Mangan’s memoirs

New blog attempt

Times have gotten bad enough in the newspaper biz to force me to re-evaluate what I do with my non-newspaper time. I’ve had great fun combining hiking and blogging over the past three years … I even added some Google ads to my pages in hopes of picking up a few bucks. Well, the bucks are very, very few. It’s possible to make money blogging, but you’ll starve on daily hit counts in the hundreds. You don’t need millions, but you do need thousands, so you need a topic where thousands of eyeballs might reside.

Finding this audience vexed me to no end till last week, when just for the heck of it I decided to see if there’s a blog devoted to Caterpillar Inc., the tractor maker based in my hometown. Cat is a Dow 30 component with $46 billion in revenue and 100,000 employees worldwide. It’s the Microsoft of heavy equipment, so you’d think there’d be a blog or two covering the company. I looked: Nada.

Back when I lived in Peoria, the question “how’s Cat’s stock doing?” was pretty much on everybody’s mind. So this is my theory: Cat has 100k employees, all with an abiding interest in how the company’s doing. If I can get just a fifth of those people, I’ve got the 20k audience that’ll turn my $2 a day into $200 — a living wage even in the Bay Area.

I’ve started something at catstockblog.com. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to the folks back home.

47 and counting

I had another of those birthdays yesterday. My operative approach to getting old is simple and familiar: Every day above ground is a good one, or at least presumably better than the alternative.

The other day it occurred to me what an extraordinary time we’re living in. That was before Barack Obama very predictably was elected president (go back as far as you can count and you’ll find pretty much every time: the better candidate with the better campaign wins. My eyes misted up a bit at John McCain’s concession speech on election night — I figured after all he’s done for the country, he deserves better. But the whole point of an election is somebody wins and somebody loses. Good man, terrible campaign. Bob Dole had the same experience; here’s hoping the Senator from Arizona doesn’t start flogging Cialis Moments anytime soon.)

Heck, I’m getting fed up with Obamamania already and the guy isn’t even sworn in yet. It could be a long four or eight years for the news biz if Obama runs a tight-ship White House that’s anything like his gaffe-deficient campaign. We have whole departments devoted to presidential screw-ups; what if the prez doesn’t supply any? I don’t want to live in such a world (and I doubt I’ll have to).

But back to the extraordinary times. Forget about America finally getting around to electing a black (well, a half-white Harvard-educated millionaire) president. Had to happen sooner or later; Hollywood’s been preparing us for it for at least 15 years. The real deal, historywise, is the Stock Market Crash of ’08. Guess what: we lived through it. I’m pretty sure no bankers jumped from high windows … I’d have given my eyeteeth to write this headline: Ledge-Leaper Survives by Landing on Taxpayer (mind you, I stole this gag from a cartoonist; and I don’t have any eyeteeth).

The thing about the Crash is: hard times prove what people are made of far more efficiently than times of plenty. In good times you go to work every day, do the same seven or eight things the same way you did them 14,736 times before, go home and watch the same number of hours of television and buy the same number of consumer goods. Years get wasted on repetition.

In hard times, you think about hanging around the office a bit more to keep yourself in good standing with the ol’ paymasters. If your business is getting beat up, you think less about the seven or eight old things that used to work and start thinking about the seven or eight new things that need to work. Tried-and-true is toast during tough times.

A lot of people I know lost their jobs before the crash. We’re hanging on for dear life at the paper, and every headline saying the auto industry is in a shambles or that retail sales are off by 20 percent is telling us: the money from whence our paychecks flow is getting scarce. We’re in the midst of a union contract negotiation that seems, well, counterintuitive: the whole point of a union is to pry more cash out of the greedy capitalist’s pocket. Suppose our company’s greedy capitalist owner is in hock up to his receding hairline and all the money in his pockets belongs to some bank back east, with interest? We never gave 13 seconds thought to how many Jaguars or corporate jets our owner might have to do without to keep us off the picket lines. But right now, his problems feel like our problems.

I can’t imagine things getting as bad as the Great Depression. I can imagine people getting a little more thoughtful about pinning their prosperity on borrowed money. I can see some good coming from Wall Street and the hedge fund crowd getting their come-uppance. The good times of the past 15 years had us doing everything under the sun with somebody else’s money. Now the whole country’s in hock up to its receding hairline when it needs to have something set aside to ride out the tough times.

Over the years the whole world developed an abiding interest in Americans going into debt to buy stuff they could do without in a pinch. Well, the pinch has arrived, and the world’s reacting like anybody would after a door slamming shut wakes them from a nice afternoon nap: panic first, watchfulness next, then the realization that the world has not come to an end.

It’s true that the Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression, World War II, hydrogen bombs, the Cold War and Vietnam, all of which we’d leave off the Tourist Brochure of the 20th Century. But after all those calamities, people got a little smarter, a little more humane (nobody firebombs whole cities, leaving 100,000 dead anymore). Somehow, against all odds, the world emerges a teensy-tiny better place after these horrible episodes.

That’s the track record I’m banking on.

Where’s my 7 percent a year? A stock market lament

Right after I moved to California, I bought a sliver of the Vanguard Growth Index Fund for $33.66 a share and invested it for “the long haul” in a 401(k) rollover account. If stocks had returned their alleged 7 percent a year, shares of the fund should be trading for about $60 a share (compounded). Today, nine years and a couple weeks later, VIGRX closed at $23.20, well under half of what it “should” have earned and, most painfully for yours truly, 31 percent below what I paid for it.

I reshuffled after the tech stock crash and had a little bit of luck: after the worst week in Wall Street history, my fund balance in that 401(k) rollover is only down 19 percent — after nine years. In 2004 I launched a cautious, sensible plan to dollar-cost average that account back to health. The credit bubble that energized the most recent bull move got me back to even last fall; even after moving a third of my stake to cash last fall, I lost all the gains of four patient, sensible, diversified years in six weeks. I tried buying back into my stock funds when there was blood on the streets; in seven days the market dived another 20 percent (making half of it back on Monday, fortunately).

Of course it’s unfair to gripe about stocks’ returns after a panic sell-off of epic proportions. Everybody’s portfolio stinks at times like these; it’ll sweeten when the fear turns to greed, as it inevitably does.

What gripes me is that I never did anything greedy; I never bought individual stocks on margin, I never dived into options or futures or currencies, I stayed with sensible mutual funds from a sensible fund family. Buying and holding a single fund, as illustrated above, would have cost me a third of my stake; reshuffling cut my losses to a fifth.

I guess I should be grateful: I’ve lived through two market crashes in eight years and I’m still sitting on 80 cents on the dollar. Many have been wiped out.

Melissa and I call experiences like this “tuition”: the cost of learning how the world works. Over the years I’ve gotten richer in experience, but I’d like to be getting richer in the ol’ rollover account.

One thing I have figured out for absolute certain: The only way to make your account balance rise is to put more into it than you take out. Everything else is casino winnings.

Why it’s pointless to be a global warming skeptic

My take on global warming is intuitive rather than scientific, based on information readily available from my brain. It goes like this:

A) There is a fixed amount of carbon on the planet.

B) Burning stored, high-carbon materials releases carbon into the atmosphere.

C) Petroleum is basically the world’s carbon bank — compressed biomatter from jungles that existed on earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

D) In the past 100 years, a very large percentage of all the petroleum that our planet has ever produced has been burned, and ALL that carbon has been released into the atmosphere.

E) Release of that much carbon into the atmosphere has to be unprecedented in at least the last several million years.

F) It’s simply counterintuitive to believe that 100 years of heavy industrial production based on the burning of petroleum would not affect the behavior of the earth’s atmosphere.

G) The way things are going, we will easily burn up every last drop of oil on the planet in the next century or two. In the next century or three after that, historians will call us the most selfish, short-sighted humans in the planet’s history because we were borrowing all that oil from future generations — with no prospect, no plan, no earthly idea of paying it back.

H) We can adapt to life with different weather, but adapting to a world without petroleum will be the far greater challenge.

I) Given all these considerations, the mandate to save petroleum by not burning it all wastefully yields the same result: less carbon in the atmosphere and reduced global warming, and more petro-chemicals for future generations, giving us more time to develop more sustainable energy sources.

Conclusions:

  • Billions of humans burning highly concentrated, carbon-based materials are bound to screw with the weather when all that carbon is released into the atmosphere.
  • Petroleum is the most powerful, practical component of industrial society. It is, literally, the grease on the wheels. Without it, industry stops. We don’t want that.
  • As a matter of moral principle, each of us should reduce our petroleum consumption to ensure there will be some oil left for our great-great-great-grandchildren and their great-great-great grandchildren.

Al Gore overstates the extent to which the Earth is in the Balance. If anything, Earth is looking forward to the day when we foolishly burn all the oil and resort to massive warfare and bioterror and whatever else it takes to cleanse our species from the planet’s surface. Earth gets back into balance when we’re not mucking up the place anymore.

We’re flying through resources under the mass delusion that we have a say in how things turn out, when the best we can hope for is learning to play by the planet’s rules. Cheaters get to sleep with the dinosaurs.

Planetary musings

Morning on the Carrizo Plain

Life is what happened when the planet was busy making other plans. I’m not sure anybody knows exactly how or why non-living bits of matter became self-replicating bits of living organisms that eventually evolved into us. Whatever it was, we’re grateful.

One thing I’ve figured out since I started spending more time outdoors: we’re just one more species on a planet teeming with them. Earth has no regard for our minor hopes and petty ambitions. It’ll live on long after we’re gone.

A lot of humans fret over the damage we’re inflicting on the planet. I have a hard time getting totally worked up over our trivial contributions — it’s not like we can move continents, create mountain ranges, sprout volcanoes. The planet’s always tearing one part down and building another part up. Most of California was ocean bed a few million years ago. There were no activist organizations to protect aquatic species royally screwed by the collision of tectonic plates that created our lovely coastline and left dry land where the ocean used to be.

There’s only one problem with the “stop worrying, the planet’ll be fine” approach: Greedy short-sighted buck chasers use it as an excuse to do nothing about disappearing forests, rivers, lakes and living things that, frankly, the Earth can adapt to losing. Some kind of life will pretty much always live this planet.

The species that really needs clean water, abundant forests and thriving wild ecosystems is us. Wild places store our best hope for survival. Ruining them ruins us.

Blasting the tops off mountains to protect mining jobs or chopping down ancient redwoods to provide a few logging jobs might be good for one generation, but it’s stealing resources our grandkids and great-great grandkids and they’re great-great grandkids are going to need.

There’s no such thing as saving the environment. There’s only saving ourselves.

Confessions of a debt hater

There might be a $200 balance on my MasterCard. It gets paid automatically every month. My car is 18 months old and paid off.

I don’t have a mortgage because the payment on condos as nice as my apartment is almost double what I pay in rent — and it’s somebody else’s job to mend the roof, replace the carpet and repair the fridge. Strikes me as pretty good deal.

I used to think my dad was a skin-flint because when we were kids, getting money out of him for toys, ice cream and candy was like pulling teeth. One time when I was in my 30s I told him I thought he was penny pincher.

He got a little hurt at the accusation, but said, “Well, I don’t spend money I don’t have. If that makes me a penny-pincher, so be it.”

Later I realized he wasn’t being tight with a buck so much as he was trying to teach us rugrats an important life lesson: if you ask for money you haven’t worked for, one of the most likely replies is “no.” This was good preparation for growing up in a world where asking for money can bring a “yes,” but you have to pay it all back and reward the giver with a bunch more because he has it and you don’t.

I also read something else later in life that stuck with me: Rich people earn compound interest; poor people pay it. I’d rather be an earner than a payer.

It’s strange being out of debt in a society so thoroughly greased by it. I read the other day that because the United States imports more than it exports, it’s in a perpetual state of debt. All those foreigner-bashing Republicans probably would just as soon not admit that China and Saudi Arabia are paid-up partners in the American Experiment. (Interestingly, this actually makes them much friendlier to us, because their fortunes are riding on our continuing to keep borrowing to pay for stuff we don’t need and can’t really afford. See, it’s always good to have partners).

I think the main reason I avoid debt is that it’s just one more complication. I pay what I owe every month and the issue’s settled. I don’t have to worry about my neighborhood going to hell, I don’t have to worry if my roof needs to be replaced, I don’t have to worry about getting fired, getting foreclosed on and having terrible credit the rest of my life.

It’s also nice to have a good rating for all that credit I’ll probably never use.

Scenes from downtown San Jose

I had occasion to be downtown on Sunday morning and decided to squeeze off a few frames. Among the highlights:

Marriott hotel in a water puddle

Thats the skinny tower of the Marriott Hotel reflected in a water puddle on Market Street.

Ferris wheel, Sunday morning

Down the street a ways, a Ferris wheel stands as part of the local Christmas in the Park festivities. Nothing happening this early in the morning, of course. The city’s central park is full of cheesy Christmas displays and gazillion Christmas trees decorated by local school kids. The best parts are the animatronics, which look variously vapid and diabolical. To wit:

Figurine

Somebody’s cake’s making a run for it.

Elf

Keep your children away from this guy.

Another figurine

The most evil of the bunch, if I do say so.

Carolers

If I didn’t know she was supposed to be singing, well, I don’t know what I’d think. (Well, I do but this is a family Web site.)

City Hall

Later I wandered over to San Jose’s City Hall, which always has promising photographic possibilities.

Great thing about downtown San Jose: you can take in all the highlights in about an hour’s walking.