Thursday, March 31, 2011


Well, believe it or not I'm in Rome, Italy for the first time in my life on a family vacation. It's 11pm here and I'm futzing with the iPad we brought. I figured that since it had been a while since I weighed in with any political commentary that I'd throw a few pithy statements out there about recent events that have been keeping my anger stoked and my brain humming.


1. I'm appalled by the "war" in Libya. As if this country hadn't wasted enough blood and treasure as the nation collapses under its own weight. The notion of using the American military and US taxpayer dollars for actual "defense" has been degraded for many years, but this might be the most obscene example yet, to say nothing of the other hopeless, endless war we continue to fight.

2. The Wisconsin pension battle was great political theater, and a huge step in the right direction. For once the monolithic public employee unions, so long used to being portrayed as the valiant "little guys", lost one. In the process, at least one state has a chance to salvage a future for real public services and real growth, as opposed to paying down what could end up being an unpayable debt. In case you missed it, folks, we are broke and are running out of money. This fight was a drop in the bucket compared to what's coming.

3. The revolutions in the Middle East deserve our hearty support - from a distance. I was very moved by the events in Egypt and spent a lot of time refreshing my browser those last few days. I'm ready to see the fall of the House of Saud, a people-driven revolution in Yemen, and best of all, a raging people power party in the streets in Iran. I'll pay a few extra bucks in gas to watch it all happen.

Then there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan - I'm against it - the continuing implosion of my Great State of California - that's what you get when you elect union-owned imbeciles for the last decade - and crazy Silvio Berlesconi, so beloved by Italians and unfortunately representative of the worst stereotypes of them. It has been a most interesting few months out there.

When I return from Italy in a few days there's a lot I wanna tell you about. I explored the Italian craft beer scene. Hell, I have like 20 non-Italian beers I need to catch ya up on. I have some new CDs I want to review. I saw a handful of films I need to discuss. I may have even finished 4 books by the time we fly home on Saturday - books by Kevin Myers, Patti Smith, Daniel Okrent and Victor Davis Hanson. You're going to want to come back to this space again soon, OK?

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I passed this superb documentary by when it hit the theaters for about five minutes during the Summer, and only really gave it another thought when it was beknighted with one of the three Best Documentary slots at the recent Academy Awards. I'm glad I was alerted to it again, because now that I've ingested it through the magic of "Netflix Instant", it's a must-watch glimpse into a platoon of American soldiers stationed in the baddest of the badlands in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. These guys are basically tasked with the unforgiving job of taking this territory from the Taliban inch by inch, surrounded on all sides, while simultaneously working to build trust and credibility with tribal leaders who distrust them and mostly want them to go away.

The mental backdrop from which I watched it was one of opposition to the endless, ill-defined, nearly 10-years-old war in Afghanistan (!!), but "RESTREPO"'s compass is set squarely in the middle simply by letting the cameras roll. You'll walk away from the film both immensely proud of the selfless, immensely courageous (very) young men sent out to do battle every morning in the name of American ideals, while also sickened by the mindlessness of it all and the outrageous suffering visited upon the locals and the soldiers. A military person would tell you that "that's what war is", and they're right. I'm currently reading Victor Davis Hanson's collection of essays on war, "THE FATHER OF US ALL: WAR AND HISTORY, ANCIENT & MODERN" in an attempt to get around the contradictions of war - its timeless persistance, its imprintation upon our DNA, and yet the revulsion we feel when it's brought up close to us. That hasn't happened much with this particular war in Afghanistan - it's been an easy one to ignore for the past nine years, am I right? Meanwhile, when these guys take a new hill and name it after their fallen comrade (Juan "Doc" Restrepo), they deservedly celebrate, hoot & holler because they've cheated death and moved another 100 meters toward their objective, such that it is. "RESTREPO" does an outstanding job giving you a feeling of what it must be like to live through a war while being ever-aware of your ability to die in one.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


For the fourth year in a row, I’m proud to present my annual “embarrassed on the Internet” baseball predictions. Last year you may recall that we picked the hated New York Yankees to beat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. While I’m proud to have foreseen, Nostradamus-like, that both teams did indeed make the playoffs, I’m far more happy that I was dead wrong about the ultimate participants and the victor in said 2010 World Series. Why is that, you ask? It’s because My San Francisco Giants Are The World Champions of The World. I waited my whole life for the blessed event to occur, and to plagiarize Bill Simmons, “now I can die in peace”. This is why I can head into 2011 with a strut in my step, and with some confidence, at least predict an NL West repeat for the Giants. This year no one’s going to ask me what I’m smokin’. If someone does – well, I’m smokin’ on victory, my friends.

This year, I ritualistically bought my Sporting News preview magazine, clicked on a few www. addresses with baseball blather, and tapped into my 34-year obsession with the game of Major League Baseball to come up with a new set of prognostications for the year. Now last year, though I got a few things right (5 of the 8 teams I picked to make the playoffs did indeed make the playoffs), there were a few proverbial curveballs that few pundits saw coming. The Texas Rangers, anyone? I think they’ll be weakened this year for sure, and will just barely hold off a resurgent, pitching-rich Oakland A’s for the keys to the AL West. My Texas Rangers this year will be the Milwaukee Brewers, who will run away with their division in a big bat-fueled and timely-pitching-defined laugher. Unfortunately for them, the Brewers meet a team in the NL playoffs that I think will also be soaring this year – the Atlanta Braves – a team whom I daresay will win the World Series in their first Bobby Coxless year. “Pray tell, Hedonist Jive, how can you say such things???”.

The Braves – not the semi-overrated, already injured/damaged Phillies – will win it with pitching, just as the Giants did last year (and hopefully, my predictions notwithstanding, will again this year). Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurjjens, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe - these guys are studs; the first two will have career years and catapult Atlanta to the division title over Philadelphia by maybe 1 game. no, scratch that, they'll have a 1-game playoff to see who wins the division and who gets the wild card. Over in the East, it’s the Boston Red Sox by a mile. I hope New York’s even worse than I think they’ll be (in my dream world, Derek Jeter hits .220 and retires mid-season, and A-Rod breaks another hip or something) – a third-place finish would make me happy; in fact, who knows, maybe those Baltimore Orioles will finally catch fire and finish out of the cellar. That’s what I’m predicting, anyway. I like both Minnesota and Chicago in the AL Central, so I’ll pick them both to make the playoffs, and then both vaingloriously lose at the hands of the mighty Red Sox.

At the end of the day we’ve got my Giants falling back to earth a little bit, and a killer World Series between Atlanta and Boston. Boston loses in 7 games. Baseball stays classy. I get a flurry of emails on Halloween saying, “Hedonist Jive, how did you know this would all take place?”. I sit back and laugh. Enjoy opening day on Thursday March 31st, folks!

National League East
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (wild card)
3. New York Mets
4. Florida Marlins
5. Washington Nationals

National League Central
1. Milwaukee Brewers
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

National League West
1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Colorado Rockies
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks

American League East
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Tampa Bay Rays
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays

American League Central
1. Minnesota Twins
2. Chicago White Sox (wild card)
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Cleveland Indians

American League West
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland A’s
3. Los Angeles Angels
4. Seattle Mariners


NL = Philadelphia over San Francisco
NL = Atlanta over Milwaukee
NL Championship = Atlanta over Philadelphia

AL = Minnesota over Texas
AL = Boston over Chicago White Sox
AL Championship = Boston over Minnesota

World Series = Atlanta over Boston

Monday, March 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE" by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

My 2010/2011 quote-unquote intellectual project has been to try and get a handle on the financial crisis that peaked in 2008, and that we're all still living through the malaise-ridden effects of today - worldwide. This latest boom and bust resists easy political gamesmanship, much as I'd like to explain the entire thing away with a set of withering libertarian asides. In the early days after TARP, it seemed pretty easy to alternately pin the blame on Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac (heretofore known as the GSEs, or government-sponsored entities, or perhaps "the evil GSEs") or on "Wall Street" as a whole, who abdicated their traditional role as "allocators of capital to productive enterprise" in a bizarre ponzi scheme hocking derivatives made from subprime mortgage-backed securities. But I was pretty certain that either explanation was too simplistic of a read, so I pressed onward.

The crisis also has given me my first real sense of dread & foreboding since the Cold War; the sense that due to the interconnectedness of markets and the frailties of humanity, a few wrong moves and boneheaded decisions, and all of a sudden the ATM's don't work, your bank account empties and all the food runs out, for good. At least that's the place I go in my dark hours; thankfully a sense of reason typically prevails. I'm the guy that recommended THE RATIONAL OPTIMIST in these pages a few months ago, after all. Yet this crisis really exposed a lot of bad, bad stuff, and I absolutely needed to read this book because I was certain that Bethany McLean, co-author of the amazing Enron chronicle "THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM", was going to do a superlative job lining the bad guys up in a row and mercilessly pecking them apart. As it turns out, that's exactly what she and co-author Joe Nocera did in late 2010's "ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE", and in the process maintained a sense of evenhandedness even while eviscerating all comers. That's not something that's easy to do over 380 pages.

The toxic relationship between Wall Street, the US government and the housing market was building for years. McLean and Nocera start the story in the 1980s, after the Wall Street scandals of that era, and posit that the invention of the derivatives market during this time compounded with multiple other factors to slowly set the snowball in motion. I’ll list the biggest suspects in a second, but perhaps you might want to know what a derivative is, if you don’t already – especially as it applies to mortgages. Rather than me paying a lender x amount of dollars, with interest, to buy a house - a derivative, or mortgage-backed security, allows that lender to sell off the loan to someone else who then takes control of the mortgage. It gets way more complex, however. That mortgage/loan is then packaged with a bunch of other loans into a financial product that can be rated, bought and sold – so maybe there are now 1,000 mortgages in there, all of them held by rock-solid upstanding citizens like me and you, rated AAA by the "faultless, peerless" ratings agencies like Moody’s and S&P. Maybe that sells to someone for $500 a “share”, and if all the mortgages get paid back in time, maybe it nets the buyer $550 at the end of the day for a little profit. If it’s full of risky mortgages, however, then the fun begins. The “upside” is high – instead of being able to make $550, maybe you can potentially make $2,000 or far more – but you can also lose it all if the home-buyers foreclose and stop paying.

See how this works? Now think of a grotesque hall of mirrors, where these derivatives are combined and mixed up with each other, ad infinitum, and made into wholly new products that can be sold for profit. You very quickly start losing the thread of exactly why this is an important activity for Wall Street to engage in. There were billions of dollars to be made trading these things back and forth between firms on Wall Street, and at the end of the day, that’s why they did it. So here’s my informed roll call of bogeymen in this whole mess, all of whom/which are meticulously detailed and shellacked in “ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE”:

1. The subprime mortgage industry. These were companies like Ameriquest and Countrywide, who raked in huge fees by basically writing a mortgage to anyone with a pulse. The book details their rise and their roots in the 1980s, and how formerly rock-solid business minds like Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide bit the wrong side of the apple and decided to keep up with these new fly-by-night lenders. Business principles flew out the window as loans for $300,000 houses were written to people with no money, no documentation, no jobs and no prospect of ever paying their loans back. I put these guys first because their actions were the most egregious of all - but it was very hard to pick a #1 baddie.

2. Big banks like Bear Stearns, AIG, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. These are the people who bought up or sold the subprime loans, repackaged them into crazy derivatives, and congratulated themselves for how smart they were for doing so. Then when it all came tumbling down due to their stupidity, they took massive handouts from the US taxpayer instead of being allowed to fail for their short-sightedness.

3. Government’s “good intentions”. The US government let loose Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac and gave them their implicit backing, then encouraged them to write as many loans as possible to expand the housing market to the “underserved”, never mind whether the underserved had money or not. The GSEs were essentially pushed into this market by the Clinton administration, and when times were good, allowed their good fortune to relax their standards so much that they had to be bailed out (again, by you and me) to the tune of billions of dollars.

4. The Evil GSEs – Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac. Your stomach will turn when you read about the gamesmanship played on Capitol Hill by the GSEs in order to preserve their favored status and “implicit guarantee” – the payoffs, the lobbying, the threatening, and the wholesale squandering of taxpayer dollars. Their wanton aggressiveness in turn prodded Wall Street to take greater risks to try and overcome the GSEs’ favored status, which of course led to a very public and very devastating race to the bottom.

5. Wall Street’s culture of quarterly earnings expectations. This doesn’t get talked about much, but I think it should. Publicly-traded companies like Goldman Sachs, Ameriquest and Merrill Lynch live(d) and die(d) by the share prices, which are unfortunately determined by quarterly earnings reports. The Street is very short-sighted and fickle, and tends to not take the long view. If you’re the CEO of one of these companies, it’s a “you get what you measure” sort of deal. If the Street doesn’t value thrift, saving and caution, and instead rewards your company for boffo numbers at the end of each quarter, you’re probably going to do what it takes to deliver those numbers, rather than prudently stand back and listen to first principles. Quite a few CEOs who put all their efforts into “meeting the numbers” instead of building strong companies are now ex-CEOs. The rub is, had they been more prudent and wise in 2000-2008, they likely would have been ex-CEOs far earlier.

6. The ratings agencies. The clowns running Moody’s, S&P and Fitch were excoriated in “THE BIG SHORT”, which I reviewed here, but it’s worth bringing them up again. While barely understanding what they were actually rating, they’d slap the vaunted “AAA” rating on some of these mortgage-backed securities and give cover to the banks to trade more of them. “AAA” wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Thousands upon thousands of these rated securities were absolute garbage, full of subprime loans that no one would ever pay back, and that the real smart people (again – see “THE BIG SHORT”) were sounding the alarm about long before the time bomb exploded.

7. Faulty regulation. I’m open to radical suggestions for how this market should be regulated, with the caveat that the government will almost certainly screw it up, as they always do. My gut tells me that no-documentation loans should be outlawed, and that anyone who writes a loan without a certain verifiable set of paperwork should be punished for doing so. I’m even open to discussing requiring minimum down payments; banning adjustable-rate mortgages; requiring disclosures to buyers in plain, simple, non-legalese English; and some greater oversight of the ratings agencies (or better still, abolishing them altogether, since they proved themselves completely useless). I’m not in favor of punishing “fat cat bankers” for their big bonuses. That ship has sailed, and you can't retroactively punish a private enterprise if they're not engaging in unlawful behavior. Instead, I’d like to see the government get the hell out of the housing market in totality, and return it to lenders & borrowers with a (very small) set of common-sense rules guiding the transactions.

8. Bubble mania and human frailty. Finally, the perpetual, optimistic notion of “this time it’s different” that plagues human behavior is as much to blame as anything else. We, the people, just wanted houses that doubled in value in two years. Of course we did. We wanted to borrow against the rising values of our homes, in order to fund college educations, new boats and the like. It worked for quite a few years, which fed the mania. At the end of the day, I’m afraid, this is just how we are wired – and that includes the bankers on Wall Street. Everyone wants the easy shortcut to riches, and we all have a mental block that prevents us from seeing the worst-case scenario, even if that scenario is rationally present and is more likely to occur than not.

That’s my take on the whole mess, anyway. It has colored my thinking about how money is actually made in America, how value is actually delivered to consumers, and how government and banks have it in them to rig the rules in concert with each other to ensure the expansion and bloat of both. “ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE” may not be quite the masterpiece “THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM” was, but I guarantee you you’ll be even more disgusted at this sad tale than you were at the loathsome Enron guys after reading the latter.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


I've been fortunate enough now to try two of the three fabled TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN beers due solely to the kindness of others. A couple of years ago I intook a "Westy 12", a.k.a. the purported greatest beer ever to stalk the planet, a.k.a. TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 12. And lo, I liked it an awful lot, and bestowed it with a big 9/10. You can get the full report right here. Later that year a few bottles showed up in Concord, CA at fairly decent prices, compared to having to travel to Belgium to find them, but I got lazy or cheap or something and declined the opportunity to drive 15 miles after work to nab some.

So when I got the call from my pals D&H to come over to their place to split a bottle of TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8 you know I was on my wheels and over there at the appointed hour & no later. I reckoned, well, if my favorite beer in the world is TRAPPIST ROCHEFORT 8 (which it is), and that's the "mid-tier", dubbel-style beer out of three from the Rochefort family, perhaps the dubbel-style "Westy 8" will also blow away its more famous, higher-octane brother? Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here to report that that's exactly what happened. This beer - the six ounces I was so lucky to savor - is a total mindmelter. It's not just the mysterious and oh-so-tactical lack of a label, nor the extreme lengths taken to get this, nor the fact that I may never drink it again. It's quite frankly the beer itself, which would floor me if it were made by the homebrewer next door.

TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8 pours a dark maroon color, and has a rich, thick fruit flavor right off the bat. It couldn't be more "Belgian" if it tried. Belgian yeasts are all over the beer, and if I had to pick out a set of tastes I'd go with brown sugar, vanilla and apple. Early on in my "beer career" I took to calling the Dubbel-style Trappist ale my favorite beer style of all, but I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. Now that I've had the standard-bearer, perhaps I do. Thanks again to my amazing hosts for cracking one of these open and providing me with half. 10/10.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


My last trip to Kansas for work featured my usual beer run to the gargantuan liquor superstore in Overland Park whose name escapes me – you know the one, the one over by the mall. I had with me a list of 2 beers I needed to find in 22-ounce bottles, beers I’d read about online from upstanding Midwestern bloggers and vloggers like THE HOPRY and their ilk. The crumpled, pulled-from-my-wallet list had scrawled, desperate-looking handwriting that said in tiny letters, “Boulevard Smokestack Series Bourbon Barrel Quad” and O’DELL SABOTEUR. My mission was accomplished at 10 in the morning. Nothing like walking out of a liquor store among the daytime drunks with a big paper sack full of alcohol in your hands, as the watchful, judging eyes of Kansas burn deeply into your soul

Careful readers will know that we were immensely pleased with the BOULEVARD BOURBON-BARREL QUAD, and reviewed it with gusto (if briefly) right here. Let’s make that a big two for two and then some with O’DELL SABOTEUR, which I had the other night. It immediately made me want to hop of the first Southwest flight to MCI or DEN so I could grab some more, if it’s even still around. SABOTEUR, from Fort Collins, Colorado’s O’DELL BREWING, was made over a year ago and is sadly a limited release. It’s an alliterative “Brett Barrel Brown Ale”, and that really might say it all: exposed to and soured by wild yeasts, aged in barrels, and at its core really an imperial brown ale with so much going on I don’t even know where to start. Smoothness – let’s start with how smooooth it is. It’ll pucker your palate something good, but only slightly. You get used to it quickly, leaving much more time to appreciate the rich dark fruits that explode all over the mouth – plums, figs, dried fruit – even a little pineapple. It’s dry and warm and it’s a total marvel of a beer. Put it on your beer bucket list because you’re going to want to try and get one of these into ya before you expire. 9.5/10.