Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Rain in Spain

Falls Mainly in the Plain

I got up early this morning and cashed in all my frequent flyer points for two tickets to Madrid for a three week vacation in April.

Vacation from what? You may well ask...I have no answer.

We've been hitting Europe for 3 or 4 weeks every other year for the last 20 years. On one trip we dipped down into Spain to see the running of the bulls, but haven't seen much of it...what we saw, we liked.

I think I'll buy a cashier's check today for the estimated cost of the vacation. The euro has been bouncing between $1.57 and $1.24 for the last six months. No telling what it will be in April, but it's running $1.40 today. I can live with that.

Someone gave me a copy of "Spanish for Dummies" a couple of months ago. Time to bone up on my High School Spanish.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas 2008

I'm using the swing set as an excuse to hang around the grandchildren for a few more days.

My oldest grandson and I worked on it for six hours today. It's about 1/3 finished. He's a great helper and I take every opportunity to let him tighten the bolt, read the plans, pick out the parts and square up the project. We've spent 12 hours together on this so far...It's the longest time we've done one-on-one.

Some of the parts were to cold in the freezing weather to flex properly, so we brought them inside to thaw out.

We got the swings, glider, slide, ladder and rock climbing wall assembled.

Tomorrow we build the fort and picnic area and attach the awning.

Beagles ran down the back property line today, baying at deer. They were following the trail of a herd that ran past, but following in the wrong direction.
In the morning I hope to knock out the rest of the project while they are in church...then run on down the road Monday morning.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

A 42nd Anniversary

Miami...Christmas Eve 1966...the only day the Rabbi had open... I'm starting to think it might last... I drained the pure red wine in the silvershining cup and handed it to Mrs. Phred. Nobody briefed me that it was customary to save a sip for her and for the Rabbi...I thought there would be refills...the first of many errors.

A Poem by Cactuscafe

I wonder will you write to me
from cities in the rain?
where gargoyles leer from rooftops
with their mimicry of pain .............

and can I sense the future
through these arcs of crystal light ?
and can we pay our entrance
to the theatre of delight?

I dreamed I charmed the poison-snake
I hope you found my smile
and did we write our midnight hymns
and was the risk worthwhile ?

And should I drink this pure red wine
From silvershining cup?
and will this sleeping mystery
eventually wake up?

I wonder if the spangled clown
hears laughter while he cries?
perhaps we'll kiss at carnivals
with painted lips and eyes

And will I find my story
in the lines upon my hand?
or is it in astrology
or towers made from sand?

Let's hope we find our homeland
in the maps of inside-out
may love protect our wanderings
through shadowlands and doubt

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Swing Set

Some Assembly is Required

Mrs. Phred found a swing set on E-bay. She asked me to set up an account with E-bay and Paypal and buy it for the grandchildren. I do my due diligence and discover that the vendor has over a 99% satisfaction rating.

It takes a day to create the accounts and establish my identity. At first American Express rejects my purchase with Paypay, fearing identity theft. I clear that up, but then Paypal rejects the purchase, noting that American Express turned me down.

Meanwhile, over on Ebay, my confused vendor writes, wondering why I want two swing sets.

I turn to a friend who orders a third swing set on my behalf with his well used Paypal account....we cancel my orders. I give my friend an old-fashioned bank check (there are still some in an old file in the basement).

The transaction is eventually consummated and the swing set is shipped.

When we arrived the swing set was in two wet and soggy cardboard containers. There appeared to be thousands of wooden, plastic and metal pieces.

I am attempting to dry out the 20 pages of assembly instructions. The blurry cover page suggests allowing two men two days for the construction.

The swing set pieces fill the bed of my son's old Ford junker pickup truck. I need to get busy. There are three days until Christmas. I'm on my own and a day late, if not a dollar short.


Friday, 19 December 2008

The Reunion

Wake Forest, North Carolina

My mother had three brothers. She and they all married at about the same time, shipped out to Europe and the Pacific Ocean in early 1943 and left behind four pregnant brides who gave birth within a two-month interval in late 1943.

Uncle Bruce was a glider pilot in the 101st airborne on D-Day. My father drove a half-track though France into Germany. Uncle walt served in the Pacific theatre. Uncle Everett was an MP in the Europen theatre.

We are planning another reunion in January in Florida. One wonders if there will be a follow-on at 75, and, if so, which of us will be on hand to attend.

The new "Blue Bus" ran well on the 800 mile journey to see the six grandchildren. We towed the Toyota and got about the same gas mileage as we got with the old RV, although the new one is 6,000 pounds heavier and seven feet longer.

Strangely, all my three cousins and I joined the Military and served in Vietnam...even cousin Kate, who was just a girl.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Personal Defense Strategies

Ringling Museum, Sarasota

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reported a 250 percent rise in the number of guns handed over in a no-questions-asked program to exchange weapons for holiday gift cards. The department's station in a high crime suburb received 964 guns, two hand grenades and two briefcases full of dynamite.

A briefcase full of dynamite for personal protection. The concept takes my breath away. We are wandering downtown and get confronted by a mugger....We pop open the briefcase and say, "OK a**hole, let's not BLOW it!"

Mrs. Phred and I visited the Ringling Museum again. I took a field trip there in 1954 in the 5th grade. That was the first time most of us had seen statues with penises, including the huge bronze reproduction of the statue of David that stands in a piazza in Florence.

We spent most of our time in the miniature Circus building. A crazy man named Howard Tibbals spent over 50 years creating the 3,800 square foot model on a 3/4 inch to one foot scale. The circus includes eight main tents, 152 wagons, 7,000 folding chairs, 1,300 circus performers and workers, more than 800 animals and a 59-car train. Tibbals started the project at age 15 and took 55 years to complete his masterpiece.

You get an idea, looking at the model, of what a big deal the "greatest show on Earth" actually was when it rolled into town on flatcars.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus apparently threw off a huge pile of cash for John Ringling. He did a good job with the existential question, "how can you effectively spend an obscene amount of money?"

The mansion and sprawling estate on Sarasota Bay are impressive. The building is modeled after a Venetian palace. The dollar has depreciated 97% since 1906. Ringling put his wealth into objects that have easily appreciated in real value more than money and sheltered them from tax forever...of course, like my old economics Prof. liked to say, "in the long run, we're all dead.", regardless of investment strategy.

Most of the money went into the treasures in the art museum. The 12x30 foot Ruebens with the angels and chubby cherubs don't do much for me, but I stare for a long time at the Harlequin pictures, wondering what they mean.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


West Palm Beach, Florida

I got up at 4:30 and picked up Gordon for the drive to the East Coast. There were only four divers on the boat, including a young couple from Indiana who learned to dive in rock quarries.

The first dive was a drift dive at 90 feet for the allowable 21 minutes. We saw a nurse shark, a couple of loggerheads and lots of tropical fish and corals. The visibility was about 80 feet, with the water temperature at an amazing 79 degrees F.

It was windy with high seas. I had a little trouble getting a hold on the ladder and climbing back aboard with my fins on my feet, 80 pounds of gear on my back and a severely bobbing boat. I guess I'm getting old.

The second dive was at 60 feet on a big sunken barge and debris field. Gordon saw a stingray "as big as a Winnebago", but I missed it. They stand you on the dive platform and yell, "DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!" so you go in fast and don't get swept past the reef or wreck by the strong Gulf Stream current...very cool.

I decided to borrow a couple of pictures from the "Narcosis Divers" website and leave my camera at home. They have a lovely collection of photos.

We went with Pura Vida Divers. They were a lot of fun and very considerate of the abilities and desires of their customers. The sun was out and the air temperature was 83 degrees F for most of the day. Something about pumping extra nitrogen into your tissues is very relaxing.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

School Sink (Wayne's World)

Tampa, Florida

I got my tanks out of storage yesterday. They were due for the five year required "hydro" certification so I took them in to see my trainer. He worked to get me trained in some advanced certifications, including Divemaster, back around 1984.

He says some tanks like mine, manufactured before 1988, have blown up and killed people. He says they do a current flow test to look for cracks now, so mine should be ok if they pass testing. He graciously loans me two tanks while mine are being tested.

We talk about a couple of his customers who killed themselves last month in a cave system just just north of Tampa. The cave is called School Sink or Wayne's World. It's owned by the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section.

Before you can dive this cave, you must have completed 100 cave dives after doing advanced cave-diving training. You must also go with someone who has dived this system before. There are other requirements. It's a tough cave. It has a hydrogen sulfide layer where the water is milky and visibility drops to 1 or 2 feet. There are lots of confusing passages where you can kick up a fine silt that reduces visibility to zero for a long time. The cave is connected to the Gulf of Mexico and there are strong currents based on tides which change direction as the water in the system seeks its own level with the changing tides. It's up to 160 feet deep so you may need to be breathing exotic gasses or doing long decompression stops on the way up.

He tells me that this Colonel from the MacDill Strike Command Base hid his car and snuck in at night with a buddy. There is a gated fence around the entrance with a combination lock. Some divers share combinations. They found the buddy with empty tanks at 100 feet.

The Colonel had double tanks. They found these abandoned. One of the tanks was full of air. Apparently the Colonel got confused or panicked and forgot to activate the crossover.

The Colonel reached his decompression tank, which he had stashed at 40 feet. The tank was pure oxygen, which is toxic below 30 feet. My trainer gets a funny look on his face at this point in the story. I wonder what he's really thinking? They find the Colonel at 50 feet and the partly consumed decompression bottle of pure oxygen at 40 feet.

It is true that pure oxygen will speed up the elimination of excess nitrogen from your tissues, but almost anyone with any training would know it gives you seizures when you breathe it at two or more atmospheres of pressure.

He says he stopped cave diving years ago. After the cave dive he always thought. "everything went right...nothing went wrong"...he began to wonder what the point was.

In cave diving you run a line to follow back. You have three working lights and you begin your exit after consuming 1/3 of your air. Ive been in some caverns. In a cavern, you can see a little daylight from the entrance if you turn off your flashlight. Caves are dark.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

An Underwater Community

North Port, Florida

After visiting Snook Haven, we decided to drive a few miles south and look at North Port. North Port is on the West Coast of Florida, about 25 miles south of Sarasota.

North Port doesn't have a port or even a beach. It did appear to have a number of canals leading an unknown distance to the Gulf of Mexico. There are about 3,000 single family residences in North Port.

The homes tend to be a little bigger on the canals and those often had a dock and a small boat.

70% of the homes in North Port are underwater, according to a recent study. That means that they have mortages that exceed the value of the home. Homes that cost $350,000 a few years ago now can be had for $125,000. This is a reflection of the extreme stress caused by falling home prices and foreclosures, especially in the "bubble States" (California, Florida, Nevada).

Many of the people who bought there worked in construction. They may have also bought a $40,000 Silverado work truck for no money down at the same time. Now the music is over. It's a sad situation and no end is in sight.

I'm going underwater myself on Tuesday. I have two drift dives scheduled in the Gulf Stream that skirts Palm Beach. It's amazing how warm England is, considering its latitude. They can thank the majestic Gulf Stream for that. There water temperature off Palm Beach is still 78 degrees F.

The place where we are spending our winters has a huge pool that they maintain at 85 degrees F. It's comfortable. I prefer the warmer hot tub at 104 F. The bar is a little odd. It's outdoors, but they banned smoking this year. I have take my book and dark rum and coke out to the nearly deserted smoking area.

Yesterday the sky was clear and blue. It was warm in the sun and nice in the shade.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Revenge of the Killer Turtles

Snook Haven, Florida

In 1938, the acclaimed, “Revenge of the Killer Turtles” starring Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan was filmed at Snook Haven. Some of the turtles and monkeys escaped during filming taking up residence along the banks of the Myakka River.

Snook Haven is about 19 miles south of here on the banks of the Myakka River. On Thursdays a platoon of 27 banjo players entertain from 11 AM to 1:30 PM. It is the home of the Gulf Coast Banjo Society.

In 1954 Elvis began his career at Snook Haven. He makes Snook Haven his second home and still plays here seasonally to a packed house. In fact he is appearing there from 6 to 9 this Friday evening.

My old laptop appeared to die for the 4th time this morning. It's been a good old dog, but I had to put it down. I bought a new Dell with 4GB of memory and a 350 GB hard drive. Of course the aircard didn't fit in the new machine so I had to buy another as well as a new copy of Quicken.

The laptop came with a Microsoft Works copy of a spreadsheet and a word processor, so I'll just kiss Excel and Word goodbye...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Mr. Bean's Turkey Dinner

Sun and Fun RV Park, Sarasota

This video shows Mr. Bean preparing a classic turkey dinner with an unusual stuffing.

I'm working on a 25 pound turkey dinner myself.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Turkey Gravy

Firecloud Turkey Gravy

Turkey neck
2 jars turkey gravy

Cover the giblets and neck bone with water in a large pot. Add a stalk of chopped celery, a chopped carrot, some parsley, and a chopped onion (include the peel as to give the broth a color). Add about 4 cups of water; let simmer approximately 1 hour. Remove from heat and strain broth to discard cooked vegetables and reserve broth for gravy. Chop the giblets and pick the mwat off the neck to add to the turkey stock.

Make a pourable slurry of turkey and water and add to the turkey stock until the stock is the desired thickness. Allow this to cook slowly at least ten minutes to be sure that the flour is properly done.

Add two jars of turkey gravy from the grocery store and some of the drippings and crucchy brown bits from the turkey roating pan for flavor. Simmer a few minutes and serve in a gravy dish.

Turkey Dressing

Firecloud Turkey Dressing

2 cups diced celery
1/2 pound sausade
1 chopped apple
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 cups chopped onion
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 packages of Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix

Saute celery and onions in butter until softened. Remove from heat. Stir in chicken broth, salt, and pepper. Let cool.

Brown sausage and add this and other ingredients to stuffing mix. Tossd gently. Cook in an uncovered casserole dish at 350 F. for 30 minutes.

The Katrina Depression

Main Street, America

Today the Government sunk an additional $20 billion into Citibank and guaranteed them against losses of another $300 billion on their mortgage portfolio. They're swapping treasury bonds for bad mortgages.

We stood by in stunned disbelief three years ago as we watched our Government fumble and mismanage the Katrina disaster and its aftermath. There was plenty of warning. We knew the storm was coming three days in advance. We watched the disaster unfold on TV. Apparently our government officials were too busy to watch TV and seemed unaware of the catastrophe for nearly a week.

I told my neighbor that it looked like a $50 billion problem in the making as we watched Katrina move slowly north that weekend. A year earlier, I told him that adjustable rate mortgages would cause big problems for homeowners sometime in the future.

The last depression, in my opinion, was caused largely by speculative and unsound lending practices. You could put down $1,000 and borrow another $9,000 from a local bank to buy common stock on margin. The resulting wave of bank failures after Black Monday depressed economic activity and increased unemployment for a decade.

This time lending practices became even more bizarre. Mortgages were bundled into strips by the originators and sold as securities. Insurance was purchased in the form of credit default swaps. The issuers of this insurance did not have assets to cover the losses. Despite this, the rating agencies ranked these bundles of mortgages as investment grade securities. These were called CDOs or Collateralized Debt Obligations.

We all know about the subprime mortgages. Those were issued to folks with bad credit ratings. What the hell! The commercial banks and mortgage companies got fat fees for originating the mortgages and passed most of the risk on the Fanny Mae, Freddy Mac or investors. The Investment Banks racked up huge profits securitizing the mortgages and passing them along to foolish investors.

Then there were the ARMs or Adjustable Rate Mortgages. These came with a low initial monthly payment. Several years later the payments reset, sometimes to more than twice the original payment.

There were also “No Doc” mortgage loans where the borrower was not required to provide and documentation about income. The bankers amusingly called these “liar loans”.

Even more insane were the “pay option” mortgages. Here you pay a low teaser rate of interest only until your mortgage balance hits perhaps 125% of the original loan and then your payments reset to maybe triple the original monthly payment.

The speculative bubble in housing prices caused by insane monetary policy and Republican deregulation of our banking system sprang a leak and started to deflate two years ago.

We are a long way from the bottom of this economic death spiral. Houses still cost three times as much to buy and maintain as they do to rent. Even with millions of homeowners “underwater” (which is why I call this is the Katrina Depression) on their mortgages, home values will continue to decline for probably another five years until 2013. As a result, even strong borrowers will simply walk away from their mortgage obligations in droves, piling up an increasing supply of ever less valuable housing for sale.

The mortgage modification programs being implemented by banks right now will not be effective. They simply reduce interest rates and payments, sometimes adding the reduction to the mortgage balance. This keeps the homeowner trapped in an unsellable home until eventually and inevitably they walk away, leaving the bank with a bigger problem down the road.

If you own an investment home or a second home, a bankruptcy judge can modify the terms of your mortgage in bankruptcy. The judge’s options include reducing the interest rate AND reducing the principal balance of the mortgage. Due to a 1978 modification of US bankruptcy laws, this option is not available if you actually occupy your home and need it for shelter.

A further wrinkle is that most mortgages are simply serviced and not owned by banks. When a bank services a loan, it has no incentive to modify the mortgage terms. On the other hand, the bankers get paid “cost-plus” to foreclose on the home and nobody is auditing the cost or the plus.

For years, we have been living with an economic engine supercharged and overheated by cheap and freely available consumer credit. I feel a little sorry for the Chinese and the Russians. They were largely unaffected by the Great Depression. Now that we have sold them on the benefits of the capitalist economic system, we introduce them to the Katrina Depression. Surprise!

Our economic hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Obama. I think he is “The One”...Maybe I'll rent The Matrix again today and wake up from this bad dream.

-Bob the Blogger (aka Phred Firecloud)

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Mangrove Snapper with Toasted Almonds

Eastern Gulf of Mexico

A fishing trip of this type is for a person who is willing to undergo a large financial loss in exchange for a chance of obtaining an unknown quantity of fresh fish. It takes a certain risk profile coupled with the love of fresh fish.

I show up at noon Friday. They search me for alcohol, GPS devices and cell phones prior to boarding. A barge smashes into the drawbridge nearby. The Coast Guard shows up in quantity. They grab the Captain of the tugboat. "Here. Piss in this. Blow in that." A drunken boater also smashes into the bridge attempting to turn around. They grab him too. We have to run down the Inter coastal for an hour to the next drawbridge.

The trip out takes ten hours. At 8 PM, the red fiery tail of the Shuttle appears in the sky 150 miles away. It blasts straight up toward the full moon. Its cranking out some horsepower. We start fishing at 1 AM, fish 19 hours until 8 PM, then make the run back. The day is spent with endlessly tangled lines and snagged bottom. The bunks remind me of the barracks: snores, wheezes, farts and smelly socks.

A big cold front moves though about noon with heavy rain. For the rest of the day the winds are strong and the waves reach 12-15 feet. The anchor winch burns out and they call for volunteers to stand on the bounding bow in the rain and tug on the big anchor rope. The water is beautiful and crystal clear. We see porpoises and big sea turtles during the day. I'm too busy fishing to take pictures.

Many on board are old and grizzled. Almost all of them still smoke for some reason. I watch a near fistfight between two of the younger fishermen that still have an overabundance of testosterone over the ownership of a large Amber jack. "That's my f***ing fish!". I wouldn't eat a Jack on a bet.

I catch a big Black Grouper, two small Porgies and a large Mangrove Snapper. We get back to the dock at 6 AM Sunday morning. Fresh Mangrove Snapper is said to be delicious. We'll see tonight.

I tip the boat crew and tell them, "Goodbye...and thanks for all the fish".

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 snapper fillets, about 6 ounces each
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley

In a frying pan, toast the almonds over medium heat. Set aside.

Warm the olive oil and butter in the frying pan. Add the snapper. Season with salt and pepper. Cook 4 minutes on each side. Transfer the fish to a warm serving plate and cover loosely with foil.

Add the lemon juice to the pan and whisk to blend with the pan juices. Pour over fillets, add the chopped parsley, and sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Serve immediately.