Sunday, November 30, 2008

How Far We've Come in Caring for Babies

I'm a bit confused. I understand breast milk. I understand organic. Frankly, I understand commercial food production and distribution. I grok Wal-Mart, I grok Target. Marks and Spencer. Ahold. Whatever the global equivalents are.

Food is food. When my parents grew up in Poland in the 20's and 30's, they did not worry about the kashrut (allowed to be eaten by religious Jews) rules. Wheat contained... wheat. Bread had none of the current ingredients. Here's a list of the ingredients in the challah my mother made when I was a child:
  • Wheat, water, eggs, yeast, sugar, corn oil
To my left what is in the Hawaiian bread that I use now when I make my Friday night blessings (this is from their web site, so pardon the image instead of text).

Please note that this is a much longer set of ingredients than what any normal baker (and I am one, so no lip, please).

We are getting so inured to ingredients that when the FDA assigns a maximum amount of melanine to food, we are expected to take that as a normal ingredient. Rat hairs I understand. Even impurities like dust, dirt, or even rocks (yes, we all find them in our dried beans from time to time) are acceptable.

What is not acceptable is this list, to my left, of ingredients deemed necessary to make my food somehow more palatable. Since when are dough conditioners necessary for me to taste good bread? And exactly why do I need ammonium sulphate in my food?

The issue of melanine is painful, certainly. The more there is, the more kidneys are compromised. Enough, and the kidneys fail, and the person shortly thereafter.

So why, given the obvious toxicity of this chemical, and its entirely inappropriate existence in the food supply (other than to raise the level of perceived (but unavailable) protein in a sample of food. So why would the FDA feel the need to determine a maximum level of melanine, other than to appease either the Chinese or the local American manufacturers of food.

I object. As a person who pays good money for food, I want to eat food. Not furniture composites, not ammonia derivatives, not any crap that I should not be eating. Yes, I know, there are alternatives. I could spend 2x, 3x, whatever to pay for organic foods.  And I would like to be local, organic foods, except that not all of us have the luxury of paying top price for food. Those of us not working (and our ranks grow larger by the day, unfortunately) can't afford the "luxury" of eating healthy.

There should be no minimum or maximum limit for melanine. For that matter, if it's made in a test tube, it should not be there. America is poisoning its own people, and we are complicit in that poisoning if we do not protest to our limits against these insane acquiescences.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Citi Bunk and Recess Appointments

Bush did it before, and he (and his administration) are doing it again. It seems that weekends and any time not burdened by the weight of the free market are excellent times for the government, and specific companies, to do their dirty work.

Citigroup is a great company. They gave me a break in 1979 that no one ever gave me, and convinced me then that they are an effervescent agent of change. Seriously. Citibank was doing things in 1979 that I see startups doing today. Sure, they've become a behemoth. Sure, some of their tentacles are probably doing good.

But the bottom line is that a company (in which I was considering investing) is in really terrible, and possible terminal, difficulty.

And my response, in this coldly capitalist society, is that Citibank, like every other banking organization, deserves the same consideration for a bailout as General Motors, Ford, and even (despite their non-public status) Chrysler.

Look: if we're looking for a good ROI, then I am personally a much more likely prospect for a postiive ROI than any of these companies. Put $1,000,000 into my life, and I will ensure that I will be cash positive for the rest of my life. Give the car companies, and Citi Group, several tens of billions of dollars, and we will get... um... I don't know? from them. And that will provide the American Public with how much money?

I would be more than a little confused if I didn't have questions. Certainly, as a taxpayer/stockholder, I definitely have questions about the way in which my tax dollars are being redeployed as investment dollars.

The American Treasury, as a taxpayer and voter, does not have the right to take my hard-earned an ill-transferred tax dollars, and turn them into investments in private companies. I would much rather have those funds (to the 1/10th or 1/000th), invested in ways for me to earn a decent, tax-positive living in the new economy.

Postscript: In the space of my writing this post and going to sleep, Citi Bank has garnered $300 billion dollars in loan guarantees for toxic funds (which had heretofore been rejected as a viable path for spending dollars) from the government. I am angry and ashamed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Embarrassment = Murder

Watch more ET videos on AOL Video

There is a strong Jewish prohibition against embarrassing someone in public: public humiliation is equated with murder.

Character assassination is almost unknown, except in cases when it is unexpected. Reality television has leapt into the breech. Sad, slightly whacky, purposefully unknown and truly sick people have been enouraged to apply to compete in singing, dancing, and knowledge feats. If, for no other reason, to be ridiculed by people who are in little to no way qualified to judge their peers.

In Jewish theology, someone saving a life is thought to have saved an entire world. Would those who aided or abetted Paula Goodspeed's rush to fame -- and public humiliation -- be guilty of having destroyed a world? Certainly, Ms. Goodspeed's world has disappeared.

I fault not the specifics, but the general: Paula Abdul is culpable of trying to save her "career," along with her showmates, by lending her name and aura to the "American Idol" contest. But she bears, as do her showmates and anyone associated with the show, responsibility for bringing the concept of "Idol" from the theoretical to the real idolatry of a cult of personality, of a cult of fame, of a cult of despair.

Shame on you, Ms. Abdul. And shame on the system, and the viewers, for participating in this particularly cruel Bread and Circus pageant.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Stupid People with Top Hats

One of the most irritating things about President-Elect Obama's win is the number of entirely insane people with whom I must interact or read about.

Whacko nutjobs in Kenntucky (is anyone keeping track of their sanity, let alone literacy, statistics) planned on killing multiple minorities, capping things off by driving at Senator Obama dressed in tuxedos and top hats, firing fully automatic weapons. These 18 and 20-year old folks would be total idiots in my book -- except they had access to the requisite weapons and had made plans. (Can anyone say: "neuter the idiots so they don't breed?")

A friend of mine talked about "cowboys" snatching white sheets off the shelves of local department stores. We're here in Central Texas, see: land of the semi-rational and home of the 'do what you want so long as we can't bust you' brigade.

Same friend talks about how terrible it'll be "when" Obama gets shot.

I don't know how to push love, trust and calm out past folks like this, but if we don't, the Secret Service will certainly be chasing a legion of village idiots before things calm down. And acting uber-paranoid with the President Elect until we get all the easy nut jobs out of the way.

This friend -- and a few others with similar views, talk about the race war and terror that would follow Obama's assassination (g-d forbid!).

My question is this: is their fear, their hatred, their small-minded vision so pervasive so powerful that the next President of the United States  must worry about these lunatics? Or can be take a deep breath, concentrate on the realities of global warming, magnetoshphereic dissipation, and drive these false dybbuks of our generation aside long enough for truth to ring free?

I'd like to think we can rise above these idocies. But the Cheney/Bush regime has created early warning monsters that we would ignore at our own peril.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Have Been Blessed to See This Day Come

It's a peculiarly Jewish custom to recite a blessing when encountering an incredible moment in one's personal history. We have a blessing on seeing rainbows, awesome sights, and living to see yet another year's holidays.

Today is a day of blessing. Blessing that we have seen the defeat of racism by truth. The defeat of fear and hate by trust and hope. Like coming upon a bridge over the Grand Canyon, ringed by double arcs of rainbows, this is a day for the United States to see a way through the darkness and weakness that have cloaked our country for the last many years.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha'olam, asher kiddishanu ve'ki'imanu ve'higi'anu laz'man hazeh.

Blessed are you our master, god and king of the world, who has blessed us, sustained us and brought us to these times.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Palin's America: A Nation of Small People

There are different forms of evil. My post earlier today, in the form of official misinformation, was one. The picture to your left is another, more primitive one.

Sarah Palin talks the "pro-America parts of the country." Her America (although her quote sources say a lot about her pedigree) is far different from mine. The problem with her rhetoric is that it spawns the kind of Balkan 'stanism' creating the splits we've worked for decades to heal. And in tearing at our nation's scars, she, and the other fanatics of the right, are weakening the entire body politic, at a time it needs unity, not divisiveness.

Here's another example of race and allegience in the radical Republican mind. Check out the image to the left, and then please click on the image to visit Cagle's site and read the full story.

It's been a disturbing day in terms of news. AndI hope, unfortunately, it disturbs you at least as much.

Voter Fraud: Who Wanted, and Who's Wanted?

The voter fraud issues raised in Ohio have existed since, well, since well before the famous Chicago line: "vote early and often!" Ballot stuffing, flyers distributed in poor areas telling people that "their voting day" was the day after the elections, and other voting-day trickery, have been around for decades, if not centuries.

As I'm writing this, an example of voter fraud (IMHO) is apparently being perpetrated by folks in the Williamson County Elections office itself (a Republican county under "attack" by Democrats):
  1. " make sure voting goes smoothly. Straight party voters, especially Democrats and Libertarian, will need to check all races. Some races do not have candidates from the Libertarian and Democratic parties."
  2. "A voter can vote Straight Party and have all of their votes count. They can also vote straight party and then select every Democrat again, if they so choose. What WILL cancel a Democratic selection is if they cast a vote for Republican in a contest, but it will only cancel their Democratic selection for that race and that race only."
If you do not wish to vote a straight party vote, you must mark each individual candidate for whom you wish to vote, and then cast your ballot. If you select straight party line, and thne check individual candidates, this could cancel your vote for those candidates [assumedly because this would be "two votes" for the candidate?]"
(Paraphrased from an email sent today by the Jaime Lynn campaign to all registered Democrats in the candidate's area.)
Misinformations are frequently characterized as innocent mistakes, but the mistakes frequently come from the incumbent party defending its turf.

On the other hand, registration fraud issues are more an expression of overzealous or ignorant voters and voracious, paid voter registration workers. Both are problems, but not as bad as they are made out to be by the parties.

An enthusiastic but uninformed voter might, for example, register to vote at the mall, then register again if approached by a campaign's volunteer in their neighborhood, for example. Or they might think that if they register twice, they can vote twice. A registration worker, paid per completed registration, might 'fudge the data' for the sake of a few (or many) extra bucks. These folks should be prosecuted for their offences.

The registration process, to be clear, is separate from the actual voting verification. For example, if I register multiple times, when I get to my polling place, the printouts (or screens, depending on the state), my voter registration card is checked against the list. If I've registered several times, duplicates are apparent. The harder to check ones are underaged or dead people who are registered, but their ability to impact an election, especially a national election, would require vast numbers of conspirators operating in very large areas.

So: punish the greedy, watch local government election officials that might try and rig elections through misinformation or purges of voter lists against erroneous felon or other lists, and ultimately focus on the voting day safeguards, and not on the registration process. Focus is important these days.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Last Anecdote and Observations

This evening I spoke with the owner of a wine store. He said that my sales are actually up compared to the last three months of last year. I'm getting a lot more customers buying by the glass, as opposed to people coming in to buy bottles and take them home. I get a better profit on the per-glass sales.

Sure, this isn't anything as scientific as something Angelo Angelou could put together in Central Texas. Or what the big marketing firms could query and sort on. But it is, I think, a fair snapshot of life in this new economy. People are spending about the same, but smarter, or in different ways, or more tactically. That bottle at home is better spent as three glasses at the bar, with friends. Topping off the gas tank feels less like a fill-up, even if the cost is the same (or greater, factoring the time to drive to the station).

The next hit will come when the retail credit dries up, and that, I think is part of why the government today focused its energy on unfreezing the credit markets. Because 80% of retail sales happen between October 15 and January 15, and what happens in the next three months will permanently impact who is in business, and how they will sell, in nine months. And without ready credit for retailers to purchase goods to sell, or factors to handle the accounts receivable from credit card sales, this will probably be the first true "Black" holiday period in a very long time.

Monday, October 06, 2008

More Anecdotes from the Texas Main Street

I had the opportunity to talk with three folks representing what I think are interesting data points regarding the economic situation and its effects over the last three weeks. Again, comments are paraphrases, not quotes:

From a car repair place: Business is about the same... but folks are being more careful about what they're repairing. And they're holding off on repairs, especially if they have high deductibles.

Top Line Liquor From a liquor store owner: I'm still selling. But people (gestures toward single malt scotches), are buying the cheaper stuff, not the expensive. (Points at the bargain, economy priced bourbons and scotches.) More like these, and less (waves hand upward to the $70 bottles) like those. But hey, things will get better eventually. I'm downgrading this guy from owner to manager... clearly he hasn't looked at credit terms lately.

What's interesting is that I'm getting a fairly homogenous set of responses (this post and the last) in terms of the economic impact. Everyone seems to be getting hedgy with their investments. Everyone seems to be acting, if not executing, on a more conservative, less confident, track.

I think this is how the 1929 crash started, except they didn't have folks like me making connections quite as fast. (No, that's not a reason to self-sensor!) I predict we'll get to the 8,000 range well before the winter holidays. Unless Obama gets elected, in which case all bets, unfortunately, are off. At least with McCain/Sarah [mammoth hunter] Palin we know where we're headed. [Okay, that was partisan, but if you've been reading this blog... you know where I stand.]

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Anecdotal Observations from Main Street

I've been collecting comments from people running or managing retail businesses, to see what changes consumers have been made.

From a gas station manager: People are pumping differently. They're not filling up, but I see them around more often. They're topping off, like on their way home and stuff.

From a hair stylist: Business is down. Not during the weekends, then we're real busy. But people aren't coming around during the day. Like now (gestured at the empty store): between like one and five in the afternoon it's totally dead.

From a supermarket manager: Overall receipts hasn't changed. But people are buying less each time, and coming more often instead. And they're coming in more with shopping lists; they're not shopping casually.

People are talking about Main Street, and the reality of the economic impact on plain folks. These observations, to me, mirror more the crisis of confidence precipitating the Great Depression rather than technical credit crisis. 401(k)s, pension plans and the credit markets will eventually recover, with or without a government bailout (and yes, I still think it's a bailout, no matter what the pundits might opine). The crisis that has to be overcome now is the one of consumer confidence, and there are several relatively inexpensive, non-pork ways to ameliorate consumer fears:
  • Eliminate short stock purchases. Period.
  • Extend unemployment benefits to a full year.
  • Freeze all foreclosures for the next eighteen months, and have local bankers, a representative from the mortgage company and the homeowners sit down and try and figure out how not to foreclose on the property. The feds should give local banks (not parent companies, or at a national level) funds relative to the mortgage stresses in that area to help underwrite these new loans. Only after there's no agreement, or it's clear the homeowner would be unable to pay even a reworked mortgage, would the foreclosure continue.
  • Underwrite 'pay for play' programs, where unemployed people who successfully complete training and certification courses have a free ride -- but are personally liable for the courses if they do not complete them (this cuts the ITT Tech student loan scam out of the loop).
There are other ideas, ones that we'd need to think about, ideas that might not be right for every region of the country, but workable in some. But what we really need is time. Time not to rush, time not to act hastily. And if that results, as President Bush said last week, in the loss of $1.4 trillion in "value" to the country, in the form of a loss of stock value, then so be it.

Calm, thoughtful action is economically more prudent than rash, panicky and doom-driven action.