Thursday, July 02, 2009

Le Tour

In France, those two words stand for one of the most important events on the French calendar: The Tour of France.

The 2009 Tour begins Saturday, July 4. Rather fitting, as America's hopes in this event have been given a kick in the butt by the return of Lance Armstrong.

It's a bit over the top to say, as Mike Paterniti claims in Bicycling Magazine this month, that a victory by Lance Armstrong this year would help lift America out of its doldrums.

But Paterniti does make a pretty compelling case for Armstrong-as-hero (right down to his name). America is a bit down, and listless, and looking for some good news. She's feeling old, and has lost some innocence. The Bush years took care of the delusion that America is somehow always in the right, that America is some sort of Superman, doing right without doing much harm.

Not only didn't we do right, we did harm.

Lance Armstrong retired in 2005 after seven Tour De France wins, the premier event of the elite cycling circuit, and while cycling as a sport in America is a very small niche (everyone rides, so everyone wonders how hard it can be), Lance's pile of victories has him among the best known men in America.

And Armstrong's very public life apart from racing (the Kate Hudsons, the Sheryl Crows, the Ashley Olsens) and his character (rumours of doping, his nasty divorce from his first wife, his rude engagement and dissolution to Sheryl Crow, his impregnating a woman who is not his wife yet) have taken some of the glow off his luster.

And then there's cancer and the Livestrong movement.

In short, Armstrong at 37 is at a crossroads in his life, just as America is sat trying to figure out which way to turn next.

Like America on 9/11, Armstrong has risen from his own devastation to greatness, to be even greater than he was before his tragedy. America looks to do that, as well. We've just been scared, brutalized into terror first by the attacks, and then by eight years of being told the other shoe was about to drop.

All this is just a backdrop now to the very real threats to our personal security, our jobs, our homes and our retirements.

America needs heroes. It's no surprise to me that, in the years since 9/11, we've turned to television programs like Smallville or Friday Night Lights or indeed Heroes, looking for our heroes, someone to swoop in and save us.

Can Armstrong be that hero? I doubt it, because America doesn't have the day-to-day attention span such that even if he were to somehow break out of the pack and chase down Alberto Contador or Carlos Sastre or Denis Menchov or any of the half-dozen other serious contenders, America would really find the story gripping and compelling.

All most Americans would do is shrug as Lance stood on the podium in Paris in three weeks.

But that doesn't mean he shouldn't try. He's accomplished some pretty incredible feats in his day:

Lance has mentioned that he's riding this race to highlight the battle against cancer, that he's content with being a domestique for one of his teammates, Alberto Contador, or Levi Leipheimer, possibly Andreas Kloden, a support rider who helps build his captain to a victory. And it's easy to see why.

At age 37, riding in a race no man over 35 has ever won and only one or two have even won a single day's racing, Lance doesn't need the weight of a team's hopes, much less a nation's hopes, on his shoulders.

And yet, by sheer dint of will, it's possible he may pick that weight up and carry it with him down the Champs d'Elyseé.

In 1980, an improbable bunch of college kids and minor league hockey players gelled together to defeat the greatest hockey team on the planet, and went on to win the gold medal in Lake Placid.

So, do you believe in miracles?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Senator Al

I have mixed feelings about Al Franken as a Senator.

On the one hand, he's an intelligent compassionate man, Harvard educated and yet from a working class background. My exposure to him has been limited to his stint on Saturday Night Live and his daily radio show on Air America, in which he spoke to progressives who were tired of being made to feel like second class citizens. His thoughts on his show were better than most hosts of talk radio, even lefties, and you could tell he'd made an effort to understand the other side.

On the other hand, he's a Jew!!!!!!!!

Just kidding.

On the other hand, because he's a thoughtful and intelligent man who's reached out to the other side, you have to wonder about his loyalties. After all, a liberal from Minnesota is more like a New York City Republican than a true progressive, altho Franken may be the exception that challenges that rule-o-thumb. A liberal from Minnesota who can count Norm Orenstein of the American Enterprize Institute (who's considered a liberal there, but you know...) and Joe Scarborough, that's a tough call.

On the other OTHER hand, to quote Tevye, Al was a protege and admirer of Senator Paul Wellstone and no one could ever accuse Wellstone of being anything less than a progressive.

The other misgiving I have about Al is, well, he comes off as kind of smarmy and unctious. When I listen to him, I feel like I need a shower sometimes and not because he can curse a blue streak. There's just something in his manner that rubs me the wrong way. I wonder if it's just me (probably) or if this is a general impression and so how is he going to work with other Senators?

Not that other Senators are necessarily down-to-earth people who can't rub a cat the wrong way, mind you, but there is a hierarchy and it will be interesting to see if, like Hillary Clinton, Franken can work with the system or if he'll end up like another famous Minnesotan flop, Jesse Ventura, and rail about "process."

We shall see. Certainly, the fact that this election was as close as it was in a year when Barack Obama established new records for a first term Democratic President speaks volumes about the two men running (who actually had a chance of winning, I mean).

A dead heat tells me this election was between Odious and Odiouser in the eyes of Minnesotans. Neither candidate amassed a simple majority of the vote and many people registered their disgust by simply voting for the third candidate in the race.

But, another famously odious politician won his first Federal election in a similar manner and went on to become the "Greatest. President. Ever, to quote Al Franken: Bill Clinton.

So Senator? Congratulations. Don't fuck it up.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fun For Oil

You might recall that, during the Bush administration, much was made about the invasion of Iraq (and to an extent, Afghanistan) and the connection to the oil reserves, how secret plans had been drawn up by Cheney's energy task force before the war to divvy up the fields, and how the oil fields would pay for the war.

What we hadn't considered was that a free and independent Iraq, sans Saddam Hussein, might feel a little differently about it's main natural resource:
Only one of the bidders for the eight contracts to run oil and gas fields in Iraq has accepted oil ministry terms.

Six oil fields and two gas fields were available in a televised auction that was the first big oil tender in Iraq since the invasion of 2003.

Iraq has asked the rest of the companies to consider resubmitting bids for the other seven contracts.

How this worked was, Iraq set a minimum output for each of the fields (current production levels, which are minimal, were generally used). Output up to that level was free. After all, the government could do that now without help.

Beyond that level, companies were free to submit bids per barrel based on the amount of oil they predicted they could extract and sell to Iraq. Iraq would then sell to the lowest bidder.


The catch was, Iraq also had a secret ceiling figure in mind of what it would pay for each field, effectively putting a cap on how much oil each contract could produce.

If the bid exceeded that figure, either due to too high a per barrel price or too many barrels predicted, Iraq would then offer it to other bidders.

As you can imagine, this knocked out of the pack any of the more rapacious...pardon me...*koffkoffkapitalistkoffkoff*...sorry, the more rapacious oil companies.

In lieu of this, what you now have is a few oil companies who would treat the Iraq fields as a hedge. Since the per barrel fee is fixed and not subject to the vagaries of the market, oil companies have both a guaranteed income stream from it, and can ramp up or reduce production as they see fit, to ameliorate their corporate income flows.

Making them a little less subject to the crazy pricing that we saw in 2007-2008, when oil was all over the map. The Iraq government is the one picking up all the risk on the commodity exchanges.

But note that the oil people of the Bush administration can still make out on the deal. After all, Iraq owes America a big debt of gratitude and so would not be in a position to march lockstep with OPEC on price increases and could even sell to us at a discount.

The greedy oil barons will still be greedy, but their greed will now be at the mercy of the Iraqi parliament.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Justice Served

The day of reckoning for Bernie Madoff is here.
The prosecutors have asked for 150 years, but the victims as well as the rest of society will not be satisfied unless they hear the word life come out of the judge's mouth.
In my opinion, it should. Madoff, through his unrelenting greed, took people's lives. Perhaps not as directly as taking a knife and stabbing them, but already two suicides have been reported linked to the Madoff scheme, and any number of charitable organizations have folded their tents and closed their doors, depriving innocent people of the help those charities would have provided, in a "thousand points of light" fashion.
The 150 year sentence pre-supposes that the judge agrees to consecutive sentences on the maximum term for anyone of the eleven counts, 15-20 years. The defense will ask for concurrent sentencing, meaning as he serves one term, he serves all terms, and Madoff could be out in less than a decade.
Given Judge Denny Chin's record, I do not think it is likely that Madoff will get off easily. I do not expect he will sentence Madoff to 150 years, either, and in this case, he has the option to go off the reservation and come up with a different sentence, although that could be an appealable error, dragging this case out, and keeping Madoff relatively free for years.
Madoff is only 71 and looks to be in reasonably good health. The people he robbed are not so lucky. Life would be a fair and just sentence, in my opinion.

UPDATE: Surprisingly, altho only mildly, Judge Chin agreed with the prosecution recommendation and sentenced Madoff to 150 years in prison, to be served somewhere in the Northeast.

The actual prison will be determined by the Federal Prisons Board, but under Chin's recommendation. That he specified the northeast tells me he wants Madoff to suffer in the winters and summers. No Miami Beach for him.

The transcript of the liveblog of the sentencing was interesting to read:

"Mr. Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil."

"The breach of trust was massive."

"I simply do not get the sense that Mr. Madoff has done all that he could or told all that he knows."

"By any of these monetary measures, the fraud here is unprecedented."
In the end, while Madoff made a plea for leniency on his own behalf, Chin was unswayed, and mentioned the lack of supportive testimony and/or affadavits attesting to Madoff's character.

In other words, a shitty man dealt a shitty hand and got shit-canned.