Saturday, September 20, 2008

Chaos or "It's Only Money"

It’s just your money, not your life. Everybody who really loved you a week ago still loves you tonight.

--Louis Rukeyser, after the 1987 stock market crash.

I have been thinking about Chaos Theory with respect to the turmoil in the financial world this week, something like an analogy to the Butterfly Effect. A man in Temecula doesn't make his monthly mortgage payment and soon large investment banks on Wall Street come tumbling down. While I have been writing about real butterflies on this blog, I will always remember this summer as the summer I spent at the bank. No, I did not have any accounts at IndyMac, but I do and did at Downey Savings. And it gives me small comfort to know that the big guys have no better insights into the financial future than I did as when Bank of America offered to buy Merrill Lynch at $29/share this week, and then just a few days later the stock fell to $17.50/share. But what's a few billion among friends? Anyway, as of this writing, the deal may not go through because of the proposed bailout by the U.S. Taxpayers.

Such has been the roller-coaster ride the financial world (and most of us along with it) has been on all summer. When I learned that Downey's stock was selling for $1.06 in July, I suddenly woke up to the fact that this whole thing could affect me and my little nest egg. And I soon learned that extricating yourself from a bank is no easy matter in this day and age where computers and the Internet have changed the face of just about everything. There's online banking, direct deposits, automatic payments, linking of accounts, safety deposit boxes which are not insured, etc. I spent hours, no days, researching banks at, then at various branches in my area trying to find safety. Did I want to put my money in B of A? The guys who bought Countrywide? How about WaMu? I got a crash course in FDIC rules, sub-prime mortgages, and CDOs. As one banker told me, "We are all learning from this experience." Here is a cartoon version of the road to ruin the financial markets have been following. (Caution: strong language is used at the end. This cartoon is not for kids.)

When news of AIG's imminent failure (take your pick) surfaced last weekend exposing the extent to which the bad debt had wormed its way into our financial structure, I decided to get down these glasses that a grateful friend gave my husband years ago as thanks for a hot stock tip. I was looking for some perspective. The glasses show graphs of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) starting with the year 1885 and continuing through the crash of 1929 to the year 1981. I had hoped to soothe my nerves by seeing that after the big crash, things got back to normal only to find that stocks rose for half a year (each of the vertical lines represent a year) followed by a huge, steady decline leading to what we now call the Depression two-and-a-half years later. Not encouraging news. The Depression was followed by WWII and things really didn't start to boom until after Pearl Harbor. (There is a rise and fall between 1935 and 1938 that is not explained on the glass.) And the DJIA didn't return to it's pre-crash high of 380 (yes, 380!) until 1955. But the most interesting climb is not on the glasses at all. There has been a stupendous rise since the 1980s as shown here. The Dow just closed on Friday at 11,388.44. Talk about a wild ride. But I suspect that this is where we will have to look for an explanation of the causes of the current crisis.

Meanwhile, I received an offer from another S&L this week for very high interest rates if I will put new money into CDs with them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Count Carbs Not Calories

Tuesday is Farmers' Market day for me and is the highlight of my week. I go early so that if I have a Music Teachers' Association meeting or something that day, I can get my shopping done and still make the meeting at 10:00. I know I am very fortunate not only to have such a large Farmers' Market nearby, one of the best in L.A., but also for the fact that I live in California where buying local means getting some of the best produce in the country all year round.

The photo above shows some of last week's cache. I like to try new things like the Armenian cucumbers and the greens next to them. (Don't ask me what kind they are, I don't know. But they were delicious sautéed with butter and elephant garlic.) The yellow balls are cucumbers, too, lemon cucumbers. They have a slightly different taste, but the difference is very subtle. A whole basket of these cucumbers cost $1.50. The orange cauliflower I have had before and use it in the summertime to make a raw cauliflower cold soup like the one shown on the left made from a head of purple cauliflower. (That's pine nuts and purple basil on top drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.) The carrots are actually red and the whole bunch, plus a few more not in the photo, also cost $1.50. The pile of greens in the back is arugula which cost $1.00. The watermelon cost $3.00. On the lower right are some currants and black mission figs, my one splurge for the week. I paid $4.00 for the pint.

All of the fruit and vegetables in the photo are low-carb choices except for the carrots and figs, but the carrots aren't too bad and even the figs aren't too bad if you only eat one or two. Unfortunately, the fruits most people think of when they agree that they should eat more fruits and vegetables are apples, oranges, pears, and bananas. These are high-carb fruits and should only be eaten sparingly, if you really want to cut down your carbs. A little book that can be very useful for helping you to count your carbs is The Protein Power LifePlan Gram Counter by the Drs. Eades. I keep mine handy in the kitchen at all times.

Speaking of the good doctors, in the latest post by Dr. Michael Eades on his Protein Power blog, he uses the strongest language yet regarding the value of keeping your blood sugar in control to prevent not only diabetes but cardiovascular diseases as well. I strongly advise all my readers (all 20 of you) to check out this post including the excellent comments below it. If you need to lose weight, if Type II diabetes is a problem, if you have a family history of heart disease, or if you just want to be the healthiest you that you can be, READ this post and the related articles. Read the Eades's books. Eat low-carb, high-fat meals and forget about cholesterol.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Clusters and Rings

Here I am all set up with my little telescope for a night of viewing with the guys at Ridgecrest. I've got my chair for breaks and a tub of home-roasted nuts to munch on if I get hungry around midnight. There was a gorgeous sunset that night (August 30th) which means there was a lot of haze which isn't good, but seeing turned out to be very steady and was clear if you were looking straight up. Before it got really dark, I took some photos of Mercury which by this time had moved to the left of Venus. (Venus is the brighter "star.")

All-in-all, it was a good night of viewing. I spent most of it searching for new objects, globular clusters this time, which my scope really isn't good for. In my small scope, they mostly look like fuzz-balls. It is hard to see any individual stars. But some of the fuzz-balls were large, some small, some bright, some dim. Some had such a bright center that you would think they were a single star instead of tens of thousands to millions of stars gravitationally bound together. Clusters inhabit the galactic halo which surrounds our Milky Way and other spiral galaxies. The stars in such clusters are thought to be among the oldest stars in the galaxy. The clusters I viewed that night were M3, M4, M9, M54, M69, M70 and NGC 6544. Most were in the constellation Sagittarius or nearby Scorpius and Ophiuchus which are in the southern sky right now and away from the city lights here in Los Angeles.

For the first time, I was able to view the Ring Nebula, M57, with my own scope! I was very excited about that. There was no color, just a gray haze, and no "diamond" in the ring (a faint star that can be seen along one edge), but I was happy.

We also spent a fair amount of time looking at Jupiter. It was stunning that evening. I saw the red spot for the first time with my own scope and at 8:16 p.m. or so, Io popped out of eclipse. Here is a movie that one of the guys put together of a similar event that took place just the other night on September 6. Look to the left of the planet and you will see Io suddenly appear. The movie was made from photos taken over the course of a three-hour time span which shows you how fast Jupiter revolves on its axis. On the night we were observing, the red spot moved completely across the face of the planet.

This club member has taken some fantastic and inspiring photos of the stars. Astrophotography is an area that I would love to get into myself. I have the equipment, I just need to learn how to use it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We Have Beam!

Well, we are still here. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been turned on, and no black holes have swallowed us up.

Some time ago, I mused on the idea that if Richard Feynman were still alive, he certainly would have a blog. Well, the folks over at Cosmic Variance are the next best thing. Sean Carroll was the instructor for the course in Dark Matter, Dark Energy that I bought from The Teaching Company recently, and as it happens Carroll teaches at CalTech and sits at the very desk that Feynman used to use. Since completing the course, I have been following Sean's blog, which he shares with a few other scientists, and last night there was some real excitement as he blogged in real time during the turning on of the LHC.

Actually, Sean had gone to bed by the time the beam finally made a complete circle around the collider and it was his colleague, JoAnne who stayed up until 1:23 a.m. PDT to give us the news.

Thanks for the thrill, Sean and JoAnne!

Happy Birthday

Does your family have birthday clusters? This week is one for our family with three birthdays and one birth day in the works.

Happy Birthday to Toddler C!

Happy Birthday to his Dad!

Happy Birthday to my Son!

And best wishes to Y. for a safe delivery!

Monday, September 8, 2008

More Butterflies and Gardens

My cousin and I got into an argument on the phone yesterday (she preferred to call it a debate) on the merits of Sarah Palin, a subject I definitely will not get into here. She ended the conversation with the statement that we probably would find that we agree more than we disagree, if we had the time to really sit down and talk things out. Feeling that I needed to get away for awhile and clear my head after she hung up, I set out for the Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden to take photos of the native plants and to meditate on butterflies once more. It worked like a charm.

The Manhattan Beach Botanical Garden is a very small garden that is part of the larger Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach, CA. It is devoted to drought tolerant plants of California and other parts of the world that share our Mediterranean climate. They have sectioned off the garden into areas labelled Bird and Butterfly Habitat, Meditation Garden, Beach Bluff Natives, etc., but the garden really just flows from one section to another and the butterflies in particular didn't seem to feel they needed to stay in one area.

The Monarch Butterfly above was one of about 8 Monarchs that were flitting around the garden. This was the only one that settled down long enough for me to take a picture. There was milkweed in the garden, which is their favorite plant, but there were plenty of other plants to attract them. This one, who favored me with a long pose, chose a dormant salvia to rest on and grab some sun. Monarchs are amazing butterflies that can often be seen anywhere in California, and in most of the U.S., because they migrate. Not only do they migrate, but it takes longer than one life-span for these butterflies to complete the route. It may be the second, third, or even fourth generation that finally returns to their winter locations in the spring. My husband and I were fortunate to see huge numbers of these butterflies roosting in the trees of Big Sur several years ago. It's an amazing sight.

Another visitor to the garden was this Marine Blue Butterfly.

The milkweed that was planted in several places is Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa. It comes in several colors from red to orange to yellow and is found throughout the U.S. except for Nevada and the Pacific Northwest. It has its very own bug, the small and large Milkweed Bug, the latter of which was in abundance in the garden. The bugs feed on the seeds which are neatly lined up inside these long pods. I guess they were in seventh heaven to find so much milkweed because I found them all over the plants and sometimes piled on top of each other. Apparently, their bright orange color is to warn predators, like birds, that they are bad-tasting. After trying to eat one of these bugs, an inexperienced bird will never eat another one!