Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A New Culture of Money (updated)

Sometimes it's hard to believe how much time an investor can spend reading business reports and opinions without finding anything of quality. Most of it is just news media fluff and cheerleading, performed by sex kittens; or Debt, Doom, and Gloom sermons performed by old bald white guys in bow ties. And yet, we are so much luckier than just a few years ago, thanks to the internet.

The Mainstream never considers anything fundamental: it only cares about how quickly the country can get back on the wrong track, that is, Business as Usual. Outside the mainstream, fundamental issues do get questioned, but at the expense of a kooky element. By that I mean an outlook that is emotional, moralistic and scolding, and fixated. For instance, I sympathize philosophically with gold-bugs and the Debt & Doom types, but I seldom follow their financial advice. Still, I'm glad they're around to counter the conventional drivel and group-think of the narco-Keynesian mainstream. An individual investor -- like Machiavelli's Prince -- must deal with the world as it is, not as it should be.

But I'm happy to run across an article about something that should be talked about everyday: the culpability of ratings agencies (Moody's, Standard and Poor's) in giving AAA ratings to debt instruments that were pure junk. It offends everybody's common sense notion of fair play when a rating agency is paid by the firm that it is rating, so why does such an outrageous conflict-of-interest continue?

The thing that interested me most in the above link was that China now has its own ratings agency. The all-important question is whether this Chinese debt rating agency becomes listened to and followed, at the expense of Moody's and Standard & Poor's. If so, American junk debt culture could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Wall Street gets paid on the basis of how many dollars of transactions take place, so obviously an honest ratings agency would throw sand in the gears and become the most hated institution in the financial world. Why shouldn't the government play a direct hand in the ratings? Even a Small-government man like me doesn't want BP to be in charge of testing its own gasoline pump gage; that's why there's a sticker on the gas pump that says that some government inspector has verified that a gallon is really a gallon.

Maybe a government agency's rating of debt risk would be compromised by the revolving door relationship between government agencies and a subsequent, more remunerative, career on Wall Street, lobbying for the same corporation that he was supposedly regulating a few months earlier.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Choosing a Retirement Town

When I settled into the Little Pueblo in southern New Mexico, a reader wanted to know how I selected it as my "retirement town." The short answer is outdoor lifestyle, climate, and altitude. But I like polemics like this, so let's look at the longer answer.

Perhaps my opinions on this topic are of limited use to couples who care about how much house they can afford in any given area. I'm done with the house thing. 

The basic decision is whether you want to look at a city as a grown-up or as an eyelash-fluttering Romanticist. The Romanticist is turned on by extremes: for instance they might choose a "vibrant" city that gets a lot of positive publicity, such as Portland OR. It's not exciting and romantic to consider the traffic, the anthill busyness, and the high cost of living in a big city.

The Romanticist could just as easily flip to the other extreme by pining for a "quaint and charming" hamlet, while yawning about its lack of a doctor, good grocery store, civic organizations, etc., unless Bible church, bowling, watching high school sports, and satellite television is your dream lifestyle.

The Romanticist might be turned on by world class scenery nearby, completely overlooking how quickly the "scenery effect" wears off. It's best to compare scenery with odor regarding its effects on a person. The world is set up so that places that have spectacular scenery have little of anything else. To choose a retirement town based on scenery shows that you are still thinking like a vacationing tourist. There are exceptions: St. George UT has world class scenery and is large enough for other amenities, such as LDS churches and triple digit heat all summer.

The Romanticist might dream of a perfect, undiscovered, dream town in the mountains or on the beach. Undiscovered? Get serious. 

People who have a large retirement budget can consider places that others must reject, such as Prescott AZ. But if I had the budget to live there I would choose to do something more interesting, such as travel the world.

Perhaps the most successful commercial formula for a retirement dream is the McMansion next to a golf course. Such developments probably use design-software that lays the development out to have the maximum number of McMansions bordering the golf course. From the air the convoluted fairways look like green intestines. The houses, sticking to the edges, look like polyps.

And yet, ironically, it could be argued that a romantic approach to retirement is the most practical of all, since it opposes the ennui of old age. Without some kind of dream, what would the oldster do but cocoon? Frankly, if the couch-potato lifestyle is your future, what difference does it make where you "live." (As long as costs are low and there are plenty of doctors nearby.)

With regards to a retirement town, a long-time RV traveler like me is probably incapable of romanticizing a place for more than the 14 days. But I can dream about a way of life.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gustatory Demise on the Continental Divide

For a second or two it felt like a real punch to my stomach when the waiter told me that the little cafe would be closing soon. I cherished stopping in on the way back from a standard summer bicycle ride. The food was surprisingly good here, just a few pedal kicks from the continental divide, on the edge of an old mining town. 

To actually get pleasure from a restaurant is so rare for me that it is worth dwelling on this wonderful little cafe. Normally I consider food at restaurants to be mediocre, tasteless, and obscenely over-priced. Oh, and the background din. This year they had added a overhead shelter made of galvanized, corrugated steel, one of the building materials used in decaying New Mexican dumps, a great favorite of mine. 

Red chiles hung dried in bunches next to my table. The rafters of the structure looked like de-barked pine logs, and made me think of the ponderosa forest I had just bicycled through. Off in the distance was a pair of mountain peaks which some friends and I had recently hiked to. Nothing was spectacular at this little cafe, yet everything offered a positive association, and they all added onto each other.

I'd always arrived here, having finished most of the 2000 feet of climbing of this bicycle ride. After eating I only had to pedal uphill for a few seconds to the Divide, and then coast back to the Little Pueblo, 1100 feet lower. Sitting at their outdoor tables, I could gloat about the cool breeze up here. Summer has abruptly ended around these parts, and for the first time this summer I deliberately chose to eat in the sun this morning.

OK, so much of the credit goes to the calm euphoria that bicycling puts me into, before dropping in to this little cafe. So what? It still counts, and I will miss it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Melodrama with a Butterfly

Arkansas River Valley, Colorado, a couple summers ago. Over the years I have learned how to turn some of my dislikes into advantages. Much to my surprise the result has been melodrama, performed on an outdoor stage. A melodrama needs a villain of course. The consummate outdoor-villains are forests, especially if they are dark, thick, and buggy. Going into a forest on foot or wheel takes some real effort; you have to imagine that the suffering will eventually turn productive.

Just when I start to give up hope I see some brightness, some gap in the forest canopy opens up. The sun breaks into that gap and becomes the stage-lighting for a small performance stage on the forest floor where flowers and bugs run riot. The star of the show is that wing-artist, the butterfly. Sometimes a flutter in La Mariposa's dance coincides with a flutter of aspen leaves, as if they are applauding her performance.  

One day there were at least eight different types of butterflies within a few steps of me. They have a gift for alighting on a plant and tricking you into readying your camera. Then they flit off, coquettishly.

They can seem so playful, curious, and sentient for a mere insect. When you first see a new butterfly you only see disembodied, fluctuating patterns of color; an idea rather than an animal. But if you sneak up on one and catch it napping, you realize that it's just a bug!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Summer's Din

What a sound it is. It doesn't really belong in New Mexico. Sometimes it happens when I ride my bicycle between a pinch of large trees. The din is so loud that it startles me and I stop pedaling. It's like the whole world has developed tinnitus. But then I realize it's just those crazy (male) cicadas. I look for them in trees when I hear their racket, but never see them.

This sound is worth dwelling on. (Wikipedia has an interesting article on the cidada.) You enjoy things more when you are surprised, and it's very difficult to be surprised visually since entire industries are aimed at visual images. That's why sounds, smells, are feelies are so important.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I resist showing cloud photos because I fear never stopping. But these clouds were so crisp at sunset tonight that I can't resist.

With a closeup you can see the weird shadow on the top cloud:

An Old Hotel

After admiring the old hotel in town for the last two years, I finally got a chance to see the rooms, thanks to some visitors from out of town who stayed there. It was pleasing: old embossed metal tiles on the high ceilings; lots of wood and old photographs on the walls.

But my heart skipped a beat when my friends pointed out the transoms above the doors. Without the transom you'd get no ventilation in an old hotel, but didn't they also ensure that the guests heard each step in the creepy interior hallway? They probably heard the goings-on in neighboring rooms, as well. The guests would have had to open the window to get a little air; just think of all the street noise.

It was so stuffy in those old rooms that I would never pay to stay there. It reminds one of the hot stuffy hotel rooms in the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink."

I didn't bring a camera, but perhaps it's just as well. Our fine old hotel wouldn't offer the camera-candy provided by more famous old hotels in bigger and older cities. There must be many old hotels -- some condemned -- in the hollowed-out interior of North America, especially away from the interstates. The Great Plains might be a good place to look for them.

There was enough to see in our little grand old hotel to create a mental playground. Imagine one of those transomed doors opening and out walks a sultry brunette who belongs in a 1940's film-noir classic. Dressed to kill (perhaps literally.) She gives each man who notices her a cold and dismissive half-glance. Then she briskly leaves the hotel.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Nice Rack

While I was harrying a bird this morning my young kelpie, Coffee Girl, charged off toward the arroyo in one of her 'I saw it first' feints. Good work, Girl.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Elmer Gantry for Modern Times

For the first time in years I've finished a novel: "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis. I was inspired to read it by Burt Lancaster's performance in the movie as well as the supporting actor, Arthur Kennedy, who played the cynical and world-wise newspaper reporter, as he did a couple years later in "Lawrence of Arabia."

I was surprised to enjoy the novel as much as I did, since I'm weary of secular intellectuals trying to out-voltaire Voltaire a century or two too late. Poor old Christianity has been beaten up so much since the 1700's, why do "bold" free- thinkers think they are so heroic in attacking it? It's a case of arrested development; they are perpetual adolescents who are rebelling against the religion of their parents' generation.

What about people born in the 1960's? By the time they were adolescents, pseudo-Hindu-Buddhist fads were becoming pretty dated. Why didn't they rebel against them? They should be in their prime authorship years by now. I would love to read an updated version of Elmer Gantry by someone in that generation.

They might write about a professional scoundrel in one of the post-Christian ideologies that trend-setters have tried to substitute for Christianity. Consider a crusading Global Warmist, who flies to a scientific conference on an island in the South Pacific (in January) because it is being swallowed by rising sea levels. In the kickoff speech he gives the audience the bad news: the science is In, and the Apocalypse is coming sooner than they all thought.

Of all the scientific dignitaries, science reporters, and concerned natives in the auditorium, the most alarmed are doe-eyed dusky maidens who were encouraged to wear traditional and natural clothing, i.e., grass skirts and a garland of flowers around their necks. The native girls are so alarmed by the latest data that the formal proceedings are postponed for a day. Instead He offers consciousness-raising workshops at the airport Marriott, along with hands-on instruction in a breakthrough relaxation technique. "The key to composure is to always live in harmony with nature," He confides to the (now completely undressed) native girls.

Well, that's just one possible example. Amazingly enough Sinclair Lewis started to do that himself in Chapter 16. Elmer Gantry temporarily attached himself to the "New Thought" movement. I howled with glee to see how much this movement was similar to what we would call New Age today. Lewis wrote this book in 1927.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Secret Garden

Upper Rio Grande valley, Colorado, a couple summers ago. Last episode we left our heroes staring right into a dense, miserable forest. There was no way to finish the hike to the mountain top with that hideous forest in the way, so I was resigned to retreat. But what was that barely noticeable lightness hiding behind the forest's black curtain? I must have been intrigued--what else would make me wade in through that junk?

It was a small meadow, an island of light and air, surrounded by dreary, dark forest. I really didn't know that such islands existed. Sailors must feel like this when they discover a small, secret cove that isn't on the charts; it instantly becomes their own little paradise; the rest of the world becomes uninteresting to them.

Rather than break out onto the grassy slope on the way home, I decided to walk along this shoreline of forest and grass, and plunge into the arboreal netherworld whenever there might be another of these little garden-meadows. It was an exercise in teasing, the way a beachcomber steps too close to the water one minute and gets cold feet, and then turns inland a few steps and feels hot sand.
One of the most interesting sensations is that of pain and pleasure at the same time, rather than in a neutral, canceling sort of way. It's like tasting sweet and sour on different sections of the tongue. Then something new caught my eye: a pink wild rose.

Once I asked an RV friend from Alberta ("Wild Rose" license plates) if he had ever seen a wild rose. His answer was, Yea once. Ever since then I've thought they were rare and exotic. A few minutes later they started looking as exotic as dandelions. I was crushed. How can you feel so rich when you have a little of something, and feel so poor when you have more of it?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Calmness of My Inner Peasant

Can you imagine anything more boring to a young person than going to a so-called farmers' market on Saturday morning? It was even boring to me a couple years ago. But lately I have come away from them in a mood of satisfaction and appreciation. How strange. 

In the past I might have been turned off by the high prices and the hippie-dippieness of small organic "farmers." (Gardeners, actually.) I expect to pay grocery-like prices for groceries, not boutique prices or art-gallery prices. But when you live in a state that is an agricultural nobody, you do start to appreciate the growing of food.

This isn't the only example of how our tastes change as we get older. Maybe we come to the conclusion that the world, for the most part, is a lot of crap -- noise, useless busyness, and bother; and since we as individuals can't do much about it, we withdraw into a cocoon to enjoy a few quiet, honest pleasures that are available. Perhaps 'cocoon' isn't the right word; I should have said that we withdraw to our private gardens, as Epicurus would have encouraged.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Upper Rio Grande

Upper Rio Grande valley of Colorado, a couple summers ago. It was so easy to decide what to do first at this new RV boondocking campsite. A large peak loomed over camp. Though not a "peak bagger" I just had to start towards it, because of the grand and grassy slope in front of the trailer. It wasn't a planar ramp. It was a steep ascension of rumpled folds, like a woman's green dress in a more gracious and elegant age.

There are so many places like this in the national forests out West. But you can't see them because they are covered with the Stygian gloom of an overgrown silviculture. Why is this hillside free of the usual clutter -- did it burn some years ago? I had to walk up it, that first morning.

While the dogs enjoyed their romp over the grass, I stared in admiration of the landscape: I was looking at the upper end of the Rio Grande, leading into the center of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, near Lake City. The hillside was so steep that, when I paused and looked around, I felt suspended in space. 

It wasn't the postcard-prettiness that impressed me; rather, over the years I've navigated by thinking of watersheds or drainages. And here I finally was, at the top of the Rio Grande drainage. Fall in love with any river system in the USA and follow it to its source, and there's a good chance you will end up in Colorado. 

No wonder people took rivers as metaphors for time, long ago. When an RVer migrates upriver to the Continental Divide, it isn't just geography that he finds split, but also his year, his Time, and his Life. Soon he will think of the fall migration, descending the drainages of some major river.

After a thousand feet of climbing we were at the top of the grass, and hit the impenetrable wall of bark and branches. And there are actually people who think that forests are pretty? There was a couple miles of this junk separating us from the rocky ridge of the peak. We were forced to retreat, but not before encountering a pleasant surprise. Later.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pair of Thrashers

It can be a surprising amount of fun to sneak around a juniper bush and zero in on unsuspecting birds. This is a pair of curved bill thrashers. Love their eyes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thirsty for Nature

Bicycling isn't the only sport that needs a certain amount of gathering-up prior to beginning. Nor is old age the only time of life when you forget things. But for some reason none of that helps when I start a bike ride without a water bottle. 

My ride begins by climbing over a 1000 feet up to the continental divide. If I notice that I've forgotten water halfway up the hill I become so angry at myself that I can't think about anything else. A desperate thirst overtakes me. This happened again recently. (Why not just store equipment, including the water bottle, on the bike? Then you won't forget anything. I've been telling myself that for 30 years.)

To make matters worse there is no place to buy bottled water on my route. What the heck was I supposed to do? Approaching the Divide I suddenly got an idea: there are always plastic bottles littering the roadside. Normally I just avert my eyes. Why not keep an eye out for them, grab one, take it to the cafe or somebody's house, and fill it up?

Why hadn't I thought of that years ago? The trouble with brilliant ideas is making them work. Remember, I wanted a bottle with a cap. Wouldn't you know that the roadside was clean after this mighty thought occurred to me. But soon I found my quarry: a half-drunk bottle of disgusting orange gatorade, with the cap. It surprised me that the litterbug was so thoughtful.

Thus the emergency came to a happy ending. It was oddly and profoundly satisfying to solve a fundamental problem like thirst without buying anything. When we moderns play at the role of outdoorsman, in harmony with nature, we take our goretex and polartec, titanium and carbon fiber out into the woods, along with freeze-dried beef stroganoff, cooking fuel, and battery-guzzling gadgets. Then we consume it all. How long could we really live off the land without running into some store and buying something? In harmony with nature, indeed!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Nice Toe Nails

After five minutes of hoopin' and hollerin' aimed at getting this hawk into a more photogenic pose, he finally got annoyed and ruffled up a bit. Nice talons baby.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Gifted Actor

Isn't it wonderful to watch a human being -- or any other animal -- do something really, really well? Those of us who are suckers for boy-meets-dog/boy-loses-dog movies might claim that we appreciate good animal actors better than human ones. But it wasn't until recently that I knew enough about animal acting to properly appreciate it.

While watching a "Benji" sequel I went to Wikipedia to learn about the dog himself. Did you know that there is such a thing as "trainer eye?" An animal actor who is really good lacks trainer eye; that is, the animal doesn't glance over at the trainer, who is just a couple feet off screen. The classic performance of poor animal acting was done by "Toto" in the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy was singing about bluebirds and rainbows, Toto was repeatedly -- mind you, repeatedly -- glancing at the trainer off screen. I suppose it didn't matter too much, since the audience was focusing on Dorothy.

While watching Benji I was quite amazed that the dog never glanced at the camera, the cameraman, or the trainer. When the dog was emoting, was he really acting, or was the context and music making it appear so?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Meeting an Old Flame

I'll be the first to admit that pretty flowers don't typically drive me into rhapsodies of poetic excitement. But this small flower does. Perhaps it's the blood-red color. I saw it for the first time this year on yesterday's bicycle ride into the forest.

As a recovering travelholic (an ex-full-time-traveler) I have to remind myself  that it's OK to have seen something before. After all, it's been a whole year since I've seen this little darlin'.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hope for Historians

Just when I was ready to give up on reading history, an interlibrary loan came to my rescue: "Medieval Technology and Social Change," by Lynn Townsend White. It is probably considered by some to be a modern classic. Take a look at the Preface:
Voltaire to the contrary, history is a bag of tricks which the dead have played upon historians. The most remarkable of these illusions is the belief that the surviving written records provide us with a reasonably accurate facsimile of past human activity. 'Prehistory' is defined as the period for which such records are not available. But until very recently the vast majority of mankind was living in a subhistory which was a continuation of prehistory. Nor was this condition characteristic simply of the lower strata of society. In medieval Europe until the end of the eleventh century we learn of the feudal aristocracy largely from clerical sources which naturally reflect ecclesiastical attitudes: the knights do not speak for themselves. Only later do merchants, manufacturers, and technicians begin to share their thoughts with us. The peasant was the last to find his voice.
If historians are to attempt to write the history of mankind, and not simply the history of mankind as it was viewed by the small and specialized segments of our race which have had the habit of scribbling, they must take a fresh view of the records...
This wouldn't have been the first time I was seduced by a preface and disappointed by the book. Fortunately White's book was interesting. It discussed the radical changes that occurred during the Middle Ages; changes that we tend to overlook because they weren't the concern of clerical scribblers: the widespread use of the stirrup for horse riding (and hence the knightly occupation); using a shoulder harness for draft animals instead of a neck loop; a plow that goes deep and overturns the soil, thanks to a coulter and a moldboard shape; three-crop rotation replacing two-crop rotation; wind power; firearms; machines such as crank mechanisms and intricate clockwork.

I will even pay a most unusual compliment to his book: I wish it was longer. For instance he neglected the optical and weaving industries.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eavesdropping on a Forest

Summer boondocking in the upper Rio Grande, a couple summers ago. If I had to pick my favorite moment of an outdoor-day, it might well the first one, when "night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops." [*] That's how the day starts for us when I park with the RV's door and bedroom window facing east.

Soon the high-country's sun hits the bedroom window with a soft pounce. Coffee Girl starts her day by walking from the foot of the bed to my head. She softly drops her head on my neck and holds it there. My official morning hug, I guess. Both dogs are impatient to get going. They prefer to hit the trail at sunrise. There aren't many wildflowers on today's hike, but they're nice.

Hunters are probably the only people who have ever come up the volcanic ridge that we were walking on. Most hikers follow the brown signs and stakes. I loved the contrasts of grass and trees, ridge and cliff. Most of all I loved the breezy openness. Near the top of the grassy area a raven flew by. They are my good luck symbols. 

Above me was a tall cliff that served as a natural amphitheater. It seemed like eavesdropping to listen to it all: the insects, falling trees, woodpeckers, crows...I sat there for twenty minutes. I've never really listened to a forest before. It certainly wasn't the mystical forest-murmurs that some people romanticize. Rather, it was more like a cell phone conversation that was breaking up.

On the way down I got frustrated traversing the steep slopes in trail runner shoes. I wanted to walk home along a grassy ridgeline without bumbling into ravines or dense forests.  At one point the other side of the ravine looked more promising. No sooner did I get across than I looked back to see the old ridge showing a continuous path of grass. Talk about the grass being greener on the other side.

Back home I showered and then napped with the dogs. It's so nice to see them wasted.

[*] Those wishing to "brush up their Shakespeare" by looking up text based on your mouldering memory might enjoy http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/ .

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ladybug Bacchanal

Strange things are happening around here lately, with the monsoons in full gear. 

The male brain being what it is, I suggested to the lady hiking with me that it looked like some kind of orgy. She considered the suggestion indelicate. But after looking at a blowup of one of the photos, perhaps I was right.

Monday, August 2, 2010

End of An Empire

Since WWII has never seemed interesting to me it seemed like a good idea to add "The World at War" documentary to my Netflix queue. Indeed, it did prove to be a well-made documentary. It helped a little that it was made in Britain.

Why are Americans so interested in WWII? It's probably just triumphalism. Most Americans -- who see themselves as patriotic -- are probably unconcerned that the end of that war saw the USA morph from a constitutional republic to a militaristic world empire destined for Eternal War. Or maybe they think it's cool.

Most people who have lived long enough have actually experienced short term triumphs turn into long term defeats, and vice versa. It usually happens to nations too. The other mighty victor of WWII, the USSR, no longer exists. How much longer will the USA maintain its current importance? I think the USA, despite its high-tech weaponry, has hollowed out in many ways. It is actually a weak country. But the rest of the world hasn't figured that out yet.

At the end of WWII America had a strong family, an excellent education system from grade school to college, and the mightiest industrial base the world had ever seen. It even produced more oil than it imported. Today industry after industry and many institutions have decayed so badly it's as if they had been saturation-bombed and firestormed. In fact they were, by politicians, academics, opinion makers, and Wall Street.

In years, we are as distant from WWII as Hitler's ascension to power was from the American Civil War. It seems as though we are levitating; surviving on mere momentum. Of course, the possibility of nuclear war precludes the shooting war that is usually necessary for a sudden and dramatic changing of the guard.

Try as I might, I have difficulty imagining how a New World Order will evolve gradually, with American hegemony replaced by Chinese. Why haven't the Chinese dumped American dollars for natural resource ownership and partnerships?