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

Friday, 31 October 2008

Habitat for Humanity

Sarasota, Florida

This year Habitat for Humanity is going to let me work on construction instead of boring accounting work. The schedule is Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 AM. I need to awaken before dawn and put my boots on.

We went to dinner on the beach this week with George and Danielle, who we met last year. We had grouper picatta. The ocean view is good from the fifth floor of the restaurant at sunset.

Were're playing doubles tennis in the morning again and hanging out at the pool and hot tubs.

Life is good.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Memory Lane

Tampa Theatre

So we blew off Guavaween last night, but today we went to see an "art film" in the old Tampa Theatre called "Frozen River". It's a story about a mother struggling to feed her kids and keep her dilapidated house trailer with a part time minimum wage job and by smuggling aliens over the frozen St. Lawrence river in the trunk of her Dodge Spirit. The action takes place in upstate New York, Montreal and a Mohawk Indian Reservation that spans both countries. A surprisingly good flick without the completely depressing ending I had expected.

I took the bus down to the Tampa Theatre in the early 50s to see Abbott and Costello and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on Saturday mornings.

The incredibly ornate interior was built during the 1926 Florida land boom. My first date (the girl next door) was on a bus to see "African Queen". I saw "Giant" and "Rebel Without a Cause" there. As a freshman in college I took a Catholic girl to see "Elmer Gantry" and worked up the nerve to hold her hand.

Mrs. Phred and I have seen live performances by Gallagher in the theatre and many art films such as "Yulee's Gold" with an aging Peter Fonda. The "Mighty Wurlitzer" organ and an organ player come out of the stage floor and rock for about 15 minutes before the movie starts.

So many things have changed in Tampa in the last 60 years. The Tampa Theatre endures in all its ornate glory.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Ready for Guavaween?

Ybor City, Florida

Guavaween is tonight in Ybor City. That's pronounced E bore. We're getting ready. there were only 27 revellers arrested and hauled off to the pokey last year...More later.

Mrs. Firecloud


Friday, 24 October 2008

Rainy Day Vegetarian Chili

Tampa, Florida

In the big picture for gamblers there are some exceedingly strange things going on in the ebb and flow of money. The dollar is rising fast against other currencies. Oil is dropping like a stone. The credit, economic, equity and housing crises are reinforcing each other in ways not seen even in 1929...deflation, capitulation..what does it all mean? I really don't see an end in sight..margin calls and forced selling from mutual funds drive down equity values...DOW 3500? There was too much bad paper issued during a period of lunatic lending...the only short-term fix is to return to cheap interest and junk loans for anyone who can sign their name.

I remember reading, in 1949, at age six, about deflation. That was only 20 years after the onset of the Great Depression. To the writers of that era, deflation seemed to represent a risk greater than inflation. Nothing happened on the deflation front for the next sixty years because of the Keynesian geniuses regulating our economy. Alan Greenspan failed to commit seppuku during yesterday's Senate hearings... If he had been German, leaving him in alone in a room with a loaded Luger might have allowed him to atone in an appropriate manner.

So it rained all night last night and the courts were wet...during inclement weather I like to amuse myself by an all-day cooking project.

olive oil
1-2 large yellow onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, diced fairly large
1 green pepper, diced fairly large
2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
1 T. cumin
1 tsp. cayenne (or to your taste)
1 package frozen corn
2 to 3 cans black beans (or other kinds of beans, garbanzo, kidney, northern are good)
1.5 C. picante sauce
salt to taste
grated cheddar, if desired

Saute onions in the olive oil. Add garlic a bit later. After the onion and garlic are have turned golden brown, add cumin & cayenne, and fry for a couple of minutes.

Next, add the peppers and saute them for a few minutes. Put the crushed tomatoes, corn, beans and picante sauce into the crock pot, and add the onion, pepper and garlic mixture.

Cook on low about 10 hours. Pour into a bowl, add the cheddar and serve to someone you love.

So... speaking of pictures, I have hundreds of astounding pictures of Antelope Canyon, Arizona. You go into this amazing slot canyon place on the Navajo Reservation with a Navajo guide. The guide points out the picture opportunities. You want to be there at noon on a sunny day when some sunlight filters into the slot. Our guide threw a handful of sand onto a purple cliff wall...If I had a wall of my own, I'd have this and some other of these pictures blown up...this was our second guided trip...hopefully not the last.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A Lull in Life

Tampa, Florida

I have not posted anything for over two weeks. I'm alive and well and living in Tampa. We spent almost a week moving into the Blue Bus, learning to work all the new gadgets and wandering around in our new palacial (36 foot) digs.

We're working on Mom's medical and social issues. She turned 85 in August and things that used to be easy for her have become a little harder... a small example was running out of checks with which to pay her bills... so I haul her down to the bank and order more... a task maybe too complex for her at this point in life... she's stll very sweet... maybe it's time for a tattoo of a heart that says "Mom"? She was building radar artillery fuses during my first two years on this planet.

I've been hitting the local library a lot now that I'm back in the county where I have a library card. Mrs. Phred and I have been taking some lessons from Jack, our tennis pro. Jack is a wiry little guy maybe even older than I am. He's from the Zen school of tennis: don't think about it, just hit it. "Hit a thousand balls". We've also been playing some singles. My scores have been 6-0, 6-1, her favor. Today we drove down to Sarasota to play some doubles with a number of friends and acquaintances from last year. I did well, considering a seven month break.

So... Life isn't always that interesting, but sometimes that's ok... We'll be moving to Sarasota November 1st... That's Mrs. Phred's birthday. It doesn't look like the trip to the Keys for Friday's Fantasy Fest is going to happen... The juice isn't worth the squeeze... It's nine driving hours to get down there...

McCain has a slight lead on Obama in Florida as of today... We've mailed in our absentee ballots. There are ten presidential candidates on the ballot in Florida, including Ralph Nader and seven others I didn't recognize. We both voted for Obama.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Driver, where you taken us?

Tampa, Florida

The blue bus is callin us
The blue bus is callin us
Driver, where you taken us?

We say goodbye to the old motorhome and hello to the Blue Bus. Our new home is the one shown above. You push a button and it whines and whirs and brings itself to a level position on uneven ground. Another button makes the satellite dome on the roof lock into satellite TV. It's seven feet longer than the old RV, has two bathrooms and even has a washer/dryer. There are two air conditioning units for those hot summer desert days and a much more powerful generator for boondocking. We'll be very happy here. Plenty of room for the SCUBA gear in the huge basement...lots of ceiling headroom...Oh!...I can plug my IPOD directly into any of the onboard radios...

Cmon baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus
Doin a blue rock
On a blue bus
Doin a blue rock
Cmon, yeah
....Jim Morrison

Friday, 3 October 2008

Dark Rum and Wall Street Bail-0uts

San Juan, Puerto Rico

First off, I would like to wish my Little Brother in Wendover a happy birthday and a future life of happiness, equanimity and love....I don't have his telephone number with me. Happy Birthday, David!

I'm drinking more than my fair share of dark rum. I go down to the local liquor store and treat myself to a bottle of dark Bacardi select...I eyeball the Bacardi 151... but that way lies madness...

Flashback to 1964...I have a roommate, Ted, who is a blond good-looking fraternity guy from Palm Beach...He tells me about "pig parties". That is where you compete to find the least attractive possible date and then delight in their embarrassment when they realize that they have all been invited to a party for ugly women. He actually seems a little guilty relating this to me...maybe there was hope for him?

My deviant non-empathetic roommate produces a bottle of Bacardi 151. I end up with a traffic ticket for driving my Harley-Davidson Sportster at 110 MPH in a 30 MPH zone at 2 AM in front of the Tallahassee police station. Only a year earlier Jim Morrison, my former almost roommate, was charged for stealing an umbrella from a police car. The judge gives me a break after seeing my military ID, but he chews me out good...but at least I didn't get caught stealing a stupid umbrella...

Outside the hotel room tonight, they are blasting away with Puerto Rican of the songs is about "muchos saxophones"....I sit in an Audit Committee meeting with 12 staff and's embarrassing to be the only non-bilingual person in the room...they all speak English for my benefit...If I come back, I will be fluent in Spanish...

My pay grade is GS0...I'm a volunteer.

So what about that credit freeze? One problem is colateralized debt obligations (CDOs). These are bundles of securitized sub-prime mortgages. They were rated AAA by the rating organization when issued primarily because of "insurance" against defaults...more about that later.

The banks are using models to value these CDO assets which reflect home price declines in metropolitan areas. For example. the San Francisco Metropolitan Area (SFMA) has just experienced a 24% house price decline. The problem with that is that housing prices in some San Francisco areas are down 70% and in other area only 5%. The banks should be using zip code data to value mortgages and CDOs. This would result in valuing CDOs at near market value. For example, many banks are carrying CDOs worth 15% on the dollar at 75% or more.

I don't think $700 Billion is going to do much to correct the "exuberant excesses" of the last seven years. It's a ten trillion dollar issue...but wait...what about credit default swaps?...and what happened to the Investment Banks?

A Credit Default Swap is like an insurance policy against CDO defaults. Warren Buffet called these instruments of financial mass destruction five years ago. The Investment Banks collected big fees on these policies for years but never set aside payment reserves or anticipated any defaults on mortgages. So when the housing market went south two years ago, eventually "hedge fund" managers panicked and withdrew assets from the investment banks leading to the collapse of Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, AIG Insurance, Lehman Brothers and others...what's a "hedge fund"? Please...Don't even ask.

While "subprime" mortgages, borrower fraud, speculative greed and low interest rates created a huge housing and mortgage bubble, a bigger problem now looms...negative amortiztion or "pay option" mortgages. These have brought down Washington Mutual and Wachovia, two of the biggest US Commercial banks. How's this for a deal...sign an 8% mortgage but pay only 2% until your mortgsge balance reaches 125% of the original loan...then you get a letter that your payments have doubled or tripled. You owe maybe twice as much as your home is worth after a 30% decline in walk or not to walk...that is the question...

Meanwhile, inter-bank lending has virtually dried up because banks realize that mortgage assets of other banks are significantly overvalued or impossible to evaluate based on current valuation models. Depositors are making panicked (but somewhat justified) withdrawals from banks where they hsve more on deposit than the $100,000 FDIC insurance limit. The $44 billion in the FDIC fund won't go all that far in the current climate.

I've evaluated the finances of my own credit union. Here is some scary stuff on their provision for bad debts:
2005 $12,000,000
2006 $12,000,000
2007 $60,000,000
2008 $150,000,000

So what about suspension of the "mark to market" method of accounting for mortgage assets that just got signed into law as part of the bailout package? Now banks don't have to writedown assets to what they fetch in similar helpful..