Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Monday, December 29, 2008
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:
Sunday, December 28, 2008
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 -
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
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
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.
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
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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.
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
Mercury levels in fish:
per the National Resources Defense Council
Mackerel (King, Spanish, Gulf)
Tuna (Ahi, Yellowfin, Bigeye, Canned Albacore)
Tuna (canned chunk light, Skipjack)
Crawfish / Crayfish
Mackerel (N. Atlantic, Chub)
Salmon (may contain PCB's)
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
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
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
I recommend tickectomy to anyone and everyone.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
[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....
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
I have finally sorted and posted the pictures from my 2001 trip to the eclipse in Zimbabwe. Here is a link to it.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
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 VRBO.com (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."
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.