25 March 2009

$1,000,000,000,000,000 & the Blues

That's one quadrillion dollars. I've never seen that figure used before this morning. Hernando de Soto, author of one of my favorite economic books: The Mystery of Capital, used it in an op-ed piece in today's Wall St. Journal. Apparently, that's the amount that the Bank for International Settlements estimates as the worth of new derivatives (mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) created since the beginning of this decade.

One of de Soto's points, near as I can gather with my simple lay person's understanding of economics, is that the so-called "toxic assets" on bank balance sheets that are scaring away investors, borrowers and lenders, aren't the real problem. The assets themselves - land, buildings, machinery, patents, copyrights - aren't poisonous. They're still there, and they have inherent value. What is toxic is the unreal mountains of unregulated, unreported, unvalued paper that has been generated to somehow represent, bundle and leverage those real assets.

de Soto makes some excellent suggestions for what can be done in the future, and ought to be done soon with regard to other outstanding debt, such as credit cards and student loans, to restore trust in paper. Which is, in essence, what all these financial machinations are dealing in.

Click here for de Soto's article.

And click here to see what one quadrillion pennies would look like.*

* A U.S. quadrillion (10 to the 15th power), that is. A British quadrillion is a whole lot more (10 to the 24th power).

As for the Blues

Last night I went to see T Model Ford, an 88 year old blues guitar player and singer from Greenville, Mississippi. It's the third time I've seen him and every time I do I feel privileged to have done so.

He is not the world's greatest guitar player or singer, not by a longshot. His backup band was just, merely, that. He's much too old and beat up to ramble around the stage or perform any real antics or theatrics. But he is one of maybe four or five people still living with a direct connection to the deepest, darkest roots of the music that I grew up with and love: blues, rhythm & blues, rock & roll. Hearing him play is a visceral experience. It grabs you in the gut with the most powerful kind of raw, fundamental emotion.

And he is among the very last of his generation. And one of the things that has given me the greatest pleasure in my life is the chance I've had to see him and others, now gone, who laid down the foundations of the music I enjoy to this day. And if you hurry, you can maybe see him, too. And I highly recommend it.

Here's his upcoming schedule:

March 25 - Long Beach, CA - Alex's Bar
March 27 - Sacramento, CA - The Kennel Club
March 28 - Santa Cruz, CA - The Crepe Place
March 29 - San Francisco, CA - Three Parkside
March 31 - Reno, NV - St. James Infirmary
April 01 - Crystal Bay, NV - Crystal Bay Casino
April 03 - Medford, OR - Johnny B's
April 04 - Seattle, WA - Comet Taver
April 05 - Portland, OR - Dante's
July 24 - New Haven, CT - Cafe Nine
July 25 - West Kingston, RI - Roots Hoot

And if you want to read more about him, listen to some mp3s, or order some of his CDs, you can click here to do so (go to the drop down menu for "Select", scroll through to T Model Ford and click on his name.)

And when you play his music, play it LOUD, real loud, loud enough that your speakers begin to complain. And drink some whiskey while you're listening. You'll be glad you did.

22 March 2009


I've been on a few walks around my - extended - neighborhood lately. I live in the hills between downtown L.A. and Hollywood in an area called Silverlake. I've walked around here and in the Hollyood Hills and in Echo Park (both of which border Silverlake.) There's a lot of odd architecture, some great views, colorful and varied plantlife. It's Sunday. I don't want to think about politics. I don't want to think about electronic rights - an issue since FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL is now available on Kindle. So, here's some pictures from my recent walks:

Madonna used to live here. (above) And this was her view. (below)
Not my idea of a great backyard, but better than having your house wiped out by a landslide.
Spectacular view from a lot where a house burned down a long time ago. I've got to go back when the light is good and there isn't something strange on my lens.And, this is from the March Artwalk in Downtown L.A. It's a plastic, 3D face, in an art gallery, that keeps changing color and expression. It was pretty cool.

13 March 2009


Thank you John Stewart for tearing Jim Cramer a new one on your show last night. You made it personal, which was just fine with me, but at the same time you made it clear that Cramer was simply one symptom of the much larger problem with the financial media.

The title of this blog is from a quote that is attributed to H.L. Mencken about the proper role of journalism: "To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." That is something that far too few journalists, and I think especially business and finance journalists, take to heart.

I ought to know. I was one. I did take Mencken's quote to heart, but it wasn't easy.

Too often, reporters are bullied, seduced or bribed into trading accuracy for access.

"You want an interview? Stick to the script or it's the last one you'll get."

Or: "Hey," says the CEO of a hedge fund to the lowly financial reporter (sounding like a spider to a fly), "I'm playing a round of golf with the CFO of this widget maker and the Chairman of a bank, we could use a fourth. All off the record, of course, just us boys."

Or: "Sure, I'll send you the financials from the company you're interested in. While I'm at it, I know you're not reporting on this other company, but I'll throw in a report on them as well. You might find it interesting." (Or lucrative if you can tell yourself, as a reporter, that it's okay to trade on information on a stock that you aren't covering. Where's the conflict of interest in that?)

Financial reporters all too often like to think of themselves as movers and shakers in the financial markets. And they can be; people trade on information. When traders buy and sell shares, they aren't trading in hot dogs or corn or industrial fasteners; they're trading in information and speculation (sometimes called "analysis") about those things. You can own millions of shares of McDonald's, but if you want a Big Mac you'll still have to head down to your local outlet with cash in hand.

Financial and business reporters supply much of the currency (information) that most people trade in the financial markets. And that currency is more or less valuable depending on how accurate it is. When accuracy is traded for access, when skepticism and unflinching analysis are put aside so that journalists can enjoy a round of golf and drinks with the chairman of the board, sooner or later the markets suffer.

Skepticism and independence are the two most important tools in a reporter's pencil case. When a reporter is in bed with their beat, when they think they're part of the industry they're covering, they are not doing their job. That's what is wrong with Jim Cramer and with most of the other so-called "financial reporters and commentators" on TV. If they did some of what they do, and were employed by the companies they talk about, it would be illegal.

The purpose of a free press isn't merely to entertain us; it's to protect us. The skepticism of the press, brutally applied from time to time, is our first line of defense against corruption, venality, stupidity, thuggery, criminality and whatever else you can think of that you might want to be defended from. Unlike criminal proceedings where the defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty, any good journalist should take the opposite approach.

It isn't easy. It means sometimes that a good reporter will need to find creative and difficult ways to get around the bullying, seduction or bribery put in their way.

Sometimes it means playing tough: "If you won't talk honestly with me, all I can do is figure you've got something to hide and I'll rip you and your company apart until I find out what it is."

Sometimes it means seeming rude: "You're a nice guy, really, I like you, I do, but I'm not going to let that get in the way of my trying to find out why these numbers of yours don't add up, or why they seem too good to be true."

And sometimes it requires recognizing when a bribe is a bribe: "Hah, this dude sent me some inside dope on a great stock buy, hoping I'll overlook some of the sleazy stuff I suspect about his company. Into the trash it goes."

Real journalism isn't for sissies. Jim Cramer and other buffoons of his ilk aren't journalists. They're not analysts. They're not even really any sort of honest commentators. Thankfully we've got a comedian around to call them onto the carpet.

06 March 2009


Is it that they've got more to swear about than men? Or what? I know very few truly foul-mouthed men. But I know plenty of potty-mouthed women. I've asked around about this. I've brought it up on Twitter even. And I have yet to find anyone who disagrees with my observation.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against swearing. I think "fuck" is one of the more useful, versatile and expressive words in English. And it doesn't bother me any more when women employ it than when men do. Swearing's swearing, no matter whose mouth, or how luscious the lips it's coming out of. And it's okay with me.

But hmmmm, fucking hmmmm?

Eva, who I live with, could easily chase away the cursing-est sailor I ever met. People who she thinks of as "straight" or conservative - even ones she really likes - especially bring it out in her.

Employees of my ex-wife used to come to me sometimes in tears, wondering if she really did mean all those awful things she was saying.

I don't know any men who swear nearly as much as many of the women I know.

Why the hell is this?

Now this might just get me in trouble, but I've noticed it more among women who discovered feminism in the 1970s and early '80s than I have in other women. Could it be that those women see it as a way of expressing their independence, their liberation from something, an oral equivalent of getting rid of another form of restraint by burning their bras? Is it a way of throwing down the gauntlet to the oppressive patriarchy that reserved "colorful language" for itself for so many years?

I'll be damned if I know. I'm just sayin'...


Steve Forbes, who I more often than not disagree with, had some very interesting things to say in an op-ed in this morning's Wall St. Journal.

Some of it is fairly complex stuff. "Naked short selling" anybody? But for the most part he lays out, in language that isn't all that hard to follow, three of the ways in which the Obama Administration is continuing some of the stupidest financial policies of the Bush Administration and why they shouldn't be doing that.

Fixing these three things isn't likely to be a miracle cure for what's ailing us. But it would help. And it wouldn't be all that hard to do.

So Steve, we're in agreement for a change. (I also sort of,kind of liked his flat tax plan when he ran for President; although I think it needed a lot of tweaking to avoid screwing poor people.)