The Ruble’s Ruin

Does anyone remember learning in history class about the economy of the Weimar Republic — the ill-fated government of Germany between World War I and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party?  It experienced hyperinflation and financial calamity, and we read about Germans needing wheelbarrows of cash to buy even a loaf of bread.

We think that couldn’t happen anymore in the modern world — but it can.  In fact, it is happening right now in Russia, as a Fortune article reports.  Some people think that Russia’s currency, the ruble, is in a state of irretrievable collapse; its value against other currencies, like the dollar, is plummeting and even draconian increases in Russian interest rates might not stem the tide.

The reason is oil.  It’s Russia’s one big marketable commodity and the bedrock of their  economy.  The price of oil has been falling for months, which has made investors nervous about how Russian companies are going to pay off their debts given the lack of incoming cash.  So, the ruble trades lower, and the ability of Russian companies to pay off debts calculated in foreign currencies becomes harder and harder — which makes defaults even more likely.  By one calculation, the amount of rubles Russian companies need to pay off foreign debt obligations has increased by 90% just since the start of November.

How is Vladimir Putin going to deal with this crisis?  You might be tempted to say this disaster couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but let’s resist the impulse to enjoy some schadenfreude.  Putin is adventurous as it is, and you have to wonder whether a destabilizing currency failure is going to make him even more likely to wave his big stick to try to distract from his other problems.  And if Russian companies start defaulting on the more than $670 billion they owe, what is that going to do for the world economy?

Keep an eye out for the wheelbarrows.

The Dark Underbelly Of The Elf On A Shelf

Millions of American households with young children have an “elf on a shelf.”  As explained to me — because the elf didn’t become popular until well after Richard and Russell were out of their childhood years — the elf is a little figure that changes its position from time to time and moves from room to room, supposedly so he can keep an eye on things and report back to Santa Claus on whether the kids of the family are being naughty or nice.

Now a Canadian professor contends that there is more to the “elf on a shelf” than meets the eye.  Rather than an innocent yet tangible expression of the power of belief in Santa Claus, she contends that the “elf on a shelf” conditions children to uncritically accept existing power structures and norms and to get used to lack of privacy and being spied upon.

So . . . even if that questionable theory is true, what’s wrong with that?  Speaking as a parent, I wanted our kids to accept the existing power structure — namely, that Kish and I got to call the tune in the Webner household — and to think that if they were doing something bad, it would be discovered and reported.  Fortunately, our kids were little angels at all times.

Of course, the combination of Christmas and spying goes back to well before the “elf on a shelf” first made his appearance.  Santa Claus, of course, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — so he’s not only spying on your kids, but he’s also judging them.  If we’re worried about the impact of naughty/nice spying on children’s psyches, maybe we also should ask what gives Santa the right to judge our kids?  Obviously, a guy who smokes a pipe, wears real furs, and has a gut that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs is not living a perfect, healthy, blameless lifestyle, so why should he be deciding whether a little kid is abiding by accepted societal norms?

Maybe there’s a deep, dark underbelly here — or maybe professors at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology need to relax and realize that kids trying desperately to control their inner demons for a few weeks each December in order to maximize their presents is part of the magic of the holiday season.

Scratching The SEC Itch

If there’s one thing that drives Ohio State fans to distraction, it’s the Buckeyes’ notorious lack of success against the SEC.  Whether it’s the shellacking Bear Bryant put on Woody Hayes back in the ’70s, or the crushing losses to Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS National Championship games during the Jim Tressel era, loyal members of Buckeye Nation have endured terrible performances against SEC teams in big games.  And when Ohio State finally seemed to lance the boil by beating Arkansas in a bowl game a few years ago, that victory was snatched away as a result of the “Tattoogate” scandal.

So, what’s an OSU fan supposed to think about the fact that when Ohio State made the first-ever four-team major college playoff this year, it was paired against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the consensus choice for best team in the land and an SEC team to boot, in its first game?

Call me crazy, but I welcome this challenge.  Ohio State might get its butt kicked, but it will never have a better chance to definitively end the SEC Curse and stop all the laughing and name-calling than it does in this game, this year.  Alabama is the SEC personified, and they will be the prohibitive favorite, too.  If Ohio State can somehow prevail — despite the presumptive advantages to the Tide stemming from “Southern speed,” the murderous schedule they’ve played in the world-beating SEC West, and the legions of five-star studs that Nick Saban lures to Tuscaloosa every year, maybe the SEC fans will finally shut up and recognize that Midwestern teams know their way around a pigskin, too.

I’m old school about how sports are supposed to work.  Alabama is the most successful college football program right now; Ohio State aspires to that position.  The best way for Ohio State to achieve its goal is to beat the best in a big game — and they’ve got that opportunity.  Now is the time.  If the Buckeyes lay an egg and Alabama crushes them like it did Notre Dame, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves, and the SEC buffs have every right to crow and call the Buckeyes an overrated program from a candy-ass conference.  If Ohio State somehow wins the game, however, we’ll lance that SEC boil, once and for all.

I really, really want to lance that boil.

Leaving New Albany

This afternoon we close on the sale of our home in New Albany, Ohio.  We’ll move out later this week, hand the keys over to the new owners, and just like that our 19-year sojourn in the North of Woods neighborhood of New Albany will be ended.

IMG_6180Yesterday Kish and I were madly packing up clothing, books, dishes, and the contents of our cupboards in preparation for the move.  It’s one of those basic chores that fully occupies your lower brain function — you have to pay enough attention to make sure that the boxes are securely packed, after all — but leaves the upper brain free to roam.  In this instance, my mind naturally turned to the notion of chapters ending, and new chapters beginning.

I tend not to be sentimental about homes; people and experiences are far more meaningful to me than structures.  Even so, I’ll miss this tidy wooden house where we watched the boys grow up, where we have put down deep roots and have such a strong sense of place and belonging.  We’ll miss our neighbors and the annual Halloween celebrations, we’ll miss the white fences, we’ll miss our walks to the library and around the block with Penny and Kasey, and we’ll miss seeing the ‘hood  continue to grow and develop.

But, it’s time to move on.  Today is another step in the process.

Down And Out

I knew that when the Browns decided to start Johnny Manziel, the season was over.  Sure enough, the Browns got crushed by the Bengals today in a game that was never even competitive.  Manziel was predictably awful.

I’m not saying that Johnny Manziel lost the game single-handedly, because he didn’t.  The whole team didn’t show up.  But when you have to change quarterbacks in the middle of what should be a sprint to the playoffs, and you’re going with a raw rookie whose arm strength is questionable and who made most of the great plays in his college career with his legs, you can’t really expect anything good to happen.  Real playoff teams just don’t do that.  Brian Hoyer’s awful play the past few weeks left the Browns coaches with no choice, because you can’t just let games slip through your fingers through offensive ineptitude — but only rabid fans would expect anything good to happen with Manziel making his first start in a crucial divisional match-up with the Browns’ fading playoff hopes on the line.

And so a season that once seemed promising has spiraled downward into a smelly, urine-soaked, rat-infested dumpster.  It’s the unfortunate lot of the Browns fan.  Now let’s turn our attention to the Buckeyes and that tilt against Alabama on January 1.

Out Of The Labor Market

Richard had a really good piece in Friday’s Florida Times-Union about Floridians who have dropped out of the labor force.  It’s an effort to explain, through the unique, personal stories of individuals, an important long-term trend in America:  declining participation in the labor force.

I think it’s a really good — and useful — piece of work because it captures the frustration, depression, and rejection that productive people feel when they lose their jobs and cannot get hired somewhere else, despite making every effort to find a new position with a new employer.  They want to work and know they could make a contribution, but they simply don’t get the opportunity.  You can sense the angst they feel in quotes like this from one woman who has looked high and low for work without success:  “Why is it that after five years of looking, nobody wants me?”  Is it any wonder that so many become discouraged and simply stop looking — or take an early retirement?

Statistics can be useful for some things, but they simply can’t capture the true story of people who are unemployed and unable to find work.  That’s why a story like Richard’s piece is valuable — it brings a big national development down to local, human terms that people can understand.

Cruise Control

IMG_3834Kish and I are back from a seven-day cruise through the islands of the south Caribbean on the Windstar, the flagship of the Windstar Cruise Line.  While we are still experiencing a bit of the adjustment back to solid ground after a week on a ship, it seems like a good time to reflect a bit on taking a cruise — and how it compares to other forms of travel.

First things first:  Windstar is a very good cruise line that covers all of the basics you expect from a cruise — lots of well-prepared food (and interesting food sculpture, too, as shown below), multiple excursion options, friendly cabin attendants and other staffers, an exercise facility, evening entertainment, and good pours from the bartenders.  The Windstar, however, is a much smaller vessel than the massive floating hotels that you find on other cruise lines that carry thousands of passengers; our ship held only about 130. That significant size difference plays out in multiple ways.

IMG_3993Unlike the huge cruise ships, on the Windstar you feel like you are actually on a ship.  On a windy day you feel the roll of the ocean and you acquire your sea legs — which is why we’re still adjusting to dry land today.  When you are walking on deck you need to be ready to grab hold.  I liked that aspect of the experience very much, because I thought it gave me a sense of what it must have been like to travel on smaller sailing ships in days gone by.

Because the ship is smaller, of course, the entertainment choices and bars are fewer, and there is no “Lido deck” where you can get frozen yogurt and ice cream 24 hours a day.  There was a small casino (which we never used), a small plunge pool and hot tub, and a husband and wife duo that covered multiple musical genres in their shows, but no big pool with drinking contests, no comedy club, and no sports bar.  Some people might find the lack of such options a problem; we enjoyed the more intimate setting.

We also liked the fact that the size of the ship allowed the Windstar to visit little islands that a massive cruise liner could never approach — and, even if it could, that would be overrun by the discharge of hundreds of passengers.  Rather than tying up at the cruise ship terminals at the main ports on the bigger islands, the Windstar moored in little harbors next to places that we never would have seen otherwise, like tiny Mayreau and Bequia.  We were looking for some time away from the rat race, and we found it — as well as a chance to enjoy some beautiful sunsets at sea.

One other thing about cruises is worth remembering, and that is the issue of control.  If you are traveling on your own, you are free to come and go as you please and adjust your itinerary if you choose to do so.  That is not an option on a cruise ship.  You select from a menu of excursion options or can wander through port towns, but you have to be back on the ship by a set time.  Certain types of people like the security of that kind of schedule, and others feel that their freedom is constrained by it.  You may not know exactly how you will react until you try it.

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