Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve On Duval

Key West was crowded for the end of year celebrations, and the sun came out at the last minute, before another half hearted cold front rolled into town.
I stopped on my commute and took a picture of Cow Key Channel to celebrate the sunny day, the day I was going to be indoors for work.

I took my lunch break n the early afternoon and I went downtown to brave the crowds which usually leave me feeling overwhelmed.

Everyone seemed to be making a good living from the tourists, including the rather crappy practice of using a dog in ludicrous poses to get tips from people.

You won't usually find me eating on Lower Duval but I did like this picture if open air dining on the last day of December.

Or getting your future foretold in your shirt sleeves.

I'd like to imagine I could foresee this guy getting a ticket but who knows what the story was.

What do you you foresee a hot date?

The shell was scheduled to drop at midnight but I was at home getting ready to be at work at six in the morning. I foresaw the trash can overflowing before long. Public works crews have their work cut out in the morning before the city awakes.

The young woman in the leather skirt and boots was heading towards the bar that likes to call itself Coyote Ugly. A tough way to earn a living I think.


I wasn't the only worker bee on the block:

Any day is a good day to mark the spot, but sunshine makes it prettier.

Winter parkas, Key West style.


In the midst of the grown ups I met a band of kids being kids, playing and planning.

Key West is an ordinary small town behind the facade of worldliness and partying.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Matt Taibbi's Best From 2013

AIG has a lengthy history of producing some of the biggest tools on Wall Street. Former CEO Maurice "Hank" Greenberg was considered one of the world's preeminent unapologetic narcissists even before he sued the government for providing an insufficiently generous bailout. Joe Cassano, former chief of AIG's financial products division, was another. First, he arrogantly blew off the accountants who warned him his portfolio of hundreds of billions in uncollateralized bets might destroy the world. Then, after it all went kablooey, he tiptoed back to D.C. (after first being assured of not being prosecuted, mind you) from his lavish four-story townhouse in London just long enough to tell the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that he hadabsolutely nothing to be sorry about and they could bite him and his hundreds of millions in earnings if they disagreed.

Now a third AIG executive enters the pantheon of tone-deaf AIG bigwigs: CEO Robert Benmosche, who just told the Wall Street Journal that the post-crash public outcry over the use of bailout money to pay bonuses to executives in Cassano's Financial Products unit was comparable to – get this – lynchings in the deep south. From reporter Leslie Scism's interview:

The uproar over bonuses "was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."

For sheer "Let them eat cake"-ness, this ranks right up there with Lloyd Blankfein's "I'm doing God's work" riff and Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger's line about how it was proper to bail out Wall Street, but people in foreclosure should "suck it in and cope." A few notes:

First of all, any white guy anywhere, rich or poor, who steps out in public wearing the mantle of 400 years of black suffering instantly shoots to the very top of the world asshole pyramid. Most white people grasp this instinctively. If they don't already teach it in kindergarten to make sure the rest get it, they ought to.

But when you're a white guy who just presided over a year of declining across-the-board sales but got a 24% pay raise anyway, to $13 million a year, largely because your company is invested in a market that's overheating due to massive Fed intervention, and you're so grateful for your cosmic good fortune that you immediately go out and publicly nail yourself to the cross of black victimhood – and not while stone drunk and with buddies at a bar, mind you, but sober and sitting in front of a Wall Street Journal reporter – that's like a whole new category of asshole. Try to compute just exactly how obnoxious that is – you'll be doing it until the end of time, like someone trying to figure pi.

Benmosche's nooses-and-pitchforks fantasies have their origins in stories about some AIGFP executives who were made to feel uncomfortable by angry crowds on their way home from work, and one about a teacher somewhere in the Midwest who ridiculed in her third-grade class a child whose father worked at the firm. That last bit of course would be very wrong if it did happen, and it may very well have.

Still, comparing being leered at on a train for continuing to collect a huge undeserved bonus from the taxpayer to being taken from your wife and family and hung from a tree for no reason at all is preposterous on at least a hundred different levels. Benmosche then doubled down on his crazy-spasm by explaining that part of the "lynching" involved the great unwashed trying to cheat those innocent AIGFP employees out of money they needed – money they needed, Benmosche explained, not to pay their bills, but to live beyond their bills:

Now you have these bright young people [in the financial-products unit] who had nothing to do with [the bad bets that hurt the company.]. . . They understand the derivatives very well; they understand the complexity. . . They're all scared. They [had made] good livings. They probably lived beyond their means. . . They aren't going to stay there for nothing.

It's a minor part of the story, but this whole notion of angry meanie taxpayers ignorantly trying to rob the poor AIGFP employees out of their hard-earned bonuses was always a fiction.

Those FP workers would normally have been counting on performance bonuses, but since AIGFP not only didn't perform that year, but created a historically bottomless suckhole of losses that nearly destroyed the universe, there were, alas, no performance bonuses to be had.

So management cooked up a bunch of "retention bonuses" for many of the unit's employees. This always seemed like a scam, a way of yanking a little last bit of value out of a company most thought was headed for collapse. Moreover, the notion that anyone (but especially the taxpayer) needed to pay millions in "retention bonuses" to prevent other financial firms from poaching employees of the biggest financial disaster/PR-cancer firm since Enron or Union Carbide – and this at a time when mass layoffs on Wall Street had flooded the labor market with thousands of other highly-qualified financial professionals who would have taken huge pay cuts to fill those slots – was always absurd.

Then Benmosche dropped one last bomb:

We're trying to find the villains [for the financial crisis]. There's got to be a villain somewhere. The problem is that there isn't a villain. There are villains. And they are everybody. They are the speculators in real estate. The people who flipped houses. People who lied and cheated [on mortgage applications]. Nobody did the income appraisals. … I include myself in there. I knew stuff was wrong.

Benmosche worked in high-level positions at both Credit Suisse and MetLife in the pre-crisis years, so one assumes he's talking about those jobs when he hints there was a time when he "knew stuff was wrong" with the mortgage bubble but apparently didn't say anything. So he kept his mouth shut and got rewarded for non-acting in the face of crisis with a job running AIG, where he sucked millions in comp from the taxpayer for years, which must have seemed only natural to him.

In tossing out this "everyone was a villain" line, the CEO, of course, only mentioned the small subset of ordinary people who were "villains" in those days, the low-level speculators who flipped houses and the homeowners who lied on their mortgage applications.

He conveniently left out the bigger institutional players who birthed this scheme, like the giant investment banks (including for instance Credit Suisse, where he worked) that not only knew that mass fraud was being committed at the mortgage application level but encouraged it, so that they could speed up the process of pooling and securitizing those mortgages and selling them off to unsuspecting third parties. Just to take the one example of his own former bank, investors in the mortgage securities sold by Credit Suisse incurred over $11 billion in losses, according to a complaint filed by New York AG Eric Schneiderman against the firm last year.

Banks knew, lenders knew, ratings agencies knew, and then of course firms like AIG knew that something was deeply wrong with the booming mortgage markets in the years leading up to 2008. The peculiar trade of AIGFP was the obviously crazy practice of selling hundreds of billions of uncollateralized insurance to the Goldmans and Deutsche Banks of the world, who in many cases were using these policies to bet against their own products. The 377-odd employees of that sub-unit of AIG took home over $3.5 billion in compensation for such socially-beneficial service in the seven years before it all went bust. If finance-sector pros in those years had reservations about where all that money came from, most, like Benmosche himself, kept them to themselves.

Stories like this "hangman nooses" thing give some insight into the oft-asked question of how the 2008 crisis could ever have happened, the answer being that the people who run our economy, like Benmosche, are basically idiots. They can read a spreadsheet and get through an investor conference call sounding like they know what they're talking about, but in real-world terms, your average pimp is usually an Einstein in comparison.

These people are so used to being told by interns and finance reporters and other ballwashers that they're geniuses that they pretty soon come to believe it, which is how concepts like "We'll never lose a dollar – it's all hedged" go unchallenged in rooms full of econ majors who've just bet the whole store on the mortgages of underemployed janitors and palm-readers. Somebody, please, tell these guys quick how smart they're not, or else we'll be in another crisis before we know it.

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Winding The Year Down

The year ending is an arbitrary thing to a logical thinker like me. I gave up thinking much about New Year after the century changed in 1999 (I too think it changed in 2000/01 but let's leave that aside as a hopelessly minority position, okay?). So I spent much of my life wondering about the change of year, change of millennium thing. When I was a kid we were told this or that innovation would happen "by the turn of the century." The 1st of January 2000 came and went and all those jet propelled hover cars and commuting to the moon and all that never materialized. Besides, dates are totally arbitrary, a human invention for convenience based solely one quite knows what. Jesus' Birthday? Historians have been pointing out the Messiah was probably born in 4 Before Christ (the common era we call it today, like it or not). And not likely in December. Jews are still waiting for their Messiah and they name dates after Japanese car companies (Nissan, anyone?). But New Year's Eve is a great way to make money so our bosses push it hard.

This week is a madhouse in Key West packed with people and all of them demanding a good time to see the new year in. Nothing stops or slows down for this holiday. We have a small town with three centers of celebration slated for midnight Tuesday, all based on New York's dropping of the ball. Key West drops a pirate wench, a conch shell and a transvestite - take your pick. My wife and I have an opportunity this year I attend as I am training on day shift so I will be done working by 6pm. On the other hand I can already see the effects of over crowding, bad driving habits and lost tourists, every intersection in Key West is an adventure in self preservation this week. Amalgamating it all into one giant drunken street party seems overwhelming. We may just stay home...
I'd like to attribute my lack of enthusiasm for the street party to superior anti consumerist political principles, or a smug refusal to agree to commonly accepted calendar dates, or perhaps even simple self preservation in a world gone drunk that night. I suspect we will not be seen cheering and drinking on Duval or at Schooner Wharf for one simple reason: sheer laziness.

God I love being 56! No more excuses...

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Great Chocolate Cake Caper

Sometimes all a Labrador wants to do is sleep, and sometimes that's what you have to let Cheyenne do. So we did, and she lifted her head to watch us go. I suspect she has a pretty good time left at home, wandering out onto the porch, sunbathing on deck, pottering about downstairs in the bushes, coming back indoors for a nap and going it all over again. It's a dog's life, it really is.

We stopped by Dolly and Robert's, and for once I got to be a passenger on the ride into town. As we were celebrating Dolly's birthday when she started to whinge about needing, not wanting, chocolate cake with buttermilk frosting we had to listen. More than that my wife and I got onto our phones and tried to find properly frosted traditional chocolate cake. You'd be amazed how hard that was. I figured a chocolate volcano from Michael's would do the trick, after our planned dinner and scheduled play at the Waterfront a Theater. Nope, it had to be chocolate cake. We immediately thought of Harpoon Harry's diner but they close at nine...Louie's didn't have it, Better Than Sex had beer baked chocolate cake, Martin's looked do-able but got nixed, Solo had chocolate cake cheese cake, Salute had something else, Café Sole had a chocolate mousse cake... This was getting to be fun. Do the Impossible!

I suggested, as we turned on White Street, that we order up a custom cake from one of the many fine bakeries in town and we do the birthday dessert thing a day later. To my astonishment this suggestion met with general approval and we settled for that. Until my wife spoke up from the back seat, there' said cupcake place over here....and there it was,with more cupcakes than you can shake a stick at, and bless me! Individual slices of the perfect chocolate cake. Key West Cakes hit the spot.

With that settled we left the car in a secret downtown location, and walked to dinner on Front Street, at the Roof Top Cafe upstairs, indoors with the night breeze blowing through the open French doors. It was lovely.

Andres, our Castilian waiter asked where we were from and seemed to perk up when we told him we were from around here. It augured well for dinner, being served by a pro. I have always liked the atmosphere at the Rooftop but for some reason my wife has been reluctant. Silly woman, the linens were clean and crisp, the water was cold and the rolls were hot enough the butter melted promptly. We were indoors (which I liked) feeling like we were outdoors (which I liked).

We went straight to the main course, vegetables for Dolly, mutton snapper for myself and Robert and mushroom risotto for my wife. The snapper was excellent with a spicy habanero mango sauce and my wife was in raptures over the rice. I had a fair few forks' full and she was right, it was rich and creamy while retaining nuttiness and slight crunch. I'd go back for that.

The place filled up not long after we sat for our six fifteen reservation, and dinner went by unreasonably fast. There was lots of conversation buzzing in the room but the place was not noisy. The Rooftop hit all the right notes.

Dessert was off, of course, as we had that carefully stored in the trunk of the car. While Robert wrestled with the bill, good man, I wandered into the deck and looked down on the teeming masses below.
We strolled through the warm night air to the Waterfront Theater five minutes away. If you fancy some alone time Key West is not the place to be...we had reserved dinner and Robert had tickets to the theater, second tow plumb in the middle. Dolly was getting the birthday she deserved.

Meeting old friends under the awning. The play was Leading Ladies and the Waterfront Playhouse was pretty full.

The play was a good old fashioned bedroom farce. The performance was perfect, campy over the top but not too much. Had Robert not invited us we'd never have gone. Reading about the play I was figuring it would be silly men in silly drag, and while the plot did revolve around that idea it was beautifully done. As a bonus it was also funny. Two feeble actors from England discover a local heiress has died leaving a fortune to two nephews who emigrated to England as children. They decide to impersonate the heirs and then discover Max and Sam are nieces of the deceased, not nephews. Hilarity ensues. The Shakespeare quotations dropped into the dialogue were a lovely counterpoint to the farce. And the final scene playing the entire play backwards from finish to start in three minutes was utterly brilliant. I'd never seen that before.

We had a grand time and it was lovely to walk back to the car in the dark of night and think, merely think, of the sounds of snow crunching underfoot.

Cheyenne was as we left her, busy guarding the home. Kisses all round.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29th,2013

I just realized I dropped a day. I am working five days a week to train a new hire and this schedule confuses me half to death. I like twelve hour shifts, preferably at night, and this regular office schedule is wreaking havoc with my routines. I apparently need more sleep. My apologies.

Normal service resumes at midnight Eastern time.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

My Labrador Home Body

It has been an effort to be seasonal that I have not appreciated but skies have been cloudy. No snow or anything serious, but clearly with nearly a million people out of electricity Up North my irritation at the lack of sunshine seems rather narrow minded.

Cheyenne always perks up massively when cold fronts ride into town. I start getting morose in September in the middle of the hot season worrying my immobile dog is finally accepting her age and all it's limitations and her end is nigh. Then it gets cool, relatively speaking, and the inner puppy is released.

Her morning walks end up being as long as she wants which can be as long as two hours, and when she is a good girl she gets to go into Old Town for her favorite walks.

Old Town is full of smells and food, all the effluvia of last night's revelers who abandon all manner of clothing and food and bodily fluids as they straggle back to their hotels. Cheyenne loves them for it, and I get to take pictures while she snuffles around looking for unconsidered trifles.

Christmas is gone for another year, Thank Festivus, and now we can listen to proper music once again on the radio.

I got Cheyenne four years ago in December when she was walking in the holiday parade with an "Adopt Me" jacket in the SPCA contingent stumping along between floats. Next Monday I walked into the office on college road and told them I wanted Cheyenne. They laughed and said okay.

KeyWest pop quiz. Is this:

A) a not very colorful Christmas gift?

B) a snowbird's car left on the street all summer?

C) something else?

Cheyenne meanwhile is frequently described to me as a big dog. It's all a matter of proportion, really.

When I took her home from the pound I was worried that we didn't have a fence to keep her off the street. I even got a long wire leash to tie her up while I was working in the yard or under the house. She didn't like that at all, as I rather think she had a long history of being confined and tied up. In the end I trusted she was happy and I put a dog door in so she can come and go as she pleases, inside, on the shaded deck or out in the sun.

I tried for a while to put a gate at the top of the stairs to preventer leaving the deck it that was such a pain I took it down. Silly me she never goes. Out. Into the street, she has no desire to leave home because if she did she might miss a really good road trip or a chance for a couple more minutes napping on the couch.