Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford, RIP

The coverage of President Gerald Ford's death last night serves as a nostaglic reminder of a different era - one where a moderate Republican from Michigan could rise to be Vice President and President without being elected. He was the ultimate transition figure - both from the Nixon Era, but also from a different time in politics, before the Reagan Revolution (in fact, it could be argued he was the first casualty of that Revolution, granting Reagan a 'concession' speech at the 1976 GOP Convention that overshadowed, in many observers' eyes, the President's own acceptance of his nomination.) But in death he has seemed to gain the respect that failed him (the Chevy Chase-lampooned stumbles, the Poland gaffe in the 1976 debate, and of course the pardon of Nixon) through his Presidency.

Godspeed, Mr. President.

Friday, December 22, 2006

New Iowa Poll

Iowa's KCCI release a new poll of "likely Iowa voters" (not likely-caucus-goers).

Here are the Democratic results:

John Edwards 22%
Barack Obama 22%
Tom Vilsack 12%
Hillary Clinton 10%
Al Gore 7%
John Kerry 5%
Wesley Clark 4%
Dennis Kucinich 4%
Joe Biden 1%
Evan Bayh 1%
Bill Richardson 1%
Undecided 11%

Big mover: Obama. Edwards' supporters are hanging in there.

New News Before the Holidays

Today's a great day for getting not-so-helpful news out. Here are a few of the highlights:

* The White House has redacted (in a New York Times op-ed) specific information about how Iran apparently helped the US with the Afghan war in 2001.

* Mitt Romney apparently voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992. He was also registered as an independent ("Unenrolled") until 1993.

* The Duke lacrosse sexual assault case has been, apparently, dropped by prosecutors.

* New York State Controller Alan Hevesi resigned and pled guilty to a felony for using state employees to chauffuer his wife.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Old Northern Avenue Bridge in Lights

Kudos to the Friends of Fort Point Channel for installing lights and Christmas trees on the venerable Northern Avenue Bridge for the season. It's my hope that the lights (if not the trees) will become a permanent feature of the iron structure. Although the future of the bridge is not certain, it still remains the closest answer Boston has to the Ponte Vecchio.

Mile-High A.I.


When we last left Carmelo Anthony, he had been suspended for 15 games as a result of the fight in Madison Square Garden over the weekend.

This morning, he wakes up with a new teammate (Allen Iverson) and Melo is no longer the "go to" scorer on his team (AI and he both average a little more than 31 points per game; both also take about 24 shots per game, which are the two most in the league.

The Nuggets have clearly gambled that their opportunity to win is now. They needed a jump start to get to the elite level in the West (along with San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix, and maybe Utah) and with A.I., they have the chance to get there.

What's most interesting is the dynamic: there was unquestionably going to be an adjustment period for whatever team A.I. was traded to, as he needs to have the ball in his hands. But with Anthony out for the next 15 games, the Nuggets will have to adjust once, to A.I., and then adjust again when Anthony comes back. javascript:void(0)

The Nuggets are taking a risk: can two superstars co-exist? At altitude? At the very least, the Nuggets add more strength to the West, and the League was already heavily-weighted in that direction.

A comment on the other side of the deal: much-maligned Sixer GM Billy King may have pulled a rabbit out of a hat, by generating cap space (Joe Smith), a serviceable guard with cap space (Andre Miller), and now three first-round picks (their own, Dallas', and Denver's) next year in what is expected to be a deep draft. And by moving A.I., they have 'helped' themselves in the Greg Oden sweepstakes.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Friendly's on the Front Page

Stephen Syre's Globe business column today noted the corporate battle between Friendly's founder Press Blake and San Antonio hedge fund manager Sardar Bilgari, on one side, and current Friendly's Ice Cream management on the other. (Ed. note: as a long-time resident of Wilbraham, I am perhaps more cognizant of the story than others might be.) Blake is 92 and Bilgari is 29. Talk about strange bedfellows!

How do you say "It" in Chinese?

A few notes on Ebay's announcement that it was shutting down its proprietary service in China to focus on a TOM Online-Ebay joint venture that is not yet operational (expected launch: sometime in 2007):

1. When was the last time a major American company announced it was "reducing" its exposure to China? China is usually protrayed as the next 'big market.' The announcement also indicates the write-off of $250M by Ebay in China since 2003 ($150M to buy EachNet in 2003, another $100M invested since, according to the Wall St. Journal.)

2. The timing seems strange. You would expect a major company announcing bad news (shutting down the majority of its Chinese operations, albeit temporarily) to be leaked late in the day, on say a Friday afternoon, not on the Monday directly before Christmas; the annoucement is just in time to be featured prominently on next week's 'year-end' wrap-up business shows. Ebay always struck me as a PR-savvy company.

3. Ebay's stock is down 25% for the year, even as the market has risen generally.

4. Although unrelated, the Commerce Department announced a record trade deficit yesterday, of $225.6B for the third quarter (July to September). See point #1.

Late Update: BusinessWeek dug out a Meg Whitman quote from February 10, 2005:

We are on a tear to be the undisputed winner in China.


Monday, December 18, 2006

NBA's Penalties

The NBA punishment for the Knicks/Nuggets brawl(s) has been announced. While Carmelo received 15 games, Knicks head coach Isiah Thomas was apparently not punished at all, which seems to fly in the face of fact. Both franchises were fined also $500,000 each.

Warner ReDux?

Wonkette and Political Insider are reporting that former Virginia governor Mark Warner may be 'reconsidering' his decision to step out of the 2008 Presidential race. As another 'red'-state candidate, Warner's decision may also be a reaction to Bayh's decision to drop out. See Bye Bayh earlier. Also could affect John Edwards.

Knicks/Nuggets Brawl

The NBA suffered a black eye over the weekend, with the ugly Knicks/Nuggets brawl. Suspensions are expected today. Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas was involved in the atmosphere that led to the brawl, and even warned Carmelo Anthony and Marcus Camby that they 'shouldn't have been in the game' at the late stages of the blowout. The NBA's treatment of Thomas and the others will indicate how seriously the league takes fighting in the post-Pacers/Pistons era.

The Knicks have struggled through several difficult seasons and with their current roster and salary cap limitations, there appears to be little light at the end of the tunnel. Isiah, the man who as GM put the team together, and is now also coaching, has been criticized on all fronts. His frustrations may have boiled over on Saturday, and he did not apologize yesterday (unlike Denver's Carmelo Anthony.)

The prediction: Thomas gets a suspension as long as any player who threw a punch. Best guess: 8 games.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bye Bayh

Perhaps lost over the weekend was the quiet but surprising announcement that Senator Evan Bayh (Ind.) would not seek the Presidency; the announcement came just two weeks after annoucing that he was moving his campaign forward. Moreover, Bayh's first 'official' trip to New Hampshire last week was overshadowed by Senator Barack Obama's appearances there.

Bayh had positioned himself as a centrist, and was former head of the Demoractic Leadership Conference (DLC). Criticism of Bayh's candidacy seemed to focus on his lack of personal charisma, as well as his lack of name recognition in a field increasingly dominated by one name political celebrities (e.g., "Hillary", "Obama.") He had raised over $10M in preparation for the campaign, however.

Regardless of Bayh's standing, he was the only Democrat is the expected field who had shown the ability to repeatedly win in a "red" state, Indiana. (He has been elected there twice as a Senator, and was also elected Governor in 1988 and 1992.) His withdrawal probably helps John Edwards the most, as Edwards can also claim 'red' state credentials (Edwards was elected only once statewide in North Carolina, however.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Iowa for Edwards?

All of the media excitement in recent weeks has been focused on two names: Hillary and Obama. Yet in a poll released yesterday and reported in the Des Moines Register, it was John Edwards - 2004 VP nominee and second place finisher in the 2004 Iowa caucus - who led.

Here's the field, as identified by the Register:
Edwards 36% of "likely caucus goers"
Clinton 16%
Obama 13%
Vilsack 9%
Kerry 6%
Biden 5%
Clark 3%
Richardson 2%
Bayh <1%
Dodd <1%
Undecided 8%

A few points:
* The Harstad Strategic Research poll indicated it questioned "likely caucus-goers." Not clear from the Register article if in fact many of those people have caucused before (i.e., 2004), which in my experience is the best way to tell if they are truly likely to caucus in 2008.

* The Register also reported that "32 percent of the caucusgoers say global warming is an extremely serious problem," which may reflect the poll's sponsor, Environmental Defense (sic). May also reflect hidden Gore support.

* The poll was done Oct 12 to 19, but not released until yesterday. Obviously, that means that the data is stale, and the poll does not reflect the recent Obama-boomlet, Vilsack's announcement, and Hillary's pre-announcement.

* Kerry won Iowa in 2004; he is (as of October) mired in single digits. Morover, the poll was done before Kerry's "botched joke" in the late stages of the 2006 campaign.

* Vilsack, if he is running a serious campaign, must move his numbers by organizing his state. The question is: where will his support come from?

SEC Proposes New Rules

The Securies and Exchange Commission voted yesterday to propose new rules, that would in effect, apparently create a new definition of "accredited investor" for those investing in hedge funds and certain other pooled investment vehicles. The current definition of "accredited investor" is a person with over $1 million in net worth, or $200,000 in income ($300,000 for a couple). The new proposed standard would apparently be $2.5 million in 'investment assets', which (currently) excludes the value of the primary residence.

The WSJ reports that the net effect of the proposed rule would to reduce the percentage of American households that would qualify as 'accredited investors' from 8.5% to 1.29%. The percentage of households that qualified as 'accredited' in 1982, when the $1M/$200K standard was adopted, was 1.87%.

The rules, which still need to be published for comment, and then formally adopted, could have a definite effect on certain hedge fund vehicles. What also could be interesting is whether the SEC looks to apply this proposed standard to private offerings (Reg D), such as angel round financings for small companies. While there's no indication that the SEC is interested in regulating anything other than hedge funds with these new rules, there will be potentially different definitions of "accredited investors" in different contexts (i.e., private companies vs. 'pooled investment vehicles') and therefore an individual could be 'accredited' in one type of investment but not in another.

The proposed rule itself is not available yet on the SEC website. More information may be forthcoming.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The NBA's New Coke

This morning brings the somewhat unsurprising news that the NBA has decided, effective January 1st, to return to its traditional leather ball, ending a three month experiment that was thoroughly criticized by NBA players.

Interestingly, if the goal of the new ball was to increase scoring, it seems to be working. Scoring is up about 4.1 points per game so far this year, based on numbers availale on the NBA (2006-07, 97.99 ppg so far this year) and ESPN (2005-06, 93.83 ppg) sites. While the current seasons' stats are only partial, anecdotal evidence also supports the arugment that the new ball is easier to shoot (or at least it goes in more often).

On a personal level, having played with the new ball a couple of times, I can confirm a definite difference in the "feel." The new ball seemed a little deader, and the channels seemed to be both narrower and shallower than on the traditional NBA leather ball. That being said, the old NBA ball, with the deeper grooves, always required an adjustment from the college or other leather balls we used.

So say 'Goodbye' to the microfiber NBA ball. It seems destined for a place in the sports trivia hall-of-fame, next to Charlie O. Finley's orange baseballs.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Russia's War

For the last few weeks, news out of Europe has been dominated by the questions surrounding the death of Alexander V. Litvinenko, the former K.G.B. agent, who was apparently poisoned by exposure to polonium 210. Coincidentally, I stumbled upon Richard Overy's "Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945," and was reminded that intrigue has a long and tragic history in both the Soviet Union and Russia.

Overy's book has two main strengths: first, he is the beneficiary of the post-Cold War release of materials from the Soviet files; second, Overy has the confidence and the command of the subject to write briefly - the whole work is barely 300 pages. (I should also note that Overy's book was apparently a follow-on piece to a series of documentaries of the same title produced in 1994-95. I am trying to locate the series.)

Overy takes advantage of the new primary source materials to refute certain of the pieces of WWII conventional wisdom about Stalin and the Russian effort in the war. The infamous Ribbentrop/Molotov accord in 1939 is blamed not on Stalin's "treachery", but rather on the German desire to secure its flank to be able to fall upon France and the Low Countries to the West. ("[Stalin] could as easily made a pact with the imperialist West as he could with fascist Germany...Yet the German alliance was neither expected nor sought in 1939. Only when the German offer was on the table did it prove irresistible."(p.50))

Likewise, the collapse of the Soviet defense in the face of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 is usually attributed to the hollowing out of the Soviet officer corps in the wake of the purges of the late 1930s. While Overy does not flinch in describing the torture or worse inflicted on many senior officials who rose to prominence under Stalin, he attributes the German success in the summer of 1941 to Stalin's own failure to acknowledge Hitler's willingness to attack his erstwhile ally, especially in light of the military difficulties that Stalin recognized the Germans would face. It was not that the Soviet military professionals did not predict the coming storm - it was that they were not willing to risk life and limb by contradicting own Stalin's view that the German/Soviet pact was built for the long-term.

Winston Churchill's reputation also suffers under Overy's pen. In a telling detail, Stalin in the 1943 conference in Teheran pushes both Churchill and FDR to commit to a specific timetable for the Overlord (Normandy) invasion that would relieve some of the pressure off the Soviet army. While Stalin pulls on his pipe and waits in silence for an answer, FDR is seen winking at Stalin, leaving Churchill outnumbered and, eventually, forced to commit to a Spring 1944 landing. More telling, Overy reports that it was Churchill in Moscow in 1944, and not FDR in Yalta or Truman in Potsdam in 1945, that agreed to the divvying up of Europe into spheres of influence. Although sourced to Churchill's own memoirs, Overy states that the British PM's list of influence (90% Soviet influence in Romania; 50% in Hungary and Yugoslavia; 75% in Bulgaria, etc.), "makes a mockery of [Churchill's] later credentials as a Cold Warrior, just as it compromised his relations with Roosevelt. It amounted to a virtual acceptance of more than Stalin could have hoped for in Eastern Europe." (p.251-52)

While Churchill is a bit player, and FDR even less so, the main focus of the book is on Stalin, his key generals, and the contradictory nature of his rule. Stalin is seen as a master manipulator (he would always sit to the side at meetings, and never preside (p.16)), and unafraid to use terror and betrayal. But as a Georgian, he was nonetheless ruthless in crushing nationalist uprisings throughout the Soviet empire. Likewise, a committed Communist, at the moment of crisis in 1942, he allowed to revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, and invoked the names of Russian (i.e., pre-Revolutionary) heroes as part of the war effort.

There have been several popular histories of the Eastern Front over the past few years, including two by Antony Beevor ("Stalingrad" and the "Fall of Berlin 1945.") Overy's book is every bit as readable, and offers a new perspective on Stalin's side of the war. A quick read, but well worth it.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Ivy League Basketball Tournament

The Ivy League athletic directors apparently took no action on a post-season Ivy basketball tournament yesterday.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Two Images, Three Bushes

I have been thinking of two images in the news this week: (1) George H.W. Bush (41)'s emotional breakdown in Florida on Monday; and (2) the look on George W. Bush (43)'s face when discussing the Iraq Study Group (ISG)'s report on Wednesday (tip of the cap to old friend Josh Marshall).

A few thoughts the images bring to mind:

1. Although most of the recommendations had been leaked (via trial balloons) over the past few months, the report was more negative than expected. As the Times writes today (12/07), "the independent panel rocked Washington with its bleak assessment of conditions in Iraq."

2. The report, although 'delivered' to the President yesterday (12/06), was surely completed earlier (to allow for printing, binding, etc.)

3. The co-author of the report, James Baker, is a close political ally of the President's father, 41. Baker ran 41's presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1992, and led the effort in Florida on behalf of W in 2000. It seems reasonable to assume that 41 had read much of the report by Monday.

4. Both 41 and Baker must have known in advance the political pain that the ISG's conclusions would bring to 43. In the same way, 41 must have been pained by the report's bottom line conclusion: the US policy is Iraq is failing. (Obviously this comment is not intended to minimize the real pain endured by those who are serving, have been injured, or who have lost a loved one, in Iraq.)

5. 41 broke down in tears Monday when speaking in Florida about Jeb Bush's close loss (51-49%) in 1994 to Lawton Chiles.

6. Prior to 1994, Jeb Bush was the 'next great hope' for the Bush family, and was expected to be elected Governor in 1994.

7. On Election Night in 1994, both 41 and Barbara Bush were in Florida with Jeb.

8. Indeed, in a congratulatory telephone call between 41 and W that evening, W was quoted as saying: "'Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?'"

9. It is reasonable to believe that if Jeb had won in 1994, and had been re-elected in 1998, he, rather than W, might have been the Bush running for President in 2000.

10. Bob Woodward reported earlier this fall that 41 does not speak to 43 about foreign affairs.

"Are we right to be worried about this Iraq thing?" Mrs Bush asked [Former Senator David Boren]
"Yes, very worried," he said.
"Do you think it's a mistake?"
"Yes, ma'am. I think it's a huge mistake if we go in … "
"Well, his father is certainly worried and is losing sleep over it. He's up at night worried."
"Why doesn't he talk to him?"
"He doesn't think he should unless he's asked."

Bob Woodward, State of Denial

11. Just as Brent Scrowcroft (who co-authored a book with 41) warned against the invasion in 2002, another 41 confidante is using a public forum to mark, in effect, the 'end' of the Iraq adventure.

12. And finally, if you allow that Baker is a political brother-in-arms to 41, the ISG report is, so-to-speak, a public intervention, in front of 300 million Americans. No wonder 41 was crying. Why couldn't have Jeb have beaten Walkin' Lawton?

...And So It Begins

The spirit of this blog is captured in a piece I wrote back in 2004, which applied the March Madness brackets to the then-nascent Presidential contest between John Kerry and George Bush. A different take on politics, business, law...and sports.