Monday, November 24, 2014

Stock Talk - 6


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Your greatest risk in playing the market is the black swan, the geopolitical event that can send the market down 500 points in a heartbeat.  If you understand that and have limited your exposure accordingly, fine. But a lot of people overlook that risk and keep betting 50 or 60 percent of their wealth on a continuation of the bull market.  So far, they have done well.

The talking heads on CNBC keep reminding us that over the long term stocks outperform bonds. They are talking their book. People on CNBC - and the station itself - make money by promoting the stock market. One should never forget that fact.

We are about 5 percent of the world’s population.  A lot of the other 95% don’t like us, and the number of haters has risen in the past decades and continues to rise.  Some of this is the result of My Lai or Abu Ghraib or, more generally, Iraq and Afghanistan, some is because we are conspicuously wealthy and successful; the point here is not to argue philosophy, but to factor in risk. 

The degree of risk you can tolerate depends partly on your age; if you are too old to recoup a major loss (as I am), you may want to limit your market stake to 10 or 15 percent.  The black swan doesn’t have to be a repeat of 9-11; anything that induces sudden, mass fear will do.  And a sudden spike in hysteria will motivate people to pull money out of the market and into Treasury bonds. Some of that is already apparent in the low interest rates available in the bond market.

The fact that the U.S. is an open society is both our strength and – increasingly – our weakness. With social media available to everyone, including potential terrorists, the question is not if but when.  So what is an investor to do?  Consider well-protected yield, which include short-term Treasuries but is not limited to them. Tax-advantaged municipals are attractive, but one has to consider the municipalities. In the battle between pensioners and investors, the pensioners will win in many states. It’s better to shun municipals in those states – which may include your own. It’s better to pay state income tax than to risk principal.

It’s possible that terrorists will never attack the U.S. I hope so. But meanwhile, I’m avoiding the momentum (“mo-mo”) stocks, like Netflix, Facebook, Tesla, Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, and Amazon. Let the risk-takers make the profits, while they can.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stock Talk - 5



A new reality has come to the stock market:  The founders and leaders of the flashiest companies listed on the stock market don’t give a damn what their stock does.  This may be good or it may be bad, but them’s the facts, and you should be aware of them.

Amazon reported disappointing earnings today, and the stock promptly tanked 10 percent. Do you think Jeff Bezos cares? Do you think the founders of Google or Facebook or Alibaba really care if they or their key employees are worth a few hundred million less than they were a week ago?  They do not, and, as I say, that may be a good thing – as long as you understand the fact.

Years ago, when I was serenading Wall Street, it used to be different. People left big companies to join start-ups on the promise of wealth that would eventually be realized via stock options. Today, a hot company goes public and  - wham! – dozens of new millionaires or billionaires are minted overnight, and if years later the stock drops 10 percent in a day, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page and their top lieutenants are still very, very wealthy.

Given that reality, how should you invest?  Personally, I don’t invest in Amazon or Google or Facebook or Alibaba, though for many investors they have been great investments. It’s just that I like my companies’ leaders to have skin in the game.  Mind you, I don’t expect the CEO to be a pauper; that would be unrealistic. But I do want him or her to care what the stock does, just as I care.

I have nothing against great wealth. God bless Bill Gates and the others on the Fortune list.  The opportunity to make unlimited wealth is one of the qualities that has made the United States the most powerful nation on the planet. I devoutly hope that the CEOs of the companies I invest in will make billions and billions. But by then I will be long gone, looking for the next batch of billionaire wannabes.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Stock Talk - 4

The total stock-market valuation of Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook is about $400 billion, or about the GNP of Sweden. Amazon stock sells for hundreds of times earnings, Netflix sells for over 100 times earnings, and Facebook sells for "only" 80 times earnings. Now, it's true that if you bought the three stocks a year or two ago, you'd have made a pile of money. And I missed the boat on all three. But nosebleed territory is not for me, because as soon as I bought Amazon at $320 a share, it would drop 20 percent, as it did from its high of about $400 a share. Life's too short to spend it throwing dice.

The financial news today is that Hewlett-Packard has decided to split into two companies. Now, I happen to know H-P well, because I spent a lot of time competing against them. As a matter of fact, in 1956 I remarked to the then Chairman of the Company I worked for, "H-P has just passed us in sales." His answer: "They'll pass us on the way down, too."

It never happened, and H-P went on to become a Goliath in electronics, before it lost its way, while being run by Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, Leo Apotheker, and now Meg Whitman. You know what all of these people have in common? They were all outsiders. Think of it: The Company was saying to its 300,000-plus employees, "We don't think any of you is capable of running this Company, so we're bringing in someone who hasn't worked for H-P for a day." This is not a knock on any of the chosen CEOs; I happen to think Meg Whitman is a very savvy manager. But really, doesn't it prove that at H-P leadership succession hasn't been a priority since Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett departed? So H-P is not on my stock-market shopping list.

Some trends are well established, and you would be a fool to ignore them. So you will probably not invest in newspapers and magazines. But if you dig down a bit further, you will find other trends worth noting. Shopping malls are likely to become dinosaurs, although it might take a while. So will movie theaters, as home screens get larger and cinema screens get smaller. It may take years for these trends to play out, but do you want to invest your hard-earned money in endangered species?

The price of oil has been tanking (pun intended) lately, and so the oil stocks have been falling. But this is not a long-term trend. There are just too many cars and factories dependent on oil. So if a dividend-paying oil stock is falling, that means the yield is increasing, despite the turmoil at OPEC. So not all collapses are bad, and though I am happy to see the pump price at $3.30, I am too much of a realist to sell my oil stocks.




Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Stock Talk - 3


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President Obama doesn’t like Wall Street. That much is clear from his comments about “fat cats,” “homes in the Hamptons,” and the like. That much is clear and permissible. He was elected President by a majority of voters in 2008 and reelected in 2012. But you should be aware of the fact when you are investing.  He and his Administration think (correctly) that big companies spend a lot of time and talent trying to minimize their tax bite, and he and his associates especially hate the practice of “inversion,” in which a U.S. company merges with a foreign company and reincorporates in the more tax-friendly nation, which is never the U.S.  But they’re not the only targets. Financial institutions have been repeatedly fined for various transgressions, and the fines can be huge.

That being so, you have to ask yourself, when investing, “Do I really want to bet my money against the President of the United States?” The question doesn’t just involve financial institutions. The prevailing attitude in the political world is that small businesses are good and big business is bad. In this political season, how often do you hear candidates taking that line?

(The other day President Obama, explaining the quick rise of ISIS in Iraq, said that the U.S. had given Prime Minister Al-Maliki a functioning government, but that Maliki was too intent on building up his political base among Shiites and thus squandered his legacy, As I read this, I thought the same might be said of President Obama, who was too concerned with strengthening his base among Democrats and thus contributed to the divisive climate that characterizes Washington.)

Although the odds are that President Obama will lose the Senate in November, the divisiveness will probable continue through 2016. Question: How does one tailor his stock portfolio given this situation?

Favor medium-size companies. Big companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon are inviting targets for politicians, and small companies (those with annual sales of less than $1 billion) are too vulnerable to economic crosswinds. The ideal company is one with sales of a few billion and in a business that is out of the headlines. A dividend is a plus but not essential. 

International exposure used to be a plus. No more.  The geopolitical situation is volatile, and companies that are seen as surrogates for Uncle Sam are probably going to attract unfriendly attention.

There are many sizable, profitable, growing, U.S.-based companies that are worth considering. Many of them are companies you probably have never heard of.  I’ll give you some hints in future blog posts.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Stock Talk - 2


 
Since there’s no way to tell whether a given stock will rise or fall tomorrow, it makes sense to invest in stocks with a long-term objective in mind. Not too long term, because stocks with a five-year gestation period could wear out your patience.  So you look for a stock that will prove itself in a year or two.

3-D printing and package delivery by drones are examples of concepts that probably will take too long to pay off.  If you happen to believe that shopping malls and newspapers are in for a long period of decline, you avoid stocks in those sectors – or even short them.

A word about shorting:  Shorting means selling borrowed stock, on the hope that you will buy it back (and close out the position) at a lower price and thus make a profit. Shorting is dangerous, because the loss is theoretically infinite, but having a small part of your stock-market portfolio short is not a bad idea – if the shorts are in sectors that are in long-term downtrends.  Risk-tolerance comes into play here; the shorts in my own portfolio are about 20 percent of the total.

Day trading – buying a stock in the morning and selling it in the afternoon – is something you should not even consider. Especially now, with the geopolitical situation so volatile, you can lose money for reasons that have nothing to do with your stock.  The popularity of day trading probably has something to do with the rock-bottom commissions brokerages are charging.

It pays to be well informed. My own tastes center on the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.  There are others, but that’s all I have time for. I watch CNBC during the day – but very skeptically, because most of the people on that channel are “talking their book” – touting positions that enhance their own portfolios.  That’s also true of the writers at the Times and the Journal, but they are more subtle about it.

As we saw in a previous blog on the subject, dividend yields are all-important. My trading portfolio is smaller than my yield portfolio, and the yield portfolio has done better for years. There is little mystery to this; we have been in a bull market for bonds for decades, but most people have been sure that runaway interest rates are around the corner – and most people have been wrong.  Low-interest rates shift wealth from rich people (the lenders) to poor people (the borrowers), and that fits nicely into the Administration’s objective. As long as President Obama is in office and has a compliant Fed, the bull market in bonds will continue.



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stock Talk


--> -->A friend recently asked why I didn’t write more about the stock market, since this is the field I worked in for most of my career – and, presumably, that I know best.  I answered that I didn’t want to play the role of investment advisor, but on reflection, that was a cop-out. So here goes.

Stocks are risky. No matter how much you think you know about a company, there are people who know more, and these are the people who want your money. Forget the rules that say if you plug your age into a formula, you will know what percent of your wealth should be in stocks and what percent should be in bonds. The risk is the same whether you’re 35 or 75.

A friend of mine (and my mentor in the 50s) told me that he had two stock portfolios, one specializing in stocks designed to generate capital gains, the other investing in stocks that paid high dividends. And – funny thing – the yield-oriented portfolio had a consistently higher total return!  Moral: Stocks that pay a dividend are almost always better, and the results are even better if the dividend is well protected (i.e., a smaller percentage of estimated earnings).

Of course, one can always point to exceptions. You could have made a killing if you bought some Netflix a year or two ago, and Apple (a dividend payer, now) has been a good long-term investment. I have a small percentage of my investments in such speculations. I read all the business papers and am reasonably well informed, but you know what? The yield portfolio out-returns the trading portfolio, just as it did for my mentor in the 50s. Some things just don’t change.

So my initial advice is this: Look for a well-protected yield. That’s especially timely now, when bank yields are so low. Second, use the low-cost, on-line brokerages. You can buy or sell a stock for $8 a trade or less, which is a small fraction of what I paid 20 or 30 years ago.

Now that I’ve broken the ice, I will indulge in more “stock talk” in future blogs.

 

 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I've Heard It All Before

As I listened to President Obama last night, I kept thinking, "I've heard it all before." We began the Vietnam War, our longest at the time, by sending in advisors, the first arriving in Saigon by helicopter in 1961. How easy it is to start a war, how hard it is to end one!

Then it was the Domino Theory, the notion that if Vietnam fell, China would have hegemony over all of Southeast Asia. In the case of Iraq, it was Weapons of Mass Destruction. Today it is the threat of ISIL. There's always a threat, sometimes real, often magnified by the hawks or the neocons or, as President Eisenhower had it, the military-industrial complex. There's never a lack of threats, because we live in an imperfect world, and there's never a lack of appetite for violence - unless you are one of the victims.

Although I disagree with President Obama on most issues, I am grateful today that he is our President, and not John McCain, who would surely have us at war with Iran, ISIL, and possibly Russia. Thank God for small favors.

If you missed it, scroll back a couple of blogs and read the lyrics for "I've Heard It All Before," from the musical Shenandoah. It's very timely.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Ministry of Truth



In George Orwell’s world. The Ministry of Truth was the government’s propaganda agency, the unit whose job was to rewrite history according to the government’s wishes. We need a Ministry of Truth in Washington. Or maybe we already have one. Consider the following:

You don’t have to be an archivist to find quotations from Washington in which Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq was hailed as just the kind of leader his country needed, a trustworthy ally of the United States who could be counted on to deliver, whatever the provocations.  The Ministry of Truth is today rewriting history to delete all those quotations.

In similar vein, the United States promoted itself as the world’s leading advocate for democracy, the principle that the people of a nation should be entitled to vote for their leaders. The vote, we said, was the ultimate guarantor of the peoples’ liberties. In Egypt, Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq, the Ministry of Truth is rewriting history along the following lines: The leaders who are elected can be thrown out when the people show, by mass protests or by polls, that they want someone else.

President Obama lashes out at rich Wall Streeters by telling them they “can keep their homes in the Hamptons.” The President could have said “in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard,” but the Ministry of Truth wouldn’t hear of it.

A terrific Front Line report on PBS recently revealed some of the falsehoods our government tells us in the name of security. It was called “The United States of Secrets.” I thought it was one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve ever seen, and it was fair, affording the NSA chiefs ample opportunities to express their positions. But the take-away was that George Orwell's fantasy was increasingly realistic.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Shenandoah


In 1975, Jill and I took my parents to Boston’s Colonial Theater to see John Cullum in Shenandoah.  It was a very good production of an excellent show, which ran on Broadway for over 1000 performances.  Later, I bought the original-cast LP, which has been sitting unplayed in my basement, along with many other OC LPs, for many years – until now.  A friend told me that he had transferred his LP collection to CDs, and, intrigued, I bought a similar device and have started the long transferral process.

So far, I have burned CDs of many musicals, some brilliant, some not. But Shenandoah made me sit up and take notice. Based on the 1965 movie, it was an anti-war musical about a Virginia family’s Civil War hardships, and it was in sync with the public’s distaste for Vietnam.  Here are the lyrics for one of the memorable songs, sung by Cullum:



Stand and show your colors. Let's all go to war. The Lord will surely bless us.
I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always have a holy cause to march you off to war.
Tyranny or justice, anarchy or law. We must defend our honor.
I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always have a holy cause that's worth the dyin' for.
Someone writes a slogan, raises up a flag. Someone finds an enemy to blame.
The trumpet sounds the call to arms to leave the cities and the farms.
And always the ending is the same, the same, the same, the same.

The dream has turned to ashes, the wheat has turned to straw.
And someone asks the question: "What's the dyin' for?"
The living can't remember, the dead no longer care. But next time it won't happen. 
Upon my soul I swear I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

Don't tell me "It's different now." I've heard it all, I've heard it all, I've heard it all before.



The music was by Gary Geld, the lyrics by Peter Udell. 

Shenandoah's Civil War story had two sides, one of which was told by the play. But there is never a shortage of people to tell the other side. These days, with the hawks urging a “more muscular” foreign policy over Ukraine, Syria, Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Gaza, and God knows where else, we could use a play like Shenandoah today.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bombs Bursting in Air? Not.


What this country needs – oh, does it need – is an issue on which liberals and conservatives can unite and on which the country can voice its approval, loudly and enthusiastically.  Here is such an issue.

It is time we should change our national anthem.  The Star Spangled Banner is hard to sing and is out of step with the national mood, which is less militaristic than it used to be.  The country, according to most polls, is tired of “bombs bursting in air” and is ready for “amber waves of grain” or “the oceans white with foam.”

You like bombs bursting in air? Then the present anthem fails on musical grounds. How many of us, hearing O, Canada sung at the hockey playoffs or the Russian national anthem sung at Sochi, sighed, “I wish we had an anthem like that.” (How many singers have had the same thought?)

If it were put to a popular vote, two candidates would probably emerge: America the Beautiful and God Bless America.  Either one, in my opinion, is better than The Star Spangled Banner.  They are both stirring melodies.  America the Beautiful was written by Samuel Ward, a choirmaster, and Katherine Lee Bates, in 1910.  God Bless America, as everyone knows, was written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and revised by him (for Kate Smith) in 1938.  Both are well known and sung often; in fact, God Bless America has become a surrogate national anthem, sung at the home half of the seventh inning at many major-league baseball games.

For more than 150 years, the United States had no national anthem.  Then, in 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed an act making The Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. It has had a long and distinguished life, but now it is time for a new national anthem, easier to sing and having more inspired lyrics. It is time to move on.  Is there a political leader around who will take up the cause?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Buy Stocks in What You Know?

 
A long time ago, Peter Lynch, the Manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, became a hero of investors by popularizing the idea of buying stocks in companies with which one is personally familiar, either as a customer or as an employee. Enough successful examples of that strategy were around to promote Magellan and Lynch to well deserved cult status, and investors began asking their wives and children which stores and which products they liked – and why.

All that was true then. But does it make sense today? Yes, if one doesn’t confuse notoriety with knowledge. Take, for example, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce colossus that is about to go public in what may well be the biggest IPO in history. People are angling to buy stock in Alibaba or in Yahoo, which owns a big stake in the Chinese Company.  Other people are buying “momentum” stocks – stocks such as Tesla or Facebook or Twitter or Netflix. Some of these will make money for their buyers, but many are plunging on the basis, not of personal knowledge, but of hype. There’s a difference.

Look, with any of these momentum stocks, no matter how much you think you know, hundreds of Wall Street’s best and brightest know a thousand times more. They know more and they trade faster. You don’t have to believe the market is rigged, as one author plugged his book by charging. It’s just a fact of life, much more so now than in the golden age of Peter Lynch.

Publicity attracts crowds; that’s the idea, after all. In my stock trading, I scour the table of contents in the Journal and Barron’s, and if I find a company listed in which I am interested in trading, I cross it off my list. It is hard enough making a buck in the market without competing with the sharks. There are plenty of companies, even NYSE-listed companies, that never appear on those tables of contents.

I’m not saying that investing in what you know is a bad idea. I am saying that trading in hyped stocks is a loser. I bought some Apple several years ago because I believed in the Company, and I still own those shares. Score one for Lynch. But I trade other stocks, and those are the stocks where publicity is the kiss of death. Which ones? I’m not going to tell you, because that would be dumb.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Triangular Diplomacy



Politicians, mostly but not entirely Republicans, urge President Obama to adopt a more “muscular” foreign policy. There are headlines to be won with hawkish talk, and members of Congress, especially those who are considered Presidential hopefuls, are not averse to headlines. So there are those who chide the Administration for taking a “wimpish” stance on Syria and Ukraine. At times the President and his Secretary of State seem to be bending with the wind and threatening tougher sanctions against our presumed enemies.

Who are these enemies? Russia heads the list, and seldom a day passes without Obama or Kerry delivering a volley of threats against Putin and his associates. China is not far behind. The President’s trip to Asia this week is designed to reassure Japan and the Philippines that we will back up their territorial disputes with China with our muscle.

It is time for a reality check. There are three major powers in the world: the United States, Russia, and China.  We can out-muscle Russia or China, but we can’t take on both of them. If we threaten both, we will simply drive them to join forces in an attempt to defeat us. In a new Cold War, not just against Russia but against Russia and China combined, we would either (a) lose or (b) win at a cost that would leave the world in shambles.

Henry Kissinger, in his excellent book Diplomacy, outlines the background of Nixon’s “opening to China” in 1969:

Nixon decided to concentrate on the broader issue of China’s attitude toward a dialogue with the United States. Priority was given to determining the scope of the looming Sino-Soviet-American triangle. If we could determine what we suspected – that the Soviet Union and China were more afraid of each other than they were of the United States – an unprecedented opportunity for American diplomacy would come into being.

So it’s time, hawks, to decide whether to make nice with Russia or China.  Threatening both just doesn’t make sense. It’s idiotic. Decide whether some islands in the East China Sea are more important to the United States than Crimea, whether North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are more important than NATO’s interest in extending its reach.

Of course, best of all would be a world in which the United States is friendly with both Russia and China, but that seems highly improbable.

Whatever else one might think of Nixon, his trip to China was a master stroke. In these turbulent times we need more negotiations, less bluster, more give-and-take, less "you do this, or else."  We need triangular diplomacy.

  
 
W

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fade-Out


A few days ago I talked about the demalling of America.  Today I heard a rebuttal on TV from a booster of shopping malls. She said that on-line shopping is not replacing trips to the mall; it is replacing catalogs.  I am not convinced.

Another transformation that’s happening before our eyes is the slow but inevitable disappearance of the movie multiplexes that, like shopping malls, were overbuilt at the end of the 20th century.  The last few times I went to a movie theater, there were an average of about six people scattered in a space that held about 200. All right, they were afternoon trips, but still…..

Why go to the theater?  Home TVs are getting bigger, while the multiplex screens are getting smaller. At home, you control the environment; at the multiplex, your neighbors may talk, rattle their popcorn bags, or use their cell phones. Then there are the interminable previews and the inane pre-movie quizzes and commercials.  I have it on good authority (my children) that some showings of some movies are packed, but it seems to me that there is a shrinking cohort of people who absolutely, positively, definitely must see the latest Matt Damon or Johnnie Depp movie NOW. 

Then there is the fact that the hours spent on the iPad and the smart phone and the electronic games have to come from somewhere, since no one has figured out how to squeeze more than 24 hours into a day.

Finally, there is the cost of converting the film projectors to digital format, a substantial sum. I read that many theater owners just can’t afford it, but the trend is clear: celluloid is on the way out – and so are movie theaters.

Actually, I think the fade-out of the movie theater is sad.  I remember warmly the nights I used to accompany my parents to the Codman Square Theater (“the Coddy”) to see a Fred Astaire musical, a “B” picture, previews of coming attractions, Movietone News, and a cartoon. They are great memories. But, as they used to say in the movies, “Time Marches On.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Entertainment Wars

Netflix did two things the other day: It officially opposed Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable, and it announced its decision to hike fees on new subscribers by a dollar or two a month.  Netflix stock soared (up more than 27 dollars a share) on the announcements – and on the fact that Netflix earnings and new-subscriber count both exceeded the market’s expectations.

All of which causes one to consider whether, in the three-way competition among the cable owners (the pipes), the movie studios (the content owners), and, increasingly, companies like Netflix and Amazon (the streamers), who holds the strongest hand.

The truth is, all three need each other. Without content, the pipe owners are helpless. Without pipes, the studios can’t reach our homes.  And the streamers need both content and pipes.  Wireless technology may eventually replace coaxial pipes, but that’s a long way off, and anyway, the new pipe owners would be wireless companies.

Still, certain facts cannot be ignored. The first is that content, unlike the installed base of hardware, is mobile and will flow to where the money is.  Kevin Spacey was drawn to Netflix’s House of Cards by money and is free to leave Netflix when someone offers more money. So content is king, in a way that pipes are not. However, viewers (especially people in the cherished 20-to-35 age group) are a fickle and unpredictable bunch, as Hollywood and the TV networks find out every week.  Certain talent is bankable until it is not; and while content is a crapshoot, the pipes are not. A length of coaxial cable is a length of coaxial cable, and it can be depended on to deliver both quality content and garbage.  So the owner of the pipe is king.

On the other hand, there is no question that the trends favor streaming. Netflix has about 50 million subscribers in 40 counties, and it adds more every day.  The market values Netflix at over $22B, which means that it can afford pricey talent. So Netflix is king, which exactly is what the Netflix bulls are betting on.

In other words, I don’t know how the contest will play out. I don’t know whether Comcast’s takeover of TWC will be approved. I don’t know whether Netflix’s next show will be as successful as House of Cards or a turkey.  In short, any bet on any of these stocks is a pure gamble.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Robo-calls

 
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now have some idea of how awesome the NSA’s power is. The spooks there and at the CIA can monitor every phone call we make, every e-mail we write.  If we “like” something on Facebook, or buy something on Amazon, or search for something on Google, chances are that someone somewhere will know it.

So why can’t our government, which certainly has the technology, protect us from robo-calls?

Today I received about four or five of these calls, from, according to my caller ID, “Out of Area,” “Anonymous,” “800 Service” and other aliases.  I didn’t answer any of these calls, but sometimes I search the calling number on-line and read angry reports from dozens of people, some of whom took the trouble to identify the callers, many of whom are political parties.  Therein lies the tale.

When politicians authorized the FCC to give us the Do Not Call Registry, which presumably shields us from such garbage, they exempted certain classes of callers from the DNC embargo. Among these are charities and (surprise, surprise) politicians and political parties.  The Do Not Call Registry is aimed at telemarketers, not politicians – which happen to comprise most of the calls we get these days.

Thus we are protected from the private sector, but not from the public sector. Hmmm. The Do Not Call Registry offers no protection whatsoever from the Democratic or Republican National Committee, individual office-seekers, Citizens United, and advocates who just want to talk to you about ObamaCare.  

Some people answer these calls, bent on chewing out the callers. Others leave the phone off-hook until the caller realizes he or she is being had.  Best bet is simply not to answer.  Picking up the phone simply verifies that your phone number is good. Moreover, some calls, which may be from overseas, initiate a scam designed to extract money from your bank account.

Some phone services offer blocking programs that allegedly intercept designated calls and serve as your private do-not-call list.  But robo-callers are sneaky, changing their numbers periodically, so any list of blocked numbers could prove a moving target.

If you want to rid your life of these nuisance telephone calls, your first step should be to demand that your congressman eliminate the exemption that politicians, political parties, PACs, etc. enjoy in the law that authorizes the Do Not Call Registry.

Good luck with that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Demalling of America

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Once upon a time, not so long ago, when you shopped for non-food items, you went to a mall. Malls were everywhere, often just a few miles apart, and your basic shopping decision was which mall to go to.  Now, if you haven’t noticed, things are different.  You buy things on-line – not everything, because that would trigger panic in the retail community, and there are no signs of panic.  But the trend is clear.

In Biddeford, a small city near here, a new mall opened a few years ago. It was the worst possible time to open a new mall, compounded by the fact that the mall was hopelessly misdesigned, with traffic patterns that defy motorists to choose the correct lanes to drive in.

So, in a breathtakingly short time, stores began failing. Lowe’s and a Best Buy, both large stores, were among the first to fold, but they were not the only casualties. Several restaurants closed or were sold to new franchisees.  A Market Basket supermarket replaced Lowe’s, undaunted by the existence of three supermarkets nearby – including a Super Wal-Mart and a Shaw’s within a half mile. A Target store still stands hopefully in the mall, next to the vacant Best Buy, but few people expect it to become a mecca for shoppers.

I’m not picking on Biddeford Crossing. The same thing is happening across America.
There is a sea change underway in consumer shopping patterns. The old, brick-and-mortar stores are under siege, and it’s hard to see anything that can change the trend.  Those stores that have successfully added an on-line shopping option will do better, but the question remains: What will become of all that brick and mortar?

The effects of the demalling of America will be felt in many quarters, including employment (that new Market Basket, it is reported, employs 450 workers!) and investment. Best Buy and Target, notwithstanding recent bounces, sell for about 15 times earnings, while Amazon stock sells for 75 times 2015 earnings estimates! 

What will become of all that brick and mortar? Stores will fail, and malls will disappear. The process will be painful for many employees and investors, but it is inevitable. Technological change is often painful, but those who play it wisely will do well.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Final Cut

The Final Cut, a compilation of blogs about the arts - books, movies, plays, music, etc. - has just been published. It's a 205-page paperback containing 64 mini-essays dating back to 2006. No politics, no memories of growing up in Dorchester, no travelogues, no sports talk, no discourses on the passing scene in Maine - just commentary on the arts, as watched, read, and listened to over a long lifetime. If this sounds like your thing, you might enjoy sharing the journey with me.  The book is available at www.lulu.com.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Sound of (Live) Music



It has been four days since NBC presented a live performance of The Sound of Music, time enough for all the critics to lambast Carrie Underwood because she isn’t Julie Andrews and to lament the play’s cloying sentimentality.  Enough, already.  Someone should speak up for the production, which, despite a few shortcomings, was a high-quality rendition of a high-quality musical.  And Carrie Underwood should hold her head high; she was an excellent Maria.  As a matter of fact, hearing that the network was planning to air a live performance, I sensed a disaster in the wings, but I needn’t have worried. NBC pulled it off with flying colors.

First, the material:  This Sound of Music was not based on the movie, which everybody has seen, but on the Broadway musical, which relatively few people now alive have seen. That play opened on November 16, 1959, ran for 1433 performances, and won mostly rave reviews, especially for Mary Martin, its star. (Theodore Bikel was the baron.) At least two of the songs were not used in the 1965 blockbuster movie: but were fortunately resurrected for the NBC production: “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?”  For the broadcast, the producers also decided to use one song written specially for the movie:  the lovely “Something  Good.”  

As I said, most critics loved the play. Frank Aston of the World-Telegram called it “The loveliest musical imaginable,” and Richard Watts of the Post wrote that the “show has a warm-hearted, unashamedly sentimental, and strangely gentle charm that is wonderfully endearing.” The raves are worth noting, because the movie, so beloved by the public, has become a favorite piñata of the critics, who routinely savage its sentimentality (The Sound of Mucus).

The cast:  It was up to Carrie Underwood to carry the production, just as it was up to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, and Ms Underwood did far better than one could reasonably expect, given her limited dramatic experience. She looked right, and that alone put her on second base. Add a fine voice, and that put her on third.  There was not a flat note (none that I could detect, anyway) and not a jarring  line or reaction. No, she’s not Julie Andrews (who is?), but remember that if Julie flubbed a line or didn’t hit a note right, why, they simply shot it over, as many times as necessary, until it was perfect.  As for Mary Martin, she was 46 (!) when she played Maria, and she had decades of stage experience behind her.

The supporting cast was excellent, notably including Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader.  Laura is a real singer and played the role with warmth and wit. (Eleanor Parker, the movie’s Frau Schrader, was edgier and did no singing.) Christian Borle was a fine Max Detweiler (the impresario), particularly when singing with Laura Benanti, and the children were adorable – and good singers, to boot. If there was a weak link it was the baron. Stephen Moyer was stiff and sang poorly. He looked the part, and that must have landed him the job.  But that only got him to second base, where, alas, he died.  Audra McDonald, as the Mother Superior, was formidable, as she always is.

The interior sets were well executed.  As for the exteriors (the Austrian Alps), they were embarrassingly bad, although I don’t know how they could have finessed that except by bringing in video of the real Alps or resorting to computer graphics – both of which would have brought howls from viewers who were promised a live production.  In 1959, faux mountains probably didn’t matter, but expectations have been inflated since then.

Carrie Underwood is 30 now – the same age Julie Andrews was when she made The Movie. Let’s hope Carrie’s career has the same kind of arc that Julie’s had. And let’s hope that NBC doesn’t let the naysayers keep it from televising more live musicals.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Company


This week PBS brought us a concert version of Sondheim’s Company.  While I am always glad to see Broadway musicals on television, I am afraid that this one was a misfire.  Not that the audience at Avery Fisher Hall didn’t enjoy it; they lapped it up. The play is a favorite of high schools, colleges, and community theaters, partly because it is easy to stage, partly because the material has a gloss of sophistication that is appealing to many.

Company has never been one of my Sondheim favorites. The problem is the book, by George Furth.  The story line, if you don’t know, is bookended between two scenes of a surprise birthday party for Bobby, a 35-year-old bachelor surrounded by married couples who are (1) trapped in a state of marital warfare and (2) preoccupied with Bobby’s singleness.  Bobby also has a few girlfriends who float in and out of the play.  The problem with the book is its shallowness, disguised by a lot of snappy one-liners, some funny, some not.  Sample: One of Bobby’s girlfriends says, “He’s from New York; he’s not interested in anything.”  The audience, made up of people presumably from New York, roared with laughter. 

The music is brittle and the lyrics are very clever, both characteristics typical of Sondheim’s work. One can imagine that the composer/lyricist was right at home with Furth’s book, for Sondheim is the master of nihilism, and nihilism is overflowing in Company. The orchestra, a slimmed down New York Philharmonic conducted by Broadway old-hand Paul Gemignani, was fine. It was highly visible on stage, as is the custom in concert productions. 

Bobby, in Furth’s book, is essentially a straight man for the husbands and wives and girlfriends who surround him.  A successful performance, therefore, depends entirely on the ability of Bobby to be a sympathetic character whom one cares about.  That brings me to the second weakness of the PBS production: the cast.  Bobby was played by Neil Patrick Harris, a television actor who has some talent (on display when he emceed the Tony Awards) but not the presence that makes you really care – or understand why his married friends care two hoots if he gets married or not.

The supporting cast was also made up of people who owe their celebrity mostly to television - Stephen Colbert from the Comedy Channel, Christina Hendricks  from Mad Men, etc. The only one with Broadway bona fides was Patti LuPone.  It’s not that television is inherently inferior to the legitimate stage, but someone who has acted on Broadway for years has a way of moving and talking that sets him or her apart – as Patti LuPone amply demonstrated in this production. Colbert was solid, and Hendricks was very good, but neither they nor others had to demonstrate the talents usually associated with musical theater.  And Neil Patrick Harris lacked the voice that might have offset his lack of personal magnetism. Harris’s voice was especially inadequate in Bobby’s closing song of redemption, “Being Alive.”

But, all that notwithstanding, we should rejoice that any Broadway musical – even a weak one like this – makes it into our living rooms. Now we can wait, with great anticipation, for Oklahoma!, starring a young Hugh Jackman,  which will be shown on Great Performances on November 15.  This one, probably inspired by the fact that it has been 70 years since the landmark musical opened on Broadway, is not to be missed.