OMAHA SMARTS

Don’t you love how financial writers are so quick to anoint Warren Buffett as “The Oracle of Omaha”?  As if they are amazed that a rube from the middle of nowhere could turn the business world on its ear simply by employing common sense.

I don’t know that there’s anything that Mr. Buffett does that is truly “contrarian” in nature.  He does his homework, he collects his facts relentlessly, and then does what all investors wish they could do:  He buys low . . . and sells high (if at all).

Finance is kind of like crime.  There is a premise that is so basic that many fail to follow its precepts.  In crime fiction the saying is cherche la femme, French for “follow the woman.”  Behind every criminal act there is (nearly always) a woman whose wiles are the motivating forces that drive the criminal to social corruption.

In finance, the saying is “follow the money.”  Talk is cheap and trends are dangerous.  When all is said and done, it’s the money that talks, it’s the cash that speaks thunderously.  In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. highlights Buffett’s supposed contrarianism, pointing to Buffett’s purchase of a controlling share in Pilot Flying J, the truck stop chain.  You know, food, fuel and showers for the long-haul boys and girls.

Jenkins suggests that Buffett is playing for suckers those who are banking on robots replacing drivers and electric replacing diesel any time soon.  He cites Buffett’s recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, where he said, “Who knows when driverless trucks are going to come along and what level of penetration they have?”

Exactly.  Follow the money.  Buy low.

Jenkins notes that electric car producers are currently [small pun intended] losing some serious dinero on their gas-free vehicles:  “Fiat admits to losing $20,000 on every electric vehicle it sells in Europe.  General Motors loses $9000 on every Chevy Bolt.  Even Tesla is partly sustained by selling zero-emissions credits to conventional car companies that actually make money (unlike Tesla).”

The conundrum he raises is this:  “In banning gasoline-powered cars, then, California and other jurisdictions would be banning the very product whose profits allow electric cars to exist in the marketplace today.”

Plug into the equation the fact that long-haul truck trips (1000 miles or more) account for less than a quarter of all truck trips, the suggestion is that more drivers and support folk (warehouse hands, dispatchers) are going to be needed to support the likes of Amazon and other e-commerce operatives.  Which means more reliance on truck stops.  See where we’re going with this.  (Add this shocking factoid into the equation:  This country’s average households have more cars than licensed drivers!)

Buffett seems to have no problem in staying on top of that debate, and making hay from the fallout.  He has followed the money and sees which way the wind is blowing.  When it starts to blow back in the other direction, I’m going to bet that he’ll be ahead of that curve, too.  Probably time to tuck a little more Berkshire-Hathaway stock into the old portfolio.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

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DEER PROFITS

I don’t usually spend a lot of time on the “Financial Page” of the New Yorker magazine.  Nor do I focus on the financial aspects of the Wall Street Journal.  I’m a writer/philosopher:  money has never been the prime motivator in my life.  The philosophical arguments are what get my intellectual juices moving.

But, in the 25 September issue of the New Yorker, the money piece honed in on how to profit from deer farming.  That’s right, the Bambi residuals, on the hoof.  How many “deer farms” would you guess there to be in North America?  I would have thought that a hundred might be a high number, but I would have been making the classic error of the “misplaced decimal.”  Twice!  Got to move that decimal two places to get the right number.

No kidding.  There are not hundreds of deer farmers here, nor are there thousands.  Nope, turns out that there are some ten thousand deer farmers on the North American continent.  Now, most of them are farming for the meat, venison, or for hunting.  The meat’s a little wild, for my taste, and I’m not much for guy-with-scoped-rifle versus unarmed critter, but there you are.

One example cited by Adam Davidson’s piece (entitled “Pissed Off”) focuses on a friend of his, an Amish farmer who eschews the hunting or meat models and, instead, farms deer for their urine.  You heard me right:  He’s after their liquid waste.  Turns out there’s a good bit of demand for deer urine, which hunters spray on the ground to hide their scent from their prey.  Turns out, deer urine is a $100 million dollar industry.

So far, so good for Davidson’s Amish pal.  Right up until corporate-driven legislators (where have you heard this one before?), in an effort to curtail the deadly (to white-tailed deer, elk, moose and reindeer) chronic wasting disease, are making it illegal to import full deer carcasses, unprepared trophy heads or deer urine [italics mine] into New York State.

Makes sense, right?  Up until you learn that the actual science behind the argument doesn’t hold up.  In short, it would take 30,000 gallons of urine to come up with the amount of dangerous prions in one gram of infected brain tissue.

“Why,” poses Davidson, “is the lowest-risk bodily fluid banned, while meat, which may pose an equal or higher risk, is permitted?  The reason is simple.  The risk-mitigation plan, like all regulation, isn’t based purely on science; it also takes into account politics and economics.”  In short, deer hunters are politically powerful; the producers of deer urine are not.  This is called “regulatory capture: the process by which regulators, who are supposed to pursue solely the public interest, instead become solicitous of the very industries they regulate.”  I.e. money and political power rule.  Yep, the usual.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

PLAYOFF BASEBALL

Things are getting interesting now that we’re down to four teams and it’s a wide open race to the World Series trophy that will be awarded in a couple of weeks.  I’m rooting for a Cubs-Astros “World Serious.”  At this point in the season, you might expect the quality of play to improve, and there have been some fine pitching performances.  Two Yankee pitchers threw five innings of no-hit ball . . . and in each case the Yankees lost.  Irony writ rife.

What always gets to me is that these young, talented athletes occasionally play truly flawed baseball.  Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs’ left fielder, glided over towards the line to catch a lazy fly ball, instead of sprinting to the most likely landing spot and waiting for the ball.  When the ball hooked a little bit away from him, as he should have expected, he missed the catch and it cost his team a run that should never have scored.

Gary Sanchez, the power-hitting catcher for the Yanks, is an utter disaster defensively.  His footwork is almost nonexistent.  As a result, he is always stabbing at errant pitches that clank off his mitt for passed balls.  And his teammate, closer Aroldis Chapman, acts like a petulant child when he has to pitch to an extra batter or two.  Dear me!

You might notice that three of the four managers (Joe Maddon [Cubs], A. J. Hinch [a Stanford grad, Astros], and Northwester alum Joe Girardi [Yanks]) in the League Championship Series are former catchers.  Good catchers are a team’s quarterback, calling pitches and defensive alignments.  They give their pitchers a game plan on how to set up each opposing batter.  In short, their very job description prepares them for managership.

I get severely miffed over the lackadaisical errors of simply not paying attention, as when a player reaches a base . . . and then turns away from a throw that is being made that might, on occasion, go awry.  Instead of remaining alert and taking an extra base on the miscue, he’s chatting casually with the opposing player as if the game had stopped.  The first, most essential rule of base running is (and always has been):  Keep your eye on the ball!

I admire players who pay attention to the little things.  Watch Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs first baseman, when the count gets to two strikes on him.  He’ll choke up on the bat two or three inches so as to have better bat control and avoid striking out.  Aaron Judge, on the other hand, struck out sixteen times in the five divisional series games!  Padres great Tony Gwynn once went an entire season . . . with just fifteen K’s.

It’ll be interesting to see how Clayton Kershaw does this year.  His regular season ERA from the seventh inning onward is upwards of eight, and in post-season, where he has a losing record, it’s fifteen-plus.

I tend to root for individuals.  I want Jose Altuve to have a great post-season.  And I’m even rooting for a couple of Yankees to do well, slugger Aaron Judge and manager Joe Girardi.  I have the utmost regard for Girardi, who stepped up and took full responsibility for not seeking a video replay when it seemed obvious that a pitch hit the knob of the bat and not the batter himself on a key play that cost the Bronx Bombers a game.  He said, “I screwed up.  I had a hole in my heart for five or six days.”  But his team had his back.  Bravo.

Expect good pitching to dominate the early parts of games.  In the regular season, hitters get to pick on fourth and fifth level starters.  In the playoffs, with the extra days off, they’re going to see the best starting pitchers, usually one through three.  Tougher to hit those guys.  Plus, the pressure is amped up big time.

Most intriguing is this:  In 2014 Sports Illustrated magazine had a cover story—citing good planning and their far-reaching farm system improvements—on the 2017 World Series champions . . . the Houston Astros!  A bold prediction.  Let’s see what unfolds.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

LIVE FOREVER

I am fond of a tee shirt that says, on the front, “I plan to live forever.”  On the back side, naturally, “So far, so good.”  It’s the optimist’s perspective.

My personal experience with life, so far, is that I have lived forever.  For every single one of the 899,308,419 seconds I have lived (as of this writing, as of this second) I have been alive.

In some of those moments, as you might expect, I have been more “alive” than in others.  Letting go of the airplane strut that kept me and my parachute connected to the machine—that was an exquisite moment.  Seeing two beating hearts on an ultrasound of my wife’s belly when I was only expecting to see just one—that was a moment sublime.  The moment when I knew I had a life partner who accepted me as I accepted her—that was life-changing at its very best.

I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, but I cannot comprehend this idea of corporal finality that is obviously creeping into my life.  (“Creeping” is exactly the right word, too, as I find the notion of death creepy and unsettling.)  At seventy-one, death is a much nearer neighbor than birth by a long shot.  The entire concept that my awareness might be taken from me is appalling and repellant.  I want to know how things turn out.  I yearn to see my grandchildren.  I’ve invested too much into this life not to see how it all turns out.

Yes, I’m kind of pissed off, if you want to know the truth.  So far, my existence has, literally, been forever.  I’d kind of like to keep it that way, if it’s all the same to those in charge.  (And just who are these folks, anyway?)

This is where I have to add this week’s personal experience.  I have a long-standing ritual:  When returning home from a trip—be it to the store, or halfway ‘round the world—when we turn off of Hexem to Northwood I have always reminded myself that, if our house was not still there on the hill, I would shrug and say to myself, “At least we are safe, and we’ll just have to get started on rebuilding our house.”

Well, that happened in earnest Monday at noon.  Because, when we turned to the right off of Hexem . . . there was a very real possibility that our home might not be there.  A horrific fire storm called the Tubbs Fire (it started on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, near Chateau Montelena Winery), had burned through the previous night and prompted us to evacuate at five in the morning.  We had witnessed a wall of flames a mile to the north of us, and the winds were pushing the fire south toward us.  We heard transformers blowing up like artillery shells.  It felt like a war zone.

Today we are feeling mightily blessed, but it was a very sanguine, very real moment at noon on Monday when, suddenly, I had to come face-to-face with my philosophical equanimity.  Truth?  My equilibrium was a little off center, off kilter.

Stay tuned for more on these, and other topics, later.  When my equilibrium is restored.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

[We were up all night Wednesday into Thursday prepared with charged water hoses to battle the forecast return of wind and fire which were, fortunately, no shows.  So my “Skull and Crossbones” pirate flag continues to fly defiantly over our unsinged homestead . . . for the moment.  Perhaps we are back in control (ha!), back to normal.  Let’s hope.]

 

TAKING OWNERSHIP

Athletes are fond of “taking ownership.”  They say this, mostly, when they are apologizing for one misstep or misstatement or another.  Panther quarterback Cam Newton recently “took ownership” for dismissively treating an insightful football question from a “female reporter.”  His video apology actually sounded authentic and heartfelt—mostly because it sounded like his voice, and not a canned response from a team PR flak.

It also rang true because he noted that he tried to instill in his two young daughters the notion that they could be anything and do anything they set their minds to.  Seems that when sexism became personal, all of a sudden he got it.  Once he connected his daughters’ aspirations to those of the reporter, the light clicked on.

What, in the end, do we actually “own” in our lives?  Do we own the land we live on, even if we possess clear legal title?  Not according to our Native American forebears.  No, we are, at best, mere stewards of the land we walk and till and, all too often, plunder.  No, I think it a more appropriate attitude to feel the obligation to leave our earth better than we found it.  Better to treat it as the living, breathing entity that it is, rather than some endlessly-giving piggy bank.  It’s not going to be “giving” very much longer, given current trends.

How about our partners in life, do we own them?  That used to be a prevailing myth, that men “owned” women, that they were mere chattel property.  But if we want a relationship that grows, wherein each partner feeds and nourishes and urges the other forward and upward, then ownership is not part of the bargain.  No, if you want a relationship that widens, that gains depth with length and understanding, then you want an equal and open deal where each partner contributes the best and most enthusiastic giving to that relationship.

Do we own our kids?  That was once the most unequal relationship of all.  There was a time, not so very long ago, when kids were pumped out as a key component of the family labor force.  More kids, more labor, more family income.  But, as Kahlil Gibran so wisely noted in The Prophet, “our children come through us, not from us [italics mine].”  No, the best approach to child-rearing, comes clearly when we fertilize, water, guide, direct and set sound examples for them to live up to.  What you do always supersedes what you say.

Might we possibly own our own futures?  Perhaps that is the one something that we can fruitfully own . . . if we lay foundations that will support clean air, clear water, sustainable farming and production and, best of all, sound international relationships.  We can do that if we own ourselves, own our own lives by being responsible to the nth degree.  Tall order, that.  But the prize, I submit to you, is well worth any and all effort.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

 

[As you know, our city, Santa Rosa has been devastated by a fire storm, exacerbated by 50-mph winds.  We had to evacuate yesterday, but are back home, safe and sound . . . for the moment.  As we have been so forcefully reminded, life is temporary.  So we’re going to try and enjoy it whilst we can.  You too.]

CAT PEOPLE

It’s irritating that the National Geographic magazine’s editors chose not to number their pages at the front of the book, but do fumble through the first dozen pages of the current October issue for the double-truck photo of a kitten, leaping mid-air toward a toy with the happy glee of a child—eyes wide open, paws fully extended.  You rarely capture enthusiasm so completely, so openly, so vibrantly.

I used to hate cats.  When I saw a dead cat alongside a roadway I would silently chalk up “another one bites the dust” with a forefinger.  Cruel?  Yeah, a little.  It wasn’t until I came to the realization that the quality I was chastising in them—their native, fierce independence—was the quality that I admired in the utmost in our own occasionally frivolous species.

So I changed my tune.  Especially when we “acquired” Squirt.  We were having an outdoors brunch one Sunday decades ago in the Sonoma Valley.  A teensy-tiny grey-white kitten kept squeezing through a small square of the chain link fence from the neighbor’s yard, and we kept putting her back.  Finally, our friends noted that the neighbor wasn’t the best pet owner in the world (I’m being nice), so we glommed onto the kitten’s fierce will to find a better life . . . and gave in to her desires.

A later acquisition was Grumman the Tiger (named for one of our airplanes).  Grummie was almost dog-like.  If you called him, he’d trot right over to you.  He was friendly as all get out, a real personality.  He’d talk at you incessantly.  He loved to cuddle up with Bev’s mom, Catherine, the many times she visited.  It was normal for me to walk into the playroom of a morning and find Catherine, Grumman and our toddler twins sacked out all together on our fold-out couch/bed.  (Grumman was so human-oriented that once, when he was jumping up to cuddle with me on my reclining chair, when his paws met my bare arm he retracted his claws and fell rather than latch on and cut me!)

Facebook post:  “Jess found a kitten in his tool box in the back of his truck.  She was with us for twenty-one years.”  What’s the rule?  You choose dogs; cats choose you.

I have a photo near my office desk of a wildlife photographer, stretched out on the desert floor with a cammo-painted long lens camera . . . flanked by a cheetah snuggled up next to him like a student learning about f-stops and light meters.  It is a stunning exposition of the innate curiosity of cats, another quality that I admire from here to there.

A recent study demonstrates that adult cats, when exposed to various stimuli—food, toy, scent, and human interaction—most often preferred connecting with us . . . even more than the food option.  Turns out that these “independent” and “unsociable” critters respond to dog whisperer techniques just as well as, well, dogs.  Turns out, cats can be trained.  If you are patient.  With yourself and with the cat.

That said, studies have shown that, when posed with a puzzle, dogs are quicker to turn to their humans for help, while cats keep on plugging away at solving the issue themselves.

The experts also suggest that more studies are needed before we can understand a cat’s emotional responses as well as we understand those of dogs.  Turns out we just need to pay closer attention to their responses.  Sounds disturbingly like how you create a good marriage, doesn’t it?  Ah, yes.  Listen.  Communicate.  Listen some more.  Okay.

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle

MIXED MESSAGES

I’m having a hard time with this one.  Roy Moore, who recently won the Republican nomination to a US Senate seat from Alabama, has been characterized as a crazily religious, right-wing zealot, bordering on troglodyte.  He maintains that “God’s law” supersedes man’s law, moaned during his campaign that “abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land,” that homosexuality ought to be illegal, and that there were communities in Illinois that were living under sharia law.  He was twice removed from his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court for trying to override established law (in the second instance he wanted to allow a baker the right to refuse service to gay customers).

Easy call, right?  The guy’s an unthinking moron who has no place in the US Senate.  Right up until I read the Wall Street Journal piece by Faulkner University’s associate law dean, Allen Mendenhall.  Dean Mendenhall, who served as Moore’s staff attorney a few years ago when Moore was Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, characterizes his former boss (away from the cameras, he notes), as “warmhearted, humorous, compassionate and studious.”

Moore was known for urging his staff to learn not just the facts and issues of their cases, but also the history behind the law that would control each case.  “He empathized with poor black defendants,” writes Mendenhall, “believing they faced systemic disadvantages in the justice system.”  He says that Moore kept an open mind and was willing to change his mind in the face of new or better information, and would buy dinner for his staff when they were forced to work late.  “That’s the shame of politics,” he concludes.  “It prevents you from truly understanding people—especially those you oppose.”

Okay, I’ll give the guy points for character.  But I’m still going to have a hard time with someone who characterized the 9/ll attacks as an act of God’s retribution and believes that homosexuality is (in his own words) “an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.”  That seems both close-minded and judgmental in the extreme, to me.

 

MY NEW FAVORITE NEWSWORTHY FEMALE PERSON ON THIS PLANET

That title had gone to Gloria Steinem and Michelle Obama in recent years, but there is room in my pantheon of great women for a new candidate.  Her name is Bozoma Saint John.  She is the new chief brand officer at Uber (she was formerly a top marketing exec at PepsiCo and Apple).  She is a striking presence, being a tall, often-flamboyantly-dressed African-American woman who characterizes herself as “a force of nature in fierce stilettos.”

I love it.  Here is a woman who is breaking virtually every stereotype there is, despite the constant pressure from those standing back waiting for, perhaps even pushing for, failure on her part.  She notes, sadly, that when she sits down in an airplane’s business class, “two times out of three I’m asked if I’m in the right seat.”

Her schedule must be exhausting.  She is raising her daughter alone—her husband died of cancer four years ago—so she schedules her time out to the minute to try and get everything done.  She says she has to give herself pep talks constantly:  “If you act like you’re tired, then you’re going to be tired.  You have to talk yourself up.  You have to tell yourself, ‘You’re good, Boz.  Go get ‘em!’”  Go get ‘em, indeed.  You’ve got my prayers and blessings.

 

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

Nevada allows silenced assault rifles with mega magazines . . . and the pundits are worried about hotel check-in procedures?  “Too soon to talk about guns.”  Really?

©2017 Richard Paul Hinkle