The Stupidest Question

The wife first made pizza at home a few years ago. I'd gone to then-unmarried T.'s home to watch a game.

"What did you guys eat?," the wife asked when I came back.

"T. had made pizza," I replied.

"If T. can make pizza," snarked the wife, "then I should be able to do it too." And so she did. But we haven't been making pizza from scratch after that -- Papa Murphy's is down the street and they sell pretty fresh, quite good pizzas.

On Sunday, we wanted to try out a new griddle pan and so we decided to make pizza. What went in: our house blend of whole wheat and all-purpose flour, bell peppers, mushrooms and spinach with pepper-jack cheese. Also sphagetti sauce I'd made and frozen last year in a bid to use up the garden basil.
Turned out to be quite delicious, plus the kids were very excited to see pizza being made: excitement that they'd managed to keep well in check when I was making Sichuan tofu and onion soup.
"So what do you want to take to school for lunch tomorrow?," I asked S2.

"Pizza," she said in a tone of voice that indicated that this was the stupidest question that she'd heard in the four years she's been on this earth. And you know what ... it probably was.
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Busted forecast

The snowstorm that wasn't is causing a few red faces around here. The storm did affect me though ... my flight home on Friday got canceled because of cross-winds at Dallas airport and I ended up flying in on Saturday morning.

As you can see, not much snow in the metro area, although some of the roofs show a little white dust. The field is green throughout.
And this redbud is proudly blooming even as the evergreen behind it is covered with snow.
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A righteous towing

If you've ever dealt with a towing company, you'll recognize the aptness of this one's name:
(Seen last week in Virginia.)
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Winning friends and influencing foreigners

Our nation's foreign policy establishment snubbed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a set of DVDs that would not play in Britain.

Can they beat that performance? You betcha.

Hillary Clinton went to see the basilica in Mexico City and was shown the famous peasant cloth and its iconic image of Mary. After admiring the image, Mrs. Clinton is reported to have inquired: So who painted it? The embarrassed hosts, of course, believe that the image was not painted, but that its existence is miraculous.

Most of the "miracles" associated with it have been scientifically explained and the likely answer to her question is Marcos Cipac de Aquino. Still ... I'm quite sure that's not what our Secretary of State had in mind.

I'm now breathlessly awaiting what we do to the Canadians. Maybe jam in a 6-hour dash across the border and give them an even bigger inferiority complex? Oh, that's been done too.

NASCAR racers on the beltway

This week, I'm in Rockville, MD on work. The building I'm in also hosts Clear Channel, and one the local DC radio stations decided to feature two NASCAR drivers on the beltway in rush-hour traffic. The "race" started and ended at our building.
This was the state of the cars after the whole tamasha. One of the drivers had swerved into the other, trying to push him off the road. I hope the Toyota dealer who loaned the radio station these cars knew what he was getting his cars into!
Incidentally, the company I'm doing the work for this week is called "Learning Tree", so it is doubly ironic that a new Mediterranean market has opened just down the block:

p.s. Bad cars in the US are referred to as lemons. Hence the double irony.

How Tata can afford to make the Nano

Tata, the Indian company, is releasing their ultra-cheap ($2000) car this July. Apparently, they're going to make a loss on each such car they sell. So, how can they claim to have created a $2000 car? Because of the related merchandising and the financing!

This article is worth reading in full, but in short: (1) the hype surrounding the Nano is so much that the company hopes to make money selling all kinds of accessories (sort of like the movie studios). (2) the wait list for the car is so long that the company is going to make people pay to be on the waitlist, thus getting a cheap source of funding that bypasses the banks. (3) Only the cheapest car is $2000; vehicles with a few more features (such as air-conditioning) cost much more and make the whole set of cars profitable.

As the Economist notes:
By declaring an impossible price tag, the company has generated enough lucrative hype to make the cheapest car viable after all.
At any rate, a smarter business plan and better marketing than those coming out of Detroit.

Fruits and chocolate

One of our friends is adamant that fruits and chocolates should never mix. I'm not that kosher, but I've come to appreciate her point of view after I picked up "Chocolate-covered bananas" at Trader Joe's.
I'd forgotten that the bananas you get in America are sickly sweet -- in my mind, I was imagining Indian bananas and the thought of a tart, green banana with dark chocolate makes my mouth water. But that's not what Trader Joe's had in mind -- instead, they're selling sweet, icicle-laden mush covered with milk chocolate.

The box came with four pieces -- three-and-a-half are going into the garbage.

Amarillo story

Photo: Burt Rutherford
Guess who the "families from Norman, Okla" refers to. (And no, we were not "learning how to camp.")
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Gulp! The $2 trillion gamble

It appears that we, the taxpayers, are betting $2 trillion dollars and the next 10 years on the right answer to this question of what the nation's housing stock is worth: (a) the banks made lousy loans and leveraged their exposure, so that their assets are now worthless (b) the housing market seized up, but the houses that the loans went for are eventually are worth something

Paul Krugman believes that the answer is (a) and that unless the government bites the bullets, wipes out the banks' existing shareholders and installs new management with a clean slate, we are hosed.   He explains here:
Banks and other highly leveraged institutions collectively made a huge bet that the normal rules for house prices and sustainable levels of consumer debt no longer applied; they were wrong. Time for a Swedish solution.
On the other hand, the Obama administration believes that the answer is (b).  They are planning to put up capital, get it managed by financial managers (who themselves put up a 20% stake) and hold the mortages, if necessary, to maturity.  Brad DeLong explains here:
The Geithner Plan is a trillion-dollar operation by which the U.S. acts as the world's largest hedge fund investor, committing its money to funds to buy up risky and distressed but probably fundamentally undervalued assets and, as patient capital, holding them either until maturity or until markets recover so that risk discounts are normal and it can sell them off--in either case at an immense profit.
The newspaper accounts, not surprisingly, are worthless -- you'd do better to get the bottom-line from experts than from journalists imperfectly channeling experts and laboring under some illusion of balance.

What do I think? I think it's a huge, huge gamble.  However, the US population is growing; people highly prefer single-family homes and the quality of childrens' education is tied highly to real-estate. So, in the next 3-5 years, we'll burn through the surplus of homes.  Nothing we've seen indicates that the homes themselves are shoddy -- there hasn't been any epidemic of corrupt home inspectors to go with the corrupt appraisers, mortage brokers, lenders and insurers.  So, I'm hoping that the Obama administration is correct, and that (in DeLong's words):

At the moment, those businesses that ought to be expanding and hiring cannot profitably expand and hire because the terms on which they can finance expansion are so lousy. The terms on which they can finance expansion are so lazy because existing financial asset prices are so low. Existing financial asset prices are so low because risk and information discounts have soared. Risk and information discounts have collapsed because the supply of assets is high and the tolerance of financial intermediaries for holding assets that are risky or that might have information-revelation problems are low.

So if we are going to boost asset prices to levels at which those firms that ought to be expanding can get finance, we are going to have to shrink the supply of risky assets that our private-sector financial intermediaries have to hold. The government buys up $1 trillion of financial assets, and lo and behold the private sector has to hold $1 trillion less of risky and information-impacted assets. Their price goes up. Supply and demand.

Be outraged at the right thing

All this outrage directed at the $116 million dollar retention bonus paid to AIG employees is amusing:
  1. We have a history in this country of vastly overpaying professionals like lawyers, traders and managers whose net benefit to society is not clear. So, why is their payscale suddenly outrageous? Did they actually deserve what was paid to them when the market was going up? Is it ever justifiable for people who manage money to extract 1-2% of assets as "management fees"?
  2. The $118 billion (i.e. more than 1000-times the bonus amount) that Uncle Sam paid to AIG actually went to "counterparties". These are politically well-connected firms. If we're going to impose punitive tax rates on retention bonuses, why not also impose punitive corporate taxes on the amounts paid to these companies? Or at least, insist on an ownership stake in these companies in exchange for payment?
  3. The pass-through payments are risible for another reason. The banks apparently didn't quite buy insurance for their portfolio. Instead, hedge-funds that shorted the housing market bought the insurance through the banks, and the pass-through funds are actually going to these hedge funds. That's who we have been supporting. We need to punitively tax hedge fund profits -- any fund that makes a profit is making a profit only because the tax payer has been shoring up the economy.
Just so it's clear: I think that the taxpayer will come out of this in a couple of years with profit. We do own 80% of AIG and will be able to sell the company on the market then. What I'm saying that if we are so outraged, we should insist on similar ownership stakes in banks in return for bailing them out.

So rather than be outraged at the AIG bonus, be outraged that Wall Street banks are getting 1000-times the money for free. Be outraged that dubious professions are collecting rent off our productivity.

Where's our Civilian Conservation Corps?

Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States (after the Grand Canyon, naturally). It was undeveloped, until the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a scenic road through the park. This was part of FDR's make-work programs, and when the park ranger was talking about the building of the park, I could not but think whether our generation will similarly use this depression to build a better country for our grandchildren.

Based on the stuff the stimulus bill is being spent on, not bloody likely. Anyway, this is the view of the canyon from the entrance to the park. You can see the park road winding through the valley.

To get from the rim to the bottom, there are several bridges and a couple of river crossings. You can see a couple of the bridges in the photograph. Pretty much everything about this road was hand-built.
The remains of the hall in which workers lived while they built the park. What you see is just the chimney. Maybe because I associate central meridians like this with the Taj Mahal, and because the Taj Mahal is a tomb, this is (to me) a wonderful memorial to hard-working depression-era men and their far-sighted leaders.
The actual memorial to the CCC is a simple room in the visitor's center.
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Palo Duro Canyon pictures

Cool pictures from Palo Duro Canyon that didn't make any of my other posts:



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Birds of Palo Duro

Some of the birds we saw at Palo Duro Canyon:

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An outdoor family

The reason we were out driving on potentially icy roads and camping out in howling winds is that the wife signed us up for a program called "Texas Outdoor Family". It's a really neat idea -- since many American families never spend time outside, the program tries to give families a safe way to try it out. They provide tents and other equipment, teach outdoor skills (including kayaking, which I would have liked to do, except that Palo Duro is pretty much a desert) and in general try to make the whole experience as non-intimidating as possible.

Anyway, the wife signed us up even though we are not exactly the target audience for the program (we do the camping thing regularly). She likes things organized and the program (which included nature trails, geocaching, etc.) was nothing if not organized. Any hesitation that I had about occupying spots that could gone to someone "more deserving" was extinguished quite quickly. It turned out that the poor weather had scared off a third of the families. And among the rest was: a graduate student who was studying environmental science and education (she was there to study the program), a park services employee (to see what sort of people came to a state park), a photographer for the local paper (to write a story) and a family in a RV (obviously not novices). But there were a few families in the target audience -- people from the general vicinity of the park who'd never spent a night outside before.

The planned activities turned out to be very, very good. The kids got to identify lots of birds. "15," said S1 when I asked. You can see him (red jacket) conspicously hanging back in this photograph so that no one would get the mistaken idea that he was a kid who had to be led around.
The thing that really got S1 going was the geocaching exercise. He grabbed the GPS unit once I'd entered the coordinates and led the way. Pretty soon, we were off the trail, and walking along a dry stream-bed. Finally, when it came time to rejoin the trail, S2 got a "walking-stick-up" from some who'd beaten us to the geocache. This camaraderie between the different families and park personnel was one of the nice things about the outdoor family experience.
The only rather surreal part was watching a Powerpoint in a park -- I was going to say I've never done that before, although we did have a lab retreat in a park/resort once, so I suppose I have.

The Powerpoint was on various animal noises we could expect to hear. We ended up hearing coyotes, owls and the damned wind.
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Why you would live in a dugout

One can get so spoiled living in nice, weatherproof houses! Over the weekend, we went camping at Palo Duro Canyon, a few miles south of Amarillo, Texas. The weatherman said it was supposed to snow on Friday, warm up a bit to 50-degrees on Saturday and really become nice by Sunday. Under normal circumstances, we would have postponed our trip, and left Norman on Sunday. But, for reasons I'll explain in my next post, it was not normal circumstances.

So, off we went, leaving Norman at 4am on Saturday morning. By then, the highways had been cleared, so we made good time. Still, the gorgeous winter-wonderland did give us pause: were we really going to pitch a tent on that?

The early morning light on the canyon was gorgeous and once you dress warm enough, there's not much of a difference between 30-degrees and 50-degrees.

Amazingly enough, the weatherman was right. It continued to warm up and by the next day, we had 72F, clear blue skies, postcard perfect views:

But before we could get to the next morning, we had to go through the night. You can dress warm for the cold, but it is hard to dress warm for the wind. And the West Texas wind howled louder than the coyotes on Saturday night. Makes one appreciate why early settlers in the region would decide to live in dugouts like this:

A brother is a bother

I took this picture because I recognized a very familiar dynamic unfolding:

The girl had just sat down on the pylon to read the paper in her hand. She was reading the paper when her brother streaked across the room and ... kicked the pylon from underneath her.

The same dynamic rules in our home too. S1, who's a thoughtful, easy-going kid as far as any one else is concerned, would have done the exact same thing to his sister. What is it about older brothers and younger sisters, I wonder?

More Jon Stewart Interviews

Jon Stewart's interview with CNBC host Jim Cramer reminded me why he's the best press/media critic out there now.

In case you missed it, he asked Cramer whether more investigative reporting, and less cheerleading, from the business press would have prevented the meltdown. Something along the lines of "you knew these guys were playing risky games with the 401(k) and pensions of ordinary Americans, yet you didn't call them on it". This is the last part of the Cramer interview:

Another notable takedown was of Jonah Goldberg, author of "Liberal Fascism". Jon elicits that Goldberg's beef is that people throw around the fascist word too much, setting him up beautifully for the sucker-punch "So you object to people throwing around the word 'fascist', so you write a book titled what exactly?"

And of course, the question he asked Cramer was similar to the question he asked Wolf Blitzer, on why the political press didn't ask hard questions in the lead up to the Iraq war:

Why is a comedy show host the only one who sees the deep unseriousness of American media?

p.s. See also James Fallows and Andrew Sullivan.

Editing to get at the truth

I posted the picture above to my Facebook profile and elicited a Wow! from a friend who's a pretty accomplished photographer. I wish I could have taken that photograph -- it's only the result of an edit job. The one below is what I actually took. As you can see, it's over-exposed and rather boring.
I kicked up the saturation a little bit, to give the grass a golden hue.
Then, I gave the sky an evening cast. Now, the grass was too bright, so I darkened it a bit, and ended up with the picture that leads this post.

Here's another picture from the Wichitas that I did some editing on. I whitened out the sky here and pumped up the grass in the foreground.

In my defense ... I feel that the edited photographs capture the sense of the prairie better than the unedited originals.
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Wild animals and wilder kids

The sight of this grazing bison far away spared us the indignity of making a trip to the Wichita refuge without seeing its most famous residents. This picture's my compensation for lugging along my telephoto lens and tripod! The day was so windy, however, that the tripod didn't completely solve the problem -- both the tripod and the grasses were swaying.
It was still winter in the refuge. Tree branches were bare and the water ice-cold.

Some pears had started to bloom though.

The second-most famous resident of the refuge: a prairie dog.
The prarie dog colony is behind a fence and several of the tourists were clambering over the fence and peering into the burrows."Did you see M- go up near the prarie dogs?," asked a proud father."Ya, it was so cool," drawled the mother in an admiring voice.

That kid's going to be giving the wild animals competition for a while yet.
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