Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Hospital in the Valley

It happened a long time ago. Thirty years, I’d guess. I was attending a Board meeting in Silicon Valley, back in the days when Silicon Valley was the center of the universe. The meeting room was on the second floor of a bank building in Sunnyvale. The directors were all officers of leading semiconductor equipment suppliers, and we all knew each other well and looked forward to the chance to swap stories about life in what was then the fast lane.

One of the directors had to leave the meeting early for another appointment. His name was Sam, and he was the oldest member of the group. He said his goodbyes and walked down the stairs to exit the building.

He should have walked out the door, but instead Sam walked into a floor-to-ceiling glass panel adjacent to the door. It shattered, and Sam was badly cut. Somehow he made it back to the meeting room, his leg bleeding profusely. While the one lady present looked the other way, we dropped Sam’s pants to assess the damage, and we quickly concluded that a trip to a hospital was called for. I volunteered to drive, and a director named Mike, who lived in the Valley, offered to navigate.

As we drove to the hospital with our wounded colleague, Mike and I chatted about the quality of medical care in the Valley.

“The hospital we are headed for is one of the best in the world,” said Mike. “Every bit as good as Mass. General or anything else you have in Boston.” I nodded. It was good to know that Sam would be in the best of hands.

Sam was quickly admitted, and Mike and I sat in a very large room just inside the main entrance, waiting for our friend to be repaired. While we waited, Mike kept praising the hospital’s medical staff and its worldwide reputation. As a native Bostonian, I recognized the pattern. In Dallas, for instance, a Texan might say something like, “So you’re from Boston? Well, they say that our symphony orchestra here in Dallas is on a par with Boston’s.” Or someone from Phoenix might compare that city’s art museum favorably with Boston’s. It was an old story: new cities striving to equal the old. Today the subject was hospitals.

Then, from a pair of swinging doors to our left, a patient was wheeled into this large room. He was apparently being discharged from the hospital. The orderly who wheeled him in then walked over to the front desk to deal with the paperwork.

But he did not set the brake on his patient’s wheelchair, and the hard floor in the room was apparently not level. So, while Mike and I and the others in the room gasped in astonishment, the wheelchair rolled across the room, heading for the hospital’s main entrance about 30 feet away. It crashed into the wall, and the patient was thrown from the wheelchair onto the floor. Blood was oozing from his mouth. He was gathered up and whisked back into the hospital.

After a while, Sam emerged with his leg stitched up, and the three us drove back to Sunnyvale in relative silence.

I am sure that the hospital in question was every bit as good as Mike said it was. Mistakes happen, even in the best places.
But the floors are more level in Boston, I think.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The "What, Me Worry?" Economy

One day in the 1970s, when the stock market plummeted and investors were in trauma, a wise man (and the CEO of my Company) said, “Look, it’s not as if this is the end of the U.S. economy. The market will come back.”

Then he added, “Of course, some day it will be the end.”

The market recovered with a bang, and those who sold in fear were proved foolish. Alex was right, as usual. But I never forgot his postscript.

Today, we are trapped in Iraq. Not involved, not implicated, but trapped. There is no exit. Meanwhile, the hawks are beating their war drums on Iran. Garry Kasparov, former chess champ and political wannabe, rants against Russia in today’s Journal. Congressional hawks want us to “get tough” with China. American special ops forces are doing their thing in Somalia and the Philippines and elsewhere. There is serious talk of a military incursion into Pakistan. The neo-cons have Syria in their sights. When all else fails, escalate.

Here at home, the real estate market is in free fall. The country avoids economic collapse only because China and others fund us to the tune of two billion dollars a day. The U.S. savings rate is negative. House foreclosures are soaring. People, according to the polls, have utterly no confidence in the President or in Congress.

Despite all this, the stock market, despite a few speed bumps, charges ahead. If you are a hedge fund manager or a private equity guru, it’s a wonderful life. How wonderful? The managers of the 25 largest hedge funds earned more last year than the CEOs of all the Fortune 500 companies, combined. It's all fodder for John Edwards's populist presidential campaign.

It has always been foolish to count out the U.S. economy. Every time the market tanks, there are those who cry, “Don’t panic.” Sound advice, as a rule. Someday, though, the better advice will be “Panic.” Maybe this is the time. The odds that the game is over are still low, but they have risen from, say 2 percent during the crises of the 70s and 80s to maybe 4 or 5 percent today. Not to worry? Worry. By the time they rise to 10 percent, if they do, the markets will be in shambles.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an old friend who now runs a hedge fund in New Jersey. He admitted to holding 40 percent of his fund’s assets in cash these days, because he feels, as I do, that the current disconnect between the market and reality will end badly.

Another old friend, economist Gary Shilling, correctly predicted the sub-prime mortgage fallout when conventional wisdom said that it was a non-issue. Gary thinks a recession is coming later this year, and the chances are building that he will be proved right. But a routine, palliative recession may in fact be too optimistic a projection.

Meanwhile, the CNBC talking heads keep assuring viewers that any market pullback is a terrific buying opportunity. To believer Larry Kudlow, the market is bulletproof. The brokerage gurus and the analysts talk the talk. Stocks are a great buy, they insist, and you should avoid bonds. Above all, don’t hold cash. After all, how can all these people make money if you insist on keeping your assets in your mattress?


A collection of these blogs, under the title "Searching for Joan Leslie," is available on, as is "The General Radio Story."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

You just can’t beat the British when it comes to insightful, literate, well-acted movies. The latest evidence is a quiet little gem called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The great Joan Plowright plays the title role, a widow who decides to settle into a London hotel she has seen advertised in a Scottish magazine. The hotel, whose name is announced by a flickering red neon sign, has obviously seen better days, and Mrs P.’s room is small and drab, with a bathroom “down the hall.” But Mrs P. decides to give it a go, and she quickly finds herself the center of attention in the Claremont’s dining room, where the long-term guests immediately fasten upon her as a new and interesting ingredient in their mélange. These characters include some of the best old-timers of the British stage and screen, with Anna Massey playing the imperious Mrs Arbuthnot, who reassures Mrs P. that she needn’t worry about being old because “you’re not allowed to die here.”

Mrs Palfrey tries to maintain her dignity without being rude to her inquisitors, but their curiosity is irrepressible. Then, walking along the sidewalk one day, Mrs P. trips and falls, and a young man living in the adjacent basement flat rushes to her rescue and ushers her into his digs to recover over a cup of tea. Overcome by his kindness, Mrs P. invites him to dine with her at the Claremont later in the week, and he accepts. His name is Ludwig, and he is an aspiring writer.

Mrs P. has a grandson, Desmond, in London, and the other Claremont guests have pried this fact out of her. But Desmond has not answered her phone calls; he is apparently too busy with his work. So, when Ludwig enters the Claremont’s dining room, the other guests take him to be Mrs P.’s grandson, and she does not bother to correct them. Later, when the real Desmond and his mother (Mrs P.’s daughter) enter the action, the plot thickens.

But the treasure here is not the plot (based on an Elizabeth Taylor novel), but the characterizations and especially the dialogue. Ludwig’s literary ambition sets up references to Wordsworth and Blake and conversations about Mrs P.’s favorite movie (“Brief Encounter”) and song (“For All We Know”). Joan Plowright is absolutely perfect in her role, and the supporting cast is nearly as good. We should all spend at least one evening with the flavorful characters in the Claremont’s dining room.

Great Britain has given us dozens of movies of this quality, and most of them, like this one, come and go unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, while the local cineplexes play the likes of “Evan Almighty” and “Oceans Thirty-Seven” (or whatever) and “Live Free or Die Hard.” De gustibus.

As the movie’s final credits roll, Rosemary Clooney is heard singing “For All We Know” as only she can. Within minutes the record was downloaded from iTunes and berthed in my iPod.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Language of War

You can’t tell the players without a program. Even with a program, the Iraq War can be confusing. The various players are called the Coalition Forces, the insurgents, the militias, the terrorists, and the militants. (I may have missed a few.) The terms change from war to war, it seems. For instance:

President Bush, in his Independence Day talk, likened the current Iraq War to the American Revolution. A poor analogy, for, as some churlish fellow pointed out, in the American Revolution, the insurgents won. Of course we don’t call them insurgents today; we refer to them as Patriots. John Adams was a Patriot, as were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the others. In homage, Tom Brady and his teammates are also Patriots.

Today we refer to the enemy forces as insurgents, but this raises an interesting question: If our addition of 30,000 troops we just dispatched to Iraq are collectively called a surge, then, by definition, are they not the insurgents?

In old World War 2 movies, the French and the Greeks and the Dutch who waged guerilla war against their German occupiers were called Freedom Fighters. I suppose that the Iraqis who shoot at their country’s occupiers are also in a sense freedom fighters. The difference, I guess, is the Germans were bad occupiers, and we are good occupiers. But when you see soldiers patrolling your streets and helicopter gunships shooting at you, the difference between bad and good gets blurry.

Condi Rice, Tony Snow, and others are careful to refer to our side as Coalition Forces, in order to promote the impression that the free world is aligned with us in our mission. The Gulf War waged by Bush 41 did indeed involve a coalition. This time around, we initially referred to our side as a "coalition of the willing,” but you don’t hear that anymore, because it’s obvious that hardly anyone is willing.

Much has been written about the definition of the word “terrorist,” and here it gets tricky. Our preferred definition is that a terrorist is one who commits or advocates violence against innocent civilians. But innocent civilians are being killed by the dozens in Iraq and Afghanistan, day after day, and some of them are killed by Coalition Forces. The language has thus been enlarged by the addition of the term “Collateral Damage,” which means terrorist acts inadvertently perpetrated by the good guys.

One recalls novels like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, in which government reshaped the language to serve its purposes. (The agency responsible for disinformation was called The Ministry of Truth.) There is nothing new here; Rome was ruthlessly imposing “Pax Romana” 2000 years ago, but, in the name of peace, the Romans killed over 150,000 British “insurgents” when they dared to rebel.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Russians are Coming.....

The sky is cloudless and hazeless, and a light breeze from the north is keeping the temperature in the sixties. The sea is sparkling (the photo was just taken), and the place has the look of October, not July. It is, in short, as close to perfection as you can get, weather-wise, and the gods are obviously smiling down on Presidents Bush and Putin, who are meeting just a few miles from here.

We, like most of the Town’s residents, are steering clear of Walker’s Point, but you can’t escape the sense that Something Big is going on in the neighborhood. For one thing, there is the constant drone of jets overhead, as the Air Force provides round-the-clock cover. The neighbors’ tolerance of this incessant hum varies with their political leanings. The Bush haters take it as an annoyance; the pro-Bush people think it’s a stirring reminder of this country’s vigilance.

Then there are the fishing parties. The Presidents (41 and 43) have been fishing right outside our window, off Timber Island. They, in their white cruiser, are surrounded by a flotilla of security boats and a Coast Guard cutter – enough to drive away any stripers that may been in the area. The cruiser is “Bona Vita II.” The good life indeed.

Friday we drove by Walker’s Point, stopping at the security check point, where we were cautioned to proceed but not to stop again until reaching the next check point. All very serene, with courtesy abounding. The protesters hadn’t shown up yet.

Then, Saturday, on route to a family gathering in New Hampshire, we stopped by Pease AFB in Portsmouth, where we saw Air Force One sitting alone on the tarmac like a beached whale. Far away, in a secluded corner of Pease, we saw the Ilyushin IL-62 that had brought the Russian advance party over a few days before. The irony was tangible to those of us old enough to recall Pease’s role as a SAC base during the cold war. This now-decommissioned and nearly deserted air base, where B-47s and B-52s were poised to strike the Soviet Union for many years, is now hosting a total of four Ilyushin jets through yesterday (three IL-62s and Putin’s IL-96), with a fifth due to land on the 11,300-foot runway this morning.

No matter what your politics, you have to hope that the Kennebunkport summit goes well. This country needs friends these days, especially big, powerful friends, and the Russia-bashers and China-bashers should temper their rhetoric. It is time to revisit Henry Kissinger’s principle of Realpolitik, where in a world of three major powers you don’t want to be the odd man out. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, let’s hope the men at Walker’s Point get it right