Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Your 401k as a stabilizing force

One thing I have not heard any of the economists talking about is how much our 401ks are actually stabilizing the stock market. My 401k is small compared to most, but I have put thousands of dollars into it, and just about everyone I know who works has a 401k, so we're talking about a very large amount of money being poured INTO the stock market every day.

All that money must have some stabilizing effect on the market because we continue to invest every paycheck despite the fact that the market is in a severe slump. This is a GARGANTUAN stream of cash being pumped into the stock market every day. The finickiness of Wall Street's traders is dampened by our constant, escalating investment.

Ha! I just typed "401ks as a stabilizing force in the market" into Google, and sure enough, here is an article from 2001. But why is it not talked about now? What would this "economic turmoil" be if our 401ks were not buffering the market's erratic swings? As much vacillation as we have seen in recent weeks, it's pretty easy to think that we would've seen a full on crash by now of not for the bedrock-like quality of our 401ks.

So, there's a pretty strong argument in favor of the 401k. Whose idea was that? Darn good one.

Also, our 401ks probably saved the market from a complete crash, and our tax dollars will rescue the banks. Really makes you wonder what is wrong with this system and how to fix it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Good use of pennies

Pennies are pretty worthless to most people. I have asked the Internet how much purchasing power a penny had when it was first issued, but nobody has answered me. I suspect it was quite a bit more powerful than it is now, or they wouldn't've issued it.

Thinking about that thief that died a couple weeks ago for trying to pull the aluminum wiring from a live electrical substation, I wondered how much a penny would be worth in terms of raw materials.

First off, pennies created after 1982 are mostly made of zinc (except for a brief accidental minting in 1983 that used copper). Pennies up through 1982 were made of 95% copper and weighed 3.11 grams, according to this article. 95% of 3.11 is 2.9545 grams. The current value of copper is $1.6865 per pound. There are 453.59237 grams in a pound.

So, with copper at anything over $1.54/lb, it is actually profitable to melt down pre-1983 pennies for their copper, assuming a zero-cost copper recovery operation. $1.54 in pennies sells for $1.69 on the copper market.

The really interesting thing is that the price of copper is actually way down from where it was a few weeks ago. The average price per pound in September was $3.1710 per pound! That means you could have made about $16 on the copper from 10 lbs ($15.40 worth) of pre-1983 pennies. You have to wonder why we still find pre-1983 in circulation.

Perhaps my assumption of a zero-cost copper recovery operation is too drastic. According to this document from WCU, the instructions for a classroom lab to recover the original copper from a penny, several chemicals are required, and perhaps their cost outweighs any potential profits. It would take a chemist to know how much the materials cost, and what quantities of those chemicals are needed to process a given amount of pennies.

Here's some chest hair for ya.

A classic performance by The Jesus Lizard.

I first heard about this band in high school when Eric Gordon Fur offered to trade me his Liar CD for my... something, I don't even know what I gave him for it, Sean might remember, but I do know that when we got home and started listening to it, we soon realized Eric had just fumbled one of the best CDs he owned. 15 years later my opinion has only been reinforced.

This band has stood the test of time. Their complete lack of respect for anything pretentious or fashionable is always refreshing. Their honesty and energy is infectious. You really have to listen to the songs for several years to even make out the words, but it's one of those things where when you do make out some words, they're exactly what you had always hoped they'd be, which is basically a lurching conveyor belt of social criticisms that go down like broken glass, bizarre narratives, and colorful profanities.

Their meaning is not essential to appreciating the music. David Yow uses his voice as an exotic instrument. Not at all like how Jonsi Birgisson uses his voice, or how Ella Fitzgerald used hers, it's more like how a bare knuckle boxer uses his fists. It's angry, flagrant, uncaring. I've seen it described as the sound of someone who's been gagged and forced into a trunk. But it's also infectious, and exciting, and awesome. It's guttural, and disjointed, and it's everything you're missing in life, and every bad night you wish had never happened.

Here's an interesting Jesus Lizard video (not live). It's a good representation of their studio sound, and the video is perfect. It's just a bunch of street fights with an upskirt shot in the middle. Simple, direct, frank, and actually rather informative. If you pay attention you might learn something about the art of self defense.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hope or Fear?

Which is the more important factor when you make your political decisions: hope of what could be, or fear of what could be?

How does fear of the unknown affect your decision making? Do you prefer to go forward with a system that is known to be broken because you are afraid that the alternative will be worse?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

[In|De]creasing American Conservatism

Postulate 1: Conservatism is generally characterized by a desire to maintain the status quo - a resistance to change.

Postulate 2: The more wealth a people have amassed, the more vested they are in maintaining the status quo.

Hypothesis: As the American middle class increases its wealth, it becomes more conservative.

It has often been said that Nixon would be considered a liberal by today's standards, because the country as a whole was more liberal in the past than it is now. I believe it is not merely the money itself that contributes to this result, but the self-imposed isolation that results from it as well.

These two graphs illustrate my point:

These two charts are completely made up. Note how the chart of relative conservatism trends upward in the same direction that the US Median Household Income chart does. As anyone can see, if these two graphs actually represented real data, my hypothesis would be proven.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Craving China's Food

Only a few days ago did I finally download the pictures I took in China from my camera. I know. I was craving the sweet mung bean soup that they eat in Wuhan when it's really hot, which is like every day, because it's so sweet and refreshing, and Wuhan got up to about 104 degrees while I was there. They served that soup every day in the cafeteria at the brewery, and it is delicious. I liked it so much I have actually developed a hankering for it. They call it green bean soup, or (lit. green bean soup, pronounced lù dòu tāng). It is served cold and refreshing - one of the few foods that Chinese serve cold, but it's also good warm or hot. It's often consumed as a beverage. You will almost never find a Chinese person eating lunch with anything to drink other than a bowl of soup, or maybe hot tea. Come to think of it, the only cold things I can recall them ever drinking were mung bean soup or beer.

Above is a picture of a cup of cold mung bean soup I had for breakfast on Hù Bù Xiàng (that's the name of the street, I can't translate it, but here are the characters - ). Note the slivers of ice floating in it. Hu Bu Xiang is a old little alley in Wuhan famous for breakfast food. There are dozens of eateries lining the street that each specialize in one food, and seat about 5 at a time. You get a serving of whatever it is, maybe go inside and sit down to eat it, then move on to the next one. After the cold soup we went for some savory, bread-style dumplings (second picture), along with my very favorite, the soup dumplings! The third picture shows Jarod eating soup dumplings, which are called Xiǎolóngbāo. Those little dumplings are filled with a vinegary broth and a little meatball. I could just about live on them. Next is a picture of the two cooks making the Xiǎolóngbāo.

There's a certain way you need to eat the dumplings when there's soup in them so you don't accidentally pierce the skin before you get it to your mouth. The best way is grasp it with your chopsticks near the top of the bun, where the skin is all crimped together, making it stronger.

So anyway, I got a hankering for the mung bean soup, and it couldn't be easier to make. There's three ingredients, water, beans, and sugar. I went up to Jay's International and got the smallest bag of mung beans I could find (called moong beans at Jay's), which was a 2 lb. bag. Now, as you can imagine, that's actually quite a lot of beans. The bag did not look that big, but suffice it to say when I was done making the delicious soup this evening, after taking it off the heat not once but twice to put more water in it, I actually ended up with about 3 gallons of soup.

But hey, it's a great breakfast food as well as snack, because it takes no effort to make (serve cold), can be poured into a cup and drank on the road, and it's packed with beanie goodness that will give lots of energy in the morning.

Here's a picture of Jarod and Jim standing out on Hu Bu Xiang after eating the dumplings. A few weeks ago someone asked me what people in China wear. I think he imagined they wear some kind of traditional clothing like what you might see in a painting. As you can see, the clothing found on the streets of China is exactly the same thing found on US streets.

Continuing the food gallery, here is a picture of the next stop - peppery gravy on noodles and a pan fried breakfast bread made with several vegetables. The bread was really good, but the gravy was kind of eh. That green bottle is my favorite beverage to get when I'm there. It's just called green tea (綠茶 - lù chá), but I do believe it's actually jasmine tea. I would get a bottle any time I was walking somewhere, and a couple for the room. Here are pictures of the man making the bread.
I have left no room to show the 3 gallons of sweet mung bean soup I made today, so I'll have to save them for another post some time.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dow covers 1000 pts, McCain musters dignity

October 10, 2008: The Dow Jones Industrial Average rolls from a low of 7883 to 8901, but ends the day only (!) down 128 points. Pretty freakish graph to be looking at after tumbling 20% on the week. It's an alarming situation to watch unfold, knowing that a complete market seizure could be right around the corner.

And while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on in the background, McCain and his running mate have been whipping up such a frenzy with the conservative base, people are actually believing that Barak Obama is a terrorist, or supports terrorism, or that he's muslim, or that he's an Arab, or at least not an American, or is unpatriotic.

Well, I'm glad to see John McCain finally putting the brakes on this insanity. It's just downright sickening to those of us who don't actually buy into these ridiculous political attacks - those of us who belong to the generation who, as David Foster Wallace put it in his book, McCain's Promise, have been marketed and spun and pitched to more relentlessly than any previous generation.

All this inane dialog about Obama being linked to terrorism and not being an American citizen is just background noise to us. We don't even think about it because the mere idea that the CIA, and Secret Service, and NSA, not to mention the Republican part, did not perform a complete background check on the man who is about to be voted into office as President two years ago, when he entered the race, is preposterous. Or how about the fact that he's already a US Senator. It's just so far beyond even passing the red face test, it doesn't register on our list of considerations. But evidently it does ring with some constituents.

The only bright spot in this whole day was to see John McCain push back against the hatred welling in his base. It was like seeing the man I have wanted to vote for for 10 years back again. A man I had given up on weeks ago, when he brought in his fear mongering "barracuda" of a running mate. A man who had lost my vote because of his allowing this Rove-esque campaign to unfold in all its fact-warping demagogic glory. He is finally back.

It feels good to see John McCain behave like the person I thought he was. Now he shows that he is in fact a maverick. He has turned his face in embarrassment from his own campaign, which is a positive move in my book. I am feeling genuine concern for Barak Obama after hearing some of the horrific things conservative voters have been shouting at these rallys. I hope the real John McCain continues to assert himself as the sincere, honest, decent person that I believe he really is. It's unlikely he'll get my vote back. I can't stand Sarah Palin. She's a Bushie through and through. But it would feel good to feel good about McCain again.

I think this segment does a good job of examining the danger of the McCain campaign's defamatory tactics:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What keeps me up at night

1) Falling asleep on the couch after dinner and then not waking up until after 11pm.

2) What will happen to our relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia if/when we finally liberate ourselves from OPEC oil? Trade is an important factor in a relationship btwn. two countries. If we stop buying oil from them, that's a lot of money lost for them. At $100/barrel, and 1,600,000 barrels per day, that's $160 million per day lost for them. That's $58.4 billion per year. Who knows, it might improve relations with them. I'm sure they'll have plenty of buyers elsewhere. Or maybe we won't stop buying from OPEC, but we'll just be in a position where we're not completely dependent on OPEC, such that we could cut off purchases from them, albeit resulting in a higher cost of oil, but still we would be able to maintain a certain level of energy in the US with or w/out OPEC oil.

3) The Catholic church needs to allow married men to be priests. I believe that it does not because of the people in power now who control those decisions. Until it does, it suffers from a very small pool of males to draw priests from, and, in my mind it seems apparent, that small pool includes many men who are trying to hide from their degenerate sexual preferences by finding an occupation that forbids sex completely. It's unnatural. Once the church allows married men to be priests again, it will find itself in a new era of growth and enthusiasm.

4) Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an awesome movie. Sam Rockwell's wardrobe is bad ass. How did they manage to make '70s style relevant and cool in this movie? I think perhaps by using contemporary designs with '70s elements to create a convincing and attractive mix. Like in his house, the house is appointed with many things that say '70s, like opaque glass walls, loud stonework and woodwork, and strange lamps, but the colors are all subdued, modern, and the designs are refined in a contemporary way.

5) Modern cryptography is rooted in one simple principle: it's extremely time consuming to perform certain mathematical operations. Like factoring, for instance. Think about it. There's no trick to factoring a number. It's a time consuming process. We know that every composite number (a non-prime) can be represented as two or more prime numbers. Factoring a composite number into primes takes a long time, especially if that number is extremely large, like say 2^128 bits long. In that case, we can just pick two very large primes, and make a secret key based on the knowledge of exactly what they are. Since there's two of them, we can also produce a "public" key part that we can give to other people freely to encrypt things with. There's an infinite number of prime numbers. Even the fastest computers today cannot produce all the possible prime factor combinations of a composite number that is 2^128 bits long in a reasonable amount of time, like 100 years or so, and by then, you've moved onto using a different key, so it's irrelevant.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Chill, baby, chill

God, the sound of that idiotic chant. Hearing it on national television is exactly like hearing the sound of your country flaunting its shameless ignorance on national television. I mean here we are mired in a war where tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people have DIED, and let's not bullshit here, people, there's a perception in many parts of the world that our actions in Iraq were heavily motivated by our need to control OIL, and we're chanting "drill, baby, drill."

Yes, I say idiotic, because I feel that the people who chant "drill, baby, drill" are behaving like idiots. It makes me very angry. That's the feeling I get, which is probably a fight or flight reaction to a mob chanting something I instinctively disagree with, and percieve as a flagrantly ignorant position on an very nuanced issue. (However, I'm sure they're really nice people with families, and that they're most guilty of being swept up in an idiotic chant, although I saw many people at that convention just looking around like "seriously?", and I can only hope that the chanters really do care about the thousands of families in Iraq who have lost everything because of oil, and given some degree of enlightenment, would find shame in chanting something like that in front of the whole world, considering the current context.)

But on the topic of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, here's the bottom line: even if we get extremely lucky with drilling in the ANWR, WE MUST reduce our daily consumption of oil by 6 million barrels if we're serious about getting off of OPEC oil. That is a 29% reduction in daily oil consumption.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an administration whose mission is to provide official statistics to the US government, a BEST case scenario for drilling in the ANWR would result in a peak capacity of 1.9 million barrels per day for about 1-2 years. By BEST case scenario, I mean they estimate a 5% - FIVE PERCENT PROBABILITY of that being the amount of oil present in ANWR's coastal region.

A more likely scenario, which they estimate a 95% chance for, would be that we could sustain peak production of about 875,000 barrels per day in about 15 years, for about 2 years, and the rest of the time we'd be averaging about 500,000 barrels per day. Unfortunately, America currently consumes 21 MILLION barrels of oil per day. That would mean there's a very good chance we could go to all this trouble for what will amount to 4.2% of our daily consumption of oil for a very short span of time, if we're lucky and aggressive, presuming we consume the same or less amount of oil 10 years from now, when our rigs are up and running.

Our oil consumption increased by 10% between 1997 and 2007, according to the EIA, so, if that trend continues, we could be looking at daily consumption of closer to 23 million barrels per day. That would mean actually we would most likely be getting 3.8% of our daily intake from the new Alaskan oil fields... for that small window of opportunity I mentioned before.

Still though, from an optimistic point of view, if it is coupled with significant implementations of solar and wind power, or other alternatives, it could be important in helping us get off of psycho foriegn oil. (Not you guys, Canada and Mexico, our #1 and #2 suppliers of oil, you're totally cool. I'm talking about those other douchebags who hate our guts.)

It would in fact not be a complete waste of time, like some media outlets would have you believe, assuming we actually do, as I say, have some serious wind and solar power plants deployed by the time the rigs are ready, because 3.8% is a drop in the bucket, but if it's accompanied by many other drops, then we have something.

To hedge the probability that there's actually not much oil there at all, we would probably want to start drilling at any other domestic locations we can think of as soon as possible.

Again, the oil will run out fairly quickly, even in the best case, and will certainly not, on its own, be able to replace, or really even MAKE A DENT in the 13,468,000 barrels per day we import. Although to be fair, Canada and Mexico alone make up nearly 1/3rd of our imports, 4 million barrels per day, which is nice, and OPEC as a whole provides about 44%, or 6 million barrels per day. So again, even if we hit that 5% mark, which would really be something, we would only reduce our dependency on OPEC by 31%, so we MUST reduce our oil consumption by about 6 million barrels per day if we are serious about getting off of OPEC oil, let alone FORIEGN oil as a whole.

And that is the bottom line: WE MUST reduce our daily consumption of oil by 6 million barrels - a 29% reduction.

English/Tattoo Fail blog

Just in case this is news to you, you really need to check out the English Fail Blog, and its sister site, Tattoo Disasters.

Hilarious content. I shudder to think how many "english fails" I've produced in this blog, but that does not detract from the enjoyment of seeing other people's failures.

City Art Supply

Finally, St. Louis has an art supply opening up in the city! It's called City Art Supply. No more driving all the way out to Maplewood just to buy a sheet of mat board. Apparently they're opening this weekend. Here's the announcement.

Speaking of Art in St. Louis, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Wash U. has an exhibition going on right now called The Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury. It looks fascinating. I can't wait to check it out.

Also, an exciting exhibition starts on the 19th at the St. Louis Art Museum called Action/Abstraction: Pollack, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976. Pollack is one of my favorites. I'm going to try to attend at least one of the lectures.

Friday, October 03, 2008

East Coast Politicians

That's what Sarah Palin said in last night's VP debate. I looked this term up in the Google to find out what it means. There does not seem to be a consensus, but many seem to lean toward thinking this means LIBERAL. For all I know it just means politicians from states along the US eastern seaboard suck. Or is it all states east of the Ohio, or what? Is West Virginia considered East Coast?

Regardless of what she was trying to say, one thing is clear, and that is division. As if contrasting liberal vs. conservative, or Democrat vs. Republican was not enough for her, she has to go and pit EASTERN Americans against the rest of the country. Nice. Why can't she just see AMERICANS? Why does it have to be HER kind of Americans and the kind she doesn't like (and neither should you)? Kind of discounts all her rhetoric about "crossing the aisle," in my opinion.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Stew au Poivre

... Not Steak au Poivre. I didn't want to spend $6/lb on filets mignon of questionable quality, and didn't want to wait for a better selection, so I improvised this dish from regular stew meat, presumably chuck, and I do believe it is at least a promising beginning. The inspiration for this came from Alton Brown's Steak au Poivre, which I have made before, and used way too much pepper. It was pretty tasty anyway.

This recipe could be emboldened, I think, is how President Bush would say it. For instance, allspice is like a conservative cook's clove. You could go all in with clove, perhaps. Also, heavy cream is what Alton Brown actually calls for in his Steak au Poivre, not half-and-half, but that's a bit too rich for me, and we're using a pint of half-and-half, which theoretically does contain 1 cup of heavy cream (two cups in a pint), which is the amount he uses.

The taste of the cognac is really subtle, even though it seems like we use a lot. I like the amount of attention it receives in this recipe, but if you're completely crazy for that flavor, just add more at the end.

There are no doubt other spices we could add to complement the cognac, but I would have to perform a more in-dept olfactory, and perhaps gustatory investigation, to be completely pretentious.

This recipe requires:

1 lb of stew beef (a.k.a. top round, bottom round, or chuck cut into bite-size pieces)
2 yellow onions
2 red potatoes
1/2 stick of butter
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil
4 cups of flour
32 oz. vegetable stock
1 pint half-and-half
1/2 cup whole black pepper corns
1 tsp allspice
About 4 cups of Courvoisier (could substitute with more veggie stock)

Crush the pepper corns into very coarse pepper (like the pieces should be about 1/4th to 3/8ths of a pepper corn) and set aside. I do this by putting the whole corns in a little pile between two paper towels and beating them with a rolling pin, then separating out as well as possible the big pieces. We want about 2 tablespoons of the big pieces. The dust can go away.

Cut the butter into pieces and put in stainless steel stock pot with the olive oil. The oil is primarily to keep the smoke point of the butter down, so use however much you feel is necessary.

Thoroughly coat the beef with flour and shake off excess. Put it in the pot to brown. You want it to brown on all sides at a high enough temperature to create some crust on the bottom of the pot. While it's browning, chop the two onions and dust them in flour the same way, shaking off any excess.

Once the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and put in the onions and the pepper. Sauté the onions over medium heat, then remove and put aside with the meat.

Now there should be a lot of brown crust in the bottom of the pot. I hope it did not actually burn black. It should be dark brown, but not burnt. If it actually burned, you either had the heat too high, or you need a pot with a thicker bottom that distributes the heat better. My pot has a paper thin bottom, so I have to be careful about the heat.

Now comes the deglazing. Open the Courvoisier and turn the heat up to high. Let it get hot for a few seconds, then pour in the cognac. I don't really know how much to tell you to pour in, but about 1/2 inch or so deep. That will come to a boil. Back off the heat to where it's boiling, but not like crazy, and stir as much as possible, trying to loosen up any pot crust that didn't deglaze immediately. Do that until it thickens, then add the vegetable stock.

Cut up the two potatoes into bite-size pieces and add to the stock, along with the meat, the onions, and the allspice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer 20 mins. Then remove the lid and let reduce for another 20-30 mins, until all the ingredients are showing because the liquid is so low.

While it's reducing do NOT stir it too much. You'll cause the potatoes to break down making it too starchy. Or maybe you like it that way, I don't know. You could also just add the potatoes 20 or so minutes after you've started the simmer.

How long should you let it reduce for? Well, you're about to add a pint of half-and-half, so however much you think would be sufficient to maintain a thick consistency after that happens. I would say let it reduce by about 1/3rd.

Turn off the heat and let cool for a minute or so, stirring gently. Pour in the half-and-half and one tablespoon of cognac. Mix thoroughly. Serve.

Republicans and Unemployment

The national unemployment rate is currently 6.1%. When Bush came into office it was 4.0%

Looking at this chart of unemployment, which ranges from 1950 to 2005, there seems to be a pretty clear correspondence between republican administrations and increases in unemployment. The blue parts are democratic administrations. With the exception of the Reagan administration, all Republican administrations trend sharply upwards.

With a little under three months to go, and teetering on the brink of economic disaster, you have to wonder what this chart will look like in January.

I found this image on the Wikipedia page for Unemployment.

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