Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Big Red 1

Well the snowplow took out the mailbox again. They blast past our place at 40+mph, and the snow flying off their blades leaves a line of mangled mailboxes along the road. That's why I buy cheap ones 2-3 at a time. That was my last spare...

I didn't go out to get the mail yesterday - it's a couple hundred yards to the mailbox from our house. I found a couple pieces of mail laying on the ground nearby - hope that was all there was. One piece was a tax document. This is the time of the year when those start showing up.

The other was a CD in a padded envelope that I've been meaning to mail to a friend for months, but was too lazy to go buy the necessary envelope. I finally went to the post office last Weds, and found a long line. So I tried out the self-service postage machine. It weighed the package, I answered a couple of questions, it took my credit card, and said it was dispensing the postage. Except it didn't. Luckily it printed my receipt. So I got into the long line.

When I finally got to the counter and explained the problem, the person said "Oh that machine is a pain," and took off to go check it out. All I wanted her to do is put the postage I had already paid for on the package and let me be on my way. But that would mean $1.53 in postage would be unaccounted for, and I'm sure that would throw the bean counters of this organization - which generates annual revenues of $66 billion - into a tizzy.

A few minutes later, she came back with a postage sticker in her hand, which I stuck on the package. After stuffing the package in the mail chute, I happily checked this item off on the to-do list on my smart phone, finally erasing the little red "1" that had been nagging me since the fall.

So today, in the snow, was that dang CD again, in the envelope with the postage sticker the clerk handed to me still affixed, but stamped "Returned to sender for insufficient postage."

I threw it in the trash. Sorry friend, you won't get your CD. I'm not going to deal with that red "1" on my phone any more...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Depression 2.0

It's almost inevitable at this point.

We've been out of the stock market since 2000, when we sold our last shares of Worldcom – just before the tech bubble burst. Our retirement nest egg has been invested in tax-free municipal bonds, bank certificates of deposit, Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), and the occasional Collateralized Mortgage Obligation. Between investments, we held our funds in standard-issue money market funds. In the past few years, we've gotten involved in some real estate syndication deals with a fraction of our portfolio. 

Some have run their course and generated excellent returns. The rest are in various stages of development, and we'll see how they turn out. But we made those investments understanding the risk, and took care to diversify. Still, it's looking a little shaky right now. If we lost it all, it would hurt, but not be the end of us.

We invested this way because I've been convinced since the mid-1990s that stock prices had lost any relationship to economic reality. As I wrote in January of this year, as well as back in 2005, my belief is that stock prices were being run up because of all the money pouring into 401(k) plans looking for an investment to buy. While few 401(k) account holders were buying individual stocks directly, they were in aggregate turning over billions of dollars each year to mutual funds, who were in turn investing in the stock market.

I take a very conservative view of stock pricing, not that different than Warren Buffet, or his mentor, Ben Graham. You look at the actual company, how they're performing, what kind of plans they have for the future – and all that to figure out whether the company stands a chance to generate profits going forward.

Then you look at the price of the stock, and the dividends they pay. And you compare the dividend-vs-stock-price (dividend yield) to what we consider our most risk-free investment – US Treasury securities. 

And finally, you consider buying the stock only if the dividend yield is more than the interest rate you get on the Treasury security. In fact, you want the dividend yield to be a lot more than the Treasury yield, because the stock dividend isn't a sure thing – it's more risky.

That extra bit of yield you want on the stock dividend is called the risk premium. Each of us can decide how big that premium needs to be. For me, it's always been about double. In other words, if I can get 5% interest on a T-Bill, I won't be interested in purchasing a stock unless the dividend yield is 10%.

For years my friends, and even my stockbroker, have said I'm nuts – that I'm missing one of the best bull markets in history. The only thing I knew was it was bubble, and no one knew how big it would get before it burst. In fact, no one knew for sure what would cause it to burst.

Turns out it was the insanity of the consumer credit market.

Twenty or so years ago, you couldn't get a credit card unless you could convince a bank that you had the means to repay it. One reason is that usury laws prevented banks from charging interest rates above around 18%. That's a boatload, but remember that the interest you pay on a credit card is income to a bank. So a bank makes the same kind of risk-reward calculation that is discussed above, and will make loans only if they are convinced that the interest (revenue) they will actually collect on one product (e.g. credit cards) is better than an alternative product (e.g. car loans). They do that by adjusting the qualifications one must have to get credit vs the interest rate. So if federal or state usury laws require them to keep interest rates low, they can extend credit to only the most credit-worthy people, who will almost all repay the credit card balance.

Then gradually the absolute free-market types convinced lawmakers (via generous campaign contributions) to abolish usury laws. The banks had come up with a new scheme that they wanted to spring on the public: If they could make $x by offering credit at 18% to low-risk people, they should be able to make $x and more by offering credit to everyone at 36%. At 36%, twice as many people could default on their credit card debt as they were seeing at 18%, and they would still make the same amount of money.

But even bad credit card debt has value. Companies sprang up to be in the business of buying bad credit card accounts from banks at deep discounts, and then trying to collect. Let's say Chase Bank has $10 million borrowed on its credit cards that isn't being paid back. Along comes someone who pays Chase $5 million for that debt. Chase ends up with $5 million they didn't have, plus they keep all their other credit card accounts which are actually paying 36% - more than enough to offset the write-off of the $5 million.

The collection company puts their army of phone collectors to work, and over the period of the next year, manages to collect $6 million of the $10 million of debt they have purchased for $ million. That's a 20% return on investment. Even if they never collect the last $4 million, they've made good money.

This is one cylinder of the engine that has been pumping our economy over the last couple of decades. 

People were spending way over their head.

But it felt okay because their home values seemed to be going up. Little did they understand that it was another price bubble, just like the stock market.

What benefit is there in having your home value go up if you wanted to stay there? Besides, if you sold your home, you were just going to have to buy another one at a high price.

The way you enjoy your rising home value is to take out a home equity loan – borrowing against that artificially inflated home value. The appraised value of your home was an opinion (you never really know what it's worth until you sell it), but the loan you took out was very real. In the beginning, the banks took a low risk approach here as well. They made home equity loans only on good properties owned by people with good income streams and a reasonable debt load.

But there were sharks in these waters too. Unscrupulous appraisers and mortgage brokers got in cahoots, valuing properties way above reasonable values, then selling mortgages that the homeowners could barely pay. I said 'selling mortgages' because the brokers weren't actually loaning the money, they were getting it from plain old banks who were in turn gathering up bundles of mortgages and selling them as 'Collateralized Mortgage Obligations' – in essence shares in a pool of mortgages.

The trouble is that these CMOs weren't just being bought by individual investors like me, they were also being purchased by other banks and insurance companies looking to get in on the action.

As always happens, the greed got out of hand. Credit had been extended to folks who had no business getting it, and they started defaulting on both their credit card and mortgage obligations. Banks who needed the interest income from those credit card and mortgage accounts in order to pay their interest obligations to holders of savings accounts and CDs had to start borrowing money from each other to make those payments. Then the stronger banks started worrying that the weaker banks couldn't make their payments on this short-term (often days) interbank credit, and the stronger banks started shutting that off. That's when we started to see the first banks fail a couple of weeks ago.

The Federal Reserve stepped in and became the lender-of-last-resort, helping those weak banks stay afloat. However, that's not a long term solution, and what we have seen in the last couple of weeks is the Fed arranging marriages between weak and strong banks.
The bailout plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Paulson was designed to buy up that bad mortgage debt, and get these banks out of trouble. He and Fed Chairman Bernanke knew that it was much cheaper to keep these banks afloat that it would be for the bubble to burst, because the downward spiral begins when everyday consumers close up their purses and begin to hunker down for a tough time. Companies sell less of their product, and lay off workers as a consequence. Consumer spending goes down some more because there are fewer people working.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, a very very small fraction of Americans owned stock. Today, nearly everyone does through their 401(k) plans. When the market takes a big hit, it changes millions of lives. Folks who wanted to retire, or send their kids to college, can no longer do that.

I did something last week that I never thought would happen: we pulled all of our nest egg out of money market accounts and moved those funds into FDIC-insured accounts in several banks. The interest rates we're getting on those CDs is small, but at least the money is as safe as we can make it. We too are hunkering down. It might not help the economy, but we've got to protect ourselves. I know without question that this kind of thinking is the final nail that drives us into an economic depression. But I see where this is going, and I have to protect my family. Folks who have not seen this coming are completely unprepared, and are headed for a lot of trouble.

It really is all about confidence, and our national leadership screwed it up again. This isn't a Democrat vs Republican thing – it's been going on for decades across many administrations and many changes of control in Congress. The common factor was short-term greed. They unwound all the hard-learned lessons of the Great Depression and have brought us back to exactly the same place. And in the end, they took too long to act, and still couldn't resist putting insane pork-barrel spending into the bill designed to save confidence. All they did was give me confidence that they behave on a level of selfishness that I consider to be treason.

Our country might still be screwed up had World War II not happened. Why? Because of two things: a) we built up our industrial capacity to a scale never before seen in the world; and, b) we bombed the rest of the world's industrial capacity into smoking craters. Our economic dominance of the post WWII era wasn't because we were better or smart. It was because we won the war with our homeland unscathed (unlike the British and French). Ironically, Germany and Japan emerged as strong nations after the war because we helped them rebuild their factories, as our allies in the new Cold War against the Soviets.

So how do we get out of this one?

I think it's the same old way. We need the Federal Government to put people to work in a big way. It doesn't all have to be on national defense, although that's a good place to start. The infrastructure of our country, built mostly during the post WWII period, is crumbing and needs a major overhaul. And we need a significant amount of new energy sources.

So let's fix the roads and bridges. And let's build scores of nuclear power plants and hundreds of wind farms for electricity. Let's get the auto industry retooled to produce plug in electric vehicles by the millions, simultaneously eliminating our dependence on foreign oil and putting the foreign auto industry back on its heels.

The key is rebuilding the American middle class, and that means construction and manufacturing jobs that pay a decent wage, not more Wal*Mart and McDonald's associates.

And we need to keep the crooks out of the rebuilding effort. Profiteering should be a treasonous offense, punished by stoning in the town square.

I'm not kidding.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The (Im)Balancing Game

One image I get when thinking about the current state of American politics goes like this:

Have you ever participated in one of those high-ropes (low-ropes for me) team building exercises? Often one of the elements is a tilting platform that is - as the engineers would describe it - free to move in two axes which is to say that it is like the whole platform is balanced on a pinpoint in the center. The object of the exercise is to get two teams of people (who to this point have been competing with each other) up on the platform from opposite sides without having the table destabilize to the point that it clunks down on one side.

With no one on the platform, it's in balance. If just one person tries to get on - clunk it goes. The winning approach is to have one person from each team step up at the same time and walk to the middle. Eventually you can get everyone up on the platform and it stays in balance.

So it is in America. The two most powerful parties are so equal in strength that a victory can be determined by a few ambiguous ballots cast in Florida.

It doesn't take the teams long to figure out that while the platform can be balanced with everyone in the middle, it can also be balanced with everyone at the edges. In fact, there are an infinite number of configurations that will balance the platform. But everyone has to work together. The movement of any player on either side requires a compensating movement by someone else.

Then they notice that if the goal is to avoid the clunk, and not necessarily to keep the platform level, the platform can in fact be tilted a little in one direction or another.

Now imagine that there is a constant flow of little balls being fed right to the center of the platform, and the object of the game becomes for each team to collect the most balls possible without touching them - ie by making them roll to their side of the platform. We keep the rule that if the platform clunks, the game is over for everyone and no one wins anything.

The two teams now begin to jostle in order to shift from a state of equilibrium to one where little tilts can be introduced to cause the balls to roll to one side or the other. Those advantages last only a brief period before the other side reacts and shifts the tilt back to their favor.

The trouble is that when the object of the game shifts from balance to imbalance, the frequency and magnitude of the forces applied to cause and prevent these transient tilts become more aggressive. The platform becomes more and more unstable, with large numbers of balls flowing from one side to the other.

Inevitably, there is finally one oscillation that's too great and the table clunks. Or one team sees that it's being outplayed and clunks the table on purpose.

Those little balls are power and money. The politicians of the two parties - who are the only folks up on the platform - spend all their time trying to figure out how to tilt the platform in their favor without blowing up the game. The rest of us are standing around the perimeter of the platform hoping a few balls fall off the platform in our direction.

I fear we've reached the point in the game where the oscillations are so great that a clunk is imminent.

Maybe it's time for the game to change. For one thing, the people up on the platform are no longer just the politicians - it now includes the lobbyists. The lobbyists don't care so much which side wins as long as a lot of balls flow into their own buckets.

Then there is the judicial system. They're not supposed to worry about who gets the balls, only that that the game is being played fairly. But they've decided that to acomplish that, they need to get up on the platform as well, instead of judging only from the sidelines.

Such games have been played for centuries. Most of the time, the people don't care as long as they get enough balls to live a decent life.

But every once in a while, the people say 'Enough' and throw everyone off the platform. The question is what will rise in its place?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Greed Gets Us Every Time

The following is part of a dialog I've been having with a young friend who, like many people in our country, have come to realize that they must become increasingly savvy about investing if they want to have a retirement nest egg when they get old. There is no standing on the sideline and letting one's employer or the government take care of you in old age - you must invest and do so prudently.

The "Graham" I mention is Ben Graham, a legendary investor and mentor of none other than Warren Buffett. Graham wrote "The Intelligent Investor," which should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying stocks or mutual funds. "Schiller" is Robert Shiller, the Yale economics professor who coined the term "Irrational Exuberance" and has written a book by the same title.

You have learned well young Skywalker...

However, Graham was thinking about individuals when he observed that most people in the stock market are amateurs. In the case of the big financial houses, nearly all are MBAs and many have prestigious Ivy League degrees. The problem isn't education - it's just plain old greed. If anything, the folks in the financial industry are lemmings - once one of them starts running in some particular direction with a little success, the rest follow along, right over the cliff.

Reminds of the stories of the gold rush. The first guys to strike gold did okay, and some made spectacular fortunes (e.g. the father of William Randolph Hearst). Then came the 49ers en masse. The early ones who hit and got out did okay, but the early ones who just got a little taste of success and stayed for the long haul ended up spending their earnings on exorbitantly priced supplies just to stay alive.

The guys who came last never had a chance. In the end, the folks who did the best were the merchants who sold the livestock and supplies to the idiots.

The business of a bank is nothing more than buying and selling money. They buy money by soliciting deposits, and their cost is the interest rate they need to pay to attract deposits. They sell money by making loans, and their income is the interest they collect. A wise banker would try to match up the interest rate and term of their deposits to the interest rate and term of loans. In other words, if you want to be able to sell 3 year 8% car loans, you want to offer 3 Year Certificates of Deposit at say 5%. If there are no takers, you might have to go to 6%, but you'll push up you auto loan rate to 9%. A century ago, that's all there was to banking.

It gets trickier when you start talking about 30 year mortgages. It's pretty hard to find investors willing to lock up money for 30 years, so the bankers have to make some risk decisions. When a home buyer takes out a mortgage, the bank must immediately come up with enough cash to pay the home seller. That cash will come from their pool of deposits, some of which are savings deposits due on demand, some is from the stream of cash coming back as other loans are being paid off, and some is in long-term deposits like CDs. Managing the mix of this pool takes sophisticated financial skills, and a successful bank has to be pretty good at it.

Then along came the notion of Collateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMO). In the spirit of matching up the timing and magnitude of inflows and outflows, a bank can take a big bundle of its mortgages, and sell off ownership shares to investors. For example, a bank can take $10 million dollars worth of mortgages (ie the sum of their loan principles) and sell it off as 10,000 CMO certificates each with a face value of $1,000. When you buy one of these certificates, you receive each month a payment that represents 1/10,000th of the principle and interest paid by the mortgage holders the previous month. In 30 years, you would receive back your whole $1,000 plus interest. A CMO certificate can be bought and sold any time during its life, with its market price being a function of the interest rates being paid on the underlying mortgage vs the current interest rate on long term debt (be happy to explain how bonds are priced, and why bond prices go up when interest rates go down, and visa versa).

We've purchased a number of CMOs in the past decade. They have some interesting characteristics. The first being is that if you buy one when mortgage interest rates are high, they look very attractive - usually paying well above CD rates. But when mortgage interest rates go down, as they have, the people who hold 'your' mortgages pay them off and take out new mortgages.

I bought these CMOs thinking they were a long-term, premium interest rate investment. Instead, I got all my money back in a year or two - admittedly at a premium interest rate, but now I had to find another investment for that money, and with interest rates down generally, it ended up being a not so shiny investment after all.

And when mortgage interest rates go up, the mortgage holders are happy to pay out at a low rate and you end up getting stuck with an investment that takes years to pay out at a below-market rate. I have a couple of these now with only pennies/share of value, but I still get a tiny principle+interest check every month. It's not worth selling them because the transaction fee is more than they're worth.

The big money maker for banks for decades has been credit cards. When I was kid, it was relatively tough to get a credit card, but the interest rates charged were somewhat reasonable. For example, you build a $10,000,000 credit card portfolio of blue chip customers by charging 10%. You couldn't charge more because customer with good credit can find money for less than 10% elsewhere.

Then some bright MBA said that you could potentially make a lot more money by extending another $10,000,000 in credit at 20% APY to higher risk customers who you previously would not have considered giving a credit card at all. The math works out something like this:
  1. $10 million loaned out at 10% and completely paid off. At the end of the year, you have your $10 million back plus $1,000,000 in profit, or $11 million.
  2. $10 million loaned out at 20%, but 5% of the borrowers default. You get back $9.5 million of your money and $1.9 million in profit. That's $11.4 million so far. Then you sell the $500,000 in bad accounts to a collection outfit for $250,000. In total you get $11.65 million.

Then the other banks see what you're doing, and jump on board. The next thing you know everyone's mailbox is filling up with credit card offers at crazy high interest rates.

And then the mortgage bankers figure out that there's a game like this for them too. By extending mortgages to a higher volume of higher risk customers, they can crank up profits spectacularly. A few try, and everyone follows. But some interesting things happen...

One thing is that a lot of these high risk folks refinance their homes during the real estate boom and end up taking out a chunk of cash in the transaction. Their $100,000 house with a $75,000 mortgage gets reappraised for $200,000, so they take out a $150,000 mortgage, use $75,000 to pay off the old mortgage and walk away with $75,000 in cash. The lender feels secure because they have a $200,000 house for collateral. The homeowner feels rich with the $75,000 in hand (although he'll soon start making payments on it). Maybe he pays off the credit card debt, and uses the rest to buy a needed car and take a nice cruise vacation.

Then he runs up the credit card debt again, spends the cash from the refinancing, and hits the wall - too much debt and not enough income. The only way to raise cash is to sell the house. Except lots of people are in that boat and house prices start to decline. Eventually the price of the home falls below the mortgage value and the homeowner walks away and lets the bank foreclose.

Now the bank understands that high risk credit card debt is not the same thing as high risk mortgage debt. Credit card debt is very liquid, and can be sold quickly at a discount to someone willing to work hard to collect the money. Selling a foreclosed house in a weak real estate market is something else. Even at deep discounts, there aren't that many folks buying homes right now - not even speculators.

If all things that go up must come down, then I believe the slope of the line on the downside is at least double that of the upside. Maybe it's 10x. In other words, if it took us 10 years to build up to this crazy level of risk in the consumer credit market, that risk will be shaken out (by rapidly falling prices and foreclosures) in one year.

It is just one more brand of speculation disguised as investment, like the 49ers, or last decade's .com investor, or all those other boom/bust cycles Graham and Shiller talk about. And I think it's a mistake for the government to bail those folks out. We need to do a radical risk-ectomy in our economy and give folks a stern lesson about risk and reward. Seems like we have to do this about once every generation. Recessions and depressions happen when spending gets way out ahead of income, and when people fail to recognize risk because of the seduction of greed. The longer it goes and the more out of balance it becomes, the longer it takes to recover. It's going to be bad enough anyway.

Let's not make it worse with a government bailout.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reading List

This may qualify as the most boring blog post ever. But I was thinking that it would be good to have an inventory of our books, and thought I might well put that list on the blog for safekeeping. So here goes (nothing implied in the order other than the arrangement on our bookshelves):

Books in our Library That I Have Read % = Kindle
Ambrose: Undaunted Courage
Sullivan: The Arts of China
Giannetti: Understanding Movies
Munsterberg: The Art of Japan
Rice: Islamic Art
Craven: Indian Art
Oster: The Mexicans
Rivera: Family Installments
Pettigrew: Prejudice
Morrison: Sula
Goodbird: Goodbird
Wideman: Sent for you Yesterday
Sandoz: These Were the Souix
Shenkman: Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History
Bobrick: Wide as the Waters
Hawkins: A Brief History of Time
Burke: Connections
Clarke: Report on Planet Three
Gleick: Chaos
Barry: Practical Logic
Gould: Eight Little Piggies
Paterniti: Driving Mr. Albert
Gould: Questioning the Millennium
Sagan: The Dragons of Eden
Trotter: Coal, Class & Color
Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities
Poe: The Short Stories
Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
McCartney: Sold Out
Charpentier: How to Read the Bible
The Holy Bible
Borden: Hit the Bullseye
Fox: On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear
Buechner: Telling the Truth
Thayer: Management of the Hanford Engineer Works in WWII
Sanger: Working on the Bomb
Nicklaus: My Story
Yeager: Yeager
McCain: Faith of My Fathers
Bamford: The Puzzle Palace
Cronkite: A Reporter's Life
Fuller: We Almost Lost Detroit
Cherniack: The Hawk's Nest Incident
Michener: The Source
Woodward: The Bretheren
Clarke: 2010
Crichton: Timeline
Grimwood: Replay
Asimov: The Martian Way
Vonnegut: Timequake
Asimov: Robot Visions
Heinlein: The Past Through Tomorrow
Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
Hebert: Dune
Heller: Catch-22
Magriel: Backgammon
Lavigne: Hell's Angels – Into the Abyss
Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Thwait: Afloat on the Ohio
La Plante: Hog Fever
Miller: The Biker Code
La Plante: Detours
Fulton: One Man Caravan
Rogers : Investment Biker
The Boy Scout Handbook
McWhorter: The Power of Babel
Zumwalt: My Father, My Son
Keegan: The Price of Admiralty
Woodward: The Commanders
Ford: The Button
Clancy: Every Man a Tiger
Kernan: Crossing the Line
Rockwell: The Rickover Effect
Tyler: Running Critical
Waller: Big Red
White: They Were Expendable
Cosby: Time Flies
Fulgrum: Uh-Oh
Fulgrum: It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It
Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Adams: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
Keillor: Lake Wobegon
Barry: Cyberspace
Luciano: The Umpire Strikes Back
Murphy: Golf in the Kingdom
Feinstein: A Good Walk Spoiled
Feinstein: A Season on the Brink
Warren: A Purpose Driven Church
Rogers: The IBM Way
Lansing: Endurance
Brehm: That Others May Live
Adams: Mostly Harmless
Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide 'Trilogy'
Clancy: The Sum of All Fears
Clancy: Without Remorse
Clancy: The Hunt for Red October
Clancy: Red Storm Rising
Clancy: Patriot Games
Clancy: Clear and Present Danger
Coonts: Flight of the Intruder
Clancy: The Cardinal of the Kremlin
Gouillart: Transforming the Organization
Martin: The Digital Estate
Adams: Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook
Klass: UFOs Identified
Christensen: The Innovator's Dilemma
Doody: Reinventing the Wheel
Iacocca: Iacocca
Iacocca: Talking Straight
Collins: Good to Great
Shiller: Irrational Exuberance
Clarke: Profiles of the Future
Barker: Paradigms
Ambrose: Nothing in the World Like It
Sobel: Longitude
Friedman: Free to Choose
Marx: The Communist Manifesto
Wright: On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors
Clancy: Teeth of the Tiger
Bethany: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Kelly: Out of Control
Diamond: Guns, Germs and Steel
Grizzard: When My Love Returns from the Ladies Room…
Orr: Set up Running
Unwin: The Probability of God
Graham: The Intelligent Investor
Asimov: Foundation
Asimov: Foundation's Edge
Crichton: Airframe
Crichton: Sphere
Sagan: Contact
Orwell: 1984
Tammet: Born on a Blue Day
Rainer/Geiger: Simple Church
Shorto: Island at the Center of the World
Chaisson: Epic of Evolution
Wells: War of the Worlds
Wells: The Time Machine
George: Authentic Leadership %
Clancy/Franks: Into the Storm %
Miller: Blue Like Jazz
Jacobs: Getting Around Brown
Solis/Breakenridge: Putting the Public Back in Public Relations
Levinson: The Box

Books In Our Library That I Plan To Read (* = or need to finish; # = reading now; % Kindle)
Gottman: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Eggerichs: Love & Respect
Warren: Better Together
Kasich: Courage is Contagious
Ambrose: The Victors
Brokaw: The Greatest Generation
Keneally: Schindler's List
Davis: To Appomattox
Warren: A Purpose Driven Life
Nixon: Beyond Peace
McCullough: Truman
Auletta: The Highwaymen
McManus: An Unstoppable Force
Friedman: The World is Flat
Marx: Das Kapital*
Winik: April 1865
Goodwin: Team of Rivals
Alcorn: The Treasure Principle
Schroeder: The Science of God
Welch: Winning
Dreyfus: On The Internet
Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Singer: Writings on an Ethical Life
Alcorn: Heaven
Hemphill: Empowering Kingdom Growth
Eldridge: Wild of Heart
Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet
Lowenstein: Origins of the Crash
Mahar: Bull
Godin: Tribes
Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential %
Machiavelli: The Prince %
Tressel: The Winners Manual %
Doggett: You Never Give Me Your Money %
Riley: Ship's Doctor % *

Books I Plan To Read But Don't Own
Kozol: The Shame of the Nation
Rubin: In an Uncertain World

Books in our Library That I Have Resisted Reading
Morgan: The Oxford History of England
Bronte: Wuthering Heights
Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Kipling: The Light that Failed
Bronte: Jane Eyre
Butler: The Way of All Flesh
Redfield: The Celestine Prophesy
Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Doyle: Hound of the Baskervilles
Barnes: Brief Gaudy Hour
Phillips: How to Deal with Annoying People

Books I've Read But Are Not in Our Library (anymore)
Card: Ender's Game (Catherine nailed this one)
Ryan: The Adolescence of P-1
Clancy: Rainbow Six
Clancy: Into the Storm
Clancy: Submarine
Coonts: The Cannibal Queen
Naisbitt: Megatrends
Toffler: Future Shock
Blanchard: The One Minute Manager
Roberts: Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun
Asimov: I Robot
Clarke: Rama
Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama
King: The Tommyknockers
King: The Green Mile
King: Needful Things
Koontz: Demon Seed
Jones: Colossus
Jones: The Fall of Colossus
Huxley: Brave New World
Harris: I'm Okay, You're Okay
Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine

In the end, this list doesn't look very long. I know there are many other books I've read in paperback and have pitched in some sorting out of junk in our basement. And who knows how many I've checked out of a public library, read and returned without remembering them. But the truth is that I don't read as much now as I used to. Maybe it's because I have to wear reading glasses these days, or maybe that the reading lamp on our headboard has gone kaput and I haven't fixed or replaced it. Regardless, I've decided that Tuesdays are reading days, and will strive to work through the growing pile of books on the 'yet to be read' list.

Perhaps now is time for one of those hypotheticals: If for whatever reason, I had to live with only ten of these books to read over and over for the rest of my life, what would they be:

1. The Holy Bible
2. Adams: The Hitchhiker's Trilogy
3. Cosby: Time Flies
4. Asimov: The Martian Way
5. Wells: War of the Worlds
6. Clancy: Red Storm Rising
7. Fulton: One Man Caravan
8. Clancy: Hunt for Red October
9. Asimov: I Robot
10. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

I guess the thinking is that if the situation is that I can only have ten books, they had be ones that could serve to remove me mentally from whatever situation would bring about such a restriction. I suspect the list will change over time.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Great Bike Ride – Day 28 - End of the Road

Sunday, September 23, 2007 ------------- Day 1 of this log is here

John and I arose just before 7am, got our stuff together, and headed out for our final day on the road. I wanted to get home in time to meet Terry for lunch after church, and John agreed to run the freeways today to make that possible. The weather was beautiful - blue skies, a few clouds and just crisp enough to make riding with the leather jacket comfortable. No hassles at all today. We pulled over just before reaching I-270 at Columbus to shake hands and bring the trip to an official end.

We had clocked just over 8,000 miles in 28 days, and stopped for gas 57 times. I'd guess we spent something like 200 hours in the saddle, and yet rode in only one serious rain (in Yellowstone), and one other drizzle (Austin) that caused us to put rain gear on. Rain followed us in many places, but we rode pretty much the whole trip in the sun. Few bikers will experience a stretch of good weather like this.

As I was taking the bags off the bike upon arriving home, I was reminded how I thought several times during the trip that the daily ritual of uncovering my bike, untethering the security cable, and mounting the bags, which includes cinching up various straps and buckles, is much like the process of getting a horse prepared for a day's ride. In the evening, you reverse the process. This routine connected me in some small way to the pioneers who got up every morning, saddled up their horses, and took off into the unknown. John said I won't know how to act tomorrow when I can get up and go without packing clothes into bags and bags onto the bike. Probably a little like those folks from the past when they said "This place will be our home."

One of the most special aspects of this ride was getting to spend a month with big sister Pat and her husband Buss. Motorcycle riding is an interesting activity in that you spend the entire day together, yet you are alone in your thoughts, as it is all but impossible to communicate while riding. We'd have a flurry of conversation when we stopped for gas, but wouldn't really get a chance to talk until we stopped for meals, and in the evening. This trip wasn't really about talking -- it was about sharing an experience -- one of a kind that very few are lucky enough to have. I'm really glad I got to share it with you, BS.

And special thanks to long-time riding partner, John Bennett. This trip was John's dream and idea. It is the second long trip we've taken together - the other was a 5,500 mile outing in 2001 which included Sturgis, Colorado, New Mexico and back on Route 66. We've also gone to Milwaukee a couple of times, and to Rolling Thunder in DC. And on scores of shorter rides. My guess is that we've probably ridden something like 20,000 miles together. We share many of the same interests (ships, trains, bikes), and can ride together for days without getting on each other's nerves (too much). Such friends are rare. Thanks JB

Terry, my wife. You are a blessing to me every day, and I love you. Thank you for allowing me to be gone for a month, and for taking care of all the stuff here at home. Next time take in a boyfriend who will mow the grass...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Great Bike Ride – Day 27

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Our first objective of the day was to run across Tupelo and take a look at the house Elvis was born in. It is about the size of a two car garage. You can pay a few bucks and go in, but we weren't that interested...

Then we jumped in the Natchez Trace Parkway to run the remaining half. While the road is smooth, pretty level, with easy curves and therefore very easy to ride, it's mostly a tree tunnel. Because today was Saturday, there were more folks on the road, but we could pretty much ride at our own pace. We finished off the picnic supplies for lunch, and within a couple of hours, reached the northern terminus at Nashville.

From there we jumped on the interstate. We started the day in Mississippi, touched a corner of Alabama, crossed Tennessee, and ended the day in Elizabethtown KY, south of Louisville.

We grabbed dinner at the Crackerbarrel, then said so long to Pat & Buss, who wanted to camp tonight, and tomorrow will head east to Charleston while John and I go north to Columbus.

Hard to believe tomorrow is the last day of this incredible journey...