Quantitative Ending

The Federal Reserve Board has announced that it is ending its Quantitative Easing (QE) program.  Monetary policy and Wall Street finance decisions like this one typically make the average person roll their eyes and groan about abstract concepts that don’t seem to affect them — that is, until the failure of poorly conceived financial instruments threaten to bring the American economy to its knees and produce a recession or depression.

So what is QE, exactly?  It began in 2008 and was designed to try to bolster the sagging economy by injecting money and increasing the availability of credit.  A helpful New York Times piece explains QE using charts.  They show that for the last six years, the Fed has been buying bonds — lots and lots of bonds, to the point where it now owns $4.8 trillion of them.  And it hasn’t limited its bond buying to its traditional market of presumptively safe U.S. treasury securities, either.  Instead, it has bought huge sums of mortgage-backed securities, too, to the point where about 40 percent of the Fed’s total portfolio consists of those instruments.  And although the Fed has announced that QE is ending, that really just means that the Fed has stopped buying.  It has no plans to do any selling and will continue to own and hold that $4.8 trillion of bonds.

Why should we care about any of this?  Some people say that, through QE, the Fed just created money out of thin air.  Of course, it has been decades since the “gold standard” applied and dollars could be exchanged for actual gold, and since then dollars and other currencies basically have only had the value that investor confidence places in them.  During the six years of QE bond-buying, inflation has remained under control.  And, in some respects, QE seems to have worked — borrowing costs have declined, the stock market has bounced back, and there has been some job growth since the dark days of 2008-2009, although the economy obviously remains weak.

My views about QE boil down to two thoughts.  First, QE illustrates the enormous extent to which our current form of government places a lot of trust and power in institutions like the Fed.  How would the Founding Fathers react to an unelected board independently making the decision to buy trillions of dollars of financial instruments as part of a specific effort to manipulate the economy?  Second, QE also reveals the puniness of the average American in the face of massive economic forces that are wholly beyond our control.

Many of us have tried to manage our personal financial affairs prudently, with an eye toward building a nest egg that will allow us to some day enjoy a comfortable retirement.  We are like the ants in the tale of the ant and the grasshopper, toiling and husbanding a portion of our earnings while the grasshoppers among us fiddle in the summer sun.  The risk for those of us who are following the path of the ant is that inflation begins to erode the value of what we’ve saved and reduced its ability to allow us to enjoy our golden years.  Has QE increased that risk?  So far it apparently hasn’t, but the jury is still out.  Like ants, we just hope that we don’t get crushed.

Our Lone Political Sign

IMG_3490I don’t think we’ve ever — ever — put a political sign in our yard.  Usually, Kish and I agree to disagree about individual candidates in significant races, so we don’t have a strong consensus view that would support a bold move like a yard sign.  (Of course, the fact that we live on a cul-de-sac that doesn’t get through traffic probably means that omission hasn’t made a significant difference in the results of any major political races.)

But when the people supporting the fire department and EMS issue asked if we would put a sign out in support of those essential municipal services, it was a no-brainer.  Kish and I might disagree on some things, but supporting the Fire Department and emergency medical services aren’t on that list.

A Chillingly Realistic Portrayal Of Sibling Relationships

Yesterday I read a news story that reminded me of the most chillingly realistic portrayal of sibling relationships I’ve ever seen on network television.

The story was about a man named John Spinello, who cannot afford needed oral surgery.  There’s nothing remarkable about that — except that 50 years ago Spinello invented the game “Operation.”  The news story was that the inventor of “Operation” can’t afford an operation.

You no doubt will recall “Operation,” one of the greatest game inventions ever.  Players drew cards and, using tweezers, had to remove humorous plastic pieces — like a piece of bread from the “Bread Basket” or a bucket from “Water on the Knee” — from a guy lying as if on an operation table.  If the tweezers touched the electrified sides of the slot where the plastic piece was placed, a buzzer sounded and the guy’s red nose lit up.  (Removing the pencil from “Writer’s Cramp” was the hardest.)

The strikingly accurate depiction of sibling relationships, of course, was found in the famous commercial for “Operation” — shown below — where a brother and sister are playing the game.  The clumsy brother hits the metal side and gets the buzzer while his sister howls with laughter.  She successfully removes the wrench from “Wrenched Ankle,” taunts the brother with it, and says, with an air of crushing superiority, “ha, ha, ha!”

In our house, the little girl’s “ha, ha, ha” became part of the family lexicon — because the Webner kids, like the children in every family, knew intuitively that a large part of life was figuring out ways to torment your siblings.  Whether it was playing unfair practical jokes, smirking in the background while they got disciplined, devising mean-spirited nicknames, telling kids in the neighborhood an embarrassing story, or setting things up so that your sister always got the dirty tramp on the game “Mystery Date,” pranking your brothers and sisters was a crucial part of growing up.  The “Operation” girl’s “ha, ha, ha” captured the whole process perfectly.

The Real-Life Death Star

Saturn has 62 moons.  One of them, called Mimas, looks familiar to anyone who’s ever watched the original Star Wars:  it’s a dead ringer for the Death Star.

Mimas is weird in other ways, too.  It’s the smallest round moon ever discovered.  It has an apparent impact crater so large that it looks like it should have shattered the moon into tiny pieces.  And Mimas accountably wobbles, too.  In fact, it wobbles so dramatically that scientists are stumped about how the pronounced wobble could possibly be caused.  The competing theories range from some large stone under the surface of the impact crater, to a core that is unaccountable shaped like a rugby ball, to an underground ocean that is sloshing back and forth even though Mimas is so cold that it’s hard to see how liquid water can exist.  And so, the scientists argue.

Let’s see — the smallest round moon known to anyone that looks exactly like the Death Star.  Isn’t the real answer obvious?  Help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi!  You’re our only hope!

 

Character Study

Sunday night was the series finale episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.  Kish and I have watched the show with pleasure since its inception, and we were very sorry to see it end.  (Spoiler alert:  if you haven’t seen the last episode, you may not want to read this.)

Part of the attraction of this terrific series was its lush recreation of bygone and forgotten places, whether it is Atlantic City in the late 1800s, America in the early days of Prohibition after World War I, or New York City during the grim days of the Depression.  The sense of period accuracy was total, down to the starched collars and spats.  Part of the attraction, too, was the many tremendous performances the show routinely delivered, from Michael Kenneth Williams’ simmering Chalky White, to Jack Huston’s partially masked, tortured Richard Harrow, to Kelly McDonald’s deeply conflicted Margaret Thompson, to Vincent Piazza’s Lucky Luciano, who probably changed more over the more than a decade covered by the show’s story arc than any other character.

It all revolved, however, around Nucky Thompson, as brilliantly portrayed by Steve Buscemi.  The last season, in particular, drilled down to the core of this fabulous character who is loosely based on a real Atlantic City politician.  Through the splices of scenes from his childhood as a straight-laced, polite boy trying to help his sick sister and protect his mother from his abusive father, to his early adulthood as a deputy sheriff trying to lift his family up and making choices that would set his future path, to the fully grown man who was a mixture of master political manipulator, far-sighted visionary, and ruthless criminal, we got to know Nucky as well as you can get to know any TV character.  When Nucky saw the early TV broadcast in the last episode, you just knew that he was looking at it with wonder — but also with an eye toward how he might profit from it in the days to come.

What a complex character Nucky Thompson was!  Consider his relationship with his faithful manservant, Eddie Kessler, who he risked his life to save.  Or his mentoring of Jimmy Darmody, only to turn and kill him in cold blood when Darmody became a rival.  Or his refusal to give up on the ne’er-do-well brother who betrayed him, even to the point of giving Eli a bag of cash (and shaving utensils) so he could clean himself up and reconcile with his wife.  Through it all, Nucky showed a deep understanding of the meaningful people in his life and their motivations, anticipating and defeating their moves against him.

And that’s why I don’t buy the last scene of the show.  I refuse to believe that the Nucky Thompson we came to know could so completely lose touch with the son of Jimmy Darmody and the grandson of Gillian Darmody that he wouldn’t even recognize him and therefore could be shot and killed by him.  Given the significance of the two Darmodys to his life, I think the Boardwalk Empire Nucky would have always kept an eye on the Darmody boy, recognizing him as a potential threat and dealing with it by helping him and co-opting him.  Nucky’s shocking death was a powerful way to end the show, but I just don’t think it was true to the character that I came to know.

Eminent Domain

Today we received a notice that we needed to update our blog domain name.  Following the handy instructions from WordPress, I switched our domain name from webnerhouse.com to webnerhouse.wordpress.com.

The reason for the change is that our old domain name, webnerhouse.com, is “set to expire” and “will stop functioning” on November 25, 2014.  That sounds final and irreversible, so I made the change to a new domain.  Why is this happening, after more than five years of blogging?  I have no earthly idea.

Of course, I have only the dimmest understanding of what a “domain” is, anyway.  In fact, when I hear the word “domain,” I inevitably think of the Seinfeld episode “The Contest” — which of course involves an entirely different domain as well as one of Cosmo Kramer’s greatest moments, shown above.  The domain I’ve changed is a lot less interesting, and involves names assigned by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.  Who cares, really?  As long as loyal readers can find our humble blog — and the redirection of visitors to our new domain is supposed to be automatic — that’s good enough for me.

15 Minutes Early

Lately my standard commute to work has been torturous.  Whether it is random accidents, or increased congestion due to the new homes and apartments being built in New Albany and points east, I am consistently enduring traffic jams on my way to the office.

I’m not a happy camper about it.  There are few things more irritating than crawling along in stop-and-go traffic, trying to figure out which lane might have the accident or be most likely to start moving.  It’s intolerable, and I inevitably reach the office in a foul mood as a result.  It’s not good for my car, either.  The interior has been severely scorched and some of the plastic fixtures partially melted by my more heated traffic jam epithets.

So, it’s time for a change.  Living in the ‘burbs, that means I have two options:  take the other route (because there really are only two options) or leave early.  There are a bunch of homes being built on the other route, so I’m going to shoot for leaving 15 minutes early.

This is not as easy as it sounds, and there are risks.  As Kish would tell you, I’m a creature of habit, and I like to follow my morning routine of walk, coffee, blog posting, get dressed, drive.  I’m going to have to speed up the schedule.  And all those accidents I’m encountering obviously have to happen before I leave at my standard time.  Who knows?  Perhaps the early departure time will put me squarely into the bad driver/accident zone.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take, because the traffic jams just suck.