Saturday, January 31, 2009

Censorship Loses - Freedom of Speech Wins

Let's take a break from the economy. I know I need to.

The Letterman Show of Friday, January 30th was surreal, especially if you didn't know the backstory. I didn't.

So when they announced Mary Hicks would be the only guest and there would be a videotaped performance from Dan Hicks, I guessed he was dead, that his wife was going to be out there, and that it would be pretty weird. I got two out of three.

Mary Hicks is Dan's mother, and she was there at Dave's invitation to allow him to undo something that he says has been haunting him for years. In 1993, the show, which was still relatively new, cut Hick's entire performance - his twelfth appearance there. Fifteen years later Dave blamed his own insecurity for the decision. Translate that to he didn't feel like he could stand up to pressure from the network for a routine that was edgier than they found comfortable. What Dave didn't know was that Hicks was dying from pancreatic cancer. So the pain for both of them had to cut much, much deeper; there would be no second chance.

So Dave made amends on national television fifteen years later. He aired the entire routine, saying he hadn't watched it beforehand. That seemed very weird to me, too, until I found out the history. Now I get it. It's the ultimate hands-off - "I'm not even going to watch it first - just air it."

The routine was good - some anti-gay references felt prehistoric though the twist to voyeurism is probably timeless. What apparently scared the CBS back then were Hicks' attacks on Pro-Lifers. That was just funny - he pointed out that they're a pretty grim looking crowd for being so fond of life.

Hicks' mother was gracious, though she made no attempt to hide her bitterness or how hurt her son had been at the time.

And just a sidenote - if you check Wikipedia, Hicks went to his grave angry at a comic who he said stole his jokes, his routine and even his persona. The industry joke, apparently goes like this: Question: Why is Denis Leary a star while Bill Hicks is unknown? Answer: Because there's no cure for cancer.
Hicks told people he gave up smoking just to see if Leary would do it, too.

fascinating world, isn't it?

Friday, January 30, 2009

More Economy Rioting

There was chaos in Paris and trouble all over France as citizens protested the government's handling of the global economic crisis.

Marchers threw bottles and overturned cars in Paris. Flights were cancelled, train and bus service were impacted as workers went on strike, demanding action from the government. Unions say 2.5 million people rallied across France. The government puts the figure at a million.

Most of the anger is directed at President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seen as sympathetic and helpful to business, while not helping citizens who are increasingly desperate.

Do you have any doubt that this is just the beginning?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Computers Are Crashing, Too

Just in case you didn't have enough to worry about, there's a digital pandemic that no one has yet figured out how to shut down. Is your computer already infected? Maybe.

Experts say it's a new Internet plague that seems to be the first step of a multistage attack...and computer security experts from the civilian and military worlds don't know who programmed it, or what the next stage will be. A malicious software program known as Conficker or Downadup is being spread thanks to a recently discovered MS Windows weakness. Thanks a lot, Microsoft. It also spreads through hand carried gadgets like USB keys.

Nine million personal computers are already believed to be infected.

Here's the scary part - these worms can then create a unified system of infected computers called botnets, which will then accept instructions from whoever authored the worm in the first place. An army of obedient digital slaves...and one of them could be your own PC.

An executive with Support Intelligence says if this is a digital Pearl Harbor, we're at the point where the Japanese ships are visible on the horizon.

Microsoft did an emergency patch in October, but it's still spreading. What can you do? If you've got a PC, update. And keep your fingers crossed.

Scary enough when it's your personal computer. How about when it's in your office? One infected computer will infect every computer on the network. And it's possible that what the botnets will steal the PC user's personal information.

Or maybe it'll just send out a lot of annoying spam.

Oh...on a totally different topic, if you've been thinking about visiting New Zealand, now's the time. The NZ dollar dropped to its lowest level in ten years against the US dollar after the Reserve Bank of New Zealand hacked benchmark interest rates from 5 to 3.5 percent. Until now, RNBZ rates had been the highest of all industrialized nations.

Paris Becomes Walmart

Not sure if this is a recession related phenomenon, but it sure is a shift.

When you dream of running away and becoming an artist, that vision must include a cigarette, a beret and a friendly community of starving artists on the streets of Montmartre. Ah, Paris. The grungy center of the civilized universe, where I sat at a little cafe table sipping cafe au lait and watched the Parisian rats running along the cobblestones and under the sidewalk. It's beautiful with the kind of beauty that's real - even more beautiful because it's so imperfect. Part of its charm is its reputation as a haven for creativity.

But now souvenir shops set up near Montmartre are slicing into sales of art by Parisian artists. There are three hundred officially registered artists there - and they're competing with mass produced Chinese pictures that sell for a fraction of what they have to charge to make any money at all.

A BBC reporter asked the souvenir shops where the paintings came from, and it took a bit of persuading to get them to admit that yes, the paintings were from China. And some of them even touch them up themselves!

It's a tough economy. But buying rip off, assembly line art is a bad call on every level. Do you want your money to support a factory or an artist? Would you choose a bigger, bad piece of art over an exquisite small one simply because you have a lot of wall to cover? Do you want bad art in your life?

Thanks to Art News Blog for this one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rioting to Work In Japan

Don't believe this is a global recession? The riots in Iceland aren't enough evidence? How about Japan, where hotel workers tried desperately to keep their employer open even after the place was shut down?

After Lehman Brothers went belly up, the Keihin Hotel was shut down in Tokyo and all 130 employees were told they were fired. The firm that owned the hotel owed 6 billion yen to a Japanese subsidiary of Lehman's. The workers resumed the hotel's operations the day after they were fired...and have been running it since October 21st.

A court order supported the owner's decision to sell and ordered police to seize the building. Want to see what desperation looks like? JapanProbe posted the video.

Japan Probe Blog

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Another Story From the Second Depression

Meet Charles James Isler. He doesn't have a steady job. He hasn't in twenty years. He stands by the side of the road with a sign reading "I Need Work". You'd think he's one of those desperate souls who has hit hard times and is hoping for an odd job to keep him going. Or maybe he's got a hard luck story, an addiction - maybe he's homeless. Why else would he spend two or three hours standing in the winter cold, bundled against the biting wind as his nose runs, hoping someone will stop and give him something to do for day or two?

According to Mr. Isler, his back to basics career hunt has kept him working on and off for twenty years. "You go to those employment centers and they give you the run around," he told me. "I've always gotten work this way."

That's more important than ever now, as he recently got married. He proudly showed me a photo of his wife when she was a model. Those days are gone, the money's gone, and Charles Isler has responsibilities now.

"She has a sleeping problem," he said. "I have to buy her sleeping medication and she has a high tolerance - I have to buy a lot of it." His wife's name is Lucy. He made a point of telling me.

And so Charles James Isler puts on his coat, his scarf, his gloves and his hat, picks up his sign and stands by the side of a busy street in a small New York town. "I Need Work" his sign proclaims.

I wondered if he worried that as the economy worsens, the work will dry up for him.

"Nah, nah. People need help, they need something done in a hurry and they see me standing out here and take me off."

"And do you do this seven days a week?"

He smiled. "Sometimes. Sometimes. And sometimes I get lucky."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Suing the SEC

Here's a story that may just be the first of many -

Phyllis Molchatsky lost two million dollars she invested with Bernie Madoff. She plans to sue the SEC to get it back.

Molchatsky, who lives in the suburbs of New York City, says she invested everything she had in Madoff's fund through her broker because it seemed steady and safe. It didn't show wild swings either up or down...and her investment seemed a good one. Between 2001 and last year, it nearly doubled. Then she lost everything.

She says the money was supposed to cover her retirement, her adopted son's education, and her own medical bills if her recently diagnosed Parkinson's disease grew worse.

The suit is believed to be the first filed by an investor against the Securities and Exchanges Commission. The argument is that the SEC didn't do its job, didn't oversee what Madoff was doing, even ignored warnings that something was very, very wrong.

Molchatsky's attorney has filed an administrative claim for 1.7 million dollars. The SEC hasn't commented. If they refuse, a lawsuit will be next.

Experts expect the SEC to claim sovereign immunity. That's a holdover from a monarchy that basically claims The sovereign can do no wrong.

That's clearly an outdated notion.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hard Times Are So Much More Civilized in the UK

We still have so much to learn from the Brits. They've got the stiff upper lip, the afternoon tea, and they've got legal squatting.

According to the BBC, a bunch of art students have moved into a couple of vacant mansions at a fine address in London - Park Lane. They're holding open houses, exhibiting art and generally proving to be pretty good neighbors. Their "landlord" (are you a landlord if you don't get rent, or just a victim?) may be the Duke of Westminster, who apparently hasn't used the homes in years. They're valued at 15 million pounds. Each.

The new tenants are art students, 30 to 40 of them per building. Squatting is not illegal if you don't force your way in and you cause no criminal damage. The students say they're not crackheads, they're not wrecking the places, they're just enjoying the finest free student housing ever.

So let's consider this notion. We've got an awful lot of empty homes owned by banks that can't sell them. We have an awful lot of people who are having trouble paying their bills. The lines at soup kitchens are getting longer. Utility companies report a rising number of delinquencies...and bigger ones.

What if we started letting people live in those empty houses across the US legally? What if the banks signed a deal that required they keep the places up, didn't allow the pipes to freeze, basically acted as caretakers?

Am I missing something or could this make sense?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Great Chinese Tea Crash

Gold's down, silver's down. Tea's down in China and that's even scarier for them than the crash of precious metal.

Pu'er tea, a pricey health drink that was China's version of Starbucks coffee, is crashing. And that's terrifying to wholesalers, farmers and everyday Chinese who invested in the fermented tea disks as a 'safe' investment.

A third of the three thousand tea manufacturers and merchants have gone belly up , and a product that sold for $150 a pound now sells for $15. Tea trees are being ripped out and replaced with crops you can eat - corn and rice.

It was another bubble - a trendy investment fueled by speculation and hype. And now it's just a cup of tea.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Circuit City Shorts Out - Cynicism Survives

34 thousand people will be out of work as Circuit City closes down its stores and shuts off the lights for good. A trip around Blogworld shows that while there's a lot of sympathy for the workers, there's very little to spare for Circuit City and its corporate officers.

A year ago, this was posted on Cynical-C's blog:

No time to read? Let me sum it up for you.

In 2007, Circuit City laid off 3400 workers, effectively immediately, and replaced them with people who were paid significantly lower wages. The company targeted its most experienced and best paid employees for replacement and said so plainly. Those workers, the company said, were making more than the industry average. One study showed they were making about 51 cents an hour more than their counterparts at other stores - big, big bucks.

But to be fair, company CEO Philip Schoonover makes less than the industry standard; according to Forbes, he made 2.17 million dollars while comparable executives made 4.25 million.

Circuit City told those 3400 workers they could reapply for their old jobs, at minimum wage with no benefits, after they'd been on unemployment for ten weeks.

The Circuit City Slaughter, as one analyst called it, won the title of "Most Cynical Corporate Move Ever" from one industry watcher.

So after cutting its legs off, Circuit City is now stabbing itself in the head. But the 34 thousand people who worked there are the ones who will bleed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

They're Not Jumping Out of Windows, But They're Trying to Die

The stories I'd read on the failed attempts of a midwestern financial manager to fake his own death weren't terribly detailed. On the surface, they were downright funny. But there's more to the story and I'm not laughing now.

Marcus Schrenker apparently did try to fake his own death, did call in a false mayday from his single engine plane; did parachute out. But his journey nearly ended in a small tent as he tried to make his death a reality.

There will be more of these pitiful stories - I know of two confirmed recession-motivated suicides in downstate New York so far. These are people who had it all - and now they're losing it.

Part of me sneers - they can't handle living like the rest of us? But the better part of me hurts for them - it's not just money. It's their reputation, their self-esteem, the lives they knew that they feel they're losing through their own mistakes. Money is more than currency - it's who they once were.

President Obama wants to jump start a dead economy. There may be more riding on him than we realized.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

*UPDATE* Let the Games Begin - Second Depression II-

Our roving boy has been found - here's the background, or skip to the end if you know it already:

As the ripples from Bernie Madoff's scam become a tsunami washing over global investors and carrying away their money, as the body of a European financier is removed from his Manhattan office, here's a little slice of reality from the BBC. They're watching.

38 year old Marcus Schrenker is missing after his plane crashed. It appears he did it to fake his own death.

Schrenker's financial management companies are in trouble. They're under investigation and are said to owe half a million dollars to an insurance company.

He took off in a single engine plane from a small Indiana airport this past weekend, bound for Florida. He was alone. Somewhere over Alabama, he made a distress call. His windshield, he said, had imploded and he was bleeding.

The rescue effort began - apparently a little more quickly than Mr. Schrenker anticipated. Military planes intercepted his little Piper and found it on autopilot, with the door hanging open. No pilot.

It soon crashed into an Alabama swamp, near a neighborhood. Police say there was no blood, no pilot, and no smashed windshield.

But our hero isn't totally missing - a man matching his description checked into an Alabama motel and explained his appearance as the result of a canoeing accident. He later was seen running off into the woods.

Do they have alligators in Alabama?

Apparently if they do, he dodged them, too.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Spread the Word

The latest fiscal recovery package could be weeks, or even months, away. Major employers are cutting back - there are rumors that IBM will cut 16 thousand people nationwide later this month. Foreclosures are increasing, people offered new jobs hesitate, weighing security versus advancement. Minimum wage employers in New York City aren't hiring anyone who isn't available on the spot. Need to give two weeks notice to your employer? Sorry, there are a dozen others who want the job right now.

When everything hits the fan, we turn to each other. Even the most solitary among us crawls out of her 2 BR 2 BA hermitage and looks around at her fellow humans - "Hey - am I the only one who's going through this?"

And as others confirm that yes, they're going through similar trials, the burden eases just a little. We are not alone. And together we can brainstorm ways to cope, to survive and even to improve things.

That's what this blog is about. I want to hear your stories and the stories you've heard and seen firsthand. Studs Terkel chronicled the stories of the Great Depression. We can chronicle this one ourselves.

It will end. But what will the post-depression world look like? Where will we stand on the world stage - will we be a lead , a character actor occasionally drawing indulgent chuckles from the audience or a member of the Greek chorus?

What will our lives be like? We've passed peak oil - the cheap gas we're using today won't last. Will we have a green economy? Will our service economy make the shift back to a manufacturing economy?

Will the class system we've created collapse with the investments of the super-rich? Will the rich who hang on be even more elite?

This is a forum where we can share our thoughts, our fears, our predictions and our stories. Join the discussion, share your stories. Let other people know and invite them in. It's cold out there when you're all alone.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stories From the Second Depression - Part One

I won't mention his name, but he's someone I've known for years. He was a friend of my father and as I grew older, he became my friend, too. He had no children and his longest term relationship lasted about ten years, but he never married.

He worked for a major city as an engineer. He was good at what he did, he was proud of his work. I've heard horror stories about months on projects in derelict neighborhoods where he never felt safe. He worked hard. He saved his money.

He retired to New Mexico about fifteen years ago and he should have had a very comfortable retirement. He invested in stocks, in gold, in a house, and he had money left over to help a friend put herself through school and, eventually, pay her daughter's tuition when she got to school age.

He's over seventy and had a health scare last year - his knees were already gone and now his heart was acting up. There was talk of an open heart surgery. He, instead, went on a strict healthy eating and exercise regimen (he swims, as it's the only exercise his arthritic knees can handle) and he's dodged the surgery so far. He loves good food, he loves to go watch the trains that pass through the small town near his home. He has a cup of coffee in the same place with the same people every morning. He likes his life.

He called me when Lehman Brothers collapsed.

"I just lost eighty thousand dollars in one day," he said. He wasn't angry, just incredulous. The anger came later.

As the economic news continued to worsen, he saw most of his savings evaporate. His phone calls, begun as a way to help me past my father's death, have become a place where he can vent.

"This isn't how my life was supposed to be. I was always careful with my money. You know me - I squeezed a nickel until it screamed. Thank God I paid off my house when I saw this coming - but now I may have to take out one of those reverse mortgages. I worked all my life to be sure I wouldn't have to worry about money."

His story is like many others across this country and around the world. He started off at an advantage - he had savings to lose. But that advantage is nearly gone. What about the elderly people on fixed incomes who have no cushion at all?

There's a price to this economy that we're not talking about yet. There's a depression going on - an emotional depression. Young people are worried about their future. Parents are worried for their children's future. People at or nearing retirement age are the ones most concerned - they have no time, no possibility to retrench, rebuild, start over.

Growing old isn't easy - there are aches, pains, limitations and the forced acceptance of mortality. Now there is an added worry - what will they do if the money runs out?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Calling For Stories

This blog is called everyday people. I conceived, initially, of a place where I could share the stories of some of the inspiring people I met through my radio show. Instead, the feverish months up to the presidential election transformed this virtual space into an area where I could vent my frustrations, scream my anger and shout my hope.

It is time to consciously change the direction of this blog, and bring it back closer to my original intent.

I want to hear your stories, and I will share the ones you will allow me to share. I want to hear what's happening to you and your family, how secure your employment feels or what's happening to you if you've lost your job. I want to hear how the recession is affecting you - and if you want to call it a depression I won't argue with you.

I want this blog to be a place where all of us can be heard...and as we all begin to speak together our voices will be louder. We are truly all in this together. And it is time for the Everyday People Project to finally live up to its name.

Write to me at Tell me your stories, tell me if you are willing to allow me to share them or if you are writing just because you had to tell somebody, but you're not willing to tell everybody. Send me photos if you want. Write a poem.

Share your story. It matters.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

So Long 2008 - Welcome 2009

2008 just wasn't much of a year. Personally, we had injuries, surgeries, worries and accidents.
Socially, the whole world felt like it was caught in a vise and the grips were tightening.

I'm not a fool - I don't imagine everything will be instantly better now that we can write a new number at the end of the date. But damn, 2008 really was a year I'm glad to see go.

Handsome Significant Other and I tried to remember as many good things as we could from the old year - we had to really work to come up with them. We started grasping at straws...that illness didn't kill you, we got the car fixed after it rolled in the snow.

I'm approaching 2009 with the attitude I bring to painting a room - it's going to take a lot of work and I won't feel like doing it, but when it's done it'll be a vast improvement. In fact, in that spirit, today I intend to finish painting a room that's been half done for a couple of weeks now.

I've gotten to speak with some fascinating people in the past year and some of them have given me information that's going to help me as I work to improve my financial and professional situation. I've won some awards that make me look like I might be pretty good at what I do. I'm grateful.

I've done some good work in 2008 and maybe I'll get to go to another awards banquet. Maybe I'll get to shake hands with NY's governor again. I like him - he's a funny guy. Or maybe I'll be doing things I haven't even imagined yet.

Maybe my life will change dramatically - if so, I hope it's for the better. Or maybe it won't change much at all - in which case I hope it at least brings more ease.

I'm a Gemini, so if you buy into astrology, I'm not good at sticking with one thing for long. I've often thought it explains my lack of expertise in any one area. I get just good enough to get how something's done, then I want to learn something new. I've considered it a failing. Maybe I'll try to rethink that, and just consider myself a person of broad interests. And I'll try hard not to embrace change just for change's sake. I've at least learned that's not usually productive.

I just read about a great idea the folks who organize the Times Square New Year's celebration have had - they put out massive paper shredders in one place in the city a few days before the end of the year, and invite everyone to come and get rid of the old years' garbage. Old photos, old letters, any old junk you just want to say "good riddance" to. Start with a clean slate. I like that.

So I'll write that '9' at the end of the 200 on the date line, I'll keep my eyes and my mind open. There are plenty of people who will tell you what's ahead is gloom and doom. But we voted for change in 2008, and I'm willing to give this year a chance to see what it will allow. I guess that's my resolution for 2009....give it a chance.

Happy New Year - may 2009 be good to you.