Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 3 March 2009

Economist business-travel blogger Gulliver reports on British airline Ryanair's customer-service standards:

Jason Roe is an Irish blogger who noticed what he thought was a bug on Ryanair's website. The price of the flights he was trying to book changed when he accidentally went into the voucher section. Thinking he had found a way to beat the budget airline's credit-card fee, he duly blogged about it—and in so doing unleashed hell. The tenth commenter on his blog was "Ryanair Staff #1"...

As Travolution, another blog, noted, "We have seen the IP addresses of the commenters and they all trace back to Ryanair HQ". It seems Ryanair's employees are referring to a blogger, on his blog and in their company's name, as an idiot, a liar and a man with a "pathetic life".

Travolution followed the matter up with Ryanair and got this confirmation from a spokesman:

"Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion.

"It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won't be happening again.

"Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel."

Ryanair's CEO then went on to suggest adding pay-to-go coin boxes on his airplanes' lavatory doors.

I'll just keep flying oneworld carriers, thanks.

Update: Lots more over at Travolution.

Tuesday 3 March 2009 11:34:31 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation#

Crain's Chicago Business reports today that the pension liabilities of several prominent employers have exploded just as their assets have imploded:

Boeing Co.'s shareholder equity is now $1.2 billion in the hole thanks to an $8.4-billion gap between its pension assets and the projected cost of its obligations for 2008. At the end of 2007, Boeing had a $4.7-billion pension surplus. If its investments don't turn around, the Chicago-based aerospace giant will have to quadruple annual contributions to its plan to about $2 billion by 2011.

... At Peoria-based Caterpillar, shareholder equity dropped more than 25% from the previous year after the company booked a $5.8-billion pension shortfall and its plan went from 93% funded to 61% funded.

That means Cat has to pay an additional 1.5 percentage points of interest to keep its untapped credit lines intact, according to SEC filings. Its pension assets sank 30% last year, and this year's contribution will more than double to about $1 billion. A Cat spokesman declines to comment.

In many cases these pension deficits will hurt exactly the people who need them most.

Tuesday 3 March 2009 07:11:33 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Politics | US#

It's good to know who wears the pants in the Republican Party. This from Democratic Party chair Tim Kaine will clarify:

I was briefly encouraged by the courageous comments made my counterpart in the Republican Party over the weekend challenging Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party and referring to his show as 'incendiary' and 'ugly.' However, Chairman Steele's reversal this evening and his apology to Limbaugh proves the unfortunate point that Limbaugh is the leading force behind the Republican Party....

Intellectual consistency is important.

By the way, I do think the Republican Party will return to being a force of moral and political authority someday, as they were in the 1850s and 1860s. And when that happens, I'll be happy to explain the historical irony to my great-grandchildren.

Monday 2 March 2009 22:55:32 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Monday 2 March 2009

Two (probably related) items via Talking Points Memo: a reversal in a San Francisco death-penalty case, and a release of nine Bush Administration memoranda.

In the first case, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey had overruled the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco and pressed for the death penalty in a murder case. New AG Eric Holder has reversed the DOJ's position:

The Down Below prosecution has been a searing episode for the local U.S. attorney's office. The original prosecutor on the case, Richard Cutler, opposed seeking the death penalty against [defendant Emile] Fort and co-defendant Edgar Diaz. After the Justice Department took the opposite stance, the administration sent an investigator to San Francisco to question Cutler about the case. Cutler left the office soon thereafter.

... Fort's new deal will be much the same as the one Mukasey rejected....

The DOJ's document release sheds some light on the last eight years. Not much light, but it's an improvement over total darkness. Titles include:

  • Memorandum Regarding Constitutionality of Amending Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to Change the "Purpose" Standard for Searches (09-25-2001)
  • Memorandum Regarding Determination of Enemy Belligerency and Military Detention (06-08-2002)
  • Memorandum Regarding Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities within the United States (10-23-2001)

That last one, by John Yoo, should scare anyone who's ever read Orwell or Huxley.

Who else is glad we have a new President?

Monday 2 March 2009 14:27:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | San Francisco#
Sunday 1 March 2009

From the New York Times the last few days, three articles worth reading. First, the story of AIG:

When you start asking around about how A.I.G. made money during the housing bubble, you hear the same two phrases again and again: “regulatory arbitrage” and “ratings arbitrage.” The word “arbitrage” usually means taking advantage of a price differential between two securities — a bond and stock of the same company, for instance — that are related in some way. When the word is used to describe A.I.G.’s actions, however, it means something entirely different. It means taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. A less polite but perhaps more accurate term would be “scam.”

Second, "In Letter, Warren Buffet Concedes a Tough Year:"

In language that was by turns blunt and witty, he decried what he called “a series of life-threatening problems within many of the world’s great financial institutions.” An inveterate optimist about the American economy, Mr. Buffett also forecast an eventual recovery, asserting that the country has faced even more severe economic travails in the past.

Finally, a Canadian journalist points out that her country's banking system is fine:

Canadian banks are known to be risk-averse, and this has served them well. While their American counterparts were loading up their books with risky mortgages, Canadian banks maintained their lending requirements, largely avoiding subprime mortgages. The buttoned-down banks in Canada also tended to keep these types of securities on their books, rather than packaging them and selling them to investors. This meant that the exposures they did have to weak mortgages were more visible to the marketplace.
Sunday 1 March 2009 10:59:03 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | World#
Saturday 28 February 2009

Through multitasking and some minor process improvements, I'm already through 92 of the re-ripping project I started last week. At this rate...I should be done sometime next month.

If the weather were warmer, I should point out, I'd be walking Parker instead.

Saturday 28 February 2009 14:28:39 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Friday 27 February 2009

Via Calculated Risk, unemployment in California crests 10% for the first time in 26 years:

The 10.1% jobless rate is the highest since June 1983 and not far below the 11% record set in November 1982 at the worst point of a severe recession, according to the governor's office. Job losses escalated in January, with the state's unemployment rate jumping by 1.4 percentage points from a revised 8.7% for December.

The L.A. Times goes on to report a total of 380,743 layoffs in California so far this year. That's about 6,500 per day. Cheery thought.

Friday 27 February 2009 14:53:01 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

That's how Douglas Adams described the effect of a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. I feel like I've just drunk two, after a phone call I recevied an hour ago from North Carolina.

Long-time readers of this blog who know me personally have noticed I actually maintain a certain sense of reserve in my public writings. The actual word is "privacy," but so few people remember what that word means in the context of the Internet that I avoid using it. These long-suffering people (called "friends" and "family") have had to deal with me fretting about an application to the Fuqua School of Business Cross-Continent MBA for the last 15 months. I admire them; many of them even helped me with the application; and each of them who told me to "just $%@*&!! apply already" was completely justified in saying so.

To everyone's relief, I transmitted my application on January 31. Apparently I did something right, because Duke have admitted me into the December 2010 class.

This will have certain practical effects on my life, mainly having to do with paying for it, but also around this blog. First, for example, I'm going to slow down on the 30-Ballpark Geas as both time and money argue against going to another 16 baseball parks before September 2010. As I expect to live another 50 or 60 years, I have plenty of time to see them; I don't have to do it before turning 40. (And my cousin and I still have 13 Cubs games to go to this year.)

Also, the residencies required by the program will have me out of touch for 10 to 14 days at a time, which will be hardest on Parker. The longest he's ever been boarded is 8 days; the first residency, in London starting August 15th, will require 16 or 17 days of boarding, and I don't know how he's going to react. (Taking him overseas is not an option.) I suspect he'll be pretty resilient, but I also suspect he'll be pretty mad at me.

Anyway, those are surmountable problems. I have until the end of March to commit, but my gut says "go."

Friday 27 February 2009 10:34:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Duke#
Thursday 26 February 2009

Three more photos from my trip. First, AA 657 arriving from JFK:

(Full size after the jump.)

Thursday 26 February 2009 17:12:06 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography#

The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver's two newspapers, will shut its doors after tomorrow's edition:

Rich Boehne, chief executive officer of Scripps, broke the news to the Rocky staff at noon today, ending nearly three months of speculation over the paper's future. He called the paper a victim of a terrible economy and an upheaval in the newspaper industry.

"Denver can't support two newspapers anymore," Boehne told staffers, some of whom cried at the news.

On Dec. 4, Boehne announced that Scripps was looking for a buyer for the Rocky and its 50 percent interest in the Denver Newspaper Agency, the company that handles business matters for the papers, because it couldn't continue to sustain its financial losses in Denver. Scripps said the Rocky lost $16 million in 2008.

Yeah, not good. This leaves yet another major metro area with only one newspaper.

Thursday 26 February 2009 14:32:54 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Wednesday 25 February 2009

Via Calculated Risk, the FDIC's Supervisory Capital Assessment Program has published its stress-test scenarios. Ew: the average baseline shows a 2.0% decline in GDP this year followed by a 2.1% increase in 2010, as well as an "alternative more adverse" projection of -3.3% in 2009 and +0.5% in 2010. They forecast house prices to decline by -18% (baseline) to -29% (alternative) through 2010, with rises in unemployment to 8.8% (baseline) up to 10.3% (alternative).

Now, imagine you're a bank with $100 billion in mortgage assets at face value against $90 billion in liabilities. (Shudder.)

Meanwhile, Ben Bernanke told Congress today that nationalization is not an option.

I'll bet you 100 shares of Citicorp that it is.

Update: Krugman says the Fed's "worst case" isn't nearly as bad as it should be. (Insert nervous laughter here.)

Wednesday 25 February 2009 14:23:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

First, the President's Fate of the Union address, very much worth watching:

we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.

Now is the time to act boldly and wisely – to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about tonight.

And then Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, echoing the party line from, I think, 1930:

That is why Republicans put forward plans to create jobs by lowering income tax rates for working families … cutting taxes for small businesses … strengthening incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment and hire new workers … and stabilizing home values by creating a new tax credit for home-buyers. These plans would cost less and create more jobs.

But Democratic leaders in Congress rejected this approach. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history - with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a 'magnetic levitation' line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.

Well I, for one, am glad that the government monitors volcanoes. There's no profit in it, I don't have the resources to do it, and the consequences of not doing it are catastrophic. That's what government is for. Transportation infrastructure (including "magnetic levitation"—Maglev—lines, which Jindal thinks belong in Disneyland), defense, and the occasional sky projector for a public museum are all things that government has to do or they won't get done. This is basic economics, a class that few Republicans seem to have taken.

Or maybe they have, they just don't care. Remember, for most elected Republicans, it's all about power and playing the game for its own sake. But for us grown-ups (a few Republicans, and most Democrats—at least right now), it's about fixing the biggest economic disaster anyone under 65 has ever seen.

I will say, though, watching Jindal I wondered whether he was going to try selling me the clear-coat finish as well. He reminded me of a cross between a used-car dealer and one of those lawyers who advertises on local cable that he will fight for you. I can't wait for the Republican primary slugfest in 2012.

Wednesday 25 February 2009 08:47:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Tuesday 24 February 2009

British airline Ryanair has a pilot program allowing cell phones in flight. One hopes, if this comes to the U.S., for special "quiet" areas:

Within six months 50 planes will be kitted out. If it proves popular, the service will be rolled out across the whole 170-strong fleet.

Passengers will be able to make and receive calls for €2-3 ($2.50-3.80) per minute, send and receive text messages (50c plus) and use e-mail (€1-2).

... To be fair to Ryanair, it does not claim to be anything other than a noisy shop in the sky. So a new noisy service that earns money is in keeping with its ethos. As Mr O'Leary said: “You don't take a flight to contemplate your life in silence. Our services are not cathedral-like sanctuaries. Anyone who looks like sleeping, we wake them up to sell them things."

You may not like Mr O'Leary's approach, or his plane's interiors, but it's hard not to admire his honesty.

Combine cell phones with the unexpected silence inside the new Airbus A380, and it's only a matter of time before someone gets his cell phone stuffed in an awkward place by his fellow passengers.

Tuesday 24 February 2009 11:15:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation#

<rant>

The temperature at O'Hare just hit freezing for the first time in five days. This has been the coldest winter in 23 years, and the snowiest in 30. Enough already.

</ rant>

Tuesday 24 February 2009 11:06:12 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
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David Braverman is the Chief Technology Officer of Holden International in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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