Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Back to School: Get Back to Basics

This week marked the first day of school for many students and parents. Time to get back in the groove. Teachers, by the way, have been at it for a few weeks, ahead of the start of the semester.

I just came across an astounding story in the next issue of Time Magazine. And I want to construct the proper context in which this tale is told. In Texas, public schools continue to struggle, despite the No-Child Left-Behind good-intentions, literacy initiatives and some genuine education success stories.

It’s still not enough…yet, there’s a sinister undercurrent still eroding the basic pillars of education: elbow grease, brain power, and homework.

The University of Michigan studied 2,900 kids a couple of years ago and discovered the time spent on homework is up 51% since 1981. The Associated Press and AOL ran a poll earlier this year and found elementary school kids are spending an average of 78-minutes a night on work outside the classroom.

Interestingly, a Duke University study concludes "homework does not measurably improve academic results for grade school students." (Note—there’s that metric issue again: how do you measure success in public schools?) The Duke study also found homework to result in slightly better ROI for middle- and high-school students, but more than 2-hours a night yielded lower test scores.

Apparently, this correlation is universal.
The Time article notes that many of the nations that outperform the U.S. on student achievement tests--such as Japan, Denmark and the Czech Republic—have lower homework loads, but low-scoring countries like Greece, Thailand and Iran really pile on the books.

Homework is more than about learning the course material. Homework also builds study habits, self-discipline and time-management skills. At what level, however, is too much homework a detriment to kids' interest in learning. At what point does the path to knowledge become a drag on discovery, and undermine natural curiosity?

Critics of public schools’ addiction to homework are seeking radical solutions, like a default no-homework policy, exceptions being tasks like interviewing parents on family history, kitchen chemistry and family reading.

There is another harsh reality in that 71% of mothers of kids under 18 are in the workforce. Some are talking about extending the school day or year beyond its agrarian-based calendar, which would allow students to do more work at school and save evenings for family and serendipity.

That theory looks good on paper.

But when many fractured families have defaulted to entertaining kids with TV, it is doubtful much “quality time” is going to be spend in familial serendipity. That gambit is more likely to result in more TV viewing time.

Should there be a sensible homework policy, perhaps 10 min. a night per grade level?
Depends upon the quality of those minutes spent in study.

What about a nightly time limit, a policy of no homework over vacations, no more than two major tests a week, fewer weekend assignments and no Monday tests?
Sounds like the inmates are taking over the asylum.

The sad truth is that many of today’s parentswho are advocating no-homework are, in fact, yesterday’s struggling students. They’re intimidated by homework they themselves wrestled with a generation earlier…and so are capitulating their responsibility as parents to augment the role of the schools in teaching their kids the finer points of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

This self-defeating attitude is a first cousin to the mentality that schools were the place to send unruly kids to teach them how to behave socially, as self-indulgent parents abdicated their responsibilities as role models. The catch-22 came when schools tried to discipline out-of-control kids, and the parents came to the defense of their children, even when the students’ behavior was clearly wrong.

I know this for a fact, listening to my father’s horror stories as a High school administrative principal in the 70’s, and my mother’s experiences as a classroom teacher into the 80’s. The policies of those decades are now coming home to roost in the 21st Century.

Mixed message to kids: anything goes, but don’t break the rules, which schools could not enforce.

Clear message to teachers: your sense of values and boundaries better not cross the line parents refuse to enforce.

No wonder we’ve got Columbine’s and Jonesboro’s staining the libraries and schoolyards of our public schools. Johnny can’t read or write, but he knows how to make a bomb and draw up a death list, and manipulate the system with the help of absent parents and the ACLU.

Are there homework assignments that are really ridiculous, and should be re-thought?
You bet.
That stupid project to build a self-propelled car with paperclips, thread spools and rubber bands was an impossibility for my 8-year old daughter, and an immense frustration to my bride and I. The outcome was a sense of defeat for the student and outrage for us. That was not a positive learning experience. It would have been a challenge for a high schooler.

Just as punishment should fit the crime, so should homework assignments find a balance between enrichment and creation of character and good study habits. It’s no replacement for quality time in the classroom, or at home.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Terrors and Tempests

In these matters the only certainty is that nothing is certain.
--Pliny the Elder

Terrors and tempests and poor taste lead the news this week…and will guide the winds on Wall Street as we end the month of August…

Hezbollah head goon Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday that had Hezbollah known how Israel was going to respond, the group would not have captured two Israeli soldiers last month in northern Israel.

Guess that counts as an oopsie against Hezbollah…or the stupidest statement by a political leader ever.

That award might go to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, however, who spouted off on 60-Minutes last night about New York's inability to "repair that hole" as justification for New Orleans' lack of progress in rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina... I don't mean to be unkind, but I truly do not understand how this man was re-elected as Mayor. The only leadership he seems to exhibit is in how to most effectively whine and point fingers.
New Orleans deserves better.

Ernesto is holding its tropical storm status this morning, while churning toward the southeastern coast of Cuba. The storm will weaken over the island, but is expected to quickly regain hurricane strength once over water…NASA officials have scrubbed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis tomorrow afternoon, in anticipation of the storm. Funny how our perspectives change with experience. Remember this time last Summer?

President Bush is on a two-day tour of the Gulf Coast destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, one year ago tomorrow. It's a good news/bad news trip: Today the President will be in Mississippi, and touring neighborhoods and a shipbuilding business bouncing back a year after the storm. President Bush heads to New Orleans tomorrow, where the success stories have fewer and farther between.

Last night’s Emmy Awards telecast was launched by a spoof on the “Lost” TV series, which regrettably, used footage of a plane crash to make its point…less than 24-hours after the fatal commuter jet crash in Lexington, Kentucky. With all the high and mighty in Hollywood trumpeting their achievements, you think perhaps a few of those gifted writers and producers could have crafted a different, more tasteful intro on the fly?

The Fox show "24," which manages to stretch a day into an entire season of material, won three Emmys, including best drama series and best actor for star Kiefer Sutherland. "The Office" wins for best comedy. Mariska Hargitay of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "The New Adventures of Old Christine" won Emmy gold with lead actress awards in the drama and comedy categories. Tony Shalhoub won best actor in a comedy for his work on "Monk."

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Nuclear Solution

The French have taken a fair share of grief over the past few years. Granted, they were the one’s that gave us a giant statue of a babe in a toga for our nation’s 100th birthday.

But a close examination of Lady Liberty reveals she’s no looker, and was likely one of the first “torch singers” from the Paris Cabaret District.

Plus, can you imagine how much of a danger that headgear would be on a date?
No thanks.

There are two things…okay three…that the French do really well. They make amazing fried potato strips, have developed a respectable wine industry (sometimes rightfully confused with its homonymic cousin, the whine industry), and generate a lot of clean, cheap electrical power. France generates 80% of its energy from nuclear power plants scattered about the French countryside.

Romantic, non?

Apparently, oui, because there are towns in France who not only embrace the concept of nuclear powered electricity generation, they actually compete to see who gets to store the spent fuel rods nearby. So what to the French know that we American’s do not? Or the Finn’s, for that matter?

In 2002, the Finnish government looked at the change in electricity costs for coal, nuclear and gas fired plants. When uranium prices doubled, the resulting increase in the cost of nuclear-generated power was only 9%. However, doubling the price of coal and natural gas costs resulted in a 31% rise for coal-generated electricity, and a 66% boost in cost for gas-generated power.

Remember when natural gas was being touted as the cheaper alternative?? Sacre bleu, vive le Nuke!

According to nuclear physicist Bruno Comby, who heads up the oxymoronically-labeled group, “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy,” it is the best choice. In a recent paper, entitled, “The Benefits of Nuclear Energy,” he wrote:

"The entire cultivable surfaces on Earth wouldn’t suffice to produce enough biofuels to replace oil, and obviously these surfaces are also needed to produce the food we eat.There are those who have fallen in love with the simplicity of solar cells and the pristine elegance of wind turbines, but who refuse to accept that they’re quantitatively incapable of supplying the energy required by an industrial civilization. I don’t mean to say that these renewable energies should be excluded. They’re useful and have important niche roles to play in remote locations and under special circumstances, but they can make only a marginal contribution to the energy demands of an industrial civilization."

While nuclear power is cheap to generate, and clean to use, there is still the issue of what to do with spent power rods, which must be safely stored until their half-lives have been expended. Who deals with it now…and how do we overcome the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor?

Most of the waste sits in pools of water on the site of the power generating stations.
That’s the easy stuff to deal with.
Eventually the rods can be disposed of.

It’s the high-level waste that you have to be careful about; it makes up about 3% of the total waste generated. Remember the French villages tussling over who gets to play hide the fuel rod? The US government has been seeking a facility in the Yucca Mountains of Nevada for the past 20-years.

How much waste are we talking about?
If you took all the nuclear waste ever generated in the entire history of the US Nuclear program over the past 50-years, both civil and defense, it would occupy an area roughly the size of a football field, packed 5-yards deep. Hardly enough to turn Yucca yucky.

Energy newsletter guru Elliott Gue was on my show this morning with some revealing information about the nuclear energy industry. The Cameco Corporation, based in Canada, (CCJ-NYSE) is the largest uranium mining company in the world, sitting on 65% of the known reserves of uranium. Cameco takes raw uranium ore from its mines in Canada and Eastern Europe and converts it into its first stage on the way to final enrichment. Cameco can mine uranium for $6-pound, and the going rate is $47-pound.
Do the math.

Another Canadian company, Uranium Participation Corp, which is an Uranium ETF, owns several million pounds of uranium, which it stores in government-approved warehouses. The price of this company stock will fluctuate with the price of uranium. This is a great way to own uranium without glowing in the dark.

Another piece of the nuclear power puzzle is building enough reactors to meet demand. Interestingly, the companies that seem to be in the best position to take advantage of this opportunity are Siemans (SI) and Toshiba (TOSBF) which bought Westinghouse a while back.

When you consider that it will take the US at least 15-years to ramp up the permitting, construction, and actual power generation for nuclear plants, there is a tremendous growth opportunity for years to come in this area.

You can hear the entire interview with Elliott Gue as a podcast at http://www.bizradio.com/

The Snake on the Plane

"Snakes on a Plane"…ironic that this film opened the same weekend John Mark Karr was escorted from Thailand to the US on a 15-hour flight…The movie earned considerably less than anticipated, given it’s massive, brilliant grass-roots marketing campaign.

John Mark Karr’s trip to face possible charges for the killing of Jon-Benet Ramsey was equally un-eventful. “Snakes on a Plane” earned $15.3-million in its first weekend.

Karr returned to the United States voluntarily, was not under arrest during the flight, and has not posted a bond for the freedom he still enjoys.

That could change today.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Matter of Grave Gravity

I am very concerned about a new threat to our big blue marble. For decades we’ve been exposed to solar flares, and only recently has former Vice President Al Gore pinpointed the cause of a plethora of environmental maladies that plague our planet through the phenomenon of global warming. But this new danger is much greater than that…going beyond the realm of global impact to a problem of cosmic proportions.

Yes, friends, we are in peril from the risk of an expanding solar system, and the adverse effects that may be posed by the addition of new planets in orbit around our sun. I predict a huge reaction by environmentalists and cosmic cowboys as we confront Global Swelling from the increased gravitational pull of three new planets being added to our solar system.

The newest members include 2003 UB313 (wasn’t that formerly an Irish garage-band?), which is the farthest-known object in our solar system; the largest moon of planet Pluto, Charon, and an asteroid known as Ceres. Ceres was once considered a planet two centuries ago, but because it didn’t pay its dues, got demoted to asteroid status.

Perhaps all this explains the Tsunami outbreaks in the past years, the presence of giant trees and large, hairy bipeds in California, and Jay Leno’s chin, obviously the result of more gravitational forces exerting their influence on us.


Following yesterday’s emergency landing of a United Airlines flight from England to the US because of an extremely claustrophobic passenger, Hollywood is already re-tooling its next sequel to this Summer’s hottest movie: watch for “Flakes on a Plane” by Christmas.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Elvis Antics

  • Today is the 30th anniversary of the alleged death of Elvis Presley. I qualify that statement because there are those who still believe in Elvis sightings, and some are even offering a multi-million dollar reward for proof The King is still sucking oxygen from the atmosphere.

    There’s an entire cottage-industry built around the concept Elvis has yet to reach room temperature, with claims ranging from his enrollment in the Federal Witness Protection Program, that the book he was reportedly reading when he died wasn’t published until a year after his death, and a posthumously-released Elvis album contained songs that hadn’t been written when he was alive.

    Then there are people like Warren Apel, who’s convinced—in a tongue-in-cheek way—that there’s a conspicuous correlation between the death of Elvis on this date in 1976 and the passing of Princess Diana on this date in 1996.

    Sure, there’s the typical anagram stuff that conspiracy theorists like to employ—like rearranging the letters in Elvis’ name to spell “lives,” and the obvious, ominous double-entendre of the "Lady Di" nickname.

Apel goes a mile further by pointing out:

  • Diana and Dodi's car crash was blamed in part on the fast-driving French chauffer, Henri Paul -- who should probably have stopped before he spun out.
  • Elvis sang "Stop, Look and Listen" in the 1966 film "Spinout," co-starring Diana McBaine -- in which he played a race car driver. In the movie, “You Gotta Stop,” Elvis played the part of a Navy Frogman, co-staring with Dodie Marshall, and sang, “You Gotta Stop.”

Chillingly bizarre, or just silly? You decide. There’s more.

  • Elvis starred in "Kissing Cousins" and sang about "blue suede shoes." The Royal Family is notoriously inbred, and is said to have "blue blood.”
  • Diana was the Princess of Wales…and The King of Rock & Roll was roughly the size of a whale when he passed.

How does this help you? It doesn’t really, unless you use it as an example of some of the foolishness that’s out there to be waded through. Some people will tell you anything to get your money.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Smoking Guns

The United States is at war with Iran and Syria.
Oh, no, Congress hasn’t declared war in the classic sense, and Iran hasn’t attacked Pearl Harbor or anything…but our countries are locked in a bitter conflict nonetheless.

The theatre of operations isn’t on American soil, nor within the borders of Syria or Iran, however. The battlefield is along the west coast of the Fertile Crescent, Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon.

According to British news sources, Hezbollah troops have been supplied not only with sophisticated weaponry from Syria, but also the training to effectively use them. Laser-guided missiles with double warheads have been effective in stopping Israeli tanks.

Shell casings and other weapons left behind by retreating Hezbollah fighters have been identified with markings showing their origins in Russia or Iran, and shipping through Syria to the insurgents. This week, eight Kornet anti-tank rockets, considered the best such weapons made, were discovered in a village in southern Lebanon. According to the Telegraph.co, “…on each casing were [stenciled] the words: "Customer: Ministry of Defence of Syria. Supplier: KBP, Tula, Russia."

The Telegraph also reports a van filled with 6-foot green casings was discovered by IDF forces outside a village in Lebanon. Serial numbers on the casings identified them as AT-5 Spandrel anti-tank missiles, a wire-guided weapon originally developed in Russia, but copied by Iran in 2000.

Iran and Syria know that despite their bluster and venomous threats to annihilate Israel, they dare not fire a shot directly without recrimination from the West. Birds of a feather are flocking together with thugs hired by thugs to provoke unrest in the region.

The leaders of Syria and Iran do no want democratic governments (by the people, for the people) because they would be out of a job. So they continue to supply arms to groups who fight behind the skirts of women and children, using weapons of precision destruction, and spewing platitudes of hatred.

World opinion is now somewhat critical of Israel and its western allies for answering the bombardment of northern Israel by an invasion of the territory hosting Hezbollah. Israel is correct in seeking to silence the missiles of mercenaries and protect its people from the shelling of Israeli real estate.

Verbal criticism of the US and Israel, Lebanon, and Hezbollah does little to solve the problem. World powers with spines need to enforce the pursuit of peace in the region by clamping down on the real bullies in the neighborhood, Syria and Iran.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Toiletry Terrorism

There are none of the customary graphics associated with this posting tonight.
People in New York are really skittish about where you can and cannot take photos.
So use your mind’s eye to see what I am telling you.

I know where the next Big Opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs will be. You could quintuple your money on this deal, baby, unless you’ve already thought about this. Imagine a chain of franchises with your name emblazoned across the marquee in every airport in the modern world. This is Your Opportunity, and you can thank the Transportation Safety Administration for dropping this mother lode right into your lap.

Airport Terminal Toiletry Exchanges.
It creates an acronymn only the government could love: The ATTE.

Imagine the catchy phrases—Eau de On-ramp.
Este Un-Lauding Zone.
The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination or your carry-on items no longer allowed.

Making lemonade from lemons (which is also now a banned substance on air carriers), you simply act as a collection and distribution broker for those millions of forbidden carry-on items, tossed by travelers in the latest wave of terror-inspired knee-jerk reactions. This idea could be your ticket to fortune or fame…your fortune if it works…or fame if TSA cops throw you in the brig first. Don’t try this without adult or government supervision.

Travelers are chucking shampoo, astringent, toothpaste and pudding. All you have to do is pick it up and offer it at the other end of the terminal to arriving passengers who had to chuck theirs before they left the place they just flew in from.

This is a little like the original postal service in China. People needing to send a package would drop it at the closest street corner. Someone else would come along, notice they were going in the general direction of the addressee on the label, and tote it a little farther towards its destination. With a population of 1.3-billion, you can imagine the efficiencies of scale. Which is why the Lord invented Fed-Ex and it’s patented central distribution hub scheme.

Now that we cannot bring beverages aboard aircraft, movie producers are scrapping the sequel to this summer’s hottest film, “Shakes on a Plane.”

I predict a slump in Starbuck's stock as last-minute Latte-holics are forced to go cold turkey before catching their flights.

The whole situation makes my hair hurt, doubly so because I'm out of conditioner. I can hear Tony Bennet crooning now, "I left my Pert in San Fransisco..."

I Left My Pert In San Francisco
(Cory George C. Jr./Cross Douglass/Brent Clanton)

The loveliness of Apple Pectin
Seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was L’Oreal
Is of another day.
The TSA’s been terribly boneheaded in Manhattan
And I'm coming home…
but I’ve thrown my toiletries away.

I left my Pert in San Francisco
High on a shelf, it calls to me.
To be where safety conscious stars
Must fix their hair inside their cars,
Because they can’t primp in the air.

My Aim waits there in San Francisco
Above my blue toothbrush and floss…
When I come home to you, San Francisco,
Your toiletries will shine for me!

New York Re-cap

Just flew in from New York, and boy are my legs tired. Doesn’t mean I’m un-flappable…but we did walk the length and breadth of Manhattan the last four days.

It was a wonderful trip with BizRadio Network listeners to play The MoneyGame in the financial capital of the world, to bond with new friends, and experience the sights and sounds of New York City.

My son raised an interesting question during our visit: “How do you sleep in The City that Never Sleeps?”

Very well, as a matter of fact, by the time you finally stumble into bed after a day of playing and working with MoneyGame attendees, and then hitting the points of interest that you cannot miss when you’re in New York.

Ground Zero was made even more poignant by seeing the Oliver Stone film, “World Trade Center.” The movie, along with “Flight 93,” should be required viewing for anyone who is, or has ever thought about, being an American.

The Statue of Liberty was a particularly memorable stop on our itinerary, as I found myself looking at the crowd on Liberty Island through a slightly different filter. Here were typically American families, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and in many cases, at least one set of grandparents…all gathered around an eleven-point star that forms the base of Lady Liberty’s pedestal.

You can see that in your mind’s eye, can’t you—all those American families?

Now fill in the detail with this point: all those families were brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned, or in our case, tinged with a little pinkness from the sun. Those American families were laughing and talking in dialects from the Middle East, the Far East, as well as the near Eastside of Manhattan. As we strolled along the shaded sidewalks, my ears picked up snatches of conversations in Spanish, French, Vietnamese, and Italian, along with the regional versions of English.

There were people in turbans and ball caps, polo shirts and saris, Nike’s and flip flops.

The most lasting impression hit me in the gift shop, where I observed Muslim women, their heads modestly wrapped in scarves, thronging the souvenir stands.

They were purchasing items depicting the liberties that the statue has represented for generations of people from all points of the compass, coming to America, longing to be free. A supreme irony, don’t you think?

Freedom is an international language that all ears can hear, all tongues can speak, and all hearts can believe in. That longing, and its promise of fulfillment in America, was best captured by the poet, Emma Lazarus, in her work, “The New Colossus.” Her words have been associated with Lady Liberty, and the gateway to America that beckons from nearby Ellis Island, since 1903. Those words kept running through my head as I watched in amazement at the tapestry of humanity on display at the feet of this amazing monument:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

During a week of travel tainted by yet another terrorism scare, it was uplifting to see so many different people from so many diverse origins, gathering at around this monument to freedom, mingling in harmony, while communicating in cacophony, but all congregated to respect that strongest urge of mankind.

To be free.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Subterranean Railway Blues

New York City, Canal St. Station

The Metro Subway in New York City is the vascular system of the island. This is how the masses get about Manhattan, and the boroughs that surround it. It is crafted in elegance, executed in a style befitting New York, and is utterly confounding to outsiders. We used it extensively to get around, but not without a few “learning experiences.”

Things to remember when you visit New York and wish to take the subway:

1.) Never leave your map behind. If you cannot navigate with out a celestial point of reference (the Sun, for starters), better bring the map.

2.) Bring your cheaters and don’t be shy about using them. New York City Metro maps are pretty detailed, but they’re printed with the intricacies of a Swiss watch, and important nuances like North and South can easily be missed while attempting to read the map under a street light without visual enhancements.

3.) Always ask directions. Men don’t like to do this, but it’s a great way to save yourself a headache, aneurism, stroke, heart attack, and being late to things, which men also dislike. If you’re a single male, asking directions is also a great way to meet slightly exotic-looking women in the New York subway system, albeit not the best way to meet a mate. Not that I was in that market; I am not. But I am a pretty good observer of human behavior, and it is what it is.

New York Subway stations are generally great places of warmth and human activity. This is a good thing in the winter, where the weather can be pretty miserable here.

The middle of August, however, is not the best time to be stuck inside a Metro Subway station. I soaked through two suits this week. There was enough water collected in my shirts to irrigate a small crop of corn for a week.

I wish I had the iPod earbud franchise for the Metro system. Everyone has a pair planted in their ears, heads nodding to the beat of their music genre of choice. You have to learn to read between the tracks of the MP3-player. When the head stops moving is the time to tap the elbow and ask for those directions you need.

Reading the crowds on subways is an interesting pastime when you’ve gotten on the wrong train, missed your stop, or discovered you’re way past where you want to be, and have to backtrack. At least on the Metro, even when you’re lost, you make good time.

People on rail cars are poems in motion…if not poetry in motion.
There is a difference.
The choreography of subway travel is really pretty simple. Like a football game, twelve guys running running away (or into) twelve other guys with an inflated pig bladder, the herds of commuters flood on and off the cars at each stop. I don’t know if they keep score or not, unless you count getting through the doors before the shut on you.

I missed a train this week because the doors shut just before I was about to step on board. My bride and son had jumped on ahead of me. I wasn’t sure it was the right train to be on (see rule #1 above), and so I hesitated to make sure it was going where we wanted to go.


The doors slid shut an inch infront of my nose, and the rail cars clattered off into the darkness of the subway tube, out of sight. Having violated Rule #1, there was no need for observing Rule #2…and I was not in the mood to employ Rule #3.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Fear & Greed

New York City

Fear and greed are two of the most basic of human instincts. All markets operate on the dynamic between these two primal urges…whether they’re trading futures on an electronic exchange, or selling wares on the side streets of lower Manhattan.

One of our excursions this week took us into Chinatown on Manhattan’s lower east side. Just getting there was an adventure, and a real culture-shock from New York City’s nearby Financial District. There were several challenges, among them negotiating the Metro Subway system with closed stations. Another challenge was dealing with language barriers, although I suspect some of the people we dealt with utilized selective comprehension of some of the things we asked.

In a classic scene right out of the Prohibition-era, we entered a shop on Canal Street, and when we asked whether there were specific items we sought, we were told “my brudda’s store” had what we were seeking. This initiated a clandestine trip around the corner, down a side street, and into a shabby inner-sanctum, complete with lookouts on Nextel two-way phones, a series of locked doors and a flight of stairs below street-level.

This was no speak-easy, but a stealth shop stocked with knock offs of famous name brand items of questionable quality and free market prices. The room was barely the size of a moderate bedroom closet, and close-quarters for the shop keeper and three patrons.

The bargaining commenced when the door was latched behind us, sealing us into this subterranean bazaar driven by greed on both sides of the exchange (“I sell to you for more than you think you want to pay” vs “I buy from you for less than you want to take”) and not a little fear.

If NYPD officers were to discover the location of this shop, where only cash was accepted, and no receipts given, it would be out of business within the hour.

We had passed a few tables of merchandise on Canal Street that attracted our interest, but were told the proprietor had been taken way by NYPD officers earlier for selling items he ought not. So our visit to into the Twilight Zone of Chinatown’s black market provided more of a cheap thrill to out-of-towners than it produced any commerce of consequence.

I really freaked out the shop keeper when I gently asked his name. Just a Texan in New York, trying to be neighborly. He wasn’t telling, and became quite furtive in his behavior at that point. We were whisked up the narrow flight of stairs, and watched as he slid open the bolt in the door, and peeked out onto the sidewalk in both directions before fully opening the door to allow us to leave. He suddenly developed English-amnesia and became incapable of understanding anything I said at that point.

We thanked him for his time as he melted into the crowd, but not before he and his “sister-in-law” became engaged in a staccato discussion (in their language) about what could only have been her indiscretion in sending us to his “store.”

Fear and greed are powerful components in many transactions…but so is the ability to discern value. The only thing gained in this encounter was a little grist for this blog and two surreptitious images from a tiny camera in my pocket.

At the end of the day, value beat greed, and fear melted the moment in the quest for a bargain and the promise of a sale. At the end of the day, cash was king, and we retained title to the throne.

Such is life in the marketplace, whether at Broad and Wall, or Canal and Lispenard Streets.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Packing it In

New York
Forget airline security issues.
Pooh pooh gasoline prices.
You know what the real detriment is to peace, prosperity and the American way?
Product packaging.
That will be the downfall of civilization as we know it.

It seems anymore that anytime you buy something, it’s vacuum sealed in an impermeable shell of clear plastic that is impossible to open. I realize this is an offshoot of the retail security issues that have worted shop owners the world over. How to reduce inventory shrinkage? Make the product packaging more difficult to hide.

The music and game industry were the first to adopt this strategy. There is no rational reason for putting a compact disc recording in a package that is twice or three times the size of what it contains. Just makes it harder to slip out the door without paying for it.

I could accept that.
But now, even the most ordinary items are sealed in thick layers of clear plastic packaging that require diamond tipped tools to access.

The level of difficulty to get into some products does not correlate with their value. It took me an hour to get into one of those multi-function tools (which the airlines will not allow you to bring on board) that would have been helpful in opening the package. A supreme irony.

The other bugaboo in product packaging and labeling is the adhesive sticker system for fresh produce. Because I don’t care to ingest the numeric code labels for fruits, I will spend a little time to pull them off. They’re tenacious, those stickers, and the problem is, you could literally starve to death trying to pull off ‘em off.

I think the solution to putting passengers safely on commercial jet aircraft may be to create personal plastic cocoons in which they could be easily transported. Locked tight inside their clear, hard plastic shells, arms immobile between the transparent pod cases, TSA officials could be assured no one would be trying to ignite their tennis shoes or assemble liquid explosives.

Of course, when you arrive at your destination, you’d need one of those multi-purpose tools to crack open the shell. Maybe we need to rethink this a little more…

Old Friends in New York

"While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that only tragedy is to allow part of us to die - whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness."

Gilda Radner (1946 - 1989)

New York City

I met an old friend for the first time in New York yesterday. We’ve corresponded by phone, e-mail, and short notes for years as I’ve developed this radio show, and grown to feel like we’ve known each other for decades. We’re both cancer survivors.

Have you ever known someone but not known them? How often do we allow ourselves to wall-off people we work with, side by side, day after day, week after week, and month after month, but we can recite the most minute details of a person’s life who lives half a continent away?

There are a lot of things that bind co workers. Sometimes it’s a band of mutual survival that ties people together.
Us vs them.
Workers vs management.
Management vs ownership.
Good vs evil.
You draw the parallel—it’s there in every form.

Then there are the special ties that bind people together that transcend comparatively mundane alliances in the workplace. There is no bond like that which exists between true survivors, whether they be brothers- and sisters-in-arms, or brothers and sisters whose arms have been punctured for all kinds of vile attempts at curing illness.

My friend is just now emerging back into the world of the living after living in the realm of the near-dead with cancer. The face is lined with new maps of the pain and rigors cancer patients all find traced across their features and their psyche, but the heart beats stronger for the experience.

The hair is coming back, the smile is broader, and the eyes twinkle as they recognize the sights of each new day as the gift that such days are.

Our doctors have told us both we are cancer free. That’s the best news in the world. Now our docs are charged with curing us of the cures.

Sometimes the physical healing is easier than dealing with the psychological scars. Knowing my friend is healing well makes it easier to accept my own rate of progress. Regardless of what challenges are faced, today will be a good day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Taxi Tips from NYC

New York City

Getting from Point-A to Point-B in New York is more than a job—it’s an adventure.

I left my suite at the Waldorf Astoria this morning at little after five for the trip to the Financial District to perform my show. I figured with a dozen Yellow Cabs lined up around the corner from the Waldorf’s Park Avenue entrance, getting a ride would be simple.

It wasn’t.

The first cab in line at the Waldorf’s cab stand wasn’t occupied. It’s driver was gone, too.
Two guys standing in the street whistled up a cabbie from around the corner.

“55 Broad Street, Financial District,” I told the guy.
“Where is that?” he asked in an accent thick with origins not from Texas or The Bronx.

It’s 5am in New York and I’m on a deadline. I don’t have time to educate someone who does not understand my native tongue with the nuances of Manhattan geography.

“Next cab, please.”

A little better this time. Sayd Mohammed knew where the Financial District is.
“You wanna take the FDR?” he asked.
“I want the quickest ride at the least expense,” I told him. “You’re the expert.”

Away we went.
The FDR was a good call.
Traffic was light, and the trip took less than 20-minutes.

After the show this morning, I popped back out on the street to find a ride to the Marriott Financial Center. Quite a different landscape from the pre-dawn scene.
People everywhere.
Construction crews performing their tasks, oblivious to the traffic swirling and dodging around them.

I spotted a Yellow Cab mid-block, and whistled him to a stop, much to the consternation of the cars stacked behind him. Hey, the light was red—where’re they going to go? (Am I thinking like a New Yorker here?)

Marriott Financial Center, 85 West, please,” I told the driver.
“Where’s that?” he asked.
I looked at the name card for the driver.
Hassan Mohammed.
Gotta be related to my driver earlier in the morning. Not as graceful in traffic, though.

Hassan proceded to take me at breakneck speed to the closest stop sign. From there our trip descended into a series of hurried waits at lights, stop signs, and near hits by other drivers as inconsiderate as was he. I saw my life pass before me as we doubled up in the intersection of Whitehall and Pearl behind a delivery truck, blocking the path of another truck.

That driver did have a quite colorful command of the English language, which was his native tongue, and he was not reticent to use it.

The amazing thing about all this was I actually arrived at the Marriott Financial Center before our MoneyGame group did, traveling from the Waldorf Astoria.

Turns out their drivers got lost.
I didn’t catch their names.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On the Road...

New York City

There is something magic about this town. Always has been.

And we felt it the moment our Black Car emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel and rolled through the afternoon traffic in Midtown Manhattan.
New York.
Nuevo del Yorko.
The Big Apple.

I’ve been here before, several times.
Shed tears at The Pile when workmen were still excavating the remains of the World Trade Center. Left prayers at a simple law enforcement shrine that overlooks The Hole that is now where the twin towers once stood. Watched live shots for network TV being set up and choreographed from Times Square. Caught the behind-the-scenes scenes of fashion shows in the spring time, and walked the narrow sidewalks in Tribeca where independent Jazz label reps set up shop, promoted new talent, and warehoused their product in 800-square foot apartment offices.

My bride has never been to New York.
She’s been scraping her head on the ceiling for a week, planning and packing for this trip. I caught the excitement, again, this afternoon, snatching a view of the Chrysler Tower’s silver arches gleaming in the afternoon sunlight through the roof of our car.

Tonight, I open the window of our suite of the Waldorf Astoria, and New York’s essence storms into the room on a breeze filled with the smell of cooking grease, the distant echoes of cabbies honking their way through traffic, and the gleaming lights of the buildings at night.

Across the alley, a man sits on his patio as the evening deepens, 12-floors above the street, drinking in what little patch of sky that can be seen from between the buildings.

This is New York.

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

"...some inflation risks remain" but that inflation pressures "seem likely to moderate over time."

Safe enough language from the Fed yesterday…interestingly, the markets interpretted the hold on rates and the accompanying language to say, "whoa, we'd better be careful--this ol' economy thang may be in a bit of trouble." The markets reflected that sentiment with a close to the downside.

We’ll also be watching the grammar of The National Hurricane Center as it updates its 2006 storm predictions this morning.
In May the NHC predicted 16 named storms, 6 of them major hurricanes. Last week, Colorado State University Professor William Gray dropped his prediction from 9 hurricanes to 7 and from 5 major hurricanes to 3.

Speaking of blowhards, Atlanta, Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney is controversial and outspoken, independent and unrepentant...and now unemployed...For the second time in three election cycles, McKinney was defeated in a Democratic primary…

Senator Joe Liebermann was also defeated in yesterday’s primaries…his 18-years of experience negated by his stand in support of the Iraq War, his seat taken by a political novice tapping into anger against Liebermann’s support of the war…
Running as an Independant may be the smartest thing he's done in a while.

And in another example of CNN’s bias, a new poll commissioned for the network by the Opinion Research Corporation shows 60% of Americans oppose the U.S. war with Iraq, the highest number since polling on the subject began with the commencement of the war in March 2003. Most respondents also said they would support the withdrawal of at least some U.S. troops by the end of the year.

It’s a good thing the war isn’t run by popular opinion or polling results. Wonder what the poll would reveal of how many Americans feel safe in this country…and how safe might we feel if the US cut and run in Iraq, handing a defacto win to Terrorism.
Think that could never happen?

Right off this morning's news sources comes this tidbit, that rose the shorthairs on the back of my neck:

"The FBI and immigration agents are hunting for 11 Egyptian students who failed to show up at a Montana college as scheduled. The FBI has issued a nationwide "be on the lookout" alert to law enforcement across the country with the students' names, dates of birth, passport numbers and pictures.

"The students, all male, were part of a group of 17, all of whom had valid student visas and arrived at JFK International Airport in New York on July 29. Six of them then did go to Montana State University as part of an exchange program."

You think these 11 Egyptians got lost...or re-directed to some other purpose?
You tell me.

We are traveling to New York City today for our MoneyGame trip to Wall Street. Tomorrow morning’s show will be broadcast from the financial district of New York.
I'll see you on the Radio.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise...

I often begin the day with a full slate of stuff I've got to do. Some days it's even written on a yellow pad...and there are electronic reminders in my Palm Pilot that help me keep track of recurring deadlines each week and each month.

I've learned over years that despite the best laid plans, there's generally going to be an anomoly that must be dealt with. An unexpected diversion of my energies and attention. A curve ball.

I try to allow for those things, and I'm sure you do, too.

Here's your curve ball for the week: British Petroleum closing down its giant Prudhoe Bay oil field due to a damaged pipeline, and the fears of possibly more, undiscovered corrosion in the line. The ripple effect has touched West Coast supplies, and is raising the possibility of tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

True to form…congressional Democrats want “an investigation” of the situation.

Here’s the quote: “It is appalling that BP let this critical pipeline deteriorate to the point that a major production shutdown was necessary," from Rep. John Dingell, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

He's on the warpath: "The United States Congress has an obligation to hold hearings to determine what broke down here and what laws and regulations need to be improved to ensure problem pipelines like these are found and fixed earlier."

Translation for the politically impaired: "The Congress has an election to win this Fall, and we could sure use some more face time before November."

Perhaps if Congress were less restrictive on the oil exploration and production sector…if oil companies were allowed to spend more money on their pipes and wells and less on legislative clap trap, the infrastructure would not be in such condition. Perhaps.

That's point number one.
Point number two is that this pipeline is 30+ years old.
They don't last for ever.

The reality is a lot of pipelines constructed back in the '70's are due for retro-fit or replacement.
That spells opportunity in several areas:
- Steel: the BP pipeline was built with 30-inch Japanese steel. That stuff isn't sitting on a shelf at the Lowe's in Anchorage. It will have to be ordered and fabricated.
- Service Companies: certainly BP has an impressive array of support for its pipeline operations, but there are going to be some anciallry services required for this job, which must be completed before Winter sets in. Transportation, catering, and even temporary housing.
- Commodities: Sure, this is obvious, and after this week, we'll know what the deal is...with this pipeline. What about the others? It's a volatile area, but as the other operating companies do their due diligance on their pipelines, those around the same age as BP's are likely to be forcecd to perform maintenance, too.

Watch the ripple effect as they do.

Meanwhile, if Rep. Dingellberry wants to investigate BP’s pipeline, I’m pretty sure the folks at British Petroleum would be more than willing to accommodate him with a complimentary inspection tour…lashed to a pipeline pig for an up-close and personal perspective.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Shakespearean Fed

...with apologies to the Bard

To Raise, or not to Raise: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous inflation,
Or to take arms against a sea of economic troubles,
And by opposing end them?
To pause: to hold;
No more; and by a pause to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That the markets are heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.

To pause, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that pause of rates, what dreams may come
When we have sluffed off these markets’ roiled,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would endure the bulls and bears of time,
The profit takers’ wrong, the sellers’ contumely,
The pangs of despised CEO’s, the SEC's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he the stockholder might his quietus make
With a stop order?

Who would IPO’s bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after the closing bell,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourse
No investor returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the Fed’s hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Soft you now!
The fair Bernenke!
Nymph, in thy Fed Meeting minutes
Be all my shares remember'd.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Stars at Standard & Pours

Our second live broadcast from Standard & Pours in Dallas today yielded new friends and a few surprises.

A production company with LifeTime Television was shooting the next batch of episodes in the “Inspector Mom” series.

Actress Erin Brooke, who plays “Cindy” in the series, dropped by to chat. With her were Ryan Hart (Andrew) and Kathleen LaGue (Diana). They’re on location in the Southend Lofts with their film crew, and were breakfasting during our show.

The “Inspector Mom” sequel will also be followed by a series of “webisodes,” downloadable on the web.

The success of Standard & Pours has not gone without the notice of the suits at S&P, who believe this business has harmed their business…and to the contrary, owner Pascal Hall has told us that she’s answered more questions from the public about the S&P than those guys have probably ever fielded about coffee and Danish. If anything, they owe her.

There are two proofs of success—when others take pot shots at you…and when you’re able to expand. Pascal says she wants to open her second Standard & Pours location in November near a downtown DART station. We hope she does…and we’ll take the show on the road to Standard & Pours de deaux…and see you on the Radio.u

Dallas in August

4:41am S. Lamar, Dallas

If you were to find yourself locked out of a warehouse building in South Dallas ten years ago, your life expectancy would have been short. This was not a nice place to be. That was before the Renaissance that has swept through the industrial district south of down town, before the DART Rail stations, and the new Dallas Police HQ building, just a block from where I am sitting on this warm, August morning.

This is the prelude to a live broadcast from Standard & Pours Coffee &Stocks, a coffee house and pastry shop with free WiFi and live music in the evenings. I am sitting at a metal grate table on the side walk in front of the store, awaiting the manager who will open up this morning. It must be 80-degrees out here.

The Southside on Lamar Lofts is a collection of small business and residential spaces now inhabiting what once was the Sears & Roebuck warehouse. I figure the building was built around 1913, according to two iron boiler lids with that date on them, on display at one end of a polished concrete mall that runs through the center of the building. There are artsy shops along this mall, with sculptures made from Red Bull cans, life size wooden figures embracing one another, and the usual, eclectic forms with oddball shapes and colors that say “a-r-t,” if nothing else.

There’s a model railroad club that has leased space at one end of the mall. There’s only one wall; the rest is glass, which gives you a grand view of four or five scale model railways in various stages of completion, all depicting railroad routes around Texas. In one corner is a scale model of this very building.

It’s not a bad spot for a coffee shop, and that’s where Pascal Hall has located Standard & Pours, in the basement of the old Sears warehouse. About every ten minutes, the crossing guard arms for the DART line start to clang and wink and drop down the block, delivery trucks are rumbling past on their early morning routes, and a police chopper just left the pad from DPD HQ, and is now hovering in the distance over some crime scene in the city. It is peaceful, in a downtown urban kind of way.

I’ll see you in a few hours on the Radio.