Sunday, November 30, 2008


We spent Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law and nephew. The nephew is evil.

Julia, I, and our three kids arrive with an XBox 360 and two laptops. Combined with the usual Thanksgiving diversions, we had a chance at having enough entertainment to get through three days. Enter evil nephew.

Evil nephew plays WoW incessantly. But he is even more evil than that. Before, when we visited the wireless router gave everybody internet access. This time, evil nephew decided that if he used the wireless router, our laptops would use up some of his WoW bandwidth. So he connected his computer directly to the modem. Of course he could have connected connected his computer via wire to his router. But, no, we might have used up a few bits per second with our web surfing.

So our laptops were mostly paper weights. And three days straight of conversation is . . . way too much. We finally levered his grandmother to pressure him into hooking up the router. There was plenty of throwing and slamming.

At least we did not have to resort to the holy water.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


We drove for over an hour to see my eighteen year old play guitar in his band at a sports bar/restaurant/club. While my son's band was setting up, the club played screaming music from CDs. The groups on the CDs wanted to be as rebellious as they could be. The ultimate rebel is the devil.

So their songs were all about the devil.

Julia and I speculated that these groups knew their songs were alike and boring, but they wanted to stand for something bad, and the worst thing they could stand for was the devil.

Maybe their lead singer said to the guitarist one day, "Man, we need to read the Bible--there's got to be something more evil than the devil."

The guitarist replied, "No, man. My folks were into that religious stuff. The devil is ultimate bad mojo."

The lead singer kicked his TV tray and said, "C'mon. This is boring. Every song is the same. What is worse than the devil?"

"Well," the guitarist pondered, lighting another Camel, "Maybe there was a devil on Krypton. He's got to be worse than the devil on Earth."

"A SuperDevil?"

"Yeah, a SuperDevil," the guitarist replied, taking a long drag.

"Cool, so what is his name?"

The guitarist sat back and looked into the curling smoke. Then he nodded. "Dev-El."

"Yeah! Dev-El! From now on, we write songs about the Dev-El!"

Julia and I can't wait until we can go back to that club and hear their new stuff.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sterling Astray

Bruce Sterling is the superlative science fiction writer, co-founder of cyberpunk, who wrote Holy Fire. The novel combines advances in medical science that extend life with "the miracle of compound interest" to produce a society in which the old are the "haves" and the young are the "have nots." The novel is beautiful, as are most of Sterling's. And the novel relies on compound interest--which is so unusual, that the story is even better!

But Bruce is barking up the wrong tree with his recent blog post, which links to an interview which blamed the current financial mess on financial engineering. Maybe Bruce does not know so much about finance. Financial engineering involves breaking up various risks and returns from a business activity and selling them off, piecemeal. So maybe you buy a bond and sell off the risk that the issuer might default on the bond, while retaining the risk that interest rates might rise, lowering your bond's price. But financial engineering is in no way to blame for the current crisis.

Bruce, why did financial institutions make loans to people whom they knew could not repay? If you cannot answer this, then the explanation cannot pass the smell test. As I have posted before, the answer is pretty basic.

Government required banks to make loans to people who could not pay through 1977's Community Reinvestment Act. They made this crazy lending painless for the institution by requiring the government giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy lots of those bad loans and package them into securities (the bank gets rid of their risk, the government assumes the risk, then sells government guaranteed risk). Finally, Alan Greenspan cut interest rates too low for too long encouraging a real estate feeding frenzy--many warned at the time.

Bruce, this answer passes the smell test--heck, it is compelling. Self-interested politicians ramped up risk in order to put their poorer constituients in homes. Barney Frank even confessed that he was "rolling the dice" in ramping up this risk.

Without the rot underneath the leverage and derivative pricing, there is no story.

We are currently looking at a government mess, not a free market mess. The pioneers of financial engineering, Miller, Modigliani, Scholes and Merton (to which I will add Fischer Black) discovered fire. Beginning with Fannie Mae's creation in the Great Depression, the U. S. government took a flamethrower to the free market.

Your Car Has A Couple of Nuts Loose Behind The Steering Wheel

Yesterday Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, announced that U. S. auto makers must submit plans for restructuring their companies if they want to get my tax dollars to bail them out. But that is not the funny part.

The automakers must submit their plans to the foremost business minds in congress--the financial geniuses that fought valiantly against critics of the government housing giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the FMs). No one did more to encourage home loans to people who could not repay than Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. Now these Bobbsey Twins of financial idiocy will end up instructing the auto makers on how to be profitable!

Barney Frank famously said, about his opposition to more oversight of the FMs, "I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness that we have in OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and OTS [Office of Thrift Supervision]. I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing." Barney kept rolling, along with Chris Dodd, who received a sweetheart mortgage from the subprime king, Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide Financial, until they got snake eyes. Oh well, it was not their money, anyway.

Barney Frank is the guy who had an affair with a top Fannie Mae executive at the same time that he was the ranking democrat in charge of "regulating" Fannie Mae.

Now we are turning the auto companies over to these idiots.

A friend once griped to me that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged set up government regulators as idiot straw men that she knocked down. To my friend, I say truth is now stranger than fiction.

I'm laughing.

I'm crying.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Solution

Proposition Eight, overturning the California Supreme Court's decision mandating that marriage licenses be granted to same-sex couples, has caused plenty of hoopla (love that word). I recently saw a photo of protesters carrying a large sign that said, "Can I vote on your marriage, now?"

I loved it!

Marriage began as a religious sacrament--mutual promises exchanged before God. Eventually the government got involved. Since early governments were religious in nature, this probably had little or no effect for quite a while.

But now marriage is two things. Marriage is a contract--mutual promises that may be enforced by civil law, consumated by signing a state's marriage license (legal marriage). Marriage is also a religious sacrament (religious marriage), consumated by someone of religious authority saying, "I now pronounce you . . ."

I am in favor of the change on the protesters' sign, "Can I vote on your marriage, now?" Yes! Vote.

Vote to invalidate every legal marriage. Government would then only control civil unions--the ability to legally contract--a contract that any humans could make. Multiple spouses? Sure! Have at it. Sorry you can't marry your horse. Horses cannot make contracts.

Government would, in no way, discriminate between various parties to civil unions. However, the insurance company should have the freedom to discriminate, and not insure my sixty husbands and seventy wives at no extra charge--people who own insurance companies should have freedom, too.

What about my religious marriage? Today's governments should not regulate the religious sacrament. After the state's recognition of marriage is gone, the spiritual aspect of my marriage, which I consider my real marriage, will be untouched.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I ended a previous post by saying that sometimes it takes me a while to catch on.

Universities sometimes ask faculty to waste time. Of course, faculty members cannot complain too loudly because there is some administrator somewhere that thinks the most productive thing that the faculty member can do is take two months to change three words in the mission statement--to the three words that the administrator wanted in the first place.

At my previous university, I was asked to go to a board meeting three hours away. Drive three hours, eat a mediocre lunch, listen to pointless reports, listen to the staff of the organization tell the board what I had done for the year, stand up and repeat what the staff said along with seven suckers like me, then drive three hours home.

Pointless. All that time wasted. My only function was to tell the board what the staff already told them--no function at all.

I was sick when one of the meetings was held. Of course, with all that crap, it probably did not take much to incapacitate me. I called the staff and sent them my report. They did their usual thing. When I did not show up at, the university president was not amused. He said I should have asked a colleague (who knew zero, zippo, nada about the work I was reporting on) to go in my place.

I did not understand what the big deal was. It took me a few years to figure it out.

Professors think that the most important use of their time is in teaching. Another vital use of their time is in research. Missing a class day to blather to some idiots at a boring meeting is a waste of time, unless one is a mindless bureaucrat who only wants to climb the ladder. Oh . . . like a university president.

I figured it out. For a university president the most valuable thing in the world is to stand behind a microphone before a group of bankers, legislators, and the like. So when I was giving my report, my U president was thinking, "They are listening to a real professor from my university. This shows that I am just as good as the presidents of the real U's in the state."

As regards U service, I now try to look at things from the mindless bureaucrat point of view. It makes me nauseous and gives me a rash in the bends of my elbows. But I understand a bit more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No Wine, No Beer, No Bull

A couple of decades ago Julia and I were waiting in a hospital's lab's waiting room in South Carolina. For some reason people stood against the wall and sat in the aisles, there were so many.

A woman in a seat around the corner said, "No potatoes, no grits. No steak on the table. No cornbread and milk. No wine, no beer, no bull. No potatoes, no grits. No steak on the table. No cornbread and milk, no wine, no beer, no bull. No potatoes, no grits. No steak on the table. No cornbread and milk, no wine, no beer, no bull . . . "

An old woman with a feeble voice, now and then commented, "Please, be quiet. Would you please be quiet?" But the loop tape kept running. " . . no steak on the table. No cornbread and milk. No wine, no beer, no bull."

"Please be quiet. Would you please be quiet."

By the way, "Bull," in this context is Schlitz Malt Liquor.

Now and then Julia or I will say, "Did you put the bread on the table?" and the other will begin the loop, "No steak on the table. No cornbread and milk. No wine, no beer, no bull."

I love private language.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Synchronicity And Chihuahuas

One of my two best friends at work contemplated buying a chihuahua. He was about ready to start looking for one. Then he was in my other best friend's office and a student walked in carrying two young chihuahuas, one of which was for sale. My friend held the little ball of nerves and decided that he did not want to buy one.

When my friend sat in my office and told me about the incident I expected a gorilla to walk through the door carrying a bag of gorilla chow.

No such luck.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


In my backwoods school my class had between twenty-eight and thirty-three students through the years--we were the largest class the school ever had. In sixth and eighth grades my teacher was a guy named Perry Hudnall. He was the perfect teacher for me.

Perry was demanding. I responded by excelling.

One test in science had a True/False question, "There are nine planets in the universe." I answered "False," and missed it. I appealed to Perry afterward, saying, "There are nine planets around our sun, but there are plenty of other stars and we know that some of them must have planets.

He said, "So far no one has found planets orbiting other stars. When they find some, come back and I will give you that point."

Years later I heard about the first discovery of a planet outside the solar system. I decided to go see Perry the next time I went home. When I got home I heard about the accident.

Perry was an avid duck hunter. He was out on the lake with friends when a thunderstorm whipped up the lake and capsized their boat. His friends swam for shore but Perry, using recommended safety techniques, stayed with the boat. Perry was the only one of his group to die of exposure that day.

I would like to have kidded him about the discovery of that planet.

I should have thanked him for the good job he did.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Normal or Paranormal?

My wife, Julia, sometimes reads paranormal novels. Last night she was particularly piqued at one that she was reading. She was thinking of putting it down because it was so derivative of another that she had read. The protagonist was "Mary Sue," who can do anything. In addition, too many subplots cluttered the book. Finally, Julia thought that the author had a big problem with telling and showing.

Here is a description and a pacing problem in a sliver of a scene. Raphael's brother tells him that a woman Raphael likes has been killed.

Blood drained from Raphael's face. "Renee?"

His brother raced down the stairs. When Raphael returned he looked grim. "Too late. There's people in front of the shop. She's been found."

Since the the first line has Raphael speaking, and the next line says, "His brother," the reader likely reads that Raphael's brother raced down the stairs. But no, Raphael has raced down the stairs. Another problem is that in one line Raphael races down the stairs, and in the next line he trudges back, without even a paragraph break or hint that time has passed.

The biggest "showing vs. telling" problem happened at an important place--the climax of the story. The story had been, in its own way, leading toward a huge battle. The battle started with blood and fur flying. Then we read this paragraph at the climactic moment of the climactic scene.

A loud snarling split the air. Her gaze whipped to the open doorway. Three large gray wolves entered the courtyard. Relief filled her. Damien's brothers joined the fight. It was soon over, and Adam and his clones were dead.

At the physical climax of the book, "It was soon over." Wow.

Let me say that I am not a fan of fight scenes that go on forever. But the climax of the book is no place for narration. That's got to be scene, baby, scene!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Malthus Vs. Smith

This is my answer to someone posting on our university newsgroup. I have changed the poster's name.

Samuel said ". . . we may, through human inventiveness, find new ways of producing products from new sources. That, however, only would seem to delay our acknowledgement of the fundamental problem. We live on a finite earth with finite resources."

Thomas Malthus predicted that Britain's population would outstrip its food supply and settle into a steady state on the brink of starvation in the early 1800's. Land, surely, must be the most fixed of all resources. How could Malthus miss?

In 1968 Paul Ehrlich predicted that by 1980 U. S. life expectancy would be forty-two years due to population outstripping earth's resources. Back in 1900 U. S. life expectancy was forty-seven; in 1970 it was seventy; in 1980 it was seventy-four; in 2000 it was seventy-seven. Ehrlich missed by about a century.

The fact that Malthus and his fellow travelers have been wrong thus far does not necessarily imply that they will always be wrong. But I think the Malthusians will, indeed, always be wrong. Samuel supplied the answer with, ". . . we may, through human inventiveness, find new ways of producing products from new sources."

This was the logic that the brilliant economist, Julian Simon, used in his argument and winning bet with Paul Ehrlich that involved Ehrlich's scarcity predictions.

As oil becomes scarcer its price rises. As its price rises, someone can make a lot of money by finding substitutes for oil. A capitalistic economy rewards people who can make others' lives better in this way. (I just read in Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" about how extraction of oil from cotton seeds changed the nature of cotton commerce during Twain's lifetime.)

In my view, currently our most pressing scarcity is that of fresh water. We are draining our aquifers. But as water prices rise, the rewards for finding ways to make fresh water, perhaps from salt water, increase. Also as water prices rise, industries that currently use water will find cheaper substitutes.

In the very long run, we have to deal with the law of entropy. As we continue to consume, we transform stuff from more organized states to less organized states. However, as we go forward we are able to make more and more use of these more disorganized outputs of production, because it is profitable to do so. Perhaps we can continue this for a long time (until the last judgment, for millenialists; until universe's energy is all unorganized, for others.)

Malthus attempted to improve on Adam Smith's theory of economic growth. Smith's theory is still validated in large ways and small ways all over the world. Mathusians are still telling us, "Just wait." I cannot say the Mathusians will never be right. But their track record is not so good--so far the only we only see Malthus borne out due to a lack of economic freedom to improve (in many African countries, in Mao's China, etc).


1. If we put the *world's* population into four-person families living on subdivision-sized lots, they could all fit into the state of Texas.

2. In every society, affluence reduces fertility rates. As we become better off we have less offspring, putting less pressure on resources. Paradoxically, if we clamp down on freedom today to preserve tomorrow's resources, we might increase fertility rates, straining future resources.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Less Steak and Less Shake

Julia had a get together for women last week. The boys and I went out to eat so that we would miss the "fun." We went south ten miles just to kill more time. We kicked around ideas about where to eat and finally settled on Steak & Shake, twenty miles further down the highway--killing even more time!

Steak & Shake had advertised four meals for under $4.00. Under $4.00 means, of course, $3.99. Each meal had a burger of some kind. They make great burgers.

But the burgers they served were unusually small. When we were in the southern part of the state after Roberto died we ate at a Steak & Shake. The burgers were larger than the typical fast food chain. In just two months prices had been slashed, along with the size of the burgers. The other unusual thing was that the waiters and waitresses seemed much more attentive than other times we had eaten there.

I questioned the manager on the way out and he denied everything. I do not blame him.

Here is my solution to the mystery.

During the past year food prices have soared. In addition, consumer spending is down. In addition, unemployment has inched up. Finally, the minimum wage rose over the summer. Which business strategies react to all these effects?

To counter high food prices, shrink portions. However, since consumers are spending less, lower the restaurant's prices to compete better with the typical fast food chains--hence, cut the portions even more. Finally, with a higher minimum wage and lower employment, employees will be reluctant to leave the job. So demand more work (customer service) from those employees. The higher demands on the workers are reinforced by the fact that workers are earning more, due to the increase in the minimum wage.

If we had a Steak & Shake in our town would I buy food there, given all this? You bet. The portions are small, but the food tastes great. I can eat an apple at home for dessert.

Monday, November 10, 2008


We drove into the mountains on Saturday, headed for a little town with lots of apple orchards. Tourists visit my little town to take such drives, the copious maples are brilliant in the fall.

Our sixteen year old and eleven year old sons went along and kept Julia and I entertained.

We found the orchard that we wanted and bought a half peck of pink ladies. They are tart and sweet and crisp. Further on, we found the town to be much larger than we had expected. One of my students from that town had described the town as if it were smaller than the hole-in-the-road that I grew up in. The Japanese restaurant was great.

Today, after rain and wind on Sunday, the leaves are on the ground.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


My dad gave my mom (then his ex-wife) one of his little hairless dogs and supplied a male to breed the dog to. The dog had two pups and, a couple of months later, slipped out and was run over by a car. The two pups did fine.

Rascal, the male pup, was mom's constant companion. She was diagnosed with advanced multiple myloma (cancer) when Rascal was young. She spent most of the rest of her nine months of life in her recliner with Rascal there with her. She hand fed him. After she died, her husband wanted to get rid of Rascal. Rascal's sister was mom's husband's favorite.

We ended up with Rascal and loved him from the start. When we moved into our home last June we decided to "fence" Rascal using the electric wire and shock collar. (Don't get bent out of shape--the "shock" is akin to a static shock from touching someone after walking across the carpet--surprising, but harmless.) We spent a few months walking him when he needed to go out, then got the collar and wire last week.

We ran the wire and put up flags to warn Rascal where he would get a shock. Rascal approached the flags tentatively and sniffed at them, then he yelped and jumped back. He wandered a few steps and tried again, with similar results. Then he hastily walked to the front door to be let in.

That day and most of the next, Rascal was scared to go outside. Then the day after, he ventured out. He has not been shocked again. He is a fast learner.

Friday, November 7, 2008


I missed the last meeting of my large writing group. I heard they just talked politics and not writing. Today they mostly talked politics. I read some of Suffrage and we read two poems--one of which was political. Then most of them talked politics.

I like to talk politics with people who analyze the issues, but my writing group has an emotional approach to politics. They believe that politicians can "help us" and think in terms of good and evil.

Here is an armchair analysis, as opposed to emotion. I have heard that the president can "create jobs." Politicians could create jobs by hiring people to stand under trees to catch falling leaves. That will also destroy jobs, since the "leafcatcher" salaries will be appropriated from people who are now, with their spending, paying other people's salaries.

Private markets, left alone, can create jobs only when those workers create value for consumers. If the private market has not already created leafcatcher jobs then those jobs must not support enough value in the market to pay the workers' salaries and benefits.

The politician will create more jobs than he destroys only if government is smarter at spending your dollars than you are--if the most massive bureaucracy in existence is more smart, knowledgable, and efficient at pleasing us than we are. Alas, I am begging the question, since the answer is obvious.

This kind of analysis leads me to believe that politicians do not have much power to make our lives better. We have that power, and politicians can help us by giving us more power to act in our own interest and in the interest of others, but they cannot, by their own actions, make us better off.

Alas, few politicians want to run on the platform, "I am going to leave you alone." (I can just hear the response those with the emotional approach, "Leave us alone? Please don't! We don't want to be alone.")

The writerly types and others in the publishing industry seem oriented toward emotional, rather than analytical approaches to policy. Perhaps I will always be the quiet one in the room, since I do not want to try to convert the convinced. Policy is more of a religious matter with those folks and I do not want to try to talk them out of their religion.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain wrote about his love for the river's beauty. But then he became a pilot.

The river transformed into currents that revealed the bottom contours, snags to navigate by, depth measurements at crossings, portents of future weather on the wind and in the clouds, and everything else that went into his two years of training to be a pilot. He could no longer see or hear the river's poetry.

We cannot write anything that is original. I realize this, but I slipped. I thought I had written something original. But now I see that Mark Twain nailed the point that I explored in my poem, Scholar. He even discussed how a doctor would see a beautiful woman as the sum of her hideous parts.

Damn you, Mark Twain!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


As I handed out the test today a student said, "You should give us bonus points to celebrate the election." Other students voiced their agreement.

I replied, "To celebrate the election, I am going to take points from people with high grades and add those points to people with low grades."

I got a five-star laugh.

I kept going. "I just want to spread the points around."

Another five-star laugh.

It got my test experience started off right. I am not sure if it helped them much.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Mom was an excellent cook. Except that her pancakes were always tough. Looking back, I think she must have beat the batter too much.

One morning she tried again--made us pancakes for breakfast. We could not eat them. She got mad and threw them out the kitchen window.

The following day I found our yellow cat dead in the back yard. His mouth was full of mom's pancakes. Mom never lived it down.

Neither, of course, did the cat.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wheels Included

My family, in order, camped in a tent, pop-up camper, pickup camper, and then a motor home. We bought the motor home used. I guess it was a Boise Cascade, since that was the only name I ever saw on it. It was medium sized for a motor home. It would have been monstrous for a loaf of bread. It had good beds, an icebox, a stove, and even a bathroom.

We camped in the Ozarks, on the beaches of Louisiana and Texas, through some of Mississippi (I don't know why), Illinois, and Tennessee. We went to lots of festivals.

There was no casastrophe that made us get rid of the thing. I think my brother and I just got tired of so much travelling.

We had the best breakfast ever--sausages, eggs, and toast on a grille--on a cold morning in Tyler State Park. My brother threw a flounder and hit me in the face. Our dog chased chipmunks in Missouri. We skinny-dipped in a freezing spring-fed creek just off the road in the middle of nowhere. Mom concocted a slumgullion that she called "Chinese-cajun surprise" at Johnson's Bayou, that included freshly caught crab, bean sprouts, cheese, and bread crumbs (mom was an excellent cook). When nobody on the pier at Padre Island had caught more than one or two fish, my little brother took the fish off their hands and we had a smorgasboard of croaker, whiting, sea bass, drum, snapper, and I don't remember what else. We fed a hoard of gulls on the Aransas Pass ferry. When thugs in Vicksburg jumped up on our trailer at night, dad pulled the .44 magnum and they high-tailed it. And we talked about our hairless dogs from one end of our trips to the other.

After my first son was born, dad advised me, "Make whatever sacrifices you have to and and buy a motor home when he's young."

I didn't. I regret it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


After the pop-up camper we got a pick-up camper. For everyone who has never seen a pick-up camper, it fits in the back of a pick-up. It had a stove and icebox (that used a 25 pound block of ice). It had a bed over the cab of the truck and a dining table that broke down into a bed.

On some vacations we went to art shows, huge flea markets, and festivals. Mom had always painted in oils and she began to display her art. She started selling and dad built a trailer for her.

She eventually found her real market--oil paintings based on steamboats, plantation houses, and old photographs of ancestors siting around a lumber camp with huge crosscut saws, or leaning on hitching posts, or standing on the front porch of the old homestead.

My brother and I painted rocks, glued googley eyes on them and sold them. We arranged flowers on driftwood and in bottles. We sold spin-art. Dad made the spin-art machine with a fan motor that turned a turnable. The mechanism was mounted in a box. We would put a piece of paper on the turntable and turn the fan motor on--the paper would whirl and for fifty cents, a kid could drip paint from bottles onto the spinning paper, making circular or spiral designs.

We enjoyed making money and attending the events. We also went on normal vacations where we did not sell anything. Unlike with our tent and our pop-up camper, we did not have a mishap that caused us to abandon the pick-up camper. The folks just finally saved up enough to buy a motor home.