Thursday, January 31, 2008

Behind the Curve

The Fed cut interest rates by another 50 basis points on Tuesday (ok, so this post isn't timely, get over it) which means they slashed 125 points in only 8 days. Since Fed rate cuts take 6-9 months to work their way through the general economy, imagine how much of this crisis might have been avoided if they cut rates aggressively in August. Of course, no one was suggesting that in August - all the pundits reassured us that the subprime problems were well-contained, mere fractions of a percentage point of GDP.

No one but Cramer, of course.

Cramer's got his share of detractors. He makes a ton of bold calls, and certainly not all of them are correct. He'll give buy/sell recommendations on 30 stocks in a single show, and he gets many of them wrong. So if you dislike him, there's a huge volume of mistakes you can use to "prove" yourself right. Naturally, I've yet to find one of these detractors who can demonstrate a record comparable to the major indices, let alone Cramer himself, but that's entirely to be expected.

But I am once again amazed by his bold and completely correct call on this financial crisis. You've seen the video before, I'm sure, from August where he is pounding the table for Fed rate cuts, claiming that Bernanke is "asleep", "clueless", an "academic" who "knows nothing." I'm linking it here again anyway, because it's amazing to see how prescient he was about the extent of the subprime mess.

The Dow has dropped 1000 points since this video was made. Bear Stearns, whose chart is also listed, dropped over 30% and then recovered about half of those losses recently.

What's more amazing, perhaps, is not that Cramer was so right...but that the Fed was so wrong. How could all of these PhDs in economics have stood by idly, mumbling about inflation risks, while the ship was sinking around them? How could they have still been clueless on December 11th, when they cut by a mere quarter-point? Has so much changed in those 50 days that we suddenly need 125 basis points worth of emergency rate cuts? Of course not - the only thing that's changed is that they've only now noticed the water rising up to their necks. These emergency cuts validate that Cramer was right, and that he was right six months before the Fed.

Pathetic. What are we paying these guys for? We'd be better off dumping them all and letting the market set rates. Now that they're cutting, too late of course, it means in 6-9 months we'll be forming the base for the next bubble/crash cycle.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happiness Sucks

So you know those people in your life, family or co-workers, who just ooze happiness? Who seem to be completely content with their mediocrity, ecstatic about the ordinary minutiae of their lives?

Yeah, I hate them too.

But now a new study finds that the happiest people are less wealthy, less educated, and die sooner than those who describe themselves as moderately happy.

“The highest levels of income, education and political participation were reported not by the most satisfied individuals (10 on the 10-point scale),” the authors wrote, “but by moderately satisfied individuals (8 or 9 on the 10-point scale).”

The 10s earned significantly less money than the eights and nines. Their educational achievements and political engagement were also significantly lower than their moderately happy and happy-but-not-blissful counterparts.

I suppose if you're blissfully happy, it's no curse to be less successful than the slightly-worried guy next to you. It might, however, become eventually annoying to your children, who you'll be living with since you were too happy to bother planning for retirement.

That's not the best part, though.

Reviews of studies linking health and emotions show that for people who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, being extremely happy doesn’t always improve survival rates, Diener said. This may be because the elated don’t worry enough about issues that can have profound implications for their ability to survive their illness, he said.

“Happy people tend to be optimistic and this might lead them to take their symptoms too lightly, seek treatment too slowly, or follow their physician’s orders in a half-hearted way,” he writes.

So maybe you won't be living with your kids post-retirement after all. You'll blissfully ignore your doctor's suggestions to lose some weight and cut back on the ice cream. You'll forget to take those blood-pressure meds, because you feel great without them. You'll exercise once in a while, but who needs the stress of going to the gym every day? And then, suddenly, you and your happiness won't be a burden to the rest of us anymore.

I always knew it was cool to be mean, but who knew it could lead to success and better health as well?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cloverfield: Movie Review

You've seen the preview, right? Just imagine that for two hours. (Edit: to be accurate, it's 80 minutes.) Blair Witch meets Godzilla, end of story.

There are a couple cool aspects to the movie - it does an excellent job of capturing the suddenness in which disaster strikes, and the chaos and confusion for those caught in the middle. A few of the scenes of an empty, destroyed Manhattan are striking, but it's not enough to justify watching more than a few minutes.

I never cared about the characters for a second. I'm not sure why - maybe it was a lack of development, their dumb choices, or that I'm just a callous bastard - but without that connection to the characters, there was no drama. I wasn't scared or tense. Despite the choice to portray the action through a single, hand-held camera, Cloverfield lacked a sense of 'realness' to suck me in and make me a part of the action.

The stupid yammering of the camera-bearing Hud (HUD?) was only modestly less annoying than the constantly screaming girl in Blair Witch. After an hour of his inane commentary and bouncy camera action, my only interest was rooting for Hud to be eaten by the monstrosity. I won't spoil it and tell you if my wish was granted, but I'll say this: watching til the end isn't worth it either way.

JC, Deppen, Zor - what did you guys think?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dedicated to a Role

So Heath Ledger is dead. Another actor/singer with more looks, money, and talent than a season of American Idol, who just can't find a way to be happy...dead by his own hand, whether it's suicide or accidental overdose. If I haven't killed myself yet, certainly a multi-millionaire movie star should be able to find a reason to get out of bed every day. Whatever.

But in the article I linked above, there's a fascinating quote from the deceased that makes me want to see The Dark Knight more than a dozen good reviews:

He said he...had trouble sleeping while portraying the Joker, whom he called a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."

"Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," Ledger told The New York Times. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." He said he took two Ambien pills, which only worked for an hour.

He became so deeply involved in the role of psycopath that his mind started to fray. Couldn't stop thinking, couldn't sleep, and ultimately lost his life thanks, at least in part, to his dedication to playing the Joker. Look, I didn't think anyone could follow Jack Nicholson successfully in that role, but if a guy gives up his life to make the craziness believable, I'm willing to give him a chance.

So thanks, Heath...I'll honor your death by spending $8.50 and two hours on a movie that I probably would have seen anyway if you were still alive. See you in hell.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Real Greenhouse Gas

An interesting discussion of the greenhouse effect of water vapor vs. CO2 and how they are related in a positive feedback loop. It's written by an environmentalist, which is not usually the point-of-view represented on my blog, but I was impressed by the scientific neutrality of the tone, as opposed to the bombastic pulpit-pounding that's common to true believers of any cause.

One line in particular jumped out at me:

There are many skeptical assertions worth engaging, such as the questionable efficacy of carbon offsets...

Bingo. Finally, someone on the other side who's willing to admit the possibility that wealth redistribution schemes like Kyoto don't fix environmental problems. The sooner we can move away from punitive, economy-killing regulations, the more quickly we can find solutions that make sense for everyone.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Halo 3: Game Review

It's pretty lame to review a game when you're the last person on Earth to play it, but here are my thoughts anyway:

Great physics engine - Whether you're leaping onto a moving vehicle, driving a Warthog on ice, or flying a Hornet into a dogfight, your movements feel realistic. This engine is no doubt one of the main reasons that Halo 3 enjoys such a large multi-player following.

Awesome vehicles - Easily my favorite part of the game. If there's anything more satisfying (in a video game) than jumping onto a Wraith, beating the gunner to death, popping open the hatch then killing the can only be the ensuing carnage once you take control of this beast and start laying waste to everything around you. Gliding over the ground in a Ghost and crushing everything in your path with a Scorpion are a total blast. It's much easier to simply destroy enemy vehicles, but capturing them is well worth the extra time and effort.

Well-produced cutscenes - This is minor, and obviously applies to the solo game only, but it was refreshing to see cutscenes with solid voice-acting and a decent score to go along with the pretty graphics. It definitely added to the epic atmosphere of the solo game. And the checkpoints came after all cutscenes and dialog, which means you didn't have to repeat any nonsense when you died. I can't tell you how many times I had to grit my teeth through repetitive dialogue in Gears...

Cool toys - Considering that I completed the game without ever deploying a grav lift or a cloaking device, the toys aren't at all necessary, but they're fun to play around with anyway. I'm sure as I play more multi-player, I'll discover a bunch of clever uses for them.

There were a few things I didn't really care for, but the negatives were mostly minor and did not detract from my enjoyment of the game. Instead of having a few weapons, each with a distinct strength and weakness, Halo is littered with all kinds of weapons ranging from inane (assault rifle) to all-powerful (fuel rod cannon.) I prefer a smaller, balanced, and more strategic selection, but that's probably nitpicking. And I'd also trade the ability to jump for the duck-and-cover gameplay of Gears, which has a more 'realistic' (realistic for someone who's never been in combat, of course) feel. And finally, I didn't follow the back-story too much, probably because I didn't play the first two (and perhaps I didn't pay close enough attention at the beginning.) I wasn't sure why Cortana the hologram had feelings or why I should care so much about her. I didn't understand why the Prophet called me 'Heretic' or referred to me as the son of the Makers. But as I said, most of this stuff is minor, and I'm not just trying to sound cool by picking apart a game that's wildly successful.

Overall, the game started pretty slowly for me, but once I figured out you could capture enemy vehicles, I was hooked. I'll probably go back and try to win again on Legendary, and maybe even look for a skull or two (I found zero.) I've got a lot of room for improvement, as anyone who's had the misfortune of playing on my multi-player team can tell you.

In hockey news, my good team improved to 3-0 last night. Another goal and two more penalties for yours truly. I didn't deserve the penalties this time - I played a fairly clean game - but I had a couple 'reputation' calls go against me. One of these seasons I'll mellow out and go legit...but not yet.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Interest Terminated

Yes, the title of this post is cheesy and awful. But the genius of it is that I know it's awful and I'm trying to illustrate a point.

So I tried watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and the results were typical.

I'm not sure why I bothered - maybe I need something to fill the void of 24, or maybe I'm reminscing back to the day my father introduced me to the original Terminator movie (I immediately watched it again as soon as it ended.) But watching the previews gave me a sick feeling that this series would do more to taint the franchise than Terminator 3 - and it turns out those feelings were justified.

It followed the same basic Fox formula of 24 - high on production value, low on logic - but to a sublimely ridiculous extreme. Crafting a story about time travel can be difficult and paradoxical at best. But when this concept is mixed with lazy writing, the results are disastrous.

The future John Connor sends back a friendly terminator that looks like Summer Glau, which is almost, but not quite, reason enough to watch. Presumably, he sends her back in time so that she can not only protect him from Bad Terminators, but also...try to follow me she can recover the pieces of a time machine that were built by an engineer he also sent back in time, in order to jump forward past the point of his mother's death. Phew. This might be a clever plan if his mother died in some sort of violent confrotation that could be avoided, but we're told that she dies of cancer. So naturally, instead of jumping to a time where cancer has been cured, they show up in 2007.

I suppose there are two major reasons for this: 1) to satisfy some sort of time gap in the plot lines of the Terminator movies, which I don't remember beyond the violence and the one-liners anyway, and 2) to prevent the inevitable anachronisms from creeping into a dated show. Neither benefit seems to outweigh the goofiness of such an obviously contrived device.

But it doesn't stop there - nonsensical (but convenient) time travel is used again as a crutch in the second half of the premiere as future John sends back resistance fighters with a safe full of money, diamonds, and weapons that fall right into the hands of our heroes.

Sprinkled into the broken soil of this plot are occasional seeds of tenderness, encouraging me to identify with the teen angst of John Connor or the parental instincts of Sarah. But like the rest of the show, these moments are unconvincing and cheesy. John is portrayed as anything but exceptional - a whining teenager who just wants to be like everyone else - so much that I can't believe Skynet makes such a fuss over him. Whoever would take over the resistance if he never existed would have probably done a better job and won the war ten years earlier. Lena Headey does a reasonable job as Sarah, but the writers have taken liberties with her character as well. Gone is the manic, almost homicidal intensity of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, replaced by a tough yet reasonable mother trying desperately to raise the Future Leader of the World.

/Yawn. I'm even getting bored writing about it. At least There Will Be Blood should be out soon.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Out of the gates (again)

Hockey season kicked off tonight with the usual lack of fanfare, but the results were solid. Two wins in two games, with yours truly notching three assists and serving the first penalty less than two minutes into the season. A month of pent-up aggression, sprinkled with a few remnants of holiday stress, liberally mixed with that initial rush of adrenaline, and my instincts took over. The civilized, reasonable part of my brain never had a chance - and neither did the guy skating in front of my net with his head down.

I felt incredibly bloated and slow the first game, but I suspect that had more to do with the pasta, meatballs, and chocolate chip cookies I ate 45 minutes before faceoff than with any sort of long layoff. By the second game I was back to my old self - which is to say, only marginally bloated and still laboriously slow. But all in all, it could not have been a much better start.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Semper Veritas

So the New Hampshire results are in, and a pair of decent candidates won, reversing the ethanol-fueled debacle in Iowa.

Of the "electable" candidates, Clinton and McCain are probably the best choices. They both have some fairly major flaws, but neither one holds the potential for disaster that Obama (economic) and Huckabee (social, international) portend.

They are far from my favorites in the two big parties, however. That dubious honor would go to Bill Richardson and Ron Paul. Both have strongly libertarian views and records (Paul ran as a libertarian in 1988) in spite of their current party affiliations. Both have a firm grasp of capitalist economic principles and would reduce the size of government dramatically, which is exactly why they'll never get elected.

Richardson's campaign has flatlined (2% in Iowa, 5% in NH) and will no doubt be pulling the plug any day now. Paul isn't about to be elected, but he is drawing respectable support (10%/8%), and so far has had stronger showings than previous front-runner Giuliani or creepy-old-guy-with-30-year-old-hot-wife Fred Thompson.

Yet in spite of this, Fox News decided this past Sunday to host a debate for the Republican candidates, and they excluded Paul. They claim it was due to national polling numbers, but that argument doesn't hold up when Thompson is included. The Republican Party of New Hampshire was so miffed that they withdrew their support for the debate, yet still Fox did not relent.

Now I wouldn't be the first guy to challenge Fox News on their claim of being fair and balanced. But this is just one example of a media giant actively working to influence events rather than simply report them. And who's to stop Fox? Certainly not our well-bribed Congressmen, who in 2007 quickly approved Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of Dow Jones, further expanding his media empire. This merger barely made a blip on Congressional radar, despite the obvious dangers of a single voice reporting the nation's news. Meanwhile, no-brainer mergers like Sirius/XM are held up for over a year because the big money is on the other side.

Democracy is impossible without a free press. But when that "free" press is all paid by the same guy with an obvious political agenda, the truth is harder to find.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Best of the Worst

It's always the same with presidential candidates. I'm never excited to vote for one of these knuckleheads, instead I'm trying to pick the one that will do the least amount of damage. And because of our horribly screwed up primary process, I'm stuck picking between the winners of the early primaries, since Pennsylvania's vote is long after the meaningful ones are done.

And now Iowa has given us two superstars: one candidate who thinks he's Jesus and another one who thinks that Jesus hates fags. (Way to go, Sherry, you totally stole my thunder the other day by blogging about Huckabee - didn't your kids do anything funny the day before?) But never fear, the candidate who believes that Jesus will be headquartered in Independence, Missouri will be spending like crazy in New Hampshire as he tries to make a comeback.

Incidentally, did you even realize how much of a scam the Iowa caucuses are? That it's not an official primary? That voting is done in person at a set time (7pm, no absentee ballots, if you're working at that time, no vote for you) and in an open room (no secret ballots)? That the whole idea of a 'caucus', which is to get together and discuss the potential candidates - not to choose one, has been destroyed by the truckloads of money that pour into the state every four years? That taxpayers are footing the bill for corn-based ethanol, which is neither cheap nor green, almost solely because this sham 'primary' is the first indicator of presidential preference?

All this undeserved media frenzy and economic windfall for Iowans, and at least you might think they had a decent track record picking candidates. But of course, in 1998, Iowa was the only state that Pat Robertson won. Huckabee and Obama, I hope you enjoy every bit as much success.