Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pitch meets Snowy

Pitch is that black sticky stuff that builds up on circular saw blades. Once coated with sticky pitch, the blade slows down from the friction and is liable to grab the work and hurl it at you. Kickback it's called, and it is scary. Trees, having about a billion years of evolution to perfect their biochemistry, can make some really tough stuff. Pitch defies paint thinner, alcohol and WD-40. However there is an answer
Snowy Color Safe Bleach, a powder, comes in cardboard boxes. "Contains sodium perborate, sodium carbonate and sodium silicates". Works like magic. Fill a cookie sheet with hot water, add a generous amount of Snowy, and submerge the blade in the mixture. Only takes a couple of minutes and the pitch softens up and comes off with a little scrubbing with an old tooth brush.
Makes a blade cut like new.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

We, the body politic, has been slammed by a number of alarming "scientific" studies over the past few years. There was the "hockey stick" graph "proving" global warming, the Emory university prof book claiming that colonial Americans didn't own guns,and the Boston Fed study "showing" discrimination against blacks in the granting of mortgages, and a bunch of others. All of these "scientific" studies were later proved false, but only after serious damage was done.
Frazier Institute members B.D. McCullough and Ross McKitrick described these and other sham studies in "The Case for Due Diligence".
A key finding, in every case, the authors of the study refused to release their data and the computer program that analyzed said data, making it difficult to impossible to check the conclusions of the study. Only when critics made Freedom of Information requests, or sued, did the authors reluctantly release the data upon which their conclusions were based. In all cases, critics were able to show the data had been edited (contrary examples discarded) or the computer program had bugs in it.
The McCullough & McKitrick paper is good, but somewhat heavy going. Take away, don't place much trust in "scientific" studies unless other scientists have checked the data and programming. "Peer review" prior to publication in a scientific journal doesn't mean any one checked the work. If the conclusion is politically controversial, watch out and hang onto your hat.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Wall St clings to "dirivatives"

Way back on page c3 of today's WSJ we have a headline "Controlling Swap's Risk is Still Vexing". These are credit default swaps, a crude kind of bond insurance. The buyer pays money, the issuer promises to pay up if so-and-so defaults on his bonds. This is the security that last year, destroyed AIG, largest insurance company in the world.
The real problem with "swaps" is that all they do is sooth nervous bean counters on Wall St. The bean counter can buy securities from risky or walking dead companies, and tell his boss, "It's OK, it's insured." A good deal of money that could be financing real economic growth is siphoned off to placate bosses. When the market crashes, the swaps become useless because the issuers go broke before paying off the claims.
But Wall St loves them. According to the writer all will be well after a central clearing house for swaps is constructed. Good luck on that one.
Then there is this:
" Many financial institutions that are large sellers of credit protection are themselves facing crises of investor confidence. That's limiting swap trades in the broader markets because hedge funds and dealers don't know if the can count on their counterparties to provide the protection they need."
Well. Sounds like some of the Wall St suckers are finally wising up.

The end of college textbooks?

Heard this on NH public radio this morning. College textbooks will be replaced with E-books read on laptops. The advocates were making the usual happy noises about progress and change and whatever. I kept thinking about those awful no text book courses my children were subjected to. With a textbook, you have something to study from and to review before the test. Without a textbook, all you have is your own classroom notes, and memory. With a textbook, parents can help with home work. Without one, forget it. Far as I am concerned, teaching a course without a textbook is student abuse.
How long will e-textbooks last before the next release of Windows renders them unreadable? Or the coming hard drive crash erases them for good? I have college textbooks still on my shelf that served me well at work for better than 40 years. I've got a lot of e-stuff around that is no longer readable, 9-track mag tapes, 8 inch and 5 inch floppy diskettes for example. Won't be long before the 3.5 inch floppies go away too.

More Snow. Cannon gets 16 inches

Snowed all last night. It's deep and powdery. Skiing will be superb. And it's school vacation week too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Real Estate Market, down, but not dead

North country home sales for Grafton County NH (Littleton, Bethlehem, Franconia) and the St Johnsbury area in Vermont are down 20% from 2007. Prices are down about the same amount. According to the Smith Peabody Real Estate Buyers Guide (a freeby that turns up in your mail box now and then) 638 homes were sold in 2007 and only 514 in 2008, a 19.4% drop. Average price was $230,597 in 2007 and dropped to $182,107 for 2008, a 20% drop. That's bad, but not as bad as it might be. It's clearly a good year to buy, or at least better than last year.
The drop in home prices means anyone who bought last year with 20% down is underwater (or at least decks awash). Anyone who bought with less downpayment is deep underwater. Refinancing is not an option when you are underwater. Selling underwater means the owner takes a bath.
Surprisingly, the length of time a home is on the market hasn't changed much. It takes about 6 months to sell a house, a figure that actually dropped 6 days.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Homemade chicken pot pie

Comes out just as good as the frozen supermarket type. In a casserole combine chicken (cooked or raw), peas, corn, carrots, potato, onion, and mushrooms. The colorful veggies improve the eye appeal. Add one can Campbell's cream of chicken soup for gravy. Bake in the oven, covered, at 350 F until the carrots are getting tender. (Maybe 45 minutes) When the carrots start getting tender, add crust. Use Pillsbury biscuits, the kind that come in the round pressurized cardboard tubes, the ones you slice with a knife to open. Place a layer of uncooked biscuits on top of the chicken and veggie mix. Cook uncovered at 400F long enough to brown the biscuits. (about 12-15 minites). Comes out as tasty and good looking and virtuously homemade. Quantities are not critical, just fill the casserole fairly close to the top.

Snow, Cannon gets 12 inches of powder

It snowed all day yesterday and all last night. I had 12 inches on the porch this morning. Light fluffy powder. Doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Welfare for lawyers Part II

Lawsuits over the cancellation of the Navy's A12 stealth fighter program way back in 1991 are still going on. The amount of money is non-trivial, $2.7 billion for Boeing and $1.4 billion for General Dynamics.
Without going into the rights and wrongs, it is a scandal that US courts have been unable to settle the matter after 18 years. Justice delayed is justice denied. And want to bet all the lawyers are getting paid right on time, with your tax dollars?

Canada goose brings down A-320

The dramatic crash of US Air's flight 1549 into the Hudson River was indeed caused by bird ingestion by the engines. According to Aviation Week, the Smithsonian Institutes' Feather Identification Lab has identified the "DNA matter" from both engines as that of Canada geese.
Canada geese weigh 5.8 to 8.7 pounds, where as the engine is certified only against a 4 pound bird strike. Plus, the certification only requires the engine not to explode, not to shuck turbine blades thru the cabin, and not to fall off the wing. There is no requirement for the engine to keep running after a bird strike. Flight 1549 had the extreme bad luck of ingesting birds into both engines, shutting down both of them and turning the A0320 into a glider.
Captain Sullenburger and his crew deserve the highest praise for getting the plane down in one piece and getting the passengers off safely.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bailing out GM

One of GM's problems is too damn many lookalike brands. According to Fox, GM currently makes 64 different brands of cars and light trucks. GM plans to cut the brand count down to 36 over the next four years. What GM has been doing is selling the same car under different brand names. This is counter productive. When you sell the same vehicle under the Chevy and under the Caddy name, buyers get the idea that there is no difference between Caddy and Chevy. Bad idea. Pretty soon they demand Caddies at Chevy prices.
Besides, selling the same car under different names runs up the cost (you have to do the documentation over) and dilutes the advertising. Better to run more ads for the same product than advertise the same car under 4 or 5 different names.
Right now the market supports about 12 different car types, sedans, pickup trucks, SUV's/minivans, and sports cars. Offer each of these in small, medium and big, and you have 12 car types. GM ought to drop all the brands that are just duplicates, and then pick the best selling 12 brands and drop all the rest. It would save money and improve sales. And do it now, not over the next four years. Give the 12 survivor cars some of the good old brand names.

The view from the airlines boardroom

Quotes from an Aviation Week Editorial written by Gorden Bethune, retired chairman and CEO Continental Airlines.
"It's embarrassing for Transportation Dept ideologues to push slot auctions as the solution to congestion and flight delays. "
Sorry. It isn't embarrassing, its realistic. No airport can handle more than 60 flights an hour. When more than 60 flights an hour are scheduled in or out, your plane will be late, or diverted to another airport. It's that simple. We need a fair system to assign airlines to slots. An auction sounds fair to me.

"Government must finance the FAA and ATC modernization equitable, not on the backs of ticket prices".

Why not pay for aviation facilities out of a tax on airline tickets? Again, sounds fair to me.

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be"

Over at the Scratching Post there is a post, talking about liar loans and how it is the responsibility of the borrower not to lie to get one. Maybe. In my book the banker is supposed to safeguard depositors funds by not making loans to people who won't be able to pay them back. We place our money in the bank, with the expectation of it being there when we need it. A banker's first responsibility is to safeguard other people's money, not throw it to the four winds.
People are fallible. Offer a nice house to people and most of them will take it, even if they cannot afford it. The temptation is just too much. And that's what liar's loans (mortgages with no proof of income) are, pure temptation. I like to think that I could resist such a temptation, but let's be real. Most people, myself included, will yield to a strong enough temptation.
Why did the banks make sub prime and liar's loans and alt A loans? Because it was risk free for the bank. The banks sold these dodgy mortgages to the bigger suckers in the market, especially to Fannie and Freddie, but later on even to Wall St brokerage houses. The current Great Depression II happened when the suckers wised up or went broke (Fannie and Freddy), leaving the banks stuck with junk.
We need banking reform to prevent this from happening again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bi Partisanship

Watched "Washington Week" with Gwen Ifill last night. They spent most of the half hour discussing "bipartisanship" over the porkulus bill that passed the Senate a couple of hours before the show went on. Little discussion of the bill's contents, or the likelihood of it staving off Great Depression II, the talk was all about "bipartisanship". The panel seemed to feel that, despite all but three "Republicans" voting against the bill, bipartisanship was live and well, and somehow desirable.
Me, I feel this bill wastes money that ought to go to job creation on pay offs to political cronies. Only 11 percent of the money will be spent in 2009 when it is needed, and only a third of it funds job creating activities. The Republicans, rightfully, voted against it en masse, so the result is clearly the Obama/Democrat bill.
That's partisan, and we need that kind of partisanship right now. The voters deserve to have a choice at election time. They have one now, you like the porkulus bill, vote democratic, you don't like porkulus, vote republican.

The Dam Busters

Turner Classic movies played this delightful WWII period piece the other day. I hadn't seen it since childhood. The movie was made in England, right after the war. The story is one of those incredible how-did-they-ever-pull-it-off tales. Dams are the hardest of hard targets, being solid piles of concrete, off of which ordinary bombs merely bounce. Brilliant aeronautical engineer Barnes Wallis comes up with an absolutely weird plan to crack the dams, with a bomb light enough to be carried by existing aircraft. Somehow Wallis convinces the RAF to take him seriously and devote the considerable resources needed to execute. It was a all British show, no American assistance on this one.
The movie is full of lovely British details. The doors of the Austin staff cars slam with a tinny clang quite unlike the bank vault "kachunk" of Detroit iron. Wallis's cottage has a ledge around the living room to give room for a collection of decorative bottles and vases. My grandmother's house in Montreal had the same ledge and the same bottles. The flying photos are all done with real aircraft (the movie was made early enough that the WWII aircraft were still in service) rather than models or CGI trickery. Shots of four engined bombers skimming across the water at only 60 feet altitude, or taking off in formation, are impressive.
Great flick.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What do Republicans believe in? Part II

In addition to free enterprize, Republicans believe in sound money and secure banks. Today's Great Depression II was kicked off by bonehead lending courtesy of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. Federal deposit insurance from Great Depression I secured the banks against total failure, but, given seventy years to do it, the ever ingenious bankers have invented whole new ways of loosing money. To limit the damage these morons can do, the FDIC ought to crack down/regulate the riskiest of these schemes.
Firstly, we need to subject all the banks to the same set of regulations and regulators. Right now we have real banks, credit unions, stock brokers, investment banks, thrifts, brokerage houses, savings and loans, "Government Sponsored Entities" (aka Fannie and Freddie), money market funds, insurance companies, and God knows what else. Each little group has their own regulations and their own regulator. The stock broker's regulator, the SEC, is totally worthless as far as consumer protection goes. The others are probably little better. Step one is to treat all these "financial service organizations" (aka banks) the same. Write one set of regulations and have one Federal bureau to enforce them. Make sure the regulators and enforcers are accountants not lawyers.
Second, regulate the risks that taxpayer insured banks are allowed to run. Anyone who wants to run bigger risks, doesn't get insurance, and cannot call itself a bank. Forbid any dealing in secondary mortgages. No mortgage backed securities, no selling mortgages to brokerage houses or other suckers. No credit default swaps (aka bond insurance). No buying/selling of commodity futures.
Third, tighten up procedures. Each loan requires a signed statement from the responsible officer explaining how the borrower will be able to make the payments. If the loan goes sour, fingers can be pointed. Each security purchase to have a similar statement explaining why the responsible officer thinks the security will pay off when due.
Then we can do some fun stuff. No corporate aircraft. Bonuses and dividends to be paid ONLY out of profits. No profit, no bonus, no dividend. Require bank to retain cash reserves equal to 10 percent of all outstanding loans, just in case some of the loans don't get paid back.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Water Projects, Franconia NH

The state Department of environmental services has been on Franconia's case about water quality. The water is somewhat acid, which eats the pipes and fills the water with zinc and iron corroded off said pipes. Plus the water pressure is lower than they would like. They fear that under heavy demand, say a fire, water pressure would drop below zero and suck ground water and sewage back into the drinking water. The current Franconia water system dates back to the 1930's, and so replacement now, after 70 years, is not totally unreasonable.
Franconia's budget meeting last night revealed the plans and costs to us citizens. They plan to install a big 350,000 gallon storage tank up on Cole Hill road, and replace the water mains from the new tank thru out the downtown area. We are talking about a 12 inch water main here. The project will cost $3.8 million. One million to be contributed by the state, the rest borrowed on a 30 year 2.75% loan from the state. Annual payments of $64,000 are required to service the debt. Town water bills will rise 23% to pay for this AND the town real estate tax will go up $0.18 per thousand, so everyone has the opportunity to contribute, even if they don't use town water.
If approved at Town Meeting in March, detailed engineering will start. Bids will go out 1 August, and accepted 15 September. Construction is expected to start immediately after bid acceptance. The project is supposed to finish by December 2010.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Wheels for Daschle

How did Daschle get assessed $80,000 a year for use of a chauffeur driven Caddy? Brand new, a Caddy Deville lists for only $43K. You ought to be able to hire a decent chauffeur for $30K a year. That's only $70K assuming they bought a new Caddy, and crushed the old one, every year.
Me of course, would never think of letting anyone drive me to and from work. Out on Rt 128, I want control, I don't want some flunky deciding whether or not to take the breakdown lane to pass that semi. I'd feel the same about rushhour DC traffic.
That's two things that don't quite add up. The price for a chauffeured Caddy is kinda high, and what kind of real guy would not want to drive himself?
Australia's newspapers are still covering Iraq. They bring this horrible story to light. Al Quada's "mother of female suicide bombers" a 50 year old, recruited more than 80 women over her disgusting career. What's truly awful is the method. She arranged for the women to be raped, and then, after the victim's feelings of self worth had been destroyed, she pursuaded them to give their lives for the Jihad.
The "mother" was arrested by Iraqi police and confessed in a video taped interview.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Six out of eight constititional amendments...

Concern education in the state of New Hampshire. And none of them do what needs to be done. Up until a few years ago, Kindergarten thru 12th grade New Hampshire education was run by the cities and towns and financed off the property tax. Then the state supreme court "re interpreted" the state constitution. The Supremes decided that the state must insure equality of opportunity by insuring equal amounts of education funding all over the state. The state had to come up with extra money to subsidize the lower spending towns. To do this, the state now demands that the cities and towns send local property tax money to Concord, where it is divvied up according to a complex, opaque, and controversial formula.
Net result, my property tax goes up, cause of the money sent off to Concord. Concord first skims something off the top and then sends the remainder somewhere, not back to my town.
What we need is a constitutional amendment to put things back the way they were before the Supremes "reinterpreted" the constitution. None of the six amendments before the house do that.

Judd Greg, please stay home

We New Hampshire voters need Judd Greg in the Senate. The Commerce Secretary job offered by Obama is a paperwork job, much less important than serving as Senator. I hope Mr Greg turns down the cabinet post and devotes his considerable talents to supporting the citizens of his home state.