The Topless Skier

I think politicians are the scum of the earth.

I have made this statement before and I will say it again. They are usually hypocrites, liars, cheats and eminently buyable. They use politics to polarize opinion, cause disruptions and sometimes war. Politicians work endlessly and tirelessly to find ways to be divisive. By being divisive, they gain a following and cynically they hope that the issues they divide us on are popular enough to give them a majority. I think the best strategy is to ignore them and certainly never to vote.

The topless skier from The Lebanon emphasizes my point today. Here we have a country polarized by religion (another crock of polarizing crap) and politics with seemingly endless violence (just as the politicians and religious zealots like it). I mean they have more than their fair share of issues and problems to solve but instead, a government minister feels it his duty to criticize a young skier who once posed for a calendar. I feel sorry for this young woman as the photos that are the center of this non-controversy are not anything extraordinary – topless, yes, but revealing? Hardly. Whoever released these photos should be ashamed of themselves too. For what purpose? Who cares? What is wrong with the human body anyway that people get so fussed about a nipple? We all have them – I suppose even that Minister has nipples?

jackie1

A cynical man has taken upon himself to be divisive proving himself conservative for his followers. Why does such a man hold a position of ‘respect’ as he is plainly a bully, bigot and undeserving of anyone’s respect? Whatever his reason one can guess that it is self-serving. A typical politician.

For once though, I am glad for social media. It seems I am not the only one outraged by this nonsense. Many Lebanese are too and they have started a campaign posting nude pictures of themselves in support of the Topless Skier. You know, I sometimes question the role of social media but in this instance ….. it is playing a positive role.

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The Anatomy of a Bad Review

If you take a look over on Amazon.com at the reviews for The Last Observer, you will discover a couple of 1-star reviews there. I’m not sure if these two people know each other but they sound remarkably similar. There is nothing wrong with bad reviews. We don’t all like the same things and constructive bad reviews are useful in growing as a writer or whatever it is we do. In fact, go to any book on Amazon with several reviews and you will find a range of reviews from bad to great. I was just reading Anthony Peake discussing a bad review he got for one of his books too. Sometimes, people are not just critical but personal and its then that I feel things cross the line to inappropriate. To make my point, one of the bad reviewers took the time to go through all of the good reviews and mark them as ‘unhelpful’. This is just vindictive.

Let’s parody these bad reviews just for fun….

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“I actually picked up name of book here on the cheap. After reading the copyright information on the inside cover I immediately knew I had wasted my 99cents. What kind of publisher would take this nonsense I thought as I returned it to the second hand store and demanded my money back. I confess to flicking through the rest of the book just to confirm my views that this writer should never have learned the alphabet. It was all those 5-star reviews that tempted me into parting with my hard earned cash but now, I realize that I was conned by the fabulous job the author did bribing his family, friends and colleagues to write these brazen, gushing, deceitful and annoying lies. Buyer beware, no one who isn’t bribed by this author or currently sleeping with him/her would write anything positive about this book.

The story is non-existent and based on my 30-second flick through of the text over my cod and chips from the local chippy, if you have seen any of the Matrix movies, you will be sickeningly familiar with this type of book. Vasey – oh I forgot – that’s Dr. Vasey (always a give away of mostly illegible writing), can’t write and in my learned opinion, should never have graduated high school. I mean, exactly who actually uses terms like “Oh, I see!” or “Yes, I’ll have a beer please” or, even worse, “Hello”? There are no characters, nor any story of any value that is obvious to the 30-second flick through. Vasey obviously has grandiose ideas of himself and his writing that need to be nipped in the bud by someone sane and rational like me and I have made it my duty to protect you all from this kind of amateurish crap.

Trust me, don’t buy this book. It truly sucks and so does Vasey who probably should have been aborted before birth so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to put up with his horrible self promotion and ugly prose.”

Trial by Social Media

There used to be a time when family matters were kept private. Perhaps that wasn’t a healthy attitude – sweeping things under the carpet and keeping it within the family but there were and still are appropriate channels via which people can get assistance and make complaints. Of course, there has always been gossip and gossip newspaper and magazines but by and large, people chose whether they wished to consume this type of frivolous nonsense by actually buying the magazine. Mainstream media, wary of legal action or a slap on the wrist from regulators, also (usually) maintained some element of restraint.

Like many things, social media and the internet has changed all of that.

Today, we see various ways in which accusations may be made, sides taken and people’s reputations ruined via a few choice words tweeted to the world or by posting a few inappropriate pictures to a revenge website. Its trial by social media these days…..

Let’s take the recent Woody Allen case as an example. A couple of tweets and all of a sudden people are screaming for the guy’s head on a plate. I’m not going to get into the details or take sides on this issue but just make the point that I don’t think deliberately tweeting this kind of allegation to the world and encouraging the sheep that follow such things into mass writhings and perhaps in some cases, dubious actions is at all appropriate. Plainly, there is agony in this family but I’m pretty sure its not my business because I cannot possibly know the facts and I cannot possibly be expected to make a judgement. Child abuse is a hideous and terrible allegation but resorting to social media is simply inappropriate at best and maliciously evil at worst. I did do some research prompted by this but I daresay I am one in a minority that didn’t just jump to a conclusion. My research tells me that this is not a black and white case. Again, its not my business and I am not qualified to decide.

In fact, I think what has been done to Woody Allen is the equivalent of an equally ugly trend on the net – ‘revenge porn’. I do have an opinion on this and that is it should be illegal and those that run such sites should face prosecution and personal liability. Those injured by such activity should be able to claim damages from the sites and whoever sent the pictures in.

trial

I was raised in a world where people had rights. They were innocent until proven guilty by a trial of their peers. These days, people are hung drawn and quartered by hysterical masses of no nothings who browse social media and believe that they can and should have an opinion on everything. They are neither qualified nor competent to hold such opinions or make judgements.

I worry and you should also be concerned about Woody Allen. No, I’m not making any suggestions as to his innocence or guilt but to this case as an example of how, under the wrong control, the internet and social media is being primed as a tool to control and direct mob behaviour.

We are the mob.

The question is, who is pulling the strings?

People Are Just strange

I often find myself thinking that people are really just strange. Perhaps it would be better to say self-centered and thoughtless as opposed to strange for that is what I really mean. I observe this every day and all around me. Here are a few examples:-

1. Yesterday there was an event at the school my daughter goes to. It’s essentially and infants and junior school so the kids and the majority of the parents are young. Of course, as hoards of parents descend on the school, parking becomes a nightmare and the strange behaviour starts. First, I observe two cars ‘battling’ it out for a vacant parking space. Despite one car being there, hazard warning lights flashing and obviously waiting to enter the parking space as soon as the current occupant left it, another car pulls up determined to take the same spot. What followed was a game of chicken between the two car owners. Meanwhile, all the traffic is held up while these weird people fight over a parking space.

2. Next, with cars parked on both sides of the street, there is now only room for one car but as this is a two-way street, you can guess what happened right? The vast majority of the traffic is going in one direction but one lone car going in the opposite direction seems to believe that he/she is a superior human being and that all the others should reverse for them. So, I was treated to another stand off – one that last almost 5-minutes – as one selfish driver believed they were more important than fifteen others and fully apparently expected every single on of them to reverse down the street……

3. Another example is when the car in the outside lane is doing the speed limit and doesn’t quiet move into the other lane fast enough for the person who believes themselves far more important than anyone else and therefore passes on the inside. Its stupid, dangerous and illegal but you know, the law nor safety concerns apply to our superior human being.

That is three driving examples I know but look around and observe your fellow humans behaving badly, discourteously, rudely, dangerously at any moment in time. People really do seem to believe that they are more important or that laws apply only to others. Me? you know I like walking. It bothers me not a jot to park a bit further away and walk. Furthermore, not having to compete with these people for a parking space keeps my blood pressure down. I’m not in a rush so if you sit in the outside lane going too slow, I will sit a safe distance behind and wait for you to move. I think laws do apply to me and furthermore I know for sure, if I break one, there will be a police car right there to catch me.

It’s not hard to be courteous. It may take a minute or two more to find a parking space, line up in a queue or whatever. It may involve walking to where you were going from where you parked your car. But does it really matter? Being nice to people, being courteous and respecting people’s safety makes you feel so much better anyway.

People are strange. They really are.

How to Waste a Morning in Prague

So today I had to send a letter to the IRS. Since I need it to arrive before December 23rd, I thought I would send it by courier – DHL in fact. Around 10am, I duly set out and drove the 10-minute drive to the airport where DHL have an office. I walk in to the DHL office armed with my reading glasses (their air bills use such small typeface its unreadable) and a pen…. yes, last time I was there they had no pens available! This is the Czech Republic people after all where customer service cannot be translated into the local language because it simply does not exist as a concept…..

Entering the office there was what looked like a 15-year old behind the desk and on the phone. OK – so I start looking for the air bills after all this is a DHL office and either sending or picking up packages is what you would expect here right? A quick scan and a further slow search revealed that no air bills were available. OK, so I wait yet to be even acknowledged by the 15-year old…..

Ten minutes later phone call is over and he immediately starts serving the guy in front of me who is there to pick up a package. No eye contact made yet. He leaves to get said package. About five minutes later he reappears with package and finally I say “Can I please have an air bill?” He looks at me like I just transported myself in from the USS Enterprise. I repeat “May I please have an air bill?”. He reaches under the counter and lobs me an air bill. No pen. That’s fine, I brought one.

I struggle to read the thing even with my reading glasses on and determine to bring a magnifying glass next time. I fill it out and place it on the counter with my parking ticket to be validated. Five more minutes go by while our 15-year old shows me that he is busy reading something on his screen. Eventually, he takes the thing, reads it and then gets a package out in which to place my letter. “I need to open it” he tells me brusquely. Why he would need to open my letter to the IRS is beyond me but I have no objection and so he opens it, inspects the contents and then shoves it back in the envelope and then into the bag for shipping. Finally, progress is being made…..

He then reads the air bill again, scratches his head and disappears to return several minutes later with a handbook that he then proceeds to thumb through.
Suddenly, he smiles. “We can’t send anything to a PO box,” he says.
What? I say surprised, “since when?”
“We can’t send it,” he says still smiling and shoving his book into my face to prove it.
“Look, I was here just two-months ago sending my tax return to that same address and you accepted it,”
“No, we didn’t,” he says defiantly.
“Yes you fucking did!,” says I feeling the heat of anger rising rapidly and my hands beginning to shake. I pull out my wallet and pull out the receipt and air bill copy from two-months previous…. “See.” says I.
“Mistake. We shouldn’t have sent it. You will have to leave.”
“Go get your bloody boss now,” I say.

He disappears for another 5-minutes and reappears with his ‘boss’. This one looks about 45 and he is annoyed. I probably disturbed him from surfing the internet.

“Its like he says. We can’t send anything to a PO Box,” says the boss while the 15-year old noods vigorously flashing his crooked teeth in a smile of satisfaction of pissing off another customer.

customer service

“But, its the IRS, their address is a PO box. It is the US Government for goodness sake,” says I sensing defeat.

“Yes,” pipes in a sympathetic customer from behind me who had been patiently waiting through most of this. “Its the US Government and the PO Box is their address.”

“I don’t care who it is. No PO Box addresses and that’s that,” says boss man gradually moving back towards the door and the peace and security of his browsing fun.

I have an idea and I call my accountant in between finally letting rip with a good dose of several fucks and comments about customer service. I mean, wouldn’t customer service oriented people say something like…

“I am sorry sir but it is now company policy not to accept shipments to a PO Box, even in the case of the IRS itself. However, if you would just wait a moment, I will go and look on the Internet to see if I can find a usable address for the IRS.”

Wouldn’t that be the right approach? Don’t you think? DHL is an American company isn’t it???? maybe I am wrong there but surely they would know where the IRS are located?

Luckily my accountant emails me an address for the IRS.

I wait while the 15-year old slowly serves another customer. “Can I have an air bill please?”

“You have one!”

“Yes, but you won’t accept the address and I need a new one now,”

He lobs me another. No pen. I fill it out. and wait a little more. He finally processes my air bill and then asks for the 70USD it apparently costs to send a small flat almost weightless letter from Prague to Austin, TX.

Finally, I am done. I put my parking ticket on the counter… and wait again.

“what’s that?, says 15-year old.

“My parking ticket,” says I.

“Its free for the first 15-minutes,” says he….

steam

At this point, I jumped over the counter, grabbed him by his hair, rammed his face repeatedly into the wall while kneeing him viciously in the balls until he dropped unconscious to the floor where I kicked his lifeless body until sure he was completely dead… in my imagination.

“I have been here almost an hour,” I said calmly.

Reluctantly, he takes the ticket and runs it through the machine.

I leave.

One morning wasted. In Prague where customer service isn’t something that actually exists in the lexicon of the country.

Do me all a favor – boycot DHL please until they invest in some customer service training for their Prague-based 15-year olds….

Banks – The Thieves and Crooks of the 21st Century

Have you ever tried to wire money from one country to another? If you live overseas like me then you can add this issue to the long list of difficulties you will face as an ExPat. Let me explain.

Wiring money overseas via a bank is an archaic process so far as I can figure. It takes 24-48 hours to perform this transaction in the days of instant email communication. Why? Next, you will pay the originating bank a fee – usually a fixed fee but it can also be a percentage of the amount being wired up to some maximum (meaning – its NOT cheap). You can set up the transaction to pay the fees on one side or split them between the originator and receiver in most instances.

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But what happens when the wire is executed? Well, unless your bank and the recipient bank are directly connected (unlikely), at least one additional ‘correspondent’ bank gets involved. Guess what, in many instances you have no control over who this is (i.e. the bank determines which is most convenient for them – not the most convenient for you). Further, the correspondent bank has the right it seems to charge a fee too – and the sender has no way to know in advance nor control whether a fee is taken or not! Apparently, once the correspondent bank has your money they can pretty much do as they please. There doesn’t appear to be any set of rules or obligations governing the correspondent. For example, I had a correspondent bank in a recent US Dollar wire to a US Dollar account in the Czech Republic decide to convert my USD to CZK – at an exchange rate of its choosing! I.e this bank decided to profit from me by exchanging my money unneccasarily at an exchange rate designed for it to make an obscene profit. Guess what – yes – when the money arrived at my account, my bank had to exchange it back to USD at another crappy exchange rate thus I lost $300 of my money.

The issue is no one is accountable or responsible at either bank. If you complain to your bank they blame the other. A call to the receiving bank is met with a finger pointed back at the sending bank. Around and around you go with no one accepting responsibility for the ‘error’ made in sending your cash. This is most frustrating when the money simply disappears. about one time in three, the wired money leaves your account but doesn’t show up at all. Neither bank seems to know where it is or if it will arrive and you have to then pay an additional ‘reclamation fee’ for them to work it out.

Yes, the banks are thieves and crooks operating to their own rules with no sense of customer service. Why?, because they can.

I hope that Bitcoin and other such ‘currencies’ really take off. This way the banks will lose business. If I can send money overseas with no fee and see that money arrive at the speed of email why would I ever use the w(b)ankers again? However, I’m not holding out much hope. Once the banks see their profits slipping away they will pressure their politician buddies to stop it.

Over Population

A couple of years ago I worked for an industry analyst firm CommodityPoint (I now do the same job but for my own firm in partnership with Patrick Reames – Commodity Technology Advisory). I had worked as an analyst in commodities for about 7-years and during that time written many CommodityPoint newsletters known as IssueAlert. CommodityPoint was folded at the end of 2011 by its owners and the websites no longer exist – neither then do the vast majority of those articles unfortunately. However, after 20-minutes of research this morning I managed to find one from 2011 that I believe was fundamentally important. I reproduce it here to ensure it’s survival.

The Beginning of the Beginning of the End

by Dr. Gary M. Vasey, 14th July, 2011

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but … On June 23rd, 2011 the International Energy Agency (IEA) made a significant announcement. For just the third time in its history, it announced the release of oil from strategic reserves — some 60 million BBLs over the preceding month. The announcement pointed to the Libyan situation, where it estimated some 132 million BBLs of light, sweet crude oil had been removed from the market by the end of May, 2011 and noting that greater supply tightness (and the resulting run in up in prices) could threaten the fragile global recovery. The impact of this “shock” announcement was pretty immediate as crude prices fell with Brent Futures falling close to 7.5 percent in the immediate aftermath.

Reuters analyst, John Kemp, immediately saw the move as targeted against speculators in the market. A view echoed by many U.S. newspapers which ran ugly headlines proclaiming the end of speculation in the market and a return to “fundamentals” and saner prices. If this unheralded and hugely coordinated and difficult decision by the IEA was targeted at speculators, it failed. The sudden unexpected downwards move did hit long biased hedge funds for sure — that can be seen in some rather disappointing returns for May from many managers, but was it even an effective “warning shot” as The Street put it? Was it a warning shot at all?

Strangely enough, oil prices were declining prior to the announcement and there was much speculation that the IEA move wasn’t as much as a surprise as initially thought. According to one oil-trader, Mark Fisher, it wasn’t and he made his accusation on CNBC.”This information, in my opinion for what it’s worth, was leaked. It was leaked,” he rasped. “Somebody knew something.” It wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if the decision, which not only required agreement of IEA members but likely consultations with OPEC and others, was leaked as crude was down by four percent already.

What is clear is that the IEA’s move was a direct market intervention, and yes, it was very much a speculative move by big governments to try to control what should be a free market. So who is crying foul now? After the announcement, the idea that another move by the IEA to keep down prices may be on the table was also mooted. But there is a problem with that strategy — the IEA simply doesn’t have enough credible political capability to keep adding from the strategic reserve to the global oil supply. In a matter of months its reserves would be gone and the price of oil would still be close to record highs. As Fisher puts it — it’s a risky gamble that the IEA can’t win.

Central to this issue is this: the price is where it is at because of fundamentals, not speculators. I have argued this many times before. “To me, price volatility cannot be significantly dampened by reducing the ability of investors to “speculate” nor can it be addressed by greater market oversight and regulation (not that this may not be required for other reasons). It can only be addressed by recognizing and understanding the fact that for now, and the future, we are truly in a supply constrained world and that demands a higher level of thinking, a more strategic set of thinking and strategies at both the national and trans national levels,” I stated back in 2009. Even the IEA announcement points to fundamentals as its raison d’etre with its statement about Libyan oil. But hold on … 60 million BBLs to replace 132 million BBLs already lost from the market? Two million BBLs/day for 30 days to replace 1.5 million BBLs per day of lost Libyan oil? No wonder the speculators barely flinched.

The real reason for the release may be indeterminable. Some suggest President Obama has an eye on re-election and sees lower gas prices at the pump as a way to sweeten his chances. Others might suggest the move was really aimed at OPEC, the other speculators in the oil market, but the ones who really can impact prices. The fact is that it is irrelevant. What is relevant today, three years after my last article on this topic, is that nothing much worthwhile has been done to address the underlying issues of supply and demand. The United States still doesn’t have an energy policy worth squat, and neither do many other Western economies. In fact, to me, it seems like only China has a practical energy/commodity policy these days — spend worthless T-bills on buying reserves in the ground anywhere you can — and fast.

But since 2009, the situation truly has gotten much worse. The population of this planet grew in those three years to 6.7 billion (by more than three times the population of Germany) and is set to rise to around 10 billion by 2050. Those extra people and their demands for food, energy and raw materials of every kind is the problem. In fact, policy decisions across the board have been counterproductive and counterintuitive. For example, The World Trade Organization changed its rules on subsidies, meaning that rather than buy and stockpile produce from farmers building reserves, governments pay subsidies without buying any of the produce. The impact of that move? No reserves to protect against volatility when some crisis arises. Another example is the move to biofuels again driven by government subsidies and that means farmers are turning arable farmland into corn or other ethanol making materials rather than grow food people can actually eat.

Through all of 2011, the cost of food has sat at record levels as measured by FAO price index. I don’t see any inkling of a sign that that situation will improve in the medium to longer-term., which brings me back to the title of this article, “The Beginning of the Beginning of the End.” To me, the move by the IEA signals the beginning of the beginning of the end of the life we know. Something has to change and fast, but no one seems willing to tackle the issue. Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London, said it better than I back in 2007, “How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers? The answer is politics, and political cowardice.” “The debate is surely now unavoidable. Look at food prices, driven ever higher by population growth in India and China. Look at the insatiable Chinese desire for meat, which has pushed the cost of feed so high that Vladimir Putin has been obliged to institute price controls in the doomed fashion of Diocletian or Edward Heath,” he states further in his article. Before concluding, he writes, “It is time we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country and on this planet.” Amen to that.