, radio, record player, vacuum cleaner, heater, plumbing, toaster, stove, oven, refrigerator, blender, maybe AC, possibly a typewriter. Most of those are mechanical, just a couple are electronic. I think we can assume that all of them break down more regularly than they do today, just because we are better at making things than we used to be. I think we can also assume that all of them were more expensive - in constant dollars - than they are today. So disposing of them was not an option for most people. So they needed regular repair. Which means a good market for repairmen (I'm assuming there weren't a lot of repairwomen).

Now let's think about who would have been repairing this stuff. Being a repairman requires a certain amount of mechanical aptitude, halfway decent interpersonal skills, and a certain degree of professionalism. In 1958, there would have been a certain pool of men with those skills, who would have held those jobs. Assuming that those jobs paid reasonably well, because of the demand, we can assume that there was competition for them. So the people with solid mechanical skills, but better-than-average people skills and a strong sense of professionalism would have had an advantage, and could make more money.

But if you combine those same abilities, i.e. mechanical aptitude, good people skills, and a sense of professionalism, with a college degree, you can make even more money. In 1958, a repairman who was 40 would have been born in 1918, and probably would not have had much opportunity to go to college. Today, someone with those skills and a degree could be an X-ray technician, a computer programmer, product designer, or even a rocket scientist. So the available pool of labor for repairmen is much, much smaller. Which means that the emphasis on hiring people will be on finding people with mechanical aptitude, and a company will be lucky if they get a solid professional with a strong sense of customer service.

I have some personal experience with this, specifically at Sears, although my experience is the exact opposite of Megan's. I have a brother-in-law with excellent technical skills and great people skills who is a consummate professional. He worked at Sears once, at the headquarters, doing something with their Website. He left fairly quickly. Of course, he can do that because he has a master's degree in computer science from Harvard.

There is one solution that we, as a society, use. We import people who could make good repair people. I once hired a guy to help me move some furniture. I only hired him to help me move something - that was it. But he turned out to be a furniture installer, and he assembled a desk that I needed put together. He was from Guatemala. He was great. Saved me hours.

Of course, there are limits to this solution as well. My brother-in-law, the technogeek (who is the go-to guy in the family for fixing computer problems), is from Mexico.

Maybe some day someone will realize that people like Megan McArdle will pay very well for someone who can fix her washer on time. And maybe some day someone will realize that there are millions of people like Megan McArdle. Hundreds of millions.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

When cakes go bad

They probably end up on this blog.

Becerra as Trade Rep? Just say no, Xavier

I just got wind of a rumor that Xavier Becerra has been offered the job of U.S. Trade Representative. I have a personal interest in this: Becerra is my Representative in Congress.

I don't think he should take it. He's a very good Representative, and he's a rising star in Congress. I agree with this Democrat strategist, quoted in Roll Call:

“He has 16 years of seniority and is still a relatively young man just elected to leadership. He could be Majority Leader or chairman of the Ways and Means Committee someday.”
He was previously Assistant to the Speaker (a position which was supposedly created just for him), and he was just elected Vice Chair of the Democratic caucus, the fifth-ranking Democrat. He strikes as a consummate professional. I would seriously miss him as my Representative in Congress. I've actually thot about what would happen if I moved out of this district - if I couldn't vote for him, I would probably make a campaign donation, because I would like to see him stay in Congress.

One reason I like him is that his Website is great. It's one of the best in Congress. Seriously. He actually won an award for having one of the best Websites in Congress.

I'm sure he would be great as Trade Rep, but I also think he would be great in the House for the next 20 or 30 years. He has an excellent shot at being the first Hispanic Speaker. Trade Rep is a Cabinet-level post, but being Speaker of the House is a historic position.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Big Three starting to get a clue

Wonders never cease - the Big Three are starting to get a clue about how drastically they need to change. They're going back to Washington, still begging - at least GM and Chrysler are, Ford claims to be in better shape - but this time they're demonstrating a tad more humility. The three top guys - Alan Mulally of Ford, Rick Wagoner of GM and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler - are driving to Washington. Yes, each driving their own company's cars. They apparently got the signal loud and clear that flying corporate jets to plead poverty sends the wrong message. They're not even flying coach! Maybe they're staying at Motel 6 somewhere on the Ohio Turnpike. Welcome to reality, gentlemen.

GM claims that it is the most desperate, and it needs $4 billion by the end of the year, or it will go bankrupt. That's a really, really hard thing for any person to admit. I would tend to believe them, because the consequences of not being straight in this situation are so ridiculously dire.

GM is also, however, also taking the most dramatic steps:
G.M. said it planned to focus on four core brands — Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC — and sell, eliminate or consolidate the Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac brands.
Now we're getting somewhere. From what I understand, and I have good reason to believe this, GM has never made any money off of Saturn. It was started in the 1980's by the then-chairman, Roger Smith (made famous by Michael Moore in "Roger and Me"). The last thing that GM needed then, and the last thing it needs now, is more brands and more models. I've driven Saturns and liked them, but I won't be sad to see it go. I'm willing to bet that GM can get a decent price for Saab, because it's still a great brand, and I'm sure the Saab people in Sweden will be thrilled to no longer be working for GM. As for Hummer: I once had a temp job working on the technical manual for the Hummer. This was back when it was still being built by AM General. That was the company that made the Humvee, and developed the Hummer after the first Gulf War, at the insistence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There was a picture of Arnold in the lobby.

The original Hummer was actually quite a piece of machinery. Having worked with the engineers who designed it, I can tell you that it really was made for going seriously off-road. If you're a firefighter fighting forest fires, this was what you wanted. Got yourself a few thousand acres in Montana? This was the vehicle for you. Driving to the mall? Not so much.

I worked there before the Hummer became an object of mass consumption. At one point, I heard a speech by one of the company head honchos, talking about how to raise brand awareness of the Hummer. They did that almost too well. I still have some nostalgia for the original article, but that's long gone. So I won't be sorry to see the Hummer go. I doubt GM will get much for it, if anything. Unlike Saturn, however, I am guessing they made money on Hummers.

I won't miss Pontiac too much, either. I'm not sure, at this point, what the difference is between Chevy and Pontiac. A great brand name with a lot of history, but I won't miss it much.

I'm not sure why they are keeping GMC, but considering what else they are getting rid of, at this point I can't fault GM's board for not taking things seriously. They are making some real sacrifices here.

GM is also cutting its white collar staff - again - and the number of dealerships it has. Painful, but good moves there.

On the subject of labor costs, one line in this NY Times article struck me as a little discordant:
G.M. will also seek to cut its labor costs by reopening its contract with the U.A.W. Possible cost cuts in the contract include eliminating job security provisions, including the so-called jobs bank that pays idled workers when their plants close.
The jobs bank is still operating?!?!? Seriously? It boggles the mind that this is still part of the Big Three cost structure. The jobs bank is a simple idea - when a plant slows down, instead of laying off workers, the companies keep them on the payroll, even when they're not working. They have to show up to the factory, so they do, but a lot of times, they will spend literally months just playing cards. Then, when the factory gets busy again, they start working again. But they can spend months drawing paychecks for doing literally nothing. Talk about inefficiency. Fortunately, Ron Gettelfinger, UAW president, has apparently indicated a willingness to bargain. Damn right, Ron. This bailout ain't getting past Congress with the jobs bank still operating. I know your guys are hurting, but "job security" is a thing of the past. I've never had it, and I never expect to.

Dan Neil, who I have mentioned before, has a great Op-Ed piece today in the LA Times, suggesting that we nationalize GM. I think I was more inclined to agree with him this morning, when I read the piece, than I am this evening. This morning, I wasn't sure if or when GM was going to do some serious cutting, up to and including some brands. Now that I know that they are, I think we can cut them a bit more slack. But, as usual with Mr. Neil, his argument makes a certain amount of sense. And this is one of the few Dan Neil articles with a metaphor I don't get (I pride myself on almost always understanding his allusions). What exactly is a "Morton's Fork?" I'm going to have to look it up. Much as I may disagree with how they got themselves into this mess, the gang running GM are still a bunch of smart and dedicated - and terrified, and therefore motivated - people. For the first time in a long time, I actually agree with most of GM's strategic decisions. A long time? This may be the first time I've agreed this much with GM management since I was knee high to a Corvette.

Welcome to reality, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming. We're so glad you understand that the world is different now. It will get better, eventually. But you know all that stuff you've learned about how real men admit it when they're wrong? Nice to see your testosterone is working better than it is for that guy still in the White House.

A short history of a long moment

Is it January 20th yet? No, we aren't even halfway there. Why does it take so long? Donald Ritchie provides some background. Bottom line: it used to be a lot worse.

NRA not quite as influential these days

The NY Times has an editorial today about the diminishing influence of the National Rifle Association. Being a classy, sober newspaper, they do not take the opportunity to gloat at the fact that many of the people the NRA endorsed this past election season lost.

But I'm not the NY Times, so I am going to take a moment to gloat. Ha! Au revoir, gun nuts! Good luck with that severely damaged political party you're so close to!

Okay, gloating over. In all seriousness, although I mostly disagree with the NRA and don't like their hardball political tactics, I'm not an extremist on gun control. I shot rifles when I was at Boy Scout camp. I don't hunt, but my grandfather did, and I have friends back in Michigan who do. The Times disagrees with Obama's position that the Second Amendment "bestows an individual right to bear arms unrelated to raising a militia."

I agree with Obama, partially for practical reasons. I used to believe that the Second Amendment was strictly about arming a militia, but I've realized that we have a de facto individual right to bear arms in this country. Individuals have owned firearms, with a few exceptions, for our entire history. It's just not realistic to think that we will be able to ban guns on a widespread basis.

Having said that, I also agree with Obama that the Second Amendment does not mean that individuals have an absolute right to bear arms. I believe that the state has a right to pass legislation controlling, at least in part, how individuals buy, sell, and use guns in this country. And I think I've got a damn well near ironclad justification for that belief.

Just once, I would like to ask an official from the NRA, face to face, one question. First, I would recite the Second Amendment:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the
right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Then I would ask them this:
"What does the phrase "well regulated" mean to you?"
It's right there! Even if the most traditionalist, fundamentalist Constitutional scholar would have to admit that the intent of the Founders is clear: the state has the right, indeed, it has the responsibility, to regulate the possession and use of firearms. That's why they used the term "well regulated." The people, who have the right to keep and bear arms, cannot regulate that right; that can only be done by the state.

There are two possible interpretations of "well regulated" in this context. It could mean "lots of laws," or it could mean "good laws." I like to think that it means "good laws."

The term "well regulated" applies to a Militia in the wording of the Amendment. So I suppose the argument could be made that the state's regulations apply only to the Militia, while the right to keep and bear arms is reserved for the people. But the people's right to bear arms is defined as being necessary for the security of a free state. Which is also the justification for a well-regulated militia. It would make no sense to suppose that the Founders intended the state to be able to regulate a militia, but not the people who make up that militia.

Hopefully, this represents a decent middle ground: there is, defined in the Second Amendment, a right for individuals to own guns. But the state has the right, and the responsibility, to regulate that right.

Bob Herbert's first Obama column

Pundits in the mainstream media take a fair amount of abuse. I thot it would be nice to take a look back at someone who got something right.

This is the first line of Bob Herbert's first column about Barack Obama, published on June 4, 2004, before Obama even gave that famous speech at the Democratic convention.

Remember the name Barack Obama. You'll be hearing it a lot as this election season unfolds.
This is his last paragraph:

However this election goes, Mr. Obama's effort to connect in a more than superficial way with people across ethnic, economic and geographic lines should serve as a template for future campaigns in both parties. Politics that are increasingly ruthless in a country that is increasingly diverse is a recipe for disaster.
Good job, Bob.

Obama at Occidental

Just about everyone knows that Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law. Many people know that he got his bachelor's degree at Columbia. But not as many know that he started out at a small liberal arts college here in LA called Occidental College.

The Arroyo Monthly, sort of a glossy magazine for the Pasadena area (that I had never heard of until a co-worker showed it to me this morning - thanks Al) has a profile of Obama and how he spent his two years there. He was known as Barry, but he wasn't known as a political phenom. He wasn't ambitious for himself.

Unlike so many who came before him, he has arrived at the presidency by focusing not on what he wanted to be, but rather on what he wanted to do.
David Axelrod concurs:

“So often what defines presidential candidates is this need to be president, to define themselves. He didn’t have that. And you know, we told him, ‘You’re gonna have to find some other way to motivate yourself.’ And he did – which was what he could do as president.”
Isn't it wonderfully refreshing to have as President-elect someone who puts his ambition for others ahead of his ambition for himself?

Some of his friends from back in the day missed out on recognizing a future president.

“If I’d known he was going to be president,” says Kent Goss, who shot a lot of hoop with Obama in the fall of ’79, “I’d have paid a lot more attention.”
But apparently it was easy to not notice how special the guy was.

"If you asked everyone at Oxy to rank the people who might be president, he’d be
the last. He’s the most regular guy I could imagine as president.”
Hopefully that's another nail in the coffin of that whole "elitism" nonsense.

The online version doesn't have it, but in the print version there's a very funny picture of Obama, white shirt and tie, standing with his hands on his hips, brows furrowed. He's standing in front of and below another famous figure known for uncanny abilities - Superman.

I'd like to think that if Superman could vote (was he an American citizen?), he would have voted for Obama.

David Brooks, advocate for activism

David Brooks, the conservative who occasionally thinks like the liberal he once was, writes about the changes in strategy in the war in Afghanistan. He explains Condi Rice's transformation:

In this new world, [Condi] continued, it is impossible to draw neat lines between security, democratization and development efforts. She called for a transformational diplomacy, in which State Department employees would do less negotiating and communiqué-writing. Instead, they’d be out in towns and villages doing broad campaign planning with military colleagues, strengthening local governments and implementing development projects.
Apparently this realization was a ground-up thing: the guys on the ground, the lieutenants and captains actually fighting the war, were the first to realize that the application of force was not enough; they needed to win over the hearts and minds of the people on the ground to prevent the Taliban from taking over.

This makes perfect sense to me, I just hope that our troops actually can implement this kind of change and make it stick.

It also reminds me of something. Let's see, belief in government's ability to improve the lives of citizens, requiring a dedicated commitment to developing the ability to deliver competent, professional governance.

What does that sound like?


Thanks for the help, Mr. Brooks.

The "Mexican Schindler"

The LA Times had a story about Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, a Mexican diplomat in Marseilles who saved about 40,000 Jews during WWII. He was honored last month by the Anti-Defamation League. His daughter accepted the honor on his behalf (he died in 1995 at the age of 103).

It's amazing how much history we are still uncovering about that era.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Understanding Italians

This is from the Secret Agent, the nom de plume of a high-end real estate agent in London who writes a column (details are changed) about how he deals with the unique challenges of a very select and demanding clientele. It's always fascinating; it's like a mini soap opera every week. This week, a client explains Italians:

"You have to understand, Italians don't like things to be easy," she told me. "What they love is the polemic. If you can talk about it, great. God forbid anyone should offer a simple solution to a problem."
I'm not quite sure if that applies to Italian-Americans, but it's very funny.

This week, he's dealing with one of his clients that he calls the Mattress, because she's a model/actress. The Mattress is apparently quite charming, but a ruthless negotiator. The Mattress has spent a lot of time in Hollywood.

A hater's guide to Twilight

Something for the rest of us: all the best reasons we're not going to see Twilight. Among which reasons is the following:

This adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling novel (for girls!) is actually the lamest episode of 90210 ever made combining forces with the second-lamest episode of 90210 ever made.
I have never seen an episode of 90210 (and have no intention of ever doing so), and I am actually thrilled to be making a killing off of Twilight on HSX, and I'm glad that there is a highly successful movie based on a book by a woman, directed by a woman, and made for girls. Whoever thot that a sensitive vampire would strike a blow for feminism?

But still, I have no interest in seeing it, and I'm glad someone else made the retro masculine argument why.

On a personal note, this is my 666th post. I am not going to try and figure out any significance for that.

Carl Icahn buys more Yahoo! stock

Carl Icahn, the corporate raider who just won't slow down, has bought more shares in Yahoo! Wired asks the obvious question:

So, was Icahn speculating on price alone -- based on Friday's closing price of $11.51 Icahn has an unrealized capital gain of about $10 million -- or is he investing in the longer-term prospects for Yahoo?

My guess - and it's strictly a guess - is that he's betting on the medium term. I don't think he's planning on taking over the company himself. My guess is that he's hoping someone - presumably other than Microsoft - will buy it.

I find Yahoo! fascinating, in an odd sort of way. I use Yahoo! Mail, which works well, and I occasionally click on stories on the front page. But I also think of it as a great missed opportunity.

Is Yahoo! a media company, or a tech company? I'm not sure management knows. It started out as a tech company, and it still functions that way in some respects - the aforementioned email, for example. It is still operates a search engine. I have bought almost all of my domain names through Yahoo!, because it's easy. But I blog through Google, because I never could figure out how to do it through Yahoo! And, of course, GeoCities is a shell of what it used to be. And what it could have been.

On the media side, Yahoo is obviously a new media company, but it's sort of an old media company's version of a new media company. I'm generalizing here, but it seems like a vast majority of its content is simply aggregated from somewhere else. God knows it's comprehensive - pick a mainstream news topic, and you can probably find it on Yahoo! College basketball? Sure. Latest from the Mideast? In here somewhere. But it doesn't generate much new content, if any. There is no original investigative reporting done for Yahoo! Which is fine, because it's a media company, but not a journalistic enterprise.

It seems to do many of these things well. But I don't really care. I tend to find my information at sites that are either specialized, or that I know will have detailed information in a place that is easy to find. For example, on Saturday night, I wanted to find out the score of the USC-Notre Dame game, so I went to, because I know that, for the LA Times, covering the Trojans is a high priority. I'm sure Yahoo had that as well, but it will be part of the overall college football coverage.

The economic rationale for a search engine is simple: it gives you the ability to do something that you could not otherwise do. Without search engines, the Web would be a vast wilderness, nowhere nearly as rich as it is now. The price you pay is an ad on the page of search results. A very small price for a great benefit. For the consumer, that's a sweet deal. It also makes sense for the company, because delivering the product costs very little, and it's highly scalable. The bandwidth and computing costs for each search are almost negligible.

But the economic rationale for a media aggregator like what Yahoo! has become are very different. The costs are much higher, and it's harder to differentiate your product from your competitors (who may also be your partners).

Yahoo! has many things going for it. It's at the center of a vast network; it has relationships all over the world. I don't think it's necessary for it to choose to be either a media company or a tech company; I think might be able to pull off both. But it has to be excellent at both. Right now, it's a decent tech company, and it's a decent media company. But Google is a great tech company, and the New York Times is a great media company. There are many other great tech companies, and many other great media companies. Right now, Yahoo! is neither.