Archive for August, 2011

Assessing Irene- the Storm, the Hype, the Reality

August 29, 2011 3 comments

There’s a lot of debate this day after the storm about whether the media and governments went overboard on Irene…as if we didn’t have a hurricane the size of Europe bearing down on 60 million inhabitants of the eastern seaboard.


Weather science has come a long way and no one can argue that the tracking of Irene was anything but amazingly precise. What the advance forecasts misjudged was the wind intensity of the storm. Some 72-96 hours ahead of the turn toward the U.S. mainland, forecasters thought they might have a category-4 storm on their hands. In reality, though still at hurricane strength when making landfall in New Jersey, Irene was “only” a category-1 and down to a strong tropical storm by the time it hit Coney Island in New York City.

Meteorologists fully understand that they overestimated the wind speed forecasts and will surely be reworking their models for future hurricanes. From the layman’s eye, what appears to be missing in the analysis is the effect on storms once they start getting broken up as they pass over land. That’s a tricky thing to try to project when a hurricane is hugging a coast-line and as this one, actually had three different landfalls; North Carolina, New Jersey and New York. It’s almost as if the wind-speed analysis of Irene’s potential discounted the energy it would lose as it made its way up the coast through the combination of cooler ocean waters and the land masses it went over.

Government Response

New Jersey Governor Chris Cristie and the folks at the National Hurricane Center are certain that the overwhelming and, in some ways, unprecedented government response to Irene- saved lives. Little solace to the 24 37 people whose families are attending funerals today but only God knows what the total death toll might have been had there not been mandatory evacuations, transit system shutdowns and dire warnings from Presidents, Governors and Mayors.

The Media

Yes, the Weather Channel, Accu-Weather, and local and national media brought out all the bells and whistles, super-duper graphics packages, doubled-up staffs and dramatic language through the course of coverage. Of course there was some hype. For people in the weather and news businesses this was the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Academy awards rolled into one.

People like Daily Beast Washington Bureau Chief, Howard Kurtz, got all bent out of shape over the marketing and the splash. Kurtz was angered by the earthquake media coverage too. Surely by now, though, we’ve grown to accept that news coverage in the 24-hour, web and cable-driven news business is filled with hype and spin and marketing. Hopefully, we’re adult enough to take some of this with a grain of salt.

But you know what? A friggin’ 5.8 earthquake that rattles nerves from Georgia to Maine is a big deal and 3,000 people didn’t have to die to make it a newsworthy event in a part of the country where quakes are rare. A gigantic hurricane aimed at the most populous region of the nation is as newsworthy as newsworthy gets. Decry the surrounding hype and the breathless reporting as much as you want- it doesn’t change the fact that both these events really were big, major news.

The Politics

I don’t understand the meme that’s been building in the right-wing world as exemplified by the Drudge Report which is usually the trend leader in conservative talking points. Drudge has spent the better part of the last 3 days complaining about the hype over Irene, downplaying its seriousness and went as far as to link to a web site that questioned the integrity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while claiming Irene was not really a hurricane and was making landfall with 33 mph winds, data that was disingenuously cherry-picked to the level of absurdity and demonstrably false.

But what motivates this cynicism? I suspect it comes down to the role of government. Disasters are one of those areas in which governments play key roles and exercise tremendous power. The bigger the disaster, the more people depend on government to warn them, take care of them and then fix whatever is broken in the aftermath. Downplaying the size of a coming disaster deemphasizes the role of government and opens the possibilities of claiming government overreaction and intrusion into our lives.

Grateful for the Overreaction

In the end, if Irene wasn’t all she was hyped to be, she still caused enormous damage and inconvenience, and in some cases, death. If all the media hype and governmental seriousness that was attached to Irene helped keep people alive- then good. I’ll take the hype and make fun of it when it’s silly. The worst of it for me was that I now have 48 containers of bottled water and a half-dozen cans of tuna fish I would not otherwise have purchased.

And God help us when the time comes that the media and government under-hype a potential disaster. That’s called getting caught off-guard and usually results in catastrophe. We should be grateful to have avoided that this week whether it was the ground trembling beneath our feet or less-then-expected winds rattling our windows.

Shock: Drudge Links to Web Site Denying Irene is a Hurricane

August 27, 2011 1 comment

A guy named Steven Goddard has posted today that Irene has nothing more than 33 mph winds and that NOAA’s hurricane warnings are phony. I read it just now on the famous Drudge Report.

I can’t find Goddard’s credentials but a Google search does find that he’s been waging war against climate change theory for years now, which is neither here nor there. He’s currently denying actual data from weather stations in North Carolina.

Joe Bastardi, Accuweather’s former chief long-range forecaster and well-known for his views that climate change is not a man-made phenomena and has nothing to do with hurricane development has posted this on Goddard’s site in response:

There are winds gusting to near 120 mph. The storm may destroy every boardwalk up the coast. Please, you are doing a disservice to our side of the debate by downplaying this. ITS A 951 MB LAND FALL… 6th strongest on record in NC.
This is not a fight you should be fighting with these people. Lets not resort to the tactics they have ( warmingistas) by twisting examples. The exposure of some of the ob sites is leading to some of the reports, but other areas are getting hammered in the way this should 951 mb is similar to the pressure of IKE which was ridiculed before hand cause it was downgraded to 2.

I beg of you guys. Make fun of me after if this is not a 5-10 billion dollar storm , but wait till the game is over because we are setting ourselves up for problems if we find the boardwalks destroyed and people without power for a week like I think.

LETS FIGHT THEM WITH TRUTH on the facts .. Hurricanes are not caused by global warming, but lets fight them on the merits of the issue, not with examples, whether I am right on how this turns out or not!

Goddard’s site, “Real Science,” is claiming that because Irene has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm and wind levels are lower than may have been anticipated, the hysteria is phony.

Here are the facts: Most hurricane or tropical storm deaths are not caused by winds—they’re caused by storm surge; water piling up, driven by tides and currents and supplemented by extreme downpours. And even though Irene’s wind speeds are down due to how the storm has broken up over land, it still has the potential to spawn tornadoes.

And even if Goddard is correct that maximum winds will be at 33 mph when the storm hits New York City, having lived on the 18th floor of a Manhattan high-rise for several years, I can tell you from first-hand experience, that wind speeds of 30 mph at ground level, can be twice that 15 stories up and well over 90mph above 30 stories.

This strikes me as not the time to let political or scientific viewpoints on the veracity of climate change theory influence actual information people need to decide whether they’re going to evacuate or not.

Regardless of her wind speeds, Irene is a massive storm, nearly the size of Europe and the storm surge and the threat of tornadoes alone should be enough to convince people to be safe and prudent in protecting their own lives and those of their families.

Proud East Coast Earthquake Wimps

Yes, we streamed out of office buildings. We had some traffic jams. People pretty much freaked out because we’re not supposed to feel what we did today. It feels like everything is kind of shaky these days.

We barely survived the debt default scare, the financial downgrade and Wall Street’s convulsions. And now there’s a hurricane coming. So I was not the least surprised to feel the earthquake. If I am carried off by a swarm of locusts in the morning, I will simply accept this as the new normal.

It’s kind of interesting if you think about it. I mean how many generations of earthlings have passed before us- but we are the ones that get to see the end! Imagine being the first generation to not be able to tell our grand kids about all we went through- because we’ll be gone! So we just need to relax and watch this all unfold.

And we East Coast people are not complete, total wimps! Geologists say the rocks we sit on here in the East are kind of cold, dead things that allow the energy from an earthquake to spread really far without being dissipated. Here’s a Geologist who talked to the Washington Post. His name is Graham Kent. Dr. Graham Kent:

Even though it’s a 5.9, it’s a lot bigger deal than a 5.9 would be in California or Nevada. You might see damage further away from the epicenter than you might expect.

So there- you West Coast people who were laughing at us today. And you New England types who mock us, particularly in the Washington area, for closing schools when there’s an inch of snow—well, well….I guess you got us there.

Anyway…we are survivors here in ‘ol DC. We’re used to being hated for gridlock and taxes. Our highways rival LA and NY’s for their endless congestion. We don’t have a single escalator that works in our subway system. We have Augusts that compare to any horrible month anywhere in the world with miserable heat and humidity that will buckle your knees. We panic, have 9-hour traffic jams and crash into each other in winter storms. We haven’t had a sports team win a championship in nearly 20 years. What’s a little earthquake?

I laugh at earthquakes. The locusts, however, are going to be a little disturbing.

Update on Haynesworth- Mostly MIA

I’m not supposed to care about Albert Haynesworth anymore because he left the Redskins for the Patriots- but curiosity got the better of me so I checked in with the Boston Globe. He hasn’t practiced now for 19 days.

The New England media, at first convinced this was going to be another case in which miracle-worker Bill Belicheck was going to somehow reform yet another Diva-Athlete malcontent- is now not so sure.

Here’s a terrific and hilarious article by the dean of Boston sportswriters, Dan Shaughnessy.

And here are the highlights:

Best of all, they [the New England Patriots] have a secret – and we mean secret – weapon that is almost never seen, rarely practices, and is unlikely to be deployed in a preseason game. Don’t tell the Dolphins, but the Patriots plan to surprise them in the season opener Sept. 12 when they wheel out the great Albert Haynesworth….Other than a fan’s Twitter photo (which surfaced this week) of Albert eating Italian ice on Atlantic Avenue, there was no record of Albert’s whereabouts from Aug. 4 until yesterday, when he watched practice.

“Watched’’ is the key word. Haynesworth did not participate in anything. Not even light running. No one is saying whether he is hurt or out of shape. Bill Belichick says he is “day to day,’’ but won’t say whether he’s planning on Albert for the opener.

So there you have it. The Patriots have Haynesworth and they’re not going to be dopes and show him to the opposition. He doesn’t need to practice. It worked with Randy Moss in 2007 (9 catches, 183 yards in the opener after a no-show preseason) and it’ll work again.

Patriot’s coaches and ownership are saying Albert is just misunderstood and most of the terrible things that have been written about him in recent years are all bunk.

Meanwhile, the Patriots PR machine (including actual Patriot employees) prepares to nominate Albert for a Nobel Prize and Time’s Man of the Year. Never mind the rap sheet that’s longer than Ted Williams’ Hall of Fame plaque. So what if the Redskins gave Albert a $100 million contract, then sent him home for the last four games of 2010 rather than have him around to poison their team.

Even for a lousy high-round draft pick, the Redskins getting rid of Albert was the best move EVER.

So sorry, Patriot nation.

Enough of the Bus Tours Already

Sarah Palin's bus (top), President Obama's bus (lower)

The only recently successful one I remember was Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s bus trip shortly after the 1992 convention. It seemed a relatively low-tech, novel, charming little trip that actually stirred up interest and fairly sizeable crowds.

Now we have Sarah Palin’s on again-off again bus tours that enable her to essentially party-crash wherever some big Republican event is happening. And then there’s the President’s “non-political,” “non-campaign,” three-day bus tour in a scary looking super-fortified shiny black bus that looks like the kind of vehicle Darth Vader would have used if he decided to go on a listening tour.

The best moment of the Sarah Palin Iowa visit came when ABC News Correspondent, Jake Tapper tried to ask a couple of questions and the former Alaska Governor put him off because she had an appointment with a heifer in the nearby dairy pavilion; proof she really was there to pet the animals and was not seeking media attention.

Following the Sarah Palin mob scene at the Iowa State Fair, the media pretty much forgot about her as only NBC chose to keep covering her “bus tour” as it veered off into Ronald Reagan country with visits to the Gipper’s childhood home in Dixon, Illinois and his alma mater of Eureka College. That was followed by a stop at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It must have been an odd and empty feeling for the Palin’s to see the media mob gone, their attention sucked up by Texas Governor, Rick Perry and President Obama’s own bus tour. It actually turned into a real honest-to-goodness Palin family vacation, which I’m guessing was a somewhat unexpected development for them.

As for President Obama’s “regular guy,” “non-political” bus tour; it is immediately being followed by what has now become a controversial vacation for ten days in posh Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Critics from the left and the right are saying the Martha’s Vineyard “optics” don’t look good with all the economic misery out there and what not.

Perhaps the First Family should forego the Vineyard and just hang out on the big shiny, fortified black bus for the next couple of weeks. Given all the anger permeating the nation, it may just be the safest option- plus it reportedly has really cool flat-screen TV’s.

Don’t accidently meander into Texas though, Mr. President. I hear it can get ugly down there for Federal Reserve Board Chairmen and presumably other government types as well. Then again, you can probably launch nuclear missles from that thing, can’t you?

Bi-Polar Stock Market-Watching Syndrome (BPSMW)

I need to see a psychiatrist. BPSMW syndrome has gotten the best of me. Doctor, I keep glancing at MarketWatch and Bloomberg every three minutes. I can’t take it anymore.

When the Dow drops 600 points, I get all depressed and panicky and want to come home and kick the dog. When it rises 423 as it just did today, I get all giddy and happy and skippy (that’s a condition in which you start skipping suddenly, rapidly and uncontrollably).

I’ve tried to wean myself off the market cold-turkey. It’s not working. I pass a TV and shoot a quick, secretive glance to see if there’s a red arrow or a green arrow in the corner of the screen. I actually now hate anything that’s the color red.

I’ve started enjoying long meetings at work because I have, as of yet, not loaded any market-alert apps on my phone and suddenly three hours go by and I remember what life used to be like before my life savings and supposed retirement evaporated before my eyes every other hour.

When the market goes in the crapper, I slap myself for not having taken my money out and invested in gold bullion. When it rockets upward, I congratulate myself for being so calm and level-headed when the truth of the matter is I am actually suffering from Bi-Polar Investment Paralysis, a secondary condition characterized mostly by extreme fear and uncertainty of doing anything remotely financial.

A friend of mine recently recommended Chart Therapy. This is where you pull out a ten year chart of Wall Street’s gyrations and realize these current antics are but tiny little blips even though they look like gigantic Swiss mountains when you’re monitoring them by the minute.

This I know. I am exhausted and weary and I trust those poor men and women on the floor of the exchange must be as well. I think by now we are all longing for the magic words, “The Dow Jones Industrial Average today, was unchanged on low volume and no particularly newsworthy events.”

Michele Bachman and the Newsweek Photo

I don’t know if it was sexist. I do think it was as an adolescent move by a nearly defunct magazine and a tactic used to lampoon men and women alike and across all sides of the political spectrum.

Look at the prototypical negative political campaign ad. Dark, grainy footage of the dreaded, villainous opponent, the most unflattering photos that can be found, usually punctuated by foreboding music and a deep, serious announce voice. That’s an ad either party would use.

How many unflattering photos of George W. Bush did liberals use to lampoon him?

Here’s one:

But he also looked like this:

Perhaps those on the political right expressing so much outrage over the Bachmann photo forget the pictures of Hillary Clinton they were putting up on their web sites just a couple of years ago. Here’s one:

Actually, Hillary can also look like this:

Here, by the way, is what Michele Bachmann usually looks like:

Love her, hate her or indifferent, as more than a few have said over the past few days, you have to work pretty hard to find a bad picture of the Minnesota Congresswoman.

Here’s Newsweek/Daily Beast head honcho, Tina Brown’s words in defense of the magazine’s use of the picture:

Not cross-eyed. Listen she has – the intensity in her eyes is in all the photographs of her, you know. This is the thing that’s connecting with people. We have people in the crowd saying, you know, something about her tells me I should follow her And there is something about Michele Bachmann with the eyes looking out. She has a very very, this very kind of intense demeanor.

Really? The Newsweek cover photo depicts an “intense” demeanor? I kind of think the photo says “psychopath,” and I think its use was designed to get people talking about Newsweek magazine. I don’t actually think it will help increase its tiny circulation by much because, sadly, it’s an outmoded medium. But, I digress.

I unashamedly give credit to John Stewart for this, but, really, anybody can photograph badly, even Tina Brown:

Who, in all fairness, also looks like this:

Missouri Mom Tells Off S&P

Lucy Nobbe from Kirkwood, Missouri decided to take matters into her own hands. She rented a plane and a banner and flew over Standard & Poor’s Manhattan offices Tuesday with this message: “Thanks for the downgrade- you should all be fired.”

Representing the outrage felt by tens of millions of Americans over S&P’s downgrade of the United States to AA+ status last Friday, Lucy had enough. She says she initially planned to fly over the Capitol building with the same message for our nation’s gridlocked lawmakers, but realized airspace restrictions over Washington, D.C. would have resulted in an escort from F16 jet fighters and an interview with the Secret Service so she did the next best thing.

To many, many people, S&P’s actions last week smacks them as deeply unpatriotic. The symbolic downgrade has helped send the nation’s and the world’s stock markets into turmoil and caused millions of people sleepless nights as they watch their 401K’s sink into oblivion. S&P then promptly downgraded Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which should now make it more expensive for people to get home loans in an already depressed housing market. And they’re not done yet as S&P has now embarked on a downgrading spree; targeting states, counties and municipalities across the nation.

And even if S&P’s message about a dysfunctional American political system was painfully true- their mission is supposed to be grading companies and countries on their credit-worthiness. As their actions helped cause the markets to tank, their own case for the downgrade was belied by the fact the entire world went to the safest haven they could find- the very U.S. Treasuries S&P had just said were unreliable.

As it was there were two parts to S&P’s downgrade message; one economic and one about the political gridlock in DC. As they got the math wrong and overstated the size of the debt by $2 trillion, they admitted their error, dropped the economic argument and presented only the political one.

We don’t need to get into the fact S&P had given Enron a AAA rating until just about the day they went bankrupt, gave sterling ratings to companies who held worthless subprime mortgage loans four years ago, and missed the European debt crisis until it was well underway. It’s more primal than all that. They downgraded America.

And Lucy Nobbe, a single mom and broker who knows a thing or two about finance ended up spending $900 to rent the plane and the banner and make her voice heard over the offices of Standard & Poor’s, speaking for millions of others who continue to scratch their heads at the gridlock and the insanity of it all.

Downgrading America

S&P may have questionable moral authority in downgrading the U.S. from its AAA rating but they have pointed out that if Republicans don’t back down from their anti-tax fervor and Democrats continue to maintain entitlement programs without significant reform- the gridlock will continue to kill us.

There are two other ratings agencies who still give the U.S. a AAA rating, Moody’s and Fitch. Both warn that may change but have also said they put less weight than S&P does on the politics of gridlock. But ironically, the political reaction to the S&P downgrade may change their minds on that. Instead of taking the downgrade as a warning shot across the bow, both sides have come out swinging against one another in response, making the very point S&P highlighted that these intractable political positions make us a riskier investment.

There are indications that the “Super” congressional committee of a dozen lawmakers representing the House and Senate will be every bit as deadlocked as the larger bodies were just last week. Standard and Poor’s and their fellow ratings agencies may have played a significant hand in our current crisis by handing out completely undeserved sterling ratings to the instigators of the subprime lending catastrophe four years ago, but they’re right to express serious concern about the state of our “take no prisoners” political climate.

But a downgrade may be taking it all a step too far. The U.S. economy, anemic as it is, is still way better off than it was, say in 2008 in the midst of the banking crisis and we didn’t get downgraded then. Downgrading the U.S. now carries the risk that interest rates will rise and make paying off debt an even more expensive task, not to mention the ripple effect on an already struggling economy as rates potentially rise for everything from small business lending to auto, credit card, and student loans.

It happened, though, and here we are. If the Congressional “Super” committee finds a spine and a sudden spirit of compromise, we’ll be alright. Given the toxic political environment of the moment, I wouldn’t exactly give that likelihood a sterling, risk-free AAA rating

Economic Choices: Between Terrible and Worse

August 3, 2011 1 comment

Can we be realistic here? The debt ceiling “compromise” signed into law Tuesday fixes nothing and ensures continuing uncertainty in financial markets and more ideological warfare in the months ahead. But congratulations Washington for putting the matches away and not burning the house down.

As all sides hold their noses while they get a good look at this really ugly baby, here’s what has not been accomplished.

Deficit Reduction: A little bit- but not much. $2.4 trillion over ten years against a $14 trillion debt with most of the cuts still to be determined by a “Super” committee of 12 angry, feuding lawmakers who start meeting around Thanksgiving. This ought to give us that much more to be grateful for.

Reduction in Entitlement Programs: They’re responsible for most of the debt but even the draconian cuts that automatically take place if our angry, feuding lawmakers can’t come to an agreement- don’t address Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare recipients. Some think this a good thing with a reeling economy causing so much misery but for a so-called attempt to bring spending in line, not a smart move to ignore consideration of the major contributors to the national debt.

Revenue: Two major commissions that set about to solve deficit-spending in the past year both came to identical conclusions. It cannot be accomplished by cutting alone. This is not about partisanship- it’s about math. There were plenty of Republicans on both these panels who endorsed the concept of raising revenue as a part of balancing budgets. See this column in the Washington Post that discusses these commissions and their discoveries. Alan Greenspan, one of the last human beings on the planet you would expect to favor tax increases is now in favor of exactly that. Blogged about it a few months ago.

Rational Process: We will forever more be holding future extensions of the nation’s debt ceiling hostage to the ideological flavors and fights of the day. This has nothing to do with party. Other than whichever party is out of the White House will, from now on, be pushing the nation’s economy to the brink in order to extract whatever it can from perpetually horrified future Presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The Current Economic Mess: The 1,000 point Dow Jones meltdown that would have been expected had the debt ceiling not been passed was replaced instead by a 265 point meltdown out of fears stoked by today’s weak and struggling economy that the debt ceiling agreement does little to address.

But in the end, was it a good thing the debt ceiling bill passed? Well, as Alan Greenspan put it so eloquently in September of 2010, “Our choice is not between good and bad but between terrible and worse.”