Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Posting

The only person to reply and comment on the blog posts has been Gerry in Brazil. I still can't get over the idea of corresponding so easily and quickly with someone that far away, but it is the way of our world today.

So, he makes the effort to post a reply, but he has found that his posts on his blog seldom receive a reply, except from me. His blog is much more interesting, by the way, and if you em me, I will give you the address.

We would both welcome comments, hope others read our stuff.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Foreign Policy

Wow, what a thrilling topic! For those of us who are "of a certain age," it has a little more significance because of our exposure to Viet Nam and a tendency of the US to support regimes around the world who were no more "valid" or "decent" than the opposition. Friends of my generation died in Viet Nam supporting a corrupt administration that was not supported by the people, and so many of us resisted that.

This continues to this day, and while the US has successfully exerted its power and its restraint to virtually end war in the part of the world that interests us, war remains an everyday experience in many other parts of the world. It doesn't result in "world war" and the casualties, all of which are tragic, have continued to decline by orders of magnitude--500,000 US dead in WWII, 50,000 in Viet Nam, 5,000 in Iraq/Afghanistan. Let's keep improving on that as the US leads the way to a world that lives in peace.

My friend, Joohoon Kim, an outstanding career officer in the Army of South Korea, who is so well-informed on matters of the outside world, really opened my eyes when we talked about his native Korea and the controversial regime of President Park Chung-hee who ruled South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Some called him an "experienced president," but in many ways, he was not the same kind of president as we expect in the US. His "term" was for 18 years. Laws were sometimes edicts.

The US strongly supported him, and opposed North Korea. Something completely unknown to me, North Korea was the "strong" part of the country and was richer than the South until about 1970. The North has all the natural resources, the rivers, mines, farm land and factories.Besides, the South was a complete wasteland when the fighting stopped in 1953, and it took a while to clear the devastation. The Japanese invested heavily in industry in the north, but the managed economy squandered that wealth and now it is one of the poorest places on earth, a rogue nation whose populace starves.

Once the South got rolling, the so-called Miracle of the Han River has exploded, vastly improving the economic and social well-being of South Korea and South Koreans.

Where did that "Miracle" come from? During the 1960's, the US needed an ally in Viet Nam and enlisted the aid of President Park. The US paid well for the help and President Park, unlike so many other rulers we have supported, took the money and invested in his country's infrastructure, not in Swiss bank accounts and huge family trusts. The ship building, steel, auto and other basic industries owe much of their success to the entrepreneurial actions of President Park Chung-hee. Their cause was, of course, greatly aided by the culture of the Koreans who prized education, family and hard work above all else.

Not every administration in every country adheres to the same set of rules and type of culture as we do, and sometimes the result is exceptionally good. Like in Korea where there is now another President Park--the daughter of the former President Park. May wisdom find her as a friend.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Armed Security, just like Banks

Some people think there is no "liberal bias" in news reporting.

Look at the response in the "news sources" to the NRA's call to provide armed security in schools. And, of course, the same actors and Hollywood creeps that make the violent Quentin Tarantino movies and similar video games claim that all we have to do is register the guns and put up signs that say "Gun Free Zone." Sheesh.

Discover and disseminate more information about violent mentally ill? Can't do it, privacy.

After all, when banks were being robbed frequently, armed guards were put in banks. It didn't stop all of them, but armed bank robbers are not very numerous these days.

Aren't our school children more valuable than the money in banks?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Breakfast

Since everyone seems to tell their eating habits on Facebook, "I think I'll go home and eat some noodles," and I rarely look at Facebook for some of those reasons, can I tell you about breakfast?

I have decided that the second best breakfast, right behind coffee and a piece of pecan pie, is coffee and several pieces of home-made rice crispy bars.

Thought I should get this posted before I slip into the sugar-induced insulin coma.

POLIO


The fear was like nothing I have experienced since. It was life threatening, and life-altering in a way that was so familiar to our family, as my paternal grandmother, Emma, came home to the from the Boone County fair in Albion and felt tired, sick and weak. That was in 1918. She never walked again.

Her wheelchair was familiar territory, and it was well-equipped. She kept her scissors and a big kitchen knife beside her so she didn’t have to make as many trips to find things as we do. There were few doors in their house on Main Street in Genoa, so she could go from room to room in the chair without that impediment.

The epidemics seemed to strike every summer, children were the hardest hit and I remember that public drinking fountains were thought to be one source of the virus along with swimming pools. The outbreak of 1952 when I was 7 years old was the worst—58,000 cases, over 3,000 deaths and over 21,000 with some paralysis.

Iron lungs. You saw them on television, and the sound was enough to frighten a child, or anyone, the rhythmic wheeze to help the patient breathe, in and out, in and out. That could be you!

Then came Jonas Salk and in 1955 the immunizations started. A sugar cube with the oral vaccine was oh so sweet, but we didn’t mind a bit the sting of the needle when first immunized. While in many times, not just today, one could have expected Salk to strike it rich, but he had no patent and remarked, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” The son of the New York Jewish immigrants had lifted a heavy burden from children of my time and their parents.

Immunizations could eliminate the disease, but there are still nearly 1,000 cases worldwide each year.

That house on Main street was not their first home “in town” as they had decided to move from the farm before her sickness. The reasons have never been clear, but I have always been suspicious that it had to do with conflict and jealousies among my grandfather, Homer’s, siblings. He built her a two-story house that still stands on the hill in Genoa with steep steps to the first floor, not knowing how difficult that would be for her after the paralysis. And, he took a job as the manager of the local grain elevator, leaving farming for about 10 years.

When my father graduated from high school in 1930, they bought the farm from the relatives at a “1920’s” price, not what it would be worth during the coming decade. After carrying heavy sacks of grain and other commodities for years, Homer developed a hernia that caused him to “drop to the ground hollering in pain” according to Wallie, so they saved and saved for two years to afford surgery.

Soon after the illness, trying desperately to cure or lessen the effect, they spent months at the hot springs spa in Savannah, Missouri, an adventure they talked about for the remainder of their lives. My dad lived with Homer’s brother and his wife. The treatments were of no value and the only result was Wallie’s abiding hatred for that woman the rest of his life.

We know the profound effect of the illness on Emma, Homer and Wallie, but I wonder what the effect of that fear has had on those of us who experienced it in those formative years. I was 10 when vaccinated for the first time, and the fear should have been gone, but wonder if the effect remained? Never know.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cassini pic of Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft took pictures while in the shadow of Saturn. Beautiful, but the comment from the team leader was also stunningly profound.

"This glorious image is our special gift to you, the people of the world, in this holiday season that brings the year 2012 to a close," Cassini imaging team lead Carolyn Porco, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. 

"I fervently hope it serves as a reminder that we humans, though troubled and warlike, are also the dreamers, thinkers, and explorers inhabiting one achingly beautiful planet, yearning for the sublime, and capable of the magnificent," she added.

Here is the link:  http://news.yahoo.com/backlit-saturn-shines-stunning-photo-201934552.html

Federal Reserve


Most of my blog is a bit “fluffy,” and certainly personal. It is not intended to be informative in the way that a newspaper is supposed to be informative. Mostly memoir things, with a lot of nostalgia thrown in.

Just to demonstrate that all my correspondence is not that way, I thought I would throw in a portion of some discussion I have had with my correspondent in Brazil, Gerry Martin, who is a high school classmate and long-time friend. We seem to occupy different places on the political spectrum. These comments were made in the middle of November 2012. There are references here to on-going debates (he likes Paul Krugman…actually, “likes” is too mild a word…and I enjoy tremendously making fun of Krugman who I think is a hack who won a Nobel prize, like someone else we know).

There is a minimum of editing that went on in these exchanges, so pardon the lack of fluidity sometimes.

If you are one of the approximately 7 billion people not interested in this topic or our argument in that regard, skip it. Otherwise, if you continue and you are either bored or offended, it’s your fault.

DAY ONE

Bob,

You sent me something a while back that seemed to be based on the assumption that the Fed's purchase of Treasury dept was the only reason for the current low interest rates, probably on the assumption that the Fed is buying a much higher percentage of the debt than it is. Perhaps you even read and believed something Mitt Romney said, i.e. that the Fed is buying 75% of the Federal debt.

I don't know the details, and I don't understand the implications between the Fed's purchase of mortgage-backed securities and its purchase of Treasury debt, but I do know that the Fed's purchases have not been constant.  People have all along predicted inaccurately that as soon as the round of "quantitative easing" was over there would be a spike in interest rates.


Gerry

DAY TWO

Gerry

Thinking about my response to this, I concluded that a lot of responses would remind you of some British snob…but without the shitty accent. I will try to keep the “know-it-all” out of it, but probably won’t be successful.

The blog article was about as superficial and uninformed as a lot of blogs are (yours, of course, is the exception) and unfortunately shed little light on a complex subject. This is so complex that they give out Nobel Prizes for just describing a little piece of it, even to people like Krugman (I just threw that in there to piss you off). I think my earlier comments may have actually coincided with Krugman’s (if you take his recommendations for Japan in the 1990’s and his advocacy of Keynesian solutions recently as his positions) that the result of all this expansionary spending will be inflation.

Romney’s comments, taken as they are, were simply wrong. Maybe he has a better understanding of it all, but I don’t know that, positive or negative. Just taking one or two phrases as they stand, they are not correct. However, the blog didn’t do much to enlighten, either. If you take Krugman’s comment regarding Japan to “start the printing presses” as an example, he knows that is not correct, but it illustrates the process even if the literal phrase is wrong.

Here is the problem as I see it, and I don’t teach at Princeton. All my information comes from teaching money and banking classes and from being involved on a professional level for more than 10 years. The Fed has several tools that it can use to control interest rates, and it has actually controlled interest rates for many years. I don’t think anyone denies that it has been successful in that process. Now, there are only a couple of ways that money can be created, and “revving up the printing presses” is not really one of them. The two ways money is created is for a national bank (trust me on this, not a credit union, not a state bank, not a savings and loan) to make a loan or for the Federal Reserve to buy and own US debt.

The making of loans by the national banks has often been called “pushing on a string.” You can lead a horse to water… that kind of thing. Right now, as I have complained before, the banks are worthless. Mortgage debt would appear to be shrinking, not only as debts are written off like in the case of the home we are buying, but because of amortization and the fact that new homes are just not going up like they used to. Also, with the poor economy, it is not only unwise or unnecessary for businesses to borrow, but the banks are so worthless that it is impossible for even the really good borrowers to obtain loans. You can blame this on a lot of things, but I know that some of it is because of the bureaucracy, encouraged by the Obama administration, who finally could stomp on the private sector and teach them a final lesson as they destroyed them.

When there is no borrowing, the money supply shrinks. When that happens, you have deflation. In 1939, after seven years of the New Deal and its Keynesian policies of expansion, you had what we could call “natural” deflation, when Treasury Bills sold at a premium and had, in fact, negative interest returns. You paid the government to store your money for a few months. I don’t know what we have now, but it isn’t “natural,” because the Fed is encouraging the low rates, but anyone who studies this very long really understands that deflation has more serious social problems and worse consequences than inflation—although hyper-inflation (ala the Weimar Republic and Brazil at one time??) is terrible, also. Deflation in this economy would be pretty damaging, in my opinion, and I would bet even Krugman would agree.

So now we get to the way that the Fed keeps interest rates low. One, the bank discount rate, is pretty much eye wash, in that it is seldom used. It is a signal to the markets, “moral suasion” is the term I think they use. It is minor-scale bank bailouts that have been there for decades. Not as public as the big bank bailouts recently, but along the same lines.


The real tool that the Fed uses to control interest rates is “Open Market Activities.” This is when the Federal Reserve, for their own account, buys US Treasury securities when they are issued at the auctions or from the “open market.” There are several levels of an “orderly market” in securities, and I think it is reasonable to use an example: in the recent issuance of securities by Facebook, a “managing broker” decided how much to issue and at what price, based on their knowledge and expertise (which, in this case, was awful and the guy who was responsible got fired), and they then “allocate” the issue to their “syndicate members” who are going to sell them to their customers. The Managing Broker is really important in this process, and they undertake the obligation to maintain an “orderly market,” just like the “market makers” in stocks who routinely buy shares for their own account and sell shares that they don’t actually own (the definition of “short sale” that makes sense to people like me from the old days, not the current real estate definition) in order to keep the market from having big up and down swings.

The Syndicate members (and here, “syndicate” is a real term, a term that is carefully defined in practice and in law, not the slang term) have a responsibility to have capital to perform their functions and expertise to generate the sales to customers. There are a lot more details, but when the offering is unsuccessful, and the securities decline in value while the Managing member and the Syndicate members still have unsold shares in their own accounts, they take a loss. They don’t like that.


The Fed is the “Market Maker” in several auctions per week, and they are scheduled way in advance—the T Bills are on certain days of the week, the two-year on a certain day of the month, the 10 year, etc. This is by far the most active, highest dollar volume market anywhere in the world. Any realistic criticism of the Fed has to take into account their activities in this regard where, if they were to be absent, this market could get chaotic very quickly.

 

Open Market Activities take on a few forms, but they also can be involved in Fed Funds through the discount rate, and that may be the largest market in the world for all I know, as it is the buying and selling of funds between banks on a daily basis. The most likely tool is to “make the market’ in US Treasury securities. There are several auctions of these securities each week, and you have to be qualified as a dealer or a national bank (like the bank I worked at) to present a bid for securities in the auction, and as a practical matter, the pricing is left in the hands of perhaps 6 or so very large dealers while the rest of us would signify that we wanted to buy “at the market” and we would take whatever they decided. Well, the Fed could control this market by signifying either a lack of interest or a keen interest, so their bid would be significant to the auction pricing.

In these times, with the banks doing such a shitty job of doing what they are supposed to do, the Fed had to own AND RETAIN a lot of Treasury debt to keep interest rates down. If they hadn’t the money supply would have decreased and interest rates would have gone up, and we probably don’t want that.

Regarding the purchase of mortgage-backed securities, this is just another open market activity, but one that is pretty recent (September), follows the Jackson Hole meeting, is a departure from traditional Fed activities, and is designed to bring mortgage rates down even further. I think I mentioned how the rate we will get (3.5%?) will cause our payment per month to be significantly lower than if the rates were in the range we have considered to be “normal” during our lifetime, say 9% (less than $1,300 versus $2,300 per month, not counting taxes and insurance) and the effect that could have later on if interest rates go up. I guess it technically changes the nature of the Federal obligation in that mortgage-backed securities come in two varieties, those with the guarantee of the Fed (GNMA) and those that have the backing of the Fed (FNMA and others). This is a significant distinction to the market that prices them differently with the “indirect” obligation having a higher yield.

Sum it up: the purchase of mortgage-backed securities is a “rifle” approach to making a change in the interest rates of one particular economic segment and there really aren’t any “implications” other than the effect that activity will have. The activities of the Fed have something to do with the prevention of deflation right now, as it tried to prevent inflation for most of the last 50 years, and that explains, in conjunction with the ineffective banking industry and the dead housing industry, why they hold a lot of securities in the Fed’s own account. And finally, Romney’s comment is wrong if that is all he knows. The blogger wasn’t very helpful. No mention of the Obama administration, and I haven’t heard much one way or the other from the administration about the Fed.

OK, now I’ve probably told you more than I know. Honestly, I tried to say things without “spin” but to describe what I know or my opinion about the situation.

Bob

DAY THREE—
 
Bob
Thinking about my response to this, I concluded that a lot of responses would remind you of a British snob…but without the shitty accent. I will try to keep the “know-it-all” out of it, but probably won’t be successful.
The blog article was about as superficial and uninformed as a lot of blogs are (yours, of course, is the exception) and unfortunately shed little light on a complex subject. This is so complex that they give out Nobel Prizes for just describing a little piece of it, even to people like Krugman (I just threw that in there to piss you off). I think my earlier comments may have actually coincided with Krugman’s (if you take his recommendations for Japan in the 1990’s and his advocacy of Keynesian solutions recently as his positions) that the result of all this expansionary spending will be inflation. I think the subject of the article was much smaller than you suggest, since it focused simply on the assertion that the Fed was buying 75% of the Federal debt and the dire predictions of what would happen when that stopped. But let it pass.
Romney’s comments, taken as they are, were simply wrong. Maybe he has a better understanding of it all, (It is more likely, given his campaign, that he knew what he said was wrong, but he knew what his audience wanted to hear. Remember, he was responding to a questioner who wanted this answer.) but I don’t know that, positive or negative. Just taking one or two phrases as they stand, they are not correct. However, the blog didn’t do much to enlighten, either. If you take Krugman’s comment regarding Japan to “start the printing presses” as an example, he knows that is not correct, but it illustrates the process even if the literal phrase is wrong. I don't know exactly what statement of Krugman's you are referring to, but I believe it is true that he is on record as saying that it would be a good thing if we had an annual inflation rate of about 1.5%, but I also know you are wrong if you are suggesting that Krugman has set Japan as a role model for what we should be doing. True, he has shown that even in the "lost decade" of 1990 - 2000, Japan's economy was performing in some respects better than our own is currently, but hardly as a model for us to emulate.
Here is the problem as I see it, and I don’t teach at Princeton. All my information comes from teaching money and banking classes and from being involved on a professional level for more than 10 years. The Fed has several tools that it can use to control interest rates, and it has actually controlled interest rates for many years. I don’t think anyone denies that it has been successful in that process. Now, there are only a couple of ways that money can be created, and “revving up the printing presses” is not really one of them. The two ways money is created is for a national bank (trust me on this, not a credit union, not a state bank, not a savings and loan) to make a loan or for the Federal Reserve to buy and own US debt.
The making of loans by the national banks has often been called “pushing on a string.” You can lead a horse to water… that kind of thing. Right now, as I have complained before, the banks are worthless. Mortgage debt would appear to be shrinking, not only as debts are written off like in the case of the home we are buying, but because of amortization and the fact that new homes are just not going up like they used to. Also, with the poor economy, it is not only unwise or unnecessary for businesses to borrow, but the banks are so worthless that it is impossible for even the really good borrowers to obtain loans. You can blame this on a lot of things, but I know that some of it is because of the bureaucracy, encouraged by the Obama administration, who finally could stomp on the private sector and teach them a final lesson as they destroyed them. This seems to get at the argument of whether we have a supply-side or a demand-side recession. You clearly seem to be on the supply-side. This brief explanation from your friend Paul Krugman explains it very nicely.
When there is no borrowing, the money supply shrinks. When that happens, you have deflation. In 1939, after seven years of the New Deal and its Keynesian policies of expansion, you had what we could call “natural” deflation, when Treasury Bills sold at a premium and had, in fact, negative interest returns. You paid the government to store your money for a few months. I don’t know what we have now, but it isn’t “natural,” because the Fed is encouraging the low rates, but anyone who studies this very long really understands that deflation has more serious social problems and worse consequences than inflation—although hyper-inflation (ala the Weimar Republic and Brazil at one time??) is terrible, also. Deflation in this economy would be pretty damaging, in my opinion, and I would bet even Krugman would agree.
So now we get to the way that the Fed keeps interest rates low. One, the bank discount rate, is pretty much eye wash, in that it is seldom used. It is a signal to the markets, “moral suasion” is the term I think they use. It is minor-scale bank bailouts that have been there for decades. Not as public as the big bank bailouts recently, but along the same lines.
The real tool that the Fed uses to control interest rates is “Open Market Activities.” This is when the Federal Reserve, for their own account, buys US Treasury securities when they are issued at the auctions or from the “open market.” There are several levels of an “orderly market” in securities, and I think it is reasonable to use an example: in the recent issuance of securities by Facebook, a “managing broker” decided how much to issue and at what price, based on their knowledge and expertise (which, in this case, was awful and the guy who was responsible got fired), and they then “allocate” the issue to their “syndicate members” who are going to sell them to their customers. The Managing Broker is really important in this process, and they undertake the obligation to maintain an “orderly market,” just like the “market makers” in stocks who routinely buy shares for their own account and sell shares that they don’t actually own (the definition of “short sale” that makes sense to people like me from the old days, not the current real estate definition) in order to keep the market from having big up and down swings.
The Syndicate members (and here, “syndicate” is a real term, a term that is carefully defined in practice and in law, not the slang term) have a responsibility to have capital to perform their functions and expertise to generate the sales to customers. There are a lot more details, but when the offering is unsuccessful, and the securities decline in value while the Managing member and the Syndicate members still have unsold shares in their own accounts, they take a loss. They don’t like that.
The Fed is the “Market Maker” in several auctions per week, and they are scheduled way in advance—the T Bills are on certain days of the week, the two-year on a certain day of the month, the 10 year, etc. This is by far the most active, highest dollar volume market anywhere in the world. Any realistic criticism of the Fed has to take into account their activities in this regard where, if they were to be absent, this market could get chaotic very quickly.
Open Market Activities take on a few forms, but they also can be involved in Fed Funds through the discount rate, and that may be the largest market in the world for all I know, as it is the buying and selling of funds between banks on a daily basis. The most likely tool is to “make the market’ in US Treasury securities. There are several auctions of these securities each week, and you have to be qualified as a dealer or a national bank (like the bank I worked at) to present a bid for securities in the auction, and as a practical matter, the pricing is left in the hands of perhaps 6 or so very large dealers while the rest of us would signify that we wanted to buy “at the market” and we would take whatever they decided. Well, the Fed could control this market by signifying either a lack of interest or a keen interest, so their bid would be significant to the auction pricing.
In these times, with the banks doing such a shitty job of doing what they are supposed to do, the Fed had to own AND RETAIN a lot of Treasury debt to keep interest rates down. If they hadn’t the money supply wwould have decreased and interest rates would have gone up, and we probably don’t want that. I believe this "AND RETAIN" was an anticipated part of the Qualitative Easing project, no? But in the last quarter, according to the article I sent you, the Fed has actually reduced its net holdings of debt. In other words, retention need not be permanent, right? All of this boring (sorry) Fed activity does not have totake place over night, does it? The Fed can continue to reduce its holdings over time?
Regarding the purchase of mortgage-backed securities, this is just another open market activity, but one that is pretty recent (September), follows the Jackson Hole meeting, is a departure from traditional Fed activities, and is designed to bring mortgage rates down even further. I think I mentioned how the rate we will get (3.5%?) will cause our payment per month to be significantly lower than if the rates were in the range we have considered to be “normal” during our lifetime, say 9% (less than $1,300 versus $2,300 per month, not counting taxes and insurance) and the effect that could have later on if interest rates go up. I guess it technically changes the nature of the Federal obligation in that mortgage-backed securities come in two varieties, those with the guarantee of the Fed (GNMA) and those that have the backing of the Fed (FNMA and others). This is a significant distinction to the market that prices them differently with the “indirect” obligation having a higher yield.
Sum it up: the purchase of mortgage-backed securities is a “rifle” approach to making a change in the interest rates of one particular economic segment and there really aren’t any “implications” other than the effect that activity will have. The activities of the Fed have something to do with the prevention of deflation right now, as it tried to prevent inflation for most of the last 50 years, and that explains, in conjunction with the ineffective banking industry and the dead housing industry, why they hold a lot of securities in the Fed’s own account. And finally, Romney’s comment is wrong if that is all he knows. The blogger wasn’t very helpful. No mention of the Obama administration, and I haven’t heard much one way or the other from the administration about the Fed. Every article can't mention everything aspect of the problem/issue. The question on the table was Romney's statement.
OK, now I’ve probably told you more than I know. Honestly, I tried to say things without “spin” but to describe what I know or my opinion about the situation.
Bob
DAY FOUR

Bob,

If time is, indeed, money, then I guess I should thank you for your investment in this response.

Actually, I want to thank you anyway; you impressed me with your knowledge. It'll take you some time for you to knock Krugman off his niche, but it is an impressive essay, particulary as it deals with the day-to-day working of the Fed and the banking system.

Thanks.


Gerry

DAY FIVE

Gerry

If nothing else, I am sure that you recognize that it is an arcane system and subject, it would seem, to serious misunderstanding although every commentator, political candidate and guy sitting on the bench outside the hotel wants to express an opinion on it.

Bob

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sheet Lightning


I don’t know why it was called that. Sheet lightning. And when I was a youngster, I never questioned it. Why should I? When they called an apple and apple, it seemed that it was an accurate word, others agreed and applying it to the object could be quite useful.

So, until now, many decades later, the thought that it was a “funny” word or expression never occurred to me. At that early age, I knew that it somehow signified rain, and rain was precious, desired and essential for the farm in that arid part of central Nebraska.

How many times I heard, “Well, we could’ve gotten rain, but it went around us.” This was in the day before every drop of rain, every “hook echo” and every blast of wind was announced in breathless awe by the ratings-conscious weather announcers.

Sheet lightning teased us; it never resulted in rain for us, just for others. Looking off to the south, over the irrigated-but-still-dry corn, away in the distance, it flickered and promised rain to others, but not to us. The weather on the Plains is fairly predictable in that it travels in a generally eastward direction. From the north, cool air swoops down the east side of the Rockies, pulled by the earth’s rotation into an easterly flow, and smacks into the air that travels north from the Gulf. No wonder we had severe weather, the formula was predictable. But not if it was already far south, moving east. Not here. Not tonight.

The Thirties were not a distant memory. Just twenty years prior to the time when I would lay cross wise on the bed in the sleeping cabin and yearn for the storms that I saw to come our way. I couldn’t remember them, but adults did. The terrible sustained heat, the wind that created the famous Dust Bowl and the lack of rain. Corn would grow a couple of feet and die in the field without coming close to pollination or production. That was the year my parents were married, in 1934.

Twenty years later, mid-century modern was storming the country, the ’57 Chevy was being designed and Formica was the miracle for modern living. And it was still dry, but not as bad as the Thirties. Conservation had made a small impact, and it would continue to do more over the decades, but in that part of the country, it is still dry, more than a half century down the road. It is just the nature of things.

When it did rain, it rained too much. I guess part of that whole business of the moist air and the cool air; and the creek was out of its banks seven times in 1950, the year they thought I would die from the fever. Now I would blame contamination of the water, some sort of typhoid fever, but they flew in an experimental drug, possibly erythromycin, and I was well the next day. Except for the sore spot on my butt.

If the rain was going to come, it would come from the west, through the trees to the northwest or across the valley to the southwest. Sheet lightning would not announce it; the loud sizzle and crack of a bolt hitting one of the huge cottonwoods gave you a jump start in the middle of the night as an introduction. Then the cold breeze, the gust front that challenged anything foreign in its way, like trees. Trees were foreign, they didn’t belong. The vast herds of bison were not tolerant of a tree in the way, but it was the prairie fire that wiped the face of the Great Plains free of anything but grass, miles and miles, thousands of miles of grass. Tolerant to the severe cold of the winters, the constant wind and the dryness. The oppressive dryness that sucked the life out of people and things less tolerant.

The weather of the Plains may be predictable, but it is not yet understood by science. They chase tornadoes, trying to figure out what is happening and why. I have been in two tornadoes, little ones, and saw the aftermath of the Joplin storm. You have to respect and love these phenomena of nature. And the result, as someone said, is that humans owe their existence to six inches of top soil and the fact that it rains. Due to the great eruptions from the moving volcano that is now Yellowstone, the top soil there was rich and deeper than six inches.

Well, it never rained enough. Before the advent of newer, conservation-oriented agricultural practices that conserve the soil’s store of moisture and nutrients, before the newer forms of irrigation and, especially, the newer hybrids of corn, there was never enough. As a child, I was not going to understand the science of weather, the history of the place where I lived or the concept of a tall grass like corn being hybridized, but I fully understood the need for rain and the consequences of the absence of rain.

The little one-room school house would be drained of children regularly as the families “dried out” and went to California. The view from the house at one time contained as many as nine or ten family homes, and right now only one. Absent the dairy business (which was frankly too difficult and required too much discipline for most of our neighbors) we would have been “Okies,” too.

It was too hot to occupy the second floor of the un-insulated house, much less sleep up there. Bad enough in the bitter cold of winter, but impossible in the heat and humidity of the summer. We were fortunate enough to have a “sleeping cabin” that was just big enough to contain two double beds with a path down the middle and enough room at the foot to slide along. The sides to the north and south were nearly full windows that lifted up on hinges and hooked to the rafters leaving screens for the sides of the cabin. If there were any breeze at all, the tiny place under the shade of the trees was comfortable. That is where I would gaze out at the far distant sheet lightning. The reflection off the sides and tops of the great thunderheads would create that flicker, that promise of the rain.

And I would hope. I have never quite figured out why people dislike rain and storms (except the constant drizzle and gloom of the northwest that just isn’t the same). To me, they were hoped for, prayed for and welcomed with excitement and glee.

Many times in my life have I watched the “sheet lightning” of events and human behavior, hoping for the desired result without success. I should have learned that sheet lightning is a provocative, sensuous mistress, beckoning me with promises and never delivering. I should have learned…but I didn’t. I still watch and hope and pray, believing that the rain will come despite the fact that it is “going around us.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Table


For years, at my age that probably means decades, I thought my parents’ wedding anniversary was May 10, but I now know due to the newspaper clipping that was sent last year, the correct date was May 12, 1934.  The clipping was an artifact sent to me by a woman in Shelby, Nebraska who I know only slightly, but who found it among her mother Gertude’s things after she died. Now there’s a name you don’t see much of any more. Gertrude was my mother’s maid of honor at the wedding.

We are so critical of today’s journalism, but the wedding announcement was very brief and just about had all the information in it.

That was nearly 80 years ago.  My brother was born in 1940, and that was 72 years ago.

You have all heard me give my favorite “dimension” of time when talking about Grandma Carstenson.  I was almost 13 when she died in 1958 and she was 16 when Lincoln was assassinated.

One of the rules ought to be that people write their memoirs when they are young as they tend to drift off and have difficulty separating the significant from the insignificant in their stories.  Evidence—the above paragraphs.  These meanderings are not trying to offer the significant, so stop reading if that is your expectation.

The date was selected for two reasons:  Norma taught school and that was after school was out, and Wallie was farming, and that was after the corn was planted.  Corn was supposed to be planted no later than May 10 back then.  Anyway, it was well over 100 degrees that day, it stayed very, very hot and dry and the corn crop never had a chance.  The times were tough. Wallie shoveled snow that coming winter for $1.00 per day, bring your own scoop.

By the time my brother was born, they bought a kitchen table and chairs as a commemoration of the event.  That is the same table and chairs that Linda and I took to Oregon, and before that to California, and then back to Kansas City. And now to Virginia Beach. Frankly, my mother would never tolerate such homelessness.

We just realized how many meals have been served and eaten on that table.  Let’s say 72 years, three times a day:  Given that the table was in the basement for a few years, let’s say 75,000?

Let’s see…fairly thrifty and can’t stay in one place.

I'm a Lucky Man


Every day, I try to repeat that mantra, I’m a lucky man. Not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in the parts that are important to me.

The following was started in July 2012, abandoned and restarted in December.

LEAVING OREGON

Don’t expect anything as entertaining or profound (or profoundly disturbing?) as “Leaving Las Vegas,” but we are in the process of leaving Oregon, and I always have opinions and observations.

Despite the century-topping temperatures in the Plains, I have a deep connection and satisfaction with Nebraska and Kansas City and probably don’t appreciate the current “summer” weather in Portland. The weather is a topic, though, since most of the people that know us have been, or should have been, mighty tired of our complaining. From arrival here the first week of December, and coming back at the first of January, we experienced four days through the middle of May that it didn’t rain. Just gloom when it wasn’t raining. And I have never been this cold, despite living in Fargo. Forty-one degrees and rain is damn cold.

Enough of that.

I think I would be “sixty-eight” if I lived in a lot of countries, Korea for example, where your birth is considered your first birthday. Makes a lot of sense, like the way they tend to structure names and labels. Family names first, given name(s) next. Makes sense. Year first, then month, then day. Makes sense…and it is easy when labeling computer files in that you can have the same name for several files, but keep them in chronological order by just naming them that way. That's the way I file my computer documents, too, with the end being 20121212 for today's date.
 
I am so fortunate that I am able to continue to be challenged and interested in a bunch of projects through my brokerage practice.

Continued December 2012:

We have arrived in Virginia Beach. Right now I am busier than I expected to be, and that is good.

We just purchased tickets for a performance of “The Pines of Rome” by the Virginia Symphony and I will be going to the Van Gogh exhibit in Denver. Need to get back to those things.

A lot has happened in the time since we left Portland, and one of those things is that we have been living out of suitcases, literally, since the end of July. Too long. Hope we can get in a house soon.

On January 1, 2013, I will be 67.5 years old, and as the days pass the value of relationships and the value of friends becomes more and more important to me. The old friends, the ones from Sigma Nu who have been with me for about 50 years now; the correspondent in Brazil who was a high school classmate; the girl who worked with me many years ago and had a baby daughter on my birthday in the early 1980’s.

Speaking of her, I had lost track of her for 15 years. She caught up with me on LinkedIn.

What a life, eh?

John D MacDonald

Again, something I like from an author who I have found to be entertaining. It ain't Shakespeare, nor Proust for that matter, but it is just ok for me. Someday I hope to write something that is half as good, but days are running short. Do you think if I just do the "monkey at the keyboard" thing, something good will pop out?

FROM THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY

BY John D. MacDonald, copyright 1964

Cathy introduced us, Christine stood there inside her smooth skin, warm and indolent, mildly speculative.  It is that flavor exuded by women who have fashioned an earthy and simplified sexual adjustment to their environment, borne their young, achieved an unthinking physical confidence.  They are often placidly unkempt, even grubby, taking no interest in the niceties of posture.  They have a slow relish for the physical spectrum of food, sun, deep sleep, the needs of children, the caresses of affection.  There is a tiny magnificence about them, like the sultry dignity of she-lions.

Garden of Eden

I really like this article and wanted to share.


Humans survived ice age by sheltering in 'Garden of Eden', claim scientists

By Niall Firth
UPDATED:18:26 EST, 27 July 2010

The last humans on Earth may have survived an ice age by retreating to a small patch of land nicknamed 'the garden of Eden'.

The strip of land on Africa's southern coast - around 240 miles east of Cape Town - became the only place that remained habitable during the devastating ice age, scientists claim.

The sudden change in temperature wiped out many species elsewhere around 195,000 years ago.

Researchers believe this could account for the fact that humans have less genetic diversity than other species.

Some scientists even believe that the human race's population may have fallen to just a few hundred individuals who managed to survive in one location.

Professor Curtis Marean, of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University discovered ancient human artifacts in the isolated caves around an area known as Pinnacle Point, South Africa.

'Shortly after Homo sapiens first evolved, the harsh climate conditions nearly extinguished our species,' said Professor Marean.

'Recent finds suggest the small population that gave rise to all humans alive today survived by exploiting a unique combination of resources along the southern coast of Africa.'

Humans would have been able to survive because of rich vegetation that was available in the area.

The sea would have also been a good source of food as currents carrying nutrients would have passed by the shore, bringing with them a plentiful supply of fish, the team will say in a new research paper.

Professor Marean said the caves contain archaeological remains going back at least 164,000 years.

Professor Chris Stringer, a human origins expert at the Natural History Museum in London, said he agreed with Professor Marean's views on the early evolution of intelligence.

But he said he was not convinced by the argument that one band of humans were the origin of modern man.

'However, I no longer think that there was ever a single small population of humans in one region of Africa from whom we are all uniquely descended. We know, for example, that there were early modern humans in Ethiopia 160,000 years ago and others in Morocco, and populations like those may also have contributed to our ancestry.'

Many researchers believe that modern humans are thought to have evolved about 195,000 years ago in East Africa, and within 50,000 years had spread to other parts of the continent.

It is thought that 70,000 years ago a dry period caused Red Sea levels to fall and the gap across its mouth to shrink from 18 miles to eight miles.

A tribe of as few as 200 period took advantage of this and crossed to Arabia.

Last year Professor Morean's team announced that they believed stone age blacksmiths mastered the use of fire to make tools at Pinnacle Point.

Knowing how to use fire may have helped the early humans who left Africa 50,000 to 60,000 years ago to cope with colder conditions in Europe.

It may also have given them a big advantage over the resident Neanderthals they encountered.

By 35,000 years ago, the Neanderthals, a sub-species of humans whose own origins were in Africa, were mostly extinct.

Professor Curtis Marean, , said: 'The command of fire, documented by our study of heat treatment, provides us with a potential explanation for the rapid migration of these Africans across glacial Eurasia.

'They were masters of fire and heat and stone, a crucial advantage as these tropical people penetrated the cold lands of the Neanderthal.'

Read more:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1297765/Last-humans-Earth-survived-Ice-Age-sheltering-Garden-Eden-claim-scientists.html#ixzz2B44oKhrv
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Horses Asses

Disclaimer: I didn't write this, just transcribed it. The writing is a lot more fluent and interesting than mine...but it was over a year ago and I've slept since then, so I cannot give you the source, regrettably.

Subject: RAILWAY TRACK 

I thought you'd like to know...about...railroad tracks.  With the dispensing of such info, my life is now almost complete. 

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches.  That's an exceedingly odd number.  Why was that gauge used?  Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates designed the US railroads.  Why did the English build them like that?  Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.

Why did 'they' use that gauge then?  Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? 

Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts. 

So who built those old rutted roads? 

Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since. 

And the ruts in the roads?  Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. 

Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.  Therefore, the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot.  In other words, bureaucracies live forever.

So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process, and wonder, 'What horse's ass came up with this?', you may be exactly right.  Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. 

Now, the twist to the story: 

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, you will notice that there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.  These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.  The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit larger, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site.  The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.  The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds.  

So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. 

And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important?  So, Horse's Asses control almost everything...Explains a whole lot of things, doesn't it?

Halloween


We have just endured another October where the candy companies entice us to make the dentists rich, and where everyone talks about the pagan roots of the celebration.  Because of my mother’s birthday, Norma was born on October 31, 1910, I have always had things to consider on that day other than the public celebration.

All Hallows’ Eve

While it seems that every society has its version of the “Harvest Festival,” and they are well-documented from pagan and Roman times, this holiday has a history that isn’t a straight line. 

The name, All Hallows’ Eve literally means “the night before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day,” which is November 1 with All Souls’ Day celebrated on November 2.  The early Christians believed that souls wandered in purgatory until these dates when they got their last chance to enter heaven.  It was the responsibility of the living to pray for their souls, and they wore masks and costumes to disguise themselves from the souls who got their last chance to get back at living people who had wronged them in life.

Now comes the good part.  The part that means something to me, personally.  We did not celebrate Halloween although there was always a little party at our one-room school.  Some background and I will ask that you bear with me a bit on this journey:

1.    On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the church.  These theses, Luther was a priest and scholar, condemned the Church for corruption and, specifically, for granting “indulgences” to parishioners who paid money to the priests.

2.    The ensuing “Reformation” created another opportunity for people to kill people in the name of religion, but it also established a line where the new “Protestants” protested the celebration of Halloween as “papist” because purgatory was an invention of the Pope and another way to extort money from their parishes (see “indulgences”).

3.    Most of the early settlers to the US were Protestants, and they were not interested in “religious freedom,” unless it meant that they had the freedom and everyone else did not!  So, you were not exactly “free” to celebrate Halloween because it was either pagan or papist, take your choice, and in the world of religion, there is always a reason to persecute or kill the other guy.

4.    There is virtually no reference in US almanacs from the 17th and 18th centuries that note Halloween.

5.    The Lutheran church, and my mother, were big fans of November 1, All Saints Day, as were Roman Catholics, but I seem to remember that she referred to the date by another name…which I can’t find.  Anyway, when I was growing up, it was celebrated on November 1, but today it is moved to the Sunday around November 1. 

6.    Back then, there was a movement to celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, but it never caught on but is still on the Lutheran calendar.

7.    With the immigration wave from Italy and Ireland, large settlements of Roman Catholics were formed in the cities, and their tradition of Halloween started to be popular in the early 20th century.

8.    Here’s the personal part:  I remember only one neighborhood trick or treat time, when I was in kindergarten.  I know it was then because our school house blew up in a propane gas explosion the day before I was to start school (1950), and I attended school that year in a vacant house.  A school mate that year was a boy who was a little older, an Italian from Cleveland whose parents moved to the farm with lofty ideals, little idea of what to do, and tried to operate a dairy farm.  They found grinding hard work, cows that got sick and quickly moved back to Cleveland…along with their ideas of trick or treating.  To get from one farm to the other (they had been warned) we hopped in a farm truck.

9.   And another personal part: October 31 is when Linda and her brother landed in the United States from Korea. A very special day.

It is logical that I would remember my mother around her birthday and that this day would have a special meaning to me. I am not going to speculate on the logic of writing this personal stuff and expecting my kids to read it, but there you are.