Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shirtless in Hawaii

The top item (I am not making this up) on the My Yahoo! news feed today is Shirtless Obama Causes Stir. Evidently some inquisitive cell phone somewhere on the island got a snap of our president-elect in swim trunks, and everybody is flipping out over it.

OK, he's buff. We actually knew that. Will you people now Get A Life??

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are There No Prisons? Are There No Workhouses?

The California state budget is due, by law, on June 30. However, because of California's absurd requirement of a supermajority 2/3 vote to pass a budget, the minority Republicans in the legislature have successfully blocked the budget for nearly six (count them) months. And in all this time, they've never said what they want to do about the budget; all they've done is object to whatever the Democrats or the governor suggested, especially if it included taxes.

I'm the wrong person to be writing this; the magnitude of this mess deserves the talents of the late, great Molly Ivins. But I'm the one who's here.

Today the Republicans finally revealed a positive plan (in the narrow sense that they would support it; it has no positive features in the usual sense of the word) to balance the state budget.

They want to do it on the backs of California's school children. California K-12 budget this year is $58 billion; they want to reduce that to $48 billion. I can't tell you the exact percentage because the $10 billion cut is over the next 18 months. But it's over 15%, on top of cuts already made so far.

I saw no mention in the Republican plan of reducing any spending on prisons. I guess they'd rather send the kids to jail than educate them. I haven't checked the numbers, but we're close to spending more money on prisons than on schools now, and this could easily put us over the edge.

Mind you, the Republicans don't restrict their attention to the schools; they also want to cut funding for the poor and the mentally ill homeless. Their edifying proposals also include:

...Reduced monthly supplemental security income payments to very poor people. I have a friend receiving SSI - her monthly check would go from $870 to $830. You try living on either of those amounts.

...Reduced funding for mental health services to homeless adults. (Prop. 63, 2004)

...Reduced health care and education programs for very young children (by diverting tobacco taxes back into the general fund). (Prop. 10, 1998)

The numbers and dates in parentheses are the voter-approved propositions which established the funding, and the years they passed. The voters would have to approve the changes, which means a special election, which the state would have trouble paying for without a budget.

They propose one cut I fully approve of: a 5% across the board cut in the Legislature's operating budget, including their salaries. Of course, I don't think they should be paid for what they're doing at all.

Finally, they want to improve the business climate by "relaxing environmental and labor regulations. Those would include extending deadlines to retrofit diesel engines in trucks and changing the rules on overtime pay and meal breaks."

I was wrong. This doesn't need Molly Ivins; this needs Charles Dickens. This is Victorian; and the Republicans are Victorian in their smug self-righteousness. They'd rather see people die of asthma or lung cancer from diesel fumes than force companies to do technically possible retrofits (
there are two sides to the diesel retrofit, and I admit it; but I'm making a point here). They'd rather make people work 14 hour days without overtime pay than force employers to keep track of how many hours their employees work. And they don't care about the poor, the mentally ill, or the homeless.

I wonder how long it'll be before some Republican suggests that we re-institute that great English institution, the workhouse. We certainly have a lot of poor homeless people to put in them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ponzi Schemes

After the alleged Madoff affair, are we going to change the name of Ponzi schemes? Will they now be called "Madoff schemes"? He has certainly, if guilty as alleged, taken the practice to hitherto unscaled heights.

It's amazing how great minds think alike. On November 24, I wrote this:
So is the main difference between a bank and a Ponzi scheme the fact that the bank actually intends to give you your money back, on demand, and the Ponzi schemer doesn't? Because in both cases, when you get money back, it isn't "your" money (in the sense that it's the same dollar bills you gave them earlier). It's money that someone else just deposited, which hasn't been loaned out yet. And when that person writes a check, the money that changes hands came from yet someone else.
And today, commenter M W (mrw2day) wrote, on the Planet Money post About that $50 Billion:
I don't understand what all the whinning [sic] is about. Mr. Madoff was conducting business exactly like a bank. Sorta a fractional reserve system of investing. If Mr. Madoff was a bank, the treasury would be bailing him out. Or is it that the banking system is just a giant ponzi scheme?
I really am getting kind of a weird feeling about the banking business from all this.

According to today's Planet Money podcast, what brought Mr. Madoff down was exactly what has brought down several large banks and a couple of brokerage houses: more of his customers wanted their money back at once than he had cash in the house to cover. If he'd been investing in actual assets for them, he could have sold some (although at a loss); since he'd just been spreading it around, so to speak, he couldn't cope.

I will never understand the state of mind that gives large amounts of money to Joe to invest, merely because Joe plays golf at the same club as the mark - sorry, investor. Or because Joe has been managing money for the investor's friend Ed and giving him really reliable returns. I've heard at least one broadcast where a fairly well known financial expert (can't recall who) had reportedly questioned Madoff's returns, because they were "too good to be true" (he effectively never reported a down year) - but nobody listened.

When it comes to money, the human race seems to be lacking a "too good to be true" detector.

In Defense of John Yoo

I've been meaning to post this for several days and was distracted by concerts, inattentive drivers, and other things.

The City Council of Berserkeley is trying to run the world again. Last week they passed a resolution urging the United States to prosecute John Yoo for war crimes. (I presume they expect this prosecution to take place in late January. It won't happen before the inauguration.) The extreme wing actually set out to urge U.C. Berkeley to rearrange its class schedule so no student would ever have to take a course from him, but there were enough semi-rational people on the council that they couldn't get it through.

As everyone knows, John Yoo's "war crimes" consisted of writing the legal memos which the Bush administration used to justify its use of torture on terrorism suspects, when he was a deputy assistant attorney general under the first Bush administration.

Any regular reader of this blog also knows (or should) that I am not in favor of torturing terrorism suspects (or anybody else), that I am generally opposed to almost everything the Bush administration has done (even their anti-AIDS campaign, PEPFAR, is marred by their insistence that no one should use condoms, ever), and that I will be delighted and relieved to see the whole boiling of them oozing out the door in January.

But if John Yoo can be prosecuted for his opinions, who's next?

He didn't act on his opinions; other people did. It's arguable that those people committed war crimes. As far as I know, no one claims that John Yoo has ever done anything except write legal memos and teach law, and have opinions with which a great many people disagree.

Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." John Yoo has as much right to state that using torture can be justified in the case of terrorist subjects, or any of the other appalling things he has said, as I have to write this post disagreeing with him. The issue isn't that he wrote the memos. The issue is that the Bush administration acted on his memos. They may even have told him what opinions they'd like to see in the memos.

The Berkeley City Council doesn't understand that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it extends to the most reprehensible opinions you can think of. You have no freedom of speech unless the Nazis, the Communists, and the Ku Klux Klan have freedom of speech. Or unless John Yoo does.

The main restriction on freedom of speech is that one is not allowed to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Is it shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater to opine that torturing terrorists is legal, if you have reason to believe people will act on your opinion?? If there is any parallel there, I think it is overweighted by the importance of maintaining free speech for all opinions, even the wrong ones.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More Reality Checks

I had a very close call last night. I walked to the mailbox to drop in some letters with checks, which means I have to cross 2 streets. And yes, before you ask, I was wearing a brown jacket and navy slacks. It was around 5 PM on a largely cloudless afternoon, and while it wasn't blazing sunny, it wasn't what I call dark, either. It was bright twilight.

The intersection I have to cross is a T, and I was crossing the base of the T when this happened. As I walked across the street, a car pulled up to the stop sign in front of me, on the arm of the T, and signaled a left turn. I had just about reached the center line, so I stepped out a little to allow the driver to turn behind me. The driver then pulled into the oncoming lane and came straight at me. I jumped backward to get out of the way, lost my balance, and fell in the crosswalk, rolling on my right side. If that judo class I attended briefly decades ago taught me nothing else, it taught me how to fall! The car missed me by maybe two handspans - a little over a foot.

I picked myself up off the pavement as the car pulled to a stop (still in the oncoming lane). The driver (a 60-ish white woman) got out with both hands to her cheeks and said, "My God, I didn't even see you - I was thinking about something else!" My personal take is that when you're driving a car you should be thinking about driving the car, but I realize that's hopeless. I pointed out to her that if she had turned into the correct lane we wouldn't have been having the conversation at all, and stomped off. Except for a sore hand and hip, both of which are largely gone now, I wasn't hurt; but oh brother, was I shaken!

The incredible thing about all this is that I never dropped the letters, which were in my left hand.

I went on to the mailbox, and a woman in a car that had come up (in the lane where the idiot stopped) called to me and asked if I wanted the license plate. On consideration, I decided I did. I tried to report this to the police and they wouldn't take a report since I wasn't injured, and no officer saw the illegal turn. I may yet file a citizen's report.

There's nothing startling here. It's been suggested that I should have been wearing lighter colored clothing, to which I respond that the driver should have been aware of her surroundings. But the most dangerous thing any of us does, ever, is have anything to do with an automobile - including walking across a street in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Value of a Man

I tried to do this subject a couple of years ago and was never satisfied with what I wrote, so I didn't post it. But with the economy falling into a hole, the Big Three automakers tottering on the edge, and the union contract with the UAW intimately involved in all of it, I think it's worth, once again, trying to ask the question:

How do you judge the proper value of a day's work?? What is a fair day's pay, anyhow?

A couple of years ago, a lot of jobs in my former field (computer support) were being outsourced to India, with the (not always unspoken) subtext that it
costs too much to hire Americans . I actually once heard a senior executive from another part of the country tell a room full of California techies, "You people just get paid way too much."

So I began to ask myself, what is a fair day's pay? My father, a blue-collar worker with a high school education, used to work for around $20 a day; he was a Federal civil servant. I have the draft of a letter he wrote in 1963, applying for a job that paid $2.65 an hour, instead of the $2.57 he was making. On that salary he supported a homemaker wife and two children; he owned his home outright (paid $7,000 in 1950, financed $2,000, paid off in 1952) and paid cash for his (used) cars. Minimum wage in 1960 was $1 an hour, the equivalent of $5.26 per hour in 2003 dollars (source: Working Life, published by the Labor Research Association).

Forty-five years later, minimum wage is $8 an hour ($64 a day) in California ($6.55 Federal), and a laborer making that salary can't even afford to pay rent in the inner Bay Area, much less support a wife and two children. In fact, a family with both adults making minimum wage has trouble with rent here. What's the point of calling it "minimum wage" if it isn't enough to live on??

We're told all the manufacturing jobs have gone overseas because it's cheaper there. It's cheaper there because somebody making $20 a day in Vietnam is pretty well paid (I'm making these numbers up to make a point, so don't yell at me), and therefore the widget that he makes can be sold back to Americans for much less money than if we paid Americans $64 a day. Nobody ever seems to ask about the quality of the widgets. Does the Vietnamese factory make widgets of the same quality as an American factory would? We don't ask; all we ask about is the price. And who are the people asking for the cheapest prices, the best deals? Americans. We're not willing to buy goods that have our own salary costs built into them; how dumb is that?

I'm deliberately not getting into the UAW and its union contracts, for a couple of reasons: one, I don't know much about them, two, I have equivocal feelings about the big unions. (That's another post.) But surely, what applies to the minimum wage worker at $8 an hour applies in spades to the UAW assembly worker making over $70 an hour, $33 of which represents health care, pension and related benefits. (Source: Yahoo Answers, from the Indianapolis Star in 2007) I don't know if my hypothetical Vietnamese factory worker has health care or pension benefits, but I doubt it.

Obviously some of the problem is inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, $1 in 1960 is worth $7.32 (in buying power) in 2008. But that doesn't explain everything. In 1950, Dad bought his house for $7,000. The dollar in 1994 was worth $6.15 in 1950 buying power; but we sold the house after he died, in 1994, for $144,000, over 20 times what he paid for it. If it had only gone up with general inflation, it would have been worth $43,000. How long has it been since you could buy a house in California for $43,000?
This is why I'm thinking that the economy has a long way to fall yet, as we shake out 50 years worth of real estate hyperinflation.

I'm not being very organized here, and that's because I have more questions than answers. It seems unfair to me that some people should work hard for less than a living wage, while others lose jobs entirely for being paid too generously; but who said it was going to be fair? Is there some way we can get back to a condition where a fair day's work pays a wage you can live on? Or is that too much to hope? We'll surely never reach a balanced solution as long as the men at the top (and it always is men, at the top) are paid hundreds of times the salaries paid to the men and women on the bottom.

Nonprofit Politics

In a nonprofit organization, sometimes the politics get thicker than the actual cause can support. I don't propose to identify the organization. But in the last day or so, one of my volunteer groups has had some manifestations that are just hard to live with:

Somebody finished a job they'd taken on, didn't tell anyone they had done so, and then became personally offended when a second person volunteered to take the job over.

Somebody else didn't attend a meeting, never responded to requests for a draft of wording on a new project, but when yet a third person drafted some wording, came back to say that it was poorly composed and shouldn't be used.

I get tired when people take out their personal issues on the volunteer obligations they've undertaken. And yes, I know it's a hopeless complaint. I'm just having a bad afternoon. Grump.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


It's amazing how tiring continual pain is. I'm having a rheumatoid arthritis flare, which I'm convinced (despite my doctor's insistence that there's no relationship) is related to the damp, rainy weather.

It started last night - I reached out for something in the car and my hand (my right hand, of course, that being the one I use) went crazy with pain. Oddly enough, it didn't hurt when I used the hand, like to write, or drive, or even pick up heavy objects like full teapots; it hurt when I extended the fingers. This isn't something we do all that much, but once it started to hurt, of course I kept doing it to see if it was still as bad. (Don't ask. Also, people with arthritis learn pretty soon that an unworked joint is an unworkable joint.) Over time it settled into a throbbing ache in my right knuckle, which it's been doing pretty much continuously since, somewhat eased by chemicals. The knuckle is reddish and looks enlarged to me, although my rheumatologist regularly tells me I have no deformation in my hands. It isn't warm or sore to touch as the last flare was.

I didn't sleep very well last night, at least partly because I was waiting to see if my hand still hurt (even though I took Tylenol). The trouble with RA flare pain is that it does slack off from time to time; but when it does, you can't quite believe it, so you sit there wondering when it's going to start again. Today was rainy, damp, and chilly (50's), and I spent most of the day trying to get my hands warm. A cold aching hand is much harder to live with than a merely cold hand. Also, I've been having little spikes of pain in other hand joints, and even in my left hand; just my immune system going crazy, I guess. They last 30 seconds or so, so they're mostly just annoying.

Based on previous experience, I think this is beginning to ease off. I first wrote "chronic pain," but it isn't really chronic; "chronic" is constant. I had "chronic" before my first knee replacement and it was Much Worse than this. RA flares come and go, and in a few days it'll probably be fine again.
But after roughly 24 hours of it, I'm a basket case; I'm exhausted. As I think about it, the fact that I went out to lunch with some friends and walked 3 miles in the course of it may have some impact on that; but I should be able to walk 3 miles, in 2 segments, without becoming an amoeba.

I started trying to rate it in terms of the 1-10 "pain scale" Kaiser uses. Except that I can't remember Kaiser's stupid pain scale; they gave me a xerox when I had knee surgery but I threw it out. Their web site says "zero is no pain and 10 is the worst pain imaginable." A little Googling of "pain scale" brings up a number of blog posts from medical personnel who think the pain scale is garbage anyway, not to mention the fact that there are multiple pain scales. I give it a 3-4 (the initial spike was at least a 5, really nasty), whatever that is; I can work past it, but unless I'm doing something really interesting, the pain has some of my attention, and I'm always rubbing it to see if it will get better.

You do what you can, you take the pills, you keep things exercised, and it still does this. There Ain't No Justice.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Paulson's Bailout, Take Two

Some time ago, I explained why I think the credit markets are hosed up; one of my readers was even kind enough to say he thought it was well written and well thought out. In short, I think the banks aren't lending to each other because none of them knows what overblown totals in credit default swaps the others may be sitting on, so they're afraid to lend to anyone. If this sounds as though I think the banking system is insolvent, I'm afraid that's what I think these days.

So now Mr. Paulson has conjured another huge sum of money out of his top hat, only a quarter of which will come from the money Congress actually authorized. He's going to throw this money at the consumer lending industry, so people will be able to borrow again; he's doing this by promising to buy up securitized packages of car loans, consumer debt, credit card debt, etc.

I'm still not sure where he thinks he got the authority to print all this money. Congress didn't authorize it. Does the Federal Reserve really have the authority
to print up $800 billion just because the Treasury Secretary says so? I know they can increase the money supply to fight inflation but this seems out of line.

In my previous post, I didn't go into why people aren't spending money because, frankly, I thought it was obvious: the economy is in the tank, job losses are hitting levels not seen in nearly 30 years, mortgages are still resetting higher, everybody's 401K investments have lost 40% of their value, and there's no obvious end in sight. Nobody's spending, even if they still have jobs and can still afford their mortgages, because they're scared shirtless. So to speak. Not to mention the fact that all the credit card issuers (which, to be honest, is the main source of consumer credit in this country) have raised their rates and lowered their credit ceilings.

Is it really necessary for me to explain why offering to buy up bundled securities of credit card and auto loans isn't going to make the American consumer go back out and buy that flat-screen TV?? Apparently it wasn't obvious to Mr. Paulson.

Does Mr. Paulson honestly not understand that nobody is buying houses because house prices are still losing 17.4% a year (per today's Bloomberg article)? Who would go into debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars for an asset that may be worth less next year than what you owe on it? After all, he's supposed to be a brilliant investor.

I'm afraid my paranoia is getting out of control again. I actually just had the thought that Paulson is doing this (assuming he actually has a reason and isn't just flailing) in order to pump the government deficit to even more ridiculous heights, in a deliberate attempt to hamstring the incoming Obama administration's efforts to fix the economy. If I can't fix it, says Hank, it's not going to be fixed.

On the other hand, maybe he's just flailing. That would explain why he never explains what he thinks he's doing.

I flagged this post "we can do this better" - but I have to admit I don't know what we could be doing better. I'm just sure that everything I've seen the administration do to date has not worked, and has not worked for fairly obvious reasons, like being poorly thought out and badly designed. I still think we should force an audit of all the outstanding credit default swaps, publish the results, and let the chips fall where they may. It would destroy a number of insolvent banks; but they're probably going to die eventually anyway, and at least it would make clear where everyone stands.

Monday, November 24, 2008

More About Money

I haven't read them in awhile, but I have several collections of essays by Robert Benchley, the newspaper columnist and humorist from the 1920's and 30's. In a book called The Early Worm (Harper, 1927), his essay, A Plan to Stabilize the Franc, contained this tidbit:
It is much simpler for a nation to go on a budget than for a private family, because a nation never uses real money anyway. A nation says "Here are twenty million francs," or "Give me a hundred million dollars' worth of chips," and, if you push right up close to the counter and ask to see it, what do you find? A couple of theater-ticket stubs, a right-hand glove, and a piece of paper saying, "I.O.U. $100,000,000. . . . A. Mellon." There probably isn't $125 in actual cash in the whole United States Treasury at this very minute. And $45 of that belongs by rights to me, on account of the Government having disallowed my deduction for hotel expenses in my 1925 income tax."
Does that sound familiar? Here's more, from the same essay:
This system of dealing in dream-dollars, which seems to be the special prerogative of governments and large corporations, is called "Credit," and a pretty how-do-you-do it is, too. "Credit," as applied to you and me, means that we have until the fifteenth of the month to dig up the actual gold ore with which to pay our bills. But for a large corporation or a nation it means that, so long as the Treasurer can sign his name, they are on Easy Street. I sign a check, in a kidding way, and give it to Altmeyer's Meat Market. And what does Altmeyer do? Right away he presents it at my bank! And then hell breaks loose. Telephone-calls, registered letters, night-sweats - you'd think the whole world had gone money-mad. And I have to go and get a printing-press and print him his money in half a day.

But let Mr. Mellon sign a check for a billion dollars and no one even looks at the signature to see if it is genuine.
What amazes me about this is how little has changed in the 81 years since Benchley wrote that...


I'm still listening to the Planet Money podcast on NPR, and this week they'll be well worth listening to. They're doing an entire week's podcasts around the theme, "What is money?" And listening to today's interview with Niall Ferguson, the author of The Ascent of Money (a book I think I have to read), I began to get the weirdest question about the banking system. How is the banking system like a Ponzi scheme?

First, what is a Ponzi scheme? A Ponzi scheme is a fairly common scam (Colombia just had a bad one) which works because of the human urge to get something for nothing. The schemer (the original one actually was named Charles Ponzi) offers to double your money in six weeks, or some other outrageously high interest rate. So you and all your friends give him a lot of money; and six weeks later you get double the amount back. So you give him more money. What you don't realize is that the money you got back after six weeks came from the people who invested with him at 5 1/2 weeks. The Ponzi schemer keeps paying people back for some time, because satisfied customers are the best advertisement to bring in more investors. (If you have to invest in a Ponzi scheme, be one of the first. And don't reinvest.) At some point he judges that he has as much as he can pull in on this round, and he puts it all in a bag and skips town.

The point that Ponzi schemes have in common with banks is: they're both based on trust. You give your money to a bank, and you trust that when you want it back you can get it. And when depositors stop trusting that the bank will give them back their money when they want it, there's a run on the bank. Because at any given time, the bank doesn't have all the money that was deposited with it. It's loaned it out, and is collecting interest on it. (More interest than it's paying you.)

So is the main difference between a bank and a Ponzi scheme the fact that the bank actually intends to give you your money back, on demand, and the Ponzi schemer doesn't? Because in both cases, when you get money back, it isn't "your" money (in the sense that it's the same dollar bills you gave them earlier). It's money that someone else just deposited, which hasn't been loaned out yet. And when that person writes a check, the money that changes hands came from yet someone else.

Money is based on trust. Money is not the dollar bills in your pocket; it's your confidence that when you give enough of those dollar bills to the barista at Starbuck's, the barista will give you a latte in return. And it's Starbuck's confidence that when it gives those dollar bills to the barista as a salary, he'll be able to spend them on rent.


It hasn't all been politics lately. My husband and I went to Mendocino the other week, to celebrate his birthday; and I didn't even take the computer. No connectivity for three days. We drove up the coast on Highway 1, because it was clear and sunny; we stayed in Ft. Bragg, in Weller House, which used to belong to a lumber baron in the Good Old Days, and which is distinguished by the ballroom (paneled and ceiled entirely in redwood) on the top floor.

We spent 2 full days just poking around the Mendocino coast: we walked around Cleone Lake in MacKerricher State Park, and later poked through the park's fabulous tide pools. Even with a digital camera, it's remarkably hard to get a reasonable still shot of a hermit crab in a tide pool, because the only thing you can see about them is that they move. Next time I'll have to try video; I think my new camera can do video.

The next day we spent the morning in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, wandering around checking out the fall plantings and trying to see some of the 4 species of hummingbirds that frequent the place. We drove into Mendocino and had lunch at the Cafe Beaujolais, then hiked out to the newly restored Pt. Cabrillo light station. They have an inn there, too. On a sunny warm calm day, what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, to walk out to the point, gradually getting better and better photographs of the Fresnel lens. If you've never seen a Fresnel up close, on a sunny day, you've missed a treat - they shine like jewels in the light station tower. What a place this would be to stay if you want to be "away from it all", and yet you're just outside Mendocino.

The economy isn't being kind to the tourist industry here. We walked into Cafe Beaujolais and got a table, no reservation; I remember when you had to reserve 6 weeks out. We drove into Mendocino at 3 in the afternoon and got a parking place on the main drag. None of the restaurants we ate in was full; the Rendezvous Inn and Restaurant in Fort Bragg, where we ate Thursday night, had only 3 tables full, and the food was fabulous - this place is Zagat rated #1 in Mendocino County for food. The Rendezvous dining room is also fully paneled in redwood - another lumber baron leftover. An added treat: we could walk to it from Weller House.

Saturday night we got a surprise. Remember the ballroom on the top floor of Weller House? The manager of Weller House is a tanguera - she dances the tango for fun. And Weller House was the site of an evening of tango, with a couple of local people providing live music. This isn't the exhibition dance in Tango Forever, which I haven't seen - this is people who dance the tango for fun. They must have had 15 or 20 couples, too, some of whom came a considerable distance - it was quite an evening. The women who danced that night had the most sculptured calves you could imagine, tango is really good for the leg muscles! Most of them wore 3 inch heels, too. In fact, most of the women dressed up for the tango, in elegant cocktail dresses; the men, I'm afraid, were more casual. I saw one guy take off his running shoes and put his leather soled dancing shoes on over his white athletic socks. Sigh. The men generally danced very well, but style? No so much.

I watched them dance for most of an hour, just watching feet. The patterns are hypnotic.

Capitalists, My Eye

Now the election is over, we can look back at the mess in the economy. I see the latest members of the queue at the federal trough are the auto manufacturers. Bail us out, they cry; we're too big to fail. What's bad for GM will be really bad for the country. Give us money or we'll make a big mess when we fail.

But I have to ask: why is GM in this shape? Why are Ford and Chrysler in such straits? And the answer that comes to my mind is, because for thirty years they've all been making stupid, short-sighted marketing decisions. They've been going for the quick, easy buck, selling oversized SUVs getting nothing to the gallon. Their vehicles are junk, too; they routinely score below average on the Consumer Reports reliability scale. It's true that Ford has recently produced a couple of vehicles that score better; but I haven't seen a sign of it from GM.

Worse, they've actively fought attempts to require them to make more efficient (i.e. higher gas mileage) products. The reason it's taken 25 years to get the CAFE standards raised is because of the money the auto industry has poured into lobbying against it.

So Congress says, show us a plan and we'll consider a bailout. Now, this is uncharacteristically business-like for Congress; but I don't think it's unreasonable. There isn't a lender in the world (especially now!) who would hand out money without some idea of what the borrower planned to do with it, and how they expected to pay it back. And the auto CEOs have slunk back to Detroit.

I'll be very interested to see whether they present a plan as requested. I don't think they will, because I don't think they have a plan. I'm not the only one, either - I heard John Boehner, the House minority leader, was quoted on NPR the other day saying he'd been talking to the auto execs, and he didn't think they had a plan. It's very unusual for me to be in agreement with John Boehner.

Does this remind you of Henry Paulson and the $700 billion? Give us a lot of money and we'll fix things. They're tottering on the edge of oblivion and they can't be bothered to convene a strike team to decide what they would do with bailout money if they got it! We'll see what they present to Congress next week, but by God, if they don't have a business plan - three business plans, one each - they shouldn't get any money.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Conduct Your Triumph As A Funeral

The line is from the Tao Te Ching and the context isn't really relevant here because it refers to war. But it's how I feel.

Last night, as Obama's victory was being proclaimed, I checked my email, and received a blow. A man I've known since high school, probably my first true male friend (as opposed to "boyfriend"), dropped dead of a bilateral pulmonary embolism on Saturday. I've known him over 45 years; and now he's gone. We lost touch somewhat, over the years, as people do; but I knew that I could always pick up the phone and Bill would answer, and we'd pick up the conversation where we left it off. He won't answer any more. Why didn't I call more often? I don't have an answer.

I wish Obama all the best, and he'll need it; but I can't rejoice with him now. I have to mourn.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The First Black President

And when can we stop using the Jim Crow definitions of "African-American"??

Barack Obama is "black" only under the 19th century definition that "one drop" of "black blood" makes you black. I regularly drink tea that's darker than his skin color.

It is now legitimate to list yourself on the census as "mixed race", and that's what he is, and that's what a lot of people in California are. They aren't all mixed with white, either - I've known African/Japanese, and Hispanic/Chinese, and California has a whole lot of other couples of various backgrounds who have decided that the special person they wanted to marry was from a different ethnic background and didn't have the same color skin they had. My husband works with a guy in the Albuquerque office of his firm whose last name is Hispanic - and whose mother was Japanese. All these people are American.

Can we all just be Americans, please, and start worrying about the real problems?? (Yeah, I know this is hopeless.)

Election Day Wandering

It's 10:50 AM in Oakland, and I'm sitting in Spasso Cafe on College Avenue. In addition to Election Day, this is also House Cleaners Day, and I usually take the opportunity to walk down to the avenue and hang out. I stopped in at my polling place to say hi, even though I voted last week; and they gave me an "I voted" sticker, so I look politically correct.

The lady in the Chimes drugstore agreed with me that she's nervous about the election.

The gift shop called Heartfelt had a chalk board out front that said, "VOTE! Then step back, take a deep breath, and relax - it's a nice day!" (And it is.)

The elderly street guy, with the beard down to his belt buckle, swung his fist and said, "Landslide! Mandate!" and I said, "Damn straight it better be."

In front of Cole's Coffee, a man blowing across a coffee cup into the ear of a baby in a belly pack (mom, wearing the pack, was on the phone) asked me where my polling station was; he had an absentee ballot to drop off. I told him mine was pretty far away; he thought he'd seen one closer.

Waiting to cross the street, I stood next to 2 youngish guys, also wearing "I voted" stickers. We discussed where we'd watch election returns, and agreed we were all going to have to find a new hobby tomorrow.

Everybody's waiting for the shoe to drop.

Election Day

It's 9:10 AM on Election Day in California. I voted a week ago, so I'm just observing things today. I live about a block from my polling station in the music room of the local elementary school, so about 15 minutes ago I stepped out the front door to see if I could see a line at the polls. I couldn't see a line, but I did see a steady line of people coming back from the polls: early election day voters. It's a beautiful sunny morning, crisp and clean after a big rain storm, and everybody looked cheerful.

If you haven't voted yet, get off your butt. This is the biggest election in my lifetime and probably yours - what are you waiting for??

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Reality Check

For the last month or so I've been obsessing over the election and the economy to the point that I got almost nothing else done. Today I got my chain yanked; I got a reminder of what's really important.

It started so normally - my husband picked me up from a dress rehearsal, and we drove home on the streets because the freeway alternative was a parking lot, for some invisible reason. To protect as much privacy as possible, I won't name the exact location, and I don't know the names of most of the people.

Anyway, as we drove up this main street, I saw a woman in an orange-brown jacket, crossing the street in a crosswalk. We were in the right lane and she was past us, so we didn't slow.

Then there was a thump, and the next thing I saw was the orange-brown jacket draped across the right front fender of a small station wagon. I can still see it. The woman fell off into the street, and didn't move.

The station wagon rolled a little farther and stopped, and the driver got out.

As my husband pulled our car over to the curb, I dived for my cell phone, entered the password, and speed-dialed the police department emergency number. Then I waited. (Our local dispatch center is notoriously understaffed.) After 1 minute 40 seconds (per the call duration meter), I climbed out of the car and looked around.

I have to give my fellow citizens credit. There were at least 7 or 8 people out there. Five or six were gathered around the woman in the street: reminding each other not to move her, covering her with a blanket, feeling her pulse.
Protecting her. The rest had put out flares, parked cars sideways, and were very professionally directing traffic around the accident. One man had a cell phone to his ear, and I yelled, "I'm still trying to get through to 911!"

Eventually I got through (I estimate in about 2 minutes).
Since she landed in the street, the woman in the orange-brown jacket hadn't moved. Dispatch asked if she was bleeding; I yelled, "Is she bleeding?" to the group in the street, and relayed the "yes" back to the operator.

After that, response was very quick: first the nearest patrol team, then the ladder truck from the fire station, finally a pair of ambulances. One of the policemen asked me for a statement, and we adjourned to the patrol car to get his paper report form out of the rain. The police, fire, and EMT personnel scurried professionally around, and in about 45 minutes the whole area was cleaned up.

One of the officers told me the injured woman was alive when they put her into the ambulance. I was glad.

But this is a reality check. We Americans, especially younger ones, have an unspoken assumption that we're invulnerable and immortal. If we're older, we know we are neither, but we sometimes think, nothing will happen to me, I don't have time for it. But sometimes it happens anyway. I hope very much that everyone will come out of this intact (or at least, not permanently damaged); but the victim put a hole the size of her head in the car's windshield. And the EMTs took the driver off in the second ambulance, just to make sure she wasn't hurt.

You hear a lot of rhetoric from the anti-abortion zealots about the sanctity of life, as if once those two cells merge, the resulting entity has some kind of right to a full life, the threescore-and-ten or whatever we live to these days. It's because of that "Right to Life" statement in the Declaration of Independence, and it's baloney. It's a nice sentiment, but people get killed all the time, by disease, accidents, and by other people. Life is very uncertain; modern drugs save lives that used to be lost to pneumonia and measles and tuberculosis, and they actually cure many cancer patients these days; but traffic accidents kill 40,000 - 45,000 people every year, or over 110 people a day, every day. And you get no warning, and no chance to clean up those things you were going to get to someday.

I'm not even sure what point I'm trying to make, except maybe: let's cut each other a little slack, and try to listen to each other, because we don't know how long any of us will be here. And maybe, there but for the grace of God go I.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Stop the Hate

I'm quoting my fellow blogger, D.B. Echo (at Another Monkey). It's getting really scary. I've already commented about Sarah Palin's apparent pleasure when people at her rallies scream, "Kill him!"

I got another example yesterday. I have a friend who lives in a suburb of San Francisco and has an Obama/Biden sticker on her car. The other day, she said "a couple of guys" made "ugly remarks" at her as she drove past them. Then she stopped at a light, and a well-dressed, prosperous-looking woman in a prosperous-looking car stopped next to her, rolled down the window and screamed, "Traitor!"

When did it become treason to disagree with someone? When did it become treason to want to change the government? This is what the Republican tactics of the last eight years have brought us to - they've been telling us, ever since 9/11, that anyone who disagrees with them is unpatriotic and possibly treasonous, and we must support them so we'll be "safe."

Do you all feel "safe" now? Is that why tens of thousands of people turn out to see Barack Obama and cheer for him, because they feel "safe"? I certainly don't feel safe if my neighbors feel they can scream insults at me because they disagree with me.

And the conservative commentators hammer this home on Fox News daily - Limbaugh. Hannity. O'Reilly. Coulter. In any organization, the tone comes from the top; and the top of this organization tells us that dissent is treason. The whirring sound you hear is Thomas Jefferson, spinning in his grave.

I don't claim they're treasonous (although they'd say I am). I say they're wrong; but what's really distressing is that they're so rude. Those who disagree are not merely wrong, they have to be
insulted, and assailed as stupid and treasonous. And the conservatives lie - the oft-repeated McCain claim that Obama sponsored legislation authorizing giving sex education to kindergartners is a barefaced lie, repeatedly debunked by www.factcheck.org; and yet McCain keeps saying it, and claims it's true. This is Orwellian.

When did we lose civil discourse? When did it become impossible to discuss certain issues without falling back on slogans and insults? I have to admit my generation, the Baby Boomers, carry some blame for this. We were the ones who screamed slogans at rallies and labeled anybody we disagreed with as "pigs." So, we had something to do with the demise of civil discourse. But we weren't alone.

The most important question about civil discourse is not who stopped it. It's - how do we get it back?? I hate this. I hate conflict and screaming. But if I don't scream back, I'm leaving the field to the liars.

Poetry on NPR

You never quite know what you'll hear when you tune in to NPR. I tuned into All Things Considered on Tuesday night on the way to the gym (after spending $70 to get my car radio working again - blown fuse - this is the week everything breaks), and found myself listening to a discussion of the election with a group of people from a job training center in St. Louis. And at the end of the section, there was a remark that brought tears to my eyes.

Checking the web site for the transcript, I just realized I didn't even hear all of it, but here is the whole thing, which was sent as a text message to the training instructor:
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked, so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly."
'Nuff said.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Heat is Off

Our furnace is dead. This is less critical than if we lived in, say, Wisconsin or Maine, or even Washington state; but the tag end of October is a bad time for the heating system to go Tango Uniform, even in California.

It's only a relatively new furnace. We put it in 20 years ago (almost exactly 20 years), to replace a gravity-feed gas furnace dating from 1938, which took 40 minutes to warm the house up. It's run like a clock since then, we never even serviced it except to change the filter. The other day we turned it on, and it began to cycle - on, and on, and on, and on, about once a second. We turned it off and waited, and it was OK. Then it did it again.

Today the furnace man came. His name is Mike. It took Mike about 5 minutes to find the smoke stains on the control board where a resistor burned out. (He didn't call it that, but it looked like a resistor to me, and I used to sell 'em.) He took the board with him, so he could order the correct replacement. It was a period classic - I haven't seen a breadboard hookup with individual transistors and resistors for years. Mike assured me that the replacement board would be "all digital." He'll also bring an elbow joint for a 4 inch pipe - the one we have has had a segment crack loose and fall off, which Mike tells me has been flooding the basement with carbon monoxide. Maybe it's a good thing we don't spend much time in the basement.

Mike will be back "in a couple of days," with the new furnace motherboard; he'll change the filter and "give it a bath" (OK, after 20 years, I guess it needs one). In the meantime, we have no heat. Today is a lovely warm autumn afternoon in the mid-70's, but mornings are getting colder, and all the
windows downstairs (where I prefer to spend my days, as the view of the garden is better) are single-paned. Time to break out the sweaters, and the wool socks. And I think I'll take my travel kit to the gym tonight, and take a shower there instead of at home tomorrow morning. The heat works in the gym.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Strategy and Tactics

Driving home today, I listened to Talk of the Nation, on which Bill Kristol urged John McCain to fire his campaign staff because it isn't working. Apart from the fact that I want McCain's campaign to fail, I was interested in one remark Kristol made. Loosely paraphrased, he said that McCain had some good ideas (choosing Palin as VP, suspending his campaign to go to Washington to create a miracle for the bailout), but they weren't followed up. They're all tactical, said Kristol; there's no strategic thinking.

No strategic thinking. Isn't that an interesting suggestion? McCain isn't a strategist; he's a tactician. Think about his military career - he flew ground-attack aircraft off carriers. You need tactics in that role; other people take care of strategy. McCain retired from the Navy in 1981 (after 23 years), as a captain, and went into politics, where issues of strategy versus tactics are somewhat diluted. A Navy captain is the equivalent of an Army or Air Force colonel, which I'd argue is the lowest possible command level at which you need to begin to think strategically. Below that level you're dealing with much more day-to-day stuff: tactics and logistics. McCain reached captain; then he retired.

This campaign is the most important operation of McCain's career, and he isn't thinking strategically. Why should we assume that he'll start thinking strategically if we elect him President? And what would be the implications of a President of the United States who is driven entirely by tactical considerations? I wasn't going to vote for him for a number of reasons, some making more sense than others; but frankly, this one seems to me to be quite potent.

Is Sarah Qualified??

I got an email link from a friend that I'm reposting here (with some of the capital letters toned down):

Subject: PBS Sarah Palin poll
PBS has an online poll posted asking if Sarah Palin is qualified. Apparently the repulican party platform knew about this in advance and are flooding the voting with YES votes.

The poll will be reported on PBS and picked up by mainstream media. It can influence undecided voters in swing states.
The email, of course, urged me to vote on the poll, and send email to all my Democrat voting friends. I've sent it to a few, but I'm also posting it here; here is the link to the PBS poll:


When I voted on it, the poll was running dead even at 49% to 49% - quia absurdum est.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Shame on You

Shame on you, Sarah Palin. For shame. You stand up in front of a crowd, rouse them up with lies about Barack Obama (yes, they're lies), and when the crowd yells, "Kill him!" - you smile. You encourage them.

This is disgraceful. You claim to be a Christian - this is unChristian. This is what Adolf Hitler did when he encouraged his goons to attack the Jews, before Kristallnacht. Nobody has been hurt yet because of your rabble-rousing - but that's no thanks to you.

And shame on you, John McCain, for allowing your campaign to act like this. Who's in charge, you or she? You weren't ignoring threats of violence from your crowds before she joined you; you weren't hearing threats of violence from your crowds before she joined you. You tried to calm things down the other day; I read about it. You need to try harder.

What a Week

I haven't been blogging this week because I didn't know what to say. There's a horrible fascination in watching everything fall apart. I remember the sensation from 9/11, we were all unable to stop watching the instant replay of the falling towers.

However, as the government took step after step to staunch the bleeding, and the credit markets remained stubbornly frozen, my suspicions grew that nothing is working because the Feds are fighting the wrong war. Part of the problem, of course, is that no one believes (I certainly don't) that Paulsen knows what he's doing. He's just hoping that if he throws enough money, something will open up. Injecting capital into the banks may help. But I believe the true problem is the credit default swaps; and until we solve that, the credit markets are going to stay frozen.

For those of you who haven't listened to last week's This American Life, as I recommended, here's a brief summary of credit default swaps, as I understood them from the show:

The basic credit default swap or CDS is insurance against a bond issuer going bankrupt and defaulting on the bond. Just like Lehman Bros. is about to do to me. Company A issues a bond; company B buys it, because the interest rate is so good. Company B, however, is worried about the stability of company A; so they turn to company C, who writes them a credit default swap. Company B agrees to pay company C a percentage of the income stream it's getting from company A's bond; in return, company C agrees to pay company B the full face amount of company A's bonds that company B bought, in case company A goes Tango Uniform (as they say in the military).

Obviously, company C (who wrote the CDS to company B) has more faith in company A's financial soundness than company B does. And they really like that steady stream of income.

Now it starts to twist. Investor D decides that company A isn't a good prospect. So he goes to company C, and says, I want a CDS against X dollars' worth of company A bonds. Investor D doesn't own any company A bonds; he's just betting on the come. He's doing the credit equivalent of a short sale: he's betting that company A will go broke; and he's paying company B an income stream, some percentage of the interest he'd be getting if he owned the bond, in exchange for company C's promise to pay him X dollars (the amount of bond he's buying a CDS on) in case company A goes under. And company C sells him the CDS; another steady stream of money.

Company C has now promised to pay two different parties the face value of a bond that only one of them owns, in case company A goes broke.

Now multiply that by hundreds of deals, all over the U.S. and probably all over the world. And add to that the final twist: thanks to Sen. Phil Gramm's Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (remember the guy who said we are "a nation of whiners"?), all these deals are unregulated. They're "over the counter."

That means they are all private. There's no central place, like a stock market, that has a record of who has written what CDS against what debt obligations. We can be pretty sure, however, that some or all of the major institutions were writing CDS's against the AAA rated sub-prime backed securities that everybody was buying. After all - they're not going to default, and the housing market will never stop rising. Until it didn't. Until the loans everyone was pushing began to default.

Because if you wrote CDS coverage for, say, a mortgage-backed security
worth half a million dollars, you're on the hook for the dollars if that security ceases to pay interest. Do you have the dollars? Or are you so leveraged that you'd have to borrow in order to meet the obligation? Remember, all these people operated on borrowed money, all the time.

Now it's the end of March 2008, and Bear Sterns has just gone under. Immediately everybody who wrote CDS's on Bear Sterns debt has to pony up cash. They know who they are; and their counterparties know; but nobody else does, because CDS transactions aren't regulated and are private. You didn't see any news about people paying off CDS on Bear Sterns.

Every time since March that a major financial firm has gone under to the point where they default on their debt, more of these chickens have come home to roost. Every bank knows what their own position is; but because of the private nature of the transactions, they don't know what anyone else's position is. And nobody knows what the real position of the mortgage-backed securities is.

And that, compadres, is why banks are not lending to each other. They don't know who's sitting on CDS obligations that exceed their entire net worth.

I'm not an economist; I'm just a techie, and nobody's going to listen to me. But frankly, I see only one thing the government could do that would really open this up: Force an audit. Require every financial institution to compile and publish a list of all the CDS they have written. Only then will we be able to estimate the real scope of the damage, and make realistic plans about how to deal with it.

The truth shall make you free.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Little Flittering Things

It rained last night, for the first time since oh, March? February? It's been a dry year. However, last night or this morning, something responded to the rain, or something. We looked out the window into the back yard this morning, and the entire airspace over the patio was full of small white flittering insects, orbiting around the area and each other. I don't know what they were, but something hatched.

They're gone now, whatever they were.

The Sorceror's Apprentice

I've concluded this is the appropriate metaphor for the mess the economy is in. The financial geniuses who have been running things, more or less unconstrained by any regulation whatever, developed a set of "tools" that they thought would allow them to hand off risk to other people. They didn't think through all the possible scenarios, and a worst-case scenario has occurred, and now they don't know what to do. See the parallel with Mickey and his brooms??

I'm not sure I want to go so far as to say that Hank Paulsen is the Sorceror, who will step in and wave a wand and make it all go away. I don't have that much faith in Mr. Paulsen.

I have a recommendation, however, for anyone who wants to understand how we got here. I don't normally listen to Ira Glass' This American Life. Today, however, they had a full hour program, Another Frightening Show About The Economy, which I recommend to anyone who wants to understand why that $700 billion bailout may really have been necessary. You may have heard the term "credit default swap"? This broadcast has the clearest description of credit default swaps, why they exist, and why they are a problem, that I've ever heard; and I worked for a major bank. There's also a solid description of the commercial paper market and why that is also frozen.

It'll take an hour of your time. It's worth it. They did a show in May called Giant Pool of Money, explaining the subprime mortgage mess, which I also plan to listen to, and they're putting out a daily podcast on the mess, Planet Money, which I think I'll add to my list as well.

Monday, September 29, 2008

They did WHAT?

Congress - of whom I generally have low expectations - has startled even me today. They actually voted down the bailout bill that Congressional leaders had spent an entire week hammering out.

So now what? No one is quite sure. The trouble with the bailout bill, though, was that even if it had passed both Houses of Congress, no one was quite sure what next. Henry Paulsen had something he considered a plan, but he never explained it in much detail - IMHO because even he wasn't really sure what it was, but he was convinced that if he could throw enough money at the problem, some of it would stick.

The interesting thing is not that
the markets are down - everybody expected that - but they aren't down as far as one might expect. They're down about 7% at the end of the day. The Dow is down not quite 778 points, which is the all time high in number of points lost - but is NOT one of the 10 greatest market percentage drops (see the lists in this article from CNNMoney.com), and the market is still above 10,000. Ten thousand on the Dow was a pipe dream for most of the years I've been watching the markets. The market is still higher than it was in March 1999, when it crossed 10,000 for the first time in history.

So the interesting question is: why isn't the market worse? (As well as, "Now what?") I don't have an answer.

Politically, of course, they "had to do it". According to NPR this morning, every Congressional office in the country has been flooded with furious calls from constituents, urging them not to bail the bastards out. They're all up for re-election in November - the entire House of Representatives - and they all felt they couldn't face the voters unless they could justify their votes. In fact, the real political courage today was shown by the people who voted for the bailout.

I wonder if the leaders of the financial industry realized exactly how much they were hated by Joe Sixpak, that quintessential American on Main Street. I'm quite sure they didn't care.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


This year has been very strange. Beginning in 1976, I spent my entire working life in the financial industry: corporate librarian for Coopers & Lybrand, then computer technician for Bank of America. Always, keeping an eye on that entity called "Wall Street" or "the markets" - the brokerage houses, the investment banks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Dow Jones.

And now it's gone, or much of it. Coopers & Lybrand, of course, vanished in the '90s when it merged with Price Waterhouse to become PricewaterhouseCoopers, as the "Big Eight" dwindled to the "Big Five" (then the "Big Four", when Arthur Anderson imploded in the wake of the Enron scandal).

But in the last few months, "Wall Street" has - vanished. Earlier financial crises took their toll on firms that were merged or taken over, but the giants remained: Merrill Lynch. Lehman Brothers. Goldman Sachs. Morgan Stanley. Bear Sterns. They're all gone, or transformed. Merrill Lynch - sold to Bank of America. Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers - sold and dismantled. (In the case of Lehman, taking some of my money with them, damn them.) And Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, reorganizing as commercial banks. I want to be a fly on the wall at their first visit from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. I don't think their corporate culture will take it well. There are - no major investment banks left in the United States. Does that mean that what they did will never be done again? Or will new firms arise to take on the risks (and hopefully not come screaming to the taxpayers for relief when they fail)?

Even the commercial banks are going - IndyMac. Washington Mutual. At the national level there are what? Five banks left? No, four, offhand - Bank of America; Wachovia; JP Morgan Chase; Citi. Of course, there are dozens of local and regional banks left, all over the country, which are NOT falling apart - several of them are advertising actively in my local newspaper.

It's a very strange feeling. It reminds me of the strange feeling I got, earlier this year, poking around the University of California's web sites. I realized that my graduate degree (Master's of Library Science) no longer exists, and neither does the Library School that offered it. The Library School is now the Information School (I know - they still hit me up for donations), and the degree is now Master's of Library and Information Science, and the computers I turned to in my midlife crisis are now the basis of the graduate program in which I learned to type catalog cards on a huge, creaking manual typewriter (because the electric typewriters, which were available, didn't come with the appropriate bibliographic typeface, including the square brackets).

So my degree is obsolete, and the industry I worked in is gone. I guess I have to think of something else to do. I hope we're right that I don't need to find another job; it's an awful time to be looking.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The press has made a great fuss over the fact that Governor Sarah Palin can field dress a moose. Would everyone please remember that this skill is not part of the job description for Vice President of the United States? Unless you think that the economy is about to get so bad that we'll all have to go back to hunting and gathering. In which case she'll either have to move back to Alaska or learn to hunt smaller game - there are no moose in the District of Columbia that I know of, although the Smithsonian may have one stuffed.

I was discussing this issue with my sister this morning, who commented that "She's not going to be allowed to shoot Putin and field dress him." In fact, shooting people isn't part of the Vice Presidential job description either - Dick Cheney shot that lawyer on his own time.

The trouble is, the McCain campaign is keeping such a tight rein on the governor that we can't tell what else she's capable of - and frankly, I think we ought to be able to get some kind of feel for that, before we have to vote. Why are they afraid to let her answer press questions? How many clothes is the Emperor wearing, anyhow?


Despite the subject line, this post isn't about the Bush administration or the financial bailout.

This is about skunks - the furry black-and-white critters with the unpleasant smell. We have a yard full of luxuriant bushes and plants, just the sort of place that a shy wild creature might like to move into, and I have a sinking feeling that a local skunk may have done just that.

As I look back at my Lunch in the Yard post, it was on August 28 that I complained about the lingering scent of skunk in the back yard. If only that had been the end of things - Friday of that week, we found a dead skunk in our back yard, right where the fence meets the corner of the garage.
I took a picture of it, but I'll spare you. I looked up Oakland Animal Control on the Internet, and it basically said, we can't be bothered to send someone around - bury the carcass yourself. So we did.

We don't really know why the skunk died. If it was rabid, wouldn't they want to know? Evidently not. It didn't die in the garage, but according to my husband (who spends more time there than I do), it had been in the garage, and three weeks later he's still trying to air it out. Over the intervening several weeks, we've had skunk smells waft in, through the open upstairs windows, in the evening from time to time, which may be the remains of the last incident. Or maybe not.

Today, though, I came home from an errand, walked into the house, closed the door, and said to myself, "This place smells of skunk." Sniff again - yup, skunk. I turned on the house fan in hopes that the allergy filter on the furnace would help - several hours later I can't tell whether it has, or I've simply got used to the smell.

I began to worry when I went out to tour the foundation vents, and the access door to the crawl space, just outside the back door, was hanging from one rusted screw in one hinge (since fallen off). So anything smallish that wanted to nest under the back stairs could possibly have got in. The other vents were all solid, but it only takes one.

When my husband got home, he crawled part way under the house with a flashlight, and couldn't see or smell anything, except that we both smelled skunk strongly, right around the access door. Our current take is that a skunk sprayed the access door (which is right under an upstairs window we often open) but didn't get under the house. We left the door propped so something could get out but probably not back in, just in case.

I don't actually object to skunks; I wish them well; but I don't want them living under my house. I wish I didn't think that a local skunk had decided this is "his" yard. We already have a squirrel, a pair of towhees, and possibly a pair of Anna's hummingbirds living back there; surely that's enough wildlife support??

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


That's what the Treasury bailout plan is. High-grade, all beef, thinly sliced baloney. I like the editor's comment in the San Francisco Chronicle today: Henry Paulsen is not our king. Although I'm not sure he understands that. I also agree with the Senator I heard this morning on NPR (can't recall whom), who said, "Just because God made the world in 7 days doesn't mean we have to do this in 7 days."

Mr. Paulsen doesn't seem to have grasped the concept, basic to our democracy, of "checks and balances." Not to mention, "accountability" and "transparency."

I'm particularly annoyed when the Treasury and the Fed insist that the housing market won't recover unless Congress passes the plan as it stands. The implication is that the housing market will recover if it does pass the plan - and that's baloney, too.

The housing market isn't crashing because of tight credit - mortgage credit isn't that tight. The housing market is crashing because the huge backlog of foreclosed homes, on sale at fire-sale prices, is driving down real estate values. It's going to continue to crash as long as that condition exists - in my personal opinion, about another year and a half. Only major bargain hunters, who plan to stay a long time, want to buy a house that will be worth less than they paid for it in 6 months; and until we've finished the fire sales, that condition will continue to exist.

This is classic Bush administration propaganda: ride the fear. Only we can save you. We can't restrict executive compensation on bailed out firms or companies won't play with us. If that's really true - then don't bail them out. Let them fail. These yoyos are in this position because they are incompetent. They don't deserve huge payouts to go away and do it again somewhere else.

I am beginning to get sufficiently torqued with all of these idiots - who are in this position because they allowed their greed to overcome their common sense - that I think we should let them fail, and pick up the pieces as best we can. It won't be any worse for the people who are being foreclosed; they're already losing their homes. The rest of us watching our houses drop in value also won't see any change; see above, the housing crash cannot be affected by this crap, and they're lying to us.

This is the Bush administration's attempt to get monarchical powers for the Treasury secretary as well as the Presidency, and it should be blocked. Write your congressman; call your senator. Oppose this. I have.

Friday, September 19, 2008


OK, it's official. This is the Depression.

A major characteristic of the Great Depression were the "Hoovervilles", which Wikipedia defines as "a shanty town built by homeless men in the depression years." The term was also used to define tent cities that sprang up on empty land across the country. "Hoover", of course, was President Hoover, who was in charge, more or less, when the economy fell apart after the 1929 stock market crash.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports today that locales all over the country are seeing tent cities spring up, in parking lots and parks, full of people who often have no job as well as no place to live. No one knows how many of these people are homeless due to foreclosure. No one really knows how many there are; the last data on homelessness from HUD dates from early 2007, and this has all happened in the last few months.

So what shall we call these encampments? Bushvilles? Or are these people just "Bushed"? How about "Crawford camps"?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Republican Ticket

Like the rest of the world, I was startled - is that the right word? - when John McCain announced his choice for VP. Since then, in an attempt to figure out what was going on, I've been reading everything I can find in the infamous "mainstream media" about Gov. Palin. I'm trying to be as objective as possible, to counterbalance my visceral reaction to her. In short, the lady creeps me out, probably because she's diametrically opposed to me on virtually every position.

I've deliberately avoided the Internet riffs floating around on her, with one exception: the "Letter from Wasilla," attributed to one Anne Kilkenny - largely because the thing was signed, and showed internal evidence that the author was trying to be fair-minded. Snopes.com considers that letter authentic; much of what I say about her here comes either from that letter or from the New York Times.

I've concluded that Gov. Palin is the affirmative action candidate. She is where she is because she's female, and for no other major reason. To prove this to yourself, just invert the situation. You have the one-term governor of a large but thinly populated state, with no national or international experience or (apparently) interest; with a public record of hiring cronies and family members; a gun supporter, a disbeliever in global warming, a born-again evangelical creationist and right-to-life supporter, with 5 children, one of whom has Down's syndrome, and another of whom is pregnant at the age of 17. And this hypothetical governor is male.

Would this person be anywhere near the vice presidency? He wouldn't even be on the backup list. But she's in the catbird seat.

McCain apparently picked her himself, bypassing the usual vetting process. The New York Times ran a major article suggesting that no one in the Alaska Republican Party - for that matter, no one in the national party - was contacted about the governor before the announcement. It's a very interesting read; apparently McCain simply leaped to the conclusion that this woman could save his campaign and offered her the job on the spot, in place of two or three male candidates with real records of competence.

Consider this as an example of McCain's decision making under stress. Is this really the man you want running this country??

Also consider what this implies about McCain's opinion of American voting women. He thinks we'll vote for his ticket because his number two has ovaries instead of balls. The level of contempt for the people he expects to vote for him leaves me gobsmacked. It is an insult. If I were a Republican woman, I'd be furious. If I were a moderate Republican woman, I'd be practically radioactive.

Gov. Palin has one attribute that is usually required to attain high office: ambition. Is that enough??

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Lazy in Las Vegas

I'm visiting my sister again. It's cooler than the last time, only in the middle 90's. The tortoises are stumping around the yard; the dogs got out today and ran who knows where, and we all scrabbled around yelling for them until they came back. It's dangerous for loose dogs - people drive way too fast on these roads.

With nothing else in particular to do, I accompanied my sister to her scheduled visit to get her hair and nails done. I didn't realize when I signed up for this that it was going to take three and a half hours; I love my sister dearly, but even I admit that she's "high maintenance." With a slight advance warning that it would take "all afternoon," I took a book.

As we approached the shop, the noise stunned me - the salon is right under the final approach path to McCarran International Airport. I mean right under - landing planes go over the front door maybe 200 feet up; you can read the letters on the fuselage. My sister says she waves to the pilots. The noise is unbelievably loud - I can't even estimate the decibel level. It completely freaked me out. However, this was where we were bound.

I hadn't realized how early the appointment was, and hadn't had any lunch; so my first move was to ask the desk girl to recommend a place to eat. She suggested a local lunch shop across the parking lot, and I tried it and found it good; and then I returned to the salon and settled down in the lobby with my book.

After not very long in the lobby, the smells began to get to me. This salon does everything chemical to hair - bleach, color, extensions, you name it - and they do nails, which means nail polish, nail polish remover, and whatever they use to glue on those long talons. Most of the chemical activity happens farther back in the shop, but the odors waft out to the reception area pretty regularly.

I read a couple more chapters of my book, and decided that the combination of airplanes and smells was more than I wanted to spend several hours in. I hunted up my sister, who was having something I didn't ask about painted on her hair, and told her that I was going to find a coffee shop to wait this out, and to call my cell phone when she was ready to leave. Going down the sidewalk, her "nail lady" stopped me and recommended a bar nearby where I could sit and read, because all the lunch places close early.

I should have seen this one coming. This isn't the Rive Gauche. Bars, especially in Las Vegas, do not expect people to sit and read; bars expect people to sit and (a) drink and talk, (b) play video poker, (c) watch ESPN, or (d) all of the above. None of these activities requires reading lights; the place was dark as a cave. Fortunately, it wasn't especially hot today, and they have a shaded outdoor patio, so I sat, drinking soda water, long enough to finish my novel and two short stories.

Part way into the third short story, I realized it was after 3 o'clock; no word from my sister, but the sun was coming around onto the patio. I wandered back to the salon, dodging from shade to shade (I forgot to put on sunscreen), and found my sister having her hair blow-dried by a man whose hair looked like someone was blow-drying him. I resettled in the lobby and read another short story, and then she was ready to go.

I still can't quite believe this, but she claims she'd never noticed the smells until I mentioned them. I'm also delighted that a freak of genetics means that I'm going gray gracefully, and slowly - all I get from my hairdresser is a very careful haircut.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Notes on the News

Leah Garchik's column in the San Francisco Chronicle reports this tidbit from the Democratic Convention in Denver:
Scattered Denver observations from Noah Griffin, veteran of seven previous conventions: He's never seen such a police presence ... helmeted, on horseback, hanging on the running boards of humvee-like vehicles in full riot gear." They're nice to delegates, but "they surround the bull-horned protesters in a massive show of force."
Sounds as though we learned something from the Beijing Olympics, but I'm not sure it's the right lesson. Whatever happened to the First Amendment? At least we don't seem to have sent anyone to a re-education camp for requesting permission to protest.

And Jon Carroll of the same paper has a column on resentment, related to bicycles, that is worth reading. In my neighborhood there's been a great deal of concern over bicyclists, riding on the sidewalk, running red lights. Pedestrians (including, once or twice, me) feel threatened. Bicyclists feel unjustly accused. In their defense, this neighborhood has very narrow streets and no bike lanes. Speaking for the prosecution, I see them run lights and stop signs all the time.

I'd like everybody to memorize this column. I particularly like this remark:
Inferred arrogance is a way of enabling bad behavior. He's being a jerk, so I can be a jerk."
Why is that a good thing? The last thing any of us needs is more jerks around, even if it's us. Especially if it's us.

Lunch in the Yard

I like to eat lunch in the yard when it's warm enough; this is one of the rewards of retirement. It's certainly warm enough today - the Google weather gadget says 92 degrees, although that's probably at the airport with all the concrete. To show you why I like to have lunch in the yard, here's what I see when I sit under the patio umbrella:

It's a small green jungle out there, and very pleasant.

This week, though, it's a little less pleasant than usual, and not because of the heat. Earlier this week we had a nocturnal visit from one of the local skunks.

I don't know what pissed the skunk off, but pissed he was, and he sprayed our driveway thoroughly, just around the corner of the house from the garden. This was I think Monday night, 3 days ago - I remember getting up in the middle of the night and thinking, "What is that smell??" I actually went downstairs to see if anything seemed to be smouldering; nothing but the smell. The next morning Jim went out and reported that it seemed to be strongest right next to our neighbor's chimney base, so that was the scene of whatever happened.

So we have an experiment in progress - how long does it take a full skunk spray to wear off?? Believe me - 3 days is not enough.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Causal Dynamical Triangulations

What? You ask. Say what? And well you might. But this is the working description of the most exciting cosmological theory I've read about in probably twenty years. It was written up in the July 2008 Scientific American and you can find the article here, entitled The Self-Organizing Quantum Universe.

I began to try to summarize it; and realized that I don't know enough about it to do it justice. Read the article yourself - it's surprisingly accessible - but here's what excites me about it:

I read cosmology and quantum physics articles as a challenge. I don't understand the math; I want to see if I can read the words and get a feel for what they're talking about. I have a general feel for quantum theory - the broad concept that any entity from an atom to the universe exists in what they call "superposition", which means that it "exists" in all possible states simultaneously, and only "collapses" into a single state when you measure it. (I told you this wasn't my world.) But quantum theories don't explain gravity and never really have.

Increasingly expansive attempts to develop a "theory of everything" (including gravity) have postulated ever-increasing crowds of elementary particles (quarks, gluons, etc.) and even minuscule vibrating "strings" - and the theories based on these predict universes that exist in dozens of dimensions, all so small they can't be detected. Nothing they predict resembles anything you can see when you look around, or point a telescope at the universe. And their theories are so complicated they require massive supercomputers to work out the mathematics of the simulations. Frankly, they've never made any sense to me; and they've always made me think of the epicycles that medieval philosophers developed, to explain why their increasingly precise measurements of planetary motion didn't match what the Ptolemaic theory predicted.

It's probably too much to suggest that this team of
scientists - a Dane, a Pole, and a German - is the equivalent of Copernicus and his heliocentrism. For one thing, I doubt anyone will actually burn at the stake for advocating their theory. But the theory, which they call causal dynamical triangulations, has a number of points in common with Copernicus':
  • It's based on a few simple assumptions, using only very basic quantum principles.
  • The calculations are simple enough that they can do their simulations on a laptop. (Keep in mind that today's laptops have a lot of computing horsepower!)
  • What it predicts looks remarkably like what we see.
  • When they change details in their simulations, the results barely change at all.
What made me sit up and shout, "Yes!" when I read it was the basis of their theory: causality. They assume that "events occur in a specific temporal sequence of cause and effect, rather than as a haphazard jumble." Also, "the distinction between cause and effect is fundamental to nature, rather than a derived property."

All cosmological theories assume basic building blocks, which have certain properties. In the authors' theory, each triangular building block is assigned an arrow of time, pointing from past to future; and the rules governing gluing building blocks together require that their arrows of time point in the same direction. The spacetime this predicts looks like the four-dimensional spacetime we live in, and conforms to the predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity (which has never been disproved). I was actually reminded of the computer game "Life", where you define a starting state and a fairly simple set of rules, and let the program run to produce a world.

Additionally, as far as the authors can tell to date, the universe predicted by this theory is fractal - that is, it looks the same at any scale, as far down as one can measure. I don't know why this appeals to me, except that as far as I can tell, the living universe tends to be fractal.

I don't know if this will appeal to anyone else the way it did to me, but it fascinated me and I had to share it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Road Food

NB: I actually began this post at the beginning of July and got distracted; so here it is in full.

Dining on the road is always an adventure, and a risk. When we're on the road, we always get too much salt, and usually too much fat, compared to what we cook at home. Neither of us can stand the chain restaurants any more, so our solution while traveling is to ask the B&B host, or the desk girl at the motel, for a local restaurant they like. This produces mixed results, although on this trip we never had to resort to a chain.

The awful meals, at least for my husband, began in Elko, Nevada. I've concluded that Elko is just not a good place for Jim to eat; on an earlier occasion he got actual food poisoning, on this pass he merely got a tough, fatty steak full of gristle. The desk girl at the motel had referred us to the restaurant in the casino down the road, saying it was, "Pretty good." I guess it depends on what else there is. I've learned that I do better, eating on the road, if I order some kind of salad with chicken in it, and dressing on the side; I did that, and it wasn't bad.

Our next memorable meal was in Wendover, where we stopped for lunch before crossing the salt flats. We had a choice of casinos to eat in and not much else; so we picked the Peppermill.

It was like eating inside a pinball machine. Because of the slots, it sounded like a pinball machine; and of course, in standard casino mode it had no windows. What it did have were mirrored black glass interior walls, accented at unpredictable spots by neon tube lighting, reflecting off all the other black mirrors. You literally could not tell where the walls were, or the ceiling. And on the walls, where you'd expect paintings or posters, they had frames with live action video loops of various scenes. The food wasn't bad as the joint in Elko, but the ambience was surreal. I went to U.C. Berkeley in the '60s with some people who would have paid serious money to get stoned inside that place.

We fought our way through Salt Lake City commute traffic to Brigham City, where we gave up and found a motel. The desk girl referred us to Maddox's Fine Food, down the road in Perry, and we ended up getting probably the best "American home cooking" I've ever had in a restaurant. My diary reads: "Bison and local open range beef, Idaho trout (Yum!), fresh homebaked everything (rolls, cornbread fingers, pie), two kinds of homebrewed root beer, birch and sarsparilla" (this is Utah - coffee and tea were not offered). It was a family owned place, and full of families, we were almost the only table that didn't have at least 3 generations and 3 children. "Local open range beef" means the slaughterhouse was at the bottom of the hill. Honest, it's almost worth driving to Utah to eat there; and if you're in the vicinity, it's absolutely worth a detour.

In Paris, Idaho, the next day, we stopped at "the local place." Paris is a few blocks strewn along the main highway toward the Tetons, and this little joint was right across the street from the (really impressive) Mormon Tabernacle, which we toured. I'm always interested to try the local place, but it's a crapshoot, and Jim rolled snake eyes. I had a hamburger, which was edible, but he decided to try the specialty of the house, which was chicken with something they called "Huckleberry fire surprise." I didn't try it; but he reported that it was simply awful, and didn't finish it.

Once we got into Yellowstone, our dining options became severely limited. You can't just drop in and eat at the restaurant in any of the hotels because they book 24 hours in advance; and you're at least 2 hours (on relatively bad roads) from anywhere else. So the first thing you do after checking in is book all the nights you want to eat there. We stayed 5 nights, and we ate at Yellowstone Lake twice and Old Faithful twice, and the first night we walked over to the gift shop and ate fast food at the lunch counter because it was the only thing that didn't require reservations.

I'd say we batted 500 in Yellowstone. Our first formal meal was at the Old Faithful Inn, and I've described the snowstorm that enlivened that evening in another post. The food at Old Faithful was good, but I couldn't focus on it because I was wondering how we'd get back to sleep. It didn't help that we'd gotten lost in the Old Faithful grounds and spent most of 45 minutes walking around in a snowstorm. But the food was OK. The next night, though, we had reservations at Yellowstone Lake Hotel, and we returned in late afternoon to find that the power was out. The story at the desk was that they had blown a transformer. I've described that meal elsewhere also; it really was one of the worst meals I've ever had.

Apart from those harrowing incidents, the food in Yellowstone was quite good, and the breakfast buffet was reliable if a little heavy on the fat. Eventually we set out for Bozeman and then Missoula, and on to Glacier. One of the things we no longer do when we're traveling is eat lunch in restaurants; Paris, Idaho was an aberration (and the exception that proves the rule!). We get bread, and almonds or cheese, and fruit, and we just eat that by the road somewhere.

From Bozeman onward I found myself eating cayenne pepper in various dishes that hadn't said they contained it. In fact, in Bozeman, Jim and I actually switched dinners. I really can't eat a dish with too much pepper. In Missoula we had a dubious deli meal in a little semi-vegetarian grocery, mostly fascinating for the meeting of a local non-profit board at the next table, discussing where they were going to get volunteers and how they could meet the city council's funding deadline. The next night we went to a restaurant at a golf course, notable for a fabulous view of the valley and a clientele whose average age we lowered by at least a decade. Food was OK.

Many Glaciers Lodge is like the hotels in Yellowstone: if you're there, you eat there, because that's all there is. I suppose we could have driven in to Babb and eaten at the Cattle Baron Supper Club, just outside the park boundary; but we didn't. The food at Many Glaciers is just so-so; you go for the view, not the food. The Yellowstone hotels set a higher standard on food. As part of our bus tour, we had a very nice lunch at one of the commercial lodges on the Blackfoot reservation.

Coming home, we stopped for the night in Sandpoint, Idaho, and there we stumbled into a world-class meal at the Sand Creek Grill, right on the lake - a restaurant in the style of Alice Waters, with fresh local everything.

Our greatest disappointment was the Columbia Gorge Hotel, in Hood River. We stayed there a few years ago and had wonderful food (if the 7 course breakfast was a little much) and fabulous service, in a legacy luxury hotel. So we stayed there again and found that someone is building "Columbia Gorge" condos on the lot next door, the excellent service has disappeared, and there are huge flat-panel TVs in every room except the dining room, including the lounge, which last time had a talented singer/comedian doing live entertainment. Now they have ESPN. The room drains were stopped up and they couldn't unstop them. And the experienced serving staff in the restaurant had been replaced by beautiful boys who can't handle a complicated order, and can't tell skim milk from 1% (and don't realize that the customer can). Sic transit gloria mundi. They still have their views, but they won't have their reputation very long at this rate.

They were so bad that we chose to find another restaurant for our last dinner in town. That was my next unexpected encounter with cayenne pepper, which the restaurant, the Stonehedge Gardens, chose to put in the house salad dressing. I complained about it and they just said, "Oh, we always do that." They advertise as a high-end restaurant, but all I remember about them is that they put too much pepper in the salad dressing and didn't give me a choice.

Our last stop was at our old friend, the Wolf Creek Inn. It's a restored stage stop near Grants Pass, Oregon, run by the Oregon Parks Dept., with about 8 rooms; and the food was reliable and excellent as always. My only problem with the Wolf Creek Inn isn't food - when they built that enclosed staircase to the second floor, suitcases were smaller than they are now...