Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The End is Near

All of a sudden family and friends are sending good links.

Kris sent this link, which is a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus that is very clever. I think the introduction is overlong; you may disagree. I also didn't like the St. Francis of Sissies thing. What is that about? Are they saying something about monks, St. Francis, gays, or Roman Catholics? But if you can get past that, the performance itself is clever.

Brother Ted (a sibling, not a monk) sent this video of Congressman Shimkus from my former Congressional District in Southern Illinois, explaining why global warming couldn't be happening.

Lord, help us.

I try to be respectful of other people's beliefs, but if they're going to be spouting blather like that, they deserve to be challenged. Actually, Shimkus is a perfect representative for Southern Illinois. Unfortunately, he has a vote in Congress.

Do you ever have the feeling that you're living in a science fiction novel, where the decisions are made by people who don't believe in history or science, but instead worship strange idols that are not subject to any sort of empirical test, and that that leads to the destruction of human life? I have that feeling all the time now.

Stupid Sheep Tricks

From Andrew Tobias. (You'll get a larger screen if you click on the picture after the movie has started. That will open it in You Tube.)

Actually, this should probably be called Stupid Sheep Dog Tricks.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Whose Father Was He?

The NY Times has an interesting series of articles running this week called Whose Father Was He? The first article ran today.

It's about a soldier killed at Gettysburg who died with no identifying information, but was clutching a photograph of three children. Who was he? What was his story?

A successful effort was made in 1863 to find the answer. But that's just the first installment.

My mother recommended this story, so siblings: you know your homework assignment.

Update: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article about this photograph's story in 2003. If you don't want to read the 5-part series in the Times, I'll bet you'll find it all summarized here. And Historynet.com has a long article here.

Second Update: Having read the second installment, it's clear that this article is about more than Amos Humiston. It's about the process of research, and a very good read it is.

Third Update: Part three is here.

Fourth Update: Part four is here.

Fifth and Final Update: Part five is here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bachmann in Overdrive

The World of Wackos is getting dangerous. At Talking Points Memo, we learn Michele Bachmann is trying out for cheerleader.
Bachmann: Right now I'm a member of Congress. And I believe that my job here is to be a foreign correspondent, reporting from enemy lines. And people need to understand, this isn't a game. this isn't just a political talk show that's happening right now. This is our very freedom, and we have 230 years, a continuous link of freedom that every generation has ceded to the next generation. This may be the time when that link breaks. And I'm going to do everything I can, I know you are, to make sure that we keep that link secure. We cannot allow that link to break, because as Reagan said, America is the last great hope of mankind. where do we go--

Hannity: The last great hope of man on this Earth.

Bachmann: Do we get into an inner tube and float 90 miles to some free country? There is no free country for us to repair to. That's why it's up to us now. The founders gave everything they had to give us this freedom. Now it's up to us to give everything we can to make sure that our kids are free, too. It's that serious. I hate to be dramatic, but--

Hannity: It's not -- you are not overstating this case, Congresswoman, and you don't need to apologize for it. And as a matter of fact, it's refreshing. And I can tell you, all around this country, on 535 of the best radio stations in this country, people are saying "Amen," "Hallelujah", "where have you been?"
There's audio and more at the link.

[Postscript: The holy Father Briggs, who paid for the billboard shown above, has been dead for a few years. The photo has nothing directly to do with the story, really.]

How to Avoid Huge Ships

Okay, time for a break from the dreariness of the daily news. Time for a ripping good read.

What will it be:

A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coatings?

Waterproofing Your Child?

People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What To Do About It?

So little time and, thanks to Sarah Lyall and the NY Times, so much to read.

By the way, go to Amazon.com and search for the Huge Ships book, and you'll get a number of other excellent reading suggestions. Does The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories appeal to you?

Krugman's Argument, and More!

Paul Krugman gives the big picture of why he thinks Geithner's plan isn't going to work here. It's an interesting read, even if (like moi) you know next to nothing about economics.

Or maybe it's an interesting read only if you know next to nothing about economics. It sure would be a good idea for Obama's people to explain why Krugman is wrong. What's their argument?

While we're waiting for that, courtesy of Michael Powell's blog at the NY Times, here's the inimitable Cramer calling Andrew Cuomo a communist for wanting to investigate WaMu:

Okay, enough Cramer for a while. I promise.

But how about a little of Sarah Palin recalling her debate with Biden:
So I'm looking around for somebody to pray with, I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra. And the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know, they're a lot of people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Former Master of the Universe: It's Not Fair!

It's not a pretty sight. Can you read it all the way to the end? I couldn't.

With so many people in this country really hurting, you'd think some people would realize their problems don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I guess not.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'm Not Always Right

It is not a source of comfort that Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both Nobel Laureates in economics, think Obama's bank plan will fail. I hope they're wrong.

America's No. 1 Wingnut

Sempringham correspondent Troutay alerted us last year to the biggest flake in Congress (and probably east of the Rockies), Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. The woman lives in an alternate reality.

Talking Points Memo put together this great little video of what they call "The Bachmann Effect." Michele opens her mouth, and people can't believe she's really saying what they're hearing.

Bits & Pieces

This is just a link to some interesting stories around the web.

Go back into hiding, GOP begs Dick Cheney

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don't follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state....

Army Dude: "I never thought I would say this 10 or 15 years ago, but today…yes, I would support allowing gay Soldiers to serve."

In the year 2000, the PLA [People's Liberation Army] had more students in America's graduate schools than the U.S. military, giving the Chinese a growing understanding of America and its military.

The Kindle Revolution
Digital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business.

And finally, from brother Mike:

Las Vegas churches accept gambling chips.
This may come as a surprise to those of us not living in Las Vegas, but there are more Catholic Churches there than Casinos. Not surprisingly, some worshipers at Sunday services will give Casino Chips rather than cash when the basket is passed. Since they get chips from many different casinos, the churches have devised a method to collect their offerings. The churches send all their collected chips to a nearby Franciscan Monastery for sorting and then the chips are taken to the casinos of origin and cashed in. This is done by Chip Monks.

I hope it's not genetic.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mariette in Ecstasy

Sunday was a special treat: we went to see an adaptation of Mariette in Ecstasy written by our good friend, Christina Calvit.

Christina is one of those extremely talented people I've mentioned who attends our ridiculous little church, which is where we met her and her husband, Eric Haugen*. In addition to holding down a full-time job in advertising, Christina is an ensemble member at Lifeline Theater here in Chicago, for which she writes plays and adaptations of novels. The first of her plays we saw was Pride and Prejudice, which we enjoyed twice at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival about 10 years ago. To give you an idea of her artistic range, Christina also adapted Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, which is the current children's matinee show at Lifeline.

Lifeline Theater is 25 years old now, founded by graduates of Northwestern University's justly famous School of Theater. It is located less than a block from the Morse Avenue "El" stop on the Red Line.

The theater offers free parking, but because this neighborhood was built before anybody thought of such a thing, the parking lot is six blocks away. No problem: there's a free shuttle that will carry you to the theater, and back to your car afterward.

The young lady standing here in front of the theater is passing out maps to the parking lot.

Inside the theater we found this great photograph of the Lifeline Ensemble. If I knew the photographer's name I would tell you. Believe me: I try to take photos half this good and can't. My hat is off to a master. [Of course, having professional actors posing for you probably helps.]

That's Christina in the middle, peeking over the top of her book. She just found the naughty bits, I think.

And here's the theater lobby.

I snuck a picture of the set for you before the play started.

Mariette in Ecstasy, a novel written by Ron Hansen, was a best seller in 1991. It tells the story of Mariette's remarkable career as a postulant at the priory of the Sisters of the Crucifixion.

The storyline is basically this: In 1906, Mariette arrives at the priory to begin her life as a nun. Shortly after her arrival, she announces that Jesus has talked to her. Pere Mariott says yes, Jesus guides all of us in our lives. She says, no, she has actually heard his voice.

People are ... shall we say, skeptical.

Then she displays stigmata. Okay, this is something else, entirely. Her fellow nuns are believing, disbelieving, envious, adoring, and every emotion in between. Her own father, a physician, examines her and essentially declares her a fraud. She is expelled from the priory.

But things are rarely that simple, are they? I can't wait to talk to Christina to hear her take on the story. Hansen left it ambiguous, I think. Christina left it ambiguous, too.

I hate that about Christina!

A few comments on the production: the cast is superb, the directing is superb, and the set is superb. Brenda Barrie as Mariette manages to transform herself from a lush young thing when arriving at the convent into an anorexic, post-stigmata fright.

Priory life is demarcated by the daily cycle of prayer and work (at least that's what it says in books; I have no personal knowledge), and the director, Elise Kauzleric, communicates those daily rhythms effectively. You'll know what I mean when you see the play.

I particularly liked Brian Parry as Pere Mariott.

Finally, there was some first-class singing. Really first-class. How do they find people who can act AND sing?

Oh, one other thing: this is the only play I can remember seeing where someone comes out to wash the blood off the floor during intermission.

If you live in or near Chicago, you should see this show. If you're visiting Chicago on business or pleasure, you should see this show. It's a shining example of the superb work that can be done by smaller professional theaters -- something with which Chicago is richly blessed.

Update: You can see a short video of Mariette in Ecstasy here. Click on Now Playing! up at the top.

Another update: Go here to read the press clippings.


* This post is not about him, but Eric is an actor and author who keeps body and artist together by doing fascinating work of another sort: he rebuilds enormous, 100-year-old organs -- and keeps organs alive in ridiculous little churches. He also specializes in leaving disrespectful comments on blogs. If you've written a devastating attack on some government policy, against which there is no defense, you can count on a comment demanding more pictures of your cat.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Can We at Least Tar and Feather Them?

Bullied Pulpit links to this excellent article by Steven Pearlstein at The Washington Post.

My righteous indignation about AIG burns with a pure, white heat. But Pearlstein is right.

Friday, March 20, 2009

And in Another Version

For shutterhand:

They Just Make Stuff Up

This tidbit from Steve Benen:
On CNN's "Situation Room" yesterday, Wolf Blitzer, paraphrasing President Obama, told House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), "[H]e seemed to be saying, all those Republicans who want a free market, who want to deregulate, who want the government off the back of these huge corporations, look what we got as a result of all of that." Boehner replied:

"Wolf, you have to understand, there was no deregulation of anything in the financial services industries. As a matter of fact, there was an increase in regulation."

It is truly no wonder we are in such a mess. For these guys, reality is whatever they want it to be. Just make it up.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Genealogical Notes

As a genealogist for some 40 years (and it makes me shudder to say that), there have been only a few books that have had much influence on me in this field. One, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, was published in 1930 by Donald Lines Jacobus, perhaps the most distinguished American genealogist of all time. Jacobus firmly set genealogy on the path of historical accuracy, a path it had not been on consistently up to that point. Too much genealogy was of the "find a link to a noble family" sort, and frequently dealt as much with fantasy as with facts. He was not the first to publish an accurate genealogy, but he did more than anyone to raise the standards.

A recent conversation with a friend sent me to find another, The Mountain of Names: A History of the Human Family, by Alex Shoumatoff, in a basement bookcase. Shoumatoff has been called "the greatest writer in America" by Donald Trump, but I don't think it is fair to hold that against him.

The Mountain of Names was published in 1985, but is still in print, which says something about it. In a chapter called The Kinship of Mankind Shoumatoff talks about the shape of our pedigrees. We are all used to seeing a family tree that begins with one person, and above that, two parents. And above each parent, two parents, so that the original person has four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. By the time we get back ten generations, we've got 1,024 ancestors in one generation! And then they really get going! Go back another 10 generations, and we've got about a million ancestors in that generation. We don't need to get back to Roman times before we realize there's something wrong: we have more ancestors than there were people alive at that time. Shoumatoff explains what happens:
Each time cousins marry, duplication occurs in their descendants' pedigrees, because as cousins they already occupy a lot there. The farther back one traces any person's genealogy the greater the rate of duplication grows, until finally, when there is more cousin intermarriage than input from new people, the shape of one's pedigree stops expanding and begins to narrow. Each person's complete family tree, in other words, is shaped like a diamond. In the beginning it expands upward from him in an inverted triangle.... At some point, hundreds of years back, the rate of expansion peaks; the base of the inverted triangle is reached and, overwhelmed by "collapse," the pedigree starts to narrow again, eventually coming to a point at a theoretical first couple, "Adam and Eve."
Two more quotes from the book:
The pedigree of Prince Charles has probably been as exhaustively researched as anybody's.... In the seventeenth generation of his pedigree, for instance, when he should theoretically have 65,536 progenitors, cousin intermarriage has deprived him of all but about twenty-three thousand ... of which [Robert C.] Gunderson has identified only twenty-eight hundred.... Of these twenty-eight hundred, Gunderson has discovered that "at least two thousand" of the descents are from the same person: Edward III, who ruled England from 1327 to 1377.
All Americans with British ancestry are probably descended from Edward III.
You can call me "Sir Sempringham." Or how about "Lord Sempringham." I like that. It has a nice ring to it.

A Must-Read

Don't miss Gail Collins' column today.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Going Galt

If you're not familiar with John Galt, here's an excellent introduction from Tristero at Hullabaloo:
... John Galt is the copper-haired, white-boy protagonist in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Galt leads a revolutionary movement in which all the top leaders of the banks and corporations forsake their corporate jets and perks to work in diners or as subway repair guys. No they weren't fired by Galt. Rather, Galt urged them to go on strike and withdraw their expertise from an increasingly socialist world. Deprived of the genius of their genius, the world economy collapses.
Ayn Rand is the favorite author -- they even call her "philosopher"! -- of Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, and lonely, resentful 17-year-olds everywhere.

And "Going Galt" is the latest fad in the propeller-head crowd. They're encouraging the "productive elite" to cut back on their earnings so they won't have to pay Barack Obama's socialist, wealth-redistributing taxes.

ABC News quotes a member of this productive elite:
A 63-year-old attorney based in Lafayette, La., who asked not to be named, told ABCNews.com that she plans to cut back on her business to get her annual income under the quarter million mark should the Obama tax plan be passed by Congress and become law.

"We are going to try to figure out how to make our income $249,999.00," she said.

"We have to find a way out where we can make just what we need to just under the line so we can benefit from Obama's tax plan," she added. "Why kill yourself working if you're going to give it all away to people who aren't working as hard?"
With elites like that, who needs village idiots?

The ABC story goes on:
But Gary Schatsky, a financial advisor and the president of NY-based Objectiveadvice.com, said that reducing your income won't help a great deal because of the way the country's tax system is set up.

"Just going over $250,000 doesn't mean it impacts your tax liability for every dollar before that," said Schatsky, "It impacts you at the margin."

Marginal or graduated tax systems like the one in the U.S. means only the money earned over a certain amount -- $250,000 in the case of Obama's proposal -- will be taxed at an increased percentage.

For instance, for a person earning $350,00, the first $250,000 of income would be taxed at lower tax rates, while the last $100,000 would be taxed at Obama's higher rate.

"Only the incremental earnings above [a quarter of a million dollars] are taxed at a higher rate," said Schatsky.

"[T]o focus keeping your income below a quarter million dollars is not going to have any spectacular magic for individual tax payers," said Schatsky. "The difference between $249,999 and $251,000 will probably have zero tax impact."
And what is the onerous, socialist, wealth-redistributing tax rate that is causing our productive elite to fall all over themselves to become elevator operators, just so the economic world will collapse and serve us parasites right?

From John Cole, here's a chart of the top tax rates from the 1920s to the present:

You'll need to click on it to enlarge it.

I never realized that Dwight David Eisenhower was a socialist.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Prepare to be Amazed

Just in case you think you know the order of the Universe, take a look at this video of dolphins creating and playing with rings of bubbles. They taught themselves to do this.

I guess these might be intelligent animals.

A New World Opens

Our 7-month-old cat, Waveland, probably can't remember being outside. When we adopted him he was a rescue kitten, found in the rubble of Hurricane Gustav in Waveland, Mississippi. Since then, he has braved a Chicago Winter in relative comfort. I say "relative" because I'm sure he would have preferred we turn the thermostat up a bit higher than we do.

Waveland had pretty much got himself into a routine. There's nothing new around here. The only effort he had to expend was to get us to open the right can of cat food, and to play with him on the bed. (See Waveland Goes Overboard.)

And he gained weight without effort. Suellen refers to him as her "kitty in a big boy suit."

But today was a red-letter day in Waveland's short life. With temperatures reaching 74°, a living room window was opened for the first time since his arrival. He was amazed.

And nature cooperated to give him a good show. The neighborhood squirrels were active, the birds were flitting, and a small flock of Canada Geese flew surprisingly low, honking loudly. He can't wait to tell his best friend, Anneliese, all about it.

Waveland will sleep well tonight, dreaming new dreams.

Another Dead Sea Scrolls Theory

The Dead Sea Scrolls have fascinated me for more than 10 years now. As you might surmise from this bookshelf:

Or this one:

Believe me, they're just the tip of the iceberg.

The Scrolls, found in 11 caves over a period of several years starting in 1947, are a fascinating, mysterious library of about 800 documents. There's a scroll made of copper, with instructions to buried treasure. There are weird things like the apocalyptic War Rule, which predicts a 40 year war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

About one quarter of the scrolls are copies or fragments of Jewish Bible (Old Testament) books. This was extremely exciting for Biblical scholars because -- believe it or not -- until these documents were found, the oldest copy of the Old Testament we had in Hebrew was "only" about 1,000 years old. The Dead Sea Scrolls took that back another 1,000 years. And while some will emphasize how few differences there were, and most were relatively insignificant, there were literally thousands of them. Modern Bibles now include a paragraph after 1 Samuel 10:27 that wasn't there 50 years ago, because a passage scholars long suspected had been lost was found in the Scrolls' copies of 1 Samuel.

One of the greatest mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls is: Who put them in those caves?

The answer accepted by most scholars is that there was a desert community of monk-like men named "Essenes," and the scrolls were the library of their "monastery." There are many good reasons for believing this, but to me they never seemed convincing.

Time Magazine has an article about a new theory: that the Scrolls were part of the library of the Temple in Jersusalem, hidden there in the first century AD, and that the Essenes never existed. I can buy the first part of that, if not the second. The Time article is a tad on the breathless side, claiming the theory has "shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship." It has not. But it's an interesting read, nevertheless.

Of course, this is all pointless, but what isn't?

Optimism is a Force Multiplier

And there is more reason for optimism.

From the Associated Press:
The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that construction of new homes and apartments jumped 22.2 percent from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 units. Economists were expecting construction to drop to a pace of around 450,000 units.

Doofus Cohen

I don't know if it's really true that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is known as "Doofus" among the newspaper's reporters, but I would be surprised if it is not. He is a graduate of the Totally-Misses -the-Point School of Commentary which was founded, as you know, by William Safire, formerly of the New York Times.

Today Mr. Cohen takes Jon Stewart to task for taking the financial media to task.
[Stewart] could use a droll comedian to temper his ferocity and correct him when he's wrong, as he was about the financial media, particularly CNBC and its excitable analyst Jim Cramer. They didn't cover up the story of financial shenanigans. They didn't even know it existed.
He then offers proof! His word, not mine.
For proof, I can offer some names. Let's start with Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, who was instrumental in building what is now probably the world's most reviled corporation, AIG. He resigned as chairman and CEO in 2005, but still it is logical to assume that few people knew more about the company than Greenberg. He kept much of his net worth in AIG stock. He's now lost much of that worth.

Or take Richard Fuld. He is the former chairman of Lehman Brothers, which, as we all know, is no more. He lost about $1 billion.

Or take Citigroup's former chairman, Sanford Weill. He lost about $500 million.

Or take all the good people at Bear Stearns, the company Cramer adored almost to the bitter end. They went down with their stock.

If these people kept their money in these companies -- financial and insurance giants they had built and knew from the inside -- how was even Jim Cramer to know these firms were essentially hollow?
Hey, Doofus, let me give you another name for your list of proof cases: Bernard Madoff.

Are we supposed to think that because these people lost money, they weren't complicit? Is that your proof? Or are we supposed to think that because these very rich, very involved people couldn't figure out the whole thing was going to blow, CNBC couldn't know it was going to blow?

Did Doofus even watch the show? Did he hear Jim Cramer say:
A lot of times where I was short at my hedge fund, and I was positioned short, meaning I needed it down, I would create a level of activity beforehand that would drive the futures. It doesn't take much money.
Did he hear Jim Cramer say:
You can't foment, ... create yourself an impression that a stock's down, but you do it anyway because the SEC doesn't understand it.
Did he? Does he understand the English language? I'm telling you, if your industry operates under ethics like that ... IT'S GONNA BLOW!

Mr. Cohen, Jim Cramer knew the financial shenanigans existed. How you missed that is between you and your editors. They do still have editors at the Washington Post, don't they? They used to have editors. I only ask because there's Cohen's column, and there was that fictitious column about global warming George Will wrote a couple of weeks ago, and there was ... oh, never mind.

Now, Jon Stewart may have been off the mark, but he was a lot closer to it than Doofus Cohen is. The reason I think Stewart may have been off the mark is because of this, from Josh Marshall:
To the best of my knowledge CNBC is not part of the news division at NBC. It's part of the division that runs cable broadcasting. MSNBC is also one of their cable channels; but they report up through the news division. As you can see here, CNBC President Mark Hoffman reports to NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker, not Steve Capus, the president of NBC News. So they're in with Bravo and the rest. And they're under no pressure from the News division to provide editorial objectivity or balance or any editorial standards at all (*). And I mean, half of it is Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow. So that's pretty obvious.
So America's source of business news, it turns out, is a part of NBC's entertainment division. Are things becoming clearer now?

Monday, March 16, 2009

AIG Bonuses

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo sums up the mess with AIG bonuses pretty darn well:

Whatever else you can say about AIG CEO Edward Libby, he ain't much for irony. In his letter to Secretary Geithner he said that AIG "cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent ... if employees believe that their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury."

As noted yesterday, the bonuses are overwhelmingly weighted toward AIG's Financial Products division (AIGFP), the relatively small division responsible for the company's de facto bankruptcy and no little part of the world financial crisis.

With respect to AIGFP, there's no little snarking to be had about whether these folks are really the "best and the brightest." But it actually goes beyond that. It's not just the people. The whole division is toxic and should be shut down, probably the building should be razed and the ground salted. AIG is a ward of the federal government. Our only financial interest in it is in chopping it up and getting the best prices for the valuable parts of it. I don't think AIGFP is going to have a lot of takers. And as a matter of policy I think we probably want to close it down.

More generally, the idea that there are a lot of jobs on offer at the moment for credit default swap writers strikes me as dubious.

The other argument -- real, as far as it goes -- is that what we're trying to do is untangle a massive ball of twine these guys created. And as much as we might revile these characters we can't do without their help trying to get it unwound. Again, true as far as it goes. The problem, though, is that we're even entertaining the question on the retention/compensation front. The government has more options.

It appears that most of these guys should be doing a perp walk, and they're demanding bonuses. AIG should cease to exist.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Killing Bugs

A couple of Windows users have reported receiving an error message when attempting to access Sempringham. My guess is that the problem is in one of the little do-dads I have over on the side, so I'm taking things off and seeing if it makes a difference. If I've taken off a link to your blog, it's nothing personal, and I'll have you back as soon as I figure out what's going on.

The problem may not be with the blog, or with Windows, but with Internet Explorer. If you use Internet Explorer, please let me recommend Firefox, a free program at Firefox.com. More and more people seem to be using it. I use the Mac version. Don't get me wrong, if you're getting an error message, and your Internet Explorer is the latest version, the problem is almost certainly here. But some programs seem to be able to get over it, and some can't.

Update: Okay, I've gone over the top and downloaded an entirely new template. Sorry for the lack of continuity, but hopefully this will take care of the problem.

Thanks for Nothing, Wen Jiabao

Just when we thought, "Could it ... could it be ... could that be a robin we hear singing?," Chinese premier Wen Jiabao says he's worried about China's investment in U.S. treasuries.

Thanks, pal. You couldn't have done more damage if you had planned it that way.

End of rally.

Wen Jiabao, if you want your money back in one piece, it might be a good idea to be a bit more judicious when opening your mouth.

Addendum: The last time I mentioned China in a post, I got a visit from China within 36 hours. I'm hoping the same thing will happen now. If it doesn't, it means they put Sempringham into their spam filter. "Forget this guy, he's nobody." Sigh. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Addendum to the Addendum: If I do get a visit from China -- hey, guy! Welcome! Stop and stay a while. Or at least say hello.

Addendum to the Addendum's Addendum: Okay, so maybe it wasn't the end of the rally. But, really! What was he thinking?

And Finally: Two visitors from China on the day of the post, the first at 8:30 p.m. Central. Glad to see I'm not on their spam filter yet.

Most Important Interview of the Decade

My brother Ted, who -- unlike this blog -- actually knows something about economics and finances and who -- unlike CNBC -- actually has a sense of ethics, calls Jon Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer "the most important interview of the decade." That's good enough recommendation for me.

And I think he may be right. If you can't watch the whole thing, at least catch Part 2, where Stewart explains what happened in this economy. I'm sorry about the advertisements, particularly the one for Grand Theft Auto.

Update: After a few days, the embedded videos no longer worked. You can find the videos here.

Thanks for the tip, Ted.

Update: Joe Scarborough stands up for the churners, who I guess are Republicans:

Cramer just sat there and took his medicine. He’s clearly shaken that his fellow Democrats have turned on him. ... He is a loyal Democrat and it depresses him to be reviled by his political allies.

No, it depresses him to realize that Stewart is right, and that he has behaved unethically. Since when is ethical behavior a Democratic-only ideal? Oh, that's right. Since 1980.

Later Update: In an editorial decision worthy of nobody, the NY Times decides to have its lede story about the interview written by an entertainment writer. She misses the point.

Oh, wait. I've now read past the second paragraph. "There isn’t enough regulation on Wall Street, and there’s hardly any accountability on cable news: it’s a 24-hour star system where opinions — and showmanship — matter more than facts." She got that right.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Where We Stand

As you know, I have called the bottom of the market. The Dow will not go below 6,000.

And as you also know, I don't know what I'm talking about, and nobody can call the bottom of the market.

So with that in mind, this chart from dshort.com, via the outstanding blog, Calculated Risk, is very interesting. You've got to click on it to do it justice.

The great rally we've had for the last 2 of 3 days is hardly an uptick.

But I'm still an optimist.

Nothing Much

Nothing much happening so far today. Bernard Madoff goes to court, which should be fun.

So I'll just steal three lines from Andrew Tobias, who is quoting Mitch Hedberg:

· One time, this guy handed me a picture of him, he said, "Here's a picture of me when I was younger." Every picture of you is when you were younger. "Here's a picture of me when I'm older." "You son-of-a-bitch! How'd you pull that off? Lemme see that camera!"

· The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as a wall.

· I saw this wino, he was eating grapes. I was like, "Dude, you have to wait."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Another Three-Legged Stool

A criticism heard often about the Stimulus Plan in the past week or so is that it is supposed to save or create 3-1/2 million jobs, but the economy has already lost 4-1/2 million jobs. Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer gives a credible response to that in this interview with Matt Lauer. [You'll need to sit through a 30-second commercial, first.]

Virtue Triumphs

Why does a whole generation of Americans get their news from Jon Stewart's Daily Show? Because Stewart cuts through the #@%$. A few days ago you saw his take-down of CNBC, a "business" network for hysterical day-traders.

They took umbrage. Tee-hee.

Jim Cramer is a founding inductee in the Gasbag Hall of Fame, and Joe Scarborough is a candidate for the first year class.

Genealogists! You Must See This

And non-genealogists will be amazed by it, too.

Today's NY Times has an interactive map that shows -- by COUNTY! -- where the immigrants came from in each decade, going back to 1880.

Take a look!

Update: An instructive thing to do is select a particular country from the drop-down menu in the upper left, then slide the date bar from 1880 to 2000 watching how the immigration pattern changes through the decades.

If you select Mexico, you will see the number of Mexican-born people gradually increase in the Southwest then, suddenly, they all but disappear in 1930. What happened? Did the Great Depression send them back to Mexico? Of course, in more recent years the Mexican immigration pattern explodes.

I'm Not Drinking Any *&%#@&% Merlot!

This teaser from today's online NY Times made me want to go on to something else right away:

In California, a rebellion is brewing among a small but growing number of pinot noir producers.
But then I got to wondering: How do pinot noir producers rebel? Do they refuse to sniff the cork? Do they serve it cold?

I guess the teaser worked, though, because I finally had to find out the answer. And here it is: They make their pinots "fresh and light with aromas of flowers and red fruit."

Oh, those rebellious pinot noir producers!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

That's Right, I'm Bad!

Most people, religious or not, are familiar with the season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter. Probably the most common expression in all of Christendom is, "What are you giving up for Lent?" To which the reply is usually something like "chocolate" or "ice cream".

Our rector sees Lent as a time when you should be trying to improve yourself, and it should be something that becomes permanent, not a 6-week wonder. It could be giving up a bad habit (like chocolate or ice cream) or it could be developing a good habit.

Fearful of doing something positively stupid like giving up ice cream for life, I went looking for a good habit to develop. And I found one: forgiveness. Specifically, while driving.

Where before I made a habit of making moral judgments on other drivers, and offering them suggestions for improvement, I now forgive them. It can be quite satisfying, really, driving down the street saying, "I forgive you ... I forgive you ... and I forgive you, too." My seat is now a throne, as I rain my beneficence down upon lesser mortals.

Lest you decide to adopt this method of self-improvement yourself, let me warn you: there are drawbacks. First, be careful not to expand your forgiveness into areas of your life where the person might actually know that you are forgiving them. For example, it is not always a good idea to tell friends and loved ones, "I forgive you." Be certain they are seeking forgiveness first. Otherwise, you might find yourself in the position of desperately seeking forgiveness yourself.

Second, it might be a good idea to not to let others even know about your forgiveness program. When Jesus forgave somebody, the scribes went haywire: "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" [Mark 2:7] Hey, if they got that upset about Jesus forgiving people, imagine what they'll do with you!

The third drawback is the most painful (providing you remember not to talk around scribes): don't expect to be forgiven in return. And for this point, I offer Exhibit A:

I was driving Suellen home from a branch library, on an unfamiliar section of road, when I misjudged the length of a yellow light. Suellen pointed this fact out to me. For about five minutes. She was right, of course (she always is). The light was clearly red when I entered the intersection. But I didn't hit anybody, there was no patrol car behind me, and so the episode ended with my resolution to become a better person. No damage done.

Or so I thought.

Chicago has discovered a splendid fund-raising device: traffic cameras. These wonderful devices, placed strategically at busy intersections, see everything. And they record everything.

And so, when we got home from yesterday's appointment, we found this in the mailbox:

It may not be clear from the scan, but there's our blue car, going through a clearly red light. What should be clear, if you click on it, is that it cost me $100.

As Suellen cheerfully pointed out to me, it is actually possible to watch a movie of your very own personal violation online. Which we did. Isn't that great? It was amazingly clear! Isn't technology terrific? Isn't it improving our lives immeasurably?

Honestly, I don't remember the light being red for that long before I entered the intersection.

The third drawback of forgiving people is that there is no forgiveness for the forgiving.

Hoovervilles -- No, Republicanvilles

During the Great Depression, shantytowns formed in many American cities where the homeless and jobless threw up shacks to live in. They were called "Hoovervilles."

It's happening again. Crooks and Liars collects reports of tent cities growing up in Sacramento, Seattle, Reno, and Nashville. To tell you the truth, the tent cities look like more precarious places to live than the Hooverville shacks.

Here's a video from MSNBC.

Bob Herbert has a good column about the general subject of conservative malfeasance here.

The seeds of today’s disaster were sown some 30 years ago. Looking at income patterns during that period, my former colleague at The Times, David Cay Johnston, noted that from 1980 (the year Ronald Reagan was elected) to 2005, the national economy, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled. (Because of population growth, the actual increase per capita was about 66 percent.)

But the average income for the vast majority of Americans actually declined during those years. The standard of living for the average family improved not because incomes grew but because women entered the workplace in droves.

As hard as it may be to believe, the peak income year for the bottom 90 percent of Americans was way back in 1973, when the average income per taxpayer, adjusted for inflation, was $33,000. That was nearly $4,000 higher, Mr. Johnston pointed out, than in 2005.

But, hey, they've got flat-screen TV's.

Cool Heads Prevail

This is really a small-change issue, considering everything else that's going on, but it's encouraging that everybody seems to be staying calm and reasonable about something on which they disagree:

A Muslim woman was asked to leave her place in line at a credit union in Southern Maryland and be served in a back room because the head scarf she wore for religious reasons violated the institution's "no hats, hoods or sunglasses" policy, the woman said yesterday.

The incident at the Navy Federal Credit Union on Saturday was the second in a month for Kenza Shelley, and Muslim advocates fear it could become a problem nationwide as many financial institutions, intent on curbing robberies and identity theft, ban hats and similar items without appropriate accommodations for religious attire.


"We want to be able to clearly identify who you are and make sure the transaction is safe," Lyons said. "This is a policy that applies to everybody in the branch. She wasn't singled out. . . . We tried to accommodate her and help her with her transaction and move on."

This is not a big problem. The nearest additional examples the reporter could find were apparently two cases in California. Some banks make exceptions for religious headgear; this one didn't.

You have to wonder what they'd do if it was a Catholic nun in a habit standing there. Would she be treated differently?

But, again, it seems like everybody is keeping their perspective on this. As the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations said, "There's got to be a way to work it out so that this security concern does not lead to violations of constitutional rights." Seems like everybody's on board with that, so far.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Grim Humor

Don't miss this story about the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois. I hope it survives.

Constellation O'Hare

One of the saddest things about living in Chicago -- or any city, for that matter -- and about modern life, generally, is that the cocoons we've built for ourselves make us lose track of the natural world. In Chicago, most stars you see are part of the Milky Way (as are we). But you really can't see many stars, because of the city lights, so you never see THE MILKY WAY.

I remember, too long ago, standing one night with Suellen and friends on the shore of Lake Superior's Whitefish Point, looking up at the incredible swatch of stars arcing over our heads. What a remarkable, humbling sight. It is no wonder that the ancients recognized Orion, Cassiopeia's Chair, and Andromeda. Too many people never see them.

Instead, let me introduce you to Constellation O'Hare. You can see it in the sky, looking east from the front steps of our house.

Can you see the stars, forming a diagonal from upper left to bottom right? You might need to click on the picture to expand it. Of course, those are not really stars, but are the lights of airplanes lined up to land at O'Hare Airport -- about 2 minutes between them.

In the city, we find our inspiration wherever we can.

It's the Stupid Economy

Paul Krugman is decidedly less optimistic about 2009 than I. Ah-ha, but he bases his pessimism on facts, whereas I base my (relative) optimism on "a feeling". Take your pick.

Andrew Tobias points out that Alan Greenspan's comments about "irrational exuberance" in the market came when the Dow was at 6,500 -- which it dipped below last week (and probably will this week, too). Wouldn't that be an ironic place to find the bottom, he asks. But "even if 6,500 were, ironically, fair value for the Dow here, there’s nothing to keep it from going to 3,500." What a cheerful guy.

Another article over the weekend announced:

In one of the bleakest assessments yet, economists at the World Bank predicted on Sunday that the global economy and the volume of global trade would both shrink this year for the first time since World War II.
Happy Monday!

Just remember, you can tell the market is about to rebound when everybody thinks it can only go lower. In that spirit, let me add my voice to those crying "Doom! Doom! We're all doomed!"

Speaking of facts, Gretchen Morgenson's AIG: Where Taxpayers' Dollars Go to Die does a good job of making what's going on with that company intelligible. We taxpayers now own 80 percent of AIG, so it's worth reading why and how $160 billion of our national treasure has been poured into that sinkhole.

The late Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen is famous for remarking, "A million dollars here, a million dollars there -- pretty soon you're talking about real money!"

How quaint.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Brain Dead

Paul Krugman gets it right, as usual:

I’m as cynical as they come. Even so, I’m shocked by the total intellectual collapse of the Republican Party in the face of this economic crisis.

I suggested a little while ago that the GOP has become the party of Beavis and Butthead, reduced to snickering at line items in legislation that sound funny. And we’re not just talking about the usual crazies: we’re taking about Saint John McCain, cracking jokes about “Mormon crickets” and “beaver management” when a minute or two on Google reveals that these are, in fact, serious issues.

But it’s getting truly serious when the House minority leader — essentially, the nation’s second-ranking Republican (after Rush Limbaugh) — declares that the answer to the economy’s downward spiral is a spending freeze. That’s not a retrogression to Herbert Hoover; even Hoover knew better than that.

I’d really like to see some genuine bipartisanship in America. But that can’t happen until we start having at least somewhat sane partisans.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Bizarre Story

Perhaps you've heard of this, but since the woman decided not to go on Oprah, many have not.

Capt. Christopher Covella, a mariner with 32 years of experience and more than 17,000 trips aboard Staten Island ferries to his credit, was in the pilot house of the John J. Marchi on Sept. 16, heading to Staten Island from Manhattan, when he saw something out of place.

“At 11:50 a.m. I noticed something in the water that didn’t belong there,” Captain Covella said. “All it was, was a head and it was slightly more than a quarter-mile away.”

Slowing down the boat, he instructed two of his deckhands to prepare to enter the water near Robbins Reef, a tiny outcropping of land topped by a lighthouse just off the north shore of Staten Island. The two deckhands, Michael Sabatino, 28, and Ephriam Washington, 31, hung over the edge of the ferry in a 12-foot aluminum skiff as the captain edged his craft toward the island.

About 200 feet away from Ms. Upp, who was floating face down, the men were lowered into the water. When they reached her, Mr. Washington put his hands under Ms. Upp’s arms, turned her face up, and, with the help of Mr. Sabatino, lifted her into the skiff.

“We realized that she was breathing and had no major cuts or bruises, so we decided to bring her back to St. George,” Mr. Washington said. Three minutes later, they were at the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

I've rode (ridden?) the Staten Island ferry quite a few times, and I must admit I'm amazed that they stop for a body in the water. But there's much more to this story that will interest you. Ms. Upp had been missing for three weeks.

Here's the whole story.

Incidentally, while doing the little research I've done on this story, I came across this from Wikipedia:

The Robbins Reef Light Station is a lighthouse located off Constable Hook in Bayonne, New Jersey along the west side of Main Channel, Upper New York Bay. The tower and integral keepers quarters were built in 1883. ... Also called Kate's Light for Kate Walker who "manned" the station alone from the death of her husband Jacob in 1886 until 1919. She rowed her children to Staten Island for school.

Grim Humor

This has appeared in several places on the internet, so proper attribution is probably impossible.

Letter to the Bank

Dear Sirs:

One of my checks was returned marked “insufficient funds." Does that refer to me or you?


Update: As usual, Jon Stewart is spot on.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

More Thinking About the Economy

Just so nobody thinks everybody is forecasting disaster, I wanted to share this bit from Andrew Tobias' column today:

Not everyone is despairing. Remember that the massive stimuli you’ve been reading about are only in the early stages of phasing in. Maybe they’ll have an effect?

From Hook Analytics current weekly compendium (an under-the-radar independent macro-economic research product for institutional clients): “Based on the history of large money supply increases, we estimate that the Fed’s forecast of second-half 2009 recovery is more likely than continued recession into 2010; that the next few years will probably have sub-normal growth, low inflation, and low interest rates. We think the circumstances more resemble 1933 than 1931; 1982 more than 1980. That is, we think we are mostly through a recession and market crash and that the next large move will be 40-60% higher stock prices.

I would hardly bet the farm on this scenario – and actually, neither would John Hook. But he sees central bankers flooding the world with money and credit – which, he says, is not what Hoover did in 1931 – so, from a monetary perspective, that could make this 1933.

In one of my first posts on Sempringham, in January of last year, I talked about the history of the Dow Jones average during and following the Great Depression. The Dow kept going down for three years, losing 89 percent of its value. And if that wasn't enough -- it did not return to its pre-Crash value until 30 years later.

Having put that out there, I expect this to be different. For one thing, I am really impressed with how quickly the Stimulus money is getting out there. The bill was signed on February 17 and, according to tonight's news, already some companies are hiring new employees, or bringing back laid-off employees, as a direct result of it. The questions remaining are 1) was the stimulus large enough, and 2) how quickly will it be felt in parts of the economy that were not direct beneficiaries of it?

I'm hoping John Hook and the Fed are right, and that we'll see recovery begin in the second half of 2009. If that happens, the country as a whole will have dodged a bullet, even if too many individuals and companies did not.

In the meanwhile, we can count on the short-term memory hysterics in our press to forget all about how we got into this mess, and blame Obama for everything.

Our Wonderful Economy

This morning's NY Times presents some miserable news in a wonderful way.

Make sure you visit The Geography of a Recession. The map shows every county in the country. Move your cursor over the county, and it tells you the unemployment rate there in December 2008. Cook County had an unemployment rate of 7.1% (it has certainly gone up since then!), while Bremer Co., Iowa (to choose one at random), had a rate of 3.6%. Mackinac Co., Michigan, was the highest I could find, at 24.2%.

I know I'm tempting fate here, but I think the market is near it's bottom. I just can't see the DOW going below 6,000. When it was near 14,000, a change of 100 in a day was la-de-da, ho-hum. At 7,000, a drop of 100 is serious business. The question is, are we starting to see the bottom of the bottomless pit that is the banking system? We'll see.

Needless to say, I don't know what I'm talking about. Make any decisions based on the last paragraph, and you deserve whatever happens to you! Are we taking money out of cash and buying stocks? Not yet.

I saw a clip of my favorite idiot, Jim Cramer, bemoaning the fact that the stock market has no confidence in Obama because he's raising taxes on the wealthy. Cramer is the best contrarian indicator I've ever come across. His high-pitched, high volume endorsement of Bear Stearns just days before it went belly-up is a classic. When the market was bloated with worthless crap, he saw no danger. Now that the market is down 50%, he's finally crying "The sky is falling!" Not the kind of person you want anywhere near you in a crisis.

And on that note, I need to get ready for work at the food pantry. Have a good day.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Bernard Madoff Update

CBS reports that Bernard Madoff is claiming ... that Bernard Madoff is claiming ... oh, read it yourself. I haven't got the stomach to repeat it.

Bernie Madoff is accused of fleecing his clients out of billions, but he said Monday he shouldn't be forced into the poorhouse.

His lawyers are arguing that Madoff should be entitled to keep the $7 million apartment he's currently being held in while under house arrest and $62 million, including $45 million in municipal bonds.

Court papers filed on Monday state that Madoff and his lawyer say the Manhattan penthouse and the millions held in accounts of Madoff's wife, Ruth, are not subject to seizure.

The court papers say Madoff claims the apartment and the money are unrelated to a $50 billion fraud Madoff has been accused of carrying out.
I understand he's not being held in prison because he's not a physical threat to anybody. But surely we can make an exception.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Medical Appointment

Suellen was hospitalized recently, and I'm planning to do a post about that adventure some day. She's been home for a couple of weeks, and is doing great, but we'll be seeing a lot of doctors and nurses for the next year. This is the year we get back all the money we've paid into health insurance for the past 30+ years.

Think I'm exaggerating? Here are some envelopes that came in the mail on one day last week.

I think they could cut medical insurance costs considerably if they just mailed everything in one envelope.

Today we went downtown for some medical appointments. Suellen's doctors are located dangerously near Chicago's shopping Mecca, Michigan Avenue, so you can count yourself lucky if you can get out of there while keeping your spending in the double digits. Here are three pictures I took from the 19th floor waiting room while she saw one of the doctors.

The building with the towers on it is the John Hancock Building. Most of the floors are residential. At the top is a pretty good restaurant with a spectacular view.

Looking down from the same window, you can see the top of the 10-story parking garage. Can you say $35? Luckily, her doctors "validate" parking tickets, so it only costs $10, if you can get out of there quickly.

Finally, off in another direction is Lake Michigan, iced up near the shore. That little building out in the lake is a "fresh" water pump station. If you live in Chicago, it's best not to ask questions. This is a rule that works well in most situations.

After the appointments, we left the car in the garage and took a bus down to the Loop -- a distance of about a mile. Leonard Cohen is on tour and tickets for his show at the Chicago Theater went on sale at 9 a.m. today. The guy at the box office said they had sold "very well" and, in fact, had sold out ... except for the "VIP" tickets, which were going for $500 apiece. If you bought VIP tickets, you got a free copy of Leonard's "Live in London" CD.

We left without "Live in London" CD's. Leonard Cohen's truest fan, who has been loyal for 40+ years -- even during those 20 years when it wasn't cool -- will die without seeing Leonard perform live. Oh, well. Everybody knows the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.

On the way back to the bus, we ran into this guy, who Chicagoans will recognize as a fixture in the city for the past 20 years. He stands on State Street with a Mr. Microphone, usually in front of Marshall Field's, and tells everybody about Jesus. As you can see, he has no problem with having his picture taken.

And that's the story of our day. Not much to report.

Update March 3: Our very, very, good friend Ted found us tickets! Thanks, Ted!