Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 Remembered

I have shared with some of you my experiences of 9/11.   For those who I haven't, I will do here.

September 11, 2001 was a very clear day, similar to today in the northeast.   There wasn't a cloud in the sky.   I worked for Instinet Corporation at the time.  We had a correspondent clearing division that was located on the 15th floor of the North Tower.   I had recently moved to that division a few months earlier.

As my habit, I usually got to the office just before 8:00AM.   That day was no exception.   I was just talking on the phone discussing getting tickets to a West Point football game in October.   Just as I hung up the phone, a very loud sound resonated through the floor and the building began to sway.   It seemed at the time the floor moved 4 or 5 feet in one direction, and then back to it's normal location.   I looked out the window of my office and saw debris falling from the sky.   I had no idea what happened, but memories of the bombing in 1993 came to mind.   Seemed strange to see the debris though.

The few of us in the office left their desks and congregated in a common area.   One woman said, stand in your doorways, you will be safe.   Now that was just plain stupid.

We made our way to the stairwells and started the orderly exit out of the building.   At about the 10th floor, the flow stopped.   That was the first time I ever feared for my life; being stuck somewhere with the anticipation that something bad could truly happen that was outside of my control.   I found a door out of the stairwell that opened into the 10th floor.   I asked the security guard what he knew.   He said a small private plan crashed into the building.   That seemed to relieve me a bit.

I made my way back to the stairwell and miraculously the traffic began to move downward until we finally made it to the lobby.   I still remember passing a NY fireman who was making his way up the stairs with full gear, most probably never to come back down.

The lobby looked like a disaster scene.   The windows were blown out, water on the floors, and huge amounts of debris in the plaza.   We walked single file out of the lobby through the Vista hotel next door until we finally made it to West Street.   I met up with my friend Lou across the street and we contemplated what to do.    As we talked, I heard the roar of a jet and looked up at the South Tower that was just across the street.   My first thought was that an Air Force fighter jet was flying over to inspect the damage.   But I could see the outline of a grey commercial jet, engines roaring, fly directly into the building overhead.   Our first instinct was to run.   And we ran as fast as we could toward the Hudson River until we though we were safe from the falling debris.

The rest of the day was pretty much a daze.   Lou and I walked around downtown trying to figure out what happened, and what was happening.   Every few minutes we looked up at the Trade Center towers wondering how they would ever fix the gigantic holes that were now in the building.   Little did we know that job would never have to be done.

We made our way to the Staten Island Ferry just as the first building came down, and could finally see daylight again when we were half way across the harbor.   We found refuge in a Staten Island hospital office due the generosity of a man we met on the boat who worked there.   Lou called a friend of his who lived in SI who offered us a place for the night.   The next day, we both finally made it home.

Anyone who was in New York during that time can remember the fear and uncertainty that engulfed the city.   Anthrax scares and fear of more bombings made us all very uneasy.   Overtime, the fear subsided and we got back to our business.   But for that one day in September, life stood still.

Friday, September 10, 2010

July Trade Deficit and Gross Domestic Product

As many of you know, the July Trade Deficit numbers were published by the US Census bureau yesterday.   While many of these numbers were reported in the news,  I wanted highlight a few facts.
  1. The total trade deficit for goods and services decreased by 14% from June to July
  2. The total amount of the change was due to a 12% deficit decrease in goods.   Services remained unchanged.
  3. Imports of goods and services each decreases in total by 2% each.   Exports of goods increased 3% while services remained unchanged
At an aggregate level, this indicates that the US imported less from other countries from the previous month while increasing the amount exported.   This is a good trend. 

As I started to look at the trade balance numbers, I wondered about how important our trade deficit is to our overall economic health.  Conventional wisdom would say that it is always better to be providing more goods to the rest of the world than you import.   I might argue that parity is probably the best thing. None the less, I think it is important to understand how big our trade deficit is compared to our overall Gross Domestic Product.

For those of you that don't know what GDP is (and I didn't really understand it either), it is defined as the  amount of goods and services produced within a country in a calendar year.   GNP is measured a few ways, but the most common way is based on the 'consumption model.'    Economist measure all the goods and services consumed by individuals and businesses, all residential and non residential fixed investments,  total goverment spending on both the federal, state, and city levels.   Subtracted from this number is the net trade deficit.   This is done to back out goods consumed in this country but produced elsewhere.

Our current GDP is about $14.5 trillion.   Some interesting components that make up this number:

Durable Goods.   This includes autos, household items, recreational items, etc.   GDP $ 1.07 Trillion or 7.5% of the total

Non Durable Goods.  Items such as food, clothing, gasoline, and other energy products.   GDP $2.3 Trillion or 15.8%

Household Consumption Services.   This includes non mortgage housing expenses, healthcare, financial services and insurance, transportation services.   GDP $6.6 Trillion or 45.5%.   Interesting to note that health care expenses represents 11% of GDP.

Non Profits.  Total consumption of households of Non for Profit organizations services.  GDP $265 Billion or 1.8%

Fixed Investments by Businesses.   Investments in factories, equipment, buildings, and transportation.   GDP $1,406  or 9.8%.

Residential Fixed Investments.   As the name implies, individual's investments in their homes.   GDP $358 Billion or 2.5%

National Defense.   $812 Billion or %5.6

Federal Government, Non Defense.   $393 Billion or 2.7%

State and Local Government.  $1,786 or 12.3%

And finally, the total amount of Net Imports backed out of our GNP is $563 Billion or approximately 3% of our GNP.   The implication I take from this is that our economy generates $14.5 Trillion of consumption/production each year, but of that only 3% of those goods and services we consume are coming from overseas.   Seems like a fairly paltry number given all the hype about our deficit and the anti 'Made in China' sentiment we are constantly hearing about.   Can this be right?

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Last night during dinner, my 15 year old son and I started talking about the on-line games that he plays.   As he described the on-line world that so captivates him and the others in his age group, I felt like a technology and social neophyte.   The world that is represented with net based games made me wonder just what the world is going to be like when kids of his generation reach adulthood and are the ones running the world.   During my trip to Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend, my friend Mark and I reminisced about how we spent out time as kids playing basketball, tennis, and music.   We spent our time with each other in the physical world.  But today, it seems like the majority of the social interaction between kids now takes place in a virtual world with people they have never met.   Hours and hours of time spent inside games that present mental challenges, adventure, fantasy, and other attributes that people of my generation probably have very little understanding of.

It is easy to say, as previous generations have, that kids 'now a days' just don't have the social skills to develop into productive human beings.   They are being tarnished by their pastimes.   I suspect this is not the case, but it does make me think what the world will be like in 30 years given how these young minds are being influenced by their recreational activities.  

The future will be an even more of an on-line world.   Buying goods and services over the internet like we do today is just the beginning and serves as a teaser of what is to come.   Finding any fact about any subject in a matter of seconds, like we can  today with Google, is an incredible technology achievement  and makes our world smaller and our people more educated.   Social networking like Facebook, Linkedin, and Match  has make it easier to keep tabs on people we know, and to meet people whose paths we would never have crossed.    Having access to any news when you want it, regardless of it's bias,  makes our world smaller, gives us a more global understanding,  and has the potential to make people more understanding of each other (ok, maybe that is a stretch).

The online world does have it's dark side.   It is sad to think that pornography is the largest revenue generator on the net.   Certainly combined with the fact that young people spend so much time on-line, will they be able to establish meaningful and loving relationships when their social and sexual needs are satisfied by the Net.   I can't imagine the impact of this.   We marvel at the achievements of Google, but as they continue to grow, more and more of our personal information is kept in the millions of computers operated by the company.   Our emails, phone calls, bank and investment records, and our personal preferences and interests represented by our on line searches.  What is the impact of this moving forward?

During diner last night, my son and I hypothesized about the next major conflict between countries.   He recognized that wars will be fought, not with guns and missiles, but with silicon.   Countries exploiting computer networks and software to attack power grids, financial systems, communications, and other public and private utilities to cause havoc, confusion, and hardship for the citizens of it's adversaries.   Will nuclear weapons even be necessary to resolve conflicts between nations?    This seems like an on-line computer game, doesn't it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Darwin and Hummingbirds

Self interest seems to be the rule of the day.   And it probably has been  from the beginning of time.  Religious and spiritual disciplines preach tolerance and love for our neighbors.  That love for ourselves and the people around us is the way we should live our lives.   And it all sounds good and right to me.

And as I sit on my deck drinking my morning coffee, I watch the continuing drama with the hummingbirds.  I love watching the half bird, half bug animals hover around to the many feeders I placed on the deck.   First there was one, then two, and now three.   As a bird comes to the feeder, they cautiously look around to see if they can safely drink without being attacked by one of their colleagues.   If lucky, they get 5 seconds before another comes swooping in to attack and intimidate.   This Darwinian drama continues until the sun goes down.

Is tolerance and love for our fellow man only applicable if ones survival is not threatened?   The hummingbird needs to eat or die.   Do the herds of antelope in Africa or the schools of tuna in the Pacific work and live together peacefully because it is their way of surviving?   Do nations and races create ideologies that bond their societies together as a way of protecting themselves from other races, allowing them to survive?   Is a world of plenty for all the only way we can achieve peace and love?   I wonder... I have more than enough feeders for all the hummingbirds in Ridgewood.

Seems to me that self interest, honesty and directness is the only way to achieving understanding, and eventually for defining behaviors that are in the best interest for all.   People and animals quickly know the rules and adapt in ways that assure their survival.   If they don't adapt, they die.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Power of Fear

When I went to Salem, Massachusetts a couple weeks ago, I had the chance to learn a little about the witch trials that took place there.   As I mentioned in an earlier post, it brought to mind that conventional wisdom can sometimes be a very dangerous thing.   As many of us know, fear is probably the most dominate emotion that controls our lives.   Our fears of rejection, failure, the unknown, and sometimes even success, can lead to behaviors that limit ourselves from realizing our true potential as a race and can cause societies do irrational things to alleviate that fear.   And do the leaders of societies recognize the power of fear and use it to manipulate its people by defining a convenient conventional wisdom?

Below is a brief snip from wikipedia that describes the initial events of the Salem witch trails.

In Salem Village in 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece (respectively) of the ReverendSamuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, minister in nearby Beverly.[13] The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions, according to the eyewitness account of Rev. Deodat Lawson, a former minister in the town. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. When Lawson preached in the Salem Village meetinghouse, he was interrupted several times by outbursts of the afflicted.[14]
The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard were Sarah GoodSarah Osborne, and Tituba.[15] Sarah Good was homeless and known to beg for food or shelter from neighbors. Sarah Osborne had sex with her indentured servant and rarely attended church meetings. Tituba, as a slave of a different ethnicity than thePuritans, was an obvious target for accusations. All of these outcast women fit the description of the "usual suspects" for witchcraft accusations, and no one stood up for them. These women were brought before the local magistrates on the complaint of witchcraft and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692, then sent to jail (Boyer 3).
Other accusations followed in March: Martha CoreyDorothy Good (mistakenly called Dorcas Good in her arrest warrant) and Rebecca Nurse in Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton in nearby Ipswich. Martha Corey had voiced skepticism about the credibility of the girls' accusations, drawing attention to herself. The charges against her and Rebecca Nurse deeply troubled the community because Martha Corey was a full covenanted member of the Church in Salem Village, as was Rebecca Nurse in the Church in Salem Town. If such upstanding people could be witches, then anybody could be a witch, and church membership was no protection from accusation. Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother. In Ipswich, Rachel Clinton was arrested for witchcraft at the end of March[16] on charges unrelated to the afflictions of the girls in Salem Village.

The people of Salem were fearful of the uncontrollable behavior of the young girls and the possibility of it spreading to others in the community.   Something had to be done.  Because the science of the day could not explain what was happening, the community accepted the explanation that witchcraft must be the cause, and the only way to eradicate the problem was to accuse woman of some mystical powers that were being used to threaten the town.   These 'witches' had to be eliminated.

Was this story created for economic and control reasons?   Did the land that some of these 'witches' own revert to others if convicted?

I look at the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque and the anti Islamic sentiment surrounding it as a similar situation.   Most people in our country don't understand Islam and the people that practice it.  They think that the 1.6 billion Muslim people on our planet are terrorist and are fearful that any tolerance toward this religion is a threat to our survival.   The images of WTC only reinforces that.   Fear is causing people to act irrationally.    Is there a subliminal resentment that our economic woes are caused by the Islamic world because of our high reliance on their oil?   Could the mood swing to such that we begin to believe it is our moral obligation to 'take over' these countries to free the world of such vial people... and maybe get control of the oil.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The New Einstein

Every hundred years or so, someone comes along that truly changes the world.   Someone that makes a contribution so significant that mankind is changed forever.   It seems like we're due.   We have our revolutionary figures in the arts, politics, and to some extent business.   We can list them all, but the hero I am envisioning hasn't showed up yet.

On a planet of many billions, we know they are out there somewhere.   Studying physics in one of our premier universities.   Maybe it is a young inventor/business person in the mold of Thomas Edison that is still developing ideas and thinking of how to make it a reality.   Maybe this person hasn't been born and won't be with us for another generation or so.   But this world needs them more than most of us think.

My last couple posts were articles about the uncertainty of the world economic climate and green energy.   The article about green energy made the point that the cost of producing environmentally friendly energy is too expensive to be mainstream.   Another post highlighted that 42% of our trade deficit is related to energy and transportation.    I think most of us believe the dangers from carbon based energy is a danger to our planet and the long term viability of mankind.

So who is this new Einstein?   They maybe is from India, China, or any other country on our planet.   It could be a woman.  Their passion will be to develop the science that leads to the engineering, business, political, and environmental breakthroughs that harness the energy in our universe in a way that safely helps man continue his inhabitation of the planet earth.   This science will be used run factories, homes, vehicles, and cities.  The countries that harness and develop this technology will be the new global leaders.   They who own the energy, will own the world.

No doubt some of our world's brightest minds have been working on this endeavor.  It is evident in the statistics about how much of the energy in the US is derived from renewable sources.   But the percentage needs to increase from 7% to 100%.    The next Einstein, or Edison, or Ford will be the one that makes this possible.   And it needs to happen soon.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clean Energy. Why we are not using it.


The United States expends a lot of energy studying green energy. There's no shortage of ideas. For example, San Francisco considered installing giant turbines under the Golden Gate Bridge and harnessing tidal power to generate electricity. There are all kinds of research projects, coalitions and advocacy groups touting renewable energy, but the country is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Only 7% of energy consumed is from renewable sources. So why haven't we made more progress and what can be done to change the numbers?

It's Too Expensive to Produce. The total cost to research, build and operate new green energy plants combined with storage and transmission expenses is significantly higher than traditional coal burning plants. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average cost of solar power is almost four times as much as traditional coal burning electric generation. The costs are difficult to compare due to the widely disparate nature of individual technologies but the net result is that startup costs are steep.

The U.S. government is attempting to jump start green energy projects through the American Recovery  Reinvestment Act of 2009 by allocating $16.8 billion dollars for energy conservation, research and development. The bill includes everything from grants to tax credits to encourage green energy activity.

Most projects have a long-term horizon, so results are not immediately available.

Eco-investing has been around for a while now with green mutual funds and bonds available to both individual and institutional investors. Private equity dollars fund the green technology industry through venture capital firms like Kinetic Ventures of Atlanta. Nonprofit organizations also supply grant money for emerging technology that enables the production and conservation of energy. So, the money is flowing in from multiple sources. (Learn more about green technology in The Future Of Green Technology Investing.)

Which Green Energy Source Is the Best? The local environment determines whether wind, hydro power or solar energy generation is feasible. The availability of fuel, technology and transmission are factors in the long-term success of a new energy project. Some of the most efficient and economical energy solutions combine energy sources. Also, the local government's willingness to provide tax incentives has a large impact on the costs.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, which use solar panels to directly generate energy are popular for individual buildings or small geographic areas, but large scale use is expensive. Solar energy used to heat liquids that power large electric plants is actually less costly. Sunlight can be inconsistent, so solar is often used in conjunction with other power sources.

Biofuels have been around for a long time and they are the least expensive renewable energy source. One of the fastest growing segments was ethanol, aided by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard which requires fossil fuels to be mixed with a minimum amount of bio-fuels when they are transported in the United States. The regulations attempt to reduce greenhouse gases and increase the use of clean energy.

Wind energy requires a certain amount of sustained wind speeds to be effective. Huge wind turbine fields in various parts of the country produced 1.3% of the electricity in the U.S. in 2008. New technology for storage and transmission make wind power cheaper than solar, but it is still 50% more expensive than coal-powered electrical plants. Offshore turbines are almost twice as expensive. (Wind and solar energy can be used at home. Find out more in Taking Your Home "Off The Grid".)
Hydro power and nuclear power cost about the same amount. Both are more expensive than traditional electric plants and environmental issues plague both. The transportation and long-term disposal of nuclear fuel is remains a concern for nuclear plants. Hydro power poses a threat to wildlife.

Renewable Energy is Really Hot It is politically correct and even "cool" to use green energy. Businesses, governments, celebrities and anyone else gains immediate recognition for buying, using or promoting renewable energy. The economic consequences are serious. Increasing global demand for energy is creating a sense of urgency for the United States to produce domestically generated renewable energy. It is not just an economic concern, but a political one, as oil rich countries assess their future.

The Bottom Line
The reason we are still dependent on fossil fuels for energy is about as old as the fossils themselves. A complicated mix of costs, technology and environmental issues means no one source is best. The diverse implementation of energy sources is a positive step toward energy independence and sustainability. (To learn more, see 6 Reasons Nations Don't Go Green.)

Catch up on your financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: A Diving Dow And Rotting Eggs.
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