Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/30/14

A man's admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him.--deTocqueville

Of the Brics – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa –four of the five abstained in a UN vote condemning the fifth’s annexation of Crimea.

From The Economist: "Russian agents have turned up in custody and in reporters’ notebooks, organising the protests and, some say, paying for them. Russia has been meddling in eastern Ukraine for weeks, occasionally with results from the pages of Gogol. On April 6th “local people” stormed what they thought was the regional administrative headquarters in Kharkiv only to find that they had taken control of the opera house."

"In Praise of Hatred" by Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa is about the civil war between the Sunni majority and the minority Alawite Muslim government in Syria in the 1980's. It is exactly what the title sounds like, a novel about the internal and spiritual rewards of all consuming hatred.
Diversity is always really good and always has a lot to offer.

tractable: adjective: Easily handled, managed, or controlled. From Latin tractare (to handle), frequentative of trahere (draw). Earliest documented use: 1504. You can not read Faulkner without it.

FAA document listing cargo battery fires March 1991 to February 2014. A review showed this:
1991-2005: 50 non lithium battery incidents, 10 lithium battery incidents
2006 - February 2014: 23 non lithium battery incidents, 58 lithium battery incidents

Who was....John Wallis?
Salman Rushdie on Gabriel García Márquez: "The trouble with the term 'magic realism,' el realismo mágico, is that when people say or hear it they are really hearing or saying only half of it, 'magic,' without paying attention to the other half, 'realism.' But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn't matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It's because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works."

The oldest known jokebook is the Philogelos, a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the fourth century A.D.. Over half of the jokes are at the expense of intellectuals, or "egg heads." 

This is interesting. The island nation of Sri Lanka has ordered the deportation of a British tourist for arriving in the country sporting a Buddha tattooed on her arm. Authorities say the ink shows disrespect for religious feelings in the majority-Buddhist nation. This is not the first time this has happened to a Brit and several years age three French tourists were imprisoned for three months for kissing a Buddha statue.
Imagine if Christianity took itself as seriously as Buddhism or Islam.

After at least 200,000 years during which all humans lived as foragers, agricultural life appeared within just a few thousand years in parts of the world that had no significant contact with each other. It has been hard to explain because it seems to have been spontaneous and multi-focal; foraging works, is low tech and is adaptable while farming does not always work and is tied to the land.

Golden Oldie:

Nails from crucifixion victims were popularly worn as charms, around the neck, by both Jews and gentiles to ward off illness, so the later Christian use of crucificial relics was actually part of a long tradition.

In an interview recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke about his success in blunting the conservative movement's efforts to replace him: “Ideological people don’t give you a whole lot of money,” Graham said. So practical people without ideals do? There is another quality in the interview: His unsuccessful opponents do not like politics. They are disgusted by its process and feel demeaned by it. Those qualities select out a special and unlikeable group.

The nation's largest banks have paid legal charges and set aside suit related cash worth more than $100 billion. Most of these fines are related to the sub-prime disaster, the result of policy mandated by the government itself, and most of the fines seem to be related to the predictably bad loan nature of the enterprise. There was a lot of abuse in that feeding frenzy but very few indictments.

Democrats who dominate the legislature are moving to exempt Elon Musk's SpaceX and other space-travel companies from California's personal property tax.
David Einhorn, the astute manager from Greenlight, says we are officially in a bubble. In a letter to his investors he wrote: "Now there is a clear consensus that we are witnessing our second tech bubble in 15 years. What is uncertain is how much further the bubble can expand, and what might pop it. In our view the current bubble is an echo of the previous tech bubble, but with fewer large capitalization stocks and much less public enthusiasm."
Bill Clinton had a higher approval rating on leaving office — 37 points net positive — than Reagan (+34%), Eisenhower (+31%), Ford (+21%), Bush 41 (+19%), LBJ (+12%), Carter (-21%), Truman (-24%), Bush 43 (-27%), or Nixon (-42%).

The most cited line in poetry according to a Google analysis is Alexander Pope's ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ with nearly 15 million results. No Shakespeare line is in the top ten.

AAAAAaaaaaaannnnnnddddd......a picture of smog in China:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Malleus Maleficarum Trolls for Thee

Deviations from the norm are always noticed, deviations from the prescribed norm as well. But the prescribed norm has become strangely vigilant. And vindictive. It demands more than censure; it wants penalties. So Paula Dean is unable to say honestly she, in her life, has ever used the dreaded "n" word. Case closed. Fire her. Off with her head. A guy who runs a huge company contributes to a political group who wants to limit marriage to heterosexuals almost a decade ago. He is found out, revealed and forced to resign his job. (Of note, his political position was successful in its campaign with over 53% of voters. They have not been exposed or forced to resign as yet.)
Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, is in the center of a controversy over his urging a woman identified as his mistress at the time not to appear in public with black people. (The former mistress--who is reportedly black--apparently has one hundred hours of this man's conversations on tape--oh, and a book deal--following the new and modern career path of beauty pageant to sex-for-pay to extortion/literary tell-all to reality show.)
Sterling does not have a sterling history. His growth to wealth is spotted with events of almost comic idiocy. But we have no place in the culture for idiocy; what was formerly idiotic is now evil.
A recent article used Mr. Sterling as a bridge to evil behavior generally among basketball owners. Several were noted to be opposed to gay marriage. One miscreant was even said to have owned interests in fracking! All this evil, and so concentrated!
Makes sense. Everyone knows witches prefer covens.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Grading MOOCs

Selena Larson took a 5 week MOOC on Coursera entitled Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory And Practice. She believes traditional university classrooms are doomed and is interested in the problems we face in finding a good substitute. One big problem is on the student side; on Coursera, the average student retention rate is only 4%. No more than 51 percent of students passed Udacity’s online math program offered at San Jose State. Apparently the average MOOC completion rate is only 6.8 percent.  

She reports what one might expect: The course was casual and unmotivated. Something was missing in the tension between the student and the subject. But she reports another interesting problem that was unexpected in several ways. One can take these courses with no investment for free--the way a course might be audited for no grade--or one can be graded. She chose to be graded (one pays a few dollars and gets a certificate). The course grade depends upon a few easy quizzes--quizzes that can be retaken if one does poorly--and a few short essays. The quizzes are graded by computer but the essays are graded anonymously by the student's peers. 

The graders--her peers--savaged her. She failed all the essays and failed the course.

There are some interesting questions here. Is anonymity bad? Do students have competitive animosity? Are they just unqualified? Is the author unqualified? But there was an interesting insight. Ms. Larson wrote an essay on the Oklahoma City Bombing and in it used a letter Tim McVeigh wrote. Sounds pretty reasonable. Then she reveals that one reviewer declared the source meaningless because it was from Fox News. That disreputable news source, said the reviewer, invalidated all her other sources. But McVeigh wrote the letter to Fox News. That's where the letter was. One can debate the relative lack of bias--Fox, NYT, Washington Times--but this sounds very close-minded and bigoted, especially when Fox was the very source of the letter. It gets stranger. Ms. Larson then says "Normally I would have agreed with the commentator."

While the average MOOC completion rate at 6.8%, and the six most-completed courses relied on automatic testing, not peer review grading.
I'll bet.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Sermon 4/27/14

Today's gospel is the Doubting Thomas gospel, the New Testament statement on the limits of materialism and Christ's tolerant nod to science. It has, like so much of the Gospel, an ironic element. Talking across time, Christ's followers are not going to be reassured like Thomas; they will have to accept some things on the basis of faith.

Christ, importantly, does not dismiss Thomas' skepticism. Thomas is a rational guy with a big persona in the gospel. And he is brave. ( But he is a twin, a doppelganger, if you will. Doubt and faith are two sides of the same coin. He is as complex as man and men.

And this complexity allows Christ to break down the aspects of men, like a prism in the light.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/26/14

"We human beings always seek happiness. Now there are two ways. You can make yourself happy by making other people unhappy--I call that the logic of robbery. The other way, you make yourself happy by making other people happy--that's the logic of the market. Which way do you prefer?"-- Zhang Weiying

The reddened moon at the eclipse is caused by reflected dimmed reddened light of all the sunsets and sunrises filtering around the edges of planet Earth.

Bureau of Land Management is the federal agency charged with managing federal lands. That is nearly 300 million federal acres mostly in the West. That's an area equivalent to the second and fourth largest states combined, Texas and Montana. 84% of Nevada is owned by the federal government. This Bundy guy in Nevada is confronting the Bureau and he is clearly in the wrong. He has lost all his suits, every argument. And he does not pay his taxes which usually puts everyone  off. So, why are all these people riding pickups and horses to support him?

Golden oldie:

How do diplomats travel great distances and across great time swaths and not get goofy. Jet lag hits everyone; how do they travel and then make diplomatic decisions? Or are the strange quilts of international relations actually a reflection of terrible jet lag.

Hong and Zhao, two Asian economics professors, wrote an article published in the U.S. about media bias in reporting global warming. In a summary they write, "This article provides a rationale for this tendency. ... We find that the information manipulation has an instrumental value." Agriculture economist Jayson Lusk last month wrote the article "raised some questions about the ultimate desirability of information manipulation." It is a terrible problem when we do not understand or believe our betters. What else are they expected to do?

7 million people who signed up for the ACA is 2% of the population.

Who was.....James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps?

Elysium Fields: n. Paradise. The Greeks did not believe in a heaven and hell per se; instead, their dead went to the realm of the god Hades and became mere "shades." Elysium, also known as "Isle of the Blessed", was where the exceptional humans were sent upon their deaths. Terrible people ended up in Tartarus, the closest equivalent to hell in Greek mythology, where they were tortured. Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion were in Tartarus.

Lois Lerner headed the IRS division that handles applications for tax-exempt status. She refused to testify at a May 2013 hearing before Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) House Oversight Committee, and demanded immunity concerning her role in the scandal regarding the IRS' targeting of conservative groups. An internal investigation found Lerner guilty of “neglect of duties” and was going to call for her ouster. On April 9, 2014, the Ways and Means Committee referred Lois Lerner to the DOJ for criminal prosecution. On April 10, 2014, the House Oversight Committee voted to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress. New emails have surfaced showing Lerner was in contact with the Department of Justice, inquiring how these conservative groups might be prosecuted.
“These new emails show that the day before she broke the news of the IRS scandal, Lois Lerner was talking to a top Obama Justice Department official about whether the DOJ could prosecute the very same organizations that the IRS had already improperly targeted,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton.
While this is very partisan stuff on both sides, it is really very dangerous.

"[T]he potential of fully electric vehicles for the rest of my life and a good portion of the rest of your life will be limited,” said Steve Cannon, the head of Mercedes Benz USA in Forbes. He was criticizing Elon Musk’s electric-powered automaker Tesla.

There is talk that Chelsea Clinton is considering running for political office, possibly New York Mayor. How these things come to some one's mind is unclear. It is probably genetic. Her dad thought he should run for office. And her mom, too; that could be genetic but might be venereal.

It is estimated that 23% of income goes to regulatory costs.

Good news! There is a new economics hero, French economist Thomas Piketty. In a huge book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, he argues that the effect of capitalism is, in its essence, unequal and, in the absence of intervention, that inequality will be self generating. Of course, there is a formula, r >g, where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital (i.e. profits, dividends, interest, and rents) and g stands for the rate of economic growth. In other words, in a slow-growing economy, accumulated wealth grows faster than income from labor. So the rich, who already hold most of the wealth, will get richer, while everyone else, who depend mostly on income from their jobs, will be lucky to keep up with inflation.With the return of capital above the rate of economic growth--as it has been historically--the seeds of destruction are sown. In the time between 1945 and 1970, capitalism’s so-called Golden Age, the economies of Western Europe and the United States expanded and inequality declined. This period has left us with an erroneous optimism about capitalism. Marx was right about the destination, just not the journey.

What is going on between Conservatives and Progressives? Liberty preexists government is the position of the modern Conservative. Liberty is the basic. All of the substance of American government starts with the premise that liberty is the primary condition of the society; government emerges from that condition. The Progressive seems to believe that the nation was created on the basis of democracy, essentially a process of government itself; as democracy is a process of government, government must be the Progressive's "basic." So democracy--not once mentioned in the American Constitution--is the agent of American liberty where the Conservative believes that liberty is the agent of government.
A corollary of the Conservative position is that there are few liberties that the majority can take away simply because they have more votes.

In 1960, more than 76% of African-Americans and nearly 97% of whites were born to married couples. Today the percentage is 30% for blacks and 70% for whites. The out-of-wedlock birthrate for Hispanics surpassed 50% in 2006. This trend, coupled with high divorce rates, means that roughly 25% of American children now live in single-parent homes, twice the percentage in Europe (12%).

AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnn....a picture of 'My reply to the idiots who ask me to resume literary studies' … James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps.
James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Prince of Darkness on the Elevator

Many of our problems seem to stem from our willingness to avert our eyes from the essence, from the basics of the questions. Is the medical problem in the U.S. from the uninsured? Unfairness? Or, as Hillary said in her plan, do we simply use medical care more than we can afford; does our use of medical care have to decline? Should everyone get the same grades, expect the same success or are some people simply unequipped to succeed in the modern world? Can we trust our leaders to do the right thing or does the recurrent conflict of interest so often demonstrated by politicians infect the entire system, including apocalyptic weapon use? Are our social disparities a function of insensitivity and egocentricity or are the failures well earned? Do we have the personnel and the government system to right wrongs at all?

Years ago a social experiment was done testing the willingness of young women to enter an elevator. Actors were hired and made up to look as degenerate and depraved as one could expect out of an institution then put, one or several, in preassigned elevators in an office high-rise. Young women in the lobby of the building were subtly guided, individually, to the prearranged elevators. When the elevator doors opened, the woman was faced with the prospect of getting on the elevator with the dangerous looking man. The woman always got on the elevator.

Thus was demonstrated our species' willingness to risk death to be polite.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Armageddon Letter

The Chinese toy with Japan over a few desert islands, Putin flies warplanes at the British. One always wonders at political leaders, their willingness to challenge the status quo, their enthusiasm for the success of their "vision." Certainly this is often confused with their own success, but, regardless, both paths of success require the belief in a mandate that might simply fill a void but, more likely, will displace or replace another equally sacred "vision." Historically such conflicts had limited homicidal intent. The Plantagenet kings claimed control of the Aquitaine and periodically saw fit to kill a number of Frenchmen to prove their point. Apaches killed Navajo and Comanche killed Apaches, presumably over some perceived right to buffalo grazing land.

But the modern world has become more inclusive in its potential damage. The inhabitants of Nagasaki might well have hated Americans with the proper nationalistic fervor but were quite removed from the fighting--until the fighting quite removed them. These new, horrific weapons have unfortunately been placed in the hands of the same old horrific warlords; the evolution of the weapons have not been counterbalanced by a new and improved leader.

So what can we expect of leaders in this new world? Would the Khmer Rouge have risen above this new and murderous technology? What does a man like Putin think when he dances along the edge of conflict--conflict with no inherent controls--over something as trivial as the eastern Ukraine?

At moments like this it is wise to consider the behavior of previous such esteemed and noble leaders. In 1962, John F. Kennedy decided to overthrow Fidel Castro, the despotic leader of a tiny poverty-stricken nation. His efforts failed. The international communists saw an opportunity to press an advantage and, as a result, the Russians placed nuclear missiles along the coast of Cuba. So, for a tiny island known for casinos and poverty, the two largest nuclear powers in the history of humanity faced off. Kennedy had to resist the advice of his inner circle, which recommended attacking Cuba and, if necessary, the Russians. A famous quote--this from an advisor of the President of the United States--diminished American losses at "30 million, tops." On the other side of the standoff sat Khrushchev, a man who, in a rage, had taken off his shoe and pounded it on the table at the U.N.. Beside him sat Fidel Castro, Dr. Castro to the New York Times. In October, 1962, Dr. Castro wrote Khrushchev a request which became known in the Politburo as "The Armageddon Letter" recommending a full, preemptive, first strike nuclear attack on the United States from Cuba and Russia. Somehow the hotblooded Kennedy and the usually inebriated Khrushchev stayed their respective hands and humanity was saved. But only over the vehement objections of the esteemed Dr. Castro, who was the presumed representative of the Cuban people; his advice would have unquestionably ended Cuba and its people as an entity.

But great vision demands great sacrifice. History and destiny must be fulfilled.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/23/14

"There is unprecedented, I believe, influence on the media, not just the news, but the images you see everywhere, by well-orchestrated and financed campaign of special interests, political interests and corporations."--investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson

In past outbreaks, the Ebola death rate has been as high as 90 percent. In Guinea so far, about 60 percent of the 157 suspected cases have died. No one is sure why the survival rate is so much better but this area has been more accessible than other sites so prompt medical response, particularly volume maintenance, might be a factor. One creepy side note: The virus, after the victim survives, persists for months in semen and mother's milk so the victim might become a reservoir after his cure.
A charge of attempted murder against a nine-month-old baby was dropped during a court hearing in Pakistan.
Anthony Podesta made $13 million in lobbying income last year from clients like Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, U.S. Airways, Wal-Mart and the National Biodiesel  Board. His wife Heather's lobbying firm made $4 million from health companies, the American Beverage Association, and Brookfield Power. Podesta's brother, John Podesta, currently holds the high-ranking position of counselor to the president, and was White House chief of staff during Bill Clinton's second term.
Who is....Pamela Lyndon Travers?
The world's largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, is also the world's biggest single deposit of lithium, accounting for perhaps a third of the world's resources of this alkaline metal. Third after the gases hydrogen and helium on the periodic table, lithium contains just three protons each, making the lightest of all metals. And like its near kin, sodium and potassium, it will react spontaneously to water. It is tremendously energy dense, thus a terrific element for a battery.
Corporate tax rates in the U.S. are the highest among the developed nations. The average rate in America in 2013 was 39.13%; for all of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations is 28.2%. Senate Finance Committee chief Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, reported U.S. corporations now hold $2.1 trillion in earnings in overseas accounts, close to 12% of the U.S. gross domestic product. Returning that money would be quite a transfusion of money into the economy. Real money not newly created Fed debt. But there is a feeling against doing that, a belief that those companies should, somehow, pay.
In the dreaded gender income gap, the biggest disparity in incomes is between fathers and mothers. Is that a surprise? Is that the result of some subtle bigotry? In medicine, young male doctors earned much higher incomes than young female doctors. But young male doctors worked over 500 hours more per year than young female doctors. So.....should we mandate that the women make the same amount even if they work less? Or..should we make the men work less?
But this is the way one must think when all people are seen, not as equals, but as the same.
A routine inventory check at Paris' Pasteur Institute revealed that 2,349 tubes containing fragments of the virus responsible for the deaths of 774 people in 2002 were missing.
There is a movie out, made in India, called "The Lunchbox," about lunchbox delivery men in Mumbai called dabbawallahs who run arguably India's most efficient and trusted business. Every working day, for more than 125 years, they have transported hundreds of thousands of midday lunches back and forth from home kitchens and restaurants to office workers in the world's fourth most densely populated city. Harvard Business School commissioned a six-month study into the service in 2010 that showed only one in a million deliveries go awry. 
Golden oldie:
Karlan and Wood used variable solicitation techniques at Freedom from Hunger in a test of its direct marketing. This is from their abstract. First, larger gift amounts, holding education and income constant, is a proxy for altruism giving (as it is associated with giving more to fewer charities) versus warm glow giving (giving less to more charities). Second, those motivated by altruism will respond positively to appeals based on evidence, whereas those motivated by warm glow may respond negatively to appeals based on evidence as it turns off the emotional trigger for giving, or highlights uncertainty in aid effectiveness. 

Andreas Georgiou was assigned by the EU and the IMF to become the head of Elstat, Greece's new official statistical agency, to try to make sense out of the Greek economic statistics. He soon was accused of betraying the national interest, a crime that in theory carries a potential life sentence. 'I am being prosecuted for not cooking the books.' he said.
Ginny Weasley, the freckly redhead who later marries Harry Potter, grows up to be a sports journalist for the Daily Phophet, according to new writing from J.K. Rowling on the website Pottermore.
Ms. Sebelius is considering running against Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas. This is proof positive that politics is an isolated sport with no connection to ability, prior performance or reality. That the architect of the ACA could be seriously considered as a possibility for the Senate must mean something really bad.
CUNY intends to pay Paul Krugman $225,000, or $25,000 per month (over two semesters), to “play a modest role in our public events” and “contribute to the build-up” of a new “inequality initiative.” It is not clear, and neither CUNY nor Krugman was able to explain, what “contribute to the build-up” entails.
“You will not be expected to teach or supervise students,” the letter informs Professor Krugman, who replies: “I admit that I had to read it several times to be clear ... it’s remarkably generous.”

According to the U.S. Census website, in 2012 there were 103,087,000 full-time, year-round workers; of them, 16,606,000 worked for the government. Of the 86,429,000 Americans who worked full-time, year-round in the private sector, 77,392,000 were employed as wage and salary workers for private-sector. Approximately 52,000 worked full-time, year-round without pay in a family enterprise. 49,901,000 people received Social Security in the fourth quarter of 2011 and 46,440,000 received Medicare. There were also 5,098,000  received unemployment compensation. 3,178,000 veterans received benefits and 34,000 veterans got educational assistance. 108,592,000 people in the fourth quarter of 2011 lived in a household that included people benefiting from "one or more means-tested program."

Around 270 BC, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus measured the duration of lunar eclipses and, using geometry, he devised a simple and impressively accurate way to calculate the Moon's distance, in terms of the radius of planet Earth, from the eclipse duration.
AAAAAAAAaaaaaaannnnnddddd.....a picture of P.L. Travers:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Working Stiffs

Sherpas are ethnic nomads who settled in eastern Nepal; "Sherpa" means "eastern people." They are said to be of the "Red Hat Sect" of Tibetan Buddhism which emphasizes mysticism and local deities. Indeed their clans are filled with disparate gods and holy places with stories of treasure and sacred valleys. They hold Everest in great religious awe, calling it "The Mother of the World." As a group they are renown climbers, mountain men and guides. Everest, specifically, is filled with Sherpa lore; the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary were the first men to climb Everest in 1953.
The Sherpa is involved in every Everest climbing attempt. They are aides and companions to the professional foreign climber and they smooth the climb for the less talented, the less prepared and the amateur. Often they will climb ahead, mark the safe trail, build ladders, prepare rest areas, prepare a camp for the next leg up, place the supplies there then return to the camp below and lead the amateur climbers on the path they have laid out to the camp they have created--sometimes all in the same day.
The New York Times had a recent article decrying the apparent abuse of these stalwarts.

In the United States there are two groups of people, those who do not work and those who support them. For example, 43% of people in the United States do not pay taxes and 20% of people in the United States pay 90% of the taxes. These people who work to care for and support those who do not work should be called "Sherpas."

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Lunchbox: A Review

"The Lunchbox" is a movie built around the lunchbox delivery men in Mumbai. There are about 5,000 of them called the dabbawallahs who, without any technology, run arguably India's most efficient and trusted business. Every working day, for more than 125 years, they have transported hundreds of thousands of midday lunches back and forth from home kitchens and restaurants to office workers in the world's fourth most densely populated city. The lunches come in from all over by train, bus and bicycle into central clearing areas and are magically dispersed, like a low tech illiterate FedEx. Harvard Business School commissioned a six-month study of the service in 2010 that showed only one in a million deliveries go awry.
In "The Lunchbox" one goes awry. An unhappy, yearning housewife makes a special lunch to stimulate her passive husband's interest and it  goes to the wrong man, an older man in his declining years. Like a message in a bottle, two total strangers connect and a gentle, sweet relationship of mystery and fantasy develops. The lunchbox goes back and forth with increasingly personal messages as the difficult realities of their lives conflict more and more with their hopes and dreams mediated by the lunchbox. There is nothing innovative or surprising about the story; it follows a very predictable pattern (until its annoying ending, which is a surprise) but it is a thoroughly enjoyable study of two attractive, sincere people struggling with their problems in isolation with the growing, joining influence of the errant lunchbox. Some minor characters complement the basic story nicely. The male lead, Irrfan Khan, was in Slumdog and played the adult Pi; he is quite good. The female lead, Nimrat Kaur, is the stable focal point for the story that has a lot of personal distractions pulling at the attentions of the other characters. It is her first real film and she is terrific.
It is somewhat surprising as an Indian film, restrained and clean. There are a number of subtle overtones, religious and social, that are unavoidable but never intrude. This is a thoughtful, enjoyable film with admittedly limited aims and is well worth the time.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Sermon 4/20/14 Easter

For all its importance, Easter in the New Testament is treated more as a challenge to Christ's followers than the challenge to nature and the intellect that it is. There are several descriptions than vary considerably; in one the confused followers find a empty tomb with some linen fallen underfoot, some strangely, neatly folded. But in most the empty tomb is mediated by some extraordinary event or individual, earthquake or angel. Then the story seems to go into suspended animation. There is no cataclysmic epiphany. The realization is gradual--in typical biblical cosmic humor, the first witness are not even legal witnesses as they are women. Christ's astonishing miracle is made clear and defined slowly to various individuals, one at a time.
As befits a collision of the physical and the spiritual which results in a new supernatural order.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/19/14

The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong....The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I am not too sure." -H.L. Mencken, writer, editor, and critic (1880-1956)

"Arrant" is an adjective meaning thorough or complete. It has run a tortuous course. It is a variant of "errant," meaning wandering or vagrant, e.g. arrant thief or arrant knave. Over time the word began to be taken as an intensifier so an arrant fool was no longer a vagrant fool, but a complete fool. It has it origin in the Latin iterare (to journey).

Cesare Borgia was a terror. The son of Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), made Cardinal, the Duke of Valentinois he bullied, murdered and plundered his way through the riches of Italy. The Venetian ambassador reported back to his government, "Every night four or five men are discovered assassinated, bishops, prelates and others, so that all Rome trembles for fear of being murdered by the duke." The Orsini family was his special target. He spent much of his free time in outlandish orgies. He was terribly disfigured by syphilis and usually wore a mask. He died in battle at Navarre, leaving at least eleven illegitimate children. He was 31.

About 36% of all Web traffic is considered fake, the product of computers hijacked by viruses and programmed to visit sites, according to estimates cited recently by the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade group.Wall Street Journal,

The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) is a one-inch wide, three-inch long glass slide, but packed in a checkerboard pattern within the device are 388,000 probes set to detect more than 2,000 viruses and about 900 bacteria. The device can also detect multiple pathogens at the same time. It can be used for security but also for analysis. Disturbingly, it found a pig virus in a children's vaccine.

Who is....Abou Ben Adhem

Josh Hamilton is expected to spend the following six to eight weeks in recovery because he dove into first base and tore a ligament in his left thumb. He was hitting .462.

Keynesian economics (or Keynesianism) is the view that in the short run, especially during recessions, economic output is strongly influenced by aggregate demand (total spending in the economy). Government can step in and artificially stimulate demand when demand naturally turns down. This is done through the issuing of debt. But doesn't debt just move the aggregate demand forward? Doesn't debt just displace consumption from the future into the present? Isn't that sort of stealing from the future? Will that mean that the aggregate demand that had been displaced will have to be made up by government stimulus?

Coca-Cola was developed while looking for an antidote to the common morphine addictions that followed the Civil War: Veteran and pharmacist John Stith Pemberton concocted the original Coca-Cola mixture while experimenting with opiate-free painkillers to soothe his own war wounds. The company’s first advertisement ran on the patent-medicine page of the Atlanta Journal in 1886, and made it clear that Coca-Cola was viewed as a health drink, “containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant (Cocaine) and the famous Cola nuts (Caffene).” Recipes suggest about 0.01 grams of cocaine used in fountain sodas.

"In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries."--Harvard study including Nathaniel Hendren.

A United Nations affiliate organization sent two representatives—one from France and one from Armenia—to monitor Tennessee elections in 2012 because the state had enacted a law requiring a photo identification for voting. Read that again.

Jane Jacob was the great critic of the modern tendency to bleach and plan cities colorless in her Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities. Her four rules: "To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable: 1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common. 2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. 3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained. 4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purpose they maybe there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence."

Golden oldie:

A Norwegian study on income recently demonstrated that age factors are significant across a range of countries and that when you adjust for age, income inequality (with the exception of the extreme 1/10 of 1%) narrows dramatically. Interestingly, high-income households have more than four times as many wage earners (on average) as poor households. And married and thus two-earner households make more than single-person households. Ditto higher education and delay of pregnancy.

"In the kitchen, the egg is neither ingredient nor finished dish, but rather a singularity with 1,000 ends. Scrambled eggs and angel food cake and ice cream and aioli and popovers and gougeres and macaroons and a gin fizz aren't separate entities. They're all part of the egg continuum. They are all one thing. The egg is a lens through which to view the entire craft of cooking. By working our way through the egg, we become powerful cooks. "--Michael Rulhman, who won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2012


Friday, April 18, 2014

Baseball Practice: A Fable

A teenage baseball team was practicing in the field before a playoff game and the second baseman made several clownish plays, purposely throwing the ball badly. In the game he accidentally made a bad throw that cost them the game.
Moral: you can practice making mistakes, too.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Baby Jackson

A friend's 12 year-old daughter brought "Baby Jackson" home for the weekend. Baby Jackson is a technological doll, a project of every student in "Home and Consumer Science" class in seventh grade. (This used to be an assignment for high-schoolers.) There are boy and girl dolls, white, Asian, Black and Hispanic dolls. Baby Jackson has many position and pressure sensors, coos, cries to be fed, needs burped, has sensors signaling a need for a diaper change and the student's response to signals and circumstances are computerized and logged. Every student, girls and boys, has the assignment of having Baby Jackson for one weekend during the course and their grade depends  on their performance with the doll's demands. (This girl did not go out the weekend and was up 6 times with the doll Saturday night.)
The purpose of this exercise was not clarified.
View photo.JPG in slide show
Baby Jackson at rest

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/16/14

"Education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”--Sugata Mitr
Centaur-class minor planets are small Solar System bodies that orbit the sun between the orbits of the outer planets.  The distant asteroid 10199 Chariklo has a diameter of about 250 kilometers and is the largest of the centaurs. It recently was found to have at least two orbiting rings. It orbits the Sun between Saturn and Uranus.
The Revolution liberated the Americans from many things, one was protection by the British navy. North African pirates were constantly taking American ships and the Americans had no real military to oppose them. The Americans chose ransom as their solution.  Under the Treaty of Marrakesh in 1786, the sultan of Morocco freed the American merchant ship Betsey and its crew from Tangier for $30,000 (about $712,000 in 2010 dollars) and promised to protect American shipping and encourage commerce between the two countries. Barclay insisted that there would be no annual tribute. Ratified by Congress on July 18, 1787, this was the first treaty between the United States and an African, Arab, or Muslim nation
Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist who has developed a scoring system for psychopathology. He says that about 1% of the population has psychopathic tendencies.
What is....Bletchley Park?
Tax Freedom Day is the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for year. Tax Freedom Day divides all federal, state, and local taxes by the nation’s income. In 2014, Americans will pay $3.0 trillion in federal taxes and $1.5 trillion in state taxes, for a total tax bill of $4.5 trillion, or 30.2 percent of income. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 21, or 111 days into the year.
An argument is developing in the House over Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray's suit against Ally Bank and other car lenders. The CFPB alleges lending has a "disparate impact" on minorities. But the industry doesn't identify borrowers by race so, presumably, investigators would have to guess their minority status. The implication is that basic good lending practice eliminates people; well , of course it does. But here, perhaps, there are a disproportionate number of minorities who do not qualify for financial reasons, not racial. Is that the bank's fault? Is that de facto bigotry? Or is this just another way to rub resentment raw?
Aphorism (n.): interesting word meaning a short, pithy statement containing a truth of general importance. From 1520s; from Late Latin aphorismus, from Greek aphorismos "definition, pithy sentence," from aphorizein "to mark off, divide," from apo- "from" (see apo-) + horizein "to bound" ( "horizon" has the same base, "boundary.").
James Naismith graduated from the theological college at Montreal's McGill University and joined the group of thinkers with "muscular Christianity," accepting athletics as a legitimate means of exercise. He hoped to use it as a way of delivering Christian message as well. He was particularly interested in a game that could be played indoors in the winter and had none of the contact of football or soccer. As a child in Onterio he had played a game where stones were thrown to land and stay on a large rock. Using that as an image, he invented basketball.

The poet Robert Burns was not carried away by his renown. "When proud misfortune's ebbing tide recedes," he wrote in one letter, "you will bear me witness, that when my bubble of fame was at the highest, I stood, unintoxicated, with the inebriating cup in my hand, looking forward with rueful resolve to the hastening time when the blow of Calumny should dash it to the ground, with all the eagerness of vengeful triumph." His mother stressed the emptiness of the "bubble of fame." In response to one of the first statues erected to her son (he is reputed to have, with Columbus and Lenin (for a while), the most statues in the world) she is reported to have quoted scripture: "Aye, asked for bread and they've given ye a stone." Moms are tough.
An argument started by Clinton has been that the terrorist acts plaguing the world are criminal and should be dealt with by courts. The Muslim convert, Adebolajo, who hacked the British soldier, Fusilier Rigby, to death with a meat cleaver, has filled an appeal of his life sentence conviction of murder claiming his act was a military operation and that he was a "soldier of Allah".
Golden Oldie:
Vessels classified as participating in  illegal, unregulated and under reported fishing are designated as such because they regularly ignore domestic and international fishing laws, fish in areas closed or restricted to commercial fishing, target endangered and at-risk species, and use illegal gear. A recent UBC study places the size of such fishing at between $1 billion and $2 billion annually, or between 15% and 26% of the total value of wild-caught imports.
Charles Darwin’s last book, published in 1881, was a study of the earthworm. His book before that was The Power of Movement in Plants (1880).
In his definitive book, Models of Madness, John Read, a clinical psychologist at Liverpool University, showed that in the 10 studies testing the matter, the more extreme the childhood adversity in the home--by the parents either with abuse or the lack of love, the greater the risk of adult psychosis. can always wonder if parents prone to that behavior bring bad genes to the table as well.
AAAAAAaaaaannnnndddddd.....the family tree of House Targaryen:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15th, a Significant Day (Redux)

We Americans stupidly recognize this day as the day taxes are due. So we emphasize money and materialism over greatness of mind and soul, greatness that was both a product of and an influence upon the nation. Taxes are trivial compared to what happened on this day in 1865. President Lincoln was shot by Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 and died the next morning. Secretary of State Seward was brutally assaulted as was his son. There is good evidence that General Grant was stalked to his train the same night by the conspirators. This occurred 5 days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox and doomed the South to a reconciliation with the North shepherded by the usual political wolves. More importantly it deprived the nation and politics of the high standard of mind and spirit Lincoln embodied.

Tolstoy on Lincoln:
“.... how largely the name of Lincoln is worshiped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.

“Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together.

“We are still too near to his greatness,” Tolstoy concluded, “but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do.

“His genius is still too strong and too powerful for the common understanding, just as the sun is too hot when its light beams directly on us.”

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Gap in More than Wages

"Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014 it's an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job." Thus spake Obama in the State of the Union Address in 2014. He reiterated this position recently in a weekend address.

Yet in 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor found that, after controlling for education and job differences, the gender "wage gap" shrank to only 95% and much of the difference was attributed to personal choices: "A greater percentage of women than men tend to work part-time. Part-time work tends to pay less than full-time work. A greater percentage of women than men tend to leave the labor force for childbirth, childcare and elder care....Some of the wage gap is explained by the percentage of women who were not in the labor force during previous years, the age of women, and the number of children in the home....Women, especially working mothers, tend to value 'family friendly' workplace policies more than men. Some of the wage gap is explained by industry and occupation, particularly, the percentage of women who work in the industry and occupation."

More, much of the literature, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics Highlights of Women's Earnings, focus on wages rather than total compensation which misses a lot of the motivation for women seeking work. "Research indicates that women may value non-wage benefits more than men do, and as a result prefer to take a greater portion of their compensation in the form of health insurance and other fringe benefits," again the Department of Labor.

Some politicians rise above criticism or close analysis. For some reason we give leaders a break; Tonkin aside, we never see our leaders as opposed to our better interests. But this kind of repetitive insincerity must, at some point, be dealt with. This is simple agitprop, "The twin strategies of agitation and propaganda," so typical of self centered dictatorships. And facile street organizers. When seen in conjunction with speeches like Obama's Stafford Act Speech at Hampton University (, what might be excused as an abberaton appears to be more of a technique.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/11/14

"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen. Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil."
- From an essay by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, "That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen"

The State Department’s Inspector General Steve Linick warned “significant financial risk and a lack of internal control at the department has led to billions of unaccounted dollars over the last six years.

So the U.S. is now upset over the word "bossy." A lot of celebrities certainly are and I suppose that proves it. It seems some think this is a criticism of young girls that cramps their development. We have begun banning words, can thoughts and beliefs be far behind? Not so far fetched with the recent resignation of Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla. Eich contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign in California in an attempt to outlaw gay marriage 6 years ago. This was a legal question and legitimate debate--and, incidentally, Obama was opposed to gay marriage at the time. Because of the revelation of that position, Eich was forced out. (In fairness, this was not entirely political but economic as people threatened boycott of the company.)
But "bossy, " like the dreaded "N word," shows a willingness toward censorship, remarkably prominent in the entertainment/artistic industry. Anyway, anything that attacks a tenet of "Peanuts" cannot be of value.

DNA introduces information into nature.

Fairness is a complicated notion. Does the soldier under fire for his country think the grocer at home is doing his fair share? Does the farmer think the local drunkard is? What about the ICU nurse on a 12 hour shift; does she think the tenured professor teaching one hour a week is?
There's a big difference between getting your fair share and doing your fair share but it seems reasonable that the opening of one door opens the other. And receiving a fair share can be achieved by force while contributing a fair share can only be encouraged.
The first two Iranian oil leases went to......Russia and China.
Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, a decorated soldier who fought at Gettysburg, killed his wife's lover, Philip Keys (the son of Francis Scott Keys) and was acquitted with America's first successful temporary insanity defense.

Drama: As standards become more individualized, so do ideals. Drama is difficult without some ideal so, with declining standards, drama becomes less universal, more particular and tribal. Since the drama may not involve the audience, it must become more intense to be of interest.

Who was....Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili?

Another lost book. A book by historian Will Durant, who died in 1981, will be published in December by Simon & Schuster. It was found last year in his granddaughter's attic.

At least 10 million men died in WWI; more than twice that number were seriously injured. Those who bore mental scars for the remainder of their lives are uncounted, as are the civilians who died or who were damaged by bereavement or dislocation. The war destroyed empires (some quickly, some more slowly), created fractious new nation-states, gave a sense of identity to the British dominions, forced America to become a world power and led directly to Soviet communism, the rise of Hitler, the second world war and the Holocaust. The turmoil in the Middle East has its roots in the world it spawned. As Fritz Stern, a German-American historian, put it, the conflict was “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang”. (From March 29th Economist that has a review of new books out on the War.)

Under law, any U.N. agency that recognizes "Palestine" has its U.S. funds cut off.

"Koch Industries was the only major producer in the ethanol industry to argue for the demise of the ethanol tax credit in 2011. That government handout (which cost taxpayers billions) needlessly drove up food and fuel prices as well as other costs for consumers—many of whom were poor or otherwise disadvantaged."---Charles Koch

Golden Oldie:

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating high-speed trading for possible insider trading, giant brain Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers. This after high-speed trading has been the topic of every single investment house in the nation for years and Lewis has published a book on it. No front-running here.
Amazon: n: A strong, husky woman; From a mythical race of warrior women, although there have been graves of Sarmatian war chiefs who were female found in the area of the Black Sea. The word Amazon itself is Greek for "breastless" as it was believed that Amazons severed a breast in order to shoot an arrow with greater ease.

There are an estimated three million undiscovered shipwrecks scattered on the oceans' floor across the world, some of which are thousands of years old.

Giancarlo Stanton's 1st-inning HR 4/4/14 was calculated at 484 feet. Most baseball historians seem to agree that Mickey Mantle owns the longest home run ever hit. Some argue that he once hit a baseball 734 feet at Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1963. Others say Mantle's blast off Chuck Stobbs at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C in 1953 was measured at 565 feet, making it the official longest home run.

A portfolio composed of three broad-based, low-cost mutual funds from Vanguard Group—40% in the Vanguard Total Stock MarketIndex Fund(VTSMX), 20% in the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund(VGTSX) and 40% in the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX)—beat 5,000 variations of similarly composed portfolios of actively managed funds more than 80% of the time over a 16-year period (1997-2012), according to a recent study by Rick Ferri. The point is diversification and low cost.

AAAAAnnnnnnnnddddd......Hillary and Bill in the 70's:

Friday, April 11, 2014

By Society's Fruit....

Mindless violence by children against strangers--this world is becoming a bit harder to understand. There are facile suggestions--video games, bullying, the destruction of the family--but social influences are very hard to isolate as cause. Certain small changes with big impact like the wheel, the stirrup or the short sword can be seen as factors in the movement of peoples but how does one isolate a factor the influences the behavior of an individual?
I have one: What are the implications of a child growing up in a world of complete uncertainity, where norms are discouraged to the point of irrationality and the laws of nature are beyond our reach. Even science hedges. One and one is very likely to be two. There are infinite universes but we cannot see them or examine them and never will. Everyone is equal. String theory. All of these notions might be true but they are equally beyond rational existence. Everyone knows that only five or six people understand string theory; it is not a thought, it is an equation. Everyone knows that equality doesn't exist, even between twins. The enlightenment was supposed to free us from this but we have circled back: The average man sits in a world that is as mysterious to him and as unreasonable as the world of the native worshipping the volcano god but without the reassurance of the god.
Our world is not so horrible as to drive men mad. But other times were. The Black Death, the Mongols, WWI and WWII, extermination camps--we have had a history of horrors that might make any sane man question existence. But these are not new and this behavior seems to be. Perhaps it is nothing more than a statistical blip, a couple of outliers on the bell curve getting publicity. Perhaps this has been a factor in all societies, its just that our wackos are better armed.
But it does not feel that way.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Warren Buffett's Essay in Fortune

FORTUNE -- "Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike." --Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

It is fitting to have a Ben Graham quote open this essay because I owe so much of what I know about investing to him. I will talk more about Ben a bit later, and I will even sooner talk about common stocks. But let me first tell you about two small nonstock investments that I made long ago. Though neither changed my net worth by much, they are instructive.
This tale begins in Nebraska. From 1973 to 1981, the Midwest experienced an explosion in farm prices, caused by a widespread belief that runaway inflation was coming and fueled by the lending policies of small rural banks. Then the bubble burst, bringing price declines of 50% or more that devastated both leveraged farmers and their lenders. Five times as many Iowa and Nebraska banks failed in that bubble's aftermath as in our recent Great Recession.
In 1986, I purchased a 400-acre farm, located 50 miles north of Omaha, from the FDIC. It cost me $280,000, considerably less than what a failed bank had lent against the farm a few years earlier. I knew nothing about operating a farm. But I have a son who loves farming, and I learned from him both how many bushels of corn and soybeans the farm would produce and what the operating expenses would be. From these estimates, I calculated the normalized return from the farm to then be about 10%. I also thought it was likely that productivity would improve over time and that crop prices would move higher as well. Both expectations proved out.

I needed no unusual knowledge or intelligence to conclude that the investment had no downside and potentially had substantial upside. There would, of course, be the occasional bad crop, and prices would sometimes disappoint. But so what? There would be some unusually good years as well, and I would never be under any pressure to sell the property. Now, 28 years later, the farm has tripled its earnings and is worth five times or more what I paid. I still know nothing about farming and recently made just my second visit to the farm.
In 1993, I made another small investment. Larry Silverstein, Salomon's landlord when I was the company's CEO, told me about a New York retail property adjacent to New York University that the Resolution Trust Corp. was selling. Again, a bubble had popped -- this one involving commercial real estate -- and the RTC had been created to dispose of the assets of failed savings institutions whose optimistic lending practices had fueled the folly.
Here, too, the analysis was simple. As had been the case with the farm, the unleveraged current yield from the property was about 10%. But the property had been undermanaged by the RTC, and its income would increase when several vacant stores were leased. Even more important, the largest tenant -- who occupied around 20% of the project's space -- was paying rent of about $5 per foot, whereas other tenants averaged $70. The expiration of this bargain lease in nine years was certain to provide a major boost to earnings. The property's location was also superb: NYU wasn't going anywhere.
I joined a small group -- including Larry and my friend Fred Rose -- in purchasing the building. Fred was an experienced, high-grade real estate investor who, with his family, would manage the property. And manage it they did. As old leases expired, earnings tripled. Annual distributions now exceed 35% of our initial equity investment. Moreover, our original mortgage was refinanced in 1996 and again in 1999, moves that allowed several special distributions totaling more than 150% of what we had invested. I've yet to view the property.
Income from both the farm and the NYU real estate will probably increase in decades to come. Though the gains won't be dramatic, the two investments will be solid and satisfactory holdings for my lifetime and, subsequently, for my children and grandchildren.
I tell these tales to illustrate certain fundamentals of investing:
  • You don't need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren't, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don't swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick "no."
  • Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don't feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset's future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn't necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.
  • If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating. There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.
  • With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field -- not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.
  • Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle's scathing comment: "You don't know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.")
My two purchases were made in 1986 and 1993. What the economy, interest rates, or the stock market might do in the years immediately following -- 1987 and 1994 -- was of no importance to me in determining the success of those investments. I can't remember what the headlines or pundits were saying at the time. Whatever the chatter, corn would keep growing in Nebraska and students would flock to NYU.
There is one major difference between my two small investments and an investment in stocks. Stocks provide you minute-to-minute valuations for your holdings, whereas I have yet to see a quotation for either my farm or the New York real estate.

It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings -- and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his -- and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state -- how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming.
Owners of stocks, however, too often let the capricious and irrational behavior of their fellow owners cause them to behave irrationally as well. Because there is so much chatter about markets, the economy, interest rates, price behavior of stocks, etc., some investors believe it is important to listen to pundits -- and, worse yet, important to consider acting upon their comments.
Those people who can sit quietly for decades when they own a farm or apartment house too often become frenetic when they are exposed to a stream of stock quotations and accompanying commentators delivering an implied message of "Don't just sit there -- do something." For these investors, liquidity is transformed from the unqualified benefit it should be to a curse.

A "flash crash" or some other extreme market fluctuation can't hurt an investor any more than an erratic and mouthy neighbor can hurt my farm investment. Indeed, tumbling markets can be helpful to the true investor if he has cash available when prices get far out of line with values. A climate of fear is your friend when investing; a euphoric world is your enemy.
During the extraordinary financial panic that occurred late in 2008, I never gave a thought to selling my farm or New York real estate, even though a severe recession was clearly brewing. And if I had owned 100% of a solid business with good long-term prospects, it would have been foolish for me to even consider dumping it. So why would I have sold my stocks that were small participations in wonderful businesses? True, any one of them might eventually disappoint, but as a group they were certain to do well. Could anyone really believe the earth was going to swallow up the incredible productive assets and unlimited human ingenuity existing in America?
When Charlie Munger and I buy stocks -- which we think of as small portions of businesses -- our analysis is very similar to that which we use in buying entire businesses. We first have to decide whether we can sensibly estimate an earnings range for five years out or more. If the answer is yes, we will buy the stock (or business) if it sells at a reasonable price in relation to the bottom boundary of our estimate. If, however, we lack the ability to estimate future earnings -- which is usually the case -- we simply move on to other prospects. In the 54 years we have worked together, we have never forgone an attractive purchase because of the macro or political environment, or the views of other people. In fact, these subjects never come up when we make decisions.

It's vital, however, that we recognize the perimeter of our "circle of competence" and stay well inside of it. Even then, we will make some mistakes, both with stocks and businesses. But they will not be the disasters that occur, for example, when a long-rising market induces purchases that are based on anticipated price behavior and a desire to be where the action is.
Most investors, of course, have not made the study of business prospects a priority in their lives. If wise, they will conclude that they do not know enough about specific businesses to predict their future earning power.
I have good news for these nonprofessionals: The typical investor doesn't need this skill. In aggregate, American business has done wonderfully over time and will continue to do so (though, most assuredly, in unpredictable fits and starts). In the 20th century, the Dow Jones industrial index advanced from 66 to 11,497, paying a rising stream of dividends to boot. The 21st century will witness further gains, almost certain to be substantial. The goal of the nonprofessional should not be to pick winners -- neither he nor his "helpers" can do that -- but should rather be to own a cross section of businesses that in aggregate are bound to do well. A low-cost S&P 500 index fund will achieve this goal.

That's the "what" of investing for the nonprofessional. The "when" is also important. The main danger is that the timid or beginning investor will enter the market at a time of extreme exuberance and then become disillusioned when paper losses occur. (Remember the late Barton Biggs's observation: "A bull market is like sex. It feels best just before it ends.") The antidote to that kind of mistiming is for an investor to accumulate shares over a long period and never sell when the news is bad and stocks are well off their highs. Following those rules, the "know-nothing" investor who both diversifies and keeps his costs minimal is virtually certain to get satisfactory results. Indeed, the unsophisticated investor who is realistic about his shortcomings is likely to obtain better long-term results than the knowledgeable professional who is blind to even a single weakness.
If "investors" frenetically bought and sold farmland to one another, neither the yields nor the prices of their crops would be increased. The only consequence of such behavior would be decreases in the overall earnings realized by the farm-owning population because of the substantial costs it would incur as it sought advice and switched properties.
Nevertheless, both individuals and institutions will constantly be urged to be active by those who profit from giving advice or effecting transactions. The resulting frictional costs can be huge and, for investors in aggregate, devoid of benefit. So ignore the chatter, keep your costs minimal, and invest in stocks as you would in a farm.

My money, I should add, is where my mouth is: What I advise here is essentially identical to certain instructions I've laid out in my will. One bequest provides that cash will be delivered to a trustee for my wife's benefit. (I have to use cash for individual bequests, because all of my Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) shares will be fully distributed to certain philanthropic organizations over the 10 years following the closing of my estate.) My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard's. (VFINX)) I believe the trust's long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors -- whether pension funds, institutions, or individuals -- who employ high-fee managers.
And now back to Ben Graham. I learned most of the thoughts in this investment discussion from Ben's book The Intelligent Investor, which I bought in 1949. My financial life changed with that purchase.
Before reading Ben's book, I had wandered around the investing landscape, devouring everything written on the subject. Much of what I read fascinated me: I tried my hand at charting and at using market indicia to predict stock movements. I sat in brokerage offices watching the tape roll by, and I listened to commentators. All of this was fun, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't getting anywhere.

In contrast, Ben's ideas were explained logically in elegant, easy-to-understand prose (without Greek letters or complicated formulas). For me, the key points were laid out in what later editions labeled Chapters 8 and 20. These points guide my investing decisions today.
A couple of interesting sidelights about the book: Later editions included a postscript describing an unnamed investment that was a bonanza for Ben. Ben made the purchase in 1948 when he was writing the first edition and -- brace yourself -- the mystery company was Geico. If Ben had not recognized the special qualities of Geico when it was still in its infancy, my future and Berkshire's would have been far different.
The 1949 edition of the book also recommended a railroad stock that was then selling for $17 and earning about $10 per share. (One of the reasons I admired Ben was that he had the guts to use current examples, leaving himself open to sneers if he stumbled.) In part, that low valuation resulted from an accounting rule of the time that required the railroad to exclude from its reported earnings the substantial retained earnings of affiliates.

The recommended stock was Northern Pacific, and its most important affiliate was Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. These railroads are now important parts of BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), which is today fully owned by Berkshire. When I read the book, Northern Pacific had a market value of about $40 million. Now its successor (having added a great many properties, to be sure) earns that amount every four days.
I can't remember what I paid for that first copy of The Intelligent Investor. Whatever the cost, it would underscore the truth of Ben's adage: Price is what you pay; value is what you get. Of all the investments I ever made, buying Ben's book was the best (except for my purchase of two marriage licenses).
Warren Buffett is the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. This essay is an edited excerpt from his annual letter to shareholders.
This story is from the March 17, 2014 issue of Fortune.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Cab Thoughts 4/9/14

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. -Grace Hopper, computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral (1906-1992)

Doyle New York will auction a rare and important Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian cuneiform cylinder. The clay cylinder describes the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II and dates to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BC. At 8.25 inches in length, it is the largest example to come to market in recent times and is estimated at $300,000-500,000. Nebuchadnezzar defeated a combined force of the Egyptians (under the Pharaoh Necho) and Assyrians at Carchemish in an epic battle that consolidated his control over the region, and severely reduced the power of Egypt, which fell under his sway. That battle effectively finally extirpated the Assyrian empire, for almost two thousand years a major force in the region. He waged successful campaigns against most of his neighboring states, including Phoenicia, Philistia, Judah, Ammon, Moab, and others, and in doing so acquired vast wealth and power. Nebuchadnezzar II built The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate.

What was......the Kowloon Walled City?

99.1% of lead acid batteries are recycled back into batteries.

The Chinese yuan has become the second most-used currency in global trade finance, replacing the euro. Last year the UK and Chinese central banks signed a three-year currency swap arrangement worth 200 billion yuan which allows them to swap currencies and can be used by firms to settle trade in local currencies rather than in US dollars.

In 2012 the G-8 accounted for 50.1% of nominal global GDP. Canada was originally left out of the G6 and then Russia made it G8. Interestingly, the G8 is made up only of northern hemisphere nations, not one southern nation. China, Brazil, and India actually occupy places 2, 7 and 10 on the list of the world’s largest economies with Canada 11th and Australia 12th.

Golden Oldie:

Wagging the goat in Turkey: Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan has blocked the access of his electorate to both Twitter and YouTube. Why? Because the social media sites leaked a recording of his government planning a false-flag war with Syria to increase support behind him. These politicians are willing to fake a war and kill people to raise their approval ratings! How do you say "Tonkin" in Turkish? Erdogan blamed the leak on "an act of terrorism." Do these tyrants all go to the same conferences and take the same courses? When will we be free of these people?

Jeremy Grantham, the co-founder of money management firm GMO, called Fed chairman Yellen "ignorant" in a recent NYT interview. He expanded his opinion in Fortune. He argues there is no evidence that low interest rates improve the economy but some evidence it improves stock prices. So will there be a discussion? Probably not.

James Van Allen discovered radiation belts held in two loose shells around the earth by its gravitation. This radiation has been captured from solar wind and other passing energy. The belts contain energetic electrons that form the outer belt and a combination of protons and electrons that form the inner belt. The belts endanger satellites, which must protect their sensitive components with adequate shielding if their orbit spends significant time in the radiation belts.

Adonis: meaning a handsome young man. Adonis was a beautiful youth whom the goddess of love, Aphrodite, eventually fell in love with. Adonis was killed by Aphrodite's other lover Ares , disguised as a boar.

Shirley Polykoff was a junior copywriter when she was given the Clairol account. The product the company was launching was Miss Clairol, the first hair-color bath that made it possible to lighten, tint, condition, and shampoo at home, in a single step When the Clairol sales team demonstrated their new product at the International Beauty Show, in the old Statler Hotel in front of thousands of beauticians jammed the hall. 'They were astonished,' recalls Bruce Gelb, who ran Clairol for years, along with his father, Lawrence, and his brother Richard. 'This was to the world of hair color what computers were to the world of adding machines.
Polykoff took her mother-in-law's dismissive comment, 'Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure' and made it their ad line.
From the fifties to the seventies, when Polykoff gave up the account, the number of American women coloring their hair rose from 7 percent to more than 40 percent.

AAAAAaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnddddddd.......a picture of Kowloon City in Hong Kong which, before it was demolished in 1994, was considered the densest settlement on earth, with 33,000 people living within the space of one city block:
Before it was demolished in 1994, Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong was considered the densest settlement on earth, with 33,000 people living within the space of one city block.