Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Unsustainable Lending (part II)

News has certainly slowed down at the end of the year (and the Bush administration has checked out entirely), but the Fed just announced that it will buy $500 billion in mortgage backed securities (MBS) by the middle of next year. There are a few obvious questions that I have: (a) isn't this what the TARP was supposed to do?; (b) are they just printing money to do this?; and (c) what is the risk we're taking on? Leaving these questions aside, I've been trying to look into what's in these. Is it simply that these distressed assets are severely undervalued, and it's purely an overcorrection in the (illiquid) MBS market? Or are we purchasing something more akin to Madoff "assets"? Again, as I reminded you in part I that I'm just a simple astrophysicist bumpkin...

The mortgage backed security (MBS) is the simplest of the fancy derivatives that have run rampant over the past few years, and the only one that I vaguely understand. (And I'm not sure that anybody really understood the credit default swap (CDS), let alone AIG). In an MBS, individual mortgages are bundled up and sold to investors. In theory, mortgages of borrowers of similar creditworthiness are bundled together, and although some small fraction of these might default, this will be built into the credit rating. In practice, I believe people played fast and loose with bundling these mortgages, especially non-traditional subprime and alt-a mortgages such as the option ARM. The MBS itself has value based on (a) the underlying assets, that is, the houses that were mortgaged, and (b) the interest paid by the borrowers. These MBSs may then sliced up some more, traded around, etc. None of this trading is done on an exchange, however, and thus these are illiquid assets. If you can't find anybody to buy the security, it's hard to tell what it's worth.

As house prices have declined, the values of MBSs have tanked. First, the value of the underlying assets has gone down. Second, with such thinly traded assets, if you need to sell in a down market the buyer has a distinct advantage. But a bigger problem is that the MBSs built on option ARM type mortgages are pretty much a complete sham. As I described in part I, the only way for a borrower with one of these loans to possibly afford it after the introductory teaser rate is to refinance or sell the house. And with prepayment penalties and negative amortization, house prices need to go up by at least 4% annually--without interruption-- for this to be possible.

Meanwhile, there's a wave of foreclosures that still hasn't fully crested. And massive foreclosures are devistating for neighborhoods, driving up blight and driving down prices even further in a painful cycle. In a half-assed attempt to arrest this in November, the Bush administration put together a "plan" to renegotiate some mortgages to keep people in their homes. Some other banks have also signed on voluntarily. For the owner of a mortgage, this can be a good deal: foreclosures are expensive, and houses are sold at fire-sale prices. If you can renegotiate and keep people in their houses, then everybody wins. (Or at least everybody loses a little, rather than everybody losing a lot.)

However, this plan did not help the large numbers of homeowners whose mortgages had been bundled up into MBSs. Instead, the bondholders flatly refuse to allow the mortgages to be renegotiated. This is a many-headed problem. Most notably, when your mortgage has been split up and is owned by thousands of investors, who do you talk to about renegotiating terms? But I think there's the additional unwillingness to fess up that renegotiating the underlying mortgages would show that the current distressed values of MBSs are actually the true values.

Again, there are two ways to calculate the value of the MBSs. The first is the underlying assets -- the houses -- and these have gone down in value, and are probably worth even less if you assume all of them are foreclosed on (of course a worst-case scenario). The second is the cash flow coming from the borrowers. On paper, this looks great: after the initial teaser rate, these borrowers will be paying out like gangbusters! 6%! 8%! Sounds fantastic! But in reality, the borrowers can only really afford that teaser rate. So any renegotiation of terms that will be affordable will end up either (a) fixing the interest rate at the teaser rate of 2% or (b) with a reasonable fixed rate of ~6%, by reducing the value of the mortgage by ~40%. Either way, the MBSs no longer appear to be such a hot deal, barring a sudden and unlikely reinflation of the housing bubble. (But you can't unscramble an egg.)

Right now it looks like the bondholders stonewalling on any renegotiation will work: they'll get bought out by the Fed, without having to admit that the securities are worth much less than they claim they are on paper. We'll all be stuck with the bill, and regular people will be kicked out of their houses. Of course, many of these people took out loans that appeared too good to be true...and were! Others were fleeced. And we all pay the price.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Unsustainable Lending (part I)

I've been doing way too much reading about the mortgage crisis, and it's kind of depressing how we got ourselves into this mess. The numbers just don't add up...but I guess it never mattered for the people driving us into the ditch, since they get paid based on short-term results, long term be damned.

There are a couple issues that I've been musing about over the break, which I'll break into a couple of posts. The first has to do with prepayment penalties for subprime mortgages, and how they ensure that things were going to blow up even if house prices remained stable. The second (related) issue is why the institutions who own mortgage backed securities (MBS) don't support renegotiating underwater mortgages. Keep in mind that I'm just a humble astrophysicist, and I really don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to these issues.

The stereotypical subprime loan was an "option ARM" where there was a low introductory teaser rate (say, 2%) which lasted a year or so, followed by a reset where the rate would go up significantly (to 6-8%). Notably, the interest rate on the loan would usually reset before the payment rate, so the first year or so would have negative amortization, where the principle on the loan was actually increasing over time. For a modest $100,000 loan, the introductory payment rate would be $370/month, and after the first year or two, this would increase up to $740, or a factor of 2. Although I think I could afford this modest $100,000 loan, in general I don't think I could afford a doubling of my housing costs.

So what's a borrower to do? It seems obvious to me that the only option is to refinance the loan after the teaser rate expires (or sell the house). And this will only work if the price of the house hasn't decreased! But of course the lender doesn't want to see the borrower refinance every year or two to grab the 2% teaser rate over and over again. Other than the fat fees that are grabbed by the brokers, the main impediment to doing this is the prepayment penalty, which is typically 5% of the loan amount, which is $5000 for our $100,000 loan.

Some of this is laid out in this recent (Oct 2008) paper Did Prepayments Sustain the Subprime Market? [pdf] from the St. Louis Fed (mad props to them for using LaTeX!). As they point out for subprime mortgages over the past 5 years, after a reset "prohibitively high rates [leave] the borrower little option but to prepay either by selling or by refinancing," or end up delinquent and finally in foreclosure. As house prices turned around over the past couple years, these subprime borrowers could no long refinance, and were forced into foreclosure, and the authors conclude that "the boom in house prices...was largely responsible for sustaining the subprime mortgage market by allowing distressed borrowers to prepay mortgages."

What the authors don't seem to explicitly state is that because of prepayment penalties even if house prices plateaued, and didn't even decline, these people would be forced into foreclosure. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, with a 5% prepayment penalty, if the rate resets 2 years after the start of the mortgage, the house price must have increased by at least 2.5% (before any broker fees!) to make a refinancing possible, because you need to pay back $105,000 on your $100,000 loan. It's even worse for the vast majority of subprime loans that start out with negative amortization. In those case, house prices must go up by at least 4-5% to make this all work.

And yes, by some magic, house prices have increased over the long term. But (a) price/rent ratios were so out of whack, it was clear we were in a bubble that couldn't last forever, and (b) even if we weren't in a bubble, there have always been short-term plateaus, declines, etc. But all it takes is one year of trying to pay over 50% of your income toward a mortgage and you'll find yourself broke and out of a house.

Stay tuned for part II...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Worst. Cookies. Ever.

Last week, Mark Bittman posted a new recipe for The Mother Of All Butter Cookies. His point was that this recipe was akin to a mother sauce and an easy and flexible base that could be turned into butterscotch cookies, chocolate chip cookies, citrus cookies... Sounds great, huh?

Some of you might ask: the Tollhouse Cookies are an all-time classic for a reason, how can you possible improve on them? Good question. I'd like the cookies to be a little more fluffy, but I'm not sure how to do this without using shortening, which I don't like.

There were a few things in the recipe that are certainly unusual, but conventional wisdom in cooking is not always right. First of all, the dough is mixed in a food processor. But this works well for pie dough. Second, it has a lot of cornstarch. Cornstarch? The reason Bittman gives is "to avoid overdeveloping gluten" and to add a "silken quality" to the cookies. Finally, it has unsalted butter, but only calls for a "pinch" of salt. Is that enough? On the other hand, it has a larger butter-to-flour ratio than the tollhouse cookies, and butter is good.

Well, the food processor appeared to work reasonably well; it was definitely cookie dough that came out (though my kitchenaid was standing there watching forlornly). But the cookies? The recipe suggests baking for 11 minutes at 375 F (and our oven is reasonably well calibrated). After 10 minutes, the bottoms were brown and the tops were uncooked. The chocolate chips weren't even melting. After a total of 15 or 16 minutes we just took them out. They were completely uncooked in the middle; the chocolate chips were barely warm; they had the texture and flavor of raw cornstarch; there was no flavor (possibly related to the lack of salt).

I wouldn't serve these cookies to my worst enemies. I put a comment on the Bitten blog, and it's still awaiting moderation. My guess is that the moderator is overwhelmed with people complaining that these are the

Worst. Cookies. Ever.

UPDATE: My comment has finally made it through moderation, along with a few more comments agreeing that these cookies suck.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Does the religious right also not get that the Colbert Report is a parody?

Even if you didn't watch Tuesday's Daily Show, you probably saw the second half of Jon Stewart's interview with Mike Huckabee linked on one of the million liberal blogs out there. I was curious as to what the conservative blogs were saying, though. What did they think of Huckabee's performance? Or about Stewart's line, "Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality."?

I googled "jon stewart" "mike huckabee" and scrolled through eight pages of links to blog posts on the interview. Not a single one of those blogs was a conservative blog. So what's the deal? Was no one happy with Huckabee's performance? Is Mike Huckabee just not on the conservative radar right now? Or is The Daily Show itself not on the conservative radar? Among the religious right, Newt Gingrich, Ralph Reed, and Bill Bennett* have all been on the show multiple times. So they're not ignoring the show.

However, there are no results when searching for mentions of the Daily Show on the websites of the AFA, Focus on the Family, the FRC, or the Concerned Women for America. These are groups that send out weekly alerts on the latest "pro-homosexual" and "anti-Christian" content in pop culture. I wasn't expecting them all to have found something to be offended by in the program, but I thought at least one of them might have mentioned the show in the past ten years. It's not like basic cable is beneath their notice.

I'm just surprised that a show that is a staple of the left's culture, and that has been a steadfast supporter of gay marriage for years, has been completely ignored by the religious right. Is the religious right really unaware of the influence of the Daily Show? Or am I the one who's missing something?

* That two-part interview with Bill Bennett might be my favorite Daily Show moment ever. What? Like you don't all have similar mental lists.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Share buybacks!

A-ha! In my previous post on owning stocks, I had completely forgotten about stock buybacks, when the company uses excess cash to buy outstanding shares. In this sense, the company itself is placing real value on the stocks, and this gives them some intrinsic value other than (a) producing dividends or (b) liquidation.

The traditional reason for a stock buyback is apparently that the company claims this is a better way to invest its cash than anywhere else...and it gives an advantage to existing shareholders by boosting the share price, and when these shares are sold the profits are taxed at the lower capital gains rate (while dividends are taxed as income). But buybacks can also be used to manipulate the topline numbers in earnings reports (the earnings per share goes up if you remove shares!). I think that buybacks can also be used to prop up a sagging share price...kind of like a central bank propping up a falling currency, which can be an expensive proposition that doesn't always end well.

In any event, as stock prices have fallen in the past year, there have been a lot of stock buybacks. And apparently, over the past four years S&P 500 companies as a whole have given out more money in stock buybacks and dividends ($2.6 trillion) than they have gotten in earnings ($2.4 trillion). I suppose that (a) that can't be sustainable [but hey, a good reason to have stocks as long as you sold them!] and (b) probably involved a lot of leverage.

But I wonder how much of this money going back to shareholders has been due to companies going private, such as the Tribune company. There was a case that Sam Zell borrowed a lot of money to buy out the shareholders, and now Tribune is bankrupt under all that debt...even though all of the Tribune holdings are profitable!

Group hug! (Grupo abrazo? グループの抱擁 ? ryhmä hali?)

I was looking at the 2008 Google Zeitgeist for the U.S., and there were no real surprises about which search terms were the fastest-rising. However, I was surprised and delighted to see which five terms made it in Google Translate:
Google Translate - Fastest Rising (U.S.)

1. you
2. what
3. thank you
4. please
5. love

Aw! That is going to get me through today -- I'm seriously grinning like a fool here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

More thoughts on the stock market

This week, The Economist asks the question: Where have all your savings gone?, with a picture of a guy staring down a bottomless pit. But they're relatively upbeat, now's the time to buy, things will recover, etc. But they also had this nugget:

In demographic terms, asset markets could be seen as a pyramid scheme, in which each generation aims to sell its accumulated savings to the next. Provided the next generation is larger than the one that preceded it, the savers can sell their assets at higher prices. That was the case for much of the 20th century.
Illustration by Brett Ryder

The baby-boomers will upset the pattern. If they retire at 65, they will start offloading their assets in 2011. And even in America, which has fewer demographic problems than Japan, there are not enough new savers coming along to replace them. Some hope that emerging markets will solve the problem, by acting as buyers of developed market assets and a source of higher returns for investors in rich countries, but the theory is unproven.

Yet another way the boomers will screw us all!

The article goes on to talk about a recent report which hypothesizes that Japan's flat market for the past two decades has been because their population got older sooner than in America.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's the purpose of owning stocks?

Something I was thinking about the other day...what is the value of stock in a publicly traded company these days? According to the wise people at wikipedia:

A share of stock is one of a finite number of equal portions in the capital of a company, entitling the owner to a proportion of distributed, non-reinvested profits known as dividends, and to a portion of the value of the company in case of liquidation.

But these days, companies don't really pay dividends. I think this trend started during the tech bubble, when people still bought stocks even when there wasn't any revenue, and therefore there weren't any other companies said "wait, what? We don't have to pay dividends?"

So the only value to a stock is if the company is liquidated (or sold). If the company is liquidated in the usual sense (bankruptcy) then the stock is worthless.

It seems to me that the only reason to buy stock (in most companies, where you don't have any voting rights to determine the direction of the company) is to speculate that the value will go ever upward. This sounds a lot like the foundation of sand underneath the financial crisis, that everything would be fine as long as house prices went up forever. And if they didn't? Well, we didn't even contemplate what would happen.

I am certainly no economist, and the more I read the less I understand. But it's another sign of the way our whole economy has divorced itself from producing anything, and is more about moving money back and forth and making money by taking a cut of every transaction. That can't bode well.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mac & Cheese

At long last, here is my Mac & Cheese recipe. It's not fancy, but it certainly gets the job done. Unless, of course, you are lactose intolerant. Sorry Becky! This can be made with any firm cheese. I usually use sharp cheddar, but I've found a mix of garden-variety cheddar and smoky English farmhouse cheddar is very good.

1 lb macaroni
5 Tbs butter (salted)
5 Tbs flour
3 cups milk
0.5-0.6 pound cheddar cheese, grated (Trader Joe's English Coastal is delicious)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp nutmeg
worcestershire sauce
freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Put the baking dish in the oven to preheat it.

Put water for pasta on the stove. When it is boiling, add the pasta, cook until al-dente, and drain.

Meanwhile, bring milk to a simmer on medium-low heat (try not to scald the milk). As the milk is heating, melt butter in a saucepan or saucier pot on medium-low heat. When it is melted, whisk in flour to make a roux. Whisk and cook for a few minutes. Slowly pour in hot milk, whisking constantly to keep lumps from forming. Keep whisking while the sauce is cooking; if it starts to boil then turn down the heat. Add cayenne (adds a nice kick!), nutmeg (apparently a hint of nutmeg brings out the j'ne sais quois-ness of the sauce), and several drops of worcestershire sauce to taste. Grind in black pepper and salt to taste. After 5-10 minutes the sauce should thicken. When it has thickened, turn heat to low, and add the grated cheese and mix it in.

Take pre-heated dish out of the oven, and pour in sauce (it will probably boil a bit).  Put in macaroni and stir thoroughly.  Grate cheddar and parmesan cheese on top.

Turn oven to 375F (conventional) or leave at 350F (convection).

Put it in oven for 30 minutes.  Enjoy a tasty, non-low-fat treat!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sometimes, putting family first means putting it off

This article on red state and blue state attitudes towards sex didn't really tell me anything new. But this jumped out at me:
Maybe these choices weren’t originally about values—maybe they were about maximizing education and careers—yet the result is a more stable family system. Not only do couples who marry later stay married longer; children born to older couples fare better on a variety of measures, including educational attainment, regardless of their parents’ economic circumstances.

I think the choice to wait to marry and start a family is about values. It's about valuing family so that you wait to marry the right person, not just the one you're with when you're 18. Building a family because you want to, not out of obligation, makes it stronger.

I'm pro-family, which is why I'm voting against Proposition 8. I want everyone to have the chance to put together the family they want.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Change (is) how the story ends

Right now we're all excited and hopeful that things will go well on Tuesday, and that Barack Obama will be elected president. But before we get too complacent, let's look at what we said in 2004 before the election:
Vinay (via email) said:
It's very 4:56 in the AM, I'm about to leave for my 1st of (right now) 3 shifts for election protection.

I'm wearing a medium-size shirt that's more like a small.

And to top it all off? I'm wide awake.

Have fun 'yall. :-)

In response, I said:

I'm also about to leave for my 16-hour shift of election inspecting, and
I'm listening to R.E.M.'s "I Believe":

"and change is what I believe in ...."

A lot of that sounds awfully familiar (and not just because I was apparently four years ahead of the game). We had spent weeks obsessing over the campaign, reading about it, blogging about it, and working on it. We had one last epic day of the electoral process ahead of us, and although it wasn't a sure thing, we really thought Kerry could win it.

Let's look at how that all turned out. After the election, Eli said (all quotes again via email):

I bet Swift blows up on the launch pad just to make this one of the worst months ever.

Vinay, after reading coverage of the election:

I want to stab myself in the eye. A lot.

Oh! God! My eye hurts!

and Melinda, summing it all up for us:


I know the polls look good right now, but if there's any year in which something could go completely haywire in the next five days, it's this year. Make sure you vote and get out the vote, and try not to relax -- or even take any deep breaths -- until Wednesday. I don't want to spend another election night watching it all slip away. I want happy emails in my inbox this year. I want change, dammit.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Not Our American Dream

Andrew Sullivan linked to a long article from 1985 on a couple building their dream house. Reading about all the space the couple wanted in their house was almost shocking. About a year and a half ago, we downsized from a 3.5-bedroom house in Michigan to a 1.5-bedroom apartment in California. We love our current home, and there are two things we've learned along the way:

  1. The less you have -- and the less space you have -- the less you want. It is so refreshing to not have rooms upon rooms waiting to be filled up with stuff. And because we don't have mud rooms and dining rooms and home offices, we're not tempted to want more specialized rooms.

  2. This only works because we are big fans of using community space -- both inside and outside the home. We have cookouts with friends at parks. We take the dog to the beach. In the evenings, we hang out together in the living room, even if it means one person works while the other watches television. Hosting a wedding in our home is not even on our radar.

I'm not sure what this says about our politics (are we sober fiscal conservatives, via #1? or hippie pinko commies, via #2?) or our marriage. All I know is, we both get a bit perplexed any time people start waxing rhapsodic over large houses. And maybe a bit nervous, because needing more and more usually doesn't end well.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Shining Rays

I don't want to jinx anything (too late!) but the Rays prevailing over the Red Sox has given me hope about Obama's prospects...

Let me explain.

For tracking the polls, the best place by far is, which uses some hardcore statistics to combine polling and demographic data to forecast the election results. The guy who runs the site, Nate Silver, has a day job doing hardcore statistics for Baseball Prospectus. Way back in February, Nate forecast that the Rays would be the most improved team this year. And he was right!

In the ALCS (Nate was not so bold as to predict the Rays would make the post-season, let alone the World Series) the Rays were up 3 games to 1 against the Red Sox. Building a 7-0 lead in the 7th inning, the Rays were roughly where Obama is right now. But it ain't over til it's over. And the Red Sox came back and won the game. And won comfortably in Game 6. It looked like an epic collapse was at hand...but in the end, the Rays prevailed!

Similar to the calculation of safe lead in college basketball, an extremely unlikely series of events has to occur for McCain to prevail now. And the Rays/Sox showed us how unlikely that is.

(Of course, I probably jinxed everything now. But if Nate was right about the Rays...)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Climate of Fake America

Until last December, I had lived my entire life in the Upper Midwest (Michigan and Ohio) and the mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania). When I was getting ready to move to California, lots of people -- friends, family, and strangers alike -- made all sorts of denigrating comments about California and Californians. I was warned against becoming a crazy driver, becoming a hippie, dying in an earthquake, turning into a self-absorbed asshole in general, you name it.

But once I got here, I saw that Californians couldn't be lovelier. When I say I grew up in a small town in Ohio, they don't say, "Oh god, how did you ever survive?" They say, "Hey, I was in Cleveland recently, and had a good time." When I say that I come from a religious family, and grew up going to church weekly, they don't say, "Ew! How oppressive!"; they talk about their own religious experiences (or lack thereof).

All this "real America" rhetoric from Republicans has rankled me. Growing up, my family was one of the few liberal families in a conservative town, and those "real Americans" would say awful things about us. We ate dinner together every single night, but apparently lacked "family values" because we were Democrats. Now I live in what is unequivocally not real America, and all the fake Americans I know have much more goodwill towards the rest of the country -- not just the parts that look and think like they do.

The culture wars have become one-sided, which bizarrely gives me hope. The McCain campaign has been using them as a last-chance tactic, and it doesn't appear to be working. If Obama wins, they might actually be over.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ohio will always haunt me

Right now, I am so mortified to be from a small town in Northeast Ohio. Strongsville is a mere 12 miles up the road from where I grew up, and I haven't watched the video, because I'm afraid I'll recognize someone.

This is no exaggeration -- I am not surprised at all by what people in the crowd were saying.

I am really curious as to how Medina County will vote in this election. Summit and Cuyahoga* Counties will definitely go for Obama. Wayne and Ashland Counties will definitely go for McCain. But Medina County is on that border, and is growing more and more due to sprawl from Cleveland and Akron. For a while I thought that was enough to tip it to Obama, but now, with that video, and the conversations that my mother tries to avoid yet overhears, it seems that I'd forgotten a lot about my hometown in the past 11 years.

*Okay, Strongsville is actually in Cuyahoga county -- along the southwest edge of the county, and at the edge of the Cleveland suburbs. In general, the suburbs to the south and west of Cleveland are more conservative than the suburbs to the east, which is probably correlated with how white the south/west suburbs are. Anyway, if you take Strongsville, and make it more rural and more conservative, you get Medina County. Whee. (And thus ends this edition of At This Point You Should Just Be Glad Becky Hasn't Started on About School Funding in Ohio.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Game Would Just Be Redundant

Like many people, I've been gleefully looking forward to the VP debate. I was going to make a drinking game of it, but realized it was nigh-on impossible for two reasons:

  1. If you drink every time Sarah Palin says something incoherent, or every time Joe Biden is historically inaccurate, you'll be hammered in fifteen minutes.

  2. You're already going to want to drink every time Sarah Palin says something incoherent, or every time Joe Biden is historically inaccurate.

So raise your glass of Yuengling if Scranton gets a shout-out, but other than that, you have no choice but to make some popcorn and brace yourselves for a bumpy ride.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Few Words about Washington Mutual

Washington Mutual went under on Thursday, in what was "by far the largest bank failure in American history". This certainly wasn't a big shock, and it's been a long time coming. WaMu was heavily involved in subprime and Alt-A and other dubious lending practices. Here is my story of how I took advantage of this.

When I originally bought my house in Ann Arbor in the summer of 2000, I got a loan through a mortgage broker. It was a "no income verification" loan, which I was able to get with a good credit score and by putting 20% down. I got a 5-year fixed ARM, and the broker assured me he'd help me refinance for free after a couple years. The broker took care of everything, and there wasn't a hitch.

At the end of 2002, rates had gone down significantly, and I called up the broker again to refinance. Of course, his previous offer to help me refinance for free was just a load of bullshit; he wanted to charge a lot and the deal he offered wasn't very good, so I went off on my own to refinance. I first called Wells Fargo (I think) but never actually got through to anybody. I then called Washington Mutual, and they were only too happy to help.

Washington Mutual offered me a great rate, so I was going to save about $350/month for another 5-year fixed ARM. Thankfully, this wasn't a super-gimick loan where I was paying interest-only, but after 5 years it was going to reset to a significantly higher rate. However, I was fairly confident (correctly so!) that wouldn't still be in Ann Arbor in five years, so this wasn't going to be a problem.

Anyway, I fill out all the paperwork, and it all looks good since I have a good credit score, and a significant amount of equity in the house (I wasn't taking any money out). But I still needed to fax them a table listing my sources of income-- they weren't going to verify any of the sources, but they still wanted this on record. I wrote down an honest list, faxed it to the loan officer, and got a call back:

Loan Officer: The income you've listed here isn't sufficient to give you the loan.

Me: Wait, you aren't verifying it, does it matter?

Loan Officer: It matters for our records.

Me: So what can I do? That's my income.

Loan Officer: Do you have any other sources of income? Perhaps there's a Rykoff Family Trust that provides you with income?

Me: What?

Loan Officer: Is there a Rykoff Family Trust that provides an extra $5000/year income?

Me: A Rykoff Family Trust???

Loan Officer: That's right, is there a Rykoff Family Trust?

You could hear her winking over the phone.

I wrote down what she told me to; I got the loan; and sold the house before the rate reset. But they were so eager to give me the loan, and were actively encouraging how to doctor the application. And so it's no surprise that they got swallowed up in this mess.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Signs of the times

The Obama campaign is all but ignoring lawn signs in some battleground states -- so they can focus on silly things like voter registration -- and it's starting to backfire in Virginia. From my anecdotal survey of two voters, it's also starting to piss off Ohio supporters, too.

I think the campaign is underestimating how emotionally attached people are to signs, especially in swing states or conservative areas. It's not just about declaring your support: it's about saying "Fuck you"* to your neighbors, because you're freaking tired of hearing the 19 percent-ers impugn your patriotism.

* I am not implying that my mother would actually say "Fuck you" to anyone.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Polling the family

Talking to my parents about the election is always interesting -- Eli and I are in California, surrounded by Obama supporters, so we are perhaps overly optimistic about the election. Meanwhile, my parents are in Ohio, surrounded by conservatives, and, well:
Down here, Friday afternoon is when you wash the sheets. Saturday is when you hang them out. Sunday is when you wear them.

(Quote from a supposed Obama supporter. BUT STILL. I can see why my parents are so fed up and pessimistic.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Waiting (for 11/4/08) is the hardest part

Yesterday morning, we saw Joe Biden in Canton, which was entertaining (despite starting 1 1/2 hours late). There were two opening speakers: Governor Ted Strickland, which was a pleasant surprise, and then . . . John Boccieri. Who? Well, he's running for Congress in a district where the 30-year incumbent Republican is retiring, and he has a pretty good chance of winning.

Plus, he released this awesome video some time ago:

I wish I could vote for him!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I don't understand 25% of the country! But not the 25% you might think

I don't particularly care or worry about the 20-25% of the population who still approves of Bush. They're lost causes.

What does concern me, if you believe the polls, is the 25%-ish of the population who disapproves of Bush but is planning on voting for McCain. I am baffled by them! When has there been any indication that McCain will change the direction that this country is going in? Not in 2006, when he voted for the Military Commissions Act, which lets the president authorize pretty much everything. Not in 2007, when he voted for Bush policies 95% of the time. Not in 2008, when he explicitly voted against a ban on waterboarding.

He even hired Bush's speechwriter from 2000 (start at about 4:50):

(In a related note, Jason Jones has been growing on me!)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

There's no ice in Florida!

By far, the most egregious move by the NCAA Ice Hockey Committee is placing the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida. Tampa. FLORIDA. 674 miles from the nearest Division I hockey team, and nearly 1,000 miles to the second-closest Division I hockey team.

Of course, there are still regionals and the 2011 Frozen Four in Minnesota, but they have a bit of an advantage (emphasis mine):
“We focused on selecting sites that have NHL size ice sheets and are in neutral buildings,” said Ice Hockey Committee Chairman Joel Maturi, the AD of Minnesota. “We really feel that each of these buildings will showcase college hockey, give our student-athletes a tremendous experience and help take our championship to another level.”

Yes, what a tremendous experience playing for the championship in an empty arena in Florida. Awesome.

If the NCAA was serious about expanding Division I ice hockey, they wouldn't be scheduling tournaments in Missouri and Florida. They would spend all their free time wooing Penn State. Pennsylvanians not only have two pro hockey teams, but are aware they have two pro hockey teams, so you have a built-in hockey fanbase. Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame have hockey teams, so you can have games against known rivals to bring in casual fans. There are only two Division I hockey teams in the state, both in the western part. And there is nothing to do in State College in the winter.

Sure, it's expensive, and you'll have to add women's water polo or rowing for Title IX, but long-term it would be good for college hockey. I almost suspect that the NCAA is trying to kill college hockey. I mean, Florida?

(link via The Blog That Yost Built)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Arugula for all!

While the Obama campaign has had lots of fun mocking McCain for not knowing how many houses he had, the McCain campaign came back with . . . an arugula reference. Because a year ago, Obama had the nerve to mention the price of arugula.

I find it unbelievably frustrating that worrying about the price of vegetables makes one elitist. I don't know why someone would take pride in not being able to spell it. It's healthy! It's tasty! And it is a goddamn crime in this country that organic arugula is $4 for 5 ounces (or $7/lb for non-organic), while mac and cheese is $1.58 a box. Vegetables should not be luxuries, and I wish someone would actually say that for once.


Yeah, we got punked.

But Biden has had two of the funniest lines of the campaign, so this should be fun. With

Your kitchen table is like mine, you sit there at night after you put the kids to bed and you talk about what you need. That's not a worry John McCain has to worry about. He'll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at.


Rudy Giuliani. There's only three things he mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9/11.

I can't wait for the VP debates!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Evan Bayh?

So apparently there are Obama-Bayh bumper stickers being printed up in Kansas (h/t Mark Ambinder). And then I checked and redirects to There's no, or, or even

You heard it here first.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Those are some elitist bootstraps, I guess

Plenty of bloggers and journalists, not to mention McCain himself, have called Obama "elitist" at various points throughout the campaign.

I would just like to point out that in politics right now, the two greatest examples of living the American Dream -- of starting from nothing and working hard from there -- are Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I don't know why a grandmother in Hawaii makes Obama an elitist, while two houses on Coronado Island doesn't make McCain and elitist, but whatever. And do not even get me started on arugula. There will be a whole 'nother post coming about why caring about the price of arugula makes you explicitly not an elitist.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

NBC Doing Well with Olympics, the Bastards

Apparently the Olympics have been ratings gold for NBC this year. Swimming and gymnastics have been extremely popular, and everyone has been talking about the Olympics.

What this article doesn't mention is that the West Coast isn't getting any of that live primetime coverage. Nothing but tape delays for us!

NBC said Saturday’s prime-time broadcast — featuring Mr. Phelps’s eighth gold medal win — was its most-viewed Saturday program in 18 years. From 11 to 11:30 p.m., when the Americans swam in their medal-winning medley relay, 39.9 million viewers were watching, according to Nielsen Media Research.

That would have been from 8 to 8:30 p.m., if aired live on the West Coast. Would that have been so awful? Half the time, there's nothing good on until 10 p.m. ET, so give the West Coast a live feed then (7 p.m. PT), and throw all the crap in tape-delayed later. Better to tape-delay some stuff than everything, especially when things are finishing around 1 a.m. ET.

Clearly people are watching the Olympics, and talking about them. And I am freaking tired of having to avoid the entire internet after 5 p.m. PT to avoid Olympic spoilers. I complained to, but they shockingly haven't emailed me back. Lo, how I miss the CBC!

Monday, August 11, 2008

What were the other 19% thinking?

I know August is a slow sports month, what with only preseason football and pre-pennant race baseball, but it's still a pleasant surprise to see how many people are paying attention to the Olympics. In the poll (to which I cannot directly link, and can I file a complaint about that?), over 80% of the respondants cited the men's 4x100 freestyle relay as the highlight of the weekend. Now, I didn't see the other three events, but that relay was awesome, and Lezak was incredible.

If you missed it, you can watch it here after installing the Silverlight plugin. (Hooray for Mac support this year!) And while you're at it, watch the women's 400m freestyle final, which also had a close and crazy finish.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Saag Paneer

We've made saag paneer (or palaak paneer, as they call it in Southern India) many times, using a combination of two recipes. Both recipes are from Madhur Jaffrey: one in World Vegetarian and the other in World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. We don't like either one by itself, so now that we've finally adjusted it to our liking, here goes:

The paneer:
2 quarts whole milk
3-4 Tbsp white vinegar or lemon juice
1/4 tsp garam masala
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cayenne

Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth, making sure you have plenty of cloth.

Bring the milk to a boil over medium high heat. When it begins to boil, turn the heat to low, and add 3Tbsp of vinegar. Stir. If the mixture does not begin curdling (the thin, yellowish whey separating from the white curds), add the last tablespoon of vinegar. Stir again, then pour into the colander. The whey will drain out and you'll have the curds left in the colander.

Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth and squeeze out as much water as possible. Tie the bundle shut, and lay the cloth on a plate. Place another plate above it, with a heavy book, for about five minutes. Just five minutes is all you need!

At this point it will keep for a day or two in the fridge. But once you're ready, slice it into cubes and fry it in a bit of oil. After slightly browning all sides, set aside. Sprinkle with the salt, cayenne, and garam masala. (The frying is optional, mostly because it sticks to the pan like crazy, no matter how much oil you use.)

The saag:
2 10-oz. bags of spinach
1 Tbsp of dried fenugreek or 1-2 handfuls of fresh fenugreek (if you can get fresh fenugreek, it is SO worth it)

2-3 Tbsp peanut oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
A 1-inch cube of ginger, chopped finely
1/2 - 2 small green chilis, chopped finely. (we use 2 Thai chilis, but whatever you have that you like)
1 tomato, grated

3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne

Bring 1/3 cup of water to boil in a large pan. Put in the spinach and fenugreek, and cook gently, covered, for 25 minutes.

START MAKING RICE NOW. (We have forgotten to make rice on at least three occasions.)

About 10 minutes after you've put the spinach on, start heating 2-3 Tbsp peanut oil in another frying pan. Add the ginger, garlic, and chilis, frying them until they start to brown. Then add the tomato, and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the texture thickens.

After the spinach has cooked for 25 minutes, mash it a bit with a potato masher or wooden spoon. Stir the tomato mixture into the spinach mixture, then add the salt, cumin, and cayenne. Stir to mix, cooking gently for 5 minutes. You may need to add a tablespoon of cornstarch here, but we usually just try to remove any excess water.

Add the paneer, stir, and cook gently covered for another 5 minutes. Taste for salt.

Serve hot, with rice.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dorky Fun with Wordle

It seems that wordle is all the rage these days. And I decided to look at what comes out of the RSS feed of astro-ph. Let's take a look (click image to enlarge):

I didn't realize that "magnetic" would be number one!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In case of emergency, please try again later

This morning we had a moderate earthquake in the LA area. It was strong enough that we felt it 150 miles away in Santa Barbara, but not so strong as to make us feel like we were in danger.

After this minor event, it was almost impossible to make a cell phone call into or out of Santa Barbara for the next 3 or so hours. I understand that it's not economical for the phone companies to build enough towers and bandwidth so that every person on their network can make a phone call at the same time. However, it is a bit troubling that even after a minor earthquake such as this that we're not able to use our phones. What will we do if something serious occurs?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Birthday tradition!

Yesterday we went out for sushi for Eli's birthday. In honor of the yummy sushi, here is the very funny "Japanese Tradition" video about how to eat sushi:

I'm not sure if they're aimed at Japanese people, or people learning Japanese, or what, but I really enjoy the "Japanese Tradition" videos. There's also a very funny one about chopsticks, and one about origami that starts off funny but then meanders.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Planet: A self-gravitating body that is nearly round

The other day I was looking at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) database table on photometric classification. I needed to recall which type was a star and which was a galaxy. So I was interested to see the following two listings in this table buried deep in the SDSS information:
Galaxy: An extended object composed of many stars and other matter.
Star: A a self-luminous gaseous celestial body.
I guess I was just surprised at how pedantic it was.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Running to the center is not leadership

Gail Collins is correct when she notes
You liked Barack because you thought he could get us past the old brain-dead politics, right?

But those of us disappointed about the FISA vote aren't disappointed because we don't understand what a compromise is. I'm disappointed because Obama wasn't only talking about bipartisanship and building a consensus -- he was talking about reducing the influence of big business in politics. He has a strong history of supporting civil liberties. I had hoped that an Obama administration would be less corrupt and bloated than the current executive branch; now, I'm not so sure.

Last week I realized that I wouldn't exactly be able let my ACLU membership lapse after an Obama victory. And even though the Democratic party is slowly limping to the left, it's going to be a long, slow battle. I'm hoping someone has their eye on Dianne Feinstein's Senate seat for 2010, because I swear I am ready to starting working on that one now.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No news, so here is some bad press!

The Santa Barbara Independent has had excellent coverage of the Gap Fire, but I decided to look for more information elsewhere. A lot of shit went down with the Santa Barbara News-Press before we moved to town, but I thought I should given them one chance. Although the News-Press has an extensive online section for fire coverage, what happens when you actually try to read one of those articles?
This current article requires registration and login to view. You may also purchase the article without a general registration. Click here to proceed to the login, registration or article purchase page.

I emailed them to complain about the lack of free online information they had about the natural disaster in our backyard, and to be fair, I was a little sarcastic, concluding:
We have a wildfire in our backyard, and you can't manage to provide updates on your website? For free? To everyone?

It's 2008, and every other paper in the U.S. has managed to figure out how to put free content online. Get with the program.
To my surprise, I did get an email in response:
Dear website user.

Certain sections of the website currently require login (user needs to be a subscriber in order to access). Please note that a number of sections in the site are FREE of charge such as: News Video coverage on, AM1290 Radio station, Classifieds, Special Sections, USA Weekend, House & Home, Our Home, El Mexicano, Goleta Valley Voice, Smart Clips, Photo Galleries, etc, etc.

Okay, I love the "etc, etc." at the end. That is genius. But I was procrastinating, so I decided to email them back:
Thank you for your prompt response. I am very glad to know that the next time there is a natural disaster in Santa Barbara County, I will still be able to peruse the real estate listings in the News-Press. In the meantime, I will get my local news from the Santa Barbara Independent.

I'm very proud that I refrained from complaining about their webpage resizing my browser window. But why bother complaining when I'm never going back to the site again?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Happy Fourth of July Three-Day Weekend

Between Guantanamo and FISA, I'm not feeling particularly patriotic this year -- when everyone else is singing along to that hideous Greenwood song, I'm thinking of e.e. cumming's "next to god of course america . . . ".

However, I do like this country, quite a bit, so I will polish off the holiday weekend by reminding my senators -- and everyone else -- of the Bill of Rights. Particularly Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And the clear and concise Amendment VIII:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Happy Birthday, America. Maybe this year will be a good one.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Now batting for Pedro Borbon...Manny Mota! (mota! mota!)

I'll admit it, I've been spending way too much time paying attention to the crazy political goings-on this season. Even after the endless Bataan Death March Obama-Clinton showdown, I've continued to pay attention. But the relentless echo-chamber, especially on the right, but also on the left, is completely out of control, and blogs have made it worse. As has been pointed out many times, it really doesn't matter what anybody actually says. From Al Gore "inventing the internet" to Wesley Clark "insulting McCain's service" to Hillary Clinton "advocating the assassination of Obama", it doesn't matter that none of these things actually happened. But all of these events can at least be directly attributable to deliberate misquotations, distortions, and spin.

But two recent spin-ups have occurred that were not even based on a mis-quotation, but appeared spontaneously from the vacuum. On one side was Obama's "complete reversal" on Iraq, and on the other was the "terrorist fist-jab" (which does have the advantage of adding a new entertaining term to the lexicon.)

First, Obama on Iraq. Suddenly the blogosphere was abuzz with right-wing claims of Obama reversing completely on Iraq, and saying we'll be there forever, a-la McCain, etc. So this claim of reversing course on Iraq? It comes from sources like this. Which has great statements like:
In Baghdad, Mr. Obama will get a chance to meet with Ambassador Crocker, who is leading negotiations with the Iraqi government on the presence of American troops. Mr. Crocker will likely tell the senator that our position is not to keep bases permanently but to lease them for 10 years from the Iraqi government, whose lawmakers, he'll report, privately hope the bases will be used as barracks for our GIs.
So this is all based on what will happen? Are you serious? But all it takes is one blog to say something, and then you have a reference for whatever you might want to say. And it echoes back and forth and you don't even need to distort an existing quotation!

Second, and much less serious, is the "terrorist fist jab". Where did this (admittedly great) phrase first come from? I first heard about it from Andrew Sullivan, who linked to this posting at Slate which claimed that Cal Thomas at Human Events called the Barack-Michelle pound "a Hezbollah style fist-jabbing." A subsequent edit at Slate admitted that Cal Thomas had not made that accusation, but it was instead one of the commenters...but which one? As best I can tell, the only comments on Cal Thomas's post referring to a "Hezbollah style fist-jabbing" were left-wingers responding to the ludicrous accusation. Somebody, somewhere, accused Cal Thomas of a ridiculous statement...commenters responded without actually RTFA...and everything started cross-posting and a meme was born.

But it was (of course) Fox News who brought it to the air and cemented "terrorist fist jab" in our language. Thank you, E. D. Hill.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Smoke before fire, but both before information

We were visiting family this weekend, and spent a fair amount of time assuring them that we weren't affected by any of the California wildfires, as they were hundreds of miles north of us. And then last night, a fire broke out maybe ten miles from where we live.

The Santa Barbara Independent -- a free, weekly paper -- has had excellent coverage of the fire, with lots of updates on the fire and the status of the evacuations. Their only flaw has been in saying, "For more information, visit the county Fire Department’s website."

I have visited said website, and nowhere is there a mention of the current fire. BlogaBarbara pointed to the Google Group for alerts. A Google Group. In 2008. Please. Nevermind the fact that the only post yesterday is a freaking test of their red alert system, and not an actual post about the actual fire that is burning in the county. I'm sure right now they're a little too busy to set up a blog, or some alert system on their homepage, but maybe they should get it ready for next time. The Independent coverage is good, but it would be nice to have a direct source for the status of the fire and the evacuations.

Monday, June 30, 2008

He had me until the word "not"

If you were under the age of 35 ( . . . which most of you are), and were reading the paper with your breakfast, would you continue with an article that started like this:
I do not unconditionally celebrate the Internet, particularly its intrusion into classical music. As replacements for the record store, Amazon and iTunes have become necessary evils. Typical commercial downloads are sonic shadows of the superior sound of CDs. Blogs ghettoize critics. YouTube is pretty much a toy.

I am not an expert on the business model for classical music, but in general, the problem is not the internet's "intrusion into classical music" -- the problem is the classical music community not embracing the internet. If you're not happy with the classical music offerings online, do something about it yourself. But if you don't embrace the internet, you'll never reach that next generation of fans.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Easy Check In! Just Click Right Here, Please

We're leaving for Pittsburgh tomorrow (family wedding! woo! seriously!), and I wasn't paying attention as I was checking in. You know how it is, you have to go page by page re-confirming your seat, etc.

Well, United knows how it is, too. And they're hoping you'll mindlessly click on the arrow, hoping to go to the next page, but instead paying $29 for the privilege of not sitting with your knees under your chin.

(I didn't click it.)

(But only because Eli caught me before I did.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Second place is the first loser

It's been a tough two months of sports for us here. In April, Michigan lost in overtime to Notre Dame in the Frozen Four, ending a wonderful, unexpected rush of a season. A few weeks ago, the Penguins lost to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals, four games to two, after an impressive run in the playoffs. And tonight, the Celtics utterly shellacked the Lakers (sorry, Eli), winning the NBA championship in six games.

I can tell you right now that the Dodgers will make it to the World Series and lose in six games, Michigan football will finally beat Ohio State only to suffer (another) embarrassing loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, and the Steelers will lose in the Super Bowl after some sort of epic third-quarter collapse.

I'm really sorry to all of our fellow fans, but our household seems to be cursed this year.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Playing around with time

I feel like time-lapse videos are everywhere lately, and "Players" is my new favorite:

Players from Sam Javanrouh on Vimeo.

Sam Javanrouh is the photographer behind the excellent [daily dose of imagery] photoblog, which is wonderfully moody and urban.

Now if I could just find a good time-lapse video of density waves in traffic jams, I'd be all set . . .

Thursday, June 12, 2008

But that just raises more rumors!

While I'm glad that the Obama campaign is ready to combat the crazy rumors about Obama and his family, I'm disappointed that the campaign was pressured into releasing Obama's birth certificate. (Not that anything will ever be enough for some people.) And no matter how much people insist that they just want to know if his given name was "Barack" or "Barry", or if his middle name was originally "Muhammad", I don't think that the mildest of those rumors would be flying around if his name was John* Smith.

Either the commenters haven't realized that Barack Hussein Obama is just as likely to be a natural-born U.S. citizen as John Smith, or they're aware of it and very, very bitter. Sorry, but the guy butchering names at Ellis Island retired in the last century.

What could people possibly ask for next? I'm afraid to ask, as it's only June, and the crazy xenophobes have plenty of time to write breathless emails about Obama being Muslim/Kenyan/racist/OMGBLACKWITHFUNNYNAME!

* I realize that there have also been some quibbles about McCain's eligibility for President, as he was born on a military base in Panama. But the Senate voted to declare him a natural-born citizen, and no one is disputing his birth name or his place of birth.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is there a Top Geeky Chef?

On tonight's Top Chef finale (no spoilers here, don't worry), Richard bragged that he was using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, and that "only a dozen top chefs in the country" do that sort of thing.

Top chefs, pffft. Even I've made liquid nitrogen ice cream on multiple occasions. In fact, other than procuring liquid nitrogen, it's one of the easiest desserts out there. Clearly Richard should have noted that "a dozen top chefs and thousands of physics geeks" use liquid nitrogen in their cooking.

Monday, June 9, 2008

That was MY template!

So I was distressed today to see a blog posting on the McCain campaign PowerPoint on a "Path to Victory" (warning: NSFW). Apart from the ridiculous strategizing going on at the McCain camp (I'm not too worried after seeing their plan) I was surprised that the McCain people don't actually use PowerPoint...they use Keynote!

And not only that, they use the same template that I do!

I guess I need to find a new template.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spicy Corn

As the summer grilling season begins (but in Santa Barbara it never ends!) corn on the cob starts to appear at the market. And there's nothing we love more than Indian-style spicy grilled corn. I learned this recipe and technique from my neighbors on Tappan St. in Ann Arbor, some time in the last millennium. And after Madhan and Pravina showed me how to make this recipe, it's been my favorite way to eat corn on the cob.

Corn on the cob, husked (see below)
Coriander chutney (from a jar, available at Indian grocers)
Fresh lime
cayenne pepper, to taste

Fire up the grill. Husk the corn, and save a few inner husk leaves (whatever they're called), which we will make into a basting brush. Cut the very thick, white end off the leaves, and then make 1-inch slices into the ends of the leaves to make a brush-like head. Peel off another 1/2 inch wide strand of husk, and use this to tie the base of the brush together. Or, if you're feeling lazy, you can just use a regular brush, but the husk-brush is disposable and biodegradable!

Squeeze the juice of 1 lime (enough for 3-4 ears of corn; this recipe scales well) into a small bowl. Put a tablespoon or more of coriander chutney, a healthy pinch of salt, and ~1/8 teaspoon cayenne (to taste) in with the lime juice. Stir. If it's too thick it can be loosened with more lime juice, water, or whatever beer-like beverage you happen to be drinking.

Put the corn on the hot grill, and baste the top of the corn with the mixture. After a few minutes the bottom of the corn will begin to blacken, rotate the corn, and baste the top again. Repeat until the corn has been roasted and basted all the way around.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A beautiful edit

I am a total sucker for good editing and good transitions, even in commercials. The first great example of this -- and still my favorite -- that I can recall is the Nike "Move" ad from 2002. There are two recent ads that have also caught my eye:

This Stanley Cup ad is neat, if on the choppy side:

And this camera ad is a great mix of photography and film:

It's almost enough for me to reconsider my opposition to Flickr adding video.

What other brilliantly edited sequences -- from ads, movies, whatever -- do you love?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Dean gets it, and gets votes

I read that the Democratic National Convention is giving full press credentials to hundreds of bloggers, including one locally-focused blog from every state. This is yet another example of how Howard Dean gets it, the 21st century, and I still can't believe that the Democratic Party actually, for once, did the smart thing when electing him DNC Chair.

Maybe it seems like electing Dean was a no-brainer, or that even poorly-trained monkeys could have been elected to Congress in 2006 if they had a D next to their name. But if you paid any attention to the RBC meeting this weekend -- or tried to avoid news of it -- it's worth noting that Harold Ickes was a contender for DNC chair. If you just emerged from the cave you hid in this weekend to avoid the RBC updates, you might need to go back into it to cope with even the thought of Ickes as DNC chair. (It's also delightful to note that the linked blog -- which just happened to be the first google hit for this -- thought that Dean would be a disaster as DNC chair. If this is a disaster, I'll take it!)

Meanwhile, the Republican Party will also be issuing press credentials to bloggers, but they don't sound enthusiastic about it:
How many independent bloggers are ultimately credentialed will be determined by several factors - including interest; space available; the reach and influence of a particular blog; the amount of original content the blog typically generates; and other factors.

The difference in tone is remarkable.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

I believe the poles are shifting . . .

We saw R.E.M. on Thursday night, and it was awesome -- they put on a great show, as always. But we can't believe that on this tour, in 2008, they're not playing "I Believe".

I mean, Obama's campaign slogan, "Change we can believe in", is practically a lyric from the song! Michael Stipe is (to the surprise of no one) supporting Obama! This would be the most obvious song to play to get people riled up and excited about voting, but instead they're playing "Ignoreland" (which admittedly is pretty good live).

Maybe no one can play the banjo intro anymore.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Waving the white flag

This basketball postseason has seen a wave of home teams surrendering home-court advantage by waving the white flag. The "white-out" tradition of having all the fans wear white apparently started back in time immemorial by the Winnipeg Jets (I hate Winnipeg). And I guess it works in hockey...the Penguins have had three white-outs this post-season, and have won all three games (including tonight against the Red Wings!).

In the NBA the Miami Heat used the white-out to great advantage during their 2006 championship run (apparently the white t-shirts blinded the refs and caused them to give Dwyane Wade every call). But this season? Not so successful.

The New Orleans Hornets used yellow t-shirts to great effect in games 1 and 5 against the game 1 the crowd was rockin', and the yellow looked good on TV. But in game 7 the sponsors must have gotten cheap and switched to white t-shirts which weren't nearly as impressive, and they were killed by the Spurs.

Lakers @ Spurs, game 4? White-out, Spurs were beaten. (Thank you white t-shirts!)
Boston @ Detroit, game 3? White-out, Detroit was killed.
Cleveland @ Washington, game 3? White-out, success!

That makes the white-out 1-3 at home in this post-season, when home teams are overall a ridiculous 58-20 (as of May 28th).

I hope this unimpressive "tradition" of surrender dies a quick death. (Unless the Spurs or Celtics want to try it against the Lakers. I'd be happy with that).

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tandoori or don't we?

Tonight Becky and I made Mark Bittman's Twice Cooked Mock Tandoori Chicken. We've previously tried Madhur Jaffrey's Tandoori Chicken from An Invitation to Indian Cooking (a classic from 1973 with the world's longest subtitle).

What's new and interesting about Bittman's version is the cooking method: baking the chicken in the sauce first, and then grilling it to finish. We think this worked well, but (a) the baking time was waaaay too long (b) there was about 3x too large yogurt to spice ratio and (c) it didn't actually taste like tandoori chicken (it must be noted that we never got the Jaffrey recipe to taste like tandoori chicken either!). One of the problems was that the chicken was still too wet when we put it on the grill. When Bittman says to scrape away the excess sauce before grilling, he means it!

We had it with fresh-baked naan which came out very tasty, which we finished on the grill.

Solving the world's problems with satire!

I never thought I'd be excited about an Adam Sandler movie, but I have been looking forward to You Don't Mess with the Zohan. And now, after reading this article about the conception and evolution of the movie, I'm totally sold.

Perhaps we're reading too much into it, but we were both charmed by this:
“Adam Sandler, in the Arab and Muslim communities, is not having a good reputation,” said Sayed Badreya, an Egyptian-born actor who plays one of Zohan’s adversaries in New York. “When it came to working with Adam, I was like, ‘Eh, well, I don’t know.’ My prejudice was bigger than me.” Mr. Badreya said he had been persuaded to reconsider, in part, by his teenage daughter, a huge fan of Mr. Sandler’s films.

Hooray for teenaged fans of Adam Sandler -- breaking barriers and making the world a better place!

Meanwhile, we suspect that the success of West Bank Story also helped in making the Zohan possible. You can buy it on iTunes, and it is definitely worth the $2 and twenty minutes of your time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Presenting Mr. and Mr. Sulu

Among the many gay couples that can now legally marry in California are George Takei and his long-term partner! Congrats to everyone!

I've never seen an episode of Star Trek, so my only exposure to Takei has been from one of my favorite Daily Show clips ever:

Now I know why he sounds so startled when Samantha Bee asks him about "Young Wet Bitches".

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

No, let me tip my 20-gallon hat to you!

The city of Santa Barbara is promoting a 20 Gallon Challenge, listing ways to reduce your water consumption by 20 gal/day. I find the list frustrating, however, because many of the suggestions are either bleedingly obvious, or only helpful for owners, not renters.

So the things on the list that we already do to save water:
  • Turn off water when brushing teeth.
  • Take short showers (At 2 gal/min on a good day, there's a limit to how much shorter they can get).
  • Don't use the toilet as a wastebasket (who does that?).
  • Wash only full loads of laundry.
  • Wash outdoor furniture by hand instead of just hosing down.

The things that are not applicable to us:
  • Leaky faucets and toilets.
  • Flow restrictors on faucets (definitely not needed on days when we're only getting 0.7 gal/min).
  • Replacing the washing machine
  • Dishwasher usage
  • All the landscaping suggestions. I love the landscaping suggestions -- I just wish we had the power to implement them.

That leaves one suggestion that we probably could use, which is to be more careful about running water when washing dishes.

(I don't want to think about how much water is wasted in watering our front yard. If it were up to me, our front yard would consist of palm trees, lemon trees, aloe plants, and gravel. Instead, like every other yard in our neighborhood, it has grass. Not exactly native to southern California. But I'm pretty sure our landlord is not about to re-landscape the front yard.)

I'm not saying these suggestions aren't a good place to start -- they're fine. But if you're going to talk about reducing water, you can't ignore the vast quantities of water involved in agriculture or ethanol production. Saving water doesn't stop at your front gate, and I just wish that people talked about this more.

On the bright side, this means that if you're reducing your gasoline usage or high-fructose corn syrup intake for other reasons, you're probably already reducing your water usage, too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

La-Zed Spaghetti

One of our favorite easy dishes is Marcella Hazan's "Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter". It highlights the flavor of fresh tomatoes and is easy to boot. There's no garlic, no oregano, no basil, no gimmicks. Just a simple, delicious tomato sauce.

2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
5 tablespoons butter3/4 pounds pasta

We usually do this with spaghetti, but Marcella recommends Potato Gnocchi.

Core tomatoes and blanch them in boiling water for 30-60s. Put them in cold water to cool, and then the peels should fall right off. Chop the peeled tomatoes into coarse pieces and put them in a large saucepan with the butter, onion, and a couple pinches of salt. Cook uncovered at a slow simmer for 45-60 minutes. After 30-45 minutes put the pasta water on to boil with lots of salt. Before the pasta is ready, remove a few tablespoons of cooking water.

When the pasta is ready, remove the onion from the tomato sauce and discard. Taste and correct for salt. Mix the drained pasta with the sauce and a little of the pasta water. Serve with grated parmesan.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Worst Beer Ever!

I've had a lot of beer in my life, but which is the worst?

Is it the Sam Adams Triple Bock, which Eli described in two words: soy sauce?

Is it the Trader Joe's Hefeweizen, which promises flavors of "banana, bubble gum, and clove", and more than lives up to the threat?

Is it the Arbor Brewing Company's Smoked Lager, which tasted like bacon? I can tell you all right now, that beer and bacon are not two great tastes that go together.

Or is it some other beer that I've been fortunate enough to avoid so far?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

This blog is green!

We are pleased to announce that our new blog is "green." Because that is the template that Becky chose.

Last month's electricity bill was about 20% higher than the previous month. I realized this is because Becky has been working at the desk in the bedroom...and because the light switch in the bedroom is on a dimmer, we couldn't use CFLs. So today I bought a pair of CFLs and a new light switch ($12 total) and did some low budget electrical work. I figure we should make that back in about 4 months.


I finally convinced Eli to start blogging with me, so here we are! Content to follow soon, I promise.