Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sweet Lou's Countdown to His Lee Elia Moment

For the uninitiated, no Chicago sports lore is more pithy than the legendary tirade by Cubs manager Lee Elia in 1983. His team was off to an inauspicious 5-14 start and the fans were already in full negativity despite the early point of the season.

Elia ripped into the day-game only fans--Wrigley did not put lights in for several more years-- as unemployed bums, stating “...the motherf*%kers don't even work, that's why they're out at the f*&king game..." The audio is definitely worth a listen (not work or child safe.) Elia, despite a World Series Championship (not with the Cubs), has yet to live down his wonderful meltdown moment at Wrigley.

Fast forward to 2007 with Lou Piniella at the helm of the most storied losing franchise in the history of professional sports.

Sweet Lou, who has been known to get his Mediterranean blood a-boiling over the years, has lately been showing signs of a mantle plume within the crater. This could be a toxic concoction.

While White Sox fans have little to cheer about these days, we can sit patiently and wait for the Schradenfreude of a beautiful Northside eruption.

Wrigley: where managers go to commit career suicide.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Of Course She Was Covert...

We had to endure all the BS from Bush apologists stating that Valerie Plame was merely a desk jockey for the CIA, driving to work in Virginia with a barely a security clearance. They were not just mistaken-- they were lying.

Most of us knew this was all crap, otherwise US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald would not have pursued the charges of disclosing her status. The only question was who had outed the CIA agent. George W. Bush promised that “if a crime had been committed, that person would not be working in my administration.” Instead of calling the principals in for a heart-to-heart about the national security implications, what did Bush do?

He did what he always does. Bush dithered.

He allowed Libby and Richard Armitage to continue to work on sensitive issues, with top secret clearance, knowing full well laws had been broken. Bush waited for the full course of the legal system to come to bear and --more importantly-- the election of 2004 to pass.

Who knows or cares if Bush will eventually pardon Libby. That would be the least of the abominations committed by this vile administration.

Rise of the Neo- Incompetents!

Richard Cohen from the Washington Post feels he has come up with a new tag for George W. Bush and fleshes it out in Bush the Neoliberal. While Cohen goes on at some length summarizing how Bush is not conservative, he hardly makes the case that Bush's policies have anything to do with liberalism, neo or otherwise.

Cohen recognizes that Bush's disrespect for civil liberties counts against any liberal laurels. He cites issues such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and I would add overseas CIA renditions and warrantless wiretaps, but still Cohen persists with his silly argument about Bush being some type of liberal.

Cohen seems to think that hiring Condi Rice, Harriett Miers, Alberto Gonzales and other minorities and women is the hallmark of liberalism by expanding the diversity quotient of the executive branch. Other Bushophiles I know have also thrown up Rice's status as a de rigeur proof of Bush's open-mindedness. Cohen continues his nauseating surmise:

You only have to listen to Bush talk about the virtues of immigration -- another liberal sentiment -- or his frequent mention of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" to appreciate that the president is a sentimental softie, what was once dismissively called a "mushy-headed liberal."

Cohen contrasts Bush's “compassion” with the “foreign policy realism” of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush's Dad and Brent Scowcroft. Cohen does admit that while Bush may have been altruistic in purpose in Iraq, his incompetence derailed his policies.

Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book America at the Crossroads, explained the differences between the various foreign policy schools: realism, Wilsonianism, neoconservativism and isolationism. I would like to proffer another school as exemplified by the Bush presidency:

Neo-Incompetentism. This is marked by a dizzying array of pointless policies that do nothing beneficial, are potentially harmful, but give the veneer of responsible government: the unfunded No Child Left Behind and Social Security privatization are prime examples. Other policies such as Homeland Security, while decent ideas at the outset, are mismanaged so adroitly that they serve no purpose other than to give false assurance of safety. The ports are not guarded, plane cargoes are not inspected and the borders are not secure. Another hallmark of Neo-Incompetentism is that government departments that have been functional in the past, such as FEMA and the CIA, are compromised to the point of criminality.

Bush's administration has little resemblance to anything like liberalism or conservativism. He is in a class by himself. Cynics would argue that his tuxedo-wearing base of supporters are the only beneficiaries of such wrong-headedness. Who benefits from oil at $65 per barrel? Whose political hacks replaced the recently fired US Attorneys? What price has the Bush family paid in the war on terror? How many of his kids have volunteered for the war that he has sold as the battle between horrendous evil and all that is holy?

Bush's appointments come from many ethnic groups and do look like America, but the one thing they have in common is their incompetence. Wolfowitz at the World Bank, Miers for the Supreme Court and Gonzales at Justice: all done in order to show disdain for the respective institutions and to reward political cronies. Appointments have nothing to do with finding an effective person for the given position, but rather they are made in order to prove a point, usually a silly point. John Bolton had no chance of accomplishing anything at the UN, but following Neo-Incompetent dogma, he was the right man “so send a message.” Condi Rice is the only Secretary of State in history to intimate that diplomacy is somehow counter-productive.

The crowning achievement of the George W. Bush's Neo-Incompetent administration is, of course, the Iraq war. Conceived on false assumptions, planned with wrong intelligence, prosecuted with faulty strategy, promulgated with shifting missions and ending with an occupation marked by a lack of insight towards the culture... this is the prototype for a Neo-Incompetent policy.

Cohen, in his article, agrees that Bush's legacy will have lasting negative effects:

But it is with Iraq that real and long-term damage has been done. For years to come, his war will be cited to smother any liberal impulse in American foreign policy -- to further discredit John F. Kennedy's vow to "pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty." We shall revert to this thing called "realism," which is heartless and cynical, no matter what its other virtues. The debacle of Iraq has cost us -- and others -- plenty in lives. But in the end, it will cost us our soul as well.

Instead of quoting Kennedy and pining about the oncoming “heartless realism”, I think a quote from Abraham Lincoln is more appropriate: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” And if Cohen thinks that Bush is well-meaning and honest, then count him in the former group.

Or perhaps Richard Cohen can learn from Groucho Marx, who said, “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.”

Now that's a lesson George W. Bush definitely got.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Not-So Young Earth

Previously, I have written about Dr. David Menton, PhD, who recently came to town to promote his new museum, among other things.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, PhD, (at left) an outspoken critic of the religionists who are attempting to take over science education in schools, has written a pointed critique of the Creationist Museum. He has also written a succinct PDF that summarizes the science against a 6,000 year-old earth.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lucy and the Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes

Last Sunday I went to a lecture that defended the creation story of the Bible against evolution.

The evening was held in a beautiful new church with a state-of-the-art audiovisual set up. The speaker was David N. Menton (pictured at left), a PhD cell biologist and Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri who is a renown critic of evolution and an proponent of creationism and Biblical literalism. Menton is in fact a “young earth” creationist which means that he believes the earth is only a few thousand years old, thus taking the Genesis story literally and tracing the generations forward through the Old Testament and Jesus Christ to the present. He eschews the science of carbon dating and radioisotope dating and believes that the dinosaurs walked the earth with Adam and Eve.

The presentation was prefaced with a 20-minute worship service that entailed several Christian songs accompanied by a keyboardist, which brought to mind the Voltaire quote about anything too stupid to be said must be sung, but that's a topic for a different day . The well-groomed congregation was attired in snappy-casual splendor, 99% Caucasian and respectfully quiet. The moderator welcomed visitors to the show and gave the floor over to a local cardiologist who is presumably a member of the church.

The cardiologist, who I know personally as a respected physician, introduced Dr. Menton with glowing praise, but not before relating his personal bias against the assumptions of evolution and his skepticism of certain tenets of the scientific community. The heart doctor reminded the congregation of the years of education that he himself has endured and also of his business and professional success in town, presumably to inject credibility to the proceedings.

Dr. Menton emerged on stage and began his polished Power Point presentation in earnest. His first of two lectures was about Lucy the hominid skeleton (at left), which by the way was named for the Beatles song, found in Africa in 1974 and considered by many paleontologists to be a 3.2 million year-old “missing link” in the evolution of ape-like creatures to modern Homo sapiens. Of course, Menton does not give any credence to such claims and goes on at length with several arguments finding fault with “evolutionist's claims.” He goes on without rebuttal about the technicalities of the shape of Lucy's pelvis, the anatomy of her hands, the carrying angle of her knee and morphology of her feet, and even that Lucy is not a she at all-- implying that assigning female gender was done in order to disarm creationist critics with political correctness. Menton, a non-tenured histologist, contends that a paleoanthropologist named Owen Lovejoy, featured on a PBS Nova documentary, doctored data to fit his theories about the fossil. I guess we'll just have to take David Menton's word for it.

Menton voiced dismay at the media's apparent bias in such matters, especially in their depiction of such lower ape-like lifeforms to have human characteristics. He feels this is done to promote an agenda that these are human-like and thus are done to give greater believability to the claims of evolutionists. He showed museum models and pictures of hominids with supposedly pensive countenances and implied some large conspiracy by the various curators and artisans. My response would be for Dr. Menton to go to the zoo and look at the primates; they have all manner of facial expression from pensive to jocular to even that Dick Cheney 60,000 mile stare.

Menton then tried to further discredit evolution by presenting quotes from various paleontologists that were supposedly indicative of their doubts about the basic tenets of evolution. An example is one quote from David Pilbeam, who was a protege of the venerable Richard Leakey, who said:

If you brought in a smart scientist from another discipline and showed him the meagre evidence we've got he'd surely say, "forget it; there isn't enough to go on."

What Menton left out, however, was the complete context, which is more esoteric. The quote was in reference to a discussion about the specific branching of hominoids that occurred previous to the Australopithecine era of Lucy, and was not meant as a broad indictment of evolution in general as Menton implied. Pilbeam said, and I quote at length because the issue is nuanced:

Of the primates, the chimpanzee is man's closest relative, while the two other great apes, the gorilla and orangutan, are slightly more distant evolutionary cousins. The apes and hominids are collectively known as the 'hominoids'. Biologists would dearly like to know how modern apes, modern humans and the various ancestral hominids have evolved from a common ancestor. Unfortunately, the fossil record is somewhat incomplete as far as the hominids are concerned, and it is all but blank for the apes. The best we can hope for is that more fossils will be found over the next few years which will fill the present gaps in the evidence. The major gap, often referred to as 'the fossil void', is between eight and four million years ago.
David Pilbeam comments wryly, 'If you brought in a smart scientist from another discipline and showed him the meagre evidence we've got he'd surely say, "forget it; there isn't enough to go on".' Neither David nor others involved in the search for mankind can take this advice, of course, but we remain fully aware of the dangers of drawing conclusions from the evidence that is so incomplete.... Fortunately, there is quite good evidence regarding the ape-like creatures that lived over fourteen million years ago [...]

The debate was about when chimps and humans branched from a common ancestor, not whether ape-like ancestors were present in both hominoids' lineage. As one writer points out: “A discussion follows [by Pilbeam] of the extensive fossil evidence of dryopithecinces and ramapithecines, biochemical estimates of the date of divergence of humans and chimps, a discussion of the rise of bi-pedalism, and David Pilbeam's estimates of the branching times for the various groups of hominoids. That's just chapter three ("Ape-Like Ancestors"). Chapter four ("The Early Hominids") picks up on the near side of the fossil gap referred to in the quote.” To paint Pilbeam as equivocating about evolutionary principles is disingenuous at best.

Menton chose Lucy as his foil for obvious reasons. The skeleton has been the subject of conjecture among paleontologists ever since its discovery 30 years ago. The controversies have surrounded nuances about the findings and their implications about the specifics of hominid evolution. Do scientists disagree on things-- sure. All of science is built on skepticism; hypotheses have to be run through the wringer again and again to see if they hold up. Lucy has presented us with a valuable addition to the admittedly scant hominoid fossil record, but Lucy certainly has not cast asunder the foundation of evolutionary science as Menton would have us believe.

The fossil record of plants and lower animals is replete with examples of gradual adaptation and even instances of frank speciation. Evolutionary principles have been corroborated repeatedly by evaluation of these specimens. The only other explanation for such phenomenon would be that a Supernatural Being laid all these fossils down in the various strata corresponding to different eras just to mess with us big-brained humans or perhaps to test our faith in the His Biblical account. Higher animals and especially apes and humans have the disadvantage of a less complete fossil record, and Lucy remains the creationists' target of choice because they try to make her emblematic for some form of fundamental rift in paleontology. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Menton quoted others throughout the talk, but most of these quotations are inaccessible because they were too old-- taken from publications more than 15 or 20 years old-- or esoteric enough to be hard to find. Menton doubts evolution-- fine, that's his prerogative-- but what flavor of ethical human being would knowingly twist someone else's words to fit his own agenda? This disgusting technique is expected from Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh, and frankly, pisses all over whatever scant credibility Menton could graciously have been granted.

While Menton sounds authoritative, a few things need to be remembered. Firstly, Menton is not a paleontologist, and as far as I know the cardiologist is not a paleontologist either. In fact, no such authority was present in that church to support or rebuke Menton's radical arguments. What little reading I have done on Lucy, which granted comes mostly from popular scientific publications such as Scientific American and National Geographic, contends that many scientists disagree on several conclusions about the fossil, but no credible paleontologist agrees that the fossil is only 6,000 years old and no credible scientist views the fossil as a repudiation of the knowledge we have about evolution.

Secondly, Menton has an agenda. He is here to support his viewpoint that the Bible is literal history and anything that contradicts that worldview is to be discredited at all costs. Since the science of radioisotope geological dating is little understood by lay citizens, Menton's thesis gains credence in such a church setting. The Bible is revered for whatever reason by such a group as the sole Word of God, and if something as difficult to understand as quantum physics disagrees with it, then certainly it's not worth trying to figure out. Here comes a scientist with quasi-respectable credentials who agrees with their irrational worldview. Hallalujah!

Which brings us to the third thing to remember. Dr. Menton sells his half dozen videos, hawks children's media about Adam and Eve living with dinosaurs and has opened a young earth creationist museum near the Ohio-Kentucky border. Over 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour evening was taken up with discussion of these business ventures and encouraging perusal and purchase. Menton encouraged the purchase of magazine subscriptions and visiting his website. After the formal lectures, the ante room, replete with stacks of DVD's, books and “educational” material, was opened up for the buyers. This evening program had a larger agenda for sure. Where's Matthew 21:12-17 when you need it?

The fact is that David Menton, although appearing in his late 50's or 60's, is not a tenured professor, and I'm sure he would say that he has been outcast from the scientific community because of their prejudice toward his radical views. Fine, that would be a reasonable excuse. Furthermore, Menton's background and entire professional career has been spent as a cell biologist, i.e., looking at cells and tissues under a microscope. Menton is not formally trained in paleontology, fossil records, or even gross anatomy of the pelvis, knee or hand morphology. Menton has as much recognized education in these issues as a gynecologist does in, say, economics-- and we know dangerous a little so-called knowledge can be.

If Menton's arguments are to be taken seriously, then the fossil record as recognized by thousands of apparently intelligent and trained scientists is a complete ruse. Thousands of paleontologists are either so piss-ignorant that they can't tell the difference between a metacarpal and mousetrap, or these same thousands of trained professionals are purposely misleading us all for some reason. And what could be the cynical motivation of these devious scientists? To make money and sell videos? Hmmm?

Menton is an articulate promoter for his cause, whatever it may be. His purpose may be to sell stuff to the unsophisticated masses who are searching not for truth but for some glimmer of hope for their increasingly untenable worldview-- or not. But this is America dammit, so more power to him. If he has found some way to legally detach hard-earned coin from the honest working class, then go for it. Only his conscience should stand in his way.

Menton could have slogged through an academic career, committing years of sweat to primary research, publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals, teaching snot-nosed hungover undergrads, and humping for tenure and the respect of his colleagues. But instead, Menton chose the short road to rock star status. He is a superstar in his circuit, a highly regarded “defender of the faith.” I have no doubt there is some genuine belief in Menton's presentation, but his argument has been terminally corrupted by his clinging to unfathomable assumptions. Even the Catholic Church, as backward as it may be, has accepted the several billion year age of the earth and the basic tenets of natural selection and speciation.

Menton, for all his faults, is correct on one big issue. If one is to believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, then one also needs to discount the physics of rock dating and carbon dating. If Genesis is to be taken word for word, then Menton is correct to blow off these scientific principles. One Christian friend of mine, a professed Biblical literalist, has taken the view that God has created the earth and all the creatures in a week, but, and I quote, “Why can't God make a day that lasts a billion years?” Well then, I answer, wouldn't he have called it “a billion years” then and not “a day” when he sat down to pen his inerrant Word? If we are going to say the Bible is literal, then let's keep it literal. If “a day” is a metaphor for “a billion years”, then why can't the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection be metaphors as well? Admirably, Menton allows none of these niggling conflicts to interfere with his faith.

Overall the night was educational. These guys like Dr. David Menton are not that common so it was an honor to see one in action in his natural habitat. I sat quietly and drank in the ambiance of the evening. The world is a mysterious and frightful place. We all are looking for some beneficial reprieve to the existential death sentence we must endure. To me, Menton seems desperate to cling to a very narrow explanation in order to relieve his angst, and he feels that he has found a firm toe-hold.

Most religionists, and by that I mean theists, have not gone to such extreme lengths to defend their fear-based irrational belief systems as Menton has. Most paper over the contradictions between their faith and the revealed scientific world. Mainline Protestants are the most frustrating to me; they seem to be okay with all manner of watered down interpretation of Biblical myths and the Jesus story. They are like a moving target, never able to be pinned down-- some believe in evolution, others do not-- some see the whole of Christendom as based on a Resurrection that they admit is a metaphor. I would think it would be hard to get dressed on Sunday to attend a worship service for that. Roman Catholics are a little less frustrating because they rely on an infallible Pope to be interpreter of God's intent, so while change can occur in response to science and observation, it comes necessarily slowly and must be filtered inexplicably through the understanding of a senior citizen who wears red slippers. That's craziness I can begin to understand. At least the Catholic faithful can cling to some respectable manner of irrationality as dictated by the alleged peerage of St. Peter.

Menton, however, stands above the others as a stalwart, relishing his unwavering ignorance of scientific argument as it pertains to geology, physics and paleontology. His worldview is to be changed never-- ever. And for that Menton deserves credit. If you are going to embrace irrationality, then go all the way. What the heck, why not?

And go ahead and sell a few DVD's along the way.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Commander Guy Gets His Very Own Quagmire

Keith Olbermann, in tonight's Special Comment, let the Democrats have it for caving to the president's petulance over the funding bill for the Iraq war. Bush vetoed the first bill with timelines, or “artificial timelines”, as GWB would call them. As KO said, King George “held his breath” like a spoiled child until he got a bill that he wanted, and Pelosi and Reid blinked.

Let's take another point of view on this. If I were President Bush, I'd be more nervous now than ever. For a while there it looked like the Dems were going to take the responsibility for losing this war off Bush's shoulders. Congress de-funds the war, we pull the soldiers out of Iraq and Bush writes in his memoirs ("mim-warz") that the surge would have worked if only he had this one last chance... result: legacy salvaged (sort of).

Now, Bush is is in a tight spot. 200 more soldiers killed in the last 60 days, Baghdad is burning, the Iraqi Parliament has taken leave of its senses, the surge is being re-written into yet another new “new” strategy and... what ho!... the Congress has tossed the hot potato back into President's lap again.

This war is not going to end well, we all know that. The President had chosen in January the worst of all possible strategies. The only two reasonable choices were to go heavy or go home. Instead of mobilizing this nation once and for all, enacting a draft and instituting martial law in Iraq, pleading with allies, the UN and NATO to pitch in, Bush chose to dither away his fifth and final opportunity to salvage something from this mess. If he weren't going to “go heavy”, then he should have just pulled the troops out once and for all, and the world would live with the dire consequences, like Cambodia circa 1975. If the Commander won't choose to win, then he should at least choose to get the hell out.

One could argue that the Congress has the moral duty to end the river of US soldiers' blood after 4 years of extreme mismanagement by the Commander Guy. One could call on the Congress to end it now once and for all, you know, be the adult.

But sometimes the responsible parent has to give the kid some slack and allow him to make some mistakes. Like when you were in high school and you got drunk with your buddies and crashed grandpa's car. You have to go to court, plead your case, and then you have to get a job to pay for the bodywork on the old man's Polaris. Let Georgey work his way out of this pickle, Mommy and Daddy aren't going to take the heat for you.

Yes, the losers are the US soldiers who are encumbered to do that extra tour in Iraq. The losers are the US taxpayers who will pay back this war debt with interest, with hard-earned labor and reduced entitlements for the next two or three generations. The losers are the Iraqi people who have almost a million dead already, another million dead once we pull out, and 2 or 3 million refugees gone to distant lands. The loser is the civilized world who will deal with a radicalized Muslim Asia for at least one more generation. But those losses are realized already and another summer won't a big difference make. For the soldiers who will certainly die in the next few months... well, Keith speaks for them.

Olbermann let the Democrats have it with both barrels, and I know he has a valid point. Generalissimo Codpiece is not going to all-of-a-sudden morph into a war commander ala Napoleon-- unless of course you're referring to Leipzig. But the reality is that the Iraq war would continue through the summer regardless of the wording on the current funding bill. The Congress has agreed to pay for it only through the summer, and when September rolls around and the situation is just as bleak, because we all know it will be, then the Congress can step in and call the game. Enough. It's over. Bring home the troops now, George. Collect all your little toys and soldier men and put them away and come inside now to get ready for bed.

The person I'd least like to be tonight is George W. Bush. Today is the day he became the sole owner of the Iraq war, and he paid for it with his soul, and his eternal legacy.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

What Would Ike Do?

George W. Bush and his buddies Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have caused a lot of destruction in just 6 short years and ironically one of the victims is the Republican party itself. Conservative Republicans are jumping ship in droves due the lack of principle found in the party.

The latest turncoats are none other than the progeny of Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater who are now vocal opponents of Bush's big deficits, international misadventures, lack of conservation measures and the sell-out to the religious wackos.

Eisenhower was elected in 1952 as a backlash against Truman's intervention in Korea, among other things, viewed as misguided liberal policy. Many of the descendants of those Republican conservatives are now realizing that Bush's ideology called “neoconservatism” is really just an inept and dangerous form of this old-time Wilsonian liberalism abroad coupled with fiscal irresponsibility at home.

The Paul Wolfwitz denouement is a case in point. His history has always been one of a pro-Israel Wilsonian who embraced the concept of nation-building and favored an increased military-industrial complex. Make no mistake, this man is not a conservative, at least not in the manner of Bill Buckley, Eisenhower or Barry Goldwater.

Wolfy completely miscalculated the chaos that ensued in post-invasion Iraq and then blundered his way through the ethical mismanagement of his girlfriend at the World Bank. The failure occurred in the execution phases of his tenure on several key issues, but ideologically Wolfy is liberal, even libertine if one considers his unmarried relationship, to the core.

The fact is that true conservatives have been run out of government and the choices now are between incompetent liberals, like Bush and Wolfowitz, who enlarge the government they profess a disdain for, and more capable liberals who respect the institutions enough to at least make them work.

The Democrats certainly have their problems, but these Republicans liberals are tearing this nation apart.

And the progeny of past Republican leaders can see it.

Iraqi Spa Watch, Episode 1: Fat Farm

The corpulent Iraq President Talibani is headed for the US to enter a weight loss program. The obese leader of Kurdish descent was hospitalized a few months ago for fatigue.

Meanwhile six more US soldiers were killed in Baghdad and the search continues for three US soldiers who were kidnapped last week.

As the civil war rages on, let's keep tabs on how many prominent Iraqis come stateside to partake of the wonderful comforts not available in their war-torn hovel. I maintain that a US military pull-out from would not be considered that heart-wrenching for many Iraqi plutocrats who will most certainly be put up with their families in resort settings in Florida and Arizona when and if we decide to leave Iraq.

For many, they may consider it as the sooner the better.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Retire in 9 Simple Steps

Someone, a co-worker, recently asked me if I could sit down with him to talk about personal finance. While I am flattered that anyone would ask my advice, I admonished him to heed that the recommendations of a physician about anything financial may be detrimental to one's economic well-being. While I may enjoy playing with the stock market and studying patterns and valuations, my interest in stock trading is merely that of a hobbyist using extraneous cash. My retirement plan, on the other hand, was developed years ago and set in motion with very little tweaking since.

Having gone through the caveat of my innate ineptitude of all things financial, I agreed to meet with this colleague. Now, as I think about the topic, I'm not sure what type of advice would be appropriate. I give my medical opinions every single day to nearly perfect strangers who seek me out on the referral of friends, family and other health care providers, so why does the prospect of a small conversation about IRA's and life insurance give me pause? If I can meet a person and within 30 minutes review intimate details of their life and health, examine every orifice of their anatomy and then schedule them for a major surgery, then why would I hesitate to give a friend and colleague a bit of wisdom about their retirement that isn't even scheduled for another 25 years?

I have a recurring nightmare that entails a close friend or family member, say a sister, who asks my advice about a cash lump sum to invest. I caution them to be careful, but give statistics about the long term results attained in stock investing. I forward a copy of John Bogle's Mutual Funds or Burton Malkiel's Random Walk Down Wall Street, which is ignored. My nutshell recommendation is to dollar-cost average into a diversified stock and bond fund over 12 to 18 months. This nightmare takes place in the fall of 1999 when the market had enjoyed several years of a high trajectory return. My advice is only partially followed, the advisee hears the wonderful news about the stock market, but none of the cautionary language about the high valuation, and drops the entire amount into a tech fund in December 1999.

We know what happens next.

Fast forward to this week. Again, the market has been enjoying a near unprecedented bull run with all major indices at record highs, and more up-days this past 6 weeks than anytime since the 1920's, an ominous comparison in and of itself. Price-earnings ratios might be more realistic compared to 1999, but most market historians and technicians are expecting some type of pull-back or correction one of these days. The fundamentals of the macroeconomic environment show a slowing US economy with an accelerating stock market. What gives? What advice do I give now? Is this 1999 all over again? Or worse, 1929? Where are these would-be investors when the valuations and technicals portend less irrational exuberance?

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoon and franchise, has written a book Way of the Weasel in which he covers many topics, but none as succinctly as personal finance. The wisdom is in the simplicity. Do these 9 things, and your personal finance concerns will be history:

  1. Make a will

  2. Pay off your credit cards

  3. Get term life insurance if you have a family to support

  4. Fund your 401k to the maximum

  5. Fund your IRA to the maximum

  6. Buy a house if you want to live in a house and can afford it

  7. Put six months worth of expenses in a money-market account

  8. Take whatever money is left over and invest 70% in a stock index fund and 30% in a bond fund through any discount broker and never touch it until retirement

  9. If any of this confuses you, or you have something special going on (retirement, college planning, tax issues), hire a fee-based financial planner, not one who charges a percentage of your portfolio

Simple if not easy. Ignore financial pundits, market mavens and get-rich quick schemes. Sometimes the best advice comes from the strangest sources, but that doesn't detract from it's value.

Getting rich is just as savory if attained slowly, and with a few Dilbert jokes to brighten the journey. This is where the conversation begins.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Daddy Cancels the Kids' Vacation

Today, newspapers report that V.P. Cheney went to Iraq on a surprise visit to warn the Prime Minister and the Parliament that “now it's game time.” Much like the authoritarian father figure that he is, Cheney went up to the bedroom of the petulant fighting sons to tell them to “knock it off.” Seemingly, this was done only after the desperate mother, played by Congress, has threatened to walk out on this dysfunctionally violent household and take the checkbook and credit card with her.

Will Johnny Shi'a and Bobby Sunni listen to their Dad? And if Cheney's last-ditch strategy works, then it would beg the question of why he didn't go over there to knock their heads together 3300 US soldiers' lives ago.

The kids in the Iraqi Parliament have incredulously announced that they are taking a 2 month vacation starting immediately, and this certainly was part of the impetus for Cheney's visit. They still do not have a oil-sharing arrangement in Iraq and the US military is in the midst of a sweep through Baghdad and the US Congress has already passed a resolution to put a time-table on the war. Only George Bush's veto of the restrictive funding bill stood in the way of the US troops coming home within 18 months. One wonders what the f*%k the Iraqi Parliament could have been thinking.

My only thought is that the members of the Iraqi Parliament must not feel the desperation that I would think they should have. Most likely, their lives would improve if Iraq imploded. I cannot help but think that they feel the US would provide asylum for them and their families, they could live in Sarasota instead of the Green Zone, write a book, do some speeches and bemoan the plight of “their people” at the hands of the terrorists. Losing Iraq would hardly be the end of the line for the Parliamentarians. Unlike Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Washington, the Iraqi leaders are confident that they are not going to be hanging from the highest tree if this war fails.