Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why We're Royally Screwed, Part 1 (It's Only Greed)

What a surreal feeling: Vacationing in Europe while the next act in the financial meltdown of American financial markets played out.

Not that I was totally surprised. Many, even the FBI, warned that the subprime mortgage fiasco would create a domino effect that would last for months, if not years. And according to some, there is really no end in sight.

Why? Because of greed, plain and simple. Most analysts seem content to chalk it up to poor risk management. Nice euphemism. Risk and greed are totally interrelated. As far as I know, every human action we make that requires risk assessment includes a greed factor. Like playing poker. Or speeding while driving. Or crossing a busy street against the light. Greed is our human emotion (and human sin in almost every religion) to extract more than what we need from a given activity.

And we are constantly reminded that this is what makes America great. C'mon, the USA is predicated on the idea that every individual has a basic right to be as greedy as possible. All you have to do is stay within the letter of the law, or at least be able to afford a legal team to keep your ass out of trouble. There's nothing in the U.S. Constitution that discusses ethics, charity, or humility. No such words exist in the text. It's a framework to allow every white, landowning male (since amended, obviously, to include a few more citizens who have capital to burn) to suck every drop of worth out of whatever resources and labor he controls, to Hell with collateral suffering or future consequences.

Greed is a recurring theme of Western Civilization, which I witnessed over and over while visiting the castles, churches, and palaces of Europe. On whose backs were such monuments built, hundreds of years ago? (Hint: Review your European history if you think Napoleon himself built roads and laid bricks.) So if we want to blame someone for instilling our society with the notion that "greed is good," I suppose we can blame the Romans, or the Spanish, or the French, or the English, or the Germans.

Obviously, the complexities of the financial shenanigans perpetrated on us are beyond the understanding of most CPAs, but that was the whole idea, to confuse everyone, wasn't it? It really was pure genius:
  • Offer incredibly unrealistic loans to uninformed people, sold on the idea that any real estate bought with the loan funds will appreciate in value forever. Oh, and don't forget to collect your broker and funding fees.
  • Package up these crap loans in opaque financial instruments and sell them to other firms, pension funds, and local governments who are driven by their own greed to increase their ROI. (Don't forget to collect your broker fees when selling these instruments!)
  • Package up some more crazy ass derivative, options, and futures investments based on the crap you have created and sell that, too. (Pssst! Collect fees!)
  • But most important, when it all starts falling apart, don't forget to pull that Golden Ripcord and book that long vacation in Monaco you've been dreaming of.
We're now faced with the collapse of the most elaborate Ponzi scheme in the history of the world, elaborately constructed by financiers, accountants, lawyers, politicians, lobbyists, and bureaucrats. And, as with all other Ponzi schemes, those who got in at the beginning and got out before the shit hit the fan made out like royal bandits. The rest of us are left with the economic bankruptcy and social carnage, along with the final bill. Former senior executives, managers, and traders who concocted this mess will enjoy the rest of their days in Country Club comfort. There will be no consequences for them; after all, they played "by the rules" and "within the letter of law and regulation." (For the most part. There will be investigations, and a few minor lambs will be sacrificed, but that's all.) That these executives are ethical pigs and moral maggots seems to bother few people. Everyone else seems resigned to the reality that we have been collectively screwed. Or maybe they're just stunned, it's hard to tell.

Or, maybe we truly are morally bankrupt as a collective society. I recently had a conversation with an ordinary citizen who seemed totally perplexed when I opined that ethics should play a role in everyday life, including economics as well has how we expect others to treat us on a daily basis. If pressed, I'm not sure this citizen could even provide me a working definition of "ethics."

But the blame can't be placed on the usual reasons, like we don't go to church anymore, or our public schools suck, or our prisons are full, or we fill our heads with vacuous television and video game programming. It's because we are interpreting our Founding Fathers' intentions with a twisted slant. Yes, our Founding Fathers were mostly very religious men: humble, modest, virtuous. Those who weren't religious were of like mind, since this behavior was expected in those days. I am certain that they assumed that we who followed would be equally humble, modest, and virtuous. They saw no need to codify the teachings of Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad into the Constitution, since it had already been written before.

So, even though we can tear our collective hair out over the crisis we find ourselves in, and we can lay blame on the greed of a very small group of individuals, these crooks were only following the standards and traditions of how our country and economy operate. And if we want to ever change that, we collectively need to take a hard look in the mirror.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Adobe, Now You Suck, Too

I'm a regular user of Adobe Reader, and that's about it. I have Adobe 6 installed, which came with the laptop or bought by my firm, but I rarely use it.

So I'm not surprised to get occasional popups from the Adobe Update Manager telling me there's an update to Adobe Reader, and the upgrades are no big deal.

However, today I got another popup which looked a little different, but it offered me an upgrade to Adobe 9, and without careful reading of the fine print, I clicked OK.

Big mistake.

So, what happens next?
  • It placed an icon on my desktop so that I "could resume the installation later if necessary." (That's never encouraging.)
  • For Firefox, it required me to include on the allowed list of sites which could install add-ons, and it required the installation of an add-on to manage the installation of their software. (Thanks, like my Firefox client needs more add-ons.)
  • It dropped an "" link in my Start Programs list, without my permission.
  • After automatically launching the MSI script (again without pausing for permission after download), it whined that I had processes running that were blocking the install. (Stupid! I told you to download, not install!)
  • Finally, after shutting all my other apps down, and relaunching the installer, I get a fancy pants dialog that doesn't offer to upgrade anything. What they really want to install is Adobe AIR, their new online collaborative suite. And a fricking beta version at that. (Everybody is following MS and Google's lead now - all software will be beta forever.)
Needless to say, I shut the whole load of crap down, and will track down the remaining bits it left behind.

Thanks, Adobe. You suck.

Europe Travel Notes

Deb and I have been in Europe (Switzerland and France, specifically) for almost two weeks, and have had a marvelous time. My favorite photos have been uploaded to Picasa. (Photos are in time order - sorry if you can't deal with the destination jumps. See the map reference if you're not sure where the photo was snapped.)

It's too easy to compare Europe and the places we visited with the U.S., and California specifically. However, some differences are quite surprising.


Europeans are methodical, disciplined drivers. Roads are well-maintained with excellent signage. There are strict laws about slower traffic staying to the right and against any form of passing on the right. And these laws are obeyed! Paris traffic is amazing; out of apparent chaos, there is established order among cars, two-wheelers, and pedestrians which creates a fluid motion. Nobody runs red lights. Everybody stops when required. We saw zero accidents in three days. The only close call was when a roller blader almost plowed into us while attempting to stop.

By comparison, California roads are in crappy condition, and the drivers are mostly idiots. They drive in whatever damn lane they please. They run red lights and stop signs with abandon. They don't know how to pass properly and safely. Pedestrians cross where and whenever they please. And the accident rate reflects this.

Eating Out

I don't understand what all the fuss is about French cuisine. Sure, it has its highlights, but I wasn't going to spend 100 Euros (about $165 US these days) to find out just how great it was. The local eateries were fine. Beef was tough, bread and cheese were awesome. The local French greens are a nice surprise. They love their wine from Burgundy, but I actually prefer the much cheaper wines from Bordeaux that actually taste like wine.

California, what can I say? Food is fresher, the meats (especially the free-range kind) are awesome, and the wines are great, albeit overpriced compared with similar French quality. (I'm talking Bordeaux again.)

Public Toilets

Given Europeans' tolerance for bodily displays and interactions, I don't know what the deal is with the lack of public toilets, and the few that do exist are typically closed or poorly stocked. Debbi even had someone try to stop her from using the restroom in a restaurant, and we were eating there!

In California, they may be smelly, but every town has a public toilet somewhere, and it usually has toilet paper. 'Nuf said.

Livestock, the Canine Variety

In France, dogs pretty much roam as they please in the same vicinity as their owners, despite leash laws. But, they are all trained and well-behaved. Dog crap piles in Paris are a common, unattractive site. But, at least they have taste when selecting a breed: light-colored Golden Retrievers are everywhere!

In California, most people are terrified of dogs, and leash laws reflect this. I suppose there is a reason, because most people don't know how to properly handle their dogs even when on a leash. And I'm speaking here as a dedicated dog owner.

Airport Security, Passport Control, and Customs

In Europe, you are welcome to come and go with the glance of a passport, and nobody looks in your luggage or makes you take your laptop out of its case or make you go into a "puffy chamber." Well, the UK still makes you put your carry-on liquids in a plastic bag and their metal detectors will go off if you have some coins in your pocket. But they've been beholden to US standards since 9/11, haven't they?

In the USA, we have the TSA, and they still don't know what the f*** they are looking for or how to "protect" us. People, it really is a bad joke, because they aren't making us any safer. Don't believe me? Read this about how anyone can circumvent airport ID checks if he/she is not checking baggage. Where's the hue and fury about that? Besides that, we have the INS and Customs service, whose joint purpose is to suspect everyone of trying to enter illegally while carrying child porn or illegal content on a laptop or memory stick.

Livestock, the Eating Variety

In Europe, livestock are mostly open penned, raised traditionally.

In the US, two words: Industrial Agriculture. 'Nuf said.

Anyway, Deb and I would come back here in a heartbeat. That is, as long as we always keep a roll of toilet paper with us.