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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

 

"Vacation's" Over

After a month off from blogging, it's good to be back at the keyboard.  I wouldn't exactly call it a vacation, since there were weekend business trips to Savannah and to Orlando and then it was tax time.  But now we should be back to a weekly, or at least bi-weekly, schedule.  By the way, I was somewhat disappointed in Savannah.  In part, the weather was at fault, but the food options were nothing to rave about and the bar scene, even downtown, was pretty lame.  There were some better options in that latter regard on the river walk, and I saw one pretty decent cover band.  But it's not a town I would be rushing back to.

I really don't need to discuss Orlando again, although I have to admit we found much better food this time around.  Of course, we went to some pretty expensive spots.  Speaking of expensive, the most expensive taxi cabs in the world have to be in Orlando.  Seriously, it was 10 bucks on the meter before we even got off the hotel grounds.  That trip was during March Madness time so we saw plenty of B-Ball in the evenings at the hotel bar.  And then baseball finally started!  So that trip was too long (6 nights) but otherwise, OK.

Next stop is beautiful Albany, NY for two nights to end the month of April.  Let the lobbying begin!
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 Do I feel any differently about the President's performance now that Russia has annexed Crimea and is threatening Eastern Ukraine?  Well, on the one hand, no, since again, this administration has taken our defensive posture down so many pegs, we are really not in position to do much militarily.  So tactically, they haven't had any choice; strategically, this administration has been a disaster, which is what we've said all along.  The one tactical mistake Obama did make was promising to veto any stronger sanctions Congress would pass, which gave Putin the green light to do whatever he wants.  That position needs to be reversed immediately.  I know the Administration is concerned about the scenario where they strengthen sanctions and have Russia cut off Europe's gas supply.  But the only way we have  to back Putin off is to fire up the sanctions and we need to do that post haste.  Americans can do their part by not buying any imported Russian products.  I know Stoli is good vodka, but there are lots of others.  Let the Stoli's pile up on the shelves, folks.
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There was good news from the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Roberts seems to have his mojo back.  In a logical follow up to Citizens United, the Court ruled that the ridiculous overall limit of $123,200 on contributions an individual can make to all candidates in a cycle violated the First Amendment, which any high school junior could have told you (if they still taught civics in public schools).  Now, there is no way my contributions would ever be in any danger of hitting half that total, but that's no reason to deny someone else their rights.  Frankly, I would have been happy to see the Court throw out all of McCain Feingold, but they didn't need to go that far to decide this case, and the majority did indicate that they would welcome a case that gives them the opportunity to do that.  Of course, Dems howled that the decision would mean endless money in politics, but they really don't care about how much money is in politics as long as it's theirs to spend.  No one raises more money than the Clinton's and Obama and their bundlers.  So it's all politics.  Which is why the GOP is going to pursue the IRS scandal to the end.  That's all politics too and you know the trail ends at the White House someplace.
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Two interesting movies showing on Showtime that you may have skipped during their theatrical runs are The Great Gatsby and On The Road, each based on iconic novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac respectively.  In recent polls, Gatsby has been frequently staked to the number 1 position among American novels of all time.  Fitzgerald, though, is notoriously hard to screenplay, ironic in that he ended his career writing screenplays.  The reason his books don't lend themselves to the movies is that in truth, they are largely psychological and introspective with surprisingly little action and not all that much plotting either.  There will be long descriptive passages and narrative insights, but really, it's the Seinfield of American dramatic literature, nothing happens.

At least in Gatsby, something does happen.  There are parties, both drunken huge ones and tension filled intimate ones.  There are lovers reuniting, would be affairs failing to germinate, and it all culminates in a tragic fatal accident and a murder suicide.  Probably more action than in his other novels combined, and all squeezed into what is basically a novella.  Yet, even with all that, the passages that we Fitzgerald fans love are still the moments of intimate dialogue and narrative insight.

The 1949 movie version with Alan Ladd is rarely, if ever seen on television, so most of us have little or no familiarity with it.  Running only 92 minutes, it is little remembered despite a pretty fair cast.  But the 1974 version, staring Robert Redford in the title role, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Sam Waterston as Nick, and a terrific Bruce Dern as Tom (a chilling performance) is well known.  It stuck pretty close to the book including all the memorable character building scenes and many of our favorite quotes.  The (mis)casting of Redford as the mysterious Gastsby is notorious.  I thought actually Redford played the part too well and was too true to the character.  A persistent criticism of the novel has been that the Gatsby character is not clearly drawn and at book's end, he is still the one main character we don't fully get, although Nick seems to think he does.  In that sense, Redford pulled it off.  At movie's end, we really don't know what to think of him either, except that he clung to the possibility of reclaiming Daisy regardless of the odds and that wry smile gave him a puncher's chance.  Nothing else seems to matter.  My guess is that Redford thought this was how he was supposed to play the part.  My main criticism of him is how slow paced his scenes all are.  He's even worse as a Director.  I mean, did The Legend of Bagger Vance really have to take that long?

The new version, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonard DeCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as Tom and Joel Edgerton as Tom, is much more entertaining than the 1974 version, even as it expands on and strays from the book a little without changing the characters or the plot.  The Director (and co-screenwriter) makes a lot of interesting choices, many of which work and a few don't.  Most obvious is a soundtrack overlaying 20's jazz with rap and other modern forms.  I thought I would find that much more obtrusive than it was.  The music certainly adds an element of fun and excitement to the big party scenes at Gatsby's estate.  Another interesting device is to have Nick tell the story after the fact from a sanitarium where he is recovering from alcohol abuse and other ill effects of his Long Island summer.  He returns to his writing, encouraged by his doctor who tells him that penning the story of Gatsby will be good therapy.  He does so, and brilliantly, and because of this device (where Nick is so clearly a stand-in for Fitzgerald), we get to hear some of our favorite narrative passages with the author's observations (which since they don't actually move the plot, we would probably not get to hear otherwise).  In prior versions, it was not so clear whether Nick or Gatsby was Fitzgerald's stand-in.  After all, Gatsby's story in some ways parallel's the author's, whose marriage to Zelda was put on hold until he struck gold with his first novel.  This could explain some of the ambiguity surrounding Gatsby's character, since Fitzgerald likely was not so keen on revealing so much of his own character.

Which brings us to DeCaprio's performance.  Certainly, DeCaprio is in the top echelon of current American actors, and this performance is transcendent.  For the first time, we are given a Gatsby we can understand, a cultivated personality with a purposely affected speaking accent, youthful (much more so than Redford), alternating between extreme confidence and awkward diffidence, and relentlessly optimistic, hopeful, and opportunistic.  We understand finally that he is very much the front man, subordinate in Wolfsheim's illicit bootlegging operation, since in this movie, he abandons Daisy in the middle of his party to take business calls. In the end, like Nick, we are left in admiration of his personality and his loyalties.  And as always, the energy and intensity of DeCaprio's performance make such a stark contrast to Redford's sleepwalk.

As for the rest of the cast, Mulligan is fine and Maguire is truly excellent in portraying the unworldly, naive Nick, so out of place in the East.  But Edgerton, as brutal as he is, fails to lend much humanity to Tom, and it was that aspect that made Dern's depiction of his brutality so much more chilling.

I did have a few nits to pick, mostly involving things that were missing which I consider almost indispensable.  Gone is the scene where Gatsby meets Tom and Daisy's child, the one irrefutable piece of evidence of their one-time love that can't be denied.  In the "74 movie,  Redford's sickly reaction to that meeting is one of his better moments.  Also, there is no witnessing of the Jordan Baker character cheating at the golf tournament.  In fact in this version, Jordan is a mere catalyst without any appreciable character at all.  In the book, Nick says he and Jordan "wearily began an affair" but there is not much hint of that in this movie.  Even Daisy's character falls a bit short in Luhrmann's script.  We never hear Di Caprio remark that "her voice is full of money," which was undoubtedly Redford's best line (and one of the book's most memorable).  Finally, a very moving scene (and enlightening as to Gatsby's history) in the book and the "74 version is Gatsby's father's arrival at Nick's home for the funeral.  That does not happen in the new version.  But these are quibbles.  Clearly this is the best Gatsby yet, and an entertaining one too.  If anyone wants to take another shot at Tender Is the Night, the message is clear - take some chances.
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On the Road is a disjointed mess of a movie, even though there are big names behind its production and a few big names in the supporting cast as well. That makes it faithful to the book, which, let's face it, is also a mess.  Kerouac struggled to get it on paper, famously discarding nearly complete versions, before finally sitting down and banging out the final version in no time at all.  This did not impress everyone, especially Truman Capote, whose opinion was "that's not writing, it's typing."  What Kerouac typed was really a US travelogue, finishing with a side trip to Mexico.  He depicted his own and his best friends' lives as generally unemployed artists, writers, and perverts who indulged in as much alcohol, drugs, and sex as possible.  The movie depicts this bohemian lifestyle which in the 1950's came to be known as the beatnik generation.  In addition to the above vices, there was a love of music, especially modern jazz, that is also central to the movie.  As in the book, there ain't much plot here.  But on some level it is fun.  I have never really understood Kerouac's idolization of his friend Neal Cassidy, the subject of the Dean Moriarity character, and in the movie, he is taken down a few pegs in the end.  There is some satisfaction in that, I think.  Less developed than in the book is the Allen Ginsburg character, though there are some scenes depicting gay and bisexual activities.

This is another book that is almost an impossible subject for a movie.  I was determined to stick with it, and if you do, there is some payoff.   But mainly, it made me want to go back to the book for another turn through the real thing.
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Here are the stock transactions.  There have been a lot of them.  March was a pretty good month, and we certainly wiped out that miserable January.  But so far, April looks real shaky.  Investors need to keep an eye on this market.  Most of the pros think we will end the year higher after a correction or two along the way.  I hope they are right.
 Buys                                                                                 Sales
Date        Symbol       Shares       Price                Date   Symbol     Shares   Price   Date Bought  Price Pd

3/5            SJM           25            99.16              3/5      GENC      200      10.91   2/2/09            8.17  
3/11          KN            100          28.02               3/10     AA          200      12.00   2/17/05        29.47 
3/14          PFG.PR.B  100         24.71                                                                   3/20/06        30.20
3/17          AGCO       100         52.40               3/12      PQ          400        5.35    4/22/09         2.91
3/21          KN             100         31.50               3/18     BYD        200       14.10   11/5/07       40.05
3/25          WFC.PR.P  100         21.98                                                                    11/19/07     38.25
4/4             KN            100          31.59                                                                    10/27/08      3.95
4/7             HSC           100         23.75               3/24     SFE        100        21.59   11/27/03       8.22
4/8             GLD             20        126.30              3/26     PWR      100        36.63    11/3/08        19.73
4/11            KN            100          31.35              4/2       AA         200        12.80     12/19/08     9.46
4/11           NVEC          50           53.44             4/2      CNRD     100        42.35     4/26/05       1.30
4/14           SBRAP        100         24.33             4/4       AWCMY 500         4.60     6/29/12       3.27

Yes, that's the right purchase price on Conrad.  We rode Boyd Gaming down a long way in the financial crisis until it started to recover.  It looked like it might no be able to service its debt there for a while.


                  
   

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

 

Richmond Musings

Coming to you live from Richmond, Virginia, it's Wednesday night!  One nice thing about the Richmond Weston is free use of their computers, and since I travel with only a blackberry, and neither a laptop or an i-pad, it is convenient to do blogposts otherwise. Also, the computer room is right near the bar!  It just doesn't get any better!

So our so-called President has been taking a beating in the WSJ because of the Ukraine and Crimea, and I have to say that's a bit unfair.  Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Russian history knows of their age old paranoia concerning their bordering countries, so Putin's move is no different from what the Czars would have done.  The fact is, what military response could the President have really brought to bear anyway?  I think the measured response by the West in threatening sanctions was just right, and by the way, it had the desired effect of tempering the Russian response anyway.  So the WSJ criticism in this case was over the top, and you know if I'm taking my favorite paper to task, I must be right.  This in no way absolves the Administration of its feckless failures on Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but I'm going to maintain my objectivity (ok, stop guffawing). 
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Movies are in the news this week since the Oscars were awarded, and as usual, I have not seen any of the movies considered yet.  Catching up on last year, I have to say Silver Linings Playbook was terrific, and DeNiro was positively hilarious.  Though Bradley Cooper played the heavy in Wedding crashers, his talent was clearly visible even then so it can't be to anyone's surprise that his talent is now recogized in Linings and this year's America Hustle.  Can't wait to see that since it also stars Jennifer Lawrence who was out of this world in Linings.  Also I loved Argo, particularly John Goodman and Alan Arkin.  But really, Ben Affleck is consistently underrated as an actor, and shows incredible promise as a Director.    When he is in a movie, it always seems like the best moments are his.  Think back to Good Will Hunting and recall two great scenes where he is fantastic.  First, where he 'represents" Will in a job interview, demanding a retainer, ending up by telling the hiring interviewers that they're "suspect," since they can't quite put together the $200 he asks for.  Then, the great scene with Will (Matt Damon) where he tells him that if "he's still here, he'll kill him.  You're sittin on a lotto ticket.  The best part of my day is when I pick you up and hope for a moment you'll be gone, no goodbye, no nothin'.  I don't know much but I know that."

Or those three unbelievable scenes with the new recruits in Boiler Room.  He's only on screen for those and a couple of other scenes, but it's enough to dominate the movie.  His understated characterization of Tony Mendez in Argo is just another example of how he does so much, by seeming to do so little.

As for this year's movies, I have a passing interest in seeing Gravity and Slave, but a real interest in American Hustle and Blue Jasmine.  And maybe the Dallas Buyers Club given how good McConaughey's speech was and how great his work on True Detective has been so far.  So we'll leave it there for now.
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Austin City Limits has been a great hour for over 35 seasons.  I have to say that if you grab a look at the recently played show by Arcade Fire, it's fun, even for us old-timers.  This is a band of 8 remarkable musicians, playing a wide range of instruments with intelligence and skill.  I enjoyed this band way more than I expected.

Another thing I loved recently, that I expected to not like, was 42, the movie about Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, who broke baseball's color line and in so doing, laid a significant marker in the civil rights struggle.  Besides doing that, Jackie was a great baseball player, a true Hall of Famer, who came to the major leagues at 27, leaving some of his prime years in the Negro Leagues. He was Rookie of the Year in 1947, and played only 9 more years, quitting in the 1957 post season when the Dodgers announced their move to LA and attempted to trade Jackie to the hated Giants. 

Robinson was an inspiration to so many people, including my Dad, who shifted his allegiance from the Yankees to the Dodgers when # 42 arrived.  On our three trips to Ebbets Field, in "55, "56 and "57, he still became so excited when Jackie reached base.  There was nothing like seeing Jackie dance to his lead, a total distraction for any pitcher.  Even toward the end of his career, in 1956, he won a World Series game  against the Yanks by stealing home.

Where most movies would overdramatize the racial aspect of Jackie's story, 42 if anything underplays it.  The vitriol that actually occurred was even worse than the movie depicts.  The scene in Cincinatti, where Louisville native Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson, quieting the crowd, is done beautifully in the movie, underplayed perfectly.

Also great in the movie is Harrison Ford's exquisite depiction of the Mahatma, Branch Rickey.  The Brown Dodgers was his idea, and his early move to recruit Robinson, Campanella, and Newcombe from the Negro leagues led to pennnants in 1947, 49, 52, 53, 55 and 56.  The Bums just missed in 1950 (by 1 game) and in 51 (the playoff loss to the Giants).  So he created a dynasty on a par with the Yankees of that era.  But that only goes so far in the telling of Rickey's story.  There are so many great anecdotes.  When he was GM of the Pirates, Ralph Kiner, perennial NL home run leader objected to the salary cut Rickey "offered."  When he threatened to hold out, Rickey responded, "we finished last with you, we can finish last without you."

On another occasion, Rickey quizzed a young prospect about his habits.  "Do you smoke?" he asked.  Yes.  "Do you drink?"  Yes again.  "Do you go out with strange women?"  Again yes.  "Judas Priest," Rickey bellowed, "you must have horns!"

Rickey liked for his players to be married.  He was convincing one player to change his status from single and offered him a bonus of $3,000 if he got married, real money in those days.  The player called him.  "Well," he said, "I talked to the one and only."  "What did she say," asked Rickey.  "She told me I should hold out for $5,000."

Rickey always said that "luck was the residue of design."  It's one of my favorite truisms.
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The world will miss Sid Caesar, one of the funniest men in history.  If you don't believe me, watch any of his shows from the 1950's.  Or Silent Movie.  Or Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
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The WSJ monthly magazine is usually a ponderous waste of time, regardless of how great the models look, but the December issue has a great story on Ernest Hemingway's time in Cuba.  You can probably find it on the website.  It's enough to make me want to go back and reread For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises.
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Here are the stock transactions:

Purchases:
Symbol       Date    Size           Price         Comments
PQ             2/13     600 shares    3.77             0 buy
TIP            2/18     20                111.95
PBCT        2/19     200                14.18          Value Buy
AGCO       2/10       50                51.83          0 Buy
WFC.PR.P 2/21      100               22.34  
L                 2/24      100              43.45          Value
EXPD         2/25      50                41.91           0 Buy
SBRAP      2/16      100               23.90         
AGCO        2/28      100              52.57           Value
NWBI        3/3        200              14.23           0 Buy
TIP             3/4        20                112.82   

Sales

CNN.PR.B 2/13      400               45.95           Off the buy/hold list 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

 

Oh, Snow. No Relief In Sight

Having battled my way into the office for three plus hours last week, the idea of another trip featuring trains that don't come, parking lots not plowed, and slick sidewalks and stairways did not appeal this morning, so instead, we did the technology thing and worked from home today.  The uncannily accurate weather forecasters were right about when this storm would come and when the snow would change to rain, so I assume they will be right that it will change back to snow tonight, with more snow coming Saturday.  Ugh. 

Back in the "real world," Janet Yellen has moved in as Fed Chair and promptly told Congress that nothing would change.  This pleased the stock market which always favors higher prices today and we'll worry about next year when it comes.  I call this the "Wimpy Syndrome" (I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today).  The good news is that she is continuing the reduction in bond buying, but the bad news is bond buying continues, and the Fed's accomodative stance that punishes savers by keeping interest rates artificially low has the ironic effect of starving the economy.  I guess the Fed's dominant Keynesians will never figure this out.  Luckily, our stock trading formula seems to thrive under these suboptimal conditions.

Congress did its part by abandoning any attempts to use the debt limit law to achieve budgetary discipline.  I guess no one gives a hoot anymore.  At least we have the Sochi Games to distract those who care about that.  Even I haven't been able to ignore a few of the nice moments from there, mainly the Opening Ceremony   (unfairly criticized because one of the Olympic Rings didn't illuminate, but really, who cares?) and the Russian Pairs figure skaters.  The best story I heard reported from the games was, as usual, from curling fans, noting the absence of alcoholic beverages at many of the locales (the Russians are appropriately paranoid about their extra mortality caused by alcoholism).  "Really," said one young fan, "how can you watch curling without some beers?" which strikes me as an eminently reasonable question.
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As interminably awful as the Grammy's award show was, Grammy's tribute to the Beatles was very entertaining.  If you saw it, you saw many of today's artists performing excellent covers of very good Beatle
songs.  As for the performance by Paul and Ringo, it was also fun to watch if not exactly an artistic triumph.  Fittingly, the Journal's excellent rock critic Jim Fusilli authored a retrospective last week called "Invading Powers" recollecting Beatlemania 50 years ago.  Here is an edited version:

"Sociologists who study the 1960's attribute much to the Beatles' arrival in America 50 years ago...Some credit the cheeky, high-energy quartet with being just the boost the U.S. needed after having endured the assassination of its president.  Others cite the band's seemingly instantaneous popularity as a sign of an emerging teenage consumer culture.  Such claims obscure a more fundamental question: In February 1964, were the Beatles any good?"
Fusilli points out that the Beatles were veteran performers by the time they performed on Ed Sullivan, at Carnegie Hall and the Washington Coliseum. They had performed almost daily since summer, 1960, and at the Royal Albert Hall twice in 1963.  They had also done two sets a day at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in the weeks before coming to America.
"By 1964, the Beatles were a tight quartet who could play pop, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and R&B with equal force and efficiency.  They had studied (and covered) their predecessors-but had developed their own sound: Lennon and McCartney gave the group two versatile, easily differentiated vocalists; and Harrison...was a lead guitarist with a feel for several styles.  McCartney wasn't yet the exceptional bass player he would become; Lennon provided color and support as a rhythm guitarist.  But with the savvy, rock-solid Ringo on drums, they were built on a platform of driving rhythm.  What distinguished the group, though, was its songwriting."  Here Fusilli recounts the early hits they wrote, McCartney's "Love Me Do," Lennon's "Please, Please Me," influenced by Buddy Holly and their first UK #1, the first two US albums, including "I Want To Hold Your Hand," #1 in the U.S. by the Feb. 9 Sullivan gig.
"They opened the Sullivan performance with McCartney's "All My Loving," which displayed the group's many talents in well under three minutes.  The meticulous, syncopated arrangement found Lennon playing triplets on rhythm guitar while McCartney, who sang lead, offered a walking bass line and Starr altered his accents on his snare drum as his cymbals sizzled.  After adding tidy country licks on the turnarounds, Harrison played an eight-bar interlude at the bridge with nods to rockabilly.  A cleverly crafted pop gem, "All My Loving" was delivered with confidence and an infectious elan born of experience."
"After performing "Till There Was You" from the Broadway musical "The Music Man" - perhaps as a bone thrown to Sullivan's traditional viewership - they played another compact gem: the Lennon-McCartney composition "She Loves You."  As on the recording, the live reading was driven by Mr. Starr.  Two and three part harmonies delivered the lead vocal, which built to the twin hooks: "woos" and "yeah, yeah, yeah!" Lennon played folk chords on electric guitar, thus enriching the mid-section and freeing Harrison to add colorful filigrees.  In front of more than 70 million viewers, the quartet knew they were on their game.  At the midway point, Lennon, who had been relatively static in contrast to McCartney's bubbly exuberance, exchanged a smile with Harrison.  High on his platform, Mr. Starr continued to bob behind the cymbals.  His fills and the rumble of his kick drum and toms made the performance."
"The Beatles returned in the second half of the show with the Chuck Berry-influenced "I Saw Her Standing There and "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but by then notice had been served.  ...The Sullivan audience saw that the band could deliver the hits with authority and charm.   Two years after Mr. Starr joined them, the Beatles were...a self contained group capable of writing, arranging and performing increasingly challenging and ever-engaging rock and pop of the highest caliber.  Were they any good?  Oh yes.  And they were going to get better."

My view - The Beatles in 1964 were a competent rock band.  Harrison and McCartney were learning to play their instruments and eventually would be very good.  Starr was an underrated drummer, largely because his technique was unconventional.  As vocalists, they were exceptional, particularly McCartney.  And they had three great song writers.  McCartney and Harrison wrote outstanding melodies, and Lennon's lyrics were the strength of his songs.  And they were outstanding arrangers too, an ability not recognized enough.  If you want to know how to end a record, listen to the Beatles.  Only rarely do their songs fade out.
It is interesting that "I Saw Her Standing There" is still so fondly remembered.  That was the "B" side of the "I Want To Hold Your Hand" 45 RPM single (remember those?).
Those were fun days and the music world was really on fire.  As Beatle songs became more sophisticated and broke new ground, it was common to downplay the early hits, but  they have survived anyway.
You can read Jim Fusilli's reviews in the WSJ every week, as if you needed yet another reason to read America's greatest newspaper.

 By the way, one other thing little remembered.  Several months before Sullivan, Jack Paar ran a film of the Beatles playing in a European concert, which for many of us, was the first time we had heard of or seen them.  They were shown singing "She Loves You" and it was that rare song you love the first time you hear it.  After that, those of us who had seen it were primed and when DJ's like Murray the K and Cousin Bruce Morrow started promoting the group, Beatlemania was lifting off.
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For those who heard the State of the Union and are anxious to start their MIRA, my advice is forget it, and buy a lotto ticket.  Obama's brainchild has little or no appeal for anyone I can think of.  Investments will be limited to low interest Federal debt, and the accounts themselves must be rolled into Roth IRA's as soon as there is any appreciable money in them.  In short, anyone who thinks this will be a retirement solution is dreaming.
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 WSJ's Dorothy Rabinowiz has long been a voice in the wilderness defending  those railroaded into court and even prison by out-of-control DA's and AG's and other accusers in the wave of trumped up child abuse cases from the 1980's and early 1990's.  Most of these cases were built on the "testimony" of young children, who were persuaded that their teachers, schoolmasters and even parents had abused them.  They were extensively coached  by these accusers, often making the most ludicrous charges and describing impossibly absurd abusive acts.  The most infamous of these trials was that of the Amirault family,which owned Fells Acres nursery school in Massachusetts.  Ms. Rabinowitz kept after this case until finally the family was exonerated and released from prison, though the DA's, led by the current Massachusetts AG, Martha Coakley, have never acknowledged their innocence.  Violet Amirault and her daughter Violet served 8 years in prison before their convictions were overturned.  Her son Gerald was finally paroled after 19 years  The child accusers were almost as much victims as they, never actually being able to separate what was true from what they had been programmed to believe.

Ms Rabinowiz resumed her crusade last week, this time in defense of Woody Allen, who was recklessly accused by his ex Mia Farrow, and her adopted daughter Dylan who became convinced that Allen had abused her when she was 7.  Dylan recently renewed those charges.  Rabinowitz' take is illuminating.  "It's impossible to read Woody Allen's reply to charges that in 1992 he molested his and Mia Farrow's 7 year old adopted daughter, Dylan, without being struck by its haunting echoes of the words of countless people accused of such crimes.  He had thought that the charges were so ludicrous he didn't think of hiring a lawyer, he reported in an op ed for the New York Times on Sunday.  He had believed that "common sense would prevail."  He had "naively thought the accusation would be dismissed out of hand."  It was the kind of naivete evident in virtually every person known to me who had been falsely charged...convicted and sentenced to long prison terms on the basis of testimony from children coaxed into making accusations.  Accusations made, at ages 5,6,or 7, that many of them would continue to believe fervently were true, into adulthood."

Allen said in the op ed, wrote Rabinowitz, that "After Mia Farrow accused Mr. Allen of molesting Dylan, Connecticut police called on the Child Sex Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital to investigate.  The investigators' conclusion was indisputably clear.  :Dylan had not been sexually abused by Woody Allen.  She had made the accusation, the investigators said, either as a response to stress or because her mother had coached her to do so, or a combination of both.

So how are we to know the falsely accused from the true sex offenders every community fears?  That's a hard question, but for starters, there should be corroborating reliable evidence to convict.  The Penn State cases are an example where the evidence meets that reliability test.  But Woody Allen?  Are you kidding?

One might also consider his primary accuser, Mia Farrow.  Farrow's good works on behalf of world youth notwithstanding, her life's record is largely one of rank opportunism starting with her goofy marriage to Frank Sinatra.  Her relationship with Allen secured her standing in his ensemble movie casts.  Allen's own life choices represent some odd twists and turns, but his talent has been undeniable, and if anything, his desire to be a private person speaks for itself.  Self promotion is not what Woody's about.  His longstanding friendships and the desire of his cast members to work with him again and again put the lie to the monster characterization Farrow would assign him.

I think Rabinowitz again has this right.  It's a shame that Woody's reputation has been so unfairly tarnished.
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Here are the transactions since the last post:
Purchases:
Date          Stock symbol       Shares           Price      Comment
1/17              ONCS               4200       0.4725        Our lotto ticket paying off?  Bought a few more shares
1/21              WFC.PR.P          100      21.31
1/21              SJM                      25       97.80          Still a value buy even at this price
1/27              GWR                    25       90.03           Zero buy, Small RR performing big
1/28               IAU                     200      12.20          The "other" Gold ETF
1/29              GIFI                     100      20.97           Value in the "Tulane Portfolio"
1/31              AGCO                   50       53.89           New name meets the value criteria
2/3                SBRAP                 100      24.75           Another good looking reco from full service broker
2/5                NEM                    100       21.30           Maybe it finally bottomed
2/7                FNFG                   300       8.45             Zero buy, trying to consolidate its aquisitions
2/10              PLP                       100      21.25            Best preferred stocks are in the insurance sector
2/11              AGCO                   100      51.27            Value Buy, building the position

Sales
1/15               B                            100      39.31            We paid 8.3125 on 3/22/99
1/21             DBD                         700      34.90            Took Diebold off the hold list; took a small loss
1/21             BEAM                      150      83.40            paid 62.75 in 2006, 52.88 in 2008
1/21             BEAM                      150      83.40            paid 76.62 in 05, 21.52 in 09

We sold BEAM to the arbitragers; the company is being sold to Suntory.  On Diebold, we just don't think its products have much growth potential in the US, and management doesn't seem to be able to achieve its international potential.  We found AGCO in the WSJ daily list of dividend increases, and noted price to book of less than 2 and debt to equity less than 0.7.

Neither redwavemusings nor its author are investment advisors and the securities mentioned here are not to be considered recommendations since they may not be suitable for readers.   


Thursday, January 16, 2014

 

Special Polar Vortex Post

The cold weather is headed back to the Northeast again next week, though nothing like the misery we endured a couple of weeks ago.  Of course, y'all understand that the reason the polar vortex descended this far south is...global warming. 

I guess the only thing not being blamed on global warming these days is the mysterious closing of certain lanes on the Jersey entrance to the George Washington Bridge.  On the contrary, the e-mail evidence clearly indicates that those lanes were closed by Governor Christie's out-of-control campaign staff.  Reminiscent of a certain Presidential re-elect campaign (1972 to be exact), owning a one-sided lead doesn't seem to bring about caution and safety first tactics to political zealots; instead they become emboldened and reckless.  Geez, even football players know enough to run out the clock when you're way ahead.

Still, the story of this "scandal" has been a source of endless amusement for the working press and TV's talking heads.  And for good reason.  The only thing more hilarious in this new year was the fine and benching incurred by the Knicks' J.R. Smith for attempting to untie the shoes of his opponents during play.  I can't understand why the powers that be don't see the humor in this antic, but they don't.  The way I look at it, if you can't or won't defend your man properly,  you need to find creative ways to slow him down.

The major beneficiaries of the Bridge story have, of course been the hapless and hopeless members of the Obama Administration in D.C., since it served to push their daily failings to the (often unread) middle pages.  Unlike their Johnny on the spot fellow Dems in New Jersey, who have rapidly initiated not one but two investigations into bridge-gate, the Obama gang has apparently concluded there is no reason to investigate anyone with regard to IRS-gate, the infamous targeting of conservative groups that severely hamstrung the Romney campaign last year.  The FBI, for one, which reports to the Attorney General as I recall, has apparently determined that no one is really responsible, even without performing an investigation.  So we should be glad that for once, no money will be spent I guess.  Of course, the Attorney General is way too busy criminalizing normal business activities to be bothered with an actual crime.

This lethargy when it comes to actual issues that should be investigated is of the same mold as the Administration's response to Benghazi, its failure to maintain any order in Iraq (and we are headed for the same end in Afghanistan), and its ineptitude in implementing PPACA.  Of course, when it comes to pursuing its own objectives in the face of Congressional intransigence, the Obama folks have become very energetic about circumventing the Constitution.  So today, Obama floated the trial balloon that if Congress won't enact an increase in the minimum wage, he'll simply issue another executive order to do it.  You would think that the Administration would be tired of getting slapped down by the Courts on all of these extra-constituional moves.  The most recent (of many) of these slap-downs involved the DC Circuit's dismantling of the FCC's net neutrality rules.  It looks like another one is coming (based on oral argument) when the Supreme's explain to Obama that for him to make a recess appointment, Congress actually has to be in recess.  That didn't bother the Administration when it appointed Richard Cordray as head of the new Consumer Protection Bureau, and when it filled out the Labor Relations Board with union cronies.

The point of all this is that we have an Administration that runs the Federal Government as if we were some banana republic, and whose foreign policy choices have left us at grave risk in the Middle East, in East Asia,  and caused us to lose the peace in Iraq.  In fact, it appears that a renewal of the centuries old civil war in Islam (The Great Schism) is underway between Sunni's and Shiites.  This is no place for the faint of heart, so my advice to Mr. Obama in this case would be to follow his instinct and get our kids out of Dodge.  Syria is now such a mess, we don't even know who to root for, since the opposition is split between Al Qaeda and the moderates we favor.  Somehow, when Assad exterminates Al Qaeda, he's not so bad.  But in reality, he is being propped up by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, and those are really not our friends. Meanwhile, John Kerry's shuttle diplomacy between the Palestinian territories and Israel has yielded little except for a harsh condemnation from an Israeli official, making the often heard complaint that if it's bad to be our enemy, it's really dangerous to be our friend.  For that, Israel was harshly rebuked by a State Department spokesman (as if to prove my point).  While it was a very touching display of loyalty to the Secretary, one would have thought that maybe State's employees might have thicker skins, being career diplomats and all that.

So I guess one would have to conclude that all of the above, including the President's falling (39%) job approval rating, is because of...global warming.  That's as good an explanation as any, right?             
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By the way, the increasing hostility of the courts to Obama's methods makes it all the more troublesome that Senator Reid resorted to the nuclear option to remove the filibuster and stack the DC Court with progressives.  Republicans should remember that cold blooded tactic when they reorganize the Senate (under their control) in 2015.  There will be no reason to worry about protecting the minority's rights after having theirs trampled in this session.
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In case you didn't know (and why should you), we are approaching the Winter Olympics, coming to you live on tape from some Godforsaken Black Sea resort in Russia.  There is genuine, and well founded concern about security at these Games, given the disposition of Chechen and other Islamic folks in that part of the world.  Regardless, I make it a point to ignore as much of the Olympics as possible so as Hawkeye Pierce famously said, the instrument hasn't yet been invented that can measure my indifference.  In our era of the professional Olympian, is there any greater hypocrisy than the so-called "Olympic ideal" which viewers will hear about endlessly from opening to closing ceremony.  For my part, the Olympics resonated when we sent true amateurs to the game, great athletes though they were, even if it meant taking on the pros from the autocratic countries.  Now -nothing.  The other thing that sickens me is the concept of the veteran Olympian.  So Tiger Woods' girl friend being unable to ski in her third or fourth olympics due to injury doesn't exactly break my heart.  I don't like to see any athlete get hurt, but really, give someone else a chance.  If it were up to me, athletes could compete in a maximum of two Olympics, and coaches maybe two or three. 

I have to admit that when stuck watching the closing ceremony, the command that the youth of the world should reconvene in four years at the next site leaves me ROTFLMAO.  Youth?  Maybe at their first Olympics, but by your third Olympics, you ain't that young anymore.
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We're changing the format for the investment recap, going for a little more economy.  Here goes.
Purchases since the last post
Date           Symbol        Shares         Price       Comment
12/20          STI.PR.A     100            18.64     Suntrust Preferred
12/27          ENI              200            14.78     value buy
1/2              BRLI            100            25.47     zero buy
1/3              TIP                20            110.15     ETF
1/3              GNE             200            10.19     value buy
1/6              FAST            50              46.68     Zero buy
1/7              MET.PR.B    100            24.96     MetLife Preferred  
1/14            NR                200            11.80     value buy - the "Tulane portfolio"

Sales since the last post
12/20          USAK           200             13.82    paid 4.79 on 6/25/12
12/23          RAVN           100              42.26   paid 30.68 on 8/31/12
12/24          HAUP           2,800            0.17    That's the last of 'em.  They can't all be gems.
12/26          AAON            100            32.11    Paid 4.27 on 1/26/05
1/2              ABC                100            70.11    paid 14.34 (adjusted for split) on 11/29/01
1/8              SFE                   83             19.90   paid 13.38 on 6/21/04
1/10            TMO                 25            114.48  paid 19.88 on 1/13/03
1/13            LFUS                50             92.34   paid 25.63 on 11/13/00

Monday, we got the good news of a takeover offer for our BEAM shares that pushed the stock up about 15 points.  All in, including dividends, our accounts were up 24% for 2013, a good job considering how much we keep in cash, preferreds, and muni's.  Returns matter, but risk adjusted returns are important to consider.  Markets do fall out of bed. 



Thursday, December 19, 2013

 

Back to DC

Upon further review, my reread of our last post convinced me it was among the most satisfying we've done.  So if you missed it, give it a look, right below this one.
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Meanwhile, I am back from 5 event filled days in Washington D.C. at the NAIC, one of the reasons this post is coming so late.  The Insurance Commissioners have plenty of problems of their own, not to mention they are always causing us industry people migraines.  But on top of everything, the long awaited Federal Insurance Office report on modernization of insurance regulation was finally published, 23 months late.  Though it largely waffled around the issues, the Report had enough meat to it to add stress to an already overwrought group.

Nevertheless, Washington is such a good meeting location that the interminable meetings, relentlessly bad weather, and reluctant taxi cabs were easily overcome by the excellent restaurants and watering holes within easy reach.  Two high end eateries I can recommend are first, Palena, a real gourmet style haven featuring fixed price extravaganzas on Connecticut Ave. a little past the zoo. Second, is Restaurant Piccolo in Georgetown, which I liked even better.

By the way, the Metro is pretty convenient, except for two important items, at least one of which is fixable.  First, the Washington Metro has the world's longest, slowest, and squeakiest escalators.  They are so slow that you really have to factor that time into which transportation method to take to a given site.  The other problem is that the fare cards you use to pay for the Metro seem to instantaneously demagnetize after your second trip, leaving you the task of recovering your still trapped money at the very few stations where there are clerks to do that (well, one station, Metrocenter).  So now you are encouraged to buy a trip card, which is plastic, for two dollars.  I finally did that and now we'll see how long that lasts.  Meanwhile, I still have about $20 on demagnetized fare cards to try to recover.   But then, why should we expect anything to work properly in D.C.?

Speaking of which, with all their other problems, nothing has the insurance regulators more apoplectic than the roll out of Obamacare.  The number of people who have successfully purchased health insurance on the various exchanges is pitifully small, leading me to the conclusion that the ACA will actually leave more people uninsured than the old "system."  And it's not just the notorious federal exchange that's failing.  Many of the 15 state exchanges supposedly up and running are having awful problems of their own.  I think I read that in Oregon, a fairly blue state with its own exchange, something like 40 people had actually succeeded in obtaining insurance on the exchange as of November's end.    No wonder four state exchange heads have been sacked already.

What the ACA's supporters should really be concerned about are not so much the mechanical problems, bad as they are, but rather the policy and rules related SNAFU's that are causing people to give up in despair and go bare.  Among these are the removal of their favored doctors and hospitals from exchange plans, the huge gap between medicaid eligible costs and the so-called subsidized premiums that leave low income families and young singles preferring to pay the penalty rather than be insured.  Add to that, the wholesale desertion of their profession by providers because the reduced medicaid, medicare, and plan reimbursements are inadequate to pay for their malpractice insurance premiums.

In short, this system is not merely broken, it's crashed.  This was obvious to many of us quite some time ago, but this stubborn administration and its Democratic sycophants in congress refused to do the right thing and postpone everything for a year or two.  Now they are looking at a situation where they will surely burn in the 2014 elections unless they do a "never mind" and repeal the whole thing at the last minute.  The ACA was designed by its authors (Dem staffers) to fail slowly, setting the stage over a modest transition period for single payor.  Instead, the crash on takeoff will cause the country to go back to largely private coverage, which is fine with those of us on the right, but only after very serious economic dislocation and some unnecessarily bad outcomes for too many, I'm afraid.  It will be an interesting and sad mess to watch.   
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New York City is its usual glorious self this holiday season.  Last night, I took some co-workers out to Birdland and then to the Penn Club, their prize for making the winning bid in a silent auction for the benefit of United Way.  It was quite fun and exciting walking around Times Square, which was teeming with tourists, as you might imagine.  So by all means, come to the City, visit the tree, skate on the ice in Rockefeller Center or Bryant Park, hear some jazz, stop at Jimmy's Corner or Measure for a nightcap, etc.  New York is alive - let's hope the new mayor won't screw it up.
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On Tuesday, CNBC had a terrific interview with James Grant, the famous bond investor, who was extremely critical of the Fed and the Obama Administration's statist policies.  Bond guys, unlike stock guys, tend to look at the world very clearly - not for them rose colored glasses.  For some reason, someone like Grant has a lot more credibility than a political animal like Mark Lavin, even when they are saying essentially the same things.  Anyway, check out the CNBC website - I would think the interview is still available.

As for yesterday's tapering announcement, everyone found a reason to cheer, hence the big rally in stocks, surely a one day wonder.  For Keynesians, the taper was laughingly small and there was a promise to keep short term rates low, even beyond the 6.5% unemployment target.  For supply side types, there was at last some taper, and the promise of more tapering in increments until the bond buying program is at last over sometime in fall, 2014.  My view is that the fed continues to be much too loose. Especially worrisome is the concern about reaching the inflation target of 2%.  I still believe the inflation target should be 0, and by worrying about low inflation, the Fed is setting up the media and the rest of us to accept inflation much worse than the target when they inevitably overshoot.   Inflation is not a neutral event.  It rewards borrowers (like all levels of government) and spenders, and debases the currency.  It punishes savers, investors, and especially those who live on fixed incomes.   It is the cruelest tax of all as we relearn every time it charges out of control.
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On 11/25, we finally gave up the ghost on Hauppauge Digital (HAUP), selling the 11,900 shares in our taxable account for 0.17, a loss of about 16,900.  Gordon Gekko wasn't the only investor who hated to lose money on a transaction, but the tax loss will come in handy this year as we have outsize taxable gains.  We had booked over 10,000 in gains on this stock in past years, so the failure here was not so much in the original stock selection but in the unwillingness to recognize that the business model would not be successful after the death of one of the two principal owners.  Having made that misjudgement, our formula had us throwing good money after bad.  So even after we sell the shares in the IRA later this month, we'll have a net loss in the stock and that's too bad, but not really too serious.  If you can't face into your mistakes and accept losses that become inevitable, you shouldn't be investing in individual stocks rather than funds.  And you do better when you view your holdings objectively, selling the dogs early instead of hoping to get back to even.  As they say, hope is not a strategy.

Also on 11/25, we sold 87 shares of AAON, an odd lot resulting from a prior split, for 29.33.  We paid 6.47 on 9/25/06.  On 11/27, we sold 200 more shares of USA Trucking (USAK), which has continued to levitate for no apparent reason since becoming a potential takeover play.  We got 14.96 per share versus a purchase price of 5.41 on 6/14/12 and 4.79 on 6/25/12.  Sometimes averaging down works, and sometimes (see above) it doesn't.  On 11/29, we bought 100 shares of BRLI at 29.61, a zero buy after it swooned following a drop in projected earnings.  On 12/2, we sold 200 shares of Genie Energy (GNE), another stock levitating for no apparent reason.  The bottom dropped out of the price last week.  We got 16.60 for shares we received as a spinoff from IDT at 10/31/11, when they had a book value of 9.09.  On 12/3, we bought 20 shares of the gold ETF (GLD) at 117.59.  We may have hit the bottom in gold for a while, or not.  On 12/6, we bought another gold stock, poor old Newmont (NEM), a value buy at 23.40 for 100 shares.  On 12/9, we bought 500 shares of our old friend Petroquest (PQ), a zero buy at 4.14.  On 12/10 we sold 200 more shares of USAK at 14.72 from the batch we bought at 4.79.  On 12/11, we added to our IRA's preferred shares, buying 100 of the Wells Fargo (WFC.PR.P) at 20.22.  On 12/12, we bought 100 shares of Gulf Island Fabrication (GIFI) at 22.20, a value buy.  Finally on 12/18, we bought 25 shares of Hubbell (HUB.A) at 94.12, a "zero buy."

Neither Redwavemusings nor its author are investment advisors, and the securities mentioned here are not recommendations and may not be suitable investments for anyone. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

 

Dallas Musings on the 50th

By pure serendipity, a business meeting took me to the Dallas area for three nights, including the 22nd, which was the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza.  I didn't get to see anything since I had meetings all day and anyway, you had to be among 5,000 lottery winners to attend the ceremony there (in some pretty nasty, cold weather).  Still, I saw excerpts on the local news and clearly it was very tasteful and inspiring.  That the event had a traumatic impact on the baby boom generation, still evident today, is undeniable.  In the onslaught of Kennedy retrospectives that TV ran over the last few weeks, one couldn't help reflecting one more time on the life and death of the most charismatic President of the television age.

As a President, the first two Kennedy years were decidedly mediocre, or even a little worse.  In retrospect, he was very cautious, treading carefully on Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the economy.  When he did act forcefully, the results weren't particularly successful.  Bay of Pigs was an outright disaster, the imbroglio over steel prices seems almost an embarrassment in retrospect, and other than the supply side tax cut, all of the legislative initiatives were floundering.

But even in the moderate successes, and the buildup to future successes, his great quality of leadership was showing through, and that's what made his personal popularity soar despite the policy struggles.  The cut in the highest tax rates pulled the country out of an economic malaise, his leadership on space brought the US program back to parity and then past the Soviets, and his travels abroad, especially in Germany, were Cold War triumphs.  All the while, in press conferences and other public appearances, the Kennedy humor and energy shown through.  By the third year, the Kennedy administration was hitting stride, and the legislative victories of 1964 were a testament not only to LBJ's superior lobbying skills but to the groundwork the administration had done the previous year.  Not surprisingly, the Soviets underestimated the President in the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis, where Kennedy's level headed approach proved the winning strategy.  Having said that, the Soviets achieved their main goal of securing Castro against future attempts by the US to remove him.

Against this background, the assassination by a leftist, when everyone assumed the threats to Kennedy's life would only come from the right, seemed to take the air out of his martyrdom.  No wonder liberals have never been able to accept the lone gunman story, and conspiracy theories are still commonly believed.  These theories are abetted by gaping holes in the record, some still kept secret at the insistence of the family.  Probably the leading theory other than the lone gunman theory is the accidental mortal wound shot attributed to one of the Secret Service men in the car trailing the President.  For that theory to be true, it would have had to be the unluckiest shot in history.  And if it was true, it makes the President's death that much more meaningless.  I tend to think that the book "Case Closed" provided the proof the Warren Commission didn't that Oswald alone killed the President.

Contrast JFK's leadership skills and his rapid on-the-job learning with the current incumbent.  Well into his fifth year, Obama seems as much at sea as at the beginning.  Even when he seems to have hit on the right strategy he has a way of mucking it up.  So he passed health care but butchered the implementation.  His sanctions approach had Iran weakened and looking for an escape, but then he makes a deal with them wherein he relaxes the sanctions in exchange for virtually nothing (by the way, proving a Reagan maxim that in any negotiation, the side that wants the deal more will make a bad deal).  His tax policy is a jumbled mess, the debt is increasing to unmanageable amounts, and the Fed, with his encouragement, has pursued programs to keep the economy barely above water that will be very painful to unwind.  Where are we going?  Most agree, according to all the polls, that the country is headed down a dangerous path.       


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My business meeting proved quite useful.  Two presentations really were outstanding.  First, an inspirational talk by Dick Hoyt, who has competed with his wheelchair bound son Rick in many dozens of marathons and triathalons around the world.  If you don't know the story of Team Hoyt, by all means look it up on the internet. They had planned to retire, but will run one more Boston marathon this spring to commemorate the return of that race after last year's tragic bombing at the finish line.

On getaway day, Simpson and Bowles, famed co-chairs of the Obama deficit cutting commission spoke.  This was another good idea, with potentially a good result that the President abandoned for reasons I will never understand.  Though Paul Ryan famously voted against the Commission report (saying it didn't go far enough to cut entitlements), it still represents the bravest and best effort to really solve our spending problem. 
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The WSJ printed another memorable interview just over a year ago by Marc Myers about the Doors.  I will never forget putting their first album on the record player as a high school teenager and being absolutely transported, excited beyond words, by the initial  riff and then Morrison's voice on "Break on Through." "Crystal Ship," the bluesy and controversial "Backdoor Man," "20th Century Fox," the long version of "Light My Fire," and the extended musical poem, "The End" allowed for little or no let up for awestruck fans who knew they were hearing something really different and important.  Unlike many second albums, the Doors' People Are Strange was a brilliant follow up, its extended poem ("When The Music's Over") arguably much stronger than "The End."

I was lucky enough to see the Doors in person at least twice, once in a multi-group concert produced by the estimable DJ Murray (The K) Kaufman, and the second time at Forest Hills sharing the bill with Simon and Garfunkel, of all people.  Doors' concerts exceeded their records in excitement; the mood was a little like a NASCAR race in that everyone was waiting for the wreck, since Morrison's behavior was so unpredictable.

The interview was with keyboardist Ray Manzarek (now deceased) and guitarist Robby Krieger and focused on "Light My Fire."  Here are edited excerpts:

Myers: Originally lasting more than seven minutes, (the song) featured one of rock's first extended album solos.  When the shorter version was released in "67, it reached No. 1, and the following year, Jose Feliciano won a Grammy for his cover version.  The Doors' surviving members talked about the song's famed keyboard intro, the Fats Domino connection, and why the single was faster paced than the album version.
Manzarek: By March 1966, we were running out of songs.  At rehearsal, Jim said, "Everyone go home this weekend and write at least one song."  Only Robby did.  He called it "Light My Fire."
 Krieger: I came up with a melody inspired by the Leaves' "Hey Joe,"  I also liked the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire," so I wrote lyrics that used the word fire.
Manzarek: When Robby played the song for us, it had a folk-rock sound.  But John Densmore cringed.  He wanted it so sound edgier.  He added a hard Latin rhythm to the rock beat, and it worked.
Krieger: As Jim sang, he changed the melody line to give it a bluesy feel.  Then he came up with a second verse right oft the top of his head: "The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire..."
Manzarek: Once the lyrics and melody were set, we realized we could jam as long as we wanted on the song's middle two chords -A minor and B minor- the way Coltrane did on "My Favorite Things."  All of us dug Coltrane's long solos.  But we needed some way to start the song...I started playing a cycle of fifths on my organ.  Out came a motif from the Bach piano book I had used as a kid.  It was like a psychedelic minuet.  We didn't use a bass player - I played the bass notes on a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass while my right hand played the Vox which could be cranked up to a screaming loud volume.  My bass line grew out of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill."
Krieger: Onstage, the song became this rock-jazz jam.  Audiences loved it.
Manzarek: In August "66, when we went into Sunset Sound to record our first album, producer Paul Rothchild wanted us to record "Light My Fire" just as we had been playing it live.  We recorded two takes - each one lasting over seven minutes.  No one was recording extended solo albums then.
Krieger: Because Paul loved what Ray had done with the minuet in the beginning, he said "Hell, let's put it at the end, too."  So he spliced  in a copy of Ray's minuet after Jim's vocal, as an outro.  A few months after the album came out in January "67, the label wanted a single for AM radio.  Dave Diamond, an FM disc jockey had been playing the album and was getting a ton of calls.
Manzarek: But a single meant our album version had to be cut down to 2 and a half minutes.  Everyone groaned, but Paul said he'd take a crack at it.  When we heard the result the next day, the organ and guitar solos were gone.  Robby and I said to Paul, "You cut out the improvisation!"  Paul said, "I know.  But imagine you're 17 years old in Minneapolis.  You've never heard of the Doors and this is the version you hear on the radio.  Would you have a problem with it?"  Jim said, "Actually, I kind of dig it."
Krieger: It was gut wrenching to hear my solo cut, but I actually liked the single better.  The album version had been mixed at a very low volume to capture everything.  On the radio, it wasn't very loud or exciting.  The single, though, snapped.  The secret was that Paul had wrapped Scotch tape around the spindle holding the pickup reel, so the tape would turn a fraction faster.  This made the pitch a little higher and brighter, and the song more urgent.
Manzarek: I first heard the AM single with my wife Dorothy in our VW Bug. Dorothy started bouncing up and down like a jumping jack.  I was pounding on the wheel.  What a feeling.
Krieger: At first I didn't like Feliciano's 1968 version.  But after a while, I came to love it.  He made our song his own, which got others to record it.  Thanks to Jose, the song is our biggest copyright by far.

Tell me that's not a great interview!  Congrats, Mr. Myers! 


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On 11/1, we bought 25 shares of Deere (DE) at 81.84.  Some are concerned that the farm reform bill will hurt agricultural equipment sales, but this one is still on the buy/hold list and it finally came up for a zero buy.   On 11/4, we paid 21.65 for a hundred shares of Suntrust Preferred (STI.PR.A).  Then on 11/8, we bought 200 more shares of the new News Corp (NWSA) at 17.31, a value buy.  We also bought 300 shares of Boyd Gaming (BYD) at 9.89.  Finally, it was time to move to the sell side.  On 11/13, we sold 200 more shares of USA Trucking (USAK) at 12.72.  We bought these in mid 2012 for an average price of 5.84.  On 11/14, we sold 100 shares of Conrad (CNRD) for 36.75.  We paid 1.30 on 4/26/05, and that price is not a typo.  On 11/14, we sold 200 shares of Marine Max (HZO) for 16.49.  We paid 5.32 for 100 on 7/14/08 and 12.20 for 100 on 9/27/13.  On 11/15, we bought 100 shares of Sabra (SBRAP) for 24.35.  Then on 11/19, we sold 200 more shares of USAK for 15.95.  We paid 5.41 on 6/14/12.   On 11/20, we sold 200 shares of Genie (GNE) at 11.91 that were spun off to us on 10/31/11 with a value some place in the 9's.  We'll have to figure out the cost basis at tax time, a process that will be a little easier since we have sold this year all the shares of the company that it was spun from.  So one way or another, we'll take credit for exactly what we paid.  Meanwhile, Genie keeps going up.  Also on 11/20, we bought 600 shares of Alumina (AWC) at 3.57.  Then it was time for the Dallas trip, and we'll pick up the post Dallas transactions in the next edition of musings, including the sale transaction where we finally threw in the towel on Hauppauge Digital and took a significant tax loss on that dog.   Again, neither redwavemusings nor its author are an investment advisor, and the securities and transactions mentioned here are only a log, not recommendations.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

 

Special trick or treat edition

The sadly misnamed Affordable Care Act pot is really boiling now.  Not only is the website a mess, but, as predicted here way back when, people are beginning to find that their insurance plans are not being grandfathered, so, in contrast to what the Prez and the Dems have been saying, you may well lose the insurance plan you have and like.  When the young "invincibles" can finally navigate the website and find out what it will cost to be insured, they will quickly calculate that they are better off going bare and paying the tax.   At that point the whole scheme falls apart.  And that's when the jig is up for Obama, the liberals and their progressive base.

Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I see socialized health care on the run almost everywhere.  It will probably not be possible to rebuild European private health care systems in the short run, but it may not be too late to save ours.
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Most people think the Wall Street Journal is a paper devoted to business, but regular readers know it is that plus so much more.  There are regular features on sports, the arts, residential and commercial real estate, health, etc;  everything you might see in a daily newspaper except the box scores, the racing results and your horoscope.

Recently, I have run across some interesting interviews with some of our favorite musical artists about their songs.  Here are excerpts from Marc Myers' April 26 story about The Four Tops breakthrough hit, Reach Out I'll Be There, written by Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier.  Dozier, surviving Tops vocalist Duke Fakir, and producer arranger Paul Riser were interviewed.

Dozier:  In the early summer of 1966, I walked into our small work space at Motown and heard Brian at the piano.  He liked composing in a ballad tempo - to feel and shape the melody.  When I asked what he was playing, he said he wasn't sure and didn't know where it should go next.  I suggested he pick up the tempo, and we played around with the song's introduction for about a half hour.  By then I had an idea...I wanted to create a mind trip - a journey of emotions with sustained tension, like a bolero.  To get this across, I alternated the keys, from a minor (key) Russian feel in the verse to a major (key) gospel feel in the chorus.  From the start, we knew "Reach Out" was for Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops...During their time away (on tour), we had to create...new material they could record for an album.  As soon as we had the song's melody down, I wrote lyrics for the chorus - "I'll be there, to always see you through."  I also wrote the story in the verses.  Eddie took my draft and turned it into a more polished story as I focused on production with Brian.  I wanted the song to explore the kinds of things women were going through and for Levi to come off as understanding and supportive.  I also wanted the lyrics to be phrased in a special way - as though they were being thrown down..  

Back in '66, we were listening a lot to Bob Dylan.  He was the poet then, and we were inspired by his talk-singing style on "Like a Rolling Stone."  We loved the complexity of his lyrics and how he spoke the lines and sang them in places.  We wanted Levi to shout-sing "Reach Out's" lyrics as a shout-out to Dylan.

Fakir: We first heard the song in the studio - just before we recorded it...Levi was Jackie Wilson's cousin and very talented with his voice.  He was a baritone with a tenor range and wasn't afraid to attempt any note.  For "Reach Out," Lamont purposefully put Levi at the top of his range, to make sure he'd have that cry and hunger and wailing in his voice...The hardest part was Levi working on the shout-singing.  The song was so different - he thought the Dylan approach Lamont wanted was a studio experiment, not the real thing.

Dozier: After the Tops finished the vocal tracks, Paul Riser came in and we worked on overdubbing "the sweetness" - strings, chorus, and other instruments that enhanced the song's personality.

Riser: Lamont and I decided to add a piccolo and flute to the intro.  The piccolo's piercing sound was essential.  It's like a siren and gets your attention right away.  It's also the sound of a heart crying...The hoof-beat drum pattern that follows  was made using timpani mallets on the plastic head of a tambourine without its little metal cymbals.  That sounded like a heartbeat speeding up and raised anticipation...Then the female backing voices were added echoing Levi's lines.  I also added strings to the song's chorus using classical chord inversions - to widen the sound.

Dozier: When we had everything on tape, we overdubbed a few last minute touches - like handclapping and a tambourine which emphasized a gospel feel.  All of us sang that shouted "Yah" just before Levi came in...to give the song a little shove forward.

Fakir: Two or three weeks later, Berry Gordy called in the Tops.  He said he was going to release our biggest hit.  We said, "Great, when are we going to record it?"  He said, "You already did."  We said, "Which one?"  He said, "Let me play you a little bit."  When we heard the opening  to "Reach Out," we begged him not to release it, to let us go down to the studio and record something else.  To us, the song felt a little odd.  Berry took it off and said, "I"m going to release it - and you're going to be surprised."

I first heard the song in September in my car.  By then it...was already heading up the charts.  I drove to the office and asked to see Berry who was in a meeting.  I walked in anyway...  I said, "Berry, please don't ever ask us again what we think of our records."

Me:  So think about this story the next time you hear Reach Out.  Better yet,, you can see Fakir and the current Tops on their tour.  They are scheduled to reach Westbury, Long Island (with the Temptations) this winter.
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I intend to excerpt another interview on next week's post, and I think it will be of at least equal interest.  In the meantime, if you've never seen Counting Crows in concert, go to countingcrows.com, scroll to the bottom of the screen, and click on the streaming (you tube) webcast of last spring's 2 hour show in Sydney, Australia.  You will see the whole show including encores.  Not as good as being there, but close enough.
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Jazz season really heats up in NYC as we head toward the holidays.  Here are redwavemusings' recommendations for November for the metro area. 
For those who love cabaret (and who doesn't), it won't get better than the husband-wife team of John Pizzarelli and singer Jessica Molaskey, who take up a residence of several weeks at the Cafe Carlyle starting last night.  Also, this weekend, the Gary Bartz Quintet features Vincent Herring on sax at Smoke where reservations are a must.  Also Arturo Sandoval should be selling out the Blue Note tonight.  Smalls has Ken Peplowski heading a quartet featuring Ehud Asherie on piano.  We saw them together at Kitano recently and it was pretty memorable.  Ted Nash has a big band at Dizzy's that will include Anat Cohen and Dan Willis.  Joe Farnsworth is not my favorite drummer, but when his quartet includes Harold Mabern (piano) and Eric Alexander (sax), that's worth a try even at a club I don't know way uptown (An Beal Bicht Cafe) Wednesday night.   The blog is not responsible for any muggings that might take place. 
Thursday night, Steve Kuhn leads a trio into Jazz Standard for the weekend.  On November 8-9, Vince Giordano backs the Ladies (who) Sing the Blues at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The competition comes from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark November 4-10.  Among the performers will be Sergio Mendes, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, the Anat Cohen Quartet and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.  On Wednesday evening the 13th, there will be the Cedar Walton Memorial at St. Peters, the Jazz Church.  November 14, George Cables' trio (including drummer Victor Lewis) begins a weekend at Dizzy's.  The Preservation Hall Jazz Band makes its way from the French Quarter to the Apollo Theater in Harlem for a gig on the 16th.  On the 19th, two week long gigs that I would love to see open up, Renee Rosnes Quartet at the Village Vanguard and Jane Monheit at the Blue Note.  The clubs are close enough, you might be able to do them both in one night.  Note, the Vanguard has moved its starting time up to 8:30.    On the 25th, the place to be if you can squeeze in will be Small's to see The Dave Kikoski Quartet with Seamus Blake (sax).    Steve Tyrell takes over the Cafe Carlyle that night.  Thanksgiving night, Wycliffe Gordon and Friends open up their weekend at Dizzy's.  And finally, on the weekend of the 29th, Smoke will be honoring the music of J.J. Johnson, as the Steve Davis Sextet will include Eddie Henderson and the aforementioned Alexander and Mabern.  With so much talent in such a small venue, let's hope they save some room for customers.
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On 10/23 we bought 200 more shares of News Corp (NWSA) at 16.92.  On 10/25, we bought 50 shares of Lindsey (LNN) at 73.65, a zero buy.  Then on 10/28, we bought another 20 shares of the TIPS ETF for the IRA (TIP) at 113.35.  Back from New Orleans, we bought 100 shares of Newmont Gold on the 31st (NEM) at 27.43 and sold 200 shares of USA Trucking (USAK) at 13.50.  We paid 6.26 for those shares on 5/21/12.  USAK continues to resist being taken over, adopting the "just say no" defense while its stock rises steadily.   

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