Sunday, March 30, 2008

How pledged are the pledged delegates?

So, Obama and Clinton get to the convention. It's still a tie. They have a first vote, and it's still a tie. Now, as the wheeling and dealing for the superdelegates proceeds in back rooms, are the pledged delegates still pledged? Use to be, back when candidates were selected at the convention, that delegates were ONLY pledged for the first vote. After that first vote, the delegates could vote any way they liked. If that is still so, the wheeling and dealing for the second vote will be something to see.

Friday, March 28, 2008

10,000 BC, a kid's action adventure movie

Let's get one thing straight, this is a kid's movie, with lots of CGI action. Being a still a kid at heart I took it in on the last day it was playing up here. Not a great mney maker, I shared a nearly empty theater with maybe three teen age couples. So I won't bother to discuss all those adult movie virtues like plot, characterization, message, acting, etc. The setting, long long ago in a history similar to that of Conan the Barbarian, has some possiblities. D'leh,the hero, is a member of backwoods and primitive tribe that lives in the high snowy mountains and prospers by hunting mammoths. The mannmoths are very good, big, shaggy, and dangerous looking. D'leh's tribe is raided by horseback riding bad guys who carry off to slavery D'leh's girlfriend. You can pretty much guess the the rest of the flick from there.
The makeup and costume departments don't do a very good job. D'Leh and all his people are burdened with really ugly black wigs, and powdery war paint that makes Boy George and Michael Jackson look suave. The costumes run to fur and leather and no tailoring at all. Everyone looks shaggy. shabby, and overweight. The wigs are dry, dirty, and dusty looking and make everyone look just awful. Plus it's hard to tell even D'Leh apart from the rest of the shabby members of his tribe. Continuity suffers.
And the prop department is just as bad. All the spears, even the one that takes down a mammoth, are light, flimsy, twisty, gnarled and lacking decent flint spear points. They don't look capable of stabbing a toad, let alone a bad guy or a mammoth.
The mammoths are good. The civilized bad guys use domesticated mammoths to haul the stone blocks for their pyramids. To kick off the predictable slave rebellion we have a really good mammoth stampede.
The writers manage to mess up a couple of promising scenes. As the bad guy starts to ravish the pretty heroine, she gets her hand around the hilt of his dagger. Before she can cut him a new one, the door bursts open, and the high priest, with body guards dashes into the room. Scratch one opportunity for heroine to show some spunk. At the climatic showdown between the hero and the bad guy, the bad guy attempts to get out of Dodge on his horse, with the protesting heroine thrown across his saddle. Something goes wrong, and both bad guy and heroine fall from the horse giving the hero his chance to get his hands around the bad guys neck. It is not clear, at least on a first watching, if the fall from the horse is caused by plucky heroine fighting hard, or just an accident.
Bottom line. A medium good kid's movie that could have been much better.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Buy the cheapest cables

Popular Science in an article titled Gadgetry's Golden Rule calls the fancy high priced cables for stereo, speakers, DVD players, TV sets and such, a scam. They recommend buying the cheapest cable you can find.
PopSci has this exactly right. The fancy gold plated connectors, the thick black rubber insulation, the color coding, all look cool, but don't conduct electricity any better than standard plastic, tin plated ones do. And once your system is plugged together, on the shelf or in the entertainment center, who looks at the cables?
I am an electrical engineer, done a lot of work on video, a radio amateur, and an audio video buff to boot. I have formal education and forty years of experience.
Start with speaker wire. Your speakers have an impedance of 8 ohms. As long as the speaker wire resistance is less than ten percent of that ( 0.8 ohms) the wire is doing all it can do to make the sound right. My handbook of chemistry and Physics give 0.4016 ohms per 100 feet for #16 American Wire Gauge (AWG) copper wire, the wire in ordinary lamp cord (zip cord). Put the speaker 100 feet from the amplificer, and you have 0.4016 ohms going out, and another 0.4016 ohms coming back, for a total resistance of 0.8032 ohms,. Round it off to 0.8 ohms. How many of us have a house that is 100 feet from end to end?
In fact, many of us have the speakers withing 10 feet of the amplifier. In that case, the cheap thin Radio Shack wire (#24) will be 0.2567 ohms over a 10 foot run.
The only thing you can do with speaker wire to improve the sound is to "phase" the left and right speakers. Make sure the plus terminals of the amplifier are connected to the plus terminals of the speakers. This way both speakers push and pull together, which improves the bass. If you have one speaker wired in reverse, one speaker cone is pushing while the other cone is pulling, which causes the two speakers to cancel each other out. The cancelation is never purfect, but it will weaken the bass a bit. If buying zip cord at Home Depot or somewhere, a brand of wire with a mark of some sort distinguishing the left from the right wire is nice to have. Type of metal, solid vs stranded, rubber vs plastic, the electrons don't care. Shielding does nothing for speaker wires, the signal in the speaker wires is very high (watts), the signals floating thru the air are microwatts, and nobody can hear interference that is a million times weaker than the music.
The other cables in the system, the ones with that funny RCA jack on each end, are no more critical than speaker wire. Since the signal level is very low, and the impedance are much higher than 8 ohms, the wire resistance just doesn't matter. The wire from your CD/DVD player is driving the amplifier, which is a 1000 ohms. Ten percent of that is 100 ohms. Any kind of wire is going to be way way less than 100 ohms.
Go with the cheapest cables and save money.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of marks and mortgages

"The underwriting of risk in the past few years has of course, not been too good". Ethan Penner writing in yesterdays Wall St Journal op-ed page. "Yet the outcry for systemic fixes from various constituencies has been dangerously off the mark. " "Another is to move away from securitization and and return to a portfolio lending model-- where for example the bank originating the mortgage keeps it (in its own portfolio of assets) rather than selling it to a third party (as in securitization). "
" The argument in favor of portfolio lending is based upon the notion that, unlike securitization, portfolio lending incorporates the discipline of 'skin in the game.' Since in the portfolio lending model, the loan's risk is not being transfered from the originator/lender, the underwriters will therefore be more careful."
Mr. Penner goes on to argue in favor of securitization of mortgages, which is what killed a lot of Wall St players in the last few months. At the end of the Op-ed piece, the Journal's editor notes
"Mr. Penner helped pioneer the application of securitization technology to real-estate finance as CEO of Nomura Capital".
In short, Mr. Penner made a lot of money creating mortgage backed securities, which have caused the credit crunch and may push the US economy into recession. Is such a man believable?
The trouble with mortgage backed securities is that no one (except perhaps the originator) as any idea of the risk involved. No bond rating agency can predict the probablity of the home owner failing to make his mortgage payments on time.
Classical Values has a really scary story about FBI agents with too much time on their hands.
Agents put up a website with links labeled as kiddie porn. Woe to the rube who clicks on one, he gets raided by the FBI. Now I don't really hold with child molesters, but getting raided, your computer[s] and papers confiscated, and your reputation ruined for just clicking on link is police state stuff.
Doesn't the FBI have better things to do with their time? Like catching Osama Bin Laden?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Moving assets off balance sheet?

Yesterday's Wall St Journal, talking about the future worth of financial stocks (which is doubtful) said "The big profit gains reported by many financial companies in receent years were magnified by borrowing and moving assets off their balance sheets...."
Does this make sense? Balance sheets contain assets and liabilities. Assets are good, cash in the til, money owed to you, things you can sell. Liabilities are bad, debts, money you owe to others, taxes, stuff like that.
Why move assets "off balance sheet"? I can see moving liabilities off balance sheet, like the money borrowed to buy sub prime mortgages, but why assets?
Or is this another accounting scam, like the $36 billion of imaginary assets that GM removed from it's books last fall? I suppose it was a good thing that GM 'fessed up and showed a $39 billion dollar loss last year, but just as aggravating is to find that GM had been padding it's books by putting imaginary assets on them all these years.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What's a mortgage broker good for?

Today's Wall Street Journal had a editorial piece speaking out against treasury secretary Harry Paulson's suggestion that mortgage brokers need more regulation and licensing.
Regulation and licensing? How about boiling in oil and drawing and quartering? Brokers are unnecessary middlemen who skim a percentage of the deal, for doing little to nothing.
As a borrower, I don't what a middleman, offering self serving advice, and misrepresenting me to the lender. As a lender, I need to learn two things, am I lending more than the property is worth, and does the borrower make enough money to make the payments. If I get either answer wrong, I am going to loose money on the loan.
Only a fool would believe anything a broker would tell him. A wise lender will learn the answers him self, so he is sure the answers are correct.
So who needs a broker. And if you don't need a broker, why bother the license and regulate them?

Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back

Lehrer's news hour had a piece about press coverage of the Iraq war. Several newsie pundits appeared, and pontificated about the goodness and badness of the Iraq war coverage. Turns out, they were really talking about coverage of pro and anti war politics back here in the good old safe US of A. The coverage none of them did, or even wanted to do concerns American soldiers in the combat zone. The professional newsies find that too dangerous, too uncomfortable, and too pro American to cover.
I had a relative serving in Iraq last year. The newsies didn't do squat to keep me informed of how he and his unit were faring. The only decent info I got for the entire year my brother was serving, was from his emails. The newsies didn't tell me where our men were, what they are doing, how they are coping, what units are engaged, what battles they have fought, victories or defeats achieved, heroic actions performed, decorations awarded, nothing. It was like our soldiers stepped into a black hole from which nothing comes out.
To hear newsies discussing how great their coverage was, when there wasn't any coverage at all makes me angry with the whole tribe of them.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Databases leak

Seems like the US State department's passport data base is leaky, at least Barack Obama's, Hillary Clinton's and John McCain's passport files have been looked at by unauthorized personnel. Is nothing air tight? Stores have repeatedly let customer records slip out of their data bases into the hands of identity thieves.
Does anyone want their medical records revealed to insurance companies, employers, or political enemies? Vote in universal health care and all our medical records will go into a federal data base. And from there, by accident, by hook, or by crook, they will be made public.

A democrat's wish list Part 3

Still working from Rahm Emanuel's op-ed piece. "Third, we must support the development of new energy efficient technologies that will make energy less expensive for consumers and businesses, help protect the environment, create millions of green collar jobs, and make our nation energy independent."
And a chicken in every pot.
With crude oil above $100 a barrel, furnace oil and gasoline approaching $4 a gallon, the private sector, the public sector and every Tom Dick and Harry in the land have all the incentive needed to save fuel or find new sources. Government subsidies aren't needed, the price of fuel will do the trick.
I note that Congressman Emanual is from Illinois. Want to bet he favors federal subsidies for ethanol from corn?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Smart Fortwo is a minicar

WSJ has a short review of a tiny weird looking two seat minicar from Daimler. Also has a weird name. No back seat, it's as tall as it is wide, tiny little wheels, a rolling joke for looks.
OK, so it's wierd, does it save on gas? Not really. Reviewer reports 32.4 MPG. Hell, my Cadillac Deville gets 27, what kind of gas milage is 32.4?
Is it fun to drive like the old VW bug? Apparently not, despite an advertised 70 horsepower (double that of the old VW) the reviewer complains of inadequate top speed. Then he explains that the automatic transmission (slushbox) doesn't select the right gear all the time. For a parting shot the reviewer laments the lack of power steering. Wimp.
Cost $12,235. I bought the Deville (used, but a creampuff) for $9000. What would you rather drive?

A democrat's wish list Part 2

The next wish on Rahm Emanual's list is universal health care, or if universal is too pricey, a half way step of health care for children.
Make more tax money available for health care and we will spend it, all of it, and cry for more. The US spends 16 percent of GNP on health care which is four times military spending. American made products cost 16% more just to pay the worker's health care. We already spend too much on health care. The cost is wrecking the US economy.
As recently as 1980, US health care was only 8 % of GNP. Is our health any better in 2008 after doubling the money put into it? I think not. Rather than pouring more money into the health care sector we need to cut the cost back to where it was in 1980. Or even lower.
Fingers have been pointed at the legal community for malpractice suits, the drug companies for outrageous prices, legislatures for loading health insurance with mandatory coverages and forbidding competition, and health insurance companies for paperwork that makes the La Brea tar pits look transparent.
So far the doctors and their union have escaped much criticism, but they bear a substantial responsibility for the explosion of cost. They prescribe expensive treatments freely, thinking that the insurance companies will pay. They demand expensive technology that does little, such as the fetal heart rate monitors which have done nothing to improve infant mortality.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A democrat's wish list

US Rep Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois) writing on the OP ed page of yesterday's Wall St Journal said, "In an era in which you earn what you learn, Americans should no longer be allowed to drop out of school at age 16."
Oh really? Do you remember doing high school? I do. It was cool. Hanging out with buddies, flirting with, going steady with, girls. Cruising American Grafitti style for real. Making out. Football. wood shop and photography and auto shop. Drag racing. Wouldn't miss it for the world. Best time of my life.
So, given the enormous attractiveness of US high school, a kid who wants to dropout is not getting much out of the experience. Is forcing that kid to sit thru another two years of something he doesn't like going to help him? or help the school? or the broader society? I think not. Sixteen is old enough for a kid to make up his own mind about his future. Especially if his parents consent.
At sixteen a kid is old enough to work construction, work the family farm, drive a delivery truck, work a production line, fix cars, build computers, do a lot of things. If later in life that kid figures out he needs the high school diploma, he can get a GED for putting in a moderate effort.
So, we should counsel the kid, explain the benefits of a diploma, urge him to reconsider, follow up on the kid after he does drop out. But for a kid that wants out, especially if he is going to work, or even if he is just heading out to deal drugs, forcing him/her to stay in school is bad. Bad for the kid, bad for the school. Liberty means letting people do what they want. Sixteen is old enough for liberty.

Ford's latest better idea

Picture of the new Ford Flex, a 7 seat SUV shows one really ugly car. It combines the worst looks of the Honda Element (a mini Hummer) and the retro Austin mini car. For extra class we have two tone paint (blue body, white roof) , the Gillette razor blade grill, and fore and aft sheet metal crinkles in the doors.
The article discusses Ford's new advertizing campaign, and shows some graphs comparing saleability of Ford, Chevy and Toyota. Ford and Chevy are close, but way behind Toyota.
The car is so ugly that it's gonna take one hell of an advertising campaign to sell it.

Rocket Man

Townhall has a full page color picture of Iranian president Amadinejad standing in front of a brand new rocket. The photo is sharp and clear, and the English language labels on the rocket can be read. "SUPPORT HERE", "SUPPORT BAND" and the access hatches neatly numbered "16" and "13". How come an Iranian rocket is labeled in English? Did they buy the whole thing from an English speaking supplier? and who might that be? Pakistan? Surely Russians, North Koreans, French, Germans etc, would have stenciled the labels in their own language? Or could the rocket be home built by a bunch of Iranians who learned their technology and their English at American universities? I have no answers, just interesting questions.
Amadinejad, wearing a light suit and turtleneck, is posed in front of 16 other guys, likely the development team for the rocket project. They all have beards, and half of them are wearing dark glasses. There are three military officers, in uniform, one in a white naval officer's cap, an Army man in olive drab but dressy fatigues, and a pilot in a green flight suit. Got a couple of guys in tribal dress and turbans, and the rest are wearing suits or sports coats, shirts open at the neck.
Photo, courtesy of AP/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi is well composed, well lit, nice camera angle (low, looking up to emphasis the height of the rocket. Diameter of the rocket appears to be only 3 foot, no bigger than the ancient German V2, but it looms tall and imposing in the picture. Does ISNA stand for Iran State News Agency? AP has been burned in the recent past by fauxtographs from Al Queda photographers. Makes you wonder just how this picture got from Iran into AP's hands.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jeremiah is not a bullfrog, he is a toad, Part 2

I watched Barack Obama, live on Fox news, attempt to head off the Jeremiah Wright disaster.
Obama delivered his usual masterful oratory. He deplored Wright's incendiary sermons, talked about his upbringing and family, talked about the ugly history of recism in America, talked about a lot of good sounding things. But he did not repudiate Wright. In fact he compared Wright to an old family member, and said Wright had done good things for his parishioners. According to Obama, the good in Wright outweighs the bad.
Well, that's loyal of Obama, but it surely casts doubt upon Obama's judgment of people. If he hangs around, and hangs onto, superstitious, lefty, hate mongers like Wright, what sort of appointments would a President Obama make, to the cabinet, the courts, and the bureaucracy?
Video clips of Wright calling upon God to damn America, blaming 9/11 upon us the victims, and spreading the superstitious rumor that AIDS was created by the CIA to kill off blacks, put Wright beyond forgiveness. In mouthing these outrageous smears and slanders, Wright is hurting his own parishioners. The "blame everything on Whitey" idea sucks life and ambition out of many American blacks. If it's all Whitey's fault, then what good does it do to strive to make a better life for yourself? Thomas Jefferson had it right, "All men are created equal". Those who believe in Jefferson are motivated to work hard and pull themselves up the social and economic ladder, because they figure to make themselves the equal to anyone in the country.
Wright is undoubtedly a charismatic and charming man, but his ideology is destructive. Obama seems to value Wright's charm and charisma and put up with his ideology. Do I want a president making appointments on the same basis?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The bandsaw

A small step on the road to the completely equipped wood shop. Already I have a radial arm saw and a drill press. I've been watching Craigs list and Ebay for a good used bandsaw that would let me cut curves and resaw thick wood down to thinner wood. This calls for a machine of some size, not one of the little bench top units. And, as usual, price was an object.
The best price on a new bandsaw was $399 for a 14 inch Delta at Lowes. So, when a used 12 inch Craftsman turned up I had to check it out. So, with snow still falling, I ease the Deville out of the garage and drive down to Alton NH, a very small town way out in the Lakes region. I93 is clear and drivable, but the back road to Alton has been frost heaved badly, bumps deep enough to bottom out the springs and bang your head on the head liner at only 35 mph. Plus they haven't plowed the snow yet.
Found the place (google maps worked yet again) and the owner is expecting me. The saw is medium old, and dirty, but it runs, blade stays on the wheels, and wood is cut. So I write a check, we take the machine apart. The base goes in the back seat, the works go in the trunk. The back seat leather cringes at the shower of dirt and rust flakes.
Back home in my warm dry shop I start the cleanup. WD-40 loosens the rusted bolts. Rubbed around with a rag it makes the sheet metal look better. Shop vac sucks 20 years of crud and sawdust out of the nooks and crannies. I find the the dataplate with the Sears model number, and lo and behold, the Sears web site still lists the model and some parts are still available. A posting on Old Woodworking Machines ( draws a reply stating that this model was on sale new back in 1987. So, it's twenty years old for real.
A belt pulley is loose because a locking key is missing, and the built in worklight has a strange looking burned out light bulb. A visit to Franconia Hardware yields the missing key and , after the owner rummages around, the light bulb. It's the last one in stock, and apparently it has been on the store shelf for a long time, waiting for a buyer. Franconia Hardware stocks everything.
Today I'll put it back together and see if it still runs.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jeremiah is not a bullfrog, he is a toad

Watched the tapes of Jeremiah Wright ranting over the weekend. He said 9/11 was the fault of the United States, not Al Quada, he claimed AIDs was developed by the CIA in order the kill off American blacks, and he finished up by calling upon God to damn the United States. This makes Wright a disloyal, hate mongering, superstitious lefty in my book.
Obama has been attending this fruitcake's church for twenty years, Wright officiated at his wedding and baptized his children. How much of Wright's hate, treason, and superstition does Obama buy into? If he doesn't buy any of it why does he attend? Obama has been calling for an end to American black/white conflict, and a coming together of all Americans. Wright is a plain old fashioned hate monger. Where is the real Obama? Does he really believe what he has been preaching on the stump, or does he secretly share Wright's views?
It's too bad. I liked Obama a lot up until the Wright thing broke. Now I have doubts about where Obama's heart is truly located.

What the car you drive say about personality?

Dr. Helen Reynolds derides the idea here. She is correct that automobile marketers will at the drop of a hat, explain how buyers of their car share a long list of wonderful character traits. The Toyota Prius hybrid is used as an object lesson. Prius owners are said to be creative, expressive, noble, thoughtful inventive and a lot of other feelgood things. Obviously Prius marketing is working over time here.
On another level, there is a difference between guys and girls tastes in cars. Certainly this reflects some real personality differences between the genders. Unmarried guys like to drive big flashy hot rods. Big engine, extra chrome, mag wheels, painted in bright primary colors, sharp styling, stick shift. Once married, the wife will tone done hubby's automotive tastes. Women like small[er] cars, could care less about the engine, extra chrome and mag wheels. They like muted pastel colors, styling doesn't matter much, and they demand automatic transmissions.

Guys are willing to spend money on cars rather than on clothes, whereas with girls it's the other way round. Guys fancy clothes are quite restrained, dark suits, white suit and tie. No jewelry except wedding and college rings. Girls fancy outfits are much more flamboyant.
All this must reveal some deep inner gender based personality difference. To bad nobody has ever figured out just what it is.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Congress Shall make no law...

Highly illegal prayer was occurring in public schools as late as 1962. The founding fathers routinely violated separation of church and state. Religious content of George Washington's speeches did irreparable harm to the early republic.
Stephan Waldman issued all these remarkable untruths on Vermont Public Radio this morning. He is yet another radio pundit displaying his ignorance of US history. The Constitution actually says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise there of." Nowhere does the Constitution call for "separation of church and state".
At Constitution signing time, those words were directed at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which actually had an established church, the Puritan church (later called Congregational, and now the United Church of Christ) . Established means the Puritan church at rights at law denied other churches and received Commonwealth funding which the other churches did not. Massachusetts had prevented the free exercise of religion by executing Quakers on Boston Common in the not too distant past. Those practices were to be outlawed for the new Federal government.
In recent times, left wingers, aided by unwise judges, have expanded the original meaning to include banning Christmas decorations on town squares, banning the Lord's Prayer during opening exercises in public schools, and banning the display of the ten commandments in courthouses. Stephan the well educated Waldman, speaks as if the First Amendment supported the modern interpretation (distortion) ever since the beginning of the republic.
George Washington was noted for never using the the names God, Jesus, or Christ in his speeches. He always used the phrase Divine Providence, which is as non sectarian as you can get, even today.
How did Vermont Public Radio put such a dunderhead on the air, on Sunday morning no less.

Friday, March 14, 2008

How Boeing lost the USAF tanker contract (AvWeek)

Monday morning quarterbacking from Boeing. "There was a difference between what the Air Force talked about publicly and the way we read the Request for Proposal ," said Boeing's President Jim Albaugh. Sounds like the Boeing guys didn't get out of the office and schmooze with the customer. Airbus offered the A330 which is a bigger airplane than the 767 that Boeing offered. The Air Force has said they selected the A300 for the bigger payload and longer range. Boeing could have offered the 777 which is a big as the A330, maybe bigger but didn't. They also could have offered both airplanes but didn't want to fund two bid teams, and feared that two teams would compete with each other. That last doesn't make sense, competition is how you get a superior product.
Then Boeing didn't bid the well proven in production version of the 767. Instead they proposed an "improved" aircraft composed of a 767-200 fuselage, overwing exits from the 767-300, structural beefup from the 767-300F freighter model, and cockpit, tail section and flaps from the 767-400 ER extended range model. Speaking as an old USAF flightline maintenance officer, I'd rather have the straight commercial version so I can get parts from regular civilian sources and maybe even get depot level maintenance done at civilian facilities, and use civilian owned flight simulators for crew training.
Boeing's Albaugh claimed their pricing was as good as Airbus ($35 billion) for the first 179 aircraft. Industry sources say Boeing "was unresponsive" to Air Force requests for parts prices for fear that their airline customers could drive harder bargains once they knew what Boeing paid for things like engines.
Boeing lost the enormous F35 Joint Strike Fighter job to Lockheed, and now the tanker contract to Airbus. They had better get the 787 into production real soon now

Thursday, March 13, 2008

So How Much formadehyde is in FEMA trailers?

Lehrer's News Hour did a piece on formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers distributed after Katrina. It was a long piece, interviewed trailer occupants with health problems, lawyers, FEMA officials, and a consultant for the trailer makers. Not once in the entire piece did they tell us how much formaldehyde was found in the trailers. The level was "high" or "above limits" but never was a number for the actual measured amount given. To say nothing of how many trailers were measured. Nor was a government or industry standard given. Nor was the level measured in ordinary trailers sold to the public given. Lack of real numbers discredits the entire piece, if they really did the measurements, they ought to have written the results down and presented them. No numbers, no credibility.
Nor was the testing procedure documented. Were the measurements made with the windows open or closed? Instruments were calibrated how? Lab work was done by who? When was the lab certified last? Trailers were tested for what else besides formaldehyde? Cigarette smoke? gasoline vapors? Smog? Carbon monoxide? wood smoke? automobile exhaust?
Modern test equipment is so sensitive that it can detect a small level of anything nearly anywhere. I'm sure there is some level of formaldehyde from the plywood of which the trailers were constructed. For that matter I am sure there is a small level of formaldehyde from the plywood in my house. The question is, was the formaldehyde level high enough to be dangerous, not that it was high enough to be detected.
I expect the FEMA trailers were bought from ordinary trailer makers, who have made plenty of trailers before Katrina. I doubt that the Katrina trailers are any worse on formaldehyde than the trailers sold to the public. No formaldehyde measurements on publicly sold trailers were presented, but I'd bet they are about the same as the Katrina trailers.
The News Hour ought to be ashamed of presenting such a poorly documented and frankly biased piece on the air.

New rules to prevent another subprime crash

The Treasury Dept and the Federal Reserve bank issued a joint policy statement. Too bad the policy, as published in the Journal, is so vague and wimpy. They call for more regulation of mortgage lenders and brokers, but don't say what regulations were not enforced. They call for licensing of mortgage brokers, where as they ought to call for the total elimination of mortgage brokers. Brokers are middle men who take a cut, and con borrowers into signing bad mortgages. They call for ratings firms to rate ordinary bonds differently from "complex structured products". They should have eliminated the "complex structured products" because they are IOU's disguised as real bonds.
Issuers of IOUs (aka mortgage backed securities) would have to reveal if the mortgage borrowers had shopped around for a good credit rating. This is close to worthless. Of course the mortgage borrowers have attempted to get the best credit rating they can, 'cause it entitles them to a cheaper mortgage. And some credit raters are more generous than others, or are willing to take bribes for a good rating.
Treasury Secretary Paulson's closing quote. "We are going to be mindful when we impliment it to not create a burden. But we think it's very appropriate to lay out some of the causes and some of the steps that need to be taken... to minimize the likelihood of this happening again. The aim is to alter the rules and incentives that led to excesses that are now painfully evident--- years of lending and and investing at prices that didn't fully recognized the risks by institutions with inadequate capital cushions, the development of financial instruments so complex that even the most sophisticated didn't understand them, and a deterioration of lending standards. "

Let me rephrase Paulson's talk. "We will let you continue to make most of these shady deals. You need to charge more interest on loans, and you have to have a bigger rainy day fund to cover the shaky loans that go bad. The sophisticated investors didn't buy subprime mortgage bonds because they were so complex. The rubes were taken in and fleeced. And you issued too many mortgages to people with no income, no jobs and no assets ("ninja" borrowers).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fox News covers Eliot Spitzer like a blanket

Fox is running continuous Spitzer news. We have a live camera feed of the front door of Spitzer's apartment house, pundits wondering whether the resignation will be written or delivered live, commiseration with Spitzer's wife and children, speculation about criminal charges. It never stops. Apparently nothing else is going to happen today. Enormous verbiage and TV time to tell us that Spitzer is resigning. Actually they only need to tell us once every hour, rather than once every minute.

Franconia NH Town meeting

By state law, town meeting is the second Tuesday of March. I went. It was a scene right out of De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America". Citizens gathered in Town Hall, a modest frame building in a vaguely colonial style. Mostly dressed in bluejeans and winter boots. Ourside it was below freezing. There were 19 warrant articles to fund the town for the next year. We appropriated $29K for a new police cruiser, $126K to rebuild a fire truck, $70K to build a garage to get town equipment out of the weather, $71K to operate the town library, $269K to operate the town dump, excuse me, the transfer station. Dumps are politically incorrect. Even when they cost more than libraries.
Serious discussion of the town water system, improvements there to. The first article was $250K to put in water meters. After a number of probing questions from the audience, it developed that water meters are required by the Federal government, and Franconia was planning to apply for a federal grant of a few million to update the 1930 town water system. No meters, no grant. So, $250K blown on water meters. They had a guy from the State DES attempt to explain the need for meters, but he was unconvincing. Second article was $99K for a consulting engineering firm to draw up plans, price them, and do the grant applications. So, $350K expended in the hopes of winning a Federal grant of $3.5 million.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Air Force takes flack over Airbus tanker

Strategy page blog has a posting about the Airbus-Boeing competition. Boeing plans to contest the contract award. The Air Force is buying existing airliners, the Boeing 767 vs the Airbus A330. Both planes have been in production for years. Cost to buy, to operate, range, payload, and everything else is well known. There is no research and development money or risk, there is no logistics support, parts and service are widely available on the civilian market.
Airbus offered a larger plane. Boeing could have offered their larger 777 transport if they had been asked, or if they thought it was more appropriate to the mission. Or Boeing could have offered both aircraft and let the Air Force decide which size fits all.
Domestic content of the two planes is not all that different. The Airbus plane has American engines and a lot of American made parts in it. The Boeing plane has major subsections built over seas.
Air Force supplied reasons for the Airbus win boil down to the larger plane was more cost effective, could supply more fuel with fewer flights, which is pretty obvious. Air Force has not released the vital bid costs. Both aircraft are well proven, widely sold, commercially successful jet liners. Either would do a fine job as a tanker. Air Force should select the lower cost aircraft. So far, we don't know which plane was lower cost, the Air Force has not released the cost data.
Expect a long drawn out contest of the contract award, with plentiful fees for lawyers.

Clocks get smart, automatically switch to DST

I survived the great clock switchover. I have no mechanical tick tock clocks left in the place. The VCR and the computers were intelligent enough to know about daylight savings time and switch over by themselves. Wrist watch, Bose clock radio, and car clock had to be manually changed. Pretty soon the clocks will be in control...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Does insulating hot water pipes save electricity?

May be. February's electric bill was $104, down from $141 in January. Both months were cold. I've been gung ho on turning out un needed lights. The only thing I did differently in February was insulate the copper pipes running to the water heater. Used to be, the pipes were hot to the touch all the time, a sign of expensive heat leaking out of the heater thru the copper. I bought a $4 pack of plastic foam insulation sometime in January and snapped it over all the exposed copper pipe. If true, this makes a $37 monthly saving from a $4 investment. Something dropped my usage from 940KWH in Jan to 697KWH in Feb. Price didn't change, I'm paying $0.15 per KWH in both months. For this month's magic energy saving trick I'm going to insulate the big hole that runs my electric wires from the junction box into the sills of the house.

Horse Race coverage

The Lehrer News Hour was discussing the goodness of press coverage of the primaries. A couple of reporter/pundits held forth on the essential goodness of "horse race" coverage. "That's what people want to see". I'm sure the newsies love horse race coverage, because they don't have to know anything to do it. Just flip the election results up on the screen, and throw out a few opinions, (opinions are cheap, everyone has one) about why so-an-so won, and somebody-else lost. No knowledge of politics, history, issues, election law, or the candidates is necessary, just the plain election results, available from the state election officials for free, and a few cheap opinions. Anyone can do it. In fact, most working reporters are so ignorant of nearly everything that all they can do is horse race coverage.

Decent whiskey at a decent price

I find these whiskeys drinkable, smooth, tasty, and reasonably priced. Prices quoted are from the NH state liquor commission stores for a 1.75 liter bottle, other states will be pricier.
1. Scotch: John Begg, $16
2. Scotch: Ballentine $20-25 depending upon sales
3. Canadian: Canadian Hunter $10
4. Bourbon: Evan Williams $16
5. Bourbon: Old Crow $13

The taste of whiskey is a subtle thing, very hard to describe, so I'm not going to bother trying. I'll merely let it go by saying I find these brands very pleasant to drink. Ice and club soda improve the taste. I will occasional drink my whiskey with just ice, and never drink it without ice, but usually I add both ice and club soda.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Fannie&Freddie set stricter house appraisal rules

"The [new appraisal] code bars lenders and their representatives from pressuring appraisers to supply inflated estimates of property values" according to the Wall St Journal. Wow. In a nutshell how the subprime mortgage mess was created. Lenders with a deathwish.
Mortgage is a simple deal. The bank lends money to buy the house. If the borrower doesn't pay it back, the bank takes the house. This simple deal breaks down if the house isn't worth the amount of the loan. When the deal breaks down, the bank looses all the money it lent and is left with a house. If the house isn't worth much, the bank takes a loss.
The bank wants to do the mortgage, in a real world it's a safe investment that pays good interest. But when the mortgage is more than the house is worth, it changes from a safe deal to a very risky deal. The home owner can walk away from the mortgage and save himself money. Any bank that isn't stuck on stupid knows this. Pressuring an appraiser to raise his appraisal is guaranteed to create an underwater mortgage, one where the house isn't worth enough to back the mortgage.
How did the banks get so stupid? Simple, they found another sucker. Fancy Wall St banks and brokerage houses began to offer "mortgage backed securities". They printed IOU's and their salesmen declared the IOU's were safe because they were "backed" by all these mortgages owned by the issuer. The Wall Streeters then went out to all the real banks and bought mortgages to "back" more IOU's. The real banks loved this deal. Make a mortgage and then sell it for cash. If the mortgage is risky, who cares, I got my cash. If the house seller wants an unreasonable price, no problem. Pressure the appraiser to appraise the house at the seller's unreasonable price and make the mortgage. Sell the mortgage quick before the borrower defaults.
The wheels came off this scam last summer when a German sucker got burned so badly he went out of business. That wised up the rest of the suckers, and now no one will touch an IOU even if it is backed with solid gold. The financial pundits call this situation "a frozen credit market".
To prevent this mess from reoccurring we ought to prohibit the sale of mortgages. The guy who makes the mortgage has to hold it, and assume the risk, because he is the only guy who really knows if the mortgage is any good. If the maker owns it, the makers will only do mortgages that are likely to get paid back.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The world has plenty of oil (WSJ)

That's the title of an op-ed piece in Tuesday's Wall St Journal. It's something I'd like to believe, especially every time they deliver furnace oil, or fill up the car. To bad the author doesn't give any numbers that support his idea. The world is burning 86 million barrels per DAY right now. Emerging industrial superpowers China and India are going to increase that by a lot. But even this optimistic article (the writer is in the oil business) projects production of no more than 100 million barrels per day for the next 50 years. Demand is close to that today, and will surely far surpass 100 million barrels a day in a year or so. When demand exceeds supply, the price goes up until demand slacks off. That's why crude is at $104 a barrel now. Hold production level for the next fifty years, and the price will go up a lot higher.

Bernanke calls for FHA to offer Jumbo Mortgages

Fed Chief Ben Bernanke is worried about the housing market. The number of underwater mortgages (mortgage is more than the house is worth) rose from 2.5 million in 2006 to 6 million today, and it projected to go up to 14 million by then end of the 2008. Once the mortgage goes underwater there is a lot less incentive for the borrower to keep making payments. This is a disaster for the banks, 'cause it turns a mortgage into a piece of real estate worth a lot less. Mortgage holders that cannot make the monthly payments always attempt to sell the house rather than just mailing the keys to the bank. If the owner can't sell it, the bank won't be able to sell it either. Eventually the bank will dump the house at a really low price. The bank looses a barrel of money this way. A smart bank will deal with the mortgage holder so long as the deal saves the bank money in the end.
Bernanke was urging the banks to cut deals with mortgage holders. Then he veered off into a strange place. He urged Congress to raise the size of mortgage that FHA/Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, the quasi federal home loan business's can issue or guarantee. Congress originally felt that Federal home mortgage assistance should be limited to low and middle class home owners, buying low end to middle value houses. They put a limit of $400,000 and some change as the biggest mortgage the the feds can assist. That's a pretty healthy mortgage, in the trade they call it a jumbo mortgage. Why does Bernanke think we need bigger jumbo mortgages?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Down with Badge Engineering

Badge engineering is the practice of selling the same car with different badges (Chevy or Saturn or Pontiac or ...) under different names. For instance GM is about to launch the Chevy Traverse, a badge engineered Saturn Outlook. GM has four midsized sedans, Chevy Malibu, Buick Lacrosse, Pontiac G6 and Saturn Aura which compete with each other. Only Malibu is selling, the others are losing money. Toyota competes with a single model, Camry. Right now GM's problem is it has more good car names than it has good cars to give the names too.
Rather than selling four slight different cars, running four different ad campaigns, stocking four different sets of repair parts, and operating four different production lines, it is MUCH cheaper to build just one good car, build up it's reputation, get the price down thru economies of scale.
Car buyers aren't fooled. They know that look alike cars from the same company are actually the same car with a few trim changes.

Lithium Ion batteries or fuel cells for cars?

At the Geneva auto show, Bob Lutz, GM's new product guru, said lithium ion batteries might make a 300 mile range electric car possible. Lutz then said "If we get lithium ion to 300 miles, then you need to ask yourself, why do you need fuel cells?" Good point. The WSJ article did not talk about costs of lithium ion, service life, and the fire risk. There is video kicking around the internet showing a lithium ion powered laptop bursting into flames on a conference room table.
Toyota president Katsuaki Watenabi expressed concern about fuel cell costs, and the availably of hydrogen to fuel them. He said fuel cell cars are unlikely in the next ten years.
On the other hand Daimler AG's president Dieter Zetsche (Dr. Z) announced plans to product a fuel cell car in limited quantities by 2010. So not all hope for fuel cells is lost.

New CEO for General Motors?

GM has given Frederick "Fritz" Henderson the title of "President and Chief Operating Officer" with responsibility for GM's operations. The WSJ article doesn't define "operations" but one would it assume it means running the car factories and selling the cars produced therein. Rick Waggoner, the current boss at GM, would retain his job, title, salary, and retirement benefits and plans to work on "transformational issues" such as lobbying environmental regulations and new technology. Is this retirement in place? Making and selling cars is GM's real business. Everything else is a side issue.
George Fisher, GM's lead director said that the board viewed GM management as a triumvirate of Waggoner, Henderson, and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the new products man. Fisher may call it a triumvirate, but I'd call it a committee. Real companies are run by a single Chief Executive Officer, who can call all the shots without endless meetings to hash over policy. Is GM still a real company?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Professional vagueness from Harvard Law

Wall St Journal gave Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe a place on the editorial page to air his views on the Washington DC gun ban case (DC vs Heller). DC has a drastic gun ban law that prohibits all handguns except those owned before 1974, and requires all guns to be unloaded, taken apart and locked up at home. Heller, with some help from his friends, brought suit, claiming the DC law violated the right-to-bear-arms second amendment. Heller lost in the first trial, then won on appeal, and now DC is appealing to the Supreme Court.
Tribe, in a longish column manages to say the court should not rule in favor of second amendment and not rule against it either. This sort of flip flopping is what gave us the 19 year long Exxon Valdez case, discussed here. After throwing out some vagueness to confuse the reader, Tribe suggests the Supreme Court rule that citizens can keep long guns, but not hand guns.
Let's hope the Court is wiser than Tribe. Brushing aside all the legalisms about well regulated militia, federal bans on automatic weapons (Tommy guns), and assault weapons (whatever they might be) the core of the matter is simple. Many of us citizens want arms for personal protection, and we want handguns that fit in the cash drawer, in the bedside table, and in the glove compartment, loaded and ready to fire, just in case. And, a majority of ordinary citizens feel that the second amendment guarantees us that right.

State funded aid to Education Part 2.

Union Leader has unkind things to say about the latest "what-ever-it-is" from Concord. It might be a proposed bill, might be an advisory committee report, might be almost anything. According the the Union Leader, this new plan will take from the poor and give to the rich. Perhaps it is a follow on to this story from a few days ago.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who do want answering the red phone at 3 AM?

Hillary has been running this ad, up here where the primary was nearly two months ago. Does it help her even in states yet to vote? When I see it, I keeping that if the red phone rang I'd prefer John McCain to pick it up. He is an experienced combat veteran, unlike either Hillary or Barack.

North Country broad band

Union leader has an article here. Reporter[s] have little grasp of the real situation. The population density is low up here. The TV cable companies demand 15 households per mile before they will string a cable. It takes 15 cable bill payers to pay for a mile of cable. Here in Franconia we only have cable right close in to the center of town (Bob's Mobil station) and in Mittersill where there are 200 ski chalets in a tight cluster around the Mittersill Inn. DSL only reaches out 18000 feet from the telephone central office. Anyone farther away is out of luck.
For TV we have satellite. Those of us enjoying the rural life, far out from town, can get TV from satellite, so the incentive to run cable out that far is pretty much gone.
For broadband, the only thing that makes sense is wireless. A single tower can serve everyone for a 5-10 mile radius. The cost of that single tower is way way less than stringing cable all over the same area. There is a trial wireless operation starting up on Burke Mountain, and that is the way to go, not pounding on Comcast and TimeWarner and Fairpoint to run more wire.
Broadband has the potential to bring companies into the North Country. A lot of people, stuck commuting on Rt128 would love to settle down in the North Country to enjoy the skiing, the rural lifestyle, the mountains and woods. Any company operating up here can attract a wonderful staff of people who like being in NH. Broadband is essential to any kind of business now a days. If we build it they will come.

Shellac takes a shellacing

Old reliable wood finish, shellac, is getting put out to pasture. Walmart no longer even carries it. Trusty local hardware store (Franconia Hardware, great place, they have everything) had a few cans on the shelf, but none were really fresh and the oldest can had been on the shelf since 2003. Shellac ages, and after some time (label on can says 3 years) it goes bad and won't dry, or changes color and looks funny.
I'm going to miss shellac. Its the second easiest to use wood finish (Minwax is the easiest) . Its much easier to get a good clear finish with shellac than with varnish, even the latest and greatest poly varnishes. It also makes a fine primer sealer, just thin it down with alcohol and it soaks right into the wood and makes the paint go on better. It dries fast so you could get the first coat on, dry, and recoated in a single day. It used to be cheaper than paint or varnish but that is no longer so. Both shellac and poly varnish are now about $10 a quart. Brushes clean up with alcohol followed by soap and water.
The only drawback to shellac is that it dissolves in alcohol, so a spilled drink will make a mark, and it isn't weatherproof, you cannot use it out of doors. But give it a coat of paste wax, and it is plenty good enough for indoor work. I have a desk chair I shellaced 40 years ago and the finish is still bright and clear.
There is probably some high tech replacement, but stuff comes and goes so fast I cannot keep up.

Is money (in politics) really everything?

The TV news gives regular reports as to who raised how much money. I'll grant that raising money is a good thing. If they give money, it means they want you to win, or think you are going to win, both of which are good things.
On the other hand, HUckabee had no name recognition, and no money and he is still in the race. He has a lot more name recognition now than he did when he started. McCain, now the Republican nominee (barring an act of God) ran out of money last summer, had to lay off most of his campaign staff, but he persisted, and beat Mitt Romney who had a lot of money, good looks, and more name recognition than Huckabee had.
Based on this, McCain can beat Obama even if Obama can raise more money.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Live under regulation and then die

Good Union Leader column on the results of letting liberals take over the NH legislature.

44% of Americans change their church

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published this amazing figure. Could it be that this figure reflects a large number of interdenominational marriages? The married couple will attend the same church, which implies that either husband adopts wife's church, or vice versa. No way are husband and wife going to attend different churches, especially not after the first child. Since the couple was compatible enough to marry, it's fair to assume that their religious backgrounds are not too dissimilar.

A small step toward lower medical costs

The Supreme Court has just ruled that makers of FDA approved medical devices cannot be sued for faulty design. In Riegel vs Medtronic the court held that since Medtronic had jumped thru all the FDA hoops to get their device approved, the company may NOT be be sued for faulty design for the product. Passing the FDA approval process (which is a bear ) is proof that the device was correctly designed, because a large number of impartial (actually hostile) experts have checked the design and found it good.
One small barrier to the "deep pockets" theory of malpractice suits. Be sure to sue someone with money. Medtronics is a successful pacemaker manufacturer and has more money than the average doctor, so sue Medtronics.
We need to take this a step farther. Making and proscribing FDA approved drugs should not be grounds for a malpractice suit, even if the approval is later withdrawn. Drug Vioxx is the case in point here. The maker is fighting off law suit after law suit after the FDA withdrew Vioxx's approval. One of the reasons drugs are so expensive is that the makers need to make enough money to defend against every hungry lawyer in the country.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

USAF buys Airbus Tanker

Yesterday, the Air Force awarded the new jet tanker contract to Airbus. USAF will buy 197 A-330 Airbuses fitted with fuel tanks and a boom. Boeing was the only competitor, offering 767's for the tanker role. Big surprise to have a major aircraft program go to a foreign company. Details of the bids, like cost per aircraft, and overhead costs are not available to me yet. Perhaps Aviation Week will have something in next week's issue.
The current USAF tanker is the KC-135, a windowless version of the old Boeing 707, or perhaps the 707 was a KC-135 with windows. The Air Force bought 600 of the KC-135's in the 1950's and 1960's. Winning the KC-135 job fifty years ago had a lot to do with Boeing becoming the only successful maker of jetliners. The 707 and the KC-135 were very similar and were developed at the same time. Surely the Air Force work on the sister KC-135 made it easier to build the 707. The 707 and it's descendants account for Boeing's success in the jet liner business since 1957. Douglas, Convair, and Lockheed all offered jet liners back then, but Boeing's planes drove them all off the market. Since the first USAF tanker contract was so important to Boeing, it is reasonable to think the second USAF jet tanker contract might be just as important to Airbus.
Giving such a massive defense contract to a foreign company is unprecedented, up til now the US armed forces bought everything from rifles to aircraft carriers from American companies. The contract award is bound to be challenged in Congress and in the courts. It will be interesting to see if the award sticks. Also how long it takes to work thru the various challenges. If the courts work as poorly as they have on the Exxon Valdez case, the Air Force may not see new tankers until 2030. New tankers are needed, the KC-135 fleet is fifty years old. Well built as they were, fifty years is a helova long time to keep flying an aircraft. They have to be worn out by now.

Justice delayed is justice denied, Part 2

Back here I blogged about the 19 year welfare for lawyers Exxon Valdez case. This morning Vermont Public Radio ran an indignation piece about the same case. Only, VPR's indignation was directed at Exxon, who "lacked a corporate conscience" and "did not support the community", and is still contesting the court awards.
Not so. It is the duty of the courts to resolve disputes between parties. Allowing the Exxon Valdez case[s] to remain unsettled after 19 years is dereliction of duty on the part of the courts. Every judge in this disgraceful case should be impeached. A real court can made a decision that sticks, and make it on time, not two decades later. Obviously this case was not heard in a real court but a mickey mouse court.
It is the duty of corporate managers to make money for their stock holders. It is violation of management's duty to throw corporate money around rather than pay it out in dividends. Exxon management decided to spend for 20 years of lawyering which resulted in couple of billion dollars reduction of the company's fines. The judges allowed it to happen. Exxon sized up the courts and saved a good deal of money by correctly deciding that Mickey Mouse was the judge.