Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In Betweens

My eleven year old son and I drove to a nearby town for my doctor visit and so he could have a bigger selection of games on which to spend some Christmas money. On the way we talked about the language of meals.

I am from an in-between generation in the south. My parents ate breakfast, dinner, and supper. Non-southerners ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So from my family I got one language and from television I got another language. My kids have much less confusion since their parents are muddled, while the television is clear.

The only thing I cannot figure out in all this is the meal at school when I was young. We ate lunch--I don't know why. Everyone's parents knew that the noon meal was dinner, but their kids ate lunch at school. In fact, Huey Long, noteworthy socialist governor of Louisiana, provided free lunches, not dinners, at school.

I would love to blame the national government for the confusion at school, but in Huey Long's day the federal government stayed out of schools.

The word "dinner" is first recorded in the year 1297 and meant "the main meal of the day." Dinner was originally the first meal of the day, but eventually became the noon meal. "Lunch" is first recorded in 1829, however "luncheon" dates from 1580. In either case, "dinner" predates "lunch" by centuries.

Why did we have to change it!?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nature of God

I read an editorial today about a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Heather Mac Donald as to whether Christians are evil or merely stupid and unthinking. It reminded me of a debate from Catch 22 between Yossarian and his lover, Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife. The whole scene is great, but I'll start just before the punch line. Yossarian is talking about God.


'You know, we mustn't let Him get away with it. Oh, no,we certainly mustn't let Him get away scot free for all the sorrow He's caused us. Someday I'm going to make Him pay. I know when. On the Judgement Day. Yes, that's the day I'll be close enough to reach out and grab that little yokel by His neck and --

' 'Stop it! Stop it!' Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife screamed suddenly, and began beating him ineffectually about the head with both fists. 'Stop it!'

Yossarian ducked behind his arm for protection while she slammed away at him in feminine fury for a few seconds, and then he caught her determinedly by the wrists and forced her gently back down on the bed. 'What the hell are you so upset about?' he asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. 'I thought you didn't believe in God.'

'I don't,' she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. 'But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.'

Monday, December 22, 2008

Scaling The Heights of Stupidity

I should not blog while mad. This is a nerdy rage, though, since I am an indignant economist.

Our Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, got $700 Billion to spend buying up toxic securities. He then started buying billions of dollars of bank stock, rather than toxic securities and later announced that he would not buy any toxic securities, which are the root of U. S. financial problems. Few banks were interested in the government buying a share of their ownership. Banks who did not need the money did not wish to appear unsound and did not wish to find later that government string were attached to the money. Most notably, Wells Fargo did not go gently.

Then the treasury department turned the issue around. "Hey, if you're not taking our money you must not be able to meet our criteria, so your depositors better worry about whether you are sound!" So banks started applying for government money.

Now politicians are outraged that many banks who took the money are paying their executives year-end bonuses.

If government goes after these banks for paying bonuses, then government will be revealed as having forced a deceptive, involuntary takeover of banks.

Nerdly steam issues from out my ears.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Our family's big meal--the one that we cook two or three times per year and spend lots of money on--is gumbo. We were thinking of serving gumbo for Christmas dinner, but we decided to have friends over tonight for gumbo.

For those who do not know, gumbo is often described as a spicy soup. Mathematically speaking, the gumbo space is partitioned into creole and cajun gumbos, as well as into seafood and non-seafood gumbos.

We make cajun non-seafood gumbo, but I like some of the other stuff, too. Creole gumbo is sort of a tomatoee spicy soup. Cajun gumbo is more like a spicy gravy soup.

Seafood gumbo starts with seafood stock--made by boiling shrimp or shrimp shells or some such. Cajun gumbo is made in chicken stock.

A good cajun (non-seafood) gumbo is dark brown or black with lots of little pieces (maybe 1/4 inch dice) of chicken and spicy sausage (preferably andoullie (pronounced ahn-DU-ee)). I have been served this stuff in the best restaurants in New Orleans, but I have never had any that surpassed mine. A few have matched mine, though. The best cooks use a recipe similar or identical to mine.

Here is how I make it. (Don't worry, this is not exactly a recipe. It is cultural theater.)

Rub some chicken with cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and salt, then flour it, and fry it. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet, then add an equal part of flour and cook that over high heat, stiring constantly. The flour will brown and turn nearly black. Just before the flour burns, pour in diced (I prefer pureed) fresh onion, bell pepper, and celery (known as "the trinity" in southern cooking). Continue cooking over high heat. I cook this stuff until the oil starts to separate from the mixture.

Drop this goo, called a roux (pronounced roo), into boiling chicken broth. Add diced sausage and a bit of fresh minced garlic. Simmer for 45 minutes. Add diced fried chicken and serve over rice.

Cooking gumbo takes about three hours. I once sold gumbo as a fund raiser for my son's cub scout pack. My dad and I took an entire day to make seventeen gallons of gumbo. We sold it for an exhorbitant price and made about three hundred dollars profit for the scouts. We cooked it outdoors on two butane cookers. The hard part was making all that roux in the cast-iron skillet. I stood at the stove for three hours. I was wrung out. Everybody raved about it, but I never got to taste it, since it all sold.

More Skepticism

I recently talked about skepticism. A recent news release illustrates what I mean.

The story is here.

My summary is this. Scientists found leaks in the magnetic field that surrounds Earth, protecting it from the solar wind.

The new observations "overturn the way that we understand how the sun's magnetic field interacts with the Earth's magnetic field," said David Sibeck of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., during a press conference today at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Al Gore should take note that sometimes we do not know what we thought we knew.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Daddy, What Happened To The Dinosaurs?

I am a religious believer.

About man's knowledge, I am a skeptic. Back when I was born, a scientist would say to his son, "The dinosaurs are with us. They evolved into the creatures you see, including us." Back then, everyone thought change was gradual and evolutionary.

Then a few decades ago, a scientist colleague of mine would say to his son, "The dinosaurs were all killed when a massive asteroid hit the earth near the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico."

From what I have recently read, a growing fraction of scientists are telling their kids, "The dinosaurs were killed when huge volcanoes in India poisoned their air."

I love learning about science. But I do not take it seriously. Science is an interesting detective fiction that is rewritten every so often.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Body Cooled Down

In July, August, and September the housing market and investment banking industry was dead and twitching. Now that the body is cold, a U. S. House of Representatives regulatory committee finally put the blame on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the FMs), which is almost where it should go.

I said this stuff three months ago here. The ultimate blame goes to congress, though, particularly to our representatives that prevented oversight of the FMs. Why is congress only waking now? Because they had an election to survive and had to delay blame. That explains the delay. I still do not know why they are even addressing the issue.

The idea that congress was to blame was mentioned (barely) at the hearings. The demons were, of course, CEOs of the FMs. Franklin Raines, at Fannie Mae, certainly did not help the situation by basing executive bonuses not on profitability, but on total numbers of mortgages that his underlings bought. But congress created the FMs and passed the Community Reinvestment Act (creating subprime mortgages); then the Clinton administration forced the FMs to buy subprime mortgages and congress shielded the FMs from oversight.

Government trashed the economy.

Why Didn't Anybody Stop Me?!

I know I talk too much about this stuff, but I could not resist this. C. E. O. Franklin Raines, under whom Fannie Mae's purchases of subprime mortgages exploded*, said to a U. S. House of Representatives committee recently "It is remarkable that during the period that Fannie Mae substantially increased its exposure to credit risk its regulator made no visible effort to enforce any limits."

This is priceless. Back when Bush and some Republican lawmakers were trying to rein in Fannie Mae, apparently Franklin Raines, who spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbyists to buy off congress, was secretly thinking, "Stop me before I buy more unsafe mortgages."


*Somewhat due to Raines's changing the compensation scheme to reward executives not for generating profits, but for acquiring whatever odiferous mortgages they wanted to acquire.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Caught in a Truth

The CEO of GM recently got caught telling the truth--that fuel efficiency standards are burying his company. Of course he said this in private--he would never tell that to congress since they can't handle the truth.*

Idiot congressmen, like the ones I talked about here, keep chanting, "Detroit is in trouble because stupid CEO's won't produce green cars." I have difficulty substituting the judgment of a numbskull whose only virtue is his ability to lie (a politician) for the judgment of someone whose paycheck, job, and career are on the line if he does not run a profitable company.

GM makes money domestically on big trucks and vans. They make money overseas, where gasoline costs $9/gallon, on small cars. But congress forces car companies to produce unprofitable cars domestically, which shackles their ability to compete with foreign car companies. Congress's current medicine for the car companies is more of the same. They have applied leeches to the patient until the patient is critical, and now they call for more leeches.

It may be the case that in two years gasoline will cost $6/gallon and the new green cars will be selling domestically. But if the auto companies are going to make it in the meantime, taxpayers will foot the bill.

Since congress will not free the auto companies, I would rather see congress kill the auto companies than turn them into another public utility. Put the auto companies out of their misery. Toyota can produce those big trucks and vans from now on.


*Just like he would never point out that at his rate of pay, the four days that it took him to drive to Washington and back to testify before congress cost his company over $120,000 (and that does not count the executives that accompanied him). Heck, the trip may have cost half a million, all told, which makes a private jet seem pretty cheap. Gorsh, these companies really do operate efficiently if you leave them alone.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


On Sunday our water was brown. We have seen it before, though not in this town--rust in the lines. As a kid, my family had a well so we did not have to put up with such stuff. But back then the pump occasionally needed priming so the entire family would "pull the pump," lifting the pump from the well and tugging the big pipe that went down into the well across the yard. Dad would prime the pump, then we would put it back in, which was easier because gravity helped us.

Today, we have to put up with brown water now and then. The brown color is from iron--a bit of iron for a day or two won't hurt, but we're finicky so we buy bottled water for consumption.

The brown ended yesterday. Then the water took on a milky cast, which I have never seen. I ran a quart jar of it. The water was opaque. Were those bubbles? I put my ear to the surface of the water and heard it fizzing.

I enjoyed showing the family what was coming from the tap. Then I called the water folks. They said it was just air in the lines and that it would clear up if we ran the water for a while. I ran the water for five minutes and it did not clear up. I took a shower later and it did not clear up.

This morning the water is still fizzy. So we are still drinking bottled water.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Beat With The Bible Belt

Today a group of four of us from the school of business went to a luncheon in Atlanta and heard Steve Forbes give his take on the economy. Hundreds from industry, government, and academia attended.

A colleague from the midwest who just joined the U last summer sat in front of me at the table. When the speaker said, "Let us bow our heads and offer thanks for our blessings and the food," my colleague whirled around to me with his mouth open and an astonished look in his eyes. I wished I had a camera. I would have posted his bewildered expression.

Afterward I informed my colleague that he had been beaten with the Bible belt.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


A colleague has a friend* with unusual ideas about her dog. She is certain that her dog is a virgin.

My colleague is not sure that his friend can know about her dog's chastity. The dog, after all, goes to a doggie daycare four days per week @ $40/day. Anything could happen.

His friend claims that the folks at the doggie daycare are diligent in making sure that no doggies slip off to a broom closet or to an empty bedroom. My colleague is skeptical.

His friend further claims that her dog would never do such a thing. She seems to impute moral virtue to chaste dogs. Did anyone have such odd thoughts a century ago or is this silliness a modern affliction?


*Well, not exactly a friend. The two of them probably disagree on that point, with my colleague certain that they are not friends.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Joy In The Morning

They forcast snow for my town. My eleven year old nearly strained a muscle, hoping for snow. When we walked outside this morning he was elated to see a few flakes drifting down.

On the way to school, he was animated.

When we arrive he usually slumps out of the van and trudges past the teachers who greet him, grumbling politely in answer to them.

This morning he hopped through the school door with both arms raised in a victory salute.