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Monday, February 14, 2011

 

Valentine's Day Muser

As the Middle East unrest spreads from North Africa to Iran, the Western world watches with a mixture of wonder, hope and trepidation. All three reactions are justified. The internet's social networks have made possible what tens of millions of dollars in western oriented news and propaganda could not do - bringing together the young and still hopeful in Arab lands to capsize authoritarian and sometimes brutal governments. We would hope that something better would replace enemy regimes in Syria, Libya, and Iran, bring civilization to the Sudan and Yemen, yet worry about what manner of political result will occur where authoritarians have been our allies as in Saudi Arabia. Will we have more democracy, and with a population thoroughly indoctrinated over the last 65 years, can democratic Islamic societies really emerge and make peace with Israel in their midst? Can an Islamist government really foster anything resembling a pluralistic society where individual freedoms can be respected for women, Christians and other non-Islamists?

The answers to these questions are probably unknowable, and our defanged CIA is not providing a clue. The Obama administration deserves some credit for its measured response, but at the same time, we wonder whether it is much more than an interested spectator. Somehow, we did seem to exercise enough influence to engineer the military takeover in Egypt, but really, that was the only alternative to anarchy.

It is useful to keep in mind that a lot of what is going on is less about democracy than it is about food prices and poverty. Once again, we need to be reminded that, progressive doctrine notwithstanding, economic freedom and the rule of law are the consistent bulwarks against poverty. If you think China's emergence as the world's second largest economy is evidence against that, think again. On a per capita basis, China is still one of the world's poorest countries, less than a tenth as wealthy as Japan.

Wouldn't it be interesting though if historians some day decide that what we are witnessing in the Arab lands is in fact a delayed reaction to the busting of the hegemony of autocrats that originated, in fact, with George W. Bush's Iraq incursion. Supporters of that effort claimed that democracy would spread around the Middle East as a result, and were ruthlessly derided for their optimism and strategic choices. Time will tell, but I continue to believe that Mr. Bush, though not one of the great Presidents, will continue to rise in stature as history provides better perspective.

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On a lighter note, last night's Grammy show was the usual wildly uneven attempt to provide something for all music genres, ultimately providing a few highlights for everyone and probably satisfying no one. For the younger set, the major cross genre awards provided a repeat of the Norah Jones nightmare, as country's Lady Antebellum's clean sweep of those awards was only prevented by Canadian pyrotechnical rock group Arcade Fire's win in the best album category. Otherwise, to the delight of those of us who prefer country to rap or nuclear holocaust rock, Lady's A's more traditional lyric and pleasing harmonies won the day, capturing Best Song, Best Record, and three other awards. They also provided a short medley that suitably demonstrated their talents.

Among the other performers, it was a decidedly mixed bag. There was a nice tribute to Aretha Franklin that started off the show, though none of the five singers from the various music genres that sang her tunes could even remotely approach the Queen of Soul herself. Justin Bieber may have some talents, but apparently none on the musical side, and his "performance" was just awful. Too bad Simon Cowell wasn't there and miked to provide an instant critique. I thought Cee-lo Green and Gwyneth Paltrow were surprisingly OK. When they rolled out Bob Dylan, he literally croaked through Maggie's Farm, an embarrassing performance where even his harmonica playing was pitiful. For those who think Dylan was really just a poet who could never sing nor perform live in an entertaining way, I suggest you review his performance in The Last Waltz, Scorsese's concert movie of The Band's farewell. The Dylan songs are a highlight among so many great moments in that film.

There was a beautiful rendition by Miranda Lambert of her song The House That Built Me (and she really is, by the way), which fittingly won the Grammy for best female country artist performance. But the highlight of the night was the ageless Mick Jagger, in a tribute to soul man Solomon Burke, bouncing around the stage like a 20 year old, singing strongly and clearly and rousing the audience to a fever pitch. Just incredible.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Barbara Streisand trying to sing Evergreen, not doing quite as badly as Dylan but close enough for discomfort.

As for Katy Perry, I don't get her at all. Her songs were performed poorly - I didn't think she was close to being in tune - she may be a female Justin Bieber. You would think that singing on key would be a minimum requirement for a live Grammy performance. Of course, pop stars who can sing OK on record but not live are not all that unusual. I always thought that one of my faves, Jimmy Ellis, who sang lead for Disco group the Trammps (Disco Inferno, etc.) sang flat when I heard him live.

It was nice that in the tribute to those who have passed on since the last show, the Grammy's remembered pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, the jazz teacher. I had met him when I was 16 at my cousin's bar mitzvah when I had the good fortune to sit at the same table with him. I knew nothing about him then except that, like a lot of jazz stars, he was my uncle's client. There are many in the jazz world, and many lovers of that music, who owe him debts that can never be repaid.

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We got some favorable reaction to our last post, and in response to reader's questions, we'll have more in the next post about what the next steps should be on health care reform. In the meantime, we'll watch the budget posturing in Congress and comment on that next time too.

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On Feb 7, we bought 200 shares of Peoples United Bancorp (PBCT) for the IRA at
13.29, a value buy. On 2/8, we sold 100 shares of Roper Industries (ROP) at 81.37. We bought the shares on 9/19/01 for 18.22. On 2/9 we bought 100 shares of Graham Corp. (GHM) for the IRA at 23.48, a "zero" buy. On 2/11 we bought 200 shares of the SPR Gold ETF (GLD) at 133.04, also for the IRA. Today, we sold 100 shares of Belden Corp. (BDC) from the IRA for 40.10. We bought them on 8/20/08 (before the swoon) for 38.63.

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