Power of the clave

I went to JazzSi, the music club of Taller de la Musica in Barcelona, last night for Descarga Cubana (Cuban Download/Discharge).  I was pretty excited to have found this little club (that’s known to thousands of people) with live music every night – Flamenco, Blues, Rock, Salsa, Jazz – just a short walk from home. Free or low admission. St. Moritz beer for €2.50.  Friendly staff and bartenders and great music.

I arrived just on time – 20.30h (early for Barcelona) and found just a handful of people there, not surprising since almost everyone comes late. When I went to JazzSi for Jazz last week, it was empty when the music started. I was a little self conscious then as one of 5 audience members. But within a few minutes the small space was packed.  And the music was wonderful.

So last night I hurried down to Calle Requesens to be on time for the Descarga.  I grabbed one of the few chairs surrounding the small dance floor, with a perfect view of the stage. The guys started playing, a variety of Cuban styles. Outstanding! So cool with some Cuban friends of the band and a few Latinos and Spaniards grooving to the high quality sounds. There was one guy, a traveler of sorts with his small back pack still in place, who installed himself right next to me and was lost in his nonstop, somewhat eccentric moves. But he was OK.

“Man, I am going to enjoy this evening”, I thought – seconds before a group of about 30 young US students started filing in with their tour guide leader, complete with back packs and shoulder bags. Now, the space of JazzSi is limited. When you put a bunch of people standing like sticks on the dance floor right in front of you it changes the view and the experience. Whoa, from authentic to tourist venue in three minutes. I’m barely in charge of any of my emotions and the irritation, disappointment, and resentment that surged into my consciousness weren’t negotiating with my more rational self. “Why don’t they go look at something Gaudi or find some nice Flamenco on the Ramblas? Eat some tapas.” I silently fumed.

But then I noticed that the band and their Cuban friends didn’t seem to mind at all. Some of the kids were trying to move, at least while they weren’t documenting their cross-cultural experience by adding to their iPhone foto albums. One of the Cuban guys, a huge, charismatic man who had been joking with me earlier about a couple of the songs, started pulling the girls onto the dance floor (as Cubans do – not to over generalize), insisting they knew how to dance and just needed to do it. The band was eating it up, heating up. Someone’s girlfriend (who had no trouble at all moving) got everyone into lines for cha-cha. A few dancers were claiming small ovals for some salsa moves.

By this time I had abandoned my persona of listener, given up my choice seat, grabbed a second St. Mortiz, and joined the packed dance floor. Clave vs. irritation: my negativity had no chance. All was well again.

How to have a good time: listen to the music, appreciate the moment.

Tonight is Flamenco. I’m looking forward to it.

Posted in Activities, Barcelona, Cuba, Music | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Would Republicans cut the minimum wage?

In his state of the union speech President Obama called for increasing the federal minimum wage. The Republicans say that’s a bad idea because it would kill jobs. They say this without offering any evidence or data to backup the claim. In fact, most data indicate that increasing the minimum wage has no impact or a very slight negative impact on job creation. There may even be positive effects like improved worker retention, increased demand, and economic stimulus.

But let’s give the Republicans a chance to complete their argument. I’d like to ask them several questions.

  • Can you point to any studies or data you have used that support your position that the minimum wage should not be raised?
  • How have you determined what the minimum wage should be?
  • Is the current minimum wage, $7.25 per hour since 2009, at just the right point?
  • If it is just right, please explain how that happened. Since 2009 we’ve had persistent unemployment, a banking crisis, increased inequality of income and wealth, off shoring of millions of jobs, and large structural changes in the economy.
  • If increasing the minimum wage kills jobs, would decreasing it lead to the creation of more jobs?
  • If $7.25 is not the perfect minimum wage should it be lowered, presumably to encourage job creation?
  • Does a minimum minimum wage exist or should it be allowed to fall to as low as it will go?
  • Is it OK for profitable companies to pay workers so little that people working full time must live in poverty. Is that OK even if the company’s executives and shareholders are raking in the bucks?

If any of the Republican leaders or any Republican at all reads my blog, please respond.

Posted in Finance, News and politics, Politics, Working | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Obama’s ‘Moneyball’ campaign

In today’s Washington Post opinion page Marc A. Thiessen says that Obama and his campaign team used technology much more effectively than Mitt Romney and his staff did.


But in the article he writes: “And letting a community organizer run a more precise, data-driven, metrics-based campaign than a Bain Capital executive is incomprehensible”

Mr. Thiessen, why do you assume the executive should do better?

Because Bain capital executives make more money than community organizers? I think we should realize by now that high income does not guarantee competence, or even intelligence.

Because CEO’s understand metrics better than other people? Obviously not, in this case.

Because technology is better understood, appreciated, and used by business people than by more humanistically oriented people? Well, the executive and his team did not even test their metrics system before putting it ‘into production’ – that is using it in the election. Every (almost) first year programming student knows the importance of testing. But the executive’s system crashed and was riddled with errors, while the community organizer’s ran brilliantly!

I’ll try and answer my own ‘why’. I think you are guilty of not thinking, of letting your bias toward capitalism impede you ability to be objective, and of being a victim of the ‘private is good and efficient; public is bad and inefficient’ myth that has infiltrated the assumptions of too many people.

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Bureaucracies of the world; episode two

Last week I went to the Social Security Administration office to request a reduction in my Medicare premium. I forgot to bring anything to read, so I entertained myself by making these notes:

Tuesday June 19th, 2012

10:39 – I take #45, the next number to be called, from the dispenser machine . There are two windows staffed by social security employees.  Both windows are occupied, with clients providing detailed descriptions of their requests and experiences.

10:49 – I am called to Window 1

11:52 – After explaining my request to the agent at Window 1 I sit down again and wait to be called for the next step in the process. I am awaiting entrance to a large room with a locked door, staffed by two security officers who are inside sitting on chairs and chatting. No one has entered or left the locked room since my arrival.

11:52 – The folks at Window 2 complete their explanation; Window 2 is now free.

11:54 – A man drops off a document at Window 1.

11:55 – The man who preceded me at Window 1, #44,  is called into the locked room by a large woman in a yellow dress.

11:55 – #46, a woman I happen to know, is called to W1.

11:58 – #46 is done at W1; I say hello as she is leaving and we chat about the complexities of Medicare and the health insurance system

12:00 – #47 is called to W1. I realize I am experiencing a social/economic/political/cultural phenomenon.

12:02 – The security guys continue chatting

12:03 – I notice W2 is now dark. I realize the person I heard leaving for lunch a few minutes ago must have been staffing W2. I worry that everyone will go to lunch and my wait will be longer.

12:07 –  A man with a cane leaves the locked room. I get the feeling there is little incentive to work quickly of efficiently, although all workers seem pleasant and polite.

12:07 – I notice through the window into the locked room that #44 is still seated at the desk of the woman  in the yellow dress.

12:09 – #47 leaves W1 and the office

12:10 – A person arrives, takes ticket #48, and is immediately called to W1.

12:11 – A woman arrives and takes ticket #49.

12:14 – Another worker walks by the window of the locked room with a folder (my folder?) in his hands. My hopes soar.

12:15 – A woman in blue passes by the window, heading in the direction of W1. Going to get my paperwork?

12:20 – The woman in blue calls my name; I enter the locked room and sit at her desk. She says her name is Ellen. She takes a few minutes to log into her computer while we share humorous comments about the unresponsiveness of systems.  She is pleasant and asks me a few questions. She goes to get come additional information and/or forms.

12:22 – I run out to feed the meter. Optimistic, I add 30 minutes.  I return, following two 30+ men dressed in khaki pants and golf like shirts, carrying lunch takeout.  They enter the large room via a combination lock door. The security agents let me reenter through the other door.

12:31 – As I await the Ellen’s return, I notice the security guard post is unoccupied. I think it is strange that both have left, but then notice that one is walking around in the waiting room. I continue to sit at the desk and wonder if I am being video recorded.

12:37 – Ellen returns. In a few more minutes we have completed the transaction – information provided, data entered, forms signed.

12:59 – I exit the locked room. I experience an awareness of gratitude for my good health and fortune, and leave the office with increased respect for the people working there.

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Cutting Edge Investment Strategy

I’m always seeing expert advice about how to make money in the stock market.

Some experts suggest looking for ‘value’ stocks. I was going to try that approach until I realized that it was not an approach at all. What else would you be looking for?

Stocks that pay a high dividend sounded attractive, but then that expert warned to avoid companies that might cut their dividend in the future. He did not reveal which companies would be cutting their dividends.

Another expert said to look for stocks with a low P/E (that is the ratio of the price of a share to the earnings per share). A low P/E, she claimed, was an indication that the stock was underpriced – cheap relative to shares of similar companies. But that sort of worried me. I don’t like to buy cheap oranges or cheap shoes. Frequently, those things are cheap because they are not as good. Couldn’t low P/E stocks be cheap for a similar reason?

A respected expert from Fidelity suggested buying shares of “rising blue chips — midsize companies that dominate their industries and have a global reach. They’re smaller than IBM …, but they’re blue chips in a lot of ways,” she says. I guess I’m getting this insider blue chip information before everyone else, so I can go ahead and buy some shares before all those other folks find out about this and the price increases. But wait; her recommendation is dated June 1 and it’s already June 12, so I’m too late.

I’m working hard these days not to get discouraged. So instead of despairing about finding a good stock picking strategy I can believe in, I decided to make up my own. I think it will work better with a catchy name so I call it *E (pronounced *E) investing.

Invest in companies that have stock symbols two letters long, ending in ’E’.

Before you say that is really dumb, think about it. One letter symbols are too insubstantial, and besides if a company has a one letter symbol it is probably already old and stodgy. Remember, we’re trying to make money here. Two letter symbols are easy to say, easy to remember, to include in investment columns, and in general have more panache. Once you are into three and four character symbols you’re lost in a symbol forest; there are just too many combinations for a scheme like mine to work with 3 or 4 characters. As for the ‘E’ requirement, that is a bit arbitrary, but anything ending in E sounds good.

So here is the list:

  • AE – Adams Resources and Energy Inc. – $29.00
  • CE – Celanese Corp – $37.96
  • DE – Deere and Co – $73.84
  • EE – El Paso Electric Co – $31.82
  • FE – FirstEnergy Corp – $47.62
  • GE – General Electric Company – $19.44
  • HE – Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc. – $28.22
  • JE – Just Energy Group Inc. – $11.04
  • NE – Noble Corp – $31.49
  • RE – Everest Re Group Ltd – $102.94
  • SE – Spectra Energy Corp – $27.98
  • TE – TECO Energy – $17.83
  • VE – Veolia Environment – $11.07

I’m going to sell my old ‘sinking blue chips’ (like IBM) and invest $10,000 in each of these *E companies. You can do the same, or check back later to see if you missed the boat.

(The writer is in no way qualified to provide investment advice. The contents of this blog post can not in any way be considered sound advice.)

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Health Care Card Process Astounds US Citizen!

I’ve been spending more time in Barcelona lately. There is a great system of shared bicycles here, called Bicing, and I’ve been using it a lot to get around the city. It’s terrific, especially late at night when it’s cool and there’s not much traffic. I love cruising along the wide Gran Via, or floating through Parque Ciutadella past the Arc de Triomf, along with other anonymous riders thinking their own late night thoughts.

But reality intrudes: what if I crash and get injured? Not likely, but certainly possible. Or cut my finger while slicing bread? Or get sick? I’ve never visited a doctor here and had no idea where to go. My health insurance from the US might reimburse me for emergency care, but I’m really not sure about that.

I turned to the internet and quickly put together a plan.

On Tuesday I went to the branch of the Ayuntamiento (town hall) in my neighborhood. The line moved quickly; in about 20 minutes I was talking with a very pleasant woman who offered to take care of my request for Empadronado status. That simply means that you have registered as a resident of the city.

I presented my NIE (Número de Identificación de Extranjero or Foreigner identification Number) document, obtained when I bought an apartment here a couple of years ago. The NIE is sort of a tax number, useful for many transactions like opening a bank account. You do not have to own property to get an NIE. The woman helping me also asked for my passport and some indication of my residence in the city. I presented an electricity bill in my name. A rent receipt or similar document would have been acceptable too. She turned to her computer screen and in a couple of minutes handed me a printed official Empadronado document – name, date, address, etc. Registered! The entire process was conducted in a cordial, helpful, professional manner and took about 10 minutes.

On Wednesday I went to the CAP (Centro de Asistencia Primaria) in my neighborhood to request a medical card. There is a CAP in every neighborhood. Medical care is provided in these modern, attractive centers. If you need more specialized care you might be sent from the CAP to a CAC  (Critical Assistance Center).

At my neighborhood CAP there was no line and someone immediately offered to help me. She asked for my NIE, my Empadronado (of course!), and my passport. After a few questions and a brief conversation with her colleague about which doctor to assign me to, she entered my data into the computer system. She printed a temporary tarjeta medica showing the name of the doctor and nurse who will be my primary care providers. The permanent card will be sent by mail in a couple of weeks. I was at the CAP for about 15 minutes.

That’s it. I now have medical coverage in Barcelona and all of Spain. Amazing to me, a citizen of the USA, with its bizarre, convoluted, employer based health insurance system. And it’s mean spirited reluctance to make health care available to all of its citizens, especially low income folks.

I’m going to continue to wear my bike helmet (even though almost no Bicing riders use them) when I pedal through the city. With my tarjeta medica in my pocket, I may enjoy coasting through the Barcelona night even more!

Posted in Barcelona | 4 Comments

The New Workplace

A friend told me what his job is like these days. He works for a big technology company doing all sorts of projects. He says that the first thing he does every day is to check his email. And somehow, these days, the first email in his inbox is always from the company, lamenting the fact that he is still working there.

He says that almost everyone gets similar emails. It’s kind of weird because there is a lot of talk about completing personal development plans and making sure to get enough training on new technologies, business savvy, and personal interaction skills. He is supposed to become a better team player and more of a self starter. But then the email says,

"We really wish we could replace you with someone cheaper. We are pursuing various resource activities that should soon result in several thousand jobs, probably including yours, moving to India. In the meantime, since we are stuck paying your salary, we expect you to work longer hours so we can avoid filling those vacancies on your team".

The email isn’t the same every day, although it almost always starts with something like “We really wish we could just eliminate your job all together” or "We must all strive for lowest cost solutions to maintain the competitive position of the company". Then it will go on to say something like, “We don’t want to pay for your work cell phone anymore, so if you need to call into a meeting after hours or while you are on vacation, just use your own cell and your own minutes.” I guess that does contribute in some way to a lowest cost solution. Not for him, but at least for the company.

Occasionally my friend buys a book on technology and has always been able to submit a simple expense form for automatic reimbursement. The company keeps saying that he should ‘sharpen the saw’ to remain valuable to the organization. But now the email says that, despite his advanced degree and 20 years of experience, he must get his manager to pre-approve any book purchase. He hasn’t tried to sneak ‘Best Erotic Writing of 2009’ through yet, but I suppose pre-approval will make sure he never does.

My friend thought it was pretty reasonable for the company to cover the cost of a home Internet connection, since he was told to avoid working in the office. Working from home cuts down on the number of desks needed and the associated cost of floor space. But then the email informed him that since he probably already had an Internet connection, he should just use that for work and there was no reason the company should pay for it.

At first he was pissed off last week when the email told him to report to the 2nd floor conference room that morning to begin training some guys from India to take over his team’s work. After a few weeks, if he does his job well, the Indian guys will be able to return home and do the work from there, cheaper. He was so angry that he decided to refuse, until he read on – to learn that he would have three months of work training them, and then would be eligible for some severance pay and unemployment benefits. If he refused he would just be fired.

It’s kind of funny because he still feels some loyalty and responsibility. It’s hard to shake the idea that if you work hard, do a good job, be productive, and contribute then your efforts will be appreciated and rewarded. Now he says he realizes that is not always true, but he still wants to make sure those guys know what they are doing before they leave.

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