Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Ceasefire Petition

Here is how you get a ceasefire from people who won't cease firing --

Monday, December 29, 2008

This Year's Lucky Winners

[Out with the old...]

1. Lindsay Lohan
2. Barack Obama
3. Khaled Meshal
4. Charles Manson
5. Fidel Castro
6. Raul Castro
7. Chico Castro
8. Zeppo Castro
9. Jimmy Carter
10. O.J. Simpson
11. Woody Allen
12. Amy Winehouse

Nick Danger sez:

Patrick Swayze
Peter Falk
Dick Cheney
Elizabeth Edwards
Dick Clark
Michael Jackson
Billy Graham
Kirk Douglas
Elizabeth Taylor
JD Salinger
Ariel Sharon
Hamed Karzai

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza Again

[Main Hamas security compound and prison]

As usual Hamas' response to Israeli reprisals was fury and vowing revenge. Not a word of taking responsibility for provoking the reprisal with their persistent rocket attacks on southern Israel.

New York Times today -

Palestinian officials said that most of those killed in the Israeli assault on Gaza were security officers for Hamas, and that at least 600 people had been wounded in the attacks.

To whack 280 people and have relatively few civilians among them is a considerable accomplishment. It also means that the Israeli warnings for civilians to stay away from Hamas targets were heeded.

Which is a hopeful sign. It means that it was possible to communicate, even if only in a rudimentary way, between the Jews and the Arabs. Among Arabs, making threats means only, "I am angry". For Israel, a threat to bomb is not a declaration of emotional state. It announces an intention to bomb. The Arabs of Gaza may ever-so-slowly be starting to understand the difference between how they connect speech and action and how the Israelis connect them.

Now if they can just learn to make the connection between shooting rockets at Israel and Israel bombing them, maybe, just maybe, an accommodation will become possible.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Teaching a Senior Dog New Tricks

[William Blake - The Ancient of Days. HaShem designs His creation. Notice the inverted 'Y' of the Arm and the arms of the compass. A cosmological hint?]

Just when I had assumed that I had accomplished every kind of folly open to the pedestrian, I have discovered yet more.

While I have been ill I have spent tens of hours in bed. Upon getting up I discovered each time that my lower abdomen was ache-y and painful, sometimes dreadfully so. After an hour or two of activity the pain and ache subsided. So I came to assume that my joints were deteriorating badly and collecting fluid while I slept. And that activity temporarily diminished the swelling. Or maybe it was nerves about the economy.

Yesterday I remembered how well I had slept during last summer's bicycle trip, with only a thin inflatable camping mattress between me and the ground. As an experiment I slept on the Thermarest on the floor in the parlor. It turns out it's not the economy stupid, it's the mattress.

Every single person who has ever examined that mattress has told me it is too hard. I ignored them. Amazingly, they were right. Even more amazingly, I was wrong.

Another example of learning what everyone else already knew --
A 2 for 1 sale on a well-known brand of wine at Safeway. Two arguments. One is that they just had more of that particular vintage than they thought they could sell at full price. Alternately, they have already tasted it and are dumping it. On the theory that the wine glass was half-full I bought two bottles. The wine glass turned out to be half-empty.

Later I was making a stir-fry of a sliced onion, then sliced beef stew meat, and soy sauce. Then I remembered the wine. I added it on the theory it couldn't hurt. A revelation! It was great.

Then I remembered that I have seen wives and girlfriends cooking with wine since forever. Groceries sell cooking wine. Cooks have been cooking with bad wine as long as there has been bad wine. Really bad wine is vinegar and is also used. Only now did anyone tell me.

Tune in tomorrow for my discovery of what to drink with pretzels.

Merry Christmas to you too item:
I picked up the mail yesterday and found this delightful lump of coal in my stocking. The State Franchise Tax Board is demanding I pay them $36,569 for the 2005 tax year. They seem to have started with their final notice and demand. Arnold must have gone down there and told them to dust off every old file they could find. They found mine.

The twist here is that 2005 was a year of easy money when I could have easily paid it. Now it is more than I will live on this year unless the tourist rental business pans out, and perhaps even if it does.

My theory is that the first letter in the tetragrammaton, the name of G_d, stands for Yrony.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Hopeful Development

from Gas, a biofuels blog---
Researchers reported Monday that they have re-engineered a common bacteria to produce complex and energy-dense alcohols similar to the hydrocarbon compounds found in fuels such as gasoline. This is the first time these types of alcohols have been synthesized by bacteria (man-made or otherwise) in the lab.

Not only are most strains harmless, they’re turning out to be key for making the next generation of biofuels. Scientists have been studying and isolating strains of e. coli for years that can synthesize various types of biofuels from many different sources, such as plant material and garbage. But until now, these e. coli strains could only synthesize simple alcohols like ethanol. While this is a good start, the energy density and stability of these types of alcohols is relatively low, which leads to lower fuel economy in your car and the need for special handling equipment when compared to regular old gasoline.

To get around this problem, a research team housed at the University of California Los Angeles and headed by James Liao, has harnessed e. coli’s particularly active enzymatic production system and inserted some chromosomes into the bacteria’s DNA to “trick” it into making longer and longer chains of alchols with its existing “plumbing.” The result is that the modified e. coli can now produce complex and energy dense alcohols of 8 carbons in length.

Why is that important?

Gasoline is a mixture of many types of complex substances called long chain hydrocarbons. In a typical gasoline mixture these hydrocarbon chains range in length from 5 to 12 carbon atoms, with an average of about 8 (as in 'octane'). The length of these chains is the secret to gasoline’s high energy density compared to its volume as well as the reason why it’s a relatively stable liquid. In comparison, ethanol is made up of alchol chains 2 carbons in length.

That’s why the ability of this new man-made e. coli strain to synthesize long-chain alcohols in the lab is so groundbreaking. If we could use this engineered e. coli to make fuel that was nearly indistinguishable from gasoline, but do it out of non-food plant material and garbage, that would be a profound change.

Granted, the fuel produced by these organisms isn’t actually better than gas when it comes to energy density or stability. But when looked at as a whole, the fact that it’s not being mined out of the ground from organisms that have been dead and buried for hundred of millions of years is what, in my mind, makes it better than gas.

James Liao’s team has been working on this method for quite some time, and reported back in January on some initial breakthroughs. They say there is still much work to be done before the organism can start producing commercial quantities of fuel. The next step will be to get the process to a point where a development lab can take over and start optimizing it for commercial scale.

If you are so inclined, and either want to pay for access or have access through a university library, the study can be found in the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Maybe the thing to do is to get out of the house and just go somewhere. Maybe to the coast.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Representatives of House

The rule, for future reference, is that houses are entropic. a) Disorder always increases. b) Order in one area is achieved by increasing disorder in another. c) The appearance of order in the whole house is won only at expense of large increases in disarray in one's life. d) the appearance of order in one's life is won only at cost of time, effort, work, spirit, money, confusion and disruption of one's affairs, and more time, effort, and money. Expenditures of time, effort, work, spirit, confusion, disruption, and money shorten one's life. One comes closer to Death. Which is Very Entropic.

I wonder if I am being so negative because I am so miserable. If I had not spent the night coughing, tossing and turning, and blowing my nose, would I be Little Miss Sunshine?

I invariably get up at 7 am, do exercises, eat a healthy breakfast, run two miles, volunteer for two hours at a local hospital, spend an hour, gardening in the yard. After cooking dinner for myself, I spend the evening working on the book I expect to finish soon. I then go to bed at 11 pm sharp without fail.

Well, no. My hours are actually completely random. I never actually get anything done unless there is the gun of unacceptable consequences kept at my head.

What makes Hell so unpleasant is that it is invariably of our own making.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why Is Everything So Hard to Understand?

The largest supplier of petroleum to the United States is not some axis-of-evil no-goodnik Arab country. It is the friendly dominion next door. When oil was horribly expensive a month or two ago, the Canadian dollar was around US $1.03, which historically is high. Today it has fallen to a more typical US $0.82.

So did the fall in the oil price cause the fall in the Canadian dollar? Or did the fall in the Canadian dollar cause the fall in the oil price? I think the answer is "Yes".

Oil imports have to be paid for in prices nominally in US dollars, but actually in the producer's currency, in this case Canadian dollars. An oil price decrease in Canadian dollars is amplified by the simultaneous decline in the price of Canadian dollars. So a small price decrease caused by a small decrease in demand becomes amplified by the simultaneous decrease in the value of the currency it must be paid in.

It is that amplification, together with the general inelasticity of both supply and demand for oil, that causes wild price swings. I think that is why the price of a gallon of gasoline fell from almost $4 to $1.70 in a few days.

The moral of which is that the volatility in the price of oil is lying in wait. It will come back.

We are being told that the decline in the price of oil is one element of a deflationary spiral. That is an over-simplification. Deflation is to be feared only if it leads to declining wages. If wages remain the same and prices decline that means everybody is getting richer in terms of the amount of goods and services they can buy with their incomes. Absent wage decreases imposed on oil company employees, the only cost of lower prices is dimished oil company profits. These have been obscenely high during the price run up and I doubt much is to be feared from their decline.

So deflation is a good thing UNLESS it leads to declining wages or layoffs. If it doesn't, it just means workers get more for their wages than they did before.

Historically overall deflation has generally led to economic contraction, widespread unemployment, and falling wages. It does not follow that declining prices in a single sector, like oil, is always a bad thing.

Hard Times in EC

I have been working like it actually made a difference for the past four days getting my house very clean. And moving all my personal stuff to the small apartment.

This morning while scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees it occurred to me that my mother said that if I didn't go to college that this was how I would wind up. Wait! I did go to college.

She didn't mention anything about studying or going to class or majoring in anything useful, only going to college. Maybe I should have asked someone else.

Call from guests on their way from Boston. Flight delayed by snow. What is it about snow that makes everybody who doesn't have it wish they did? And everybody who does have it wish they didn't?

No small trick getting all that work done while sick. I have had bubonic plague for several days now. Other people may think it is just a horrible cold but I know the Black Death when I've got it. I feel like a pile of shit that has gotten cold but not yet hardened.

Anyway I realized that after I repay both the first and second sets of guests their deposits I will have bubkes left. Maybe summer tourist season will be better. I am afraid that, like the 2009 Arena Football season, the 2009 tourist season may also be canceled. But no use crying over not-yet spilt milk.

Money aside, and it should be, I am relieved that I am done for today. Or at least I will be after the guests show up for the keys and the tour.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Saint Ignatius Loyola as Krazy Kat

The Obama Phenomenon


Taking a lead from Jerry Seinfeld, there is no item here. I just thought that was a fun picture.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is This Cool or What?

[Mad as hell and not going to take it any more.]

New York Times today --

At an MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) hearing on increasing subway fares in New York, Stephen A. Millies denounced the proposed budget. He spoke unfavorably of the MTA Chief Executive Elliot Sander's' $300,000 salary. He emphasized his displeasure by attempting to throw his shoe at Sander, but was restrained by security.

We are familiar with the notion of the Americanization of Iraq. Now comes the Iraqification of America.

However justified, Millies was a heel for tossing his shoe. As a professional loafer I think the whole matter is coming untied. I am glad the security guys gave Millies the boot. It was not clear whether the shoe toss was Milies' sole reason for being there. The security men quickly laced into him and got the upper hand. The undercover gumshoes were right on the job. While being hustled out, Millies shouted that they hadn't heard the last of him.

Caroline Kennedy

[note the expression of the woman on the right]

United States Constitution, Article I, clause 8
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
United States Constitution, Article I, clause 2
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,...

United States Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 1.
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Racial inequality was, and some say still is, deeply embedded in American life. We as a nation have worked long and hard to make the principle of racial equality expressed in the 14th Amendment a reality.

When General Shalikashvili was nominated as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff it came out that his father had been a Nazi. I and other Jews clenched our teeth, took a deep breath, and said, "That was his father, not him." We made the principle that there shall be no corruption of blood - the sins of the father being visited on the son - a reality.

Caroline Kennedy, whose qualification for office appears to be solely that she is a Kennedy, is being seriously considered for the US Senate. No running for, and serving on, the city council, then county supervisor, then state assembly or state senate, then lieutenant governor, then the House of Representatives. No, her first office if she is appointed - not elected, appointed - would be the US Senate.

Unlike Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, she has never run for, nor been elected to, anything at all. Unlike the largely ceremonial Vice-Presidency which Palin ran for, the US Senate, together with the House, is an actual branch of government. It has the power to declare war, make treaties, make laws, levy taxes, to confirm judges and high-ranking federal appointments, to try the President in cases of impeachment.

During the campaign the press was eating extra roughage the more effectively to dump on Sarah Palin as unqualified. That same press is now slobbering all over themselves to congratulate the people of New York for their good fortune in having Caroline Kennedy deign to accept their Senate seat.

The constitution forbids aristocracy, just as it forbids racial inequality. It is time to begin the campaign to make the ideal of rule by the people, and not by an aristocracy, a reality as well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Good stuff to know

Mercury levels in fish:
per the National Resources Defense Council


Mackerel (King, Spanish, Gulf)
Orange Roughy
Tuna (Ahi, Yellowfin, Bigeye, Canned Albacore)


Cod (Alaskan)
Mahi Mahi
Perch (freshwater)
Tuna (canned chunk light, Skipjack)
Sea trout


Cod (Arctic)
Crab (domestic)
Crawfish / Crayfish
Haddock (Atlantic)
Mackerel (N. Atlantic, Chub)
Perch (Ocean)
Salmon (may contain PCB's)
Sole (Pacific)
Trout (freshwater)

I Coulda Been a Contender......


The movie "The Lives of Others" is in German with English sub-titles. It is about life under the East German party dictatorship in its last days. It is a superior movie. In spite of being a little bit grim it is uplifting and humane in the end. It is also intelligent and requires some thinking about to realize that everything in it fits together more or less perfectly. It is probably worth seeing twice even.

Home Depot has sales on tools before Christmas on the theory that they make good presents for people who already have, or don't want, neckties or cologne. One of their sale items is a stubby socket wrench handle. It has a 3/8" drive nub on one side and a 1/4" drive nub on the other. The moment one sees it, one asks "Why did they ever do it any other way?' It seems well made, though as with all such things, it is made in China. Husky brandname. Well worth the $3 it sells for, even if you already have socket wrench handles simply because it is so cool.

Monday, December 15, 2008


The deeper ramifications of the Blagojevich Affair are examined in this thoughtful video article.

The Blagojevichs in NBC management have suppressed this video for reasons of copyright.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Second Thoughts

Now I am confused. I have certainly been as angry and vocal as anyone at the NY Times and others for omitting to mention that the terrorists were Muslims.

But reading Mark Steyn saying the same thing gave me a frisson of doubt. I have all along assumed that the Times and the other media were all a bunch of liberal apologists. Seen from that point of view, they are indeed worthless slime. I have assumed all along, as Mark Steyn does, that the omission is out of sympathy for the imaginary "moderate" Muslims.

But I suddenly had a vague memory of a debate in the 1960's about hijackers taking airliners to Cuba. The argument was whether the press should mention the hijackings at all since the purpose of the hijackings was to get publicity. But the newspapers argued that they couldn't pretend it hadn't happened or wasn't newsworthy. So the understanding was that they would report the event but not mention the hijacker's cause. So they would report the hijacking but not mention that the hijackers were Leninists.

I remember how the Times fought long and hard against publishing a statement by the Unabomber. They didn't want to encourage people to commit murders to get their opinions published in the Times by setting the precedent. But the Unabomber had said he would keep killing people until they consented. So they did finally cave in.

Of course it is intrinsically hopeless. Was there ever any doubt why the hijackers went to Cuba? Or why monsters kill everybody they can get within sight of in Mumbai?

In short, I have assumed that the Times and other media's omission to mention that the murderers were jihadis was to avoid tarring all Muslims as jihadis (as though jihad were not one of the Seven Pillars of the Faith for all Muslims, and war against the infidels endlessly commanded in the Koran.). But maybe the purpose of the omission is to diminish the publicity value of their terrorism.

Maybe I was mistaken about the Times' motives. Maybe they have both motives. I am no longer sure.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Positive Steps

I have done my bit to contribute to the banking crisis. I have deprived the bank of any further income from me by paying off my credit card. It hurt to take more from savings but the money is already spent. No sense in crying over spilt money. So the question was only how much interest do I want to pay on it? So now the evil blood-sucking tick that is your smiling friendly neighborhood banker is ripped out of my skin.

For now.

I recommend tickectomy to anyone and everyone.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Today is...

[USS Arizona]

Pearl Harbor Day, a day that will live in infamy. Does it? Does anyone remember or care? Does it really matter anymore even to the old? Is memory relevant?

Or are these thoughts and this mood just a matter of my joints being stiff and sore, of feeling old?


[Villa Camerata, where Mussolini kept his mistress]

The first time I was in Europe was in 1966. I took a charter flight, hitch-hiked, stayed in youth hostels, lived on bread and cheese, occasionally slept in parks and behind churches, saw Paris, Vienna, Moscow, fell in love in Florence.

I have never had a better summer since. Of course I have never been 19 years old since either.

Maybe what we have lost is not so much our money as our youth....


2001 Amsterdam and Jerusalem

I have finally sorted and posted the pictures from my 2001 trip to Amsterdam and Jerusalem. Here is a link to it.

(Double click on the first picture to show it large. Press the right-arrow key to go to the next one and so on.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

2001 Zimbabwe

I have finally sorted and posted the pictures from my 2001 trip to the eclipse in Zimbabwe. Here is a link to it.

One down

Congress has already spoken. Civil service pensions, including mine, will increase 5.8%. The customary increase is the consumer price inflation rate less 1%. This year Congress has foregone the 1% take-away and tacked on 2%. That is the bailout for the retirees.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Crash Becomes Personal

I just heard the penny drop. I have at last realized that this crash is happening to me, to me personally. Until Monday I thought that losing 60% of my savings was something to be wry about but not something that changed my life particularly. After all, 40% of plenty is still enough isn't it?

Well, no. Not all expenses are created equal. Some are not discretionary - paying the mortgage is not optional, paying PG&E is not optional, paying the property tax is not optional, paying the insurance is not optional, paying the telephone bill isn't really optional. Neither is paying for the internet.

Non-discretionary monthly spending sums to a quantum that cannot be reduced. It used to be called one's nut.

My pension almost covers my house payment. Everything else I spend I get by borrowing margin against my portfolio. I negotiated a 3.875% rate so that was not a bad arrangement. Before, by which I mean from when I retired in 2004, until late last year, the ratio between what I spent and what I had was about 1 to 13. In theory my money would run out in 13 years, when I was 73. In practice, my mutual fund stock appreciated in value and paid dividends. In practice it would last until I was 90. Nobody in my family lives to be 90 so I was fine.

Now the ratio is 6. If I spend at the rate I have these past four years, I will run out of money in 6 years. The year will be 2014 and I will be 68. If that happens I would literally have to chose between paying the mortgage and buying food.

If I spend at half the rate I have been, the money will last 12 years. I will be 74. But my pension plus half the amount I spent this year will not quite cover the nut, the minimum quantum of non-discretionary expenses. It is not obvious that the stock market will recoup any significant fraction any time soon. My discretionary budget will become -- and remain - zero. And I will still run out of money in 12 years.

Fortunately, there are options. I can rent my house by the week through (Vacation Rentals By Owners). I have just started doing this. There is some interest in it for extended families traveling to wedding parties in the spring and summer. If this goes well, it might suffice for a permanent and insecure penury. That is nothing much to look forward to. But there are worse fates.

Another is the possibility that Congress will increase civil service retirement pensions, including mine. If I were Congress, that would seem both an excellent idea and also a terrible one. On the one hand the money could be handed out efficiently and quickly to people who would probably spend it right away. On the other hand, if it were proposed as a permanent increase the spending would go on forever, long after it had ceased to be relevant to the current problem. It would be a permanent drag on the treasury.

Handing out a temporary increase, while logical, would not solve my problem. My problem is structural - built in to my situation.

Another possibility is that the government would change from being a lender of last resort as it was under the now-dead Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae system, to being a direct lender. The numbers I have heard several times is that the government would continue to borrow at 2.7% and lend at 4.5% to borrowers. It was initially proposed that loans would be available only to house buyers. That suggestion shows how much in the grip of business the economists who suggested it are.

Half the houses listed for sale in the United States today are foreclosures. On the apparently still-radical assumption that foreclosure is a bad thing, Congress could make 4.5% money available as refinance loans. If I could get such a loan, my interest rate would be reduced almost a quarter, down from 5.875%. While not a full solution, it would help a lot. The fly in the ointment is that not even Congress will lend money to someone who hasn't even a hint of the ability to pay it back. So that is not likely to happen.

Another possibility is that all this botch of billions here and billions there might actually work and the economy and the stock market will be restored. One thing that bedevils thinking about economics is that somehow even people who know better think, or at least feel, that the current situation can never end. In boom times everyone acts like it will never end. In depressions people act like that will never end either. But maybe this will just muddle through to some sort of boring and uncertain middle state between roaring prosperity and precipitous collapse.

I could go back to renting out the larger part of my house and living in the mother-in-law apartment. That too would be a stable penury. I would slowly lose my mind from the claustrophobia of the place, but it is an option.

Still another possibility would be to live in the mother in law unit and rent out rooms upstairs as i did for a decade when I came here. There is less money to be had from renting rooms than from renting the place as a five or six bedroom apartment, but it is less claustrophobic because I could wander around the place even though it would be shared.

Another possibility is that I will run out of money and have my house foreclosed out from under me. In which case I would wind up living in my car. My car, as it happens, is 37 feet long, has a kitchen, bathroom, shower, and sleeps six. Both the United States and Canada have no end of places one can park a bus for a few days. I would become a homeless snowbird -- living in the sunny north in summer, in the warm south in winter.

Which is a wonderful irony. The RV, the pinnacle of extravagance and poor judgment, is now my only real security.

As my mother, and every Jewish mother, used to say, "Man plans, and G_d laughs."

What's Good for GM is...

[GM's 7 to 10.8 mpg Hummer H2]

We are told that bad things will happen to America if the Big 3 automakers go bankrupt. But what happened to America when they were making money?

Americans not getting killed in auto accidents is good for America. The auto companies fought mandatory seat belts. The automakers fought and won against mandatory airbags.

Americans not breathing polluted air is good for America. The auto companies fought emission controls. At one point they denied the technology existed to meet the proposed standards and that it would take take years and cost billions to develop it. Even while they were testifying to this under oath before Congress, Volvo was actually marketing vehicles that met the standards. When informed of this they simply repeated themselves. How could they get away with such crap? John Dingel (Dem - Dearborn) was chairman of the committee.

Even now, cars meeting the ULEV (ultra-low emission vehicle) standards are being sold by BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Volvo, and Mitsubishi. I found no mention of any GM, Ford, or Chrysler car which meets the standard.

Americans not importing vast quantities of petroleum is good for America. The Big 3 fought the CAFE fuel economy rules for years until they found the SUV loophole and drove their entire industry through it. In effect there are now no CAFE fuel economy standards. Part of our current disaster is compounded by our buying so much foreign oil that the deficits are driving down the value of the dollar.

Americans not being fleeced of their money by exploiting insecurity about their manliness is good for America. Detroit continues to market ever bigger, ever more expensive, and ever more unnecessary pickup trucks with commercials about toughness and strength.

Now they have stooped to blaming union wages for the insolvency of their companies. While they themselves take millions each from companies they control. Their arrival in Washington in private jets was not an oversight. It was who they are, what their culture is.

The function of bankruptcy is to transfer assets from those who have not been productive with them to others who may use them more productively.

The fact is that for a number of reasons, reasons of character and reasons of culture, the managements of the Big 3 auto companies are not very good at their jobs. Their assets should be transferred via bankruptcy to folks who are better at it than they are.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

More Outrage

The Lands End Christmas catalog has a picture of a skinny Santa Claus on the cover. Their excuse is that the guy is some schlemazzel celebrity whom no straight person has ever heard of.

I can safely promote myself as one who smells corrupt self-interest wherever the odor is to be found. But I suspect this is even crazier.

Americans are fat and getting fatter at what I am told is an alarming rate. From the point of view of a clothing company this is wonderful news. Fat people not only need larger clothes which cost more, but we need to constantly buy new clothes as we outgrow our old ones. So obviously one markets to this growing market segment, right? Wrong.

The fantasy promoted by the marketers is that if you buy their product that you will look like the hunk or babe shown wearing it. Their theory is that maybe you hadn't noticed that you have swelled up to the size of a Buick?

This fantasy is so strong and pursued so relentlessly (I wanted to write 'obdurately' there because it is a niftier word, but 'relentlessly' is more accurate.) that not even Santa Claus can be shown as fat. Even classic images embedded in our folklore and folkpoetry (visions of sugar plums, a bowlful of jelly) are trashed.

Santa is not supposed to have the assassin's lean and hungry look. He is supposed to be jolly. Fie upon Lands End, upon Madison Avenue, and upon capitalism generally, as the enemies of humanity.

Braindead in the Water

During the recent massacres of 170 or more people in India, the New York Times described the perpetrators as "militants". (They omitted to specify what they were militant about -- vegetarianism perhaps? or maybe pacifism?) This sat badly with hundreds of Indians who wrote to protest the Times' apologetic phrase.

Since Indians are neither Jews nor white, it is politically incorrect to countenance massacring them. This created a problem for the editors and writers of the Times. So the Newspaper of Record responded to the pressure. This is a considerable novelty for them.

The Times has for decades pointedly ignored Jewish protests of their murderers being described as Islamic concerned citizens or some such. But the massacre of non-Jews, especially of non-white non-Jews, could not be brushed aside so cavalierly. Something had to be done.

So the Times' editors and reporters fearlessly thought of yet another apologetic evasion. The former "militants" have become the even more sanitary "attackers".

Such is the Times' obdurate refusal to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, terrorists should be called "terrorists".

But the Times has to rely on reports from other news services, which generally are not as politically correct as the Times. The other news services do use the word "terrorism" to describe incidents of -- what shall I call it?, oh, say, for lack of a better word -- terrorism.

Apparently Indian news services were unwilling to have their reporting perverted and their people insulted. So the Times was obliged to use the word "terrorism". But not "terrorists". This is like admitting there is golf but refusing to admit the existence of golfers.

The surface absurdity that the Times has wrought for itself reflects their underlying intellectual dishonesty.

However, let it not be thought that the Gray Lady has relinquished their underlying refusal to report honestly. Their three page description and summary of the massacre of more than 170 people nowhere contains any reference to Islam, to Muslims, nor to Jihad.

Which means that their reporting leaves the event utterly inexplicable. It just happened. No reason is given. If the reader does not already know who the "attackers" were, or the reasons for the attack, she will not find out from reading the Times.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Neologism Discovered in Leaf Pile Behind House

It follows, does it not, that those not in office are excumbents?

And what is the deal with increments and excrements?

[John McCain enjoying his continued excumbency]

But the Fundamentals Are Sound - 2

From CNN Money Magazine today --
Home prices in the 10-city index have fallen for 26 consecutive months. The decline has broadened over the past 12 months, with prices dropping in every city of the 20-city index during September.

In the weakest market, Phoenix, the 12-month loss came to 31.9%. Las Vegas prices plummeted 31.3% and San Francisco recorded a 29.5% decline.

Foreclosures continue to take a heavy toll, with sales in some cities dominated by properties repossessed by banks and then put back on the market, often at bargain prices. In Las Vegas and Cleveland, for example, about half of all homes for sale are bank-owned properties, according to the real estate Web site,
Remember when "flush" was "with success", "with money", with five cards of the same suit?

Intuitively Obvious

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bears

[the Axe]

beat Stanford in the Big Game today, 37 to 16.

Stanford ran away with the game in the first half, with enormous margins in yards rushing and in yards passing, but repeatedly turned the ball over or failed to score from close in. Once they marched the entire length of the field, got stopped in front of the goal line, then missed the field goal. In the last seconds of the first half, on fourth down and a foot to go for a touchdown, the Stanford coach chose to kick a field goal. Can the Cardinal eleven not have understood the lack of confidence in them?

It would seem they did. In the second half Cal ran all over them, scoring repeatedly, often on insolent trick plays. Jahvid Best, a sophomore, dodged and swerved through holes in the Stanford defense on his way to 200+ yards for the day. Stanford did their best to help Cal win by incurring stupid penalty after stupid penalty.

The Stanford Axe Committee had to turn over the Axe to the Cal Axe Committee on the sidelines at the closing whistle. Because of the history between them, there were lots of police surrounding the transfer. Fortunately the Cal football players took it away from the serious and self-important committees and waved it over their heads on the field making it less a symbol and a tradition and more a simple trophy.

The announcers said the game has been played 110 times since 1892. Cal has won 45 times. One does not have to be in either school's math department to figure out that Cal will have to win every game for the next 20 years to pull even.



Tonight my ex- gave a small birthday party for me. No one else thought to do that. On the other hand when I was there I saw a pair of pewter candlesticks I gave her thirty years ago. She had put them in her garage.

Now that I think of it, it is stupid, stupid, stupid that I should care an iota. Once I gave them to her they became hers to do whatever she wanted with them. She is entitled to throw them out if she likes. The real reason one gives candlesticks or anything else is to discharge the social obligation to give a gift. It is not uncommon that the giver doesn't want to give the gift and the recipient doesn't want to receive it. Yet we continue to give and receive, holiday after holiday.

To be a sulky child because one's present does not have a place of honor forever after is idiotic. So why bring it up? Because one is sometimes a sulky child, an idiot?

Changing Washington

In the New York Times today --
In light of the downturn, Mr. Obama is also said to be reconsidering a key campaign pledge: his proposal to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. According to several people familiar with the discussions, he might instead let those tax cuts expire as scheduled in 2011, effectively delaying any tax increase while he gives his stimulus plan a chance to work.

That approach, Mr. Daley said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “looks more likely than not.”
Mr. Obama was elected 19 days ago, and will not even begin his term for another 61 days. I am not sure if this is a record for earliest broken campaign promise, but it has to be a contender.

The advantage of cynicism is that one is never disappointed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


[the Honda FCX Clarity]
The car in the picture does not have an engine. It has a fuel cell stack and electric motors and a large lithium-ion battery. It converts hydrogen gas into power and water vapor.

This presumably is the next thing after hybrids. Notice that it is available only by lease, not by sale. I assume the reason is that it is only available to buyers big enough to have their a hydrogen supply available at their own gas stations. An example of somebody that big would be the State of California.

[Interesting mental note - I thought of California rather than the federal government because by long experience the federal government has always been an obstacle and naysayer to green technology. Largely because Detroit is in the US but not in California. So much so that the measure of technological progress usually came down to a fight over jurisdiction. Invariably with the state's rights conservatives insisting on broad federal jurisdiction, and the statist liberals pressing state's rights.

Starting in late January that may begin to change. It will take a while to change mental gears and unconscious assumptions.]

An example of a corporation big enough would be Chevron. As in -- not bloody likely. Chevron and the other oil companies will fight desperately to prevent or delay anything that will make their refineries, supertankers, oil leases, and management expertise obsolete. And they have vast amounts of money to spend in Sacramento and Washington.

Getting back to the car, there are test drive reviews of it from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and some other paper. They all loved it, particularly because of its smoothness. Since it is electrically powered, it does not have engine vibration.

The EPA rates the fuel cell in the FCX at the equivalent of 74 miles per gallon. According to Honda a gas engine converts 18% of the energy in its fuel to mechanical work to power the car, a hybrid engine converts 30%. The FCX fuel cell converts 60%.

The current state of the technology is that hydrogen is obtained by removing it from natural gas, which is a fossil fuel and thus in eventually finite supply. It would also require drilling in wildlife reserves in Alaska and other such misbehaviors.

But if the politics of it were ever to be sorted out, unlimited supplies could be produced by nuclear plants dissociating water into hydrogen and oxygen. Nuclear plants used to produce hydrogen would have a huge advantage of over those now used to produce electricity. Because of losses in transmission, electricity producers must be within a moderate distance of the population centers consuming the electricity.

Hydrogen, like oil, can be cheaply shipped any distance in tanker ships. Which means the nuclear plants can be in the remotest, most seismically stable places on earth. Hydrogen tankers would be safer than oil tankers because there could be no spills, only gas leaks. Even leaks would be of no great importance. Hydrogen released in the air will soon oxidize into mist or rain.

But those are all thoughts for the future. First we have to develop hydrogen production capacity with current catalyst-based technology and a network of hydrogen supply stations. And then expand production of cars and light trucks like the Honda FCX.

But even before that we have to drink beer and watch the Big Game which is on right now. Go Bears!

That's It? That's What We Get for $25 BILLION?

[the Chevy Volt]

From the NY Times today--
G.M. says the car, which is scheduled to arrive in showrooms two years from now, will be able to travel 40 miles on a charge, but it will also have a small gas engine to extend the range to as much as 640 miles using both the battery and gasoline (the 1.4 liter, four-cylinder engine is intended to run a generator that will power the car and recharge the batteries once they are depleted). It is expected to cost about $40,000.

In only two years GM can produce an inferior version of the Prius? For $40,000. IF we give them $25,000,000,000 to do it?

I suggest we as a nation, and Congress as a congress, give them the national and Congressional bird. And I mean neither the eagle nor the turkey.

The very fact they have nothing better to offer suggests that they are bankrupt intellectually as well as financially. Let them go into bankruptcy, then have the trustee in bankruptcy sell their plants to Toyota or Honda. The Japanese car companies already knows how to build Priuses and Civic Hybrids and they don't need $25,000,000,000 to find out. Even if the government had to lend them part of the transition costs, it would still be a bargain.

Today, this very day, Toyota will sell you a shiny new Prius starting at $22,000 or a larger Camry Hybrid for $26,000 or a still-larger Highlander Hybrid for $34,000. A Honda Civic Hybrid starts at $23,000. Notably, Honda's FCX Clarity fuel cell car is already in production in limited numbers. Its tail pipe emissions are H2O, not CO2.

With GM management in charge, GM's assets are worthless because they can't make a profit with them. With Toyota or Honda management in charge, they might be worth something. This is an example where the free market is right. The penalty for persistent incompetence and short-sightedness is, and should be, economic extinction, removal from the marketplace. That has to happen to GM management.

Or we could bet $25,000,000,000 of our money that a $40,000 bad copy of the Prius will turn a profit. Especially with their Japanese competitors by then having a ten year lead in producing theirs. That ought to work.

Giving the Devil Her Due

I am tired of the election but I will float one last annoyance about it.

One of the most damaging moments Sarah Palin had with Katie Couric was when Couric asked her for an example of any regulation John McCain had favored in the past 26 years. Palin couldn't think of any and looked like an idiot.

In all fairness, Palin's problem wasn't that she didn't know the answer. Her problem was that there was no answer. McCain was going around the country lying about how he had supported regulation of the financial markets which could have prevented the current collapse. He hadn't. As Couric pointed out, McCain had consistently voted with his fellow Republicans to repeal every manner of regulation. Now that that policy has led to disaster he was trying to lie his way out of it. That wasn't Palin's fault. If Couric had asked McCain the same question he couldn't have answered it either.

Admittedly, if McCain had ever voted for rather than against a regulation, there is no chance Sarah Palin would have known about it.

What I think was the worst thing I heard about Palin was not that she was a moron. There have been plenty of those in high office. She is no stupider than Dan Quayle, for instance. Nor that she was a hypocrite and a liar as shown in the Youtube video here:

There have been no end of those in high office in my lifetime too. The worst thing I heard about her was that her staffers had urged her to prepare for the interview and she had refused. Repeatedly. Which is why she got clobbered in interview after interview.

George W. Bush has never been accused of being any great intellect. But he seems humble enough to realize it. Nor was Ronald Reagan any mental giant. But he had a formidable work ethic and was always so well-briefed that he was bulletproof even under hostile press questioning.

Palin is both ignorant and a moron, and simultaneously too cocksure to realize her limitations. That makes her truly dangerous.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Happened - 2

[not Obama voters]

It is considered a truism that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is a big political and social change.

It isn't.

I saw a statistic that white people voted for McCain by 55% to 45%, white men 56% to 44%. Even more tellingly white Protestants voted for McCain 65% to 35%. We can assume that white Protestant men voted for McCain 66% to 34% -- two to one.

A hundred years ago white Protestant men were the only people in the country who voted. The enfranchisement of women, of blacks, and the arrival of Jews, Catholics, and Asians has changed greatly who votes in the United States. The election of Barack Obama is not the change. It reflects the changes that have been accumulating for a century. The election of Obama is not the change -- it is the result of the changes.

There are places where the whole population is white and Protestant -- Utah, Idaho, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Alaska. Western Colorado. Those places all voted for McCain roughly two to one.

Curiously there are other places that are also white and Protestant -- Maine, Oregon, Iowa, New Hampshire -- that voted for Obama. So even that reasoning doesn't work.

Another argument is that states with big cities voted for Obama, rural states did not. That works for Oregon and Nevada but not for Maine or Utah.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The 100 Days

Harvey writes:
So Obama has everything he needs to succeed or fail on his own. If he succeeds, and we're all prosperous, peaceful and happy, it will be because:
1. He made the right decisions and was damn lucky.
2. He was just damn lucky.

If he fails, and the economy sinks further, wars linger, and everyone is sick and tired of government interference, it will be because:
1. He made the wrong decisions and was damn unlucky.
2. Everything is so bad it is going to take twenty years to correct no matter what he does. Also known as being damn unlucky.

So who will Obama be, Hoover or Roosevelt?

By the way, I think I had General Motors on my dead pool.

It is commonly thought that a new president has a 100 day honeymoon before the disenchantment and bickering starts.

So we will know the answer to Harvey's questions by April 28 next year.

p.s. I was one of those who thought GM made a mistake in coming out with the Albatross V8 -- in spite of their claims it would be larger, more luxurious, and more powerful than the Toyota Camry and Prius.

Ta Da!

The mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich, has been elected United States Senator from Alaska. Senator-elect Begich is a Democrat. He is the 60th Senator in the bloc. Together with 57 of his colleagues and two independents, he can be expected to vote cloture on Republican filibusters. The House, the Senate, and the White House are now actually in Democratic hands. The election of 2008 has become the Revolution of 2008.

The Obama administration now has the votes to enact sweeping reforms of our national life if only it has the will.

It is almost too petty to mention that with the election of Begich, there will be no election to fill the convicted Senator Stevens' seat, an election the popular Governor of Alaska would have won handily. Which means that we won't have Sarah Palin to kick around any more.

I join Harvey in viewing the loss of Palin from our national life with a certain tinge of regret. She was so well suited to be our National Buffoon. Oh well, I guess we can't lose 'em all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What Happened

Thank you for the birthday wishes.

My understanding is that subprime mortgages were only the largest and most concentrated asset class to go down the toilet. The same market assumptions that made mortgage lenders relax and ultimately drop their loan qualification standards for mortgage borrowers, applied to other lenders and borrowers. The most critical class of lending being short and long term lending to corporations, called 'commercial paper'.

The market would always expand, the price of the thing being sold would always go up, debts could always be refinanced, so why worry about the borrowers actual creditworthiness? The studied pretending away of actual creditworthiness went so far as to take the form of 'no documents' loans where, in return for letting you lie to them about your ability to repay they charged an additional quarter of a percent interest. Lying was formalized and priced. I am writing this in a house financed in just that way and writing this on a computer paid for with that lied-for money.

One heard during the discussion of the bailout that it wouldn't do any good because the corporations getting the money weren't going to lend it to anyone -- because no one's balance sheet was to be believed.

That is not a problem of misleading high school dropouts into thinking that Felipe's job at the carwash would still be enough to pay for the house after the mortgage reset. That is a systemic corruption of business standards.

It represents a conflict between the classes represented by the Republican party. The Eastern banking establishment had traditionally stood for old money and fiscal probity -- banking, insurance, securities -- three piece suits, gold watch chains, vested interests, old families, old money.

The Western conservatives represented people who made money in oil and in building whole cities in Arizona deserts in a year and don't look too closely at the financing or the sewage disposal. Speculators.

Regulation was a minor matter to Eastern establishment bankers. It meant that the government made sure that the correct standards were being maintained and outsiders were being kept out. An early example was junk bonds. They were called junk because by traditional standards of fiscal problity they were beneath consideration. Reputable brokers would not put their clients in them. Others would. And the ones who would (and their clients) made a lot of money on them.

For Western businessmen the loan to the wildcatter became OK after the fact when they hit oil and everybody made money. When neighborhoods, which didn't have streets or utilities let alone houses, got sold, problems with the financing would take care of themselves. To them regulation was an obstacle to be overcome. They were the outsiders the government rules were supposed to keep out.

The triumph of Ronald Reagan and deregulation mark the definitive turning of the Republican party toward the West. It also began the suffusion of Western attitudes about fiscal probity and business methods into Eastern banking, insurance, and securities.

To me there are two large symbols of the transition. One is the migration of the Bush family from Kennebunkport to Crawford. The other is the special emphasis on the rescue of AIG.

AIG sold business insurance. The assumption had been that one didn't need government regulation because there were market mechanisms that would take care of it. The specifics of the assumption was that bad practices would create risk and that risk would be carefully examined by the insurers. The insurers would either refuse to assume it or they would socialize it by raising premiums on the guilty party and that would put the bad practices on a risk-reward spectrum like everything else in the market. And the key company, at the end of all the insuring and re-insuring, was AIG.

My assumption is that the underwriting department at AIG came under greater and greater pressure from management not to look too closely at the balance sheets their clients were offering. AIG management, like every other management in the country, in the world, had to chose between controlling risk and turning away customers. Since the market would always expand and the price of the thing being sold would always go up, and everything could be refinanced, why turn away business?

The corruption of AIG and some of the Big 8 accounting firms was the abdication of business' responsibility to regulate itself. What we now know was also happening was the loss of the market's ability to regulate itself. Without the government regulating business that left..... nothing. The abyss.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


[Leiberman, Frist, McCain, Kennedy -- notice the identical grey suits]

Biden is on the radio talking about Leiberman (?) and letting him keep the chairmanship on the HOmeland Commish.
What's your thought on that one. L.

Contrary to popular impression, the president is not the government, the Congress is. Any legislative program of reform has to go through the Senate as well as the House. The evolution of the institution is that filibusters, which used to be reserved for extreme situations, are now routine and a given on any bill whatsoever. The number of senators needed to close off a filibuster is 60.

The Democrats have 57 seats. There are two independents - Leiberman and Sanders. There are three unresolved seats -- in Georgia, Minnesota, and Alaska. Leiberman and Sanders both caucus with the Democrats -- which means they vote with them on all routine matters and in return their seniority on committees is the same as if they were Democrats. Which gives the Democrats in effect 59 senators. With Leiberman they need to win only one of the the three unresolved seats to be able to pass legislation. Without him they need to win two.

The purpose of the recent election was to be able to institute reforms. If the Democrats do not get 60 votes in the Senate that won't happen. The victory of 2008 will be hollow -- form without substance.

Name any thing at all that you hope the new government will do differently than the old, and I can guarantee you that without 60 senators voting as Democrats, it will not happen.
Are you willing to throw away this historic opportunity to change the direction of the whole society, to begin to reverse twenty-eight years of regressive social policy, for the sake of political correctness? Is the urgency of redressing Joe Leiberman having disagreed with the left wing of the Connecticut Democratic Party so great that we are going to throw away the future of our country for it?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

But the Fundamentals are Strong

And the Beat(ing) Goes On

[Vanguard Extended Market Fund]

Last Today's Change
29.31 –1.85 –5.95%

1-day high 30.69
1-day low 29.27

52-week range
52-week low 28.50
52-week high 55.00

10-day average389.6K

Water-Ice on Mars

This is a photograph taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander in October. The white patch near the center of the picture appears to be water-ice.

The discovery of water-ice on Mars is A Big Deal. It makes the existence or prior existence of life there a near-certainty.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Peace Process

Rumsfeld said that any country that you can see three sides of from a good hotel room should think twice before giving away territory.