Saturday, March 30, 2013

March Madness in Miami

5 hours down the Florida Turnpike from the Villages lies Miami and at this time of year a big ATP 1000 point tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, just over a bridge onto one of the islands nearby.  We'd been to this tournament a couple of years back and enjoyed it mightily so decided we'd return with some friends Judy & Keith and Jo & Stan who had a place at the Villages.

We decided to stay downtown and catch the daily shuttle to and from the tournament as transport is the one thing that doesn't work for this tournament.  Most other things work fine: seats are really close to the action, all the good players turn up, the weather is good and the city is as vibrant a place as there is.

Day 1 was a disaster primarily as nobody on either side knew what was going on -- the bus driver to the event barely spoke English and asked us where we'd like to go -- nor did they know at what time any buses to or from the event would likely travel, the result being that we arrived for an on the hour departure but actually departed on the half hour, actually after the half hour as our bus driver was talking to his mum (or something).

Day 2 though and subsequently was just peachy -- same driver but this time he and we knew what was going on.  Seeing as this was Day 6 it does make me wonder why on earth nobody had wondered about this before.

The first day (Friday) wasn't so hot and in fact rained for 4 hours in the afternoon but we still managed to get some great tennis in -- Monaco vs Ramos (vamos Ramos!!); Dolgopolov vs Davydenko (davai Nikolai!!); and after a couple of rain effected false starts Simon vs Hewitt (allez vous-en, Simon!!).  It was a day for alliterations.

Dolgopolov & Davydenko -- ''Davai Nikolai!!"

Gilles Simon with some old geezer.

Drying the lines

Hewitt finally in action -- "Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie..."

The rain delay late start for the final Simon/Hewitt match plus the transport snafu meant that we made it back to the Conrad Hotel on Brickell Avenue around 11 pm and decided to try and get fed and watered there.  Now the Conrad is a nice hotel with the Concierge on the ground floor (where the shuttles left from) but the hotel began on the 25th floor and that was where the sky bar was located.  In the lift up was Pat Cash -- recognisable by the cross ear ring and the fact that I'd played tennis with him and Arri last year at Coral Beach in Bermuda.  I reminded him of this fact and whilst he was mighty gracious about things, it clearly did not stand out as an event alongside his Wimbledon championship.  But it did strike me that while he was being comped to come, stay and play, most other things (e.g. offsite food) was on his own account as he was carrying various cereals from the supermarket to which he kindly directed us.

So to sum up, Pat Cash has a lousy memory for past tennis matches but perfect clarity about the nearest supermarket.

Unsurprisingly he was thoroughly charming throughout.  But then again he's a tennis playing Aussie, so why should anyone be surprised.  I've met a bunch of the old greats and to a man, they are all the same great guys.

The Saturday was a scorcher (and I have the sun burned lip to prove it!) and the tennis on the Grandstand court was fantastic.  We had the battle of the beautiful single handed back hands with Gasquet vs Rochus followed by some big servers: first Isner vs Dodig and then Raonic vs Rufin.


Rochus' beautiful backhand - had he been 3 inches taller, he would have won Grand Slams

A side issue with Isner is that it is amazing just how bad a tennis player he is.  If he wasn't 6 foot 9 inches and had an unreturnable serve, he'd be playing with me at Pomander Gate... maybe.

We also squeezed a couple of doubles in -- the English pair Marray/Fleming losing a 3rd set tie break before the main event which was Hewitt playing doubles with new Aussie hope Tomic whose lack of interest enabled Dodig/Melo a comfortable win.

The Sunday event was again seamless.  I chatted with a Wells Fargo mortgage guy whose view on people who defaulted on their loans was fairly straightforward -- "kick those bums out, they don't deserve to own a home".  Mind you he said that they should fold now, go into bankruptcy and in a couple of years come out and try again.  That's what I like about the US.  There's no stigma in failing.  You just dust yourself off and get up and try again.

I've just finished a fantastic book by George Friedman called "The Next Decade".  It was written in 2010/11 so a couple of things have moved on but the biggest take away is all US positive (a position I usually take anyway -- also Friedman says the UK is the US' best and increasingly most important ally so of course I like that too!).

The thrust of the book is that the US have fallen into empire, not necessarily by design, and don't realise  it.  The stated fear being that without a moral framework to guide them, things may fall apart.  The next decade is key to this for a number of political and economic things are coming to a boil so the US presidents this decade have to be pretty darn skillful.  Great book, thoroughly recommended reading.

Returning to the Wells Fargo guy, being from Miami he has his finger on the pulse and told me that the place is booming again.  Cranes everywhere and they are lending like crazy.  Ladies and Gentlemen, the train has left the station...

The Sunday games took us one step on from the prior matches the best of which was Tommy Haas (no underpants) hammering Dolgopolov.  We also watched him play doubles with Malisse who also played singles against Nichigori (and lost) and then some more doubles before calling it quits.

Tommy the pantless one and Malisse

Great stuff and the following day we discovered the Metro and how to get around the city for $2 AND the best Japanese noodle shop in Miami (

Great trip.  See you next year!!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Welcoming Bubble

For quite some time now friends of ours had suggested we visit them in the Villages, an active retirement lifestyle resort north of Orlando in Florida.  Its an interesting concept being for 55+ active retirees who want an adult only place to live, where activities are organised for you (many free) and where the weather is pretty much always warm.

Many Bermudians had decided to buy homes there, some of whom we'd got to know over the years so as we were in Florida due to watch the Sony Ericsson tennis tournament in Miami, we thought we'd take a side trip up the Florida Turnpike to check it out.

Now I thought it was only 2-3 hours away but it turned out to be 5+ hours but with GPS getting there was a breeze which is just as well as once you get to the Villages proper, it pretty much all looks the same.  Apparently there are 15 different house styles to chose from but if that was so, it sure didn't look like it as we would discover as we checked out half a dozen houses during our stay.

Florida and the location of The Bubble

This is what they say about themselves on their website:

The Villages is an active retirement community located in sunny central Florida. Conceived over 50 years ago (by a man named Howard Schwartz and carried on by his family), our hometown has flourished under the guidance of the family who created it, our dedicated employees, and most importantly the folks who call The Villages home.

Our purpose always has, and always will be, “To create a retirement community where people’s dreams can come true.” We continue to redefine retirement living by offering the best in homes, lifestyle and amenities for our residents each and every day.

People drive around in golf carts and being America they come in every design your heart can think of. That means life is pretty slow burning but then there's the activities and clubs all ready and available for you to enjoy.

Love the eyebrows!

There are 3 central towns that serve each of the Villages.  One in the north (old part), one in the middle (10 or so years old) and one in the south (new and in process of being built).  That's where all the restaurants and shops were located, each with a different theme to them.  They were also the social gathering centres where nightly entertainment was available free to all.

Spanish Springs (the older one) with plenty of golf carts around!

The friends we stayed with (Andy and Christine) had bought in the Villages a year or so back and stayed there 3+ months per year (but always for less than 4 months, the maximum allowed for US tax reasons).  Being a year or so younger than us they'd had to acquire special dispensation to be allowed to stay there and they'd joined right in there.

Being young and fit, they were the jocks on the block in every sport!  That meant for the duration of our stay we'd have that chance too!!

The sport of choice for this showing was to be 'pickel ball' -- a short tennis court varietal.  Being tennis players and young/fit we thought we'd rip the joint which was pretty much what happened... until we came up against some villagers who knew the game and suckered us in to a pick up match.  Putting on prosthetic knee braces, arm and wrist braces and generally parking the zimmer frame by the net, they simply crushed us with jolly cries of "Ooh, that was lucky.  I don't normally serve like that!"

The pickel ball court.  Note the yellow plastic hole-y balls you play with.

Beware the oldies!!

As for adding our name to the muster role of 'Villagers' or residents of the 'Bubble' as our friends called it, well maybe we'll think about it in another 10 years time when we'll have had a chance to practice pickel ball.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Still a believer

I've been in the investment business for 20+ years now and still manage to get caught up with believing my own cleverness rather than my own eyes.  As a CFA we create empirical models that examine an issue all ways into the future, past and even in a 'what-if' scenario.  Having done that we come up with a conclusion to sell this and buy that.  Its all very well but on days like today I do wonder if we all actually get out often enough and smell the roses.  If we did, we'd probably use a bit more common sense which often means an all new direction.

I'm in Toronto at the moment, a wonderful city, returning from Cayman to Bermuda the long way.  Why Toronto, people ask.  Well why not?  I like it a lot and I like Canadians too.  Its a great north American city with loads going on.  Nothing like New York, people may say.  That's right, I say even though I do like visiting the big apple.

There was a recent cowboy movie I saw on cable a month or so back concerning a gun slinger in the old west that was being pursued by a posse and nipped over the border into Canada to escape pursuit.  It was a prairie town in the middle of nowhere and this gun slinger of course headed straight to the saloon and picked a fight with a big guy who pummeled him unmercifully. Being a gun slinger he pulled his 45 and called the guy out.  Immediate bemusement was the result.

"Why would I want to do that?" said the Canadian guy.

"Because we have to settle things" said the gun slinger.

"We just did.  I beat you" said the Canuck.

"Well... we just gotta.  Go for your gun," said the gun slinger.

"Well its at home," said the Canadian.

"Why would you leave your gun at home for goodness sake?" said the gun slinger.

"Its not bear season," said the Canadian.

At that moment a number of his friends offered up their guns, choices being shot guns, hunting rifles and the like.  

"No, no," said the gun slinger.  "Hand guns.  Don't any of you have a hand gun?"

"Well, no," said some other guy in a slow voice.  "They don't slow a bear down none.  They only just get him riled up a bit.  Remember old Doug?" he said.

"Oh yes," said another.  "Shame about old Doug.  Those things only have a decent range of 10 feet and you don't want to let a bear come that close."

The point being of course these Canadian guys just couldn't figure out (a) why you wanted one of those short range hand guns that didn't aim straight and couldn't stop a bear and (b) why you wanted to shoot someone else anyway seeing there was only about 8 people in the whole darn township, each of whom had a specific job that they all depended on.  Hence the fist and lack of hand gun solution.

I don't remember how the movie ended up but the point is that I like Canada and Canadians as like New Zealanders they have an intensely practical outlook on life, get on with everyone and allow everybody to do pretty much anything they want.  All in North America too.  And they don't hassle you too much.

All this is a roundabout preamble to this post as today I went to possibly the best sports bar I have ever been to period.  And I've been to quite a few.  This is the Real Sports Bar next to the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto.  (That's another reason to like this city -- you can walk anywhere or get public transport that actually works to all the big venues).

The thing they brag about is that everyone really should be able to watch the BIG game on a 2 story high TV screen.  And having done so, I agree!

Great bar!
This being a Sunday, I walked back along the underground PATH network connecting the downtown area under ground to combat the awful cold weather and wandered through a relatively quiet Eaton Centre.  Having been through 2 football matches on 100+ screens playing 20+ different sports I was struck with a couple of big notions: (1) we have become a world of watchers not doers,  (2) content therefore is very, very valuable and (3) delivery systems are also very, very valuable.

None of these are earth shattering conclusions but they came one after another as troop after troop of families entered this sports bar rather than going outside to kick a football, hit a hockey puck or play some other game.  The fact that we've all got bigger too (and nothing to do with those 32 ounce soda mugs either) also militates more towards a sedentary approach to life sadly.  However that said the presence of all those plasma or LED screens also turned my thoughts to delivery systems: telecommunications, broadband and anything that can play content.

Yesterday being Saturday I'd also struggled through a jam packed Eaton Centre and found the most jam packed places to be the phone stands and of course the electronic shops.  I am casually thinking about changing my blackberry which has ceased working on the phone side for something better and wanted a smartphone of some sort.  Lord, there's a lot of them to choose from!

I waded through Best Buy, Wind, Fido and Kidoo trying to find an unlocked phone that would work around the world but being unable to decide that paying $500+ was a good idea (phone alone, not including the plan), I've come to the conclusion not to make a decision just yet.  That doesn't stop oodles of others getting stuck in and as I mentioned before the costs in so doing are not insignificant but people are still lining up to do so.  (One big reason to own phone company shares is their ability to generate huge amounts of cash flow which I witnessed yesterday in the Eaton Centre).

On my 50th birthday I and some friends went to New York for the weekend and we visited a new Apple store where the first iPods had just gone on sale.  The queues went around the block to get in.  One friend and I bought one, another checked his email (already had one) and the 4th called his broker up to buy the stock.  It was at $22 per share.

I thought I'd do a similar test on this Sunday afternoon and see who were doing the best.

The big Sony store was virtually empty.  Sony have had a dreadful time business wise losing money hand over fist for years now.  You could point your finger at the expensive Yen but I just think they've taken their eye off things and lost the plot.

I counted more staff than customers inside.  It was tea time I suppose...

The phone stores were empty too.  Yesterday they were jammed with people but today none were busy at all.

Bell Canada's shop on a Sunday afternoon.  All the phone stores were the same.

There was a new Microsoft stand in the middle of the floor selling the new Surface tablet and it was pretty much dead too.  Now Microsoft seems to have concluded that just selling their software isn't enough and that by not controlling the delivery as well, they were essentially giving up.  Like IBM, Microsoft aren't quitters and while I don't like the Surface and their software much, you have to give it to them for putting a lot of money where their mouth is.  I don't think they're there yet, but don't count them out just yet.  They'll eventually get it.

Late to the game, but don't count these guys out!

But the Apple store as always was just heaving with people.

Who's not buying Apple stuff?  Not these people.

So pundits pointing the finger at Apple and suggesting they are on their way out, can you please tell me why people who don't listen to you scream on the business channels or read your silly conclusions in the trash media simply don't care?  They are still voting with their feet and their pocket books.

Now where's my broker's number?