Sunday, August 28, 2011

the joy of socks

Since we are moving out of state at the end of the month, I stopped my home delivery of the Chicago Tribune about a week ago. However, I’ll continue to read the online version every morning in order to keep abreast of the latest “breaking news” in the Windy City.

A little known fact is that the Chicago Tribune publishes a small parody newspaper called The Onion, which Wikipedia calls a news satire organization. Although I’m not going to be able to pick up a printed copy of the newspaper at the local news stand in Flagstaff, I’ll still be able to read it online when I’m truly in the mood for some goofy news.

Using the online White Pages directory this morning, I discovered that there are 99 people in America who have the last name of “Tongue”, and slightly over 100 who have the last name of “Cheek”.

So …

In the vein of the tongue-in-cheek editorial flavor of The Onion, the story listed below is an example of what could be the start of a series of related topics that The Onion might publish at some point in the future.


The joy of socks

Socks have been in use much longer than any of us could imagine. The first known use of socks was during The Stone Age, when socks were made of animal skins and tied around the ankles.

The 2nd century Romans were the first people to sew socks from woven fabric, and the Egyptians of the 3rd century were the first to actually knit socks.

For centuries thereafter, silk was the most popular material used to make socks, but cotton finally came into use in the 17th century. By the middle of the 20th century, nylon became the most popular fabric.

In spite of their popularity, though, socks have always presented a problem for their wearers. If Arthur Conan Doyle were still alive, he eventually would have written The Case of the Missing Socks.

In my dresser drawer, I have exactly 13 mismatched socks that I continue to keep in the hope that its partner will mysteriously reappear in the dryer the next time that I do my laundry. Buying special socks (such as Gold Toe socks) helps the problem, but doesn’t cure it entirely.

Thanks to the U.S. Army, though, there IS a cure.

Most people are surprised to learn that the Bureau of Missing Socks began as a company in the Union Army during the Civil War in the States of America. It was formed on August 1st, 1861. The name of the founder was Joseph Smithson and he was a haberdasher by trade but quite a bad soldier. He was therefore put in full and complete charge of socks of the enlisted men and officers. He brought to the army skills of stock keeping, purchasing, accounting, and salesmanship He immediately instituted a cost control structure and created one of the most honest, tightly run purchasing sections serving the Union side during the entire conflict.

The Bureau of Missing Socks is the only organization in the world devoted solely to unraveling the mystery of the single disappearing sock. It is an arm of the United States government no less important than the State Department and Department of Defense.

Its headquarters are located on a bluff high above the Potomac River in Washington, D. C. in a twenty four acre office park divided into four distinct areas: administrative, research, data and laboratory facilities.

Incidentally, if you’d like to order your very own custom socks, the link immediately above can take you to a page that allows you to view some unique products.

If the above information seems like a (um) stretch, consider the words of one of our former Presidents:

tricky Dick


Other than socks, the other topics that could eventually find their way into The Onion (in no particular sequence) are the following,

The joy of Sox - a brief history of “the South Siders”

The joy of six - Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls

The joy of slacks - when did WOMEN get to wear the pants in the family?

The joy of slicks - the evolution of the racing tire

The Joy of Sex - (not available in Middlesex, England)

The joy of snacks - (snack food rewind- a history of our favorite treats)

The joy of stacks - how to win at poker


The late Will Rogers had this to say about onions:

"An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh."

Since 1988, The Onion has been helping people to laugh, the first “vegetable” that’s been able to do that. If Will Rogers were still around today, I have no doubt that he’d be an avid reader.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Gas at 29.9 a gallon?

When I was a recent high school graduate, way back in 1965, the Standard station across the street from the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, was selling regular gas for 29.9 a gallon. Gasoline prices in other cities, even in California, weren’t appreciably higher.

Every time that gas prices jump, a certain percentage of our fellow voters contact their congressmen, and demand that action be taken to correct the situation. Often, there is talk of boycotting the oil companies in order to “force them to lower their prices.”

Even though gasoline prices are now, on average, about 20 cents a gallon less than they were just two months ago, and roughly 50 cents less than they were three years ago, one of the Republican politicians in Iowa last week promised to bring back gasoline that was priced at $2.00 per gallon.

For a lot of reasons, that simply doesn’t make any sense, and the link immediately above provides more details on exactly why it doesn’t. For starters, though, the United States actually has very little control over the price of oil, and even the expansion of off shore drilling will have little, if any, effect on the price of oil

If you need a reason to say “no” to more offshore drilling, read the article posted immediately below:


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. Because the accident happened in the Gulf of Mexico, the cleanup efforts were somewhat easier. However, if it had taken place in a colder climate (such as near the Arctic National Wildlife Range) clean up efforts would have been much more difficult.

As a country, we consume 25% of the world’s oil, but have only 2% of the world’s reserves. No matter HOW much we drill, we’re going to be short of oil unless we starting using a LOT less than we are now.

The one component of gasoline prices that we DO have control over is the 18.4 cent a gallon Federal Tax, which is due to expire on September 30. The tax has remained unchanged since 1993, and it is used to support the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and bridge repairs, as well as mass transit systems. The Highway Trust Fund has been under a lot of pressure for a number of years, and currently has a backlog of $72 billion, and that’s just for bridge maintenance and repairs.

Even if you add in state taxes to our gasoline bills, the total tax per gallon works out to around 43 cents, considerably cheaper than the $4 a gallon tax that is levied in Great Britain.

To repeat myself a little, if you need a reason to not only extend but to INCREASE the federal gasoline tax, watch the video below, which was taken in Minnesota in 2007:

London Bridge is falling down

Speaking of taxes, though, there’s something else that you need to consider.

The last time that America DIDN’T have an increase in the National Debt from year to year was in the year 2000, when Bill Clinton was in office. During the eight years of the Bush administration, the Federal Debt increased by roughly $4.3 trillion dollars, and a sizable chunk of that debt was due to the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Officially, they were titled the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. Although they seemed like a good idea at the time, they’ve left an awful nasty legacy. Total Federal Revenues in 2010 were $2.162 trillion, considerably less than Federal expenditures of $3.456 trillion. It’s naive, and irresponsible, to believe that you can close that kind of a gap just by trimming expenditures.

There are 10 countries in the world where you can still buy gasoline for less than $2.00 a gallon, and all of them are members of OPEC. The two cheapest countries are Iran ($.37 per gallon) and Saudi Arabia ($.61 a gallon).

Obviously, gas for less than $2 a gallon is pretty attractive, until you consider the other costs involved in living in those countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is governed by a President who rigged the Presidential election two years ago. Although religions other than Islam are officially tolerated, members of the Baha’i religion (the largest minority religion) have been persecuted for more than 100 years.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves, and the revenue from all that black goo equals 75% of government revenues. Perhaps not surprisingly, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly expressed concerns about the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia. Even today, it is illegal for a woman to drive a car by herself in Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah is actually the most powerful man in the world. If you don’t believe me, watch the video below:

the old fart in the turban

In 1973, the price of a barrel of oil skyrocketed from $3 a barrel to over $5 a barrel in a short period of time, and the world panicked. As of this morning, by the way, a barrel of oil was going for $82.56, and the sky hasn’t fallen yet.

When George H.W. Bush was elected President, the price of a gallon of regular was $1.12 a gallon. The national debt was $220 billion, three times its size when Ronald Reagan was first sworn in. In 1990, the Republicans in Congress believed that the best way to cut the deficit was by decreasing spending, and the Democrats believed that the best way to cut the deficit was by raising taxes. Ultimately, President Bush worked out a compromise, but it made him a one term President.

According to Thomas Friedman (of the New York Times), George H.W. Bush is our most underrated President.

He never promised America that we would have gas priced at 29.9 per gallon, but he made some tough decisions that were based on what was good for the country, not what was good for the Party. He was still jumping out of airplanes when he was 85 years old. That proves, to put it politely, that he has a lot more “chutzpah” than pretty much everybody who is trying to unseat the current President.

“Poppy” is still alive and well, and he is now 87 years old. If there were more guys like him still around, I might actually vote for a Republican again, but don’t hold your breath. He’s the last of a vanishing breed, and the current “cast of characters” are a poor imitation of the man who defeated Saddam Hussein the first time.

In closing, I’d like to offer the following accolade to the 41st President of the United States:

we miss you, George

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What's good for General Motors is good for America

In 1953, President Eisenhower nominated Charles Wilson,
the CEO of General Motors, to be Secretary of Defense. During the Senate hearings about his nomination, he was asked if he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors if his position as Secretary of Defense required him to do so. He answered in the affirmative, although his actual response is slightly different than the line quoted above, and can be read below:

what did “Engine Charlie” really say?

General Motors was founded in Flint, Michigan in 1908. Over the years since that time, General Motors Corporation experienced strong and steady growth. By the early 1950’s, General Motors was the largest corporation registered in America, in terms of revenues as a percentage of GDP.

From 1949 until 1978, the full size Chevrolet was the best selling car in America in all but three years.

In 1955, General Motors became the first U.S. corporation to pay more than $1 billion in taxes. That same year, the only employers in the world that were larger than General Motors were the combined Soviet state agencies.

In 1963, one out of every 10 cars sold in the country was a Chevrolet.

Since those heady days of yesteryear, GM has seen its fortunes tumble rather dramatically.

In the third quarter of 2008, General Motors reported a quarterly loss of $15.5 billion, one of the largest quarterly losses in the company’s history. At the request of the White House, Rick Wagoner resigned as Chairman and CEO on March 29, 2009. Since that date, GM has had three more Chairmen. The most recent one is Dan Akerson, who assumed the post on December 31, 2010.

In September of 2008, Congress worked out a loan of $25 billion to help the company avoid bankruptcy, and in December of 2008, President Bush authorized an emergency bailout of an additional $17.4 billion. Ultimately, GM filed for bankruptcy protection on
June 1, 2009.

Lately, though, things have been turning around for “the General”. Surprisingly, the resurgence didn’t come about because of a huge increase in sales in the land of ”baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet”. It happened because of China, currently the largest holder (at 26%) of all foreign holders of United States Treasury securities.

In 2006, Buick sales in China surpassed Buick sales in the United States for the first time, and the gap has widened considerably since then. For the first nine months of 2009, Buick sold 312,798 cars in China, and only 72,389 in the United States. As a result, when Buick redesigned the Lacrosse for the 2010 model year, the design studio that did the work was in Shanghai, not in America.

General Motors recently unveiled a new brand of automobile in China called the Baojun 360. It’s selling price ranges from $9,760 to $11,470, considerably cheaper than the similar-sized Chevy Cruze, which starts at $16,5256. Although it initially will be sold only in China, it could (with slight modification) be sold in America as well.

In the first half of 2011, GM sold more cars in China (1.27 million) than it did in in America (1.26 million). If the Baojun 360 becomes popularly with the rapidly increasing affluent Chinese middle class, that gap will continue to widen.

It’s still too soon to tell if the Federal Government will recover the money that it lent to General Motors. The U.S. Treasury currently owns 500,000,000 shares of the “new” GM, roughly 33% of the company’s worth. As of this morning, GM stock was going for just around $26 a share. At that price, the government would lose roughly $12 billion if it sold all of its shares tomorrow.

That’s still an ugly number, but a lot better than the $42 billion (plus) that has already been advanced to the company. On the positive side, though, General Motors DID report a PROFIT for the first quarter of 2011, so there is actually hope for the future.

If the Chinese auto market continues to expand, we’ll have to modify “Engine Charlie’s” convictions from almost 60 years ago to the following phrase:

“what’s good for Beijing is good for America”.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sex, lies, and videotape

On August 4, 1989, the movie “Sex, lies, and videotape” was released to the public. The low budget film became a commercial and critical success, and it was the catalyst that led to other successes for the young director, Steven Soderbergh.

Exactly twenty five years to the day before “Sex lies, and videotape” was released, another “incident” occurred that would have an enormous impact on our country. Although the incident wasn’t technically a lie, the “threatening actions” of another sovereign nation were never actually proved, which didn’t stop our country from engaging in the longest war in our nation’s history.

Three days after the “attack”, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which led to the rapid escalation of military action in what became known as the Vietnam War, even though an act of war was never officially declared by the United States.

The seeds of our involvement in what used to be known as French Indo-China go back even further than the Gulf of Tonkin “skirmish“. On August 4, 1953, President Eisenhower, while speaking at a Governor’s conference in Seattle, warned that the situation in Asia was becoming “very ominous” for the United States. As a result of his concerns, he approved a $400,000,000 aid package to the French in order to prevent what eventually became known as “the domino theory”. When the French were defeated a year later, the first American “advisors” were sent to the region, and the first two casualties (both Navy pilots) were recorded.

Although the region didn’t have any “weapons of mass destruction“, or oil, it DID have large quantities of tin and tungsten, which the United States felt were valuable commodities.

Ultimately, 58,200 American troops were killed in Vietnam, and as many as 3,000,000 Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Financially, the cost to us taxpayers was $111 billion dollars. Although that's an awful lot of money, it's still significantly less than the $341 billion we spent during WWII.

To date, there have been roughly 7000 coalition casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, we’ve spent $1.23 TRILLION, but the meter is still running, and will definitely go higher.

The irony of war is that “enemies” eventually become allies.

We’ve fought wars against England, Germany, Italy, and Japan at various points in time, and all of them are now strong allies.

China supported enemy troops in North Korea and North Vietnam, but measures to improve relations between the countries started as early as 1969. Today, China is the leading foreign holder (at 26%) of U.S. Security Treasuries. As a result, the recent brawl in Washington about the debt limit likely made the guys in Beijing VERY nervous.

We established diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 11, 1995. Since I have six “work polos” in my closet that were made in Vietnam, it’s possible that Vietnam will eventually replace China as a supplier of low cost goods.

Sad to say, there will probably ALWAYS be an armed conflict going on somewhere in the world, but wouldn’t it be great if John Lennon’s dream came true, and we had a “brotherhood of man”?

It may never become a reality, but it IS good to imagine.

Monday, August 1, 2011

All in the family

It’s already been 40 years since Archie and Edith first came into our lives.

Oddly enough, I thought of the Bunkers as I pedaled across Iowa this past week. In case you’ve forgotten, “All in the Family” was the #1 show on television from 1971 to 1976.

RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) started out as a modest bike tour way back in 1973, but it has since evolved into the oldest and largest bike tour in the world. In order to maintain a sense of control, and to minimize the chance of injury, RAGBRAI officials limit the number of weekly riders to 8500 people. However, since RAGBRAI also permits "daily riders", the actual number of riders is significantly higher than that. The largest known daily count occurred in 1988, when 23,000 people completed the trip from Boone to Des Moines by 3 P.M.

If you’ve never been exposed to the RAGBRAI culture, there are a few facts that may surprise you:

1) It’s OK to “break wind” in mixed company

2) It’s also OK for men to wear tights

3) Iowa is NOT a flat state

4) The shear beauty of Iowa can take your breath away.

If the above items don’t make much sense to you, consider the following:

1) Throughout RABRAI, there are a number of “pace lines”. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France, you may have noticed that the quickest way to get through the course is via the peloton. You need to be a confident rider to take advantage of the formation, but it’s amazing how fast you can go when you've got a few bodies blocking the wind for you.

2) If you’re riding long distances, padded biking shorts are mandatory, and a few of the folks on this trip were wearing “summer tights”, which (admittedly) sounded like an oxymoron.

3) The riders that participated on all seven days of the event were successful in climbing a total of 20,197 feet. Although that’s still a long ways from the 29,000 feet ascent that you’d face on Mount Everest, it’s still a hell of a climb, particularly for the paraplegics who used ARM POWER to get up the slopes.

4) As I passed some riders on a steep decline on day 2 of my ride, the “aroma” of an adjacent large hog farm literally took my breath away. Quite by coincidence, I met a couple a few days later whose business was converting "hog slurry" into a replacement for foreign oil. The liquid residue from 10,000 hogs can produce 1000 gallons of oil a day, and there are an estimated 15,000,000 hogs living in the state, roughly seven times the "people population". Those same 10,000 hogs, by the way, produce as much waste as a town of 25,000 people.

The group that I went with this year was primarily the same people that I participated with last year. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that many people would find us to be an "eclectic" collection of individuals. By the end of the week, there’s no question that “our tribe” was about as close to a family as you could get without actually being related.

The RAGBRAI organization, in cooperation with local Chambers of Commerce, also does a very good job of finding “host families” for you for your journey across the state. This year, our host families were Leon and Marilyn, Chad, Doug and Sheryl (backyard swimming pool), Linda and Jeff (the '69 Beetle owner), Marty and Deb, Randy, and Beth and Dan. Since we still live in the rough and tumble Chicago area, we continue to be amazed at the friendly nature of the people that we’ve met in the state of Iowa.

I'll be 64 years old at the end of the month, but there ARE a fair number of people over the age of 65 who participate in the event. Regardless of how old I get, though, I’ll always have fond memories of the “people of RAGBRAI”, who will bring to mind the following phrase:

“those were the days”