Saturday, March 08, 2008

Alien abductions happen!

The craft moves relentlessly through the Florida night, and suddenly you are blinded by a light brighter than any you have ever known. You are seized and taken aboard. Your mouth is bound, and you cannot open it. Alien hands seize your body. You are pinned, prodded and poked, in the most intimate pars of your body. Measurements are taken in procedures that are not physically invasive, but which feel invasive, for an alien science you do not understand, and you hear muffled voice that make no sense. Then, as suddenly as you are seized, you are ejected from the craft, tossed back into the Florida night, splashing into the cool dark wetness of the lake where you were abducted. You will try to forget that it ever happened, but you'll spend the rest of your life feeling an obscure dread whenever something resembling that craft or that strange light appears.

Alien abductions happen. They happen to alligators in Florida. They're briefly captured from airboats in Florida waterways, their penis size and other vital measurements taken before they are returned to the water by researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I heard Prof. Louis Gillette talking about his research on The People's Pharmacy this afternoon. They're researching the impact of endocrine disrupting chemicals released into the environment in ever greater concentrations, chemicals with the potential to affect our reproductive systems. You can read about his research here, or download a podcast of the show where he talks about his research here. The implications for the human environment are frightening.

Friday, March 07, 2008

What George Bush and John McCain said on their way down to the bunker to meet with Dick Cheney

This is what I dreamed: After Bush and McCain met with reporters at the White House to discuss Bush's endorsement Wednesday, the two men headed for the secret passage to the secret bunker to meet with our secretive vice president. On the way down to the bunker, they discussed an important matter.
Bush: Heckuva job, John Boy. It's gonna be a great campaign. Just one little formality left. We have to talk to Cheney . . .
McCain: I look forward to it, Mr. President. Dick Cheney is a great American.
Bush: You got it. Before we meet him, though, there's something I need to tell you, hope you'll unnerstand.
McCain: Fire away, Mr. President.
Bush: Well, um, the thing is -- we want Dick to stay on as vice president to lead the war on terror. He's really into this bunker thing, ya know?. He really digs it.
McCain: Whatever you say, Mr. President. Makes sense -- you don't change horses in midstream at the outset of a 100 year war. Besides, I could use a younger, experienced man on the ticket -- what if something happened to me?
Bush: Yeah, you never know. That's it, then. Eight more years!
McCain: Eight more years, Mr. President.
Bush: We'll take care of that little election thing later.
McCain: Thank you, Mr. President. Whatever it takes -- you guys know how to get these things done. I appreciate it.

TGIF Countdown: In 319 days we can say goodbye to Bush and his loutish, bullying sense of humor

Just 319 days and George Bush will no longer be embarrassing himself and his country in meetings with foreign dignitaries.

Remember 2002, when David Gregory, at the Bush-Chirac joint press conference, had the temerity to ask the French president a question in French?
But, at the Elysee Palace on Sunday, Gregory found out that Mr Bush wasn't really his buddy after all.

"I wonder why it is you think there are such strong sentiments in Europe against you and against this administration?" he asked, before turning to the French leader and adding: "Et vous Monsieur le President Chirac, qu'en pensez-vous?"

The American president pursed his lips in annoyance: he does not speak French and sensed he was being mocked. "Very good," he said sardonically. "The guy memorises four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental."

Gregory, in so deep he couldn't turn back, ventured: "I can go on." But Mr Bush did a little mocking of his own: "I'm impressed - que bueno. Now I'm literate in two languages."
I was reminded of the incident this morning, when Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason," brought it up during her guest appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio, when she talked about Bush being a symptom, not a cause, of the phenomenon her book is about. Jacoby is also program director of a rationalist think tank, the Center for Inquiry-New York City. You'll be able to stream her appearance on the Kathleen Dunn show here after the link goes up.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

When homeowners give up and walk away

One reason that the apparently never-ending residential mortgage crisis just keeps getting worse and worse, continually exceeding the experts' downside predictions, is that a new generation of home buyers long ago left the realm of predictable behavior far behind.

In the now distant past, home ownership was something consumers took seriously as a long-term commitment. Taking on a mortgage was a lifetime responsibility. Life savings were involved. There were requirements to be met, and everybody knew that taking on a mortgage was something you didn't walk away from lightly. This led to predictability in the market.

Sure, some buyers would run into trouble and default. But problem loans were a small, relatively steady proportion of the total, rising and falling somewhat with the economy, but essentially in a predictable pattern. Lenders could get a handle on their risk, price it into their mortgages, and have a pretty clear picture of the value of their assets. It was all based on buyers having a lot at stake.

Now, everything is up for grabs. The uncertainty is threatening our entire financial system. We're dealing with what Rumsfeld once called "known unknowns." Nobody really knows how millions of bad credit risks, marginal buyers, and overextended consumers will react to tough times, because before mortgage lending standards were shredded and thrown out with the trash, they would not have been able to buy what they bought, and lenders have no idea what to expect. There's no track record on which to base realistic projections. But some hints are starting to emerge.
U.S. mortgage foreclosures rose to an all-time high at the end of 2007 as borrowers with adjustable-rate loans walked away from properties before their payments increased, the Mortgage Bankers Association said today.

New foreclosures jumped to 0.83 percent of all home loans in the fourth quarter from 0.54 percent a year earlier. Late payments rose to a 23-year high, the organization said in a report today.

``We're seeing people give up even before they get to the reset because they couldn't afford the home in the first place,'' said Jay Brinkmann, vice president of research and economics for the Washington-based trade group.
There was a time when homeowners didn't give up and walk away from their mortgages. They had too much at stake -- big down payments, often some equity on top of that, life savings. But a new generation of homeowners already feels like virtual renters with a greedy landlord. They're facing monthly payments they can't afford, holding underwater mortgages, and their homes are worth far less than they owe. They have nothing to lose.

In other words, the same sorts of loans that drove the real estate boom have changed the nature of foreclosure, giving borrowers incentives to walk away, according to Todd Sinai, an associate professor of real estate at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, quoted in the New York Times recently.
“There’s a whole lot of people who would’ve been stuck as renters without these exotic loan products,” Professor Sinai said. “Now it’s like they can do their renting from the bank, and if house values go up, they become the owner. If they go down, you have the choice to give the house back to the bank. You aren’t any worse off than renting, and you got a chance to do extremely well. If it’s heads I win, tails the bank loses, it’s worth the gamble.”
Nobody knows how many will walk away. Not only does the future of our economy for years to come hang in the balance, but possibly the future of suburbia, as well. Will today's McMansions turn into tomorrow's tenements?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit

Portrait of a Perfectly Perplexed Pundit
"Huh?" Translation: What do you mean, she won? How can that be? You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. We told her to fold 'em. She had no momentum. Besides, other men, not me of course, are too misogynistic to elect a woman president. For the good of the party, she should call it quits.

Novel idea: Wouldn't it be great if the pundits let the voters decide?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Another angle on that Vilas Park Deathrap

Vilas park Deathtrap: The Situation in a Nutshell
This gives a better overview of the Vilas Park stone bridge deathtrap than my last post. It's also a better view than you get in the summer, when the trees block the view of Edgewood Avenue, which drops precipitously down toward the bridge -- which is why some drivers enter the bridge after a couple of turns, just slightly out of control, with a tendency to veer toward the bike and pedestrian path on their left, which is flush with the roadway and only marked by a yellow line. Again, no problem in the winter, especially this morning, when cars were inching down the icy slope at about 3 mph, and there were few pedestrians and even fewer bikes. But wait till summer . . .

"Bridge may be icy" is what the sign said

Bridge May Be Icy
No kidding. This is what driving to work in Madison has turned into this winter. So where is that early spring that Jimmy the Groundhog promised us? It's enough to sorely test one's faith in rodent oracles.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Winter melancholy creeps in this petty pace from day to day

Winter Melancholy Creeps in this Petty Pace from Day to Day
Repeating the same pattern over and over again, one that has come to define this winter: Start with a good, dark misty fog. Then cue the rain, predicted by the weather forecasts. And then, as it gets later, apply the frosting -- a couple inches of snow. Wake up in the morning to the commuter's nightmare, and venture forth, because you have to. Sigh.

Another weird little driving hazard in this, the weirdest of Madison winters

Bouncing off the Artificial Ice Terrace
I was driving north on Allen Street yesterday. Like all of Madison's streets, it's narrowed by the snow, and as a car approached on the left I moved slightly to the right to give it room. That's when something suddenly nudged the car back to the left, toward the other car. I was going slowly, and it was just a gentle nudge -- nothing I couldn't control. If I had been going faster, it might have been a problem, but it wasn't.

Nevertheles, it's a weird, offbeat little mini-hazard in this weirdest of winters, and I thought I'd pass it on in case you haven't encountered it yet. What happened was that I bounced off a second, pseudo "curb" made of ice extending several feel out from the real curb, whch is buried under the accumulating snow. And it's easy to miss it, because it's not something you expect to be here.

It's a byproduct of the city street crews' effort to remove snow and ice from city streets. I don't mean to suggest they're doing anything wrong -- far from it. It's just a byproduct of their necessary work. The photo at right illustrated this a bit more clearly. As you can see, on streets like Allen Street, where they actually did succeed in carving away the accumulated ice and snow down to bare pavement, there's an ice terrace that extends from the side of the road out to where the plows cut away the ice. The edge is as sharp and vertical as a curb, between two and three inches high. Again, you don't expect it to be there. If you bump into it, which is easy to do because you're far from the real side of the road, it will bump back. And if it happens when the roads have refrozen and become slick, it could start a real skid.

Just passing it on.