Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Where was the Board?

What happened with GM, Freddy & Fanny Mac, AIG and the rest shows that the board of directors in all these companies was not doing their job. Clearly, it seems that some reform in the way a board of directors should function is now overdue. It’s not the first time in which board of director prudence and accountability is in question; the Enron and WorldCom scandals paved the way for that “sleeping at the wheel” behavior.

Meanwhile, the alarming rise in U.S. senior executive salaries and compensation packages - packages that exceed compensation increases for previous economic expansions - further lower shareholders’ confidence in the system. Under the Bush presidency, executives were granted large compensation packages despite unprofitable (or dysfunctional) business models paving the way for scandals that brought us to the edge of depression…

It’d be nice if we could return to an era when boards of directors represented that “other player” that's critical for a market economy, namely the shareholders instead of “brown-nosing” their CEO; what a concept that would be! It’s about time congress reforms what’s has become a woefully dysfunctional corporate institution. Let’s remind our congressmen and senators about it; in the meantime shame to these useless and incompetent board members that have no balls and brains to match!

Monday, March 30, 2009

When ignorance is dumb

We often say that “ignorance is bliss,” but more often than not, it’s just dumb. As few nights ago, while we were having dinner at friends’ place, my neighbor and I were discussing overpopulation. I was telling her that the most important culprit for “global warming” and all other ills we’re facing with the planet environment was overpopulation, but that the issue was systematically swept under the rug. The person, a very well-to-do and self-proclaimed “super-educated” lady, responded that “every one knows that” and that the issue was so obvious that it didn’t deserve to be front and center as a concern. Needless to say that I totally disagreed with her ignorant approach, but suddenly realized that when people are confronted with unfamiliar and destabilizing new paradigms, their reflex response is to deny their validity. This in fact was an eye-opener in my quest to bring change around me. That’s right, ignorance is always very dumb!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

GM white collar workers free car program

A few days ago, I heard on National Public Radio the story about General Motors’ long standing perk consisting of free company cars and free gasoline for 8,000 of their white collar employees. This nice give-away, also called “Product Evaluation Program,” only cost each participant $250 per month and requires they report any problem with the vehicle back to the company as soon as it develops. Against a monthly $250 “administrative fee” employees can enjoy that wonderful plan.
The problem of course, is that we, the taxpayers, are footing the expense since we’re helping keep the giant automaker afloat. Just like Wall Street, GM’s is not getting it; not only that, but its “product testing” is never going to get the Detroit firm to ever design the kind of advanced cars the world now wants. GM even has the gull to respond to detractors of that dysfunctional program that “other car companies have similar plans” albeit without free gas. If you ask me if we should continue to throw more government money at this dinosaur, I guess you got the answer…

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Power and time

The relationship between time and power never stops to amaze me… Many individuals have power, enjoy it and hold to it, in spite of the devastating effect it has on their own free time and quality of life. They're generally the first to complain that because they have so many “responsibilities,” they can’t exercise, smell the roses and enjoy their life - pure and simple. Their problem is of course their addiction to power and the control it gives them over people, events, things, self-image and continuously producing heaps of money. Power is also often confused with passion and this is what make so many people hold to their jobs and positions until they die while denying themselves the gift of time. To all of those, I’d like to whisper to their ears: “Just give less time to power and add a little more power to your dwindling, precious time!”

Friday, March 27, 2009

“Reading” the snow

Whether I run or I ski, and when I do both on snow - which I better do on skis - what I see tells me a lot about what my feet are likely to feel. I call this “reading the snow.” The texture of the snow, the way the light plays on it, even in the most subtle ways, tells me most of the time about its structure and how it will behave when I come in contact with it. This of course isn’t a revelation; it's the result of years of observation and paying attention to that elusive element. No two situations are ever the same when you find yourself on that sticky stuff and you really have to love it to bring yourself to record what each impression means when you come in contact with it, what kind of sensation you’ll feel and how it will affect your balance in motion. This set of skills is hard to get if you don’t live in the mountains and just see snow as a nuisance or a mere medium on which you can slide. To me, it's much more than that; it is part of my life and reading it keeps teaching me something new all the time…

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Resolving “toxic assets”

The approach taken by Tim Geithner is probably a smart way to circumvent what would have been a tedious, if not impossible work by the federal government to “stress-test” the financial system. As everyone knows, Geithner’s department is grossly understaffed and who can be better value these assets than the market itself, albeit through some strong incentives courtesy of government and taxpayers “sweeteners.”

At any rate, addressing these toxic assets is a step in the right direction, especially for solvent institutions whose asset values are subject to a substantial liquidity discount. However, insolvent institutions might not find as much relief from the plan and will probably need further government intervention. The end result is that the impact of Geithner’s plan may not be enough to pull the economy out of a contraction for a good part of this year and may spell sluggish growth thereafter…

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Resorts and the real estate bubble

All over the United States, home prices have declined; in some places more than others to the point that we even hear that, in some places, prices have reached “rock-bottom.” At sea and mountain resorts, the situation is strikingly different. A lot of inventory is for sale at “peak-bubble” prices of eighteen month ago and, of course, nothing is selling. Many of the sellers are said to have enormous equity in their homes and are just “fishing” for some ready and willing buyers that don’t exist anymore. Only a few really have to sell either because they’re moving out of town, are going through a divorce or just need to liquidate the asset. Those are the ones that will have to meet the real market price if and when they sell.

My sense is that this game of chicken that has lasted for almost two years will end later in 2009 and prices will begin nosedive all through 2010 and 2011. To make matters worse, there’s a plethora of rather large homes (4,000 square feet and above) that will need to be discounted even more as ostentatious assets are becoming out of fashion and costs of maintaining or remodeling such “monsters” will quickly prove to be prohibitive. Further, with easy money drying up and more stringent rules being applied on second-home and condominium loans, this will further make matters worse. The bottom line is that there might be some very good deals coming soon at a ski resort or beach community near you…

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More on free trade…

Yesterday, I was providing a plan for what would be a better way to handle international trade as an alternative to liberalizing it totally or returning to protectionism. In it, I was explaining that variable custom duties could mirror the trade gap between countries. Of course, these duties should be scaled in ways likely to force trading partners to seriously address any unbalance, but not so drastic that they would freeze all exchanges.

For instance, a product made in China should be burden with a U.S. duty proportional to the 375% represented by our trade gap with that country but not equal to it. It should be figured so it makes the item significantly more expensive, but not so much that it would totally prevent its importation. The rate should provide enough incentive for the country that sells more than it buys to import more from its counterpart. Likewise, a country like the USA that has a terrible trade balance with almost everyone should seriously examine what it must do to increase exports.

This may mean more added-value, totally new products or services, more innovative designs, lower production and usage costs, etc. This would go a long way to keep core industries and know-how from leaving a country and instead focus on innovation and quality to a much greater degree. Again, the plan that I propose is self-regulating and might take five years to a decade before it effectively starts working for the benefit of all trading partners, spurring true progress while tying the economic destiny of all stakeholders in more solid and equitable ways than is currently the case.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A fair approach to free trade

Trade policy is a favorite political football; Democrats criticize free trade a lot because of heavy unions’ influence, while the republicans keep on claiming that without it, the United States can’t survive. I’m one who believes that our approach to trade in general is flawed and needs to be reformed. My reason is simple: We’ve been exporting our jobs abroad and our commercial balance is chronically and increasingly in the red. As of 2008, while we’re exporting $1.377 trillion, we’ve been importing close to $2 trillions, leaving a $568.8 billion deficit that represents 41% of what we sell abroad. This is simply insane and this is where my proposal comes in.

The nation’s goal should be to strike a balance between what we sell and what we purchase outside of the U.S. For instance, if we use China – our largest trade partner – as an example, in 2008 China exported $338 billion to the US while we managed to sell them just $71 billion, leaving a $266 billion gap. What I’m proposing is offer free trade (read no custom duties on anything) for Chinese goods entering the United States, as long as we can sell as much goods or services to China. That would mean that to maintain its duty-free privilege, China should have bought and extra $266 billion from us during the 2008 year.

If there is any imbalance for a given calendar year, a duty lasting for one full year would be put in place in the second quarter of the following year. It would amount to the ratio of any surplus divided by the lowest volume of one of the two partners; in that case, we would levy a 375% duty on all Chinese import brought into the USA between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010. The following year, a new duty would be established based on the 2009 trade balance and so on.

This would be fair, self-regulating and quite simple and could be implemented by leaving the present custom agreements in place. Each trading partner would monitor its trading activity on a month-by-month basis, watch it and make every possible adjustment to keep, as much as possible, the exchange on a level playing field; the incentive would be powerful and we’d put and end to the endless rhetorical exchange meant to protect a few big US firms that are vehemently defended by their lobbyists before Congress. Before I dig deeper into this proposal’s details, does the concept make sense to you?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Daily incremental effort

How to change our world for the better? How to shine a positive light on a regular basis, even if it seems too dim and barely visible? The answer is simple; do something in the direction you want things that concern you to go, and repeat the exercise with steadfast regularity without worrying too much about intensity. This way of affecting our environment and leaving a positive imprint works just like compounded interests. You just have to start sooner that later with your initial deposit, then keep on adding to it in increments no matter how small; before you know it, you’ll see your savings grow. Similarly, through daily “tiny efforts” we can all start making the world a better place. It’s just of matter of getting started and… keeping at it!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Contemporary style

A week or so ago we had a discussion on contemporary architectural style as opposed to traditional house design. While I was during my youth an enthusiastic supporter of radically modern dwellings, I have since changed my tune, mellowed out and found that classic design never seem to go out of style and just exists because it has – over the years - adopted some well-established features grounded in very good, functional reasons. It took generations a lot of bad errors and venturing off-track to learn what worked best and this information is priceless. Contemporary designs, on the other hand, often stand as an open invitation for all kinds of experimentation and can be ridden with a vast variety of mistakes. Their appeal probably lies in their striking visual difference, but more often than not, this come with a huge cost that dwellers have to live with while they own the home and suffer from when they sell it, something that’s never easy as the market for radical design always remains a very finite one.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bill Daniel’s insightful questions

These days, we all seem to be asking “where’s the bottom?” whether it’s about the stock market or the real estate business. Instead, after spending a few moments on the phone with my friend Bill, we should be asking, “what signs should we look for to see if we’ve finally reached that low point?” Often, it’s not so much the question than the way in which it’s framed. This one is no exception and this is why after visiting that “bottom” location several times already, I’ll try to re-frame based on some foreseeable signs…

We know what has yet to be resolved; it’s the falling real estate prices, the financial crisis and the stock market, all parameters linked to a degree and also independent from each other.

Real estate offers a variety of sectors. There’s the “necessary real estate,” namely the home we all live in. That one should be close to its bottom, because as a necessity it should be the most liquid. Then there is the speculative real estate, especially in resort towns where investors have “parked” their money into properties that they hoped would keep on appreciating year after year or could be “flipped” for a handsome profit; this bubble hasn’t deflated yet and when it does it could be ugly. Close, but not quite the same, is the commercial real estate sector that is about to blow up and could bring with it a different form of stress.

After announcing that it will “print” or rather issue in a few computer keystrokes over $1 trillion, the Fed is setting us up for some major inflation down the road and immediately with a much weaker dollar. We still haven’t finished x-raying the banks and found practical ways to rid them of their “toxic assets” and recapitalize the one that are hanging by a thread.

As for the stock market, consumer will have to step up to the plate and open up their wallet if we want to turn our GDP around. In truth, it may take a couple of quarters to see something happening. Before that, we’ll have to deal with Detroit and inject some money (half a trillion dollar?) into the domestic car industry to stabilize it.

This quick overview assumes that we can get out of Iraq on time and accelerate our departure from Afghanistan, but nothing is sure.

In summary, there are still too many threatening clouds hanging over the horizon to anticipate a turnaround in 2009. We probably will have to wait well into 2010…

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Anger management

While we were staying in Salt Lake City, we went running in an urban environment and with it, amidst heavy traffic. On three occasions, I almost was hit by vehicles that failed to see me, and if I hadn’t ducked at the very last second, I would have ended up on a hood or under a large pickup truck. What’s funny with me is that these kinds of brushes with catastrophe don’t make me angry. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of other subjects do, like the current shenanigans at AIG with its executive bonuses and our inept Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, whom I think, should resign. But let’s return to the kind of road-rage many feel and that doesn’t seem to touch me; why is it? Perhaps, I’m a dangerous enough driver who happens to be very empathetic towards other people mistakes. I should probably build on this remarkable quality and extend it to other areas where my fuse is still very short. That would be a sure way to bring more compassion into my world. Now, tell me, how are your own anger management skills?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Too old to baby sit?

For these past seven days Evelyne and I were on duty, 24/7 to watch Finn, our lovely one year old grandson. The young man – who doesn’t walk yet – is very much active, quite smart and already knows his way with adults. His job is to explore a brand new world and test anyone he comes across. His main asset is his charm and he intuitively knows that the right smile at the right time gets him special points that he’ll be able to redeem down the road for special comfort when smile is low and crankiness is up. I’ve just laid the general working principle; to handle that job well however requires energy, and lots of it. Energy still is available to folks age 60 and over, but it comes in shorter doses. During my working live, I’ve never quite believed people who claimed they worked 16 hour days “all the time.” A solid 12 hour day already pooped me. Now, 6 hours have the exact same effect. Back to the question about age and baby sitting, the answer becomes clearer. No, we’re never too old to handle that delightful job, but the older we get, the shorter the assignment, which confirms the adage that precious things always come in tiny packages or wonderful moments should be dispensed in small increments!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Living in Utah feels good!

On March 10, Gallup released the results of its well-being survey in the USA. According to the famous pollsters, we made the right choice when we picked Utah some 24 years ago. That "well-being" survey measured how residents felt about physical, mental, and emotional health - among other factors - and when the results came out, Utah scored 69.2 (out of a possible 100), compared to a national average of 65.5. It was followed on the list by Hawaii (this one makes sense) and Wyoming (you probably need to be a cow-boy to appreciate.) West Virginia ranked last in well-being with a score of 61.2. I don’t know how these results compare with the rest of the world and how Utah stands when compared to Monaco (it should actually be Denmark, the number one ranked, but I prefer the French Riviera!) or if West Virginia would beat Zimbabwe (I think it could,) but I feel much better as a result of it and frankly I don’t care if we are 1 or 2% ahead of the Prince Albert’s subjects, I can go skiing when I want during the winter season or mountain bike the rest of year without going very far from my home. To me, that’s well-being!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The changing American elite

It’s a truism that the American elite that once sailed through recessions and downturn pretty much unscathed, is feeling this economic backlash more than ever. After all, these folks were the ones who visited our vacations resorts and paid top dollars for plush accommodations, good food and bought countless and luxurious second homes. Today, most of them are feeling 50% poorer and have suddenly “frozen” then spendthrift habits. What will their future be? For one thing, their suffering due to the real estate meltdown will keep on getting worst and it will take more than one decade before their other assets return to where they were in 2007, if by that time, a raging inflation doesn’t set everyone dramatically back...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Vanishing ski-boot species

Modern ski boot companies had to be in Italy to benefit from the industry specific infrastructure (mold making technology, buckle manufacturers and liners cottage industry.) This, in grand part is why those that were located outside of that country simply didn’t make it. Even more than for skis, small-volume output was a killer as a high cost of mold was a major barrier to entry in that segment of the industry.

Hanson, K2, Olin, Rosemount:
Just like their ski counterparts, these boot companies offered radically new designs that would have needed a very long incubation time and burnt all the company resources before they could survive. At least, Hanson retained the honor of being the inspiration behind Salomon’s early success with ski boots.
Dachstein, Dynafit, Kastinger:
Being Austrian-based was their main curse and they were always one buckle style too late and a fit too hard to make it. Wasn’t Dynafit nicknamed Do-Not-Fit?
A true tragedy as its Swiss owner died in a car accident and his wife couldn’t handle managing the company in spite of remarkably good U.S. distributor; out of its demise however, DalBello came on to the scene to somehow salvage some of the brand ground work.
Was at the forefront of the buckle age, got infatuated with its “parallel sole” but couldn’t make the transition to hard plastic shells.
The all-racing French boot couldn’t broaden its high-performance and limited niche.
This Japanese boot brand also suffered from isolation, small volume and a range of small boot sizes to make it to the big leagues.
San Giorgio (aka Heierling), San Marco:
Scooped up in the nick of time by some big brands (Salomon and Head) to be miraculously salvaged and revived…
Caber, Koflach, Trappeur:
Went bankrupt, but were also saved in-extremis by Atomic and Rossignol, which through their huge horse-power re-branded them successfully and were able to give them a new lease on life. True, there can be resurrections in boots!
A less successful resurrection attempt by Vaccari, Nordica’s former owner, who ended up instead focusing his attention on Tecnica, before he grabbed Nordica back from Benneton

There would still be more to say about Baudou, Lowa, Roces, Molitor, Montan or a host of others, but frankly who cares anymore?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Vanishing ski manufacturers

Yesterday, we began a discussion on ski industry suppliers that have vanished from our radar screen and we tried to understand the reason for their demise; today, we’ll be focusing on ski manufacturers that have been struggling more than others.
Generally speaking, the most vulnerable have been the small-volume makers, the one that didn’t have the means to pay for their future, be it investing into R&D or distribution. Here is a quick review of which ones stumbled and why…

Authier, Hexcel, Molnar, Volant:

These ski companies fell prey of a proprietary design concept that was intellectually attractive but hard and costly to produce, wasn’t that easy to sell, and only brought marginal benefits, if at all.
Authier, Dynamic, Kästle, Lange, Pre, Olin:
The typical “bastard children,” those were the number 2, 3 or 4 in the “family” and couldn’t get the unique product, the positioning, the funds as well as the love and the attention they needed to survive. In the case of Lange and today, Nordica skis, it’s hard to slap a brand on a ski and hope it should get instant notoriety.
Dynamic, Kneissl, Spalding:
Some famous brands believed that racing victories alone would do it for them. With names like Killy (Dynamic), Schranz (Kneissl) and Thoeni (Persenico-Spalding) the market had to buy the product, period. It didn’t and the company didn’t understand that a full business mix had to be satisfied.
Authier, Lacroix:
There appears to be little room for “luxury goods” in the ski business; these brands tried it, but it didn’t work too much and for too long. A “bread-and-butter” product like the Dynastar Omesoft, the Pre 1200 or the Rossignol 4-S that could pay the bills and carry the company along…
Fritzmaier, Rebel, Sarner:
Some companies are just like missed satellite launches and don’t last for long, consuming the start-up fuel and never making it into a long term orbit
Kazama, Nishizawa, Ogasaka and Yamaha:
Isolation, small volume and one single (Japanese) market, did these players in…
Blizzard, Kästle:
Today’s warmed-up formula and hoping for some “resurrection”. Generally, there’s only one life…

If that new life lasts until tomorrow, we’ll see how ski boot makers have fared in comparison…

Friday, March 13, 2009

Vanishing ski equipment manufacturers

On March 11, 2009, a reader wrote the following comment:

The Ski industry has been through several recessions and bad snow years, It would be great to get your industry insider's view on the consolidation, disappearances and revival of the various famous ski and boot brand names. What happened to Kaestle, Kneissl, Dynamic, Lacroix, Authier, and Spalding ski brands? In boots we know Caber went to Rossignol, what about Dachstein, Koflach, Kastinger, San Marco, Henke, Dynafit, Trappeur, Henke, Dolomite, and Raichle brands?

These are all interesting questions that I will address in this and the two following blogs.
The reasons for all these “fatalities” are as simple as the ski industry is a very challenging environment. First, the ski season is very, very short (in fact, there’s only one winter season; the south hemisphere snow season remains negligible and probably costs more to develop and run than it can generate). With only two or three months of peak selling activity, a manufacturer or distributor must line up its working capital for an entire year and this where the business model starts to be lopsided. Then there are the variables of the weather (good or bad snow cover) and the economy (this year, for instance.) Snow sports are a discretionary, albeit expensive activity and can be cut from someone’s budget in a moment’s notice. Finally there’s the company, with its management, its business model, its common sense or lack thereof, its size and its product. As I have written before, a ski company’s chief executive needs to strike a good balance between passion, vision, pragmatism and good business practices (i.e. Georges Salomon.) Unlike a Rossignol, a Salomon or even an Atomic, all the companies listed by the reader had the following problems. Many a ski equipment supplier didn’t understand advertising and marketing properly, sunk money into unaffordable foreign subsidiaries, couldn’t place themselves in the consumer’s shoes and failed to understand that retailers were controlling the business.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the ski makers that have “vanished…”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Money supply, illusions and reality

My French friends often come with the term “virtual” when they talk about money. What they mean is that there wouldn’t be enough money, if suddenly all amounts, including cash, bank deposits, notes and all electronic funds floating around were to be called off. They fear that money is in fact “made up” and its fictitious nature is what explains in part the current financial crisis. Since “I don’t know much about economy” I have offered to research the whole subject as if the United States was about to sell out and move to… Mars!
To try to clarify that legitimate hypothesis, I’ve done some research focused solely on the US (the Euro-zone is more difficult as the ECB mixes everything up between the countries using the common currency…

In the US, we have the following setup (all figures are from the end of 2007):
Let’s start with what is called “money stock” also called M1; it amounts to $1.374 trillion, or $5,000 per capita; funny because as a two-person household we don’t carry more than $200 in our valets at any one time! In the euro-zone, this represented, in 2007, $760 billion, which is only $2,500 per capita. This accounts for currency (notes and coins) in circulation and in bank vaults, plus the reserves which commercial banks hold in their accounts with the central bank.

You also add to that the checkable deposits and similar like traveler's checks. The money stock represents the assets that can be used to pay for a good or service or to repay debt. Like checks, debit cards that link to checkable deposits fall into that category.
En d'autres termes, si la masse monétaire augmente plus vite que la croissance du produit national brut, il est plus que probable que l'inflation va suivre.
In the past, it used to be that if money supply increased faster than the GDP, rise in inflation would follow.

“Quasi-money” or “near money” are assets that can be converted quickly and easily into cash with virtually no loss in value. They’re also called M2. Examples of near money are savings account balances and Treasury bills, bank CDs, money market deposit accounts for individuals, bonds near redemption date and foreign currencies, especially widely traded ones. In the US, quasi-money amounts to $10.1 trillion

“Domestic credit stock” is even bigger; it means trade and consumer credit; in the US, it amounts to $15 trillion, while it’s a whopping $21 trillion in the EU and $70 trillion in the entire world. Finally, lets’ keep our external debt in mind, that before all the financial bailout and the new stimulus plan was already at a whopping $12.25 trillion as of June, 30 2007. Today we should be close to our total GDP, which if I need to remind you, amounted to $14.58 for 2008.

Now, let’s get a good accountant to figure out that mess and see if we can bail out to another planet. I personally doubt it and think that we, our kids and generations of their descendant going to be stuck on earth for a very long time in order to clean up the mess!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Skiing after 60

As I was skiing yesterday, I was wondering when the “next shoe will drop;” in other words, when am I going to start slowing down a bit. Until now, I’ve been able to ski faster and more than ever before (if we count in days and vertical drop.) Part of it, has been the new equipment that makes it so easy, and part of it has been my rather good physical shape (regular running being the number one reason.) In addition, there’s a subtle system of compensation that allows me to still do a lot with less resources. I must be shrewder, I must be “cheating” a lot and I expand just the minimum amount of energy required; isn’t that wonderful? Now, I’m wondering when all that good stuff will start going south in a measurable way. I guess it will be gradual, before my bones become brittle and my muscles too weak… It’d be nice to see a little light on the dashboard that says “Check Engine” or something like it. If you happen to be in your sixties, or better yet in your seventies, could you please give me a preview of some of the milestones I should expect to encounter along the way?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

That sweet competitive spirit

Yesterday morning as we were running, we were about to begin the ascent of Meadows Drive, a nasty hill that is half-a-mile long but climbs at a rate of about ten percent. Just then, a male runner in his mid forties passed us like a rocket and began his ascent in front of us; we exchanged greetings and voiced our admiration for his obvious stamina. A few minutes later, he was walking up the road, evidently consumed by the steepness of the hill and not able to carry on. As we passed him, he acknowledged that it was our turn and as we did, we started “to press the pedal on the metal” and did our utmost to increase the space between us and the walker. As we reached the crest, we noticed that he had resumed running albeit now a quarter of a mile behind us. We kept going all out in the downhill section of our course and kept the pace all the way home. The man managed to stay behind us, but was never able to catch up. We felt great, exhausted and our competitive spirit had won the day.

Monday, March 9, 2009

All you want to know about snowfall

Ever since Denys Trombert, a good friend of mine, prompted me to keep a record of the weather and major events coloring my life, I’ve obliged. I’ve actually begun in August of 2006 and if you were to ask me today, I can now tell you with a reasonable degree of accuracy our past weather history. Since this winter has been dryer than usual, Evelyne has been – for quite sometime - begging me for a snowfall comparison with last season. Since my administrative staff has been busy tracking the ever-changing economic news, her request had to wait till today. With no further ado, here’s that stark reality: To date and since the beginning of winter, we’ve only received 86” compared with 197” of snow a year ago. The season before, we stood at 98”; these of course are cumulative numbers. Don’t get me wrong, skiing has been pretty good and the main difference is that my biceps are a bit flabbier, for an obvious lack of shoveling. It just feels good to know that these numbers are right instead of venturing some wild and inaccurate guess…

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The gift of frugality

If there's something I’m grateful for, it’s the gift of frugality my parents passed on to me. Sure, I was born and raised in Haute-Savoie, France, where most folks were watching their pennies, and they had to, because when I was a kid, there was not much to spare; we were just poor. We think we also passed that virtue (yes, I mean that word) onto our children and hope it will remain in the family DNA for a few more generations… You see, our American experience has been the antithesis of a simple life. Most of our neighbors and fellow citizens have believed Madison Avenue’s message that in order to be whole you must consume hard and crumble under debts. Now, that the damage is done, it appears cool again to be frugal, but I doubt that it will last long unless it’s burned deep into one’s psyche. God, I’m so glad we’ll be forever frugal!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Time for solutions!

Yesterday, as we were watching the news, we heard no less than 8 times that our employment figures had gone up to 8.1%. To my ears, Friday sounded almost like the most negative day I’d experienced since 9/11 and I didn’t like it. Bathing all the time in such a destructive mix will bring us further down and this is something we don’t want. This is why I call for a nationwide initiative in favor of creating solutions instead of crying on problems and misfortunes. From that day on, and until things turn around, this blog will only focus on possibilities and on solutions that can make us stronger, healthier and happier. So stay tuned and make sure to remind me if I ever slip into the ditch of pessimism.

Friday, March 6, 2009

War’s over!

I haven’t checked lately, but if we’re still burning $10 billion a month between Iraq and Afghanistan, while our country’s economy is bleeding, something has got to give. It’s time to revisit our vocabulary and rename “occupation we can’t afford” what’s been billed as “war on terror” by the previous administration. Time to let the Iraqis and Afghans fend for themselves, while keeping a close watch via satellites, other listening devices on Osama bin Laden’s grave, the al Qaeda’s Worldwide headquarters in Kabul and branch offices in Mogadishu or Yemen, using our special forces to slap any would-be-terrorists really hard before they misbehave. In other words, let’s change the paradigm, bring the troops home earlier than we had plan, and start re-building America!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Recipe for good documentary

Last night was our evening out as we went to see “Project Kashmir” a documentary looking at the conflict over Kashmir through the eyes of two American co-directors Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel. Both were raised in the U.S., but Kheshgi's family is Pakistani Muslim, while Patel's family is Indian and Hindu. So, as you can read, we started with very good intentions, but half-way into the projection, we decided to leave as we found the film so poorly made that we couldn’t get a sliver of understanding about what appears to be a devastating crisis. This brings me to the subject of film making and in that case, documentary making. To me, a director has several ingredients available: A story (that is not always very clear with a documentary), photography which is the essence of film-making, sound that always plays a huge role in creating rhythm and atmosphere, and editing that can piece the all project together and present it in some alluring ways. There was none of that in that film. It was more like a jambalaya that didn’t taste good next to the tantalizing sushi platter it should have been. While the subject of Kashmir is noble and generally ignored by most of us, the treatment was terrible and didn’t do justice to it. I’m glad we walked away...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Osama bin Laden’s revenge

Early this week, somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a corpse turned into its grave. Because it rolled to the other side, I couldn’t see his face, but someone told me it was bin Laden and he was smiling. I usually don’t believe that dead people move and smile, but in this case I’d probably make an exception. He was smiling because he had finally made good on his 2004 threat that Al Qaeda would wreck the American and world economies, as the major stock markets tumbled and the Dow Jones index went under 7,000 points. Actually, Al Qaeda took unfair credit for the demolition derby undertaken by Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Greenspan, among others. These guys, with the complicity of bankers and realtors opened up the credit spigots all the way so the American people could get drunk on consumption by buying big homes and gas-guzzling cars they couldn’t afford, while we were playing Indiana Jones in Iraq and ignoring Palestine, the root cause of the real Middle-East crisis. Today, as a victorious Osama bin Laden rolls back to sleep for eternity*, we now have to rebuilt our broken nation and get out of Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as we can since we can’t no longer afford these costly overseas incursions.

* Those naïve souls who still believe bin Laden is alive are probably the same who’ve sighted Elvis Presley at the Mall last month…

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


We just saw the documentary “Stranded” quite a few years after reading “Alive” and seeing its namesake movie as well as, more recently, reading “Miracle in the Andes.” I must say that after doing all that, I have garnered a good appreciation for that incredible adventure of both hope and survival, and I have found in it an endless source of inspiration. As we’re now in the midst of material “doom and gloom,” with the stock market tanking and the economy on the skids, it’s very uplifting to remind ourselves that as long as our heart still beats inside our chest, we’re okay. This reminds me also of a comment made by Mychel Blanc, a former schoolmate and now an artist who lives in France, near Geneva: “As long as they [the teachers] have not hung us, we’re alright…” This statement may sound simplistically naïve but it has helped me to carry on more often than not, along with the mental picture of that plane and its survivors stranded in a remote snowfield of the high Andes…

Monday, March 2, 2009

Where’s the bottom?

The current freeze that has befallen the American economy is due for a large part to a general lack of confidence from investors that have been, in growing numbers, standing on the fence and waiting for a clear signal to re-enter the market. At this moment, it seems that both the real estate and financial markets hold the keys to returning to business as usual. If we take the two bottlenecks individually, real estate must clearly go back to a pre-bubble price level, but this is hampered by sellers that are still in denial, are not really motivated to sell or owe more money than their holdings are worth. The financial sector is still muddied with its so-called “toxic assets” that according to some credible experts could result in $3 to $4 trillion additional losses. So we are left with a situation in which market levels must sink down to what’s expected in order for investors to feel “safe” again. Given all the “skeletons” that are hanging in both sectors and the inertia still showed by some, this clearing up process may take another good couple of years…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Are baby-boomers to blame?

To some, this world-wide crisis appears like the result of missed opportunities. Remember the late 60s and the early 70s when everything seemed to be possible and easy, when a massive group of young people was thinking of reshaping the world. It started with those of us we stood against the Vietnam War, against capitalistic oppression and in favor of racial rights, sexual equality and ecology. Our pop songs proclaimed that good stuff, the books we loved were filled with it, but when we were lucky enough to get a job and started to smell money, earthly possessions, began to have kids and a mortgage, these good intentions faded away faster than we care to remember. After seeming to be dead-set against the system, we not only embraced it, we made it even more monstrous, by traveling the world over, by eating too much, by consuming excessively and by worshipping the credit gods. As there seems to be very few younger activists like us to denounce that we’ve made the system much worst, we all wonder if we’ll even be able to fix it. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) originated the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” we must have gotten badly lost along the way…