The little investor: Caught in the middle as usual

I am a small-as-you-can-get investor of 13 years in the stock market.  As small as I am, I would prefer to be smaller.  But to survive I’ve put more of my savings at risk in the market than ever before because the so-called “safe-investments” like CDs have dried up.  I’m not out to get rich.  My goal is to hold on to what I have and hopefully make a thin dime or two.  Capital preservation, it’s called.

Today I’m faced with another issue:  the government’s debt-ceiling crisis and how much investment to keep in the stock market.  All of it?  Fifty percent?  What?  I’m having trouble understanding what’s real.

An editorial in this morning’s New York Times said the nation is on “the brink of ruinous default.”  On the other side the stock market, the supposed smart money, yawns.  As I write, the Dow has dropped only about 1 percent this week as the countdown reaches six days.  I can only believe that the market forces are betting or are pretending to think an agreement will soon be reached in Congress, that there will be no default. 

As for me, I have hedged my bets slightly in favor of the stock market’s take on the debt-crisis.  

Believing the market can not continue its upward path in the light of high unemployment, I had already put 30 percent of my stock-market money on the sidelines.  On Monday I took another 10 percent out, selling two non-performing stocks of late, Berkshire Hathaway and Toll Brothers.   That leaves 60 percent, most with my Big Three — Gold, Exxon Mobil and General Electric but also the Swiss pharmaceutical, Novartis.  If the market suffers, I will not suffer greatly.  On the other hand, if the market goes up quickly, my profits will lag. 

A relatively safe place to hide, I know,  is in the smaller companies.  The S&P 500 has seen heavy trading of late, while the Dow and NASDAQ have been “below average.”  But I’m going to stick with what I have for the time being.  I did quite well during the 2008 crash, even made a nice sum on the market’s bounce-back.

It’s an awful feeling to be stuck in the middle, knowing not where the economy is going, knowing that corrupt forces and uncaring politicians are dickering with your life savings.


The joy of indexing

One of the most satisfying things I like to do is create indexes.  Crazy, I know. It involves reading old newspaper microfilm, taking notes and arranging them in alphabetical order.  I’ve done this off and on for more than 20 years at the city and capitol libraries.

It all began in 1988 when I took off for Seattle to spend a summer of writing and reading in a small room with kitchenette on Capitol Hill.  I soon began taking daily notes in one of those slender reporter’s notebooks.   The note-taking continued after I returned to Phoenix and the collection of notebooks grew.  I soon became exasperated when I couldn’t locate an item without a time-consuming effort.  That led to the creation of the Notebook Index which I keep in a computer file. 

That Index now is 71 pages in length.  And almost every note I’ve taken for two decades is at my fingertips. 

A few days ago, for example, I saw a film version of Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes A Great Notion,” and remembered I had attended one of Kesey’s talks many years ago at Phoenix College.  No problem.  I went through the Index and quickly found my notes of that day, September 15, 1995, in Notebook #41, page 41. 

It was also in 1988 that I started serious research on a long-forgotten historical event in old Arizona with hope of writing a book.   I started poring over microfilm of the Territory’s most informative newspaper of that era, the Arizona Miner, out of Prescott.  In the process, I compiled a huge index of the Miner, 1864-1880.   I kept those notes on 3×5 cards, bundled them by year with rubberbands and put them in shoeboxes.  I now have a grasp of early Arizona history like few others since these indexes were created chronologially and such things as relationships and precedents become in that case readily apparent.

At various times, I have also created Current Events notebooks from items I read in the newspapers or heard about on radio or TV.  Most of these notebooks are derived from local happenings I’ve found in the Arizona Republic.  Strangely there is no general index of the paper I know of.    And to get articles, you have to pay through the nose and still not know exactly what you’re getting.

My current indexing project is daunting. 

I am following a newspaper reporter at the Republic.  I not only attempt to jot down the date and location of every one of the reporter’s by-lined articles, I’m also indexing the names of every person mentioned in those articles, along with a brief description of that person and a citation referring back to an article on the by-line list.   That is not to mention, a selective general index of unrelated articles, editorials and photographs I’ve found interesting. 

The Names Index runs 38 digital pages, and the General Index is at 48.  And to think I’m not halfway into the project.

What is the purpose?  I’m not sure there is one.  Yes, I hope to write about some of the things in my indexes.  But more than anything, I just enjoy it.  To spend an hour or two behind a microfilm reader is relaxing, relaxing I think because it takes the focus away from me and whatever issues I may have going at the time. 

Whether there is ever going to be a small amount of money in it for me, that is immaterial.  I don’t care.  It keeps me off the street and away from grubbing for dollars.

Arizona’s voodoo baseball team

On paper, the Arizona Diamondbacks look like a below-average Major League Baseball team.

Three of their starting eight are role players and would be backups at best on most other teams. And of those starters only one, maybe two could make the 2001 World Series champion Diamondbacks. And this year’s two ace pitchers would be overshadowed by the aces of a decade ago, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

All this and yet there is growing hope out here in the arid lands that the low-budget Dbacks will make the playoffs for the first time in several years. What’s more they have the record to prove it. After edging the Los Angeles Dodgers two games to one at home this weekend with more voodoo baseball, they have won seven more games and they’ve lost and rest only 3 1/2 games in the NL West behind the San Francisco Giants with 67 games left in the regular season. All of this due to a magical 18-4 run in May and June. Back out that improbable string and the Dbacks are 33-40, not far off track from 2010’s last-place dud.

While it is blasphemy to say this within the tender ears of a Dbacks fan, it is true that the Dodgers with a losing record are an even match for the locals. And it could be argued successfully that the Dodgers outplayed the Dbacks this weekend yet lost the series. So it has been most of the season for Arizona, a team that continues to defy the law of averages.

Take this weekend. The Dbacks won the last two games with players in their normal lineup having horrible outings. For one, they made only eight hits in 50 at bats. That’s a success rate of .160 — about 90 points below their average on the season — and a figure that usually spells defeat.

Not only that. But the supposedly best players in their lineup, the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters, were 2 for 30, struck out 15 times and did not drive in a single run.

Perhaps the most amazing stat of all is that six of the seven runs were produced by the most recent call-up from the minor leagues, Brandon Allen, on Saturday with one swing of the bat, and, of all people, the pitcher Daniel Hudson today. This is a far cry from the usual recipe of winning baseball.

Allen provided all the runs in a 3-2 victory with his first home run of the season. And Hudson hit his first career homer and drove in two more runs with a single in a 4-1 game.

While these games provide much entertainment and keep local fans agog, the results are often beyond comprehension.

Scammed by a bell-ringer

I was stretched out on the divan yesterday watching a baseball game when the doorbell rang.  I trudged to the door to find a middle-aged black woman seeking a donation to something called United House Foundation.  She was well-spoken and nicely dressed yet a bit too formally for such hot weather.   I later learned her name or alias was “B. Bowes.” 

Ms. Bowes was the latest in a long line of bell-ringers who come to my door in central Phoenix.  There must be two or three a month, not counting neighbors or others I know.   Most are legit but some are not.   While I am more reclusive than not, I usually make a concerted effort to confront whoever or whatever stands on my little front porch.

Probably my favorite is the Mexican woman who has come irregularly to the door for several years selling homemade green chili or beef tamales from a metal container.   She rings the bell, then steps back onto the sidewalk about 10 feet, in courtesy I think.  She speaks little English, and it is a chance for me to use my limited Spanish.

The conversation is always the same.  “Buenas dias,” I say or if it’s dark, “buenas noches,”  and she replies in kind.   Then I say “Seis,”  meaning I’ll take six.  “Cuanto?” I ask for the price.  “Ocho,” or $8, comes the reply.   “Gracias,” she says on leaving.

I also don’t mind dealing with the political candidates who visit.  They come either with petitions or to introduce themselves and to leave information, aka propaganda.   I admire the candidates who do their own bell-ringing.  It is America politics at its finest.

Then there are those who want to do odd jobs for pay.  Some ask to paint the house number on the curb or to trim deadwood from trees.  One man in his 40s comes once or twice a year to ask for yard work.   He has a mental disability and one hand is shriveled up.   I usually pay him $5 to pull weeds, a job he does poorly.  But maybe I am giving him a sense of self-worth, that he is working for his money and is not a beggar.

The worst are the teen-age kids that come with their cardboard boxes of candy, or magazine subscriptions, telling me that buying this stuff will keep them “off the street,” away from a life of crime.  I never buy, thinking it is a scam run by some hustling adult around the corner.  They normally leave in a huff.  One even shouted back at me what a horrible person I was.

Then there are the several men and women who have arrived late at night practically demanding money.  I look out through the door’s peep-hole and listen.  They need cash for bus fare or for gas at the nearby Circle K.  I always say, no, to them as well.

Which gets me back to Ms. Bowes.

She tells me she is taking “donations” for the United House Foundation.   The organization, she tells me, attempts to take care of battered, sexually-assaulted women like herself, giving them a place to stay away from the ogres in their lives.   Like other donation seekers she has a clipboard filled with what she claims are official documents.   Some cash is exposed to imply others are giving to the cause.  She has caught me at a weak moment, and I give her five, one-dollar bills so I can hurry back to the TV set.   Bowes gives me a receipt, though I told her to forget it.

Later, irked with myself for being such an easy target, I go to the Internet to do a little research.  I look for the first time at the receipt Bowes has left with me.  It says “United House Foundation, P.O. Box 239, Phoenix, Arizona, 85001, Federal Tax 94-1585260.”   She signed a name as agent, “B. Bowes,” and listed her ID number 5019, along with what I assume is the number of the donation, 9306.   That she has written over the last number, replacing a “5” with a “6”  makes me want to believe her, that I can pat myself on the back for doing a good deed.  A true Boy Scout.

While I did not find “United House Foundation” on a brief Google search, I did learn that the  tax ID number belonged to “United States Mission,” a non-profit that gets much of its funding via door-to-door.  It’s stated mission:  “. . . to provide our residents with a long-term clean and sober home with quality meals and a self-help work program that provides each person with the opportunity of turning their lives around.” 

Well, I thought, United House Foundation may be legitimate after all.  Maybe it’s a wing of  United States Mission.  So I gave a call to the Mission’s local office and talked with the administrator, Patricia Martin.

Martin said she had never heard of “United House Foundation” and, anyway,  all her solicitors were males, all working right now in the suburb of Ahwatukee far to the south from my house.  “We haven’t had a woman working for us in over a year,” she said.   Obviously I had let myself become a victim of a scam.   I also received some advice. 

“Make sure they show you a 501-c-3 with the current year,” Martin said.  That is an IRS document for non-profits.   “If it says 2010, or any other year other than 2011, something’s probably wrong,” 

She also warned a former solicitor, a Dale Starling, had a stolen book of the Mission’s and should not receive donations representing her organization.   It’s complicated, these donations to worthy causes.

For me it was too late.   Impatient, I had done the wrong thing.

Still, I will continue to answer the doorbell and try to confront whatever faces me out there.  But more wisely the next time, I hope.  While I hate being a sap, I hate more the idea of hiding behind the door.  To me, that’s a coward’s way out.

 One thing for sure.  If in doubt next time, I’ll give $2 rather than five.

A bridge over the River Kwai? No, over San Francisco Bay

There is Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC talk-show host, standing in front of Hoover Dam, and wondering why America can’t do such big projects anymore.  What is she talking about?   America can’t even take care of its infrastructure without resorting to slave labor from China. 

Take the case of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.   The eastern span, damaged during the 1989 earthquake, is at last being rebuilt by bonds issued by the state of California, a reported $7.2 billion project. 

According to a recent article in the New York Times, American labor will assemble the bridge and pave the road surfaces, but “the construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them” come out of Shanghai.  Expect to see on a  girder somewhere along the bridge “Made in China.”

“They’ve produced a pretty impressive bridge for us,” a California official was quoted as saying. 

 But unlike the  film version of the bridge over the River Kwai, a bridge made by the slave labor of American POWs, the Bay Bridge is made by slaves in China. 

The Times, for example,  interviewed a 55-year-old steel polisher, Pan Zhongwang,  who works 16-hour days, sometimes 7 days a week.  He lives in a company dorm and earns about $12 a day.  That comes to 75 cents an hour, up from 56 cents not long ago.   Is there any wonder why there are so few jobs in America?  

California crows it will save hundreds of millions of dollars on the bridge by turning to China.   The state decided to forego federal dollars,” the Times reported,  because “Buy America” policies would have led to much higher expenses. 

And then there is the matter of American capabilities. 

“I don’t think the U.S. fabricators could put a project like this together,” the Bay bridge’s project director was quoted as saying.  “Most U.S. companies don’t have these types of warehouses, equipment or the cash flow.  The Chinese load the ships and it’s their ships that deliver to our piers.”

The Bay Bridge project appears just another example of an America in decline.

The hottest day of the year in Phoenix, a mere 117

I’m driving home from the gym this afternoon.  The car temperature gauge says 118 F.   The sign at Duke Photography on 7th Avenue likewise says 118.  It also gives the time, 3:10.  Five minutes later I arrive back home and check the outdoor sensor.  It says only 114.  No matter.  Anything over 110 is misery three times over.  I would later learn the official high reached 117. 

The windows were down as I drove.  I wanted to feel the heat.  The skin of my face burned as if it were being basted for supper.  The air was suffocating.   It was hard to breathe.  I wanted to lay down and sleep.  And in fact I passed a homeless person doing just that, sleeping in the small shade of a bus stop, lying on the sidewalk, his head bearing down on a backpack. 

The swimming pool at Encanto Park is not even busy.  A dozen bobbing heads in water, corks on a fishing line.  That’s all I saw.  Only one of the many picnic tables in use.  A man washed his car in sunlight outside an apartment complex as three of his buddies watch.  From the shade, of course. 

But even shade did not save Nebra’s usually-reliable 2002 Prius hybrid from apoplexy.   After a late lunch at IHOP on Central, I soon discovered the car was in vertigo and no longer understood the “R” gear.   It had no trouble finding “reverse” but balked when the its cousin, the accelerator, was pressed.  No trouble going forward.    Just backward.  

 I did manual reverse with my own horsepower and eventually got the car home.   I noticed the car had no zip, and its EKG was reporting bad news.  The instrument panel showed low battery and a digital orange “turtle.”   More research revealed the turtle was an indicator for “output control warning.”  Under “Do this” on  page 92 of the Owner’s Manual, it said “Drive without hard acceleration.”  One of the reasons said warning comes on is high battery temperature, and “battery capacity is decreased with the selector lever at `R.’ ”   The solution?  Wait for the outside temperature to drop, I guess.    

Shade is a prime commodity in the arid lands but only in summer.  This city was built for winter tourists.   The Chamber of Commerce calls the area Valley of the Sun.  Those tourists love to solarize and tan at expensive resorts.  They do not pay to sit in shade.  So there are few trees here, and few parks.   No one with a brain comes here voluntarily from June through mid-September.  You have to have a forty-five to your head.

It has not been this hot in Phoenix for years.   I remember the all-time high.  It was in late June 1990, and the official gauge at Sky Harbor airport struck 122.  People were actually out jogging that day, and many others poured out of frigid office buildings on their breaks because someone had cranked down the thermostats to arctic weather.

A photo in this morning’s Arizona Republic shows a steady line of cars on I-17, all steering north to high country and cooler air.  Many would be going that way if the temps were below 110.  It is after all the Fourth of July weekend.  But even Prescott, at a mile high, is no fun.  The city’s high today is predicted to hit 97, but patient visitors can wait for nightfall and 70 degrees.  Flagstaff, in the San Francisco Peaks, is 2,000 feet  higher but only 10 degrees cooler during the day.  I worked a summer baseball tournament up there several years ago as  an umpire.  It was hell.  You’re up so high it feels as if the sun is penetrating to bone.

The ideal weekend haunt for me is San Diego.  On Mission Beach or up the hill in LaJolla.  The forecast high for today is 80, then 81 on Sunday.  And the ocean water is cool.  The drive from Phoenix is short, about six hours, but of course almost everyone who can afford it, will hit the crowded beaches there sometime during the summer.  It is such a popular destination for Arizonans that we have been given our own special name by the Californians.  They call us Zonies.  Several years ago the Republic published a special section called The Beach Edition.

There is change in the air.  The sky is being painted gray with dark clouds as I write.  Some are high-rising thunderclouds.  They hang over the mountain ranges to the east and north and, with luck, they swoop down into this hellish valley to unload a drop or two of rain.

High temps are not the worst of the Arizona summer for me.  The worst is just ahead.  They call it the Monsoon Season.  Temps drop below 110, but the humidity rises to near unbearable heights.  And monsoon?  It must refer to the dew point, not torrential rain. 

The best time to visit Phoenix is in October and February through March.  Right now, that seems a long, long way off.

A rape is a rape, is a rape

(Update:  Two and a half months after this post was written, a New York Supreme Court judge on August 23, dismissed charges against Strauss-Kahn at the request of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.  On September 3, Strauss-Kahn left his rented New York apartment and flew back to his home in France.  Unresolved is a civil suit brought by the hotel maid and “victim,” Nafissatou Dialo.)

You had to know from the very beginning that the big-cheese Frenchman, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was never going to be found guilty of rape, was never going to serve an iota of prison time.  He, like the demons at the bottom of the American financial crisis, was too big to fail.  His alleged victim, a New York City hotel maid, was too small to succeed.

Strauss-Kahn, you may know, is one of the most powerful men on earth.  He ran the International Monetary Fund and was considered a strong candidate to become the next president of France.  She is a 30-something black woman, an immigrant. 

That prosecutors in New York gave up so quickly to “investigations” into the woman’s past sets off a familiar odor.  It has the stench of big money and influence doing the talking.  Not the facts.  They are counting on the public to do what it always does.  Lose track of the bouncing ball.

The woman is a liar, they say.  She has lied about everything.  She is a drug dealer.  Someone deposited $100,000 into her bank account.  The list of the woman’s transgressions goes on and on.  But who cares?  It should not matter. This is not a case of he said, she said.  There is physical evidence.  

These are the physical facts, according to the woman’s angry lawyers:  A torn vagina, torn tendon in the shoulder, Strauss-Kahn’s sperm and DNA  all over her.    All of this physical evidence apparently available to anyone in the media. 

If a brutal rape was committed on that day, May 14, I do not care that she is a liar.  She could have murdered five people afterward and that does not make the rape any less of a crime.  A rape, is a rape . . . . 

It is sickening sometimes what happens in this world in the name of justice.