Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Weird things make me laugh sometimes

My Father

No one likes to think about losing a loved one, but eventually each of us loses or is lost. Before that happens we have a compulsion to try to tell important people in our lives what we thought of them. Otherwise, regret traditionally follows.

As my father is advancing in years and seems to be toying with the notion of getting diagnosed with something heinous, I turn my attention to him. It never wavers far from him anyway, since we spent so much time together when I was young.

He was not a modern parent who hovers over every moment of an offspring's life in the current mode. Even if portable video had existed, he would not have immortalized my every act and made sure he was there to witness every school play, sports event and booger-eating contest behind the elementary school. Let's be reasonable. Reason is what elevates us above mere vessels of passion. Vessels of passion have a fine time riding their waves of unchecked emotion, but they can make quite a mess.

I shy away from describing life as a gift when it can go so wrong in so many ways, but I am grateful that my parents chose to be as responsible as they were after giving it to me and my siblings. I would rather have had a pool table than a baby brother back in the mid 1960s, but that wasn't my decision to make. We moved a lot and a baby brother was more portable. I've made my peace with that.

My father was a pain in the ass. Above all else he was dedicated to doing the right thing even if it inconvenienced him personally. Because this is a minority view, he was frequently frustrated, depressed and irritable. To a kid this does not look like a good advertisement for that lifestyle. But the value works its insidious way into your mind. Before you know it, you're being self-destructively conscientious as well. It may come out in chaotic and obscure ways at first. It may take a final form very different from the example of the previous generation. Still, it is there. At least the intention is there.

My father's devotion to the ideals of the institutions that raised him made him somewhat unpopular with many of the other inmates and functionaries of those institutions who had looser interpretations of the basic principles under which they were supposed to operate. He questioned authority not in a destructive way, but by insisting that it live up to the code it claimed to. He saw the larger picture in which the restrictions on personal gratification led to an overall higher standard for everyone. Take a little less, give a little more and it all comes around eventually.

Selfish bastards shortstop the part that comes back around, leaving the good guys holding a nearly-empty bag or the stinky end of the stick more often than not. The truly good just keep plugging, because they know that without them there would be nothing at all worth having. Society really would cease to function if everybody just went out and tried to get as much as possible for themselves. Witness it in action even now. So the poor guy with a conscience gets made to look like an idiot time and again. Or he receives hollow accolades from the grateful selfish bastards who pay tribute to the values without any intention of hobbling themselves with them. Only everyone knows at some level that the good guy really is holding everything together for the ones who can't or won't. For the very instant of the tribute, even the most cynical user feels genuine affection and gratitude for the grunt bending under the weight of stone.

My father, badly betrayed and abandoned by those who should have cared for him, was determined not to make the same mistake with his own family. Consequently, he made his own brand new mistakes. I can't think of any just at the moment, since he is omniscient, but he is human. Well, half human, anyway. I came to think he might be from some other race that lives by pure logic. Except when we made him go bullshit crazy mad by being bonehead kids.

For all his hard work and simple virtue, he had a curious attraction to the yachts and homes of the wealthy. He never did what was necessary to have those things, but never ceased to want them. That paradox marked his efforts throughout adulthood. He had an unfulfilled longing for certain personal accomplishments linked to a temperamental compulsion to put his own wants below the needs of others. As decades passed he seems to have developed more satisfaction in the service itself, but for a while he really did seem to be hoping for some recognition and compensation that would not materialize. A battle raged below the surface, sometimes barely below it, between his personal ambitions and what he saw as his higher self.

It was often painful to be his child. We could see that he suffered in ways we could not fix. When we went away to pursue education and work, we took away the family that he loved even as it made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. When we came back, we made him turn purple and make strangling noises with rage. At any family gathering we know before it's over we'll probably piss him off. That's how it is with someone who is the living embodiment of a conscience.

In church they say a person's hierarchy of devotion should start with God. Family comes below God. In the United States military forces, family comes below the job, too. I believe the military establishment would be just as happy if service members had no families. At best, service members' families might provide generations of faithful recruits. Short of that they're just a burden and a distraction. While I didn't feel we fell distantly behind the Coast Guard, I knew that when the orders came we would take them and that any relationships I had outside the immediate family had to bend or break accordingly. Work, and doing your job, was the highest calling. It made the family possible and it made one a useful member of society. Find something useful to do and do it devotedly.

All the fumblings and false starts of my father's children have stemmed from the search for that worthwhile thing to do. We saw his treatment at the hands of the service and were not attracted to that avenue, so we sought things that we could enjoy and stand to do, day after day. Everything reflects a gradual convergence with his sense of decency. The usefulness of some of it might be debatable, but it could have been worse. In the meantime, you gotta have a job. Do good where you can. My father squeezed himself into an ideal of service that's hard to match. In a better world, not even a perfect world, enough people would realize the need to pitch in and make lives of the sacrificial few unnecessary. For now, though, everything decent rides on people like him.

Try to remember that if you catch him hanging out in front of the TV in his lounging attire.

Was that a strangling noise I heard?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Looking out for our interests

In order to keep investors interested in oil companies, OPEC has agreed to cut production by 2.2 million barrels a day, according to news reports. This is an effort to stop plummeting prices for petroleum.

Wiping off the rear view mirror I glance back at mid summer, when prices were spiraling upward and headed for unprecedented heights.

Neither the highs nor the lows are based in what you could call reality. But the highs were probably closer to the truth. So why not let us enjoy our illusion for a while? The market will correct eventually.

I know, I know. Petroleum is already an artificially modulated commodity. Like every other commodity in our economy, its price no longer reflects just the costs associated with bringing it forth from its raw state, shaping it into a usable form and transporting it to users. Everything gets tweaked or nudged if not outright bludgeoned and abducted. Values are manipulated to squeeze out more profit when possible. Does this compensate for the periods of loss or actually create them? A little nudge or a big shove upward seems to invite a countervailing downward motion in prices at some point.

Petroleum producers know they're dealing with addicts as surely as a drug dealer does. For the few of us who go into rehab and make it work, many more just keep on using. Money's just tight right now, okay? Just hook me up this once. Tide me over. I need this stuff, man. You don't understand!

Investors and people who service them will appreciate OPEC's move. People who can afford to pay a little more at the pump will welcome the lift this brings to their portfolios. Everyone else can just pump it and bitch.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on the News

First, why couldn't Mr. Madoff's name be Howie instead of Bernie? Howie Madoff with all that money is anyone's guess. We're told it was a lapse in security by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Speaking of security lapses, where was George Bush's security detail when the shoes started flying? Why didn't we see a Secret Service agent diving across yelling, "Shoe! Shoe!" and taking a brogan to the noggin for POTUS?

To his credit, Georgie did a fine job of dodgin' for himself. I'd bet it wasn't the first time someone had shied something at his head for being an idiot.

Friends of mine have said they'd love to have done the same thing to him. I can't imagine anything satisfying about doing or saying anything to him. I look forward to ignoring him completely once he's no longer in office. We probably can't punish him for anything, so let's just get on with cleaning up after him and deny him the privilege of any more of our attention.

Quick Ford Tie-off

According to relayed information from the Ford dealer, the repair performed met Ford's current specifications. The flex-hose graft, properly done, is supposed to function as well as the original lines, now no longer available.

Interestingly, my mechanic was able to obtain and install proper lines. These include a flexible section, but not clamped externally.

The cost of transmission repairs rivals the price of a used car of similar vintage. The advantage of repairing this one is that I know its history and condition. I just have to decide which repair procedure to buy: transplant a used one, rebuild the current one or transplant a new (or rebuilt) one.

The transmission wizard likes to rebuild. He sounds like he works to my standard and the Gilford Guru's. I just don't know if I can afford that level of meticulousness in an eleven-year-old car.

Meanwhile, the long-suffering 1995 Toyota Corolla wagon provides daily transportation. Its age and decrepitude keep me from getting frisky. If it goes, I'm screwed.

This experience confirms that automatic transmissions are another example of the expense of laziness. A manual transmission has ONE clutch. Learn to use it. If you fry it, replacement ain't cheap, but it's a damn sight cheaper than anything inside a slushbox. Anything that performs work for you has to have some ability to think for itself. That means more parts working in greater coordination without any input from you. That means more little things that can go "sproing" and complicate your life much more than they were simplifying it while they worked.

At this point, automatic transmissions dominate. More than likely, my next car will have one, too. I'll just roll the dice the way we all do and hope I win the gamble and keep the red juice inside, where it belongs.

I notice transmission puddles along the road now more than I did before. When I see them down at the corner where the hotrod idiots do doughnuts and burn out thirty feet of rubber I just laugh at them. Along the roads and highways they tell a different story. Someone just got bad, bad news. The tow alone from some of these emergency landings would have been a chunk of change. If they didn't get the car stopped soon enough, their troubles have just begun.

And so the economy moves.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ford Situation

I've heard nothing from the Ford dealer that screwed up my car. I don't expect to. From a pure business standpoint, he gains nothing by compensating me.

Consider it clinically. His good customer, my father, is old and unlikely to buy any more cars there, so he's more of a liability than an asset. Ford as a brand gains when people like the cars and keep buying new ones, not when they try to own them for five or ten years. The dealer might make it back in service if the customer takes the car to the dealer for service, but most frugal, long-term car owners probably get tired of dealership service departments pretty quickly.

Long-lived used cars make Ford look good, but their true monetary value is hard to quantify. In each individual case, the car itself and its cheap-ass owner are an annoyance.

The dealer gains nothing by helping me out. I don't live in that town and I don't have money.

Disposing of the financial aspect, consider the moral one. Repairs often carry a warranty, but that is usually measured in days or weeks. While it's undeniable that the botched repair led directly to the breakdown that damaged the transmission, the service department at the Ford dealership can say that subsequent mechanics had ample opportunity to notice the substandard repair and correct it.

I might do damage to the dealership's reputation, but I live far away. And what auto dealership doesn't have a few stories circulating about questionable things they might have done? I single out none of them, distrusting all of them. Hey, prove me wrong, guys. Prove me wrong.

Auto dealerships are not all staffed by crooks and con men. They're just big institutions with all the problems a big institution normally faces when maintaining quality control. Repairs are not like manufacturing. A category of repairs might all be very similar, but they're not all alike. They don't fall perfectly into a time-and-motion model of efficiency. But big institutions have notorious problems dealing with creativity and adaptability. A little bit slower technician might yield much better results but cost the company too much money because they're willing to settle for lower precision for quicker turns. That's only one aspect of the problem.

If the dealer who screwed up my car is the smart business man I take him to be, he will do what he has already done: take the information, pledge to look into it, and do absolutely nothing while he waits for it to go away. Neither my father nor I have enough public relations value to make us a good investment.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ford dealer owes me a transmission, but I don't expect to get it

Funny how things happen. The transmission oil cooler lines in my car rusted out and failed when I was on a trip to visit family. The car was repaired by the local Ford dealership. Instead of putting in the real replacement lines, which are steel, they cut the rusted portions away and clamped in short sections of rubber hose. They did not call attention to this fact.

I trusted the repair shop at this facility, where my father has done business faithfully for years. The bill was not cheap, after all. They'd jumped in for a brake job while the car was there.

Rubber grafts are an emergency, short-term repair. I was not told I had received a short-term repair. I was told the lines were repaired.

Oil degenerates the rubber hose. Unlike the metal lines, which rust and develop leaks slowly, the rubber fails catastrophically. Fluid blows out rapidly. As a result, internal parts of the transmission suffer damage from heat and lack of lubrication. According to my car guru's transmission guru, I probably smoked a clutch pack, leading to the strange slippage between second and third gear.

The benefit out of all this is that I got to meet, by phone, yet another cool, down to earth mechanical guy who digs what he does and loves doing good work. It makes me want to round up sick transmissions and send them to him. But such ministrations aren't cheap. Not by a long shot. The ballpark repair estimate for his recommended option, or indeed any of the options he laid out, is around the blue book value for the car.

People complain to me all the time that they've spent more on repairs and upkeep to their bicycles than they paid for the bike itself. I answer that the value of the bike exceeds its cost, which makes it a better bargain. Whenever you have to pay someone to take conscientious care of your stuff, you are buying a portion of their life.

As the dealership demonstrated, a high price tag does not guarantee that the work was well done. Examining the bill in detail now, I could see where the part cost showed a cut corner. Since I did not know the price range for such parts going in, I had no warning flag to tell me to probe more deeply when I first got the bill.

Until I resolve this issue, I cannot drive the car. The conscientious transmission guy is even farther away than the Gilford Guru. He sounds well worth the trip, but do I roll the dice on a drive down there, hoping I won't smoke more tranny parts, or pay huge sums to have it transported there by flatbed truck? No AAA Plus for this boy. It's cha-ching as you go, beyond the first few miles basic motor club courtesy would cover.

This is why I go through all the crap I do to go to the mechanic who always takes good care of me. Between the underhanded and the incompetent, it's too easy to have expensive mistakes made on your behalf in the world of automobiles.

The bill for all this is going to cut deeply, along with the bills already incurred for other things that needed to be done right when they needed to be done. There's nothing frivolous in my economy, yet it is still stretched to the breaking point.

All because of some two-bit hack in a dealership garage.

Whatever you do, do well. Take pride in your work and your integrity. Be honest and give full information. The people who tune you out, who complain that you're boring or make their dumb, thoughtless lives too hard can go get humped by the courteous dudes in the matching blue shirts who call you sir and screw you hard while you're anaesthetized by their marketing.

I'm kind of pissed about this.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I hope no one is surprised

According to a US intelligence report, the balance of global power is shifting toward Asia. This unintended consequence of outsourcing is grimly amusing. Business and political leaders are learning the hard way that you can't exploit foreign laborers effectively without bringing them into your own country, where you can control the economy more completely.

All that money sent overseas isn't coming back, because we have made our nation a place with nothing to offer except suckers to buy cheap goods. Once our pockets are empty and we've forgotten how to make anything we will just have our real estate to sell. That's underway already.

The full crash will take down people who presently consider themselves wealthy. Only the few wealthiest who have resources to rival those of a small nation will be able to buy themselves a place in a global order where there are no discrete superpowers. You can't really prepare for life in a regime we have only experienced in fiction. All anyone can say for sure is that vast wealth always helps. If you don't have it at this point, you probably don't have time to get it.

The people who plan to build their little forts and live with heavily-armed exuberance will find that their little fantasy depended more on an indulgent government than they realized while they cursed its "intrusiveness."

Is the future democratic? Why should it be? Popular government is not efficient. Since the financial leaders of this country have demonstrated that they really don't care about the average citizen, and our country supposedly led the way in enfranchising Joe Average, why should any government stemming from nations with more heavy-handed traditions take up the burdens of it?

Giving away the farm bought a temporary boom. Any place the United States retains after engineering its own downfall will have to be earned on standards we probably will no longer have the strength to set.

The big change will not happen overnight. Patient nations will simply wait for human nature to take its course. And eventually their turn will come as the unified race grapples unilaterally with our tendency toward slothfulness.

Too bad we can't agree right now that work basically sucks and we should just share the load of necessary tasks and show each other a good time in our off hours.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Period of Adjustment

Much has happened since the election of Barack Obama. Most has simply been further settling of the broken chunks of the economy.

Gas prices have plunged. Climate change seems forgotten as chilly weather makes warming seem like not such a bad thing.

Supporters of Obama spoke openly of their hope and relief after the election. His detractors grumbled. Some swore to resist in dramatic terms. No running off to Canada for the folks who will give up their guns when you pry their cold, dead hands off of them. They load in supplies and ammo, rig their perimeter alarms and defenses and wait for the next Shot Heard Round the World.

When I visited my car mechanic a few days after the election, a fat, angry white man was there, sounding off to Rich about all that was wrong with the new administration. He grunted out separate lumps of condemnation that lay around him on the floor in disorganized piles. He spoke proudly of his service in Vietnam.

"We killed plenty of gooks," he said. "If we killed a few extra, so what?

"You want to know how to treat prisoners of war? I'll tell you how. After the Vietnam war they never found any enlisted prisoners, you know that? You know why? The gooks killed 'em all. I'm proud of what we did over there."

He was offended that Rahm Emmanuel had served in the Israeli army instead of the US Army. He considered it less worthy than service in Desert Storm would have been.

"We were over there fighting to save Israel's ass. Did they do any fighting? No!"

I didn't try to remind him that George HW Bush had pressured Israel to stay out of it so it wouldn't inflame the Muslim world any more than it already had. He growled warningly whenever I said anything that didn't sound like hearty support. Not wanting to make an uncomfortable scene that would mess up my relations with the mechanic, I fell into the same mode Rich did. We just went along with the ranting, let him vent.

The fat man had a whole lot of militarism in him for having served less than ten years. He may have served the minimum required by the draft. It was a little hard to follow. All I knew for sure was that this soft bodied man loved to talk a hard line.

The worst of the grumbling seems to have subsided. I don't believe for a minute that this reflects acceptance and support. The grumblers simply have other things to do. If you ask them, they still hate the way things turned out. Just don't ask.

We have not elected a messiah. No candidate could be that good. So, by extension, we have not elected the embodiment of evil, either. Thoughtful people will see how it goes and adjust their opinions accordingly, regardless of how they voted this time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How about a little change?

Change is tricky. The longer we persist in some mistakes, the more radical the correction needs to be. But you can't just slam the ship of state into an all-standing jibe. Large, important things are liable to break and many of the crew will probably be washed overboard. This is why the real reform candidates of the fringe parties don't--and probably shouldn't-- get a lot of votes.

Parties based on pure ideals seem so...pure. The idealists who form them believe that their selection of simple principles will streamline government into the perfect machine for the perfect society. Let's have a mere handful of laws and almost no taxes! Then we each get to keep most of the money we earn and spend it on whatever we see fit. Sounds good. Okay, which laws?

Oh shit.

Other small parties focus on issues like the environment or social services. But we all know that things like a clean environment, public transportation and everyone's health are Special Interests. Taking care of the planet and each other is a concern for Creeping Socialists and other Big Taxing Bureaucratic Totalitarians. Those people are the Enemies of Liberty.

Hear the rigging creaking?

Today everybody gets to grab the wheel and give it a little tug in the direction of their choice. Hours from now we will know the cumulative result of all those little tugs. The ones that don't go in the direction we favor we can call jerks. Then in a few months when the elected or re-elected officials settle into their positions we have to remember to keep a finger on the wheel ourselves by keeping in touch with the bozos in office. Don't let them forget you until the next time they decide to go looking for your vote.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Yay! It's almost over!

Tomorrow the campaign ads end. It's not all smooth sailing from there. We just won't have to put up with the clutter of signs, the yammer of television and radio advertising and the phone calls.

Hopefully, the various officials in charge of elections across the country will manage to land it cleanly on the first try. Then we get a few days off before the losing side starts campaigning again and the winners have to build their public relations defense.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Party Reflects its People

Around here, Republicans seem far more likely than Democrats to resort to petty, vindictive bullshit. They steal or smash campaign signs for Democratic candidates far more often than their own banners are despoiled.

The relentless theft of Obama signs inspired one voter to make one of her own.

In 2004, the vandalistic Republican element put nails in some Democrats' driveways before a candidate rally in town. This was in addition to relentless sign theft and destruction. Then there's that whole phone-jamming thing from 2002.

Ah well. Our Founding Fathers decided that government by argument was the best way. People argue in the style they find comfortable. For some it's finely honed rhetoric. For others it's a brick through a windshield.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When stimulating your economy...

Remember, should you experience the dollar being up for more than four hours, consult your doctor of economics immediately.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Lesson of Joe the Plumber

Celebrities and politicians know all too well the hazards of opening your mouth or even being seen in public in this era of ubiquitous video. This Joe guy spoke articulately and at length with Barack Obama, on camera, and now he's a chew toy in all the media. If he was a plant bythe McCain camp, maybe he's been compensated for his trouble. If he was really just a citizen speaking to a candidate, he really got his chance on the soap box...and then some.

Joe! Boxers or briefs?!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First you have to get their attention

Watching the Senate Agriculture Committee hearings on the crisis in the financial services industry, I see theories I've held for years borne out in testimony. This dates back to the 1980s. Surprise!

The $700 billion we just threw at the problem simply constitutes the two-by-four between the eyes that the citizenry and their elected representatives needed to draw their belated attention to the magnitude of the rot.

As one senator observed, "These instruments [credit swaps and derivatives] exist just to make money off of money. Why not just ban them?"

Indeed. The money business attaches itself to the real economy in the way that ticks and leeches attach themselves to other creatures. Something then eats these parasites, giving them a place in the food chain, but if they did not exist the food chain would go on, and would be a happier place.

Of course the food chain analogy raises uncomfortable images when applied to the economy. Who is getting eaten? Who wants to be the dumb, numerous herbivore feeding the speedy, clever predator? Step away from the analogy after disposing of the ticks and leeches.

Monday, October 13, 2008

On their metal

A news report just said that Sarah Palin has "galvanized" the Republican Party. Too bad we need something stainless, not galvanized.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hunker down for the final month

Time to dig a hole to hide in and pull a rock over the entrance until Election Day. It's getting ugly out there.

I had a theory about a year ago that whoever took over after George Bush would only last one term. Everyone is eager to have the messes straightened out. The messes are bigger than four or eight years can undo, even under the best leadership. Bush's detractors often dislike him for opposite reasons, meaning that no single ideology will quiet all the restless citizens.

On the other hand, this campaign has demonstrated that every candidate is flawed. George Bush's administration has given us a new model for how bad an executive branch can be. The voters have lower expectations than ever before. We may simply have entered a new era of symbolic mass executions in which we heave whole blocs of elected officials at every opportunity. I can't begin to detail all the unintended consequences I can imagine from a culture that thinks citizen responsibility begins and ends at the voting booth. At the same time I can understand the frustration busy citizens feel when trying to decipher complex issues and send intelligent messages to their representatives at any level. It's so much easier to flush as many of them as possible down the toilet and hope that whoever replaces them somehow manages to run things to our satisfaction without having to be steered in any way.

With so much information now available on line, voters can be pushed by uncharted currents filled with messages tailored closely to individuals and small groups. Single-issue and narrow-interest voters can be reached more efficiently by these methods.

The actual candidate who reaches office will never be better than a mixed blessing. So enjoy the anticipation of perfection while you can. Anything is possible until events prove otherwise.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Moving Forward

No cracks have split the earth outside my home. No doubt my pathetic little investment portfolio has shriveled further, but it was only a lab specimen in a petri dish that I could use to observe the behavior of such things and extrapolate on the lives of larger organisms. It wasn't going to support me in my old age for more than about a week.

If we are to believe the press, someone, somewhere, is being badly hurt by all this. I have this primitive habit of living within my means, so I'm insulated from many of the direct effects of disruptions in the credit and investment sectors. It hits me and others like me through our jobs.

I've wondered for decades how much of our prosperity depended on people living beyond their means. Even if you don't, do you get money from those who do? People who live deeply immersed in their credit capacity feel the effects of tightening credit immediately. They cease to spend. As much as the market needs to be corrected, even fiscally cautious citizens can become collateral damage. The blow may not be fatal or significantly weakening, but it will hurt for a while. In some cases it can push a stable personal or household economy over the brink into a period of credit dependency. Or it can force the debt-averse to pull back even further.

Raise your hand if you were planning to die in debt, laughing at your creditors. It sounds like fun, but it's another selfish way to push problems onto future generations. Lending institutions can seem evil and predatory. Some of them are. But in the same broad category are the lenders who let Joe and Jane Average buy their first home and send little Johnnie and Julie to college. Lenders cover the spectrum from the benevolent credit union to the leg breaking loan shark. Even in the murky middle ground, credit card companies are trying to cover the costs of servicing customers like me, who steadfastly refuse to carry a balance or pay an annual fee, and habitual deadbeats who follow the introductory interest rate from card to card and never really pay off anything.

If you pay a credit addict's tab, it gets them to zero that one time, but it doesn't cure their underlying problem, which is the inability to manage credit. On the other hand, if you don't pay the tab, the problem mushrooms as fees and interest accumulate. You have to get to zero. You have to stop the hemorrhage. Unless you're willing to punish debtors drastically, whether you pay their tab or just forgive it, they're still not going to be able to cough it up themselves. The high rate of return was already lost. Now limited loss is the only gain.

Monday, September 29, 2008

No Bailout!?!?!?! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!

"Bad Wall Street! No bailout! Lie down! Play dead!" said the US House of Representatives, as a majority of legislators bowed to pressure from constituents they couldn't ignore quickly enough if a well-funded special interest had come by offering candy.

So now what?

Opponents of the bill say it was cobbled together too hastily. They say it saves the bacon of Wall Street gamblers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers (those being the ones without the wherewithal to avoid paying taxes altogether). Unfortunately, the rank and file often lacks the information and knowledge to make sound decisions about high finance. That fact underpins the entire financial advice industry and puts the piquant sweetness in insider trading. The boobs and the marks are just along for the ride, a sponge to be squeezed for cash. Now they're telling their elected representatives how to decide a gigantic financial question and the representatives are actually listening? Please, God, no.

The ones who are afraid to vote for the bailout want to avoid any taint of having voted for the war and then voted against it. They're betting that the economy will survive long enough for a more methodical solution to pull it back up, or that the whole thing will right itself without any government intervention.

The patient dies or the disease runs its course and the victim staggers out of the hospital more or less cured after being ignored on a gurney in the hall for days or weeks. Either way, problem solved. Right?

The problem is, everything associated with Wall Street is a gamble. All investment involves some risk. Anyone who tells you they have a lucrative sure thing is lying or delusional or has it fixed. If the fix is in and you're on the right side of it, party on. Just remember that eventually the mob arrives with pitchforks and torches, metaphorical or actual.

The opponents of this bailout have placed their bet on behalf of all of us. As far as that goes, kudos to them for showing considerable backbone. If things really do spiral down the commode after this, guess who's getting barbecued immediately.

The sudden, scary nature of the collapse of the financial sector did seem to call for fast response, which did rob us of vital time to think. But how often does it turn out that some disregarded academic or ousted bureaucrat has already been thinking about a problem for years? Something blindsides the public in their cocoon of plasticized news bites, and all the wonks nod sagely and say, "see, I knew that would happen." September 11, 2001 is the most spectacular recent example, but there are plenty more. In my own childhood I witnessed a few smaller ones from the sidelines. The solution to this problem is out there, nearly assembled, even if it was not the bill most recently kicked aside.

How much money is tied up in the obscene compensation packages of top executives in the distressed companies? Do they have enough to contribute significantly to the bailout if squeezed nearly dry? As satisfying as that would feel, probably not. To borrow from a famous feel-good movie about real estate investing, "I don't have your money, it's in Joe's house...And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others." And they're not worth crap anymore!

A Coldwell Banker television ad says hopefully "affordability is at an all-time high!" What a nice way to say that asking prices have collapsed and it's a buyer's market. Really? Hope you have cash, because no one wants to lend. When the numbers are all crunched, it may turn out no one CAN lend.

I know, I know. People with plenty of money will always be able to borrow money. Even George Bailey only kept his skinny neck above water in "It's a Wonderful Life" by being able to raise the coin at critical moments. He was one slip away from annihilation while the wily Potter patiently bought low and held assets. Bad economies help the wealthy maintain control. Money gravitates to wealth, flowing away from smaller, weaker hands. The only way to create a countervailing monetary mass is to have a citizen government made up of the little people, willing to pool enough resources and demand such laws as keep the money flowing both ways. Rich people can buy things for themselves that they might not want to buy for everybody, things like good schools, health care and safe neighborhoods. So the bad news is, big government really is the friend of the little people. Big wealth doesn't need or want big government. Big wealth just needs strong military forces, lots of police and a stout prison system.

Big wealth does not need a large, strong middle class. Big wealth just needs some low life to clean the pool, take care of the landscaping, drive the limo, be the nannies, the housekeepers, the cooks. A small middle class will survive among the managers in corporate systems and the entrepreneurs in service occupations that are hard to corporatize. The wealthy will still want to eat at interesting restaurants, providing a middle-class niche for the owner and the head chef. The rest of the staff will probably have to live like cockroaches. Other small business owners may do well if they establish a niche near a population of the wealthy, as building contractors and landscapers have done around Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. As conditions worsen for the middle class, those companies will compete harder and harder to hold their position, rising and falling with the fortunes of their noble patrons, as feudal vassals do. This pattern is repeated anywhere the rich put down roots or visit on a regular basis.

The real return of feudalism still lies in the dim mists of the not-so-distant future. Right now we have to get through the next few weeks, and the winter, and see what's left of us in the middle of next year. Will some great leader like Franklin Roosevelt be able to con some wealthy people into voting against their own best interests, and reanimate the battered corpse of the middle class? It was easier to do when the world faced a cataclysmic war, with all its oportunities to profit from the carnage and control the population through the threat of obvious dangers. Economics and terrorism are murky stuff. Nazis and Japs are concrete villains. And we're all more suspicious of our leaders. That should be a good thing, but is it too little, too late? And has it made us unable to believe the good suggestions when they finally do arrive?

No one can tell us for sure.

Not Chocolate!

British candy icon Cadbury has had to announce a recall of chocolates made in China, because the confection may contain China's insidious bane, melamine.

With all the problems in this world, with fears of nationalistic and terrorist aggression, economic and environmental collapse, now we can't even trust the premier comfort food? You bastards! How could you let this happen?

Not that China ever springs to mind after one hears the word chocolate. Belgian chocolate, Swiss chocolate, Mexican chocolate, French chocolate, even Hershey's chocolate, sure, but Chinese chocolate? It doesn't fit in with either the Westernized fare of the so-called Chinese restaurant or the much more alien cuisine some of us have experienced and others can only imagine, in which all sorts of unusual animals and vegetables repose in strange sauces.

In the consumer goods department, China is synonymous with quantity more than quality. No doubt this is an over-simplification, but everyone has to admit that we don't build factories over there for the legendary craftsmanship. We do it because they can master production techniques quickly and for less money than anyone else on the planet. Some of the stuff is quite good. Some of it is not. My new Chinese violin, made on a pattern drawn from a Czech copy of an Italian classic, has not passed my mentor's standards yet, but it's pretty and it's very loud. We'll see whether a little sound post tweak tones down its alarming blare. If not, I can use it to antagonize the neighbors when they play their radios too loud. Hmm. More Chinese-made weapons.

Meanwhile, read your chocolate labels carefully and check the provenance on all your comfort consumables. Maybe your favorite laughing juice has been jobbed out across the ocean as well.

You can't be too careful.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Bailout

If the government uses taxpayer money to stave off the collapse of private financial institutions, it makes each and every taxpayer a shareholder in those corporations. Might we not become more permissive toward business leaders who maximize profits if we know they will not be able to reimburse the national treasury otherwise? Are we not actually buying into a form of the failed system? Those institutions will have us by the 700 billion, not the other way around.

Forgive me if someone else has already covered this notion and done it better. I would not be at all surprised. But in case it hadn't been said, I wanted to get it out there.

As for the permissive attitude, I imagine most people don't realize that they really own a piece of all this. Even the anti-tax crowd talks about "your money" and "government money" like separate things. Power players in the private sector treat their own funds like a sacred well that the muddy feet of the public government must never pollute. It all seems very grand and distant from the average citizen, even when one is wading through the labyrinthine paperwork of April to figure out how much coin of the realm the machine demands for fuel this year.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

De Bait

Your presidential choices: young, energetic and slightly green or old, experienced and damaged. Do you want to bet on the learning curve of the bright young guy or the ability of the older man to maintain straight, level flight at his current level for four or eight years? Whose tics are going to break loose right after he gets elected? How bad will they be?

I can't wait.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Flotsam from the sea of news

The Bush administration wants 700 billion dollars to try to stop the complete collapse of the American economy. Where is that money coming from? China?

A member of the US Forest Service handed me a government credit card one day in the shop. It felt very weird to be holding a direct pipeline into the national treasury. This is it: your tax dollars at work. I kidded him that the card was declined because it was over his Federal deficit limit.

"Quick! Print more money!" he yelled.

So is that what we're doing this time? Empty citizen pockets want to know.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez goes in search of other markets for his country's oil so that his country isn't totally dependent on American demand. Dope dealers need addicts as much as addicts need dope. The move has a lot of other extremely sound economic and political benefits. Wouldn't it be fun to be Hugo Chavez these days?

Yes, I know, everyone has their problems. Suddenly waking up as Hugo might be a total nightmare. But he does seem to enjoy having something everyone else wants.

Sarah Palin spends a few seconds with some foreign leaders and foreign policy legend Henry Kissinger. I can imagine her first question to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan:

"So how's the huntin' over there?"

Did anyone else find it faintly disturbing that she hugged and kissed Henry Kissinger when they parted? I'm not even sure Mrs. Kissinger hugs and kisses Henry Kissinger. The move seemed folksy and friendly, but not vice presidential and statesmanlike. It seemed to take Hank by surprise, but he's a seasoned professional, so he rolled through it without balking noticeably. And he is kind of a teddy bear.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Such Versatility

Republican VP pick Sarah Palin serves as both Woman of Steel and Damsel in Distress as political need dictates. She'll be able to defend our country as long as her strong, male, party colleagues can defend her honor against remotely plausible hints of insult.

If the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom is lipstick, I guess you turn a pit bull into a hockey mom by the application of that cosmetic. By inverse reasoning, remove the lipstick from a hockey mom and you have a dog.

And while we're talking about lipstick on animals (No, Cletus, it's JUST WRONG!), what do y'all think about animal testing of cosmetic products?

How about a sheep in a bustier and a thong?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Everbody hop off of Sarah!

I know her supporters and detractors alike have expressed literal and figurative desires to make a Sarah Palin sandwich with her, but we need to quit arguing over her and get back to boring crap like the environment, health care and the economy.

Whether you have boobs or just are one, you'll be stuck under the leadership of whoever wins the election. Choose wisely.

And Then it Rained

A crinkly pink ribbon of lightning dangled briefly from the gray wall of cloud shutting off the western sky. Overhead and to the east had been overcast already, but this was the first wave of the cold front we'd been told to expect.

I hurried home to put a trash barrel under the gutter downspout. We'd never completed our rain-catching system, so the roof gutter had started using the basement as a default sump.

Within minutes the barrel was full. The continuing flow from the roof beat the water in the barrel to a froth. I used a bilge pump to transfer half of it to another trash barrel so I could dump both away from the house. Even our small roof exceeds thirty gallons of runoff in a few minutes with a partial gutter on only one side. We could collect hundreds of gallons for later use if we had the facilities.

Gutters don't do well in a snowy, icy winter. That's why we only put a partial one over the garden beds to keep summer roof runoff from beating the plants down. Our rain chain is fine for mild to moderate rains, but the tropical-style downpours that have become the new summer norm turn into a solid column of water pounding into the gravel beside the foundation. Time to get busy on another project.

New England winters are a crap shoot. We could get snow and bitter temperatures or we could get a bleak, endless rainy season. It could even shift gears from week to week. That makes a single system hard to design. It's easy to eliminate snow from the rain barrel by putting a pitched roof on top of it, but what about frozen down spouts? A warm wet spell in winter could last only hours before giving way to another hard freeze. Last winter's snow load nearly took down the little gutter we have.

This morning I did a site walk on a property where someone has built a new home, expertly terraced into the slope. Tidy blue barrels with bug screening sit at the bottom of each down spout. Overflow pipes come off the barrels and are no doubt flowing over at this moment. I did not get to look closely to see where the overflow goes. Our walk directed us elsewhere.

Once again I reflected on the up-front cost of setting up green systems, which can keep low income people from being able to institute them quickly enough to do much good. Back when I was only half employed I had time to put things together out of scrounged materials. That free time came at a price.

Reading Mother Earth News I've renamed it Begged Question Bi-Monthly, because so many of the articles can't tell the reader how to afford many of these off-grid energy systems and clever pieces of homesteading technology. For that matter, does anyone even know if massive numbers of people could turn their suburban-size lots into viable homesteads? It's like the trips in Outsider-Than -Thou Magazine, or the whoop-de-doo technology in Obsessive-Compulsive Cycling. What about real people trying to get the most from their ordinary lives?

In a Disney comic book about Scrooge McDuck, the old miser's fortune gets scattered over the landscape by some sort of catastrophe, making everyone an instant millionaire. They all decide to take this opportunity to do some traveling. But everywhere they go,everyone's an instant millionaire and doesn't have to work anymore, so no one can get services or lodging.

I understand the value of vicarious escape through exciting tales of adventures you'll never have. But vicarious homesteading and unfulfilled dreams of adopting unworkable systems doesn't help the undeniable problems we face in accommodating our population and preserving some level of comfortable civilization. A handful of successful homesteaders does no more to improve the overall human condition than a handful of super wealthy does to bring up everyone's average income.

I'm still thinking about this.

Most of what I read in Begged Question Bi-Monthly demands not only a fairly high degree of intelligence, but some training and considerable dedication. If those were widespread qualities, they'd already be much more in evidence.

The green solution needs to be made automatic. Otherwise you'll have a large number of disinterested people continuing to live in our time-honored ways, perpetuating the problems that threaten us now. The flawed system is what we evolved through our natural impulses. The solution has to be as easy as flipping a switch, just as the problem is now. It has to be instituted as drastically as the Tennessee Valley Authority and all the massive infrastructure projects of the early 20th Century. Most people can't even remember to maintain a bicycle. They get someone else to change the oil in their car, if they get it done at all. For whatever reason, they're thinking about other things. So you've either got to do a really good job teaching them to think differently or provide technology that doesn't require them to pay any more attention to it than what they have now.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Of a Late Summer Evening

I was poking haphazardly at kitchen chores until I got a phone call with extensive instructions.

"Yes,Chef," I said, and hung up. No other answer is satisfactory.

Complaining about the mess I find in the kitchen would be like complaining about the mess a brilliant surgeon leaves in the operating room.

Then it hit me: another novel approach to health-care financing.

Remember the old cliche about washing dishes in a restaurant if you find yourself embarrassingly short of funds? How about you clean up the operating room or doctor's office or other facility where you received medical care? You can have time to recover from your procedure, of course. Or perhaps you can pay in advance by tidying up after a few appendectomies before you get your turn.

We need to work on the exchange rate of course. And you'd be stepping on the toes of the cleaning staff currently employed wherever you plan to get your work done. But if a governor of a state can prove her working class sympathies by putting a chef and a flight crew out of work, we can heave a whole legion of custodial workers in order to conscript the sickly to pull their weight a bit more in the health care arena.

Time to go eat. An' I helped!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Teen Pregnancy is a Great Idea

Rather than try to "educate" teens to prevent pregnancy and disease, just let them do what they do naturally. They'll have all their youthful energy to face late-night feedings and diaper changes, followed by a full day of work the next day.

Put young parents to work in the grunt jobs no one wants right now. Pay them a minimal stipend, as well as taxpayer-funded child support until their kids are old enough to go into school and the parents can resume formal education as well. Think how much life experience a working-class young mother or father will bring to college. Down will go the rates of partying and binge drinking. For one thing, the youngsters will have spent those wild years shackled to the responsibilities of their young families. For another, they'll be old enough to drink legally by the time they enter college or other advanced training, so it won't seem like such an enticing forbidden fruit.

Getting people back to reproduction at a more natural age will help bring us back to the simple virtues of life a few thousand years ago. Drop the age of consent back to 12 or 14 and quit trying to buck biology. The teens who have their families early will have gotten that out of the way. The so-called smart ones who wait will have to catch up when their bodies have already started to slow down.

Teen parents will bring their own parents back into the child-rearing business while they're still young enough to keep up with the grandkids and correct any mistakes they may have made with their own offspring. A grandparent at 35 will have a fresher approach than one at 60.

Pack those generations together. Our purpose on this planet is simply to make more of us. Commend our teens for wanting to get on with it without waiting. You go, kids!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin, VPILF

In a very small, informal and completely unsolicited poll at the shop today, all the red-blooded Republican males agreed that Alaska governor Sarah Palin would be the Vice President they'd most like to f*@&.

This surge of partisan loyalty and lustful fantasy greeted me upon my arrival. I stepped carefully past the puddles of drool in front of the computer on the way to my work station. Eventually the panting and snickering subsided.

She's sexy, she's pious and she's ready to lead the nation in case her elderly running mate should somehow be unable to serve. Right?

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Week of Few Words

A nice enough week. Quite pleasant, in fact. Just haven't had a lot to say.

It did strike me funny that supporters of John McCain have been trying to portray Barack Obama as an angry radical Muslim thinly plastered with a facade of westernized democracy. Isn't that what they want to create to declare "victory" in Iraq? I guess we vote for them over there so we don't have to vote for them over here.

They've moved on now to arguing over who is a bigger millionaire.

The weather finally dried out. Salvage logging obscures the tracks of the tornado in many places. We await the eventual arrival of the remains of tropical storm Fay.

The tourists and vacation home crowd begin to drift away toward their home ranges. Soon we'll go from too busy to wondering where our next dollar is coming from. We get a few weeks of summery weather even as day length shrinks and the light slants in from lower angles. Time to knock out a few projects before the real harsh stuff arrives.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another Roadside Attraction

The tornado swath across Route 16 south of Route 171 has become an instant tourist attraction. They pull over and whip out the camera just like they do when a moose is feeding in a roadside swamp.

It is impressive. I was pressed for time both times when I drove through it over the past few days, so you'll have to settle for my verbal description.

The swath edge to edge begins and ends sharply. It looks like someone drove a giant lawn mower with a dull blade across the forest. On the east side of Route 16, the storm crumpled an old mobile home like a beer can and threw it into the corner of its lot.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado was on the ground for more than an hour. The path of destruction rips across eleven towns. It destroyed anything directly in its path. You can't do anything to prepare for a storm like this except pay up your homeowner's insurance and get right with God. It was all or nothing.

That's just it: all or nothing. A woman on Lake Wentworth, in Wolfeboro, said the storm destroyed the house next door to hers. In Deerfield, the storm caused its only fatality, shattering what looked like a substantial home while leaving closely neighboring properties basically intact. Zero or one.

Researchers from the Weather Service said they will be studying this storm for years. In terrain not known for tornadoes at all, factors combined to keep one going for an amazing length of time.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Unbelievable Weather

You wouldn't know it to look at my yard, but Tornado Alley-style weather blasted through New Hampshire yesterday. The pictures and video on WMUR this morning are as hard to believe as any such scenes of destruction.

In New Hampshire we don't typically get wind storms that explode buildings. But now we do. How long before the Republicans blame the Democrats and the Democrats blame the Republicans?

According to our TV meteorologist, our weather pattern has been set by a big area of low pressure camped out over the Midwest. It has dominated our weather for most of the month of July. It seems like longer. The odd day might be bright and dry, but many have been moist and unsettled, leaving us the same way. Severe weather has struck concentrated areas, leaving others untouched. You never know when you might be in the cross hairs.

Today is supposed to be one of the nice ones. Then things deteriorate gradually through the weekend. But where? The weather strikes with all the notorious inaccuracy of World War II German buzz bombs.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oh, yeah, I'm just FILLED with hope

For two nights now I've watched C-Span. When I'm home alone I tend to watch high-fiber television. Each night I've tuned in some Congressional discussion of our nation's energy situation.

The T. Boone Pickens Show over on the Senate side wasn't bad. I wonder a little bit about his timing, which makes much more business sense than environmental sense, but he will be the first to tell you he's a business man, not an environmentalist. "The environment is Page Two," he says. "I'm worried about Page One: getting us off foreign oil."

Now that alternative energy looks like the only way to go, the big money is lining up to carve out its chunks of the industry. You couldn't drive them to it with a cattle prod while the easier money was still in oil. Now they're shoving to the front and picking up big signs as if they'd been there all along. Hey, whatever gets it one.

In Congress, all I saw was Republicans repeating over and over that oil is still going to be king for the next twenty or thirty years, and that we'd be all set if not for the Democrats blocking access to it. Let's not speak positively in terms of a solution. We have to make sure everyone knows who's to blame.

I do not give a rat's hind end who's to blame, but I can guarantee that the fault does not lie with a single political party.

Part of the myth of nationhood is that a country's people represent a true single purpose or set of ideals. Ask any fervid member of a political party and they will tell you that the members of the other party are not as American, because Party A represents true American values. Party B is a bunch of scoundrels, liars and traitors only escaping prison because of our lax and overworked legal system. And that wouldn't be so bolloxed up and overloaded if Party B hadn't managed to finagle itself into some positions of power by hoodwinking innocent voters and marshaling the forces of corruption into a voting bloc.

While we argue over who gets credit and who gets blame, we might accidentally institute some sort of orderly transition from hydrocarbons to a kinder, gentler energy portfolio. I can tell you this: no matter what powers your car, you can still drive it like an asshole.

Government will still be 90 percent misdirection and sleight of hand. It's not a grand conspiracy. If we were that organized, we would either have thoroughly ruined the environment or never ruined it at all. Instead it's like a free-for-all chess game with several hundred sets of pieces being moved by dozens of players pursuing their own strategies and goals. So there's mischief aplenty, and no sinister genius behind it all. There's no one to fight and defeat because everyone is just tugging at the carcass of the nation and the world, trying to haul off a big chunk.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Recession?

Wolfeboro is a recession-proof town. As long as you can figure out a way to nuzzle the sweaty crevices of the wealthy, you will be reliably trickled upon.

Long after communities of lesser charm and entrenched wealth have shriveled in the drought, those of us who can remain in Wolfeboro's oasis will suck our bit of seepage and hope for better days.

Strange vibes in the old 'boro these days. The working class is scared. Even some of the bourgeoisie seem a little worried. The higher climbers, who try to suck the visiting rich for a bit more, have farther to fall if the economy contracts so much that the slightly smaller fortunes can no longer afford to exude their dew.

Anyone who tries to earn a living in the year-round economy of the region will feel a pinch until this period of economic correction comes to an end.

What exactly are we correcting? The fact that anyone making less than a quarter-million a year was able to live comfortably? God forbid.

The bike shop needs to play its cards carefully, but cycling is on the rise, with all the media coverage emphasizing the benefits to your wallet and your planet if you push bike pedals instead of gas and brake pedals.

The cross-country ski shop faces a greater challenge. The super-rich don't ski Nordic, and they don't ski downhill in New England. Our few benefactors will continue to benefact. Because they represent solid fortunes of robust wealth, they will probably maintain their level of contribution to the non-profit trail association. But the retail side needs many more customers than that. I get my stuff at cost, and I can tell you I'm not going to buy anything new this winter. I'll be lucky if I can afford the propane to keep the house at a baseline 45 or 50 degrees so the woodstove has an easier job making up the difference to 60 or so.

Back in the olden days, spring, summer and fall were spent preparing for winter. Cut, split and stack wood. Plant, tend and harvest crops. Can and preserve vegetables and fruits. Most of northern New England isn't really great crop land. That's why people migrated away in droves whenever better farm land opened up during westward settlement.

When short, steep rivers could power mills and factories a short distance from the coast, New England could thrive as a center of manufacturing and invention. As soon as transportation shifted predominantly to land, New England's terrain made it too much trouble. Factories powered by fossil fuels, close to railways and then highways, could do it all cheaper and more conveniently.

Life persists here because it is a habit. Wealthy people invest in recreational homes here because it is pretty. Few of them have any desire to know the challenges of the full year here. They just use it as a backdrop for whatever their New England fantasy might be, and then pull back to their real home bases or to better ski country or tropical refuges when the leaves fall off the trees here.

How many of them are battening on profits from trading in oil futures and dripping too little of that gain into the local economy for the year-round characters in their New England theme park to afford to run their cars and heat their homes over the eight long months until the luxury crowd returns?

One can't really ask. And one would not get a straight answer anyway.

Those who have a spare fifty or eighty thousand lying around might be able to convert their homes to an economical and ecological combination of geothermal and solar power. So once again the people who don't really desperately need the benefits are the ones who can afford to get them.

On the other hand, if we did nothing -- if we subsidized the price of oil and drilled wherever we felt like it--we'd only delay the inevitable crash that would take out the same weak players.

I don't have the perky codependency necessary to do well in service to the rich. As a technician I can rely on my expertise to keep me in demand, but I'll only ever get so far. It's worse in the winter, where I work on display for the entire day in front of a very critical audience. Technical prowess counts for much less. That clientèle is looking for a cheerfully servile attitude. They know I don't have it and can't even fake it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Visit from Hollywood

A working actor of screen and television, and his wife, a producer, came into the shop on Sunday to purchase a bike for their niece. It was an ordinary transaction. If someone had not recognized the actor and informed us, we might not have known at all.

I had no direct involvement, and plenty to do in the repair shop, so I could stay back and observe the subtle stiffening of the others who were now in the presence of Fame. We're not talking A-list here, but the producer is friends with A-list folk, and the actor may be poised to make a move up the television food chain, which could place his star higher. All I know is what I overheard from the gaggle Googling him after he had left the building. I'm surprised they managed to wait.

I've often wondered what it must be like to have a famous face. I don't want it. I wouldn't mind the money, but I don't think I would like the attention. The producer would be known only by the knowing, but the actor has to put up not just with the unwanted approaches of strangers, but with the constant squinting. You know, how you look at someone you think you might know, but you're not sure why.

A lot of squinting goes on in Wolfeboro, particularly in the summer. But even in the off season people squint at you to see if you're worth anything to them. Do they know you? Can you advance their fortunes? Are you one of the "right" people? But the celebrity squint is subtly different. You want to look but you don't want to be caught looking.

I only see what falls into my rut in front of me. It is weird when someone who has only existed inside the electronic box in the living room suddenly manifests in the flesh, but unless they're asking me for services I can't imagine what I would say that would interest them. They're just someone else to step around on the sidewalk, with all due courtesy and no particular fanfare. Just don't get between me and the coffee pots at the cafe.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Fair and Balanced

Okay, the candidates are back to talking about a wider range of issues. I haven't had time to pay much attention this week. Summer brings out the bicyclists every year. Fuel costs have inspired more people to dig out their old machines, even if they have no intention of actually using them to reduce any of their motor vehicle use. It's almost as if they think merely refurbishing the bike and riding it once or twice will miraculously reduce their gas bill, even if they drove to the bike path with the bikes on the back of the SUV.

Whatever. We can use the business.

In other news, the IRS informs us we made a teensy miscalculation on our tax return this year, so we owe ten times what we sent them. That's sort of the opposite of economic stimulus, don't you think? Ten times, eh? I haven't crunched those numbers yet, but it's almost like they didn't adjust our gross income at all. Could they have made a mistake?

I'm not counting on it.

We'll get on that as soon as we can. Meanwhile, we have the routine expenses of mortgage, car registration, and a couple of doctors' appointments I was foolish enough to make. They can just borrow the money from China until we can dig it out of our flesh.

If we do get an economic stimulus check, how stimulating will it be for the economy if we just make a quarterly estimated tax payment with it? What's the government buying these days? Will what goes around come around? How long will it take?

Bear in mind that what they get now is in addition to the thousands of dollars we already submitted in the form of withholding and a small payment we calculated we owed back in April. We're not Libertarian insurrectionists. But, like many creative people, we never know how steady our income will be in a given year. It's hard to estimate what you'll owe. We know the minimum. There the certainties end.

When the ship takes a torpedo, you can try whatever evasive action the crippled vessel can manage, but don't try to imagine what it would be like to take another and another. Don't think you've paid your dues and won't take another, either. Feel free to hope, and rightly so. Just don't torment yourself with worry about which of the many things could go wrong next or fool yourself that nothing can. Stay in the moment.

Whoever gets hired to fill the various vacancies for elected officials this fall, my life won't suddenly improve. Tax forms will still be laborious mazes as likely to lead to punishment as reward. Medical consultation, let alone treatment, will remain a luxury just like air travel. As the early 1960s had its Jet Set and the 21st Century is about to revive it, so will they be joined by the Med Set, who can afford to have physicals and act on the results. Next we'll be back to the time when only rich people had cars and a bicycle represented unprecedented freedom for people of lesser means. It was "the poor man's horse."

Since we're all in the grip of evolution, no one can say for sure how much we've really guided our development. We can project where our actions might take us, but seem curiously powerless to change course. Between the ignorant, the unwilling and the earnest but ineffectual, most really positive action gets canceled out. Since we seem to be the only species that even discusses things in long range terms, we can't compare methods with anyone. We just ride this rock around and let life happen to us. Some of us breed. We make ourselves as comfortable as possible. Rinse. Repeat.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It's the oil, stupid

Is it accident or design that the 2008 US presidential election has suddenly become about gasoline prices?

It goes below the presidential race as well. Formerly environmentally sensitive candidate Jeb Bradley is now pledging to pillage the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as much as it takes if voters will please, just please, put him back in office in place of Democrat Carol Shea-Porter. I'm sure that's just one story among many.

Fuel price hysteria has taken over the news headlines, displacing health care, global warming and even the War on Terror.

Granted, fuel prices drive everything else in the economy. If you can't afford to get goods to market, if you can't afford the energy necessary even to produce them, you can't stay in business. You certainly can't afford a massively self-indulgent consumer economy. If you lose your home and can't afford food, your health probably suffers, but you have a more immediate concern with shelter and your next meal.

When things are good, many people tend to accept that level of prosperity and draw the curve upward to even greater good times. On the flip side, when the trend turns downward, fear sets in too late to inspire sensible behavior that would prevent the drop, but well before conditions really would require the drastic sacrifice of personal and planetary health just for one more chance at the high life.

The one thing no one advocates is boring old moderation. Our problems and our solutions have to be EXTREEEEEEME and RADICULLLLL! And mostly over-hyped bullshit that goes off with a flash and a bang and lapses into nothing.

Getting people to fixate on energy prices keeps them from focusing on more complicated issues like health care financing and well-planned, sustainable human endeavors. Give them cheap gas at the right time and you can slide by the rest of it, at least for a while. The greatest thing is, everyone can get behind it, unlike a war. You can only keep people terrorized about terrorism for so long, but you can always scare them with high gas prices.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nature Notes

I put out these special feeders filled with sugar water to attract hordes of ants, but these pesky little green birds keep showing up.

In other news, the biologist finally confirmed that the little turd I'd been keeping in a plastic bag since early last month is bobcat shit. That's good news on two fronts, because it confirms the presence of the elusive feline and it means I finally got rid of the bagged turd. It belongs to science now.

Later this summer I hope to help with electroshock fish sampling. It sounds sick and sadistic, but it has a better survival rate than net sampling and yields far more specimens. Just don't smart off at the technician holding the probe.

There should be more, but it's too hot and I have too much else to try to get done.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Pondering Wealth

The wealth of the United States is not held by all for all. It is held by a minority and the income from it is cycled through the economy based on their judgment. This situation has evolved since the days of European colonization, when the wealth of the continent was basically up for grabs and, subsequently, duly grabbed.

If the settlement of North America by European invaders had been fully planned in advance based on enlightened principles of popular government, the system might be different today. All adults might be shareholders in the national corporation, which would oversee the exploitation of resources for the good of all. It would be the ultimate merger of political and corporate leadership. There could still be plenty of hierarchy and small or medium businesses. The environment would be cared for as a national interest as important as defense.

This never happened and never will. For many reasons, human beings are incapable of running a nation on such a rational basis. For one thing, we all have different tastes, well before you get into deeper issues of character. For another, the countries of North America evolved as humans evolved, so the social mix we have today, which will breed the more advanced social mix of tomorrow, had to be born from the more primitive attitudes that preceded it. Echoes of past bigotry prove what a slow process that is.

Since wealth is distributed along a curve, and the greatest is held by a relatively small number of people, those of us with good ideas or causes to support need to convince the holders of wealth to release some of it here or there. Wealthy donors pay for land conservation, arts programs and facilities, and invest in research and entrepreneurial efforts by people with big ideas and small wallets. We little people have to figure out how to exploit the resource of wealthy people as if it were a seam of coal, a vein of gold or an oil field.

Meanwhile, what are the wealthy doing to obtain and maintain those fortunes? We use their wealth to mitigate environmental damage caused by industries owned and administered by wealthy people. We use their wealth to fund arts programs unavailable in public schools because tax revenue is considered insufficient after "more important" things are funded. The charitable donations they make are tax deductible. It gives them an added incentive to donate. It's all part of the complex web we've evolved to allow people what looks like a free pursuit of riches while we try to pry it away from them for things the citizenry as a whole wants done.

It isn't broken, so it can't be fixed. It's a fascinating ecosystem. Whether it lives or dies completely depends on how it evolves in the face of stresses both internal and external. Unquestionably it creates most of its own worst problems. So far, its solution to previous problems has been mostly serendipitous. We become -- or appear -- more purposeful as we learn more about ourselves and our world, but we can't even agree on what all the problems are. You're probably best off if you don't do nothing, but don't expect anything. Support what you think should be supported, but remember that evolution is slow and messy.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Economical Foreign Policy

A friend of mine put it well. "Instead of dropping a two million dollar bomb on some mud hut, why don't we just drop the two million dollars? It might make those people happy enough to quit making trouble."

Another idea might be two million dollars worth of manure. It would take out whatever malcontents happened to be under it, and the survivors could use it to build up the topsoil for agriculture. Ha! Talk about targeted aid. They couldn't use it to buy or develop weapons of mass destruction, or to finance a corrupt government elite.

Another non-lethal deterrent weapon would be cat urine. They'll go nuts trying to find exactly where it is and eradicate the smell.

We have options, people. We just aren't using them. Humans are too primitively fixated on damaging each other to establish winners and losers in a dispute.

Cat piss and bullshit: it's the wave of the future.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Time Line

4:30 p.m. -- go to friends' house for sociable meal.

5:00-8:30 -- socialize

8:30 -- depart for home

9:00 -- arrive home, check email, begin to write newspaper column

11:00 -- finish column, get ready for bed

11:45 -- actually get to sleep. Alarm set for 5:45 to calibrate water testing instruments.

2:00 a.m. -- P

3:00 a.m. -- Hear cat vomit on bed. grope for flashlight so as not to wake other human in bed. Locate vomit. Mop up. P.

4:00 a.m. -- P

5:00 a.m. -- begin to wake because of light. Not really awake because of lack of sleep.

5:20 -- get up, turn on coffee pot and YSI 556 multi-meter. Return to bed while both warm up.

6:00 -- Crawl out to begin chemically stimulating brain and calibrating YSI 556. Discover that calibration instructions are not present. Look up lengthy pdf of manual on line. Dredge brain to recall streamlined procedures.

Cats and spouse sleep peacefully.

After testing and whatever breakfast I might dig up, ride to work for the rest of the day. What's for lunch? Besides caffeine, I mean.

7:00 p.m. -- pass out. See you Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Oh yeah, Iraq

Backalong, we refinanced our mortgage to get rid of the bullshit adjustable rate the bank stuck us with because we actually needed the money we were borrowing. The reasoning is that if you haven't proven the ability to pay back, they should have the right to jack your rate to make your payments higher. This is in case you couldn't hack the lower one. Are you following this?

And what does it have to do with Iraq? I'll tell you.

While making the sound financial decision to lock in a low, fixed interest rate once we had established ourselves as good, dutiful debtors with our local lending institution, we also decided to tack on a few thousand so we could add a little doohickey to the living room to make it more livable. As built it had turned out rather long and narrow. We got an estimate, but could not start the work right away.

While we waited to start our project, President George Bush started his. When we talked to our contractor sometime after the occupation of Iraq began, he said material prices had spiked and supplies were down because mass quantities of plywood were being sent over for the rebuilding.

Okay, we take one for the team. We ended up pissing that money down the health insurance rathole, because we couldn't keep up with the annual jump in premiums from our insufficient cash flow. C'est la vie.

Watching C-Span one day, I tuned in during a hearing at which whistle blowers testified about contractor abuses in Iraq. One man reported that massive quantities of plywood and other building materials arrived over there and sat around in piles until the order came to burn them because the construction was going to be done with steel instead.

Okay, these are Democrats, no doubt relishing the opportunity to grind their ax against the Republican administration, but where there's smoke, there could be burning plywood. It was mildly amusing to have this bit of cross reference, a sort of closure, viewed from an odd angle to the television in my living room because we never got to bump out that wall.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Best Health Care System in the World

A few minutes before 11 a.m., I arrived at the reception window at my doctor's office.

"Hi, just checking in for 11 o'clock with Doctor Bladiblah."

"Your name?" asked the smiling attendant. I gave it to her. "Hmm, something's not right here. When did you make the appointment?"

"Nearly a month ago. I was told he couldn't see me until now."

"Did you get a call last week confirming this?"

"I don't think so."

"Well I'm sorry, but you're not in the system at all and there's no way we can fit you in. Dr. Bladiblah is already two patients behind. The best I can do is get you 11:30 with our visiting doctor, Dr. Soandso."

"I'll take what I can get. But I'd wanted Dr. Bladiblah to take a second look at this skin blemish he deemed benign a couple of years ago when it was less than half the size it is now."

"I see, well, we can get you in with Dr. Soandso at 11:30. Will that be all right?"

When I agreed, she gave me a form to fill out. That was quick and easy, because under insurance I could simply write "none." When they didn't immediately grab me by the shirt collar and seat of my pants and heave me out, I figured I'd passed the first hurdle. I leaned back in the waiting-room chair to nap.

Well before 11:30, someone fetched me in to have vital signs taken, and showed me to an examining room. Dr. Soandso appeared shortly. I exhibited my deformities. He examined the skin blemish with a strong light and magnification and said it looked like it was probably harmless, but had some color variation, so it would be best to have a dermatologist look at it. Who the hell gets a beige melanoma? But I don't even have normal abnormalities.

Next we got to the scarier stuff. I've had this little squishy lump on the side of my neck for years, but when my wife noticed it from a distance and asked me what it was I suddenly realized I'd been taking it for granted. You mean everyone doesn't have one? Oh, shit!! This is right out of every cheesy melodrama or horrible bit of gossip you ever heard. "He had no idea. He felt fine."

Once I decided something wasn't right and found out I had to wait a month to see my physician, all I could feel was that part of my neck. It felt like a goiter, or a second head pushing out obscenely. Everyone must see it and wonder how I could put up with such an obvious deadly tumefaction bulging from my flesh. After a few trepidatious prods around its vicinity, I grew afraid of my own neck and avoided touching that side of it as much as possible.

Dr. Soandso came to grips with it unhesitatingly. He squished it from top and sides.

"Any pain?" he asked. "Does it hurt you?" His fingers nearly met in the flesh of my neck, but I didn't think that was the pain he meant. I didn't bother to explain the pain that went with my fixation. When a classmate of mine lost her leg to bone cancer when I was in high school, my own leg ached unrelentingly for a year. I am just supremely freaked out by the random hideousness of cancerous growth. Except for a very few lifestyle-related factors to certain specific cancers, you really don't seem to be able to do much of anything to deflect that particular bony finger of death. Death is something we all have to face, but what's the hurry? Pain? Factoring out neurosis and your pincerlike grasp, no.

He seemed fairly confident it is a lipoma, a little blob of fat, rather than a malignancy. But he did say I should show it to the dermatologist when I'm there.

"They might feel it's worthy of a small-needle biopsy," he said.

Well. As long as it's only a small needle, heck, let's all have one.

Duly discharged into the hands of the front office staff again, I sat with a very friendly and helpful woman while she tried to get me in with a dermatologist. Remember that we're supposed to hate socialized medicine in part because, "it takes forever to get to see a specialist, unlike in our free-market system for profit."

Okay. It's May 19. The first dermatologist we tried didn't have an opening until August 4. We scored at the second one, though. June 30. No sweat. I just have to drive about 40 miles each way, but that's what you get for living in the country.

The bill was modest. The estimate for the dermatologist is less so, but still within budget. The crappy policy I used to have would have covered none of this, and the premiums would have gobbled up the money I would have wanted to pay my own bills, so I continue to cling to my ledge and defy the elements.

In Other News

Grey squirrels have taken a liking to the hummingbird feeder on a decorative pole in the small garden around the well head. We took down the seed feeder because wild turkeys were decimating the plantings, scuffling for fallen seeds. It didn't matter with four feet of snow on the ground, but now they can rip up the earth.

The plastic parts of the hummingbird feeders have deteriorated badly from exposure to ultraviolet over the years. The base got banged up badly enough when a bear took the first seed feeder a week ago. The pole was bent, so it must have swayed wildly as the hungry bruin yanked down the handy snack we'd carelessly left hanging there. The squirrels continued the vandalism. The joke's on them when they all get cavities. We should throw out some sweetened fluoride mouthwash for them.

I removed the temptation for now. It needs repair or replacement before I put anything back out. Maybe the squirrels will have moved on, since both seeds and sweets have gone away.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Didn't Need no Welfare State

As more people get spat out of the "health insurance" system, we will get to appreciate more and more what life is like in developing and undeveloped countries, where a few very wealthy people have decent lives and a large number of struggling workers, educated or not, live as long as their luck holds out. It's not that the facilities and skilled providers aren't there. It's that the rank and file should not be encouraged to live beyond their means.

In our case, we earn enough to live a little bit comfortably until we try to pay for that hideously flawed instrument, health insurance. Insurance that provides basically nothing still busts our budget, let alone leaving us enough to put into a bullshit "medical savings account" to cover the massive deductible. Given the choice of draining our savings to pay a premium we probably wouldn't be able to maintain if one of us got sick, or depleting them later to pay down a debt for actual services received, I know what I choose. But either way we end up on the rocks. The financial aspect dumps another completely separate challenge on top of any medical considerations.

You can find all kinds of debate about what drives medical costs up. It seems to be malpractice premiums, drug costs and inflation generated by the insurance system itself.

Inflation from insurance takes two forms. One part stems from providers inflating their prices to cover the amount the insurance companies are going to chisel them down. The other part stems from the extra staff needed to keep track of the volley of paperwork back and forth between the service provider and the insurance company, and both those entities and the patient. The doctors and insurance companies have paid staff to play this game. The patients have to do it as amateurs in their spare time.

I guess we all need to come to terms with a more natural model of life and death, in which sickness and injury are once again as serious as they used to be in the primordial past. Forget what's technically possible. If no one can afford to pay for those medical miracles, they might as well not exist. As costs spiral upward, procedures that we've come to view as routine become unreachable, unimaginable miracles to the people cut off from them by the high financial fences of the invisible gated communities in our society.

You have no value as an individual. You only have value if you get yourself employed by someone willing to pay for your upkeep, or you generate enough revenue through your own enterprises, or you sign on to do your country's dirty and dangerous work in theaters of war around the world. What might you have to trade for that? Think carefully, because either way it will cost you your life.

Forced to think about that health care thing

After a slightly worse than minor bike crash on the local wretchedly designed bike trail, my wife has had to go to the hospital twice in two days for chest X-rays. Her doctor advised the first one yesterday, the day after the crash, because of the pain and other symptoms my wife described. On her home monitor, the doctor determined both lungs were properly inflated, but her screen did not have the resolution to show the small pneumothorax in the upper left. The radiologist caught that and actually phoned us at home to advise a follow-up shot to see if it was reducing on its own.

It sobers you up when a doctor calls you at home without being asked, to let you know you could have a life-threatening condition. It wasn't a full-on emergency, but he said we should check it out before she suddenly couldn't draw a full breath. I downed a bunch of coffee, since sobering up to ambulance-driving standards really was on the docket. The radiologist should have called before we enjoyed our relaxing, before-dinner libations.

We drove to the hospital in the rainy darkness. I did not point out the smell of sticking brake caliper that indicates another upcoming drain on the family finances. Goddamn cars cost you money to drive and cost you money not to drive often enough.

At the hospital, we breezed straight into radiology, because we were there on a specific mission, and the paperwork had been taken care of on the first visit. The tech took her right in and shot the new film. Of course they're not films anymore, but anyway...

While we waited, the ER attending came in. He's a cyclist and has patched me up a couple of times over the years. Two of his children are in Laurie's string program. Then the on-call surgeon came along to assess the condition. He said it looked stable and small. It should take care of itself, but she needs to take it easy. That's good, she was doing that anyway.

All this is happening during the couple of days before an appointment I made with my own doctor to have some things checked out on me that could be nothing or the end of everything. You just never know. It seems like the surest sign that you're desperately ill is that you feel fine. That's certainly how it is on TV shows like Death by Emergency Room or Horny Doctors with Messed Up Lives. You go in for a hangnail and go out in a body bag. Hell, they even do it on Scrubs. And what about House? They should run a ticker across the bottom of the screen, showing how his diagnostic process is jacking the patient's bill through the roof.

Y'know, it's not so much the illness as it is the money. You really have to decide whether the bit of life you snatch back from death will be worth living under the burden of crushing, impossible debt. But in some countries, and the entire animal kingdom, you just get sick and die. And life probably sucked pretty good prior to that anyway. So fut the wuck.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Day to day

Got the clothesline up. Now the dryer sits as idle as my car, only getting used under similar circumstances of inclement weather.

Hummingbirds arrived on the 12th as always. Also as usual, it was one sighting of one male. Over the next couple of weeks we will see more and more.

Fuel prices and the bad economy have had the usual stimulating effect on the bike business. Unfortunately, that also means the business will become more competitive, as those who survived the collapse of the mountain bike boom seek to resuscitate their fortunes. A lot of familiar voices have returned to the radio in ads, as bike vendors push their wares. Can price wars and unwanted "innovation" be far behind?

The early-1990s mountain bike was the perfect platform for consumer bikes. A knowledgeable shop could turn it into whatever form a particular customer needed. It may not have been the perfect tool for thrashing down a rough trail at racing speeds, but the vast majority of riders had no interest in that at all. Nor did they want some comatose "comfort bike." And if they did, we could build it on the same platform we could tweak for the intrepid explorer to play in rougher stuff.

No matter. That's all gone now. Consumers at all levels have been brainwashed to think they need suspension. Shifting systems have turned into an endless acid trip.

The day job has a way of expanding to obliterate everything else. Cycling's a good cause to support, but it's just one line of effort among many.

At least the weather's nice.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Ahh, Television

A constant, corrosive stream of reminders that life is short and difficult bathes the room. Advertisements urge the viewer to prepare for retirement, fight aging, keep teeth and gums healthy or, failing that, properly replaced, keep vaginas moist and penises rising faithfully to the demand of lust, hold off arthritis with drugs whose side effects could include lymphoma and be sure to purchase enough of every kind of insurance. And if all else fails, we know some good lawyers you can hire.

Between interludes of advertising, endless fiction crackles through the transmission lines to fill the empty lives of the audience with experiences to replace the ones they're not out having for themselves. Is it better watch devotedly or just have this continuous destructive murmur in the background while you give your direct attention to something more important, like solitaire or a computer game?

Someone got paid to produce both the advertisements and the fictional teleplays that fill the intervals between sales pitches. Yet television depends on people with nothing better to do than sit around and watch television. That sort of precludes having a job, doesn't it?

More than one cartoonist has advised watching television to get popular culture references and current events to spark ideas and keep the material fresh and relevant. Too bad I stumbled on this advice many years after I had developed the habit of avoiding the television.

Perhaps more fibrous programming, like C-Span, would make me feel less like I'd just sat around in my pajamas eating several pounds of processed snack food. Nothing makes me feel more like I've wasted hours of my life than daytime television. Just being around it makes me feel sick. But just as some people like weird things like organ meats, pork rinds or cheeses that smell like something dead, so can some people endure hours of vapid crap chattering in the corner of a room they're in and feel undiminished by it. Some people even appear to need that noise and motion.

Enough. I'm going to scrub the greasy residue of daytime video off my hide and then salvage the remains of the day.