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Archive for October, 2008

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Helpful or Hurtful?

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

My wife and I leased a car a few months ago.  I just received this e-mail from the dealership:

Dearest Clients, Friends and Family,

The best of times is now! Although many other manufacturers have closed their doors to leasing and tightened up on financing, we at V.I.P Honda are progressing forward with very aggressive financing and leasing opportunities. Whereas many of our competitors require the best of credit scores, 720 or more, for a deal to be considered, we are still able to work on a wide range of credit scores ranging from 580 and up!

We at V.I.P Honda understand, even in our current economic state, that life must still go on. We are not letting the current scenario effect us. Don’t let it effect you. Fantastic Finance and Lease deals are occurring daily. Honda’s reputation for fuel efficiency, reliability and low cost of maintenance will only bring you further savings down the road.

If you do not have the best of credit scores, do not worry! We are here to help you in every way possible. Our experienced Business Management team is here for you to assist you with examining all available options. V.I.P Honda has been in the neighborhood for over 3 successful decades. Use our experience to your advantage. Let us help you drive a new or pre-owned vehicle home today!

If you would like to schedule a consultation appointment, please feel free to reply to this email directly or reach me at 908-753-1500. Either I or one my associates will always be here to answer during business hours. I sincerely hope to hear from you soon!

So, decision time: is this a good thing or a bad thing? If your credit is 580 and these guys lease you a car at 6% interest for three years, what are the chances you won’t be able to pay the bill? Do they care? Should they be offering such a deal? At the very least, should they be bragging about the fact that they’re willing to loan money to people that have had trouble paying back loans in the past?

In the midst of a financial crisis, it’s easy to look back and yell “Greed!” and “Corruption!” But when you see it in action, the line gets more grey…

Your thoughts, everyone?

Categories: Money Talk | 3 Comments »

When will we learn?

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

This is disturbing:

WASHINGTON – An impatient White House is serving notice on banks receiving billions of dollars in federal help to quit hoarding the money and start making more loans.

White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters Tuesday that the Bush administration is trying to “get banks to do what they are supposed to do,” which is lend money. Though there are limits on how much Washington can pressure financial firms, she noted that banks are regulated by the federal government.

Perino said that the administration is watching lending activity very closely and working with the banks to step it up. She said that Anthony Ryan, Treasury’s acting undersecretary for domestic finance, was delivering a speech in New York on Tuesday that made this point.

Yeah, because why would we want banks to be careful about who they lend money to?!?

This kind of talk concerns me for two reasons. First, it can easily be seen as the White House suggesting that banks relax their rules about how they distribute loans, in order to get more money out the door and kick start the economy. Last time banks did this, it was lauded as “providing easier access to low cost housing,” and then subsequently vilified (five years later) as “Wall Street greed and deregulation.” Second, the side comment Dana Perino makes – “banks are regulated by the federal government” sounds a bit too much like “we have an equity stake in you now, you’ve got to do what we want.” For all the talk of socialism lately, this is the kind of thing we need to guard against.

If the banks are not lending because they are gun-shy to do so, even though there are qualified borrowers out there looking for money, then the White House is right to apply pressure. That pressure should be based on good business practices and benefits to the banks/economy, not some veiled threat about federal power over the banking industry. If, however, banks are not lending because they’ve toughened up their rules about who they’ll lend money to, then the White House should be encouraging solvent potential borrowers to step up and borrow money (and subsequently invest it in the economy), rather than back-handedly suggesting that we put ourselves right back in the same situation that caused the Current Financial Crisis(TM).

Categories: Money Talk | No Comments »

Some cool, non-partisan, political websites

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Hat tip to Zach Klitzman for this:  a graphical depiction of the New York Times endorsements dating back to 1860. Some fun facts:

And an equal tip of the cap to Koosh Gupta, who sent me this: Electoral maps of each presidential election in American history. Again, some fun facts:

Categories: Political Rantings, Random Acts of Blogging | 1 Comment »

ISBS Movie Review: High School Musical 3

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

If you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you know that this weekend marked the debut of High School Musical 3, the third installment in the wildly successful Disney series. This was the first of the three that debuted in theaters (the other two living exclusively on The Disney Channel until, of course, they made their way to DVD). With two children in my house, ages 8 and 5, it was mandatory viewing this evening (my kids happen to be boys; if they were girls it would have been mandatory last night after school, or at least this morning – which is why I saw several neighborhood Brownie troops heading into the theater this morning when I went to buy advance tickets).

Asking a G-rated movie aimed primarily at pre-teen girls to live up to this kind of hype is asking a lot. It’s a true credit to this film to say that it handles the task admirably, although there are most definitely some flaws. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, the plot: the gang from HSM1 and HSM2 return for their senior year. Unlike the other two movies, this edition starts with the East Side High Wildcats basketball team winning it’s championship game. With that neatly out of the way, the group begins considering their future. Some, like Troy (Zac Efron) and Chad (Corbin Bleu) have obvious default choices – the University of Albuquerque (the local U. and Troy’s dad’s alma mater) already have their lockers picked out. Others, like Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) have selected their college, but have more complex choices to make, like whether to attend a college honors program that pulls her out of high school early enough to miss the school’s spring musical and it’s senior prom. These two events (but really the musical, as per the title) become the focus of the movie. The musical’s theme, “Senior Year” serves as a multi-faceted plot device that allows each character to consider his/her future through what he/she performs in the show, etc. In fact, in a scene that bends reality a bit [NO SPOILERS HERE - I PROMISE], the musical’s finale actually consists of the school’s drama teacher revealing each student’s plans for the following year, sometimes to the complete surprise of the student himself/herself.

In terms of a review, the best I can do is this: this movie constantly teeters on the brink of ridiculousness, but never actually crosses the line, leaving audiences (even the parents) feeling good at the end. Enough so that we forgive quite a bit of forced dialog, awkwardly wedged-in song cues, and the occasional bout of over-acting. The actors do a fine job with what they’re given, although quite a few of them have grown up significantly since the last movie, a fact that is conveniently ignored throughout the film, of course. The leads, Efron and Hudgens, are clearly being groomed for other, non-Disney roles, as they appear much more grown-up and edgier this time around. And the music? The music has become a genre of it’s own. It’s the kind of music you could hear totally out of context and say to yourself, “that sounds like a High School Musical song.” Surprisingly, it took the writers untill the graduation scene in the third movie to actually write a song called “High School Musical,” and it’s title is so jarring that even the kids winced a bit when the cast launched into it.

But whatever flaws the movie has are very much beside the point. When the lights went down at the beginning of the picture, the audience in the theater burst into spontaneous, anticipatory applause. The applauded after several of the musical numbers as well. And my kids? In typical Disney fashion, my kids’ reaction was exactly what Disney was hoping for. The older one sat mesmerized throughout the film, memorizing every detail and pointing out subtleties in the plot (“Mommy, if Gabriella goes to college in California and Troy goes to college in New Mexico, they won’t get to see each other so much anymore”). The younger one smiled ear-to-ear throughout the film and then, as if struck by lightning, turned to me during the finale and said, “Daddy, is this the last High School Musical movie ever on the entire earth?” Well, son, they’ve graduated now, so unless someone’s writing “College Musical 1,” then yes – this is the end. His reaction: “Can we buy the DVD tomorrow?”

Bottom line: if you (and/or your kids) enjoyed the first two films, then this truly is required viewing. It’s Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith without all the complicated whining about how the writer/director didn’t satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends. You will leave the theater tapping your toe, feeling good, and satisfied that the story reached a proper conclusion. Then, you’ll get in your car and realize that it’s High School Freakin’ Musical music that you’re humming, and immediately click over to your hard rock playlist to clear your palette.

Or at least, that’s what I did…

Categories: ISBS Reviews, Movie Talk | 1 Comment »

The Argument Against Universal Voting Rights

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Colleague Dave Sohmer sends along this gem:  it’s a clip from the Howard Stern show on Sirius Radio in which Howard sends one of his people to the Harlem section of New York City (famous for it’s high concentration of African American residents and a strong sense of racial/cultural pride).

The interviewer asks people who they are voting for and why.  The answer, invariably, is Barack Obama, and “because I agree with him on the issues.”  The interviewer then cites many of John McCain’s positions and asks the person if he/she agrees with Barack Obama on those specific issues.  Again, the answer is yes.  My favorite is, “If Obama wins, are you OK with Sarah Palin becoming Vice President?”  Answer: ”Yes, yes I am.”

Three completely separate thoughts on this piece:

1)   It’s very funny.  Click through if only for the hearty laugh.

2)  I literally haven’t heard a word out of Howard Stern since he left terrestrial radio, and I can’t say I miss him terribly.  This clip confirms to me that he still bases most of his humor on making people look bad in public (in much the same way that Jay Leno, Bill Maher, and to a lesser extent, David Letterman do).  It always makes me long for Johnny Carson, who found comedy in making regular people look good on television. Watch this and ask yourself how Stern or Leno would have handled this interview.

3) On a more serious (read: political) vein, this clip reinforces my belief that the pervasiveness of opinion polls in our culture today has seriously warped our ability to process information. It used to be that polls were an outputof the political process – a way to periodically check on who was resonating better with the public at large. Today, though, with our pre-debate polls, live polls during the debate, and post-debate polls, we are fed way too much information about what our fellow citizens are thinking. This data instinctively becomes an input into what we think. Right and wrong answers begin to develop. It becomes harder to give the “wrong” answer to a pollster than it is to give the “right” answer, skewing the results and reinforcing the “rightness” of the “right” answer.

Example: Do you approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as President? As we’ve been hearing for over a year now, the “right” answer to that question is “No.” But what if you believe the answer is “Yes?” It’s a subjective question, after all, and even today, some 25-30% of Americans feel that way. My point is, saying yes requires jumping over two hurdles (believing the answer is yes, and having the guts to say so in public), whereas saying no requires just one.

Are all of the people interviewed in the above clips idiots? Maybe. But perhaps they’re just nervous because they know they’re going to be on the radio, and so they are easily confused. And when one is nervous and confused, it’s a lot easier to give the “right” answer than to try and formulate a coherent story behind a “wrong” answer.

Obama’s lead is growing lately. Just two weeks ago, it was a dead heat, and now it looks like Obama’s ahead by ten percentage points or more. Has there been a significant change? Did the debates really sway McCain supporters into Obama’s camp? Or is it just becoming obvious now that Obama is going to win the election, and so people feel more comfortable giving his name to the pollster? And if that phenomenon carries itself into the voting booth, then who’s really picking our next president? The American people, or the media outlets and news editors across the country who conduct these constant polls and then report on them so vociferously?

Lots of questions. Anyone have any answers?

Categories: News and/or Media, Political Rantings, The World Wide Weird | 1 Comment »

Tis the Season for Voter Fraud Accusations…

Monday, October 20th, 2008

As long as we’re discussing seasonal issues, it’s starting to feel like every two years (but especially every four years) since 2000, we’ve been discussing the voter fraud that’s going to allow <insert name of whomever’s winning> to steal the election from <insert name of whomever’s losing>, and to allow <insert name of whomever’slosing> to delegitimize the sweeping mandate indicated by the overwhelming victory of <insert name of whomever’s winning>.

Here’s a pretty good summary of this phenomenon for 2008. The headlines are daunting, but if you dig into just about any of them, you find that they’re not nearly as sinister as they’re made to sound. In most cases, they reflect the push and pull between over-registering (i.e., registering people who might not be eligible to make sure we catch everyone who is eligible) and registration verification (i.e., requiring registrations with known errors to be corrected before allowing the voter to vote).

Here’s one example: Mickey Mouse tries to register in Florida. Now first of all, at least it was Florida. Anywhere else (except maybe California) would have been a clear case of voter fraud. Kidding aside, though, on the surface this smacks of someone preparing to stuff the ballot box in November. It also has the added attraction of the ACORN seal (ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is an organization that has received money from the Obama campaign, and has been implicated in several instances like this). Digging into the details, though, we see this:

This year, ACORN signed up 1.3-million voters nationwide and about 152,000 in Florida, mostly in Orange, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. ACORN estimates it flagged 2 percent of its Florida registrations as problematic because they were incomplete, duplicates or just plain bogus.

“This is part of a widespread and systemic effort … to undermine the election process,” says Republican National Committee chief counsel Sean Cairncross, who describes ACORN as a “quasi-criminal organization.”

No, [says Brian Kettenring, ACORN's head organizer in Florida], it’s more like Wal-Mart. “Some percentage of Wal-Mart workers try to get paid without doing their work or steal from their employer,” he said. Some ACORN workers, he said, have simply made up names.

ACORN said it terminates canvassers who forge applications. In Broward County, it fired one worker after he turned in applications with similar handwriting and brought the matter to the attention of the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Pay to gather registrations started at $8 an hour, and the goal was 20 signups per day. The organization did not pay by the signature or pay bonuses for volume. The organization also tried to follow up on each registration, calling the person listed to confirm that the form is accurate.

In most states, ACORN must turn in every form that is filled out. “We must turn in every voter registration card by Florida law, even Mickey Mouse,” Kettenring said.

Well, not yet, said Jennifer Krell Davis, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State. Florida does have a law saying third-party voter registration groups must turn in every form without regard to things like party affiliation, race, ethnicity or gender. So far, however, the state has not written the rules to implement it.

Others may read more into this, but I see this simply as ACORN being sloppy, not nefarious. Helping people to register is, overall, a good thing, and they seem to be making a half-hearted effort to weed out obviously incomplete/disingenuous registrations, but are then sending the rest of them on for processing, under the assumption that more is better. Hence, you get the occasional Mickey Mouse in the bunch.

Obviously, this process is too important to be run in such an ad-hoc manner. We certainly have the technology to button this down, but the logistics of it immediately raise privacy and other political concerns.

For example, let’s say we required everyone who wanted to vote in November to be registered by July 4th. We could provide various ways to register – post office, mail, Internet, phone, etc. and then spend between July 4th and, say, September 30th verifying the list. People who’s registrations were in question could be mailed letters, called, e-mailed, etc. to correct the errors by another deadline (October 15th?). We could even have a second round of checking/fixing leading right up to the election.

The problem? This implies a centralized voter registration database and some form of national identifier (social security number doesn’t work for everybody). Once these things are in place, they become useful for other purposes (surveillance, for example) that raise the hackles of various civil rights and privacy groups.

Unfortunately, our inability/unwillingness to solve this problem, coupled with the somewhat hysterical rantings of the partisan punditry, will continue to erode voter confidence in the election process. Basically, this will have to become a real (not merely a perceived) emergency before anything is actually done about it.

Categories: Political Rantings | 2 Comments »

Things you see while…Walking past Radio City Music Hall

Monday, October 20th, 2008

The first Christmas wreathes and garlands are hanging over the main entrance to Radio City this morning (for the record, it’s October 20th – I bought my kids Halloween costumes yesterday). Still no sign of nativity scene camels walking around Rockefeller Center or giant trumpet players encased in enamel-painted carbonite, but it’s a start.

(NOTE: please record this as incident #3,572 when I wish my cell phone had a digital camera in it. Thank you…)

Categories: New York, New York, Random Acts of Blogging | 1 Comment »

When Excel Gets in the News…

Monday, October 20th, 2008

As a self-proclaimed spreadsheet jockey, stories like this hurt me in places I don’t like to talk about.  Others with similar exposure to spreadsheeting will no doubt understand:

Excel error leaves Barclays with unwanted Lehman assets

Barclays Capital has been forced to file a legal relief motion relating to its acquisition of Lehman Brothers’ US assets after a reformatting error with an Excel spreadsheet resulted in 179 contracts being mistakenly included in the purchase agreement.

The motion says that on 7:48pm on 18 September Barclays sent an Excel spreadsheet containing a list of contracts to be included in the asset purchase agreement to Cleary Gottlieb. The spreadsheet contained nearly 1000 rows with more than 24,000 individual cells and had to be reformatted and converted into a PDF document before being posted on the bankruptcy court’s Web site by the end of the day.

But a junior associate reformatting the work was unaware that the original Excel document included hidden rows containing contracts that were marked with an “n” to signify they should not be part of the deal. The document was posted on the Web site but the hidden cells had become visible when the employee globally re-sized the rows in the spreadsheet – without the original “n” designations.

Ouch…

Categories: Money Talk, Tech Talk | No Comments »

Buried in the financial news – a positive sign?

Monday, October 20th, 2008

From this morning’s Yahoo Business Report:

Strains in credit markets continued showing signs of easing after a raft of bailout measures by governments around the world, including a joint U.S. and European plan to buy stakes in private banks to boost their lending. Demand for Treasury bills, regarded as the safest assets around, lessened Monday but remained relatively high in a sign that there was still much fear in the markets.

While we’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, this is an very good sign. As I said in my lengthy post, What Happened? A Summary of the Financial Crisis:

But more importantly, watch the credit markets. These are not nearly as widely reported, but if you read market commentary sites, it will almost always mention how well credit is flowing. . . . When you see credit returning to the market place, that will be the first real sign that this crisis is coming to an end. Also, remember that it will be several weeks or months before the Treasury’s $700 billion starts to get spent. The markets will price it in from an expectations point of view today, but real buying power will not begin to materialize until this starts to happen.

Confidence is still shaky, of course, and with every senator, congressman and media pundit screaming “financial crisis like we haven’t seen since 1932!”, any hiccup in the markets can freeze up the credit markets again. But for now, the creditors are dipping their toes in the pool, and the water isn’t so cold as to send them running.

Yet…

Categories: Money Talk | No Comments »

Manny Being Manny….Again.

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Folks in Boston are used to this by now. Folks in New York (like yours truly) are used to hearing folks from Boston defend stuff like this with the phrase “that’s just Manny being Manny.”

Ladies & Gentlemen, Manny Ramirez, speaking to reporters after his current team (the Los Angeles Dodgers) lost the ACLS to the Philadelphia Phillies, about whether he will return to the Dodgers next year:

I want to thank the fans for their great support. I think it was a great trade. I just want to go home and spend some time with my family. I want to see who is the highest bidder. Gas is up and so am I.

Now that’s what you call a team player, right?

Categories: Sports Talk | No Comments »

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