Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas 2009: Wow, it really worked this time!

After numerous disasters (Christmas 2007, for example, was the worst day of my entire life), irritations, and disruptions, we finally had a Christmas go right. It went well enough that I no longer officially hate Christmas.

We drove up to Alexandria on the 23rd, set up our tiny hotel tree, and wrapped presents. We took out the boys one at a time on XMAS Eve, Adam first. They opened their presents, then went about their usual Alex routines with us. Next year, we'll take Toby out first. He was very upset when we got to Home Deopt and it was already closed. He took a HD book back to school with him a couple of weeks ago and had me draw a Home Depot, so I suspect he had built up a HD visit in his mind for a while. It crushed him when we couldn't do it. Everything should still be open in the morning next year. We repeated the routines on Christmas Day, though we could only take them to the hotel and not to any of their other places, all of which were closed. After we returned Toby to St. Mary's on XMAS Eve, DW and I bought pizzas for the overnight staff at St. Mary's, delievered the pizzas to the school, then drove to Natchitoches, Louisiana, for that town's spectacular lights display. They've been at it for 83 years, and it's quite a sight--and it's well worth a holiday visit to Louisiana. I'm just saying.

Posted by Picasa

The Boy Tree at our house. I gathered up all of the plush toys we've taken from the claw machines at WalMart and used them as ornaments. The crowning touch is having Bat-Man serve as the star, a suggestion DW made.
Posted by Picasa

The Girl Tree at our house. It's pretty and elegant, and DW added more color to it this year.
Posted by Picasa

DW brought home a little WalMart one day, and shortly thereafter I became attracted to the WalMart Cowboy Christmas village and its saloon, outhouse, and windmill. I'd never put up a village before.
Posted by Picasa

DW and I visited Celebration in the Oaks in New Orleans City Park this year. Major fail. The lights looked like they were purchased at WalMart or Target, and half of them didn't work anyway. Celebration in the Oaks used to be a big deal, with fabulous light displays and other seasonal junk. Now it's like a dinky county fair. So sad. Thankfully, we saw Avatar just before we went there, so the evening was a net gain.
Posted by Picasa

My best seasonal photo of Toby has him choosing the perfect cereal on Christmas Eve. He bought Cookie Crisp, which I had to eat after he left it at the hotel.
Posted by Picasa

Adam opened his own presents this year, for the first time ever. He usually could care less about them, but he kept a few for himself this time around.
Posted by Picasa

Adam and I saw this unattended fire engine outside one of the local WalMarts during his post-holiday home visit. He had some fun with it. No, I didn't open the door and turn on the sirens and lights, but that doesn't mean I didn't want to.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fools and Their Money

Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe: How an Ingenious Tribe of Bankers Rewrote ... Made a Fortune and Survived a Catastrophe Fool's Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe: How an Ingenious Tribe of Bankers Rewrote ... Made a Fortune and Survived a Catastrophe by Gillian Tett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've done a fair amount of reading about the Panic of 2008, and Gillian Tett's "Fools Gold" explains the exotic investment instruments at the heart of the panic better than any other work I've read. A group of derivatives traders at J.P. Morgan created commoditized credit default swaps in the early 1990s as a way to move risk off the company's books, freeing up capital for lending and investment that otherwise would need to be held in reserve. Morgan made payments to AIG, which assumed the risk that Morgan's assets would go into default. Derivatives traders at other firms began assembling securities backed by subprime mortgages, trying to put together instruments that would be just risky enough to obtain returns but safe enough to obtain AAA ratings. They then paid AIG to assume the risk of the mortgages underlying those securities going bad. However, many institutions kept what they thought were the least risky of these mortgages on their own books, as they could not obtain much in the way of returns on the securities that they would back. The whole thing was unregulated by government, and the ratings agencies were easily bamboozled into turning poo into gold (as it turned out). As the cruddy mortgages went bad, AIG began to take on water. When the less risky mortgages went bad, the financial institutions themselves sank.

Interestingly, J.P. Morgan did not get into the business of mortgage backed securities. Morgan's mathematicians could not put together a risk model with the kind of integrity to which they were accustomed. First, they had no data on what could happen if real estate values ever declined. Second, they had no long-term data on default rates for the kinds of subprime mortgages that proliferated in the early and mid 2000s. Moreover, Morgan/Chase chairman Jamie Dimon pushed the concept of a "fortress balance sheet" containing rock-solid assets on which the bank could rely if things went to hell. Dimon pushed Morgan's derivatives traders to investigate getting into the business of mortgage backed securities a couple of times, but, consistent with the notion of a "fortress balance sheet," he accepted the traders' reasons for staying away from that business.

The book contains a brief account of the events leading to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy that turned a situation into a panic, and concludes with Tett's cultural analysis of U.S. and U.K. investment houses.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, September 07, 2009

How did Kazakhstan get me to Logan, Utah?

Your humble correspondent spent a few days last week at a knda, sorta family reunion (my favorite kind of reunion) in Logan, Utah, and the better part of one day in Rexburg, Idaho. This was an entirely people-centric trip, meaning that I did not go hiking in the Bear River Range or any other local adventures in which one cannot participate 'round these parts. Also, one of DW's old friends left open the possibility of getting together for dinner. With such a short turnaround (Friday-Tuesday), I thought it best not to make any meeting arrangements with my own Utah friends. DW's friend crapped out on us, but that may have been for the best, as it gave us a free day.

Present at said reunion were gentle readers Bill and Karen, along with Superbaby Sammy, guests of honor gentle reader KA and her family, DW's other siblings, and DW's parents. KA's DH recently took a position at the Agency for International Development, and he will be posted in Kazakhstan. As we know from one recent motion picture, Kazakhstan is friendly to Americans:

KA's DH is an agricultural economist by profession, so I am looking forward to photos of the Kazakhstan branch of the family, decked out in native costumes, standing amidst amber waves of grain. Anyhow, their imminent move to Kazakstan for a couple of years led us to have a gathering.

The most fun person to observe at this mini-reunion was gentle reader Bill, who came to town and bought two cars in one day. And he and gentle reader Karen signed on a house in Idaho that morning. It was fun to follow Bill's odyssey as he went to the dealership and back a few times until he and Karen obtained the right two cars. Talk about taking a plunge.

On Monday, DW and I drove up to Rexburg, Idaho, where one of DW's sisters had a baby as the rest of us were reunioning in Utah. Rexburg's welcoming sign is just a bit aggressive as to every other town in the United States--"America's Family Community." I'm sure most of the people there are very nice, but I kind of formed the impression that the town itself looks as if it's 1955 and built to stay that way. DW attended college there for one year, and she confirmed that it looked exactly the same as it did 20+ years ago. It might be interesting to set a cultural anthropologist loose there. But not in my SIL's neighborhood, which is jarringly new when compared to the town we drove through to get there. We had a great visit up there and hated to leave.

Anyhow, that's my Utah trip in a nutshell.

Monday, August 17, 2009

iGoogle Experiment

I discovered iGoogle yesterday, G's customizable home page. There is a gadget for blogger, so I placed one on my page. Also, I may move from hotmail to gmail, but I'm not sure about that one yet. The one advantage to gmail is that it will push e-mails instantaneously to my iPhone, instead of having to have them pulled via a third-party app. Also, I had to replace my Apple Mobile Me calendar with a Google calendar recently in order to sync my laptop and iPhone reliably (Mobile Me for Windows is ridiculously bad). Interestingly, Google uses Microsoft's Exchange servers for sync, while Microsoft itself will not use its own Exchange servers so its Hotmail and Windows Live subscribers can sync to their iPhones. Gotta love companies that don't play nice together.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mad World

Season Three of Mad Men commences on Sunday night. We just finished Season Two on DVD. IMHO, the second season put this show on the level of the best television shows in history, right up there with The Sopraons, Seinfeld, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Can I Run for President Now?

In the interest of full disclosure to my fellow Americans, I have reviewed my copy of my original birth certificate, exactly as it was presented to me, black-outs and all. My middle name at birth is blacked out, so it could be Muhammad or Hussein. Moreover, the certificate doesn't indicate my race or religion, so it could be that I was born a Black Muslim. However, my pasty skin and blue eyes, and the apparent absence of mosques from Somervell County, Texas, in 1962 would seem to call into question these possibilities. But, hey, someone will need to lean on the Denton, Texas, 16th District Court to gain definitive answers to any questions about my middle name, race, or religion. I've given you all that I can. Now, can I run for President when Obama becomes ineligible for reelection in 2016?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Puddle of Evil

DW and I watched the first two seasons of Damages in marathon sessions stretching over one week. Glenn Close stars as Patty Hewes, New York's most celebrated plaintiffs' lawyer. Hewes is openly ruthless, but few know just how ruthless she really is. The show opens with a seemingly naive new lawyer, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), taking a job with Patty, in order to help common men and women fight for justice against big, evil corporations. In S1, those evil corporations are personified in the character of Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Frobisher has a jolly exterior, but he is utterly ruthless and amoral on the interior, just like Patty. Frobisher's lawyer (played by Zejlko Ivanek) is Patty's nominal adversary, but Frobisher is the real adversary of S1. Patty sues Frobisher on behalf of his former employees after his company collapses in an accounting scandal, a la Enron. As the suit progresses, the main characters drag themselves down deeper and deeper in a puddle of evil. Ellen is compromised with surprising ease, but she rationalizes her actions as a necessary evil in Patty's crusade for the common folks. Patty and Frobisher, meanwhile, will stop at absolutely nothing to come out ahead. Murder and official corruption are not above these two eeeeevil people. Everybody, it seems, has a hidden agenda, and most of the characters are thoroughly rotten.

Damages plays like a kind of 24 for s-m-r-t people, in that there are unexpected plot twists galore. Also, there are three or four storylines moving along simultaneously--some present, some past, some future. The storylines merge nicely towards the end of each season. The production values of this show are first-rate; the tinting and texture of the past and future scenes distinguish them from the present ones, though the producers added temporal subtitles in S2 (e.g., "6 months later"). Some scenes were filmed with handheld cameras, giving them a jumpy, neurotic quality matching the characters' mental state. The writing is excellent, but the quality of the acting really holds the show together, IMHO. Glenn Close and Ted Danson are over-the-top mean and evil, though both appear to be reasonable professionals to those who don't know them. Close and Ivanek took home Emmys for Season 1, and Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Timothy Olyphant all managed to hold their own.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I like the phone

I didn't realize there was a person on the other end until I watched the video.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Classic

I've had a few first viewings of movies recently, and I've had recent repeat vieweings of what, IMHO, were the best films of 2007 and 2008 respectively. Rather than write them all up separately, I'm going to take them all in one post.

Slumdog Millionaire is, at its heart, a romantic drama. This made me shy away from it at first; I'm usually not keen on romantic pictures (though one could argue that Casablanca falls into that category, and I certainly dig that one). Also, I wondered whether the movie would ignore the reality of the slums from which the slumdog protagonist came. I'm not one to have my nose rubbed in injustice and inequality, but sugarcoating offends me.

My initial wariness about this film turned out to be unwarranted. Slumdog Millionaire brilliantly and boldly walks a fine line between pathos and fantasy as it tells the story of a boy and a girl who fell in love as children, lost each other, then found each other again after the boy found himself on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The protagonists (Jamal Malik, his brother Salim, and their friend Latika) are Indian Muslims who are orphaned after a Hindu mob kills their mothers. Jamal (Dev Patel) falls for Latika (Frida Pinto), who is taken by a local gangster. Jamal rescues Latika, only to have her taken away and, presumably, raped by Salim, who murdered the gangster, and went to work for a second gangster. Jamal gets Latika's attention years later by getting himself on TV. He becomes a national hero as he answers questions correctly and Indians of all stripes make him the vehicle of their individual aspirations. In the end, boy gets girl and there's a fabulous production number at the main Mumbai train station.

The movie does not minimize poverty, violence, or injustice--or, for that matter, enhanced interrogation techniques--nor does it emphasize them to the point of preachiness. Kids grow up in slums all over the world; some get bitter and cynical and go outlaw (Salim); some work legally and hang on to their dreams (Jamal). And everybody roots for the underdog.

Slumdog Millionaire is a nice film to watch on BluRay. It is very colorful and vibrant, and some of the actors are attractive enough to want to see them in hi-def.

My DW is a big Dan Brown fan, so, as a matter of public record, I liked Angels and Demons a whole hell of a lot. That out of the way, it was a pretty average movie, and, like the film version of The Da Vinci Code, shows that some visual images that work in the imagination on the written page do not work particularly well on the silver screen.

IMHO, There Will be Blood was the best film of 2007 and The Dark Knight was the best of 2008. I recently viewed both films for the first time since the Panic of Fall 2008. The last couple of scenes of There Will be Blood, in which a crazed, wealthy oilman self-destructs, now seems an apt metaphor for the end of an era of dangerously self-indulgent, unregulated market capitalism. The Joker's wild anarchy in The Dark Knight, driving the citizens of Gotham into a state of utter panic, doesn't really seem so far-fetched in light of the near-collapse of the financial markets and the the near-panic of the pig flu--and this after the movie raised provocative questions about privacy rights and the lengths to which a civilized society can go against malefactors before we become malefactors ourselves. One point that Hurricane Katrina, the Panic, Al Qaeda's insanity, and some elements of our reaction to terrorism have driven home to me is that the veneer of our open, law-bound, refined, wealthy civilization that we've spent centuries pasting on top of the Hobbesian state of nature is thinner than many of us would like to think. The Dark Knight makes this point without being didactic or obnoxious about it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Barbarians? On Wall Street?

Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've been on a tear reading about smart people who do stupid things with other peoples' money, so I downloaded this classic to the Kindle and read it very quickly. RJR/Nabisco's President Ross Johnson was obsessed with his company's undervalued stock and with living the high life, and he hit on the idea of arranging a leveraged buyout. He evidently figured that a lowball bid would let him continue running the company as he saw fit. After he announced the idea to RJR's board, all hell broke loose. Johnson's team ended up losing out to Kohlberg, Kravis, and Roberts--in part because the company's board wanted to be rid of Johnson--and Johnson pretty much had run out of enthusiasm for the deal anyway (paying $112/share would mean a lot more cutting back than $75/share would). This book reads like a novel, with egos, ulterior motives, deceipt, grudges, broken friendships, and greed galore. The final sentence of the new edition of the book sums it up nicely: "you couldn't make this stuff up."

View all my reviews.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Yet another kid picture post

I got so bored at a recent school fundraiser at which DW and I were in charge of arranging bowls and mugs that I spelled out the honoree's last name (Greco) with coffee cups.

A loves the penny arcade at the mall.

T is over his fear of the zoo train. Maybe we'll get him to ride it next time we go.

I'm still decompressing from T's recent move crisis. He was moved from his mini-group home "pod" onto a regular dormitory with no advance notice to us. I was furious and immediately went into lawyer mode. It took a couple of weeks to get everybody together and straighten out everything. T's behavior warranted a move, based on the information I got after the fact, but it would have been easier on him had we been able to go up there and help transition him from one place to another. T still sees A on a regular basis, and the direct care workers on the dorm are being trained in Applied Behavior Analysis techniques for working with T (somthing that will help other kids who are not yet in the Autism Center program). Hopefully T's behavior will improve enough that he can move from the dorm into a group home when a new one opens up.

Waterboarding--all the cool kids are doing it!

Does Shepard Smith think he's on MSNBC now?

I've paroused the John Yoo torture memo--the most important one of the lot--and it's hilariously bad. No wonder the Bushies wouldn't let it be seen by skeptical lawyers in Bush's own administration.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

And I thought bridge was an old ladies' game

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street by William D. Cohan

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I began reading financial journalism on a semi-regular basis during the Enron collapse, and began watching CNBC after the panic last fall. I have absolutely no background in business or finance, but the ups-and-downs of the markets fascinate me. Given my lack of any background, I know whether a particular book or article is well-written based on whether I can actually understand it.

William D. Cohan's "House of Cards: A Tale of Wretched Excess on Wall Street" ranks with Bethany McLean's "The Smartest Guys in the Room" as an accessible work of business writing that is so well put-together one doesn't want to put it down. Cohan's book is the tale of the late Bear Stearns & Co., which went from being the fifth largest brokerage house in the U.S. to being flat broke in ten days during March 2008.

The book takes its title from a peculiar aspect of Bear's corporate culture--its long-time CEO Jimmy Cayne was a championship level player of the card game bridge, and Bear entered teams in high-level bridge tournaments. Indeed, Cayne was off at bridge tournaments during key crises in the collapse of his firm and couldn't be bothered to return to New York.

Cohan's book opens with a riveting blow-by-blow account of the ten-day collapse of Bear and its ultimate forced absorbsion by JPMorgan Chase at the behest of Treas. Sec'y Henry Paulson, Fed. Chmn. Ben Bernanke, and N.Y. Fed. Pres. Timothy Geithner. Cohan then provides a history of Bear and its overbearing, colorful leaders, most importantly Cayne and his predecessor Ace Greenberg. Bear was unlike its rival firms in its contempt for family pedigrees, MBAs, and strategic planning. It was the street urchin with a huge chip on its shoulder, and the firm's strategy was simply to make lots of money. Bear's corporate culture was very much like a mens' locker room, and the firm had clients that other Wall Street firms viewed as unsavory. Bear's employees were loyal to a fault, and its leadership team rarely changed, with the dictatorial Greenberg and/or Cayne running the show. Greenberg and Cayne lacked formal educations in finance themselfves and they tended to hire based on instinct rather than credentials. All of these factors led to a firm full of very specialized moneymakers, with nobody really understanding the full scope of the business or the risks inherent in some of Bear's operations.

Bear pretty much originated the infamous mortgage-backed securities, and the firm went heavy into debt obligations backed by subprime loans. Once those became near difficult to value, they could not be sold. Cayne did not understand much of anything about these securities, and he fired the one person in the firm who really did shortly after two of Bear's hedge funds collapsed due to plunging values and outright fraud.

Rumors about Bear having too many illiquid assets and not enough capital began spreading on the Internet in early March 2008. Cayne was off playing cards, and then-CEO Alan Schwartz was off in Florida at Bear's annual media event. Neither understood the gravity of the firm's situation or the likely effect of the rumors in an already jittery market. The rumors turned out to be largely true--although the firm had a large cash cushion, it was nowhere near enough to take a massively leveraged firm (Bear's leverage was usually around 50:1) through any crisis of confidence, which is exactly what followed. Redemption calls were fast and furious; short sellers (some perfectly legit) drove down the company's stock value; other firms (notably Goldman Sachs) refused to stand as counterparties for their own clients against Bear; and the overnight lenders who financed Bear's day-to-day operations stopped lending to the company. A loan from the Fed to Chase (a regular bank with access to Fed funds) to be loaned to Bear (an investiment bank with no access to Fed funds) had exactly the opposite effect it was supposed to have ("oh my God, they're worse off than I thought!" instead of "well, now they've got the money and time to sort things out"), and, one day later, forced negotiations began with JPMorgan Chase.

Cayne and other Bear muckety mucks were interveiwed extensively for the book, as was current Treasury Sec'y Tim Geithner. The book is well-sourced and well-written, and Cohan doesn't pull punches even as to the major contributors to his work.

"House of Cards" shows how thin was America's veneer of hyper-prosperity, much as Hurricane Katrina showed how thin is the veneer of the infrastructure of our advanced society, and much as the release of the torture memos showed how thin is the veneer of our supposedly evolving standards of decency. I seeem to like veneer today; anybody for a patina instead? When it comes down to it, we're never far away from a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish, and short.

View all my reviews.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Boilerplate Husband

DW saw a number on her caller ID this morning that she thinks is the local LDS bishop's cell number. The LDS Church has policy requiring the permission of a husband for his wife to accept any significant church assignment. IIRC, this is set out in the Church Handbook of Instructions, but it's been a while since I had a copy of that publication, so I could be wrong. Anyhow, I drafted this to take care of any possible consent issues in advance:

I, R, do not accept the premise that my consent or permission is necessary for my spouse, C, to accept any calling or assignment, or to do any action that is not illegal or, though perhaps technically legal, is an action that would shock the conscience of a reasonable citizen of those states of the United States whose public policies are in agreement with my own policy preferences. In the event of any action that is illegal or that would shock the conscience of a reasonable citizen of those states of the United States chosen by me, I disclaim in advance any knowledge of, or consent to, any such action, unless such action would further my own personal interests.

However, in accordance with the policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I hereby declare that I agree to C holding any calling in the Slidell Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that she chooses to accept. Should C does not wish to accept a calling but does not wish to declare this wish, then I do not agree to her accepting any such calling. I hereby consent to C invoking this species of non-agreement at her discretion.

I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the foregoing is true and correct. Executed on 29 March 2009

She laughed, then folded it up and put it in her purse. Of course she won't use this document, but maybe she'll show it to some of the women of the ward who possess a sense of humor.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Res Ipsa Loquitur

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
IndigNation! Populist Uprising '09 - The Enragening
Daily Show Full EpisodesImportant Things w/ Demetri MartinPolitical Humor

Leave it to Fox to have a reporter so naive as to not realize he is suggesting that conservatives want to perform a particular sex act on the White House.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Basic Cable Brouhaha

Jon Stewart's war with CNBC should reach its apex tonight when Jim Cramer appears on The Daily Show.

Monday, March 09, 2009

"Fire!" Wait, didn't I just say that?

Ugh! I guess it's not so bad that I've only planned my upcoming fence project and haven't actually started construction yet. Also, I used the garden hose to build a little lake in the woods behind our house, so we're protected in case this fire gets close enough to be a problem for us.

Airplanes plan to fly over forest fires in St. Tammany today
by The Times-Picayune
Monday March 09, 2009, 8:11 AM

Airplanes will fly over forest fires that have been burning in Slidell and Mandeville as soon as the fog lifts today to make sure the fires remain contained, said state Department of Agriculture and Forestry District Manager Kirk Casanova.

Firefighters worked through the night to bring the fires under control, Casanova said. So far, they have burned about 1,200 acres of timberland in Slidell and about 400 acres in Mandeville, he said. No homes have been affected by the fires, he said.

The first fire broke out near the Slidell Airport and the Bellaire subdivision. Firefighters started fighting that blaze Saturday around 11 a.m. and stayed until about midnight, when it appeared to be under control, according to department spokesman Sam Irwin.

They left the Slidell site to focus on the Mandeville fire, north of Fontainbleau State Park off U.S. 190 and west of Louisiana 1088, Irwin said.

But the winds blew hard and the fire near Slidell jumped the fire-break and continued to spread before it was again contained, he said.

Casanova no arrests have been made in the fires, but the investigation is continuing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

1960s Redux

NYU student gentle reader Bill informs me that the 1960s have come back to life at that school. These people don't really seem to know what they want, but they can take over a cafeteria. What's next, actual hippies in Haight-Asbury?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Narcissism and the Panic?

Bloomberg ran an opinion piece today about how narcissistic Ivy League MBAs killed Wall Street because they were too self-confident and trusting in their risk models. There may be something to that; the great book on the Enron collapse is titled The Smartest Guys in the Room, and, IMHO, the recent panic has rather a lot in common with the Enron collapse. However, I've also read that the risk models were adequate for evaluating the risks of individual security products, but did not take into account that CDOs, default swaps, and the like were really a chain of dominoes. All it took was a dip in the real estate market to start the dominoes going.

What I always wonder in the wake of ginormous economic collapses is why so few people seem to want to take a look under the proverbial hood, check out the engine, and ask the question, "how do these people make so much money?" It seems pretty basic. Actually, it is a question that Warren Buffet considers, and he will not put his money into anything he can't understand.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Puddle of years

Good gracious, gentle readers; this blog turned five years old on Thursday. I suppose I might have a moment of self-doscovery were I to read all my posts from 2004 forward, but I don't really have the time.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Congress on YouTube?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

ABA in One Week?

This CNN article gives a pretty decent basic explanation of applied behavioral analysis, which is the most widely used autism intervention methodology. Based on my personal experience, I really have to wonder whether this ABA therapist was able to turn around this girl's behavior in a one week intervention. I vividly remember the day it took five adults to restrain both of my boys during in-home training, and A. still managed to bite a chunk of flesh from the psychiatrist. Moreover, most experts I've read speak in terms of years.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A cheer for the new guys

I just looked at the summary of the the Obama administration's disabilities plan. Autism is the only disability that is singled out for special attention. I suppose that's a good thing.


"We must build a world free of unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination.... policies must be developed, attitudes must be shaped, and buildings and organizations must be designed to ensure that everyone has a chance to get the education they need and live independently as full citizens in their communities."

-- Barack Obama, April 11, 2008

Barack Obama and Joe Biden have a comprehensive agenda to empower individuals with disabilities in order to equalize opportunities for all Americans.

In addition to reclaiming America's global leadership on this issue by becoming a signatory to -- and having the Senate ratify -- the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the plan has four parts, designed to provide lifelong support and resources to Americans with disabilities. They are as follows:

First, provide Americans with disabilities with the educational opportunities they need to succeed by funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, supporting early intervention for children with disabilities and universal screening, improving college opportunities for high school graduates with disabilities, and making college more affordable. Obama and Biden will also authorize a comprehensive study of students with disabilities and issues relating to transition to work and higher education.

Second, end discrimination and promote equal opportunity by restoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, increasing funding for enforcement, supporting the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, ensuring affordable, accessible health care for all and improving mental health care.

Third, increase the employment rate of workers with disabilities by effectively implementing regulations that require the federal government and its contractors to employ people with disabilities, providing private-sector employers with resources to accommodate employees with disabilities, and encouraging those employers to use existing tax benefits to hire more workers with disabilities and supporting small businesses owned by people with disabilities.

And fourth, support independent, community-based living for Americans with disabilities by enforcing the Community Choice Act, which would allow Americans with significant disabilities the choice of living in their community rather than having to live in a nursing home or other institution, creating a voluntary, budget-neutral national insurance program to help adults who have or develop functional disabilities to remain independent and in their communities, and streamline the Social Security approval process .


President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to supporting Americans with Autism Spectrum Disorders (“ASD”), their families, and their communities. There are a few key elements to their support, which are as follows:

First, President Obama and Vice President Biden support increased funding for autism research, treatment, screenings, public awareness, and support services. There must be research of the treatments for, and the causes of, ASD.

Second, President Obama and Vice President Biden support improving life-long services for people with ASD for treatments, interventions and services for both children and adults with ASD.

Third, President Obama and Vice President Biden support funding the Combating Autism Act and working with Congress, parents and ASD experts to determine how to further improve federal and state programs for ASD.

Fourth, President Obama and Vice President Biden support universal screening of all infants and re-screening for all two-year-olds, the age at which some conditions, including ASD, begin to appear. These screenings will be safe and secure, and available for every American that wants them. Screening is essential so that disabilities can be identified early enough for those children and families to get the supports and services they need.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bizarro in Belgium

I was in an odd mood over the weekend, so I watched the weird, darkly comic In Bruges. The movie is about two Irish, London-based hitmen who are sent to Bruges to hide out and await further instructions. The mood is deceptively light at the outset, as Colin Farrell's character grudgingly follows Brendan Gleeson's character on a tour of a well preserved medieval city. The mood darkens when Farrell's character simultaneously unravels and falls in love. Farrell's undoing has to do with the consequences of his actions in a killing organization that has a moral code. Thus, the film ends as a sort of Catholic morality tale.

Astonishingly, Colin Farrell's acting holds this movie together. He is, by turn, witty, brutal, and vulnerable. He has a knack for comedy that I'd not seen before. Also, the guy can act when he wants to. Keep in mind that the characters in the movie are Irish, and they swear in an Irish fashion. The film may drop as many f-bombs as Scarface.. My impression from years of cussing and observing the cussing of others is that the f-bomb in Ireland is roughly equivalent to "damn" in the U.S. in terms of social acceptability. Whatever. I liked this bizarre, quirky film.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rough Birthday

T's 12th birthday was last week. He surprised us by singing all four lines of "Happy Birthday" to us. He picked up a copy of Kung Fu Panda during his last visit home, so we got him a panda cake. It was a hit.

We played games at Chuck E Cheese, as well as the usual beanie crane in the WalMart foyer. T was as interested in the mechanical dancing mouse as he was in the games, but he was terrified of the faux rodent when I took him up to it.

T's obsessive compulsive behaviors have increased sharply, and his ability to self-regulate has decreased proportionately. The newest obsession is La Quinta hotels, based on an ad on the back of Rand McNally. He loves the logo of the Sun, and he demands "Sun, please" whenever we pass a La Quinta. Alas, there is a new LQ close to the house and, worse, next to WalMart. The LQ thing has combined with his ongoing obsessions with elevators, airplanes, and McDonald's French fries. T's tantrums when his obsessions were not indulged were pretty bad, and it was deeply saddening to observe. I'm really not sure exactly how to address these issues--I'm not crazy about upping his meds, and I don't know that a nazi behaviorist crackdown would have much effect--not to mention that I'm constitutionally incapable of such a thing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Scary Fire

Shortly before 4 p.m. yesterday, DW yelled that there was a fire I needed to come out and take a look at. Sure enough, there were flames roaring about 25 feet or so back in the woods from our fence. By the time I got our garden hose stretched out to attempt to drench our fence, I noticed that the north wind had driven the flames much closer and that the tops of the trees next door were engulfed in flames. A commander from the St. Tammany FD was already parked in front of our house by the time we ran from the house. A fire engine appeared shortly thereafter, followed later by three more. The firefighters were able to get the flames under control before any houses were damaged, but, damn, it was a close call.

My back fence.

The next-door neighbors had the worst damage on the street; evidently some of their vinyl siding melted.

We were reassured by the sight of this truck parked in front of our house (in the background) when we ran outside.

I went out in the smoky haze this morning and noticed how far into the yard the flames actually spread. My back yard is dinky, and the house juts back into it, so the black spot in the grass isn't terribly far from our back bedroom.

It's still hazy on my block. We need a strong wind or a heavy rain to get rid of the smoke.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arrested for Aspergers? WTF?

An 8-year-old girl in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with Asperger's Syndrome was arrested and taken to juvie after acting out when her teachers would not allow her to wear a cow costume to a party. Yes, they jailed a kid over an effing cow costume! If I were her dad, I would go and bite those teachers myself.

New Age President?

Dreams from My Father Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Early in the presidential campaign, I read Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope," which made me like the guy as a potential POTUS. That book contains discussions of policy that are conventionally liberal in tone, but that touches "third rail" issues like faith and race in ways that suggest Obama is more open and thoughtful than the average politician, liberal or conservative.

"Dreams from My Father," first published in 1995, gives us great insight into Barack Obama as a person. The book is about race and inheritance, and it takes Obama from his upbringing in Hawaii (the least race-conscious state in the U.S.) with his white mother and grandparents, through his growing consciousness about race and his discovery of what it means to be black in America, through his community organizer days in Chicago, and to his first trip to Kenya and meetings with his father's African family.

Obama has the perspective of an outsider/insider on the African-American community. He was raised to be proud of his black roots--his grandparents were very open about race for people of their generation--but he had to study black history and associate with other African-Americans before he could really understand black America and become a part of it. It is, perhaps, from this experience of observation and study that Obama developed keen senses of detachment and insight. This guy had more self-awareness at age 33 than most of us can hope to gain in a lifetime--though I have to wonder whether a small child would have the feelings and insights that Obama attributes to his much younger self. Obama also appears to have keen insight into other people and their circumstances. Whether these traits will serve him well as POTUS remains to be seen, but a self-aware President is something we really haven't seen at all in the United States since, perhaps, FDR and Harry Truman.

Obama's absent father--an intellectually brilliant Kenyan civil servant--was built into a legendary figure by his mother's family. Obama as a child felt something of a burden to live up to his father's legend. His Kenyan half-sister Auma shattered the illusion of Barack Senior when she visited Obama in Chicago after their father's death. Obama writes that he would have laughed out loud after discovering that his father wasn't all he was cracked up to be. Now, I know from my own experience that most, if not all, men have a moment when they come to that kind of realization about their fathers--even if it is just the simple realization that our dads are humans and make human mistakes within a reasonable margin of error. But most of us are fortunate enough that our fathers are around to show us their flaws and foibles, and we don't know our fathers only from legends with which we are indoctrinated.

One theme throughout the book is the relationship of people to power. Obama's Indonesian stepfather had his independent spirit beaten out of him by the government of Indonesia; Obama observed political power on a micro level on the South Side of Chicago; and Obama's father simply failed to understand that power in Kenya was derived from connections to that country's then president-for-life, Jomo Kenyatta. According to Obama, it was in Indonesia that his mother had an insight about her then-husband and his relationship to power, and she packed Barack back to Hawaii when she feared that he, too, would be ground under by the powers that be in Indonesia. Obama's insights into the relationship of people to political power should serve him well as President, if only to help him understand and shape his behavior as the most powerful political figure on the planet-and to keep the reigns on the powerful personalities he has placed in powerful positions.

This is one of the best memoirs from a political figure I've ever read, perhaps because it was written before Barack Obama became a political figure. Whether the detachment and insight that are apparent in the book are useful traits in the Obama presidency remain to be seen.

View all my reviews.

A Disappointed Man

Jon Stewart's definitions of "disappointment" appear to differ from the President's.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Danger, danger! It's the President of the United States!

I made some comments about autism policy on, the incoming administration's super-cool interactive website (even people who don't like Obama should look at the site; it's like they took meetup, twitter, and blogger and applied them to national policy issues). Anyhow, now I'm on John Podesta's e-mail list. I noticed this today in my hotmail header:

Video: The President-elect's plan‏
From: John D. Podesta, Obama-Biden Transition Project (
This message may be dangerous. Learn more
Sent: Mon 1/12/09 4:51 PM

Does somebody at Microsoft not like Obama?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

My New Addiction

I still pretty much suck at it, but this game has dominated the past few evenings. I operate the controller and DW watches intently, looking for things I may be missing. I figure since we have a PS3, I might as well use it for its intended purpose instead of only playing DVDs on it.

Monday, January 05, 2009

New Year and Hoodie of the Apocalypse

Anno domini 2009 found your humble correspondent with a very nasty sinus infection that very neary slipped into pneumonia. I am somewhat better now, but it's unusual that all the antihistamines, decongestants, steroids, and antibiotics I've taken the past couple of weeks haven't killed the infection. I've bombed this sucker with every medication I can get ahold of, yet it persists.

I don't know how it slipped my mind, but every year my neighbors on both sides employ enough fireworks on New Years Eve to blow up a hypothetical bunker near, say, the Khyber Pass (note to Presidents Bush and Obama--contact my neighbors to follow up; they're solid patriotic Americans). I was bitchy about the pyrotechnics the other night--I felt like crap and, I'll admit, I've never seen the appeal in blasting off explosives to celebrate the opportunity to pretend that I'm going to make major changes to behaviors rooted deeply in my subconscious mind in order to avoid the consequences of those behaviors or to simply hope that I don't get dragged down by the crushing defeats we all suffer in everyday living and by my own character flaws (and there are some, though I don't care to get into that in a New Years blog)--as my plan was to bring A home on New Years Day, requiring an 8-hour round trip in the car. DW did manage to convince me that putting up with occasional fireworks show is a) a small price to pay for having good neighbors and b) a provision of the implicitly agreed upon Social Compact under which the citizens of the United States coexist one with another. Social Compact notwithstanding, I managed to accidentally set off my car alarm four times between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. on January 1; however, those accidental alarms were kept brief enough to provide plausible deniability in case of an accusation that I was violating the fireworks provision of the Social Compact.

We usually take A a new ballcap when we visit him or bring him home. This time I took him one that I purchased at Walgreens. He chose to wear a New York Yankees hat on our outings in Slidell, so what do I know?

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

--Revelations 6:7-8.

So A and I go to Walmart on the evening of New Years Day. It's colder than I expected, and my t-shirt isn't providing sufficient warmth given my head cold. A has his jacket, but I have nothing in the car. I take A into the menswear department and grab the cheapest hoodie I can find in the brief amount of time A will tolerate being inside the retail area of the store. It's got the word word "destruction" emblazoned above a tattoo-like image of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Hilarious, and a perfect match for how physically crummy I was feeling at the moment.