Saturday, September 20, 2008

Should This Be Happening? You Tell Me....

OK, so we were out of the country and out of touch for most of the recent financial "That Was the Week That Was," when the pundits were actually comparing the present economic situation to the events of October 1929, the sell-off that began the Great Depression.
When we got back we had a half dozen calls on our answering machine. One was from an area code I recognized as Ft. Lauderdale (954). It was a guy from a mortgage company asking for someone named Diane. It clearly appeared to be a case of the wrong number.
But something happened that reminded me of the Glenn Close character in the 1987 movie Fatal Attraction. (She appears to be killed, but comes back to attack again and again.)
So this morning the phone rings again, and, yes, it's the mortgage guy from Ft. Lauderdale, still looking for someone named Diane. I explained politely that he must have the wrong number; there's no Diane here.
"Oh, that's too bad," says the voice. "She must've made a mistake on the application form she filled out on the internet." OK, I'm thinking. That sounds plausible, but after last week's events, it seems sort of odd that they are still handing out mortgage money via the internet.
"So, how IS the mortgage business these days?" I ask.
"Hey, it's just great!" comes back the voice. "Now, do you rent or own?"
His segue came so quickly, I was taken aback a little. Now I'm starting to think that maybe there was no "Diane."
"Uh, actually we're renting right now." I said. "And if we do buy any property, we're thinking about buying something cheap enough that we won't need a mortgage." (That's providing, I think to myself, that the banks don't collapse between now and then, and we can get our money out.)
"Oh, that's great," he says. "Most people aren't in that fortunate a position."
I'm thinking I have already said too much.
"But you ought to consider getting a mortgage anyway," he goes on. "The mortgage situation has actually never been better! We're offering a fixed rate at 5%."
I'm remembering that at one time Ft. Lauderdale was the "funny money" capital of the world, even before the "Miami Vice" years of the Eighties.
"And what's better, the mortgages are now backed by the full Faith and Credit of the United States Government."
"Yeah," I replied, "you mean the taxpayer." And every other schnook who depends on the relative stability and worth of the dollar, which has lost almost a quarter of its value since 2000, even before the crazy events of last week.

So I ask, what's with this? They're still hawking mortgages like they're used cars--everyone can afford one? And now I find that the whole fiasco is so complicated and complex that it's unlikely either presidential candidate can explain it. I find that if you don't know how a tranche works (or what one is), you don't have a hope of understanding what's going on.

So what's Joe Sixpack to do? Sign up for more debt? And is there anyone at the top who dares explain all this? Or is the house of cards so fragile that an accurate explanation would be enough to bring the whole thing down? Stay tuned...and plant a garden.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane Alley

Jimmy Buffet's Store
Originally uploaded by Mangrove Mike
Seems that in the run-up to Ike, an e-mail purporting to be inside information out of a county office in the Keys made the rounds, predicting that the Keys would be swept by a Category 4 storm. (This was reported via an editorial in the Key West paper today. ) Of course the dilemma has always been: Cry Havoc vs. Poco-Poco. The body politic will now have to decide on a format that will help people make reasonable judgements when a storm approaches.

And then there's the insurance fallout. Wait until we see what the Texas-sized recovery bill will be after Ike. It seems like "assumption of risk" would be a good doctrine to apply to development in Hurricane Alleys, rather than calling on the rest of the country to ante-up for repairs when the inevitable happens.

We ourselves are dodging hurricanes and going to Florida and then to the Bahamas for a week or so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Eyes Have It

This is not an article about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It’s about her glasses.
(For some background on Sarah Palin when she was running for governor of Alaska, including the source of the accompanying pictures, click on this link.)

I took only one “easy” course in college, “drawing and painting.” They actually gave me three academic credits for it! I didn’t feel guilty about taking something I considered easy, or even fun, because most of my other courses were science courses, and I spent most afternoons doing what they called “lab work,” while the ec and poly sci majors got their assignments out of the way so they could drink all night.

One of our first assignments was to draw a self portrait. I suppose the idea was to show us just how hard it was, or to make some kind of a statement on one’s abilities of self-perception, or perhaps just to see if we had any talent at drawing. I can’t remember what mine looked like, only to be thankful that I crumpled it up and tossed it into a trash can where it undoubtedly belonged.

What I do remember, and what stuck in my mind over the years about this exercise, is the instructor’s outrage at how the women’s self portraits turned out. “The guys’ drawings are about what I expected,” he said in his rasping, New England-accented voice. “They’re vacuous. They stink.” (With the possible exception, of course, of a couple done by those who turned out to be his “favorites.”)

“But I’m totally concerned with the ladies’ self-perception here. There’s something distinctly annoying about all of them,” he whined in his irritating-to-this-day manner. “Can’t you see what they’ve done?” he said, using the third person. This fellow was a great one for handing out insults under the pretext of personal eccentricity. “They’ve all made themselves look like Jackie Kennedy!”

I took a look around, and sure enough, in one way or another, all of them did look like Jackie Kennedy. (Later that year she would marry Aristotle Onassis, thereby becoming Jackie O.)
This was at a small, selective, coeducational New England liberal arts college in the late Sixties. Now, I have to confess to a degree of misogynistic tendencies stemming from the time I spent there, but I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that most of these “babes” looked like stereotypical androgynous librarians and sounded like Diane Rehm of National Public Radio on a very bad day.

So I was amazed that what the instructor pointed out was true. These ladies, with some of the highest College Board scores in the country, most of whom went on to graduate school AND had the requisite 2.3 chidren, had the same tastes and perceptions as their less-favored counterparts who were lucky if they went to vocational school somewhere. Do we have a similar situation in this country today?

“Listen to this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who tell their lords, "Bring, and let us drink.” Amos 4:1

I recently made a rare visit to a big-city mall, and was surprised to see merchandise marketed to ladies, bearing the faces of Hannah Montana and Paris Hilton. So I guess it’s true, as Mencken noted, “Nobody ever lost any money by underestimating the taste of the American public.”

And having learned all this, I wasn’t surprised to see the following article:

It seems that Sarah Palin has catapulted Kazuo Kawasaki's designer eyeglass frames into the spotlight in a huge way, and it looks like the beginning of a celebrity eyewear trend. Palin wore the custom fitted frames during her speech at the Republican National Convention, and consumers are now clamoring to get a pair of the exact frames.

According to an article in USA Today, the VP of Italee (the US distributor of the eyeglass frames) said that her company is getting calls from dealers who want to stock the exact shape and style that Sarah Palin was wearing. The manufacturer is stepping up to produce enough of new lightweight, titanium, rimless rectangular frames to meet the growing demand.

The designer eyeglass frame Palin was wearing starts at a suggested $375.00, without the lenses. Getting the exact frame and shape right away might be hard because Palin's frame was customized to fit her. She chose from about 300 frames (ed. note: Vanity, thy name is woman?) before picking the 704 series Kawasaki frame in the 34 gray color, but the strong rectangular shape was custom-cut just for her.

So as the popularity polls swing toward the Republican side, we have to ask ourselves if this a result of the electorate’s finally focusing on the real issues. Or could it be disaffected Hilary voters coming over to John McCain’s brilliant choice of a woman for a running mate? Or could it be that, simply, they think her glasses are cool?

"Be Fruitful and Increase in Number...." Gen. 1:28

The diminutive biology professor looked like an Irish leprechaun turned Mormon missionary in his white shirt with pocket protector, but his message was not one of love and reconciliation.

“Who’s the bigger son-of-a-bitch?” he shouted, his bellowing voice belying his small stature. “Is it the guy who drops napalm on their villages and winnows their body politic down to the size where they have some small hope of feeding themselves?” He paused to take a breath. It was said that he’d been born a “blue baby,” and was one of the world’s first surviving open-heart-surgery patients. This fact seemed to explain his stunted growth, his lack of physical robustness, and also his “I’m going to get even with the world” demeanor.

“Or is the son-of-a-bitch a guy like Tom Dooley, a guy who goes in and gives them medical care so that their population grows to the point where they all starve to death?” he continued. “I say the son-of-bitch is Tom Dooley!” The dark-haired girl (a New York City liberal type) who sat in back of me let out an audible gasp, as the biology professor launched into a lengthy polemic about population increase and the mathematics of geometric versus arithmetic progression.

All this happened before worldwide advances in post-World War II agriculture became widely recognized, along with the coining of the phrase “Green Revolution.” Science found ways to increase food production so successfully that Earth was able to sustain far greater numbers of human beings than had seemed possible at one time, and to buy time for a while before the inevitable crunch, as described in Paul Ehrlich’s widely read book, The Population Bomb, which was published later that same year. But enough people in my generation took the threat of overpopulation seriously, and limited the number of offspring they produced. In fact I’m hard pressed to think of anyone I know from either in high school or college who went on to have more than two kids, and more likely one or none. A great number of my friends spent their lives teaching the children of others, and are now retired and childless, while a great nation of immigrants came in to take (admittedly) lower paying jobs, but who are now competing with us for real estate and services. The Bomb went off to the south and east of us, and we are feeling the effects.

What will the ultimate effects of worldwide unbridled population growth look like? One need not look farther than our neighboring country, Haiti, which is a “closed system,” embodying more than eight million souls on a piece of land largely destroyed by disastrous ecological practices, no larger than Massachusetts. The city of Gonaives, still in the process of recovering from Hurricane Jeanne in 2004, has been flooded this year by rains from Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike. Gonaives (pictured above, by the way) is not know as a “garden spot,” even in the best of times. It’s been in the news recently as the scene of political riots. During the dry season it is a hot and dusty place. When it rains, it becomes a mud hole. Here are a few quotes from recent articles–-look for a common thread:

In a cathedral surrounded by mud and flood waters, the 34-year-old motorcycle taxi driver shivers on a pew, wrapped in a sheet and delirious from fever. He struggles to remember the names of his four children, one of whom died when two storms submerged Gonaives and the villages around it in vile muck.

But now is bad enough. In the cathedral, Nicole Guistinville lies on her side, struggling to breathe as a hypertension attack makes her head feel like it's exploding. "The water took away my medicine," she whispers. "I'm supposed to eat before I take it, but I have seven children to feed."

“Please, please give me one job,” said the man, imploring. “I have eleven children!”

At one time we saw signs in Haiti saying: ‘Medam ansent yo: apre youn petit, fe planing!’ (Pregnant ladies: after one little one, practice planning!) or 'Tout moun ap fe planing anvan lane 2000'--(Everyone to practice family planning by the year 2000). I appears that little or nothing came out of that well-intentioned effort. We’ve even heard that our own foreign aid policies forbid use of funds to promote family planning, an apparent sop to right-wing fundies who seem to think that allowing the creation of a Hell on earth may somehow hasten the day of the arrival of God’s Earthly Kingdom.

“Oh,” says the liberal, “of course you can’t do anything with birth control anyway... It’s part of all agrarian cultures to produce as many children as possible, to aid in the farmwork.” Well, that’s true enough, but the population of Haiti has now gone past the point where any increase in the number of humans can be reasonably construed as beneficial. Even the smallest increase can only aggravate an insoluble ecological disaster. China has been roundly condemned for their “one child” policy, but ultimately that type of policy is the only answer in checking unbridled population growth, and the sooner it can be imposed on Haiti, the better off they will be.

I know many people will take umbrage at this opinion, and I have no rejoinder other than the request that they go to Haiti and live there for a year or so. If they come back with the same opinion as they left with, I certainly wouldn’t dream of arguing with them. In the meantime, no one who has not spent a year in Haiti has any right speaking out on the pros and cons of birth control, be it abroad or here at home. And that includes our foreign policy establishment, every radio Bible-thumper in the world, the Holy Father in Rome and anyone else who doesn’t see what the problem is.

No, I don’t think Tom Dooley was a son-of-a-bitch, nor do I hold with dropping napalm on agrarian villagers. But I’d like to think that, if we bombed ‘em with condoms, they eventually might get the right idea.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ike Slides to the South, Key West is Spared

Ike slid to the south, and it looks like Cuba once again bore the brunt of it, with Mexico and/or Texas its next landfalls. The above picture is from
a hurricane site that many of our Key West neighbors (those that stayed, that is) are following. It seems to give a good and accurate picture of what is going on, and also provides maps of previous storm tracks, all with good graphics.

Oddly enough, we got a phone call today, right after it was clear that Ike was going to stay down south, from some friends who were on their way OUT of the Keys. Of course, we can't really blame them, because their property on Grassy Key was flooded after Wilma. In fact Marilyn called me on a cell phone during Wilma, to explain that she had driven their "antique" Porsche to the highest point of ground on their property, and the sea water was still coming up. I told her to wade ASAP to the nearest neighbors (which she did). Hope they are high and dry somewhere midstate tonight.

Will Florida dodge a major hurricane this year, thus hastening the advent of another real estate feeding frenzy? Or will the nationwide housing crisis put the quietus on things in general. It looks as if the answer might be, "Hurricane, shmurricane, here we go again? "

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hurricane Ike Threatens the Keys and Key West

Possible tracks of Hurricane Ike 9/6/08

Back in 1972, as a brash youth working behind the desk of a motel in Marathon, Florida during the approach of Hurricane Agnes, I made the offhand remark, "I hope it hits here. I wanna see what it's like."

Old man Jones, a grizzled octogenarian who was known as "the unofficial mayor of Conch Key" was refilling a Miami Herald news rack nearby. He heard me and came over, shaking his fist in my face. "You son of a bitch!" he said. "It's WORSE THAN A WAR!"

Jonesy certainly had a point. He'd survived both Hurricane Donna and then Hurricane Betsy on that tiny piece of coral between Florida Bay and the Gulfstream. The storm surge flooded the land, and people were still talking about flying 2 x 4's imbedded in palm trees.

As it turned out, Agnes was bad in places, but the Keys were at the beginning of a thirty-some year period of minor threats, continued growth and development, and smug complacency. That complacency began to end with Hurricane Georges in 1998, and ended for certain with Hurricane Wilma in 2006 and the subsequent insurance crisis.

Volunteers preparing meals at Fifth Street Baptist Church
in Key West after Wilma. The same group is on standby for Ike.

Granted, we are always treated to a chorus of "Chicken Littles," especially by the mainland media, when the Keys are under a threat. But this time we might be well advised to batten the hatches and hunker down for the arrival of Ike.

Herewith some information lifted from the local paper, the scary part being the possibility of the 12 to 15 feet storm surge:

With the potential of Hurricane Ike developing into a dangerous Category 4 storm that hits the Florida Keys, Monroe County authorities are urging everyone to take it seriously and heed evacuation orders issued Friday.

"This is a serious storm," Key West Police Chief Donnie Lee said. "People need to leave."
Tourists must leave by 8 a.m. today and residents must evacuate on Sunday in phases: by 8 a.m. for Lower Keys residents, noon for the Middle Keys and 4 p.m. for the Upper Keys.

"It sounds like we are at ground zero right now," Marathon Mayor Pete Worthington said.
National Weather Service Key West office Chief Meteorologist Matt Strahan said people should not be fooled by any apparent weakening in the hurricane because that is expected to be temporary.

"Monroe County residents should not be lulled into a false sense of security," Strahan said, explaining that Ike's wind speeds could fluctuate -- on Friday it dropped from a Category 4 to a 3 and could drop to a 2 even -- but as Hanna pulls away, the hurricane could intensify into a Category 3 or 4 by Sunday.

"As a general rule, you could see your house not just flooded, but washed away if you're on the right side of the track," Strahan said. "If you are on the left side, the flooding could be as bad as Wilma. ... "It's a very dangerous storm track. It may look like its declining over the next few days, but it should pick back up."

The latest projections on Friday had the hurricane hitting Key West at about 2 p.m. Tuesday. Earlier in the day, when Marathon was the predicted strike zone, Strahan said the path was reminiscent of Hurricane Donna, a Category 4 storm packing 150 mph winds and 12 to 15 feet of storm surge, which hit Marathon in 1960.

"We had whole houses washed away, slabs blown clean," Strahan said.

After the water recedes: Bedding, furniture, and ruined appliances on Fogarty Avenue in New Town, Key West, after Wilma in 2006.

Monroe County's "Italian Forieign Legion" weighs in with their expertise:

County Administrator Roman Gastesi and County Mayor Mario Di Gennaro on Friday went to Miami for a meeting today with Gov. Charlie Crist and state and South Florida emergency management officials. They planned to discuss hurricane preparations and evacuation plans for South Florida, including which highways to use as main evacuation corridors and when and how to make them one way heading north, Di Gennaro said.

"I have a lot of concerns about this one," Di Gennaro said. "It's scary."

But what will the old timers and native Conchs do?

As many others, Karen Baso was doing what she always does: filling her car with gasoline at the Circle K station on North Roosevelt Boulevard, though she did not plan to evacuate.

"I've lived here all my life. I haven't left for one yet," she said. "But you never know what a storm will do so we always prepare. As long as I have my water and my peanut butter and crackers I'll be fine."

Good luck to all our friends in the Keys. Let's hope this is another "near miss." We're riding this one out in North Carolina, where the remnants of Hanna flooded our living room again last night. But that's another story. Stay dry, y'all.