Saturday, January 10, 2009

Barred owl

One of my favorite things about the dog park lately is seeing this (or some) owl on occasion. I'd heard about him/her for a year, but finally saw him for the first time a few weeks ago and now see him almost every time I go. He/she has a couple typical spots. This is a barred owl. Today I saw two of these owls in close proximity and heard them calling and responding to each other. Amazing. Part of their call is a "who who" like a stereotype of an owl. One was quite a bit larger than the other, so I think they're opposite sex and may be or may become a mating pair. I'm hoping for baby owls in April, though I'll probably not be able to spot them. Seem like a dog park would be a dangerous place to fledge.

I took this photo with my husband's camera and couldn't figure out how to work the zoom, so you'll have to take my word for it that there's an owl there.I'll try to get a better photo some time.

How cool/embarassing was that?

My Ghost post got corrected by the author.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Stephanie the Honda girl...

Honda Girl is right there with Victor Davis Hanson:

I never bought a foreign or even a new car until 1991 when I first sinned at 38, and got a cut-rate, entry-level 4-cylinder Mazda MPV van for the five of us ($15,100/five years at 5%, and a $1000 down). (It ran wonderfully for 130,000 miles without a glitch).

That said, over the subsequent years and in subsequent real guilt (My late B-29-flying Dad wouldn’t buy Japanese), I did atonement and bought my two kids two Chevy-S-10s. I got my other daughter a Chevy Malibu. In the 1990s I drove only Dodge Pick-ups—a little Ram D-50 and then a Dakota.

Then I noticed the following: Malibu—6 brake jobs, alternator out twice, air conditioning never worked right after 5,000 miles. The two S-10s: alternators went out, fuel line problems. Dodge pick-ups: one broke down late at night on California’s empty West Side due to ignition and chronic electrical problems, and then again during a rain storm in the Sierra. (on a high pass on a curve). The other’s timing belt quit at 40,000 miles (stuck while driving on the coast for two days); the head gasket blew at 85,000 miles (stuck in Hollister).

Then in 2004 I sinned again (mea culpa, Pater care, mea magna culpa!) and borrowed and bought a Honda Accord (now 110K miles, still no problems), then yet again with a 2006 Civic for my daughter (60K no problems), and, yes, still more, with a 2005 Honda CRV for my wife (70K, battery once went dead).

(I used to have an Accord myself and currently drive that Dakota...63k with only oil, wiper blade and tire changes.)

Why I went to the Univeristy of Arkansas

I decided to reply this way, as I felt the comment section would be inappropriate for such a long winded answer.

Some history. Both of my parents are from the same small town in Arkansas. My grand-parents and great-grandparents both lived their whole lives in the same town. I had many aunts, uncles, cousins in the same town. All through my childhood, we spent almost as much time in Arkansas as we did in Tulsa or Houston. As with most Arkansans, all the members of my family were HUGE Razorback fans, even though none of them went there, let alone attended college. Only my father and one of his sisters ever went to college.

I always "knew" that is where I would go. My father, somewhat teasingly, always told me that I could to college anywhere I wanted, but he would only pay for Arkansas. By the time I got to college age, I was ready to get away from home. My thinking was that Arkansas was far enough away to be away, but close enough to my grandparents (2 1/2 hours) and I would see my parents when the made their numerous trips back home. Arkansas was , and is, a small school even though it is a state school (when I attended, 15,000 undergrads and only slightly higher now). I liked the small class sizes, the small but beautiful campus, the area of NW Arkansas and, of course, I was totally indoctrinated into the whole Razorback sports hysteria. I had gone to my first Razorback football game when I was 2 months old and had been attending or listening to games my whole life.

It's too bad that I wasn't exactly the best student - had I been, my experience would have been even better than it was.

Fred Burton’s Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

Finished it last night while others watched the Gators beat the Paperclips.

I’ve been posting the Stratfor columns for a while now and Fred Burton is their vp for counter-terrrorism and corproate security. He was formerly deputy chief of the DSS. I didn’t really even know that the DSS was until I read the book even though I’ve met him a couple of times at speaking engagements (his, not mine…who wants to come hear a dry lawyer talk to a bunch of contractors about liens?).

It is the Defense Security Service. It is a federal agency under the State Department which operates CIA/FBI/Secret Service-like agency for the State Department. Lots of security work for our embassies, ambassadors and other diplomats abroad and in charge of protecting foreign dignitaries while here.

Update. That link I posted for DSS may have been wrong. It's parent organization, the DS is here.

There is a video about the book which I haven’t viewed but can be seen here.

It is written in style a counter-terrorism agent would employ along with the help of competent editors. A few too many references to the “Dark World” in which he operated for my taste.

He served under Reagan, Bush the Elder and Clinton. Interesting insights into several things: how the counter-terrorism operation used to work and how they work today, Arms for Hostages/Iran/Contra, guarding Arafat when it was once one’s job to get him, to Burton’s role in the capture of what has to be at least one the top five pre-9/11 terrorists.

Update: How embarrassing. Correction from the author: Diplomatic Security Service.

National champion from the SEC...again

I was really torn last night watching the BCS National Championship game. Normally, I would obviously be rooting for the SEC team. However, I hate Florida. When you follow the SEC week-to-week as I do, you get force-fed Tim Tebow. I know he is a great person and a great player, but he seems TOO good, TOO perfect and his hype is unreal. Part of it, I admit, is being upset that he won the Heisman Trophy 2 years ago when I felt Darren McFadden of my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks should have. I've been to a game at Florida and their fans are arrogant as hell and just rub me the wrong way.

As for OU, I hate them as well. Never liked Bob Stoops, never liked Barry Switzer (even though he was an Arkansas boy and alum), never liked their fans, living here in DFW you have to listen and read about how great they are and how great the Big 12 is. Even though I was born in Oklahoma and lived there through 3rd grade, I never had a connection to OU. When they played Nebraska, I always rooted for Nebraska.

In the end, I wanted Florida to win, but look bad doing it. And I wanted the SEC to once again prove their dominance. 3 years in a row now the national champion has been from the SEC. I would love to see a Florida-USC matchup however, even though in that case I would be for USC. That being said....

S-E-C... S-E-C .... S-E-C!!!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

George Will on the GMAC mess

From JWR:

GMAC is known as the "financing affiliate" of General Motors. But Cerberus, the huge private equity firm that owns 80.1 percent of Chrysler, also owned 51 percent of GMAC until GMAC got the government to baptize it as a bank holding company. That transformation supposedly was necessary to make GMAC eligible for a place at the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) trough — although GM itself already has a place there, as does Chrysler. Anyway, the infusion of TARP dollars — 6 billion of them — diluted Cerberus's GMAC ownership to at most 33 percent, but that diminution seems a small price for Cerberus to pay for a second bite from the bailout apple.

Washington sternly said that it would allow GMAC to become a bank holding company only if GMAC managed to increase its capital to $30 billion. When GMAC fell far short of that goal, Washington supplied some of the shortfall. Immediately after GMAC became eligible for TARP money, GM reduced to zero the interest rate — for up to 60 months — on certain models. This, of course, penalizes GM competitors, including Toyota, Honda and other "transplants" whose cars are made in America by Americans for Americans, and Ford, which does not have the freedom of maneuver conferred by TARP money because Ford is not taking any.

Stratfor on Israel/Hamas

Because Stratfor lets me:

Israel is now in the 13th day of carrying out Operation Cast Lead against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has been the de facto ruler ever since it seized control of the territory in a June 2007 coup. The Israeli campaign, whose primary military aim is to neutralize Hamas' ability to carry out rocket attacks against Israel, has led to the reported deaths of more than 560 Palestinians; the number of wounded is approaching the 3,000 mark.

The reaction from the Arab world has been mixed. On the one hand, a look at the so-called Arab street will reveal an angry scene of chanting protesters, burning flags and embassy attacks in protest of Israel's actions. The principal Arab regimes, however, have either kept quiet or publicly condemned Hamas for the crisis — while privately often expressing their support for Israel's bid to weaken the radical Palestinian group.

Despite the much-hyped Arab nationalist solidarity often cited in the name of Palestine, most Arab regimes actually have little love for the Palestinians. While these countries like keeping the Palestinian issue alive for domestic consumption and as a tool to pressure Israel and the West when the need arises, in actuality, they tend to view Palestinian refugees — and more Palestinian radical groups like Hamas — as a threat to the stability of their regimes.
One such Arab country is Saudi Arabia. Given its financial power and its shared religious underpinnings with Hamas, Riyadh traditionally has backed the radical Palestinian group. The kingdom backed a variety of Islamist political forces during the 1960s and 1970s in a bid to undercut secular Nasserite Arab nationalist forces, which threatened Saudi Arabia's regional status. But 9/11, which stemmed in part from Saudi support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, opened Riyadh's eyes to the danger of supporting militant Islamism.

Thus, while Saudi Arabia continued to support many of the same Palestinian groups, it also started whistling a more moderate tune in its domestic and foreign policies. As part of this moderate drive, in 2002 King Abdullah offered Israel a comprehensive peace treaty whereby Arab states would normalize ties with the Jewish state in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders. Though Israel rejected the offer, the proposal itself clearly conflicted with Hamas' manifesto, which calls for Israel's destruction. The post-9/11 world also created new problems for one of Hamas' sources of regular funding — wealthy Gulf Arabs — who grew increasingly wary of turning up on the radars of Western security and intelligence agencies as fund transfers from the Gulf came under closer scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Egypt, which regularly mediates Hamas-Israel and Hamas-Fatah matters, thus far has been the most vocal in its opposition to Hamas during the latest Israeli military offensive. Cairo has even gone as far as blaming Hamas for provoking the conflict. Though Egypt's stance has earned it a number of attacks on its embassies in the Arab world and condemnations in major Arab editorial pages, Cairo has a core strategic interest in ensuring that Hamas remains boxed in. The secular government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is already preparing for a shaky leadership transition, which is bound to be exploited by the country's largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

The MB, from which Hamas emerged, maintains links with the Hamas leadership. Egypt's powerful security apparatus has kept the MB in check, but the Egyptian group has steadily built up support among Egypt's lower and middle classes, which have grown disillusioned with the soaring rate of unemployment and lack of economic prospects in Egypt. The sight of Muslim Brotherhood activists leading protests in Egypt in the name of Hamas is thus quite disconcerting for the Mubarak regime. The Egyptians also are fearful that Gaza could become a haven for Salafist jihadist groups that could collaborate with Egypt's own jihadist node the longer Gaza remains in disarray under Hamas rule.

Of the Arab states, Jordan has the most to lose from a group like Hamas. More than three-fourths of the Hashemite monarchy's people claim Palestinian origins. The kingdom itself is a weak, poor state that historically has relied on the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States for its survival. Among all Arab governments, Amman has had the longest and closest relationship with Israel — even before it concluded a formal peace treaty with Israel in 1994. In 1970, Jordan waged war against Fatah when the group posed a threat to the kingdom's security; it also threw out Hamas in 1999 after fears that the group posed a similar threat to the stability of the kingdom. Like Egypt, Jordan also has a vibrant MB, which has closer ties to Hamas than its Egyptian counterpart. As far as Amman is concerned, therefore, the harder Israel hits Hamas, the better.

Finally, Syria is in a more complex position than these other four Arab states. The Alawite-Baathist regime in Syria has long been a pariah in the Arab world because of its support for Shiite Iran and for their mutual militant proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. But ever since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Syrians have been charting a different course, looking for ways to break free from diplomatic isolation and to reach some sort of understanding with the Israelis.

For the Syrians, support for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other radical Palestinian outfits provides tools of leverage to use in negotiating a settlement with Israel. Any deal between the Syrians and the Israelis would thus involve Damascus sacrificing militant proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas in return for key concessions in Lebanon — where Syria's core geopolitical interests lie — and in the disputed Golan Heights. While the Israeli-Syrian peace talks remain in flux, Syria's lukewarm reaction to the Israeli offensive and restraint (thus far) from criticizing the more moderate Arab regimes' lack of response suggests Damascus may be looking to exploit the Gaza offensive to improve its relations in the Arab world and reinvigorate its talks with Israel. And the more da mage Israel does to Hamas now, the easier it will be for Damascus to crack down on Hamas should the need arise.

With Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria taking into account their own interests when dealing with the Palestinians, ironically, the most reliable patron Sunni Hamas has had in recent years is Iran, the Sunni Arab world's principal Shiite rival. Several key developments have made Hamas' gradual shift toward Iran possible:

1. Saudi Arabia's post-9/11 move into the moderate camp — previously dominated by Egypt and Jordan, two states that have diplomatic relations with Israel.

2. The collapse of Baathist Iraq and the resulting rise of Shiite power in the region.

3. The 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections that put Iran's ultraconservatives in power and the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose public anti-Israeli views resonated with Hamas at a time when other Arab states had grown more moderate.

4. The 2006 Palestinian elections, in which Hamas defeated its secular rival, Fatah, by a landslide. When endowed with the responsibility of running an unrecognized government, Hamas floundered between its goals of dominating the Palestinian political landscape and continuing to call for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamist state. The Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, had hoped that the electoral victory would lead Hamas to moderate its stance, but Iran encouraged Hamas to adhere to its radical agenda. As the West increasingly isolated the Hamas-led government, the group shifted more toward the Iranian position, which more closely meshed with its original mandate.

5. The 2006 summer military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, in which Iranian-backed Hezbollah symbolically defeated the Jewish state. Hezbollah's ability to withstand the Israeli military onslaught gave confidence to Hamas that it could emulate the Lebanese Shiite movement — which, like Hamas, was both a political party and an armed paramilitary organization. Similar to their reaction to the current Gaza offensive, the principal Arab states condemned Hezbollah for provoking Israel and grew terrified at the outpouring of support for the Shiite militant group from their own populations. Hezbollah-Hamas collaboration in training, arms-procurement and funding intensified, and almost certainly has played a decisive role in equipping Hamas with 122mm BM-21 Grad artillery rockets and larger Iranian-made 240mm Fajr-3 rockets — and potentially even a modest anti-armor capability.

6. The June 2007 Hamas coup against Fatah in the Gaza Strip, which caused a serious strain in relations between Egypt and Hamas. The resulting blockade on Gaza put Egypt in an extremely uncomfortable position, in which it had to crack down on the Gaza border, thus giving the MB an excuse to rally opposition against Cairo. Egypt was already uncomfortable with Hamas' electoral victory, but it could not tolerate the group's emergence as the unchallenged power in Gaza.

7. Syria's decision to go public with peace talks with Israel. As soon as it became clear that Syria was getting serious about such negotiations, alarm bells went off within groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which now had to deal with the fear that Damascus could sell them out at any time as part of a deal with the Israelis.

Hamas' relations with the Arab states already were souring; its warming relationship with Iran has proved the coup de grace. Mubarak said it best when he recently remarked that the situation in the Gaza Strip "has led to Egypt, in practice, having a border with Iran." In other words, Hamas has allowed Iranian influence to come far too close for the Arab states' comfort.

In many ways, the falling-out between Hamas and the Arab regimes is not surprising. The decline of Nasserism in the late 1960s essentially meant the death of Arab nationalism. Even before then, the Arab states put their respective national interests ahead of any devotion to pan-Arab nationalism that would have translated into support for the Palestinian cause. As Islamism gradually came to replace Arab nationalism as a political force throughout the region, the Arab regimes became even more concerned about stability at home, given the very real threat of a religious challenge to their rule. While these states worked to suppress radical Islamist elements that had taken root in their countries, the Arab governments caught wind of Tehran's attempts to adopt the region's radical Islamist trend to create a geopolitical space for Iran in the Arab Middle East. As a result, the Arab-Persian struggle became one of the key drivers that has turned the Arab states against Hamas.

For each of these Arab states, Hamas represents a force that could stir the social pot at home — either by creating a backlash against the regimes for their ties to Israel and their perceived failure to aid the Palestinians, or by emboldening democratic Islamist movements in the region that could threaten the stability of both republican regimes and monarchies. With somewhat limited options to contain Iranian expansion in the region, the Arab states ironically are looking to Israel to ensure that Hamas remains boxed in. So, while on the surface it may seem that the entire Arab world is convulsing with anger at Israel's offensive against Hamas, a closer look reveals that the view from the Arab palace is quite different from the view on the Arab street.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Dead of Winter

Looks a little something like this in Minnesota:

Sweet Potato Soup with Chilies and Honey

I tried and loved this very easy recipe for sweet potato soup. The flavors are interesting and complex because of the mix of spicy/savory and sweet and because of the roasting of the sweet potatoes. In the dead of winter, I'm always craving creamy food and this is at least a little creamy without being full of the calories that usually come with creamy.

2 lbs fresh sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges (I cut them into slabs of relatively uniform thickness so they cook evenly)
2 TBSP olive oil
1/2 tsp hot pepper flakes
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup golden honey
6 cups chicken stock

Options for garnishes:
1/2 cup heavy cream whipped to soft peaks
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 375 F, with rack in the middle. Put all ingredients except stock (and optional garnishes) in a medium bowl and toss very well. Tip everything onto an ungreased heavy cookie sheet or shallow roasting pan. Bake at 375 F for 40 minutes, but check them after 25 minutes. (You don’t want any blackening on the edges, but you do want them to brown well in a few spots. If you get black spots on any of your wedges, don’t use them in the soup – just eat them.)

Put the stock in a large pan over medium heat and add the roasted sweet potatoes and simmer for 20 minutes.

Blend to a smooth puree, either with an immersion blender or in small batches in a blender. Check the consistency; if too thin, return to pot and simmer further; if too thick, add water or stock.

Optional: add garnish to dished soup. I recommend a good crusty bread to go along with it.

This recipe was printed in the Fall 2008 issue of Real Food, a magazine provided free by Lunds & Byerlys (my favorite grocery stores), and I post it here with permission from the magazine's editor, Dara Grumdahl. The recipe is the creation of caterer Serena Bass.

More on taxes from the CBO

From Mankiw:

Here are the total effective federal tax rates for 2005, the most recent year available:

Lowest quintile: 4.3 percent

Top 0.01 Percentile: 31.5 percent

N.B.: These figures include all federal taxes, not just income taxes.

Tax Transparency

A lot of talk going on about the President-elect’s tax concessions in order to get the Rethugs, or at least some of them, to go along with his economic recovery plan.

One of the ideas I’ve heard floated is a sort of tax holiday in which, instead of rebates, employers simply wouldn’t deduct any income taxes from the employee paychecks for a certain period. I used to think this would never happen because it would give taxpayers a painful reminder about taxes once the holiday ended and their checks went back down to the pre-holiday amount. It would make that income tax too transparent. Of course, any taxpayer with a brain sees the amount that is deducted but I believe there are many taxpayers who see their refunds as some sort of windfall they get every spring. I know people who actually ask employers to withhold at higher rates than necessary to enforce saving when they should have been using the time value of money to increase net worth. Because of lunacy like this, maybe a holiday can be safely implemented.

I also hear it tossed around a lot on the right that among industrialized nations, only Japan’s corporate income tax rate exceeds ours. I have never understood corporate income taxes except that politicians know they can succeed because they are not transparent. Corporations are not taxpayers; they are tax collectors. At least one’s local sales taxes are visible. Lawyers out there know there are ways to avoid those corporate income taxes on the federal level (at least for smaller businesses) by making a sub-S election or jumping through other hurdles. I don’t get why a corporation, upon reaching a certain size, should become a tax collector. If we want transparency, let’s drop the corporate income tax and increase my income tax accordingly.

The Sopranos

One of the running jokes with my friends is how long it takes me to jump on bandwagons. Books, movies, music, tv. One prime example is Seinfeld. I didn't start watching it until maybe season 3 or 4, even when my friends were telling me how great it was. It WAS great. It IS great. In my opinion, the best tv series ever. The Sopranos is another example. My excuse is/was that I don't have HBO. But even after being released on dvd, it still took me until maybe last year to start checking the series out.

I finished Season 3 yesterday. While I'm finally getting and seeing the subtle humor (whether intentional or not is up to some debate I think), I'm still not seeing what all the hype was about. It's good, it's different, but I'm not sure I would have made it to season 3 if I had been watching it real time. As for the humor, I question the humor aspect based upon listening to the commentaries that are part of some of the episodes. The directors and the creator (David Chase) make comments about inside jokes, extremely subtle lines, the way the actors made something funny that might not have been written that way, etc. So that makes me question whether the humor was intended or just a part of the actors playing it that way. I guess it's both and maybe that is the genius that everyone else sees.

Season 3 did have, so far, my favorite episode - Pine Barrens. Basically a debt collection gone bad - way bad. The stuff in the woods is very funny and the comments on the commentary (by director Steve Buscemi of Fargo fame) gave a lot of insight into how they filmed the wood scenes. He mentioned several times how the actors underplayed scenes that made the humor even better. The episode had a very "Fargo" feel, which he said wasn't intentional at all. It just happened to snow at the location before and during the 4 day filming.

I will start Season 4 in the next week or so (thank you Netflix). I'm not sure what direction Season 4 will go in, but I have to think that a couple of the regular characters have to have something bad happen to them. Time will tell.

Medicare/Social Security Ponzi Scheme

From John Stossel at JWR:

Ten years after Social Security passed in 1935, there were almost 42 workers for each retiree. Five years later, the ratio slipped to about 17 to 1. Now it's about 3.4 to 1. Thirty years from now, the ratio is projected to be 2 to 1.

Think of the burden on those two to three workers who'll have to support one retiree for 15 to 20 years.

With African-American males having the shortest life spans and white women having the longest...who's taking care of my mother?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Thank you credit/financial/mortgage crisis

To date, the only effect the financial crisis has had on C and I was in a negative way, as mentioned here. Well, now we've had a positive. I spent most of the day yesterday on the phone going through the process of refinancing our mortgage. Went from a 30yr @ 6.58% to a 15yr @ 4.69%. Our monthly payment went up just a bit, but the prospect of paying off the mortgage in at least half the time is very, very attractive. Then we can start on the vacation cabin in Wisconsin.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Re: Daily Coyote

Wow. I finally took the time. Those photos are amazing. Even if this ultimately ends not so well (as I suspect it might), it is an interesting experiment.

Take your time and follow Stephanie's advice and start from the beginning.

Good Heavens!

Take a look at these guys...flying. Yep. Flying. Stolen from Hot Air.

Dallas "winter" weather

The weather in the DFW is so weird. Saturday C and I were doing yard work (raking leaves, cleaning gutters, taking down Christmas decorations) wearing shorts with the temp near 80. Yesterday, it never got above 44. Today, freezing rain and temps near freezing. A week or so before we left for Wisconsin for Christmas, it was 80, then down to the highs in the 20's for 3 days, up to the 50's, then down to the 30's and back to the 70's in the span of 7 days.

Can anyone say...climate change????