29 January 2009

Thermostats and Leadership

"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK. That's not leadership. That's not going to happen."

---Barack Obama, May, 2008

From yesterday's New York Times:
WASHINGTON — The capital flew into a bit of a tizzy when, on his first full day in the White House, President Obama was photographed in the Oval Office without his suit jacket. There was, however, a logical explanation: Mr. Obama, who hates the cold, had cranked up the thermostat.

“He’s from Hawaii, O.K.?” said Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, who occupies the small but strategically located office next door to his boss. “He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there.”

I think Jimmy Carter may have a sweater he could borrow...

26 January 2009

Small Town Banking

From the NY Times comes a remarkable look at the "other side" of the banking industry: a small town bank in Nebraska, which is only in the news because it was recently robbed for the first time in half a century.

Yes, institutions like this one still exist in America. They may not have economies of scale going for them, but they are well-managed and in the closest possible contact with their customers. And they are most certainly not lining up for federal bailout dollars.

Its one-story brick building, built as a bank more than 100 years ago, has remained a local fixture while most buildings in downtown Carleton, such as it is, are bricked up or closed up: the old Weddel’s grocery store; the old post office that partially caved in a few years ago; the old Little CafĂ©, where Thelma and Shirley sold fresh pies of apple and cherry.

Just outside the bank, a Cargill grain operation grinds away. Truckloads of soybeans and corn are weighed and dumped with a sound like a sigh into the mammoth grain elevators looming over the empty storefronts. Every few minutes, another long Union Pacific freight train loudly announces itself.

Inside the bank, Mr. Van Cleef, 46, is usually helping local farmers figure out how to finance the fertilizer, chemicals, machinery, fuel and irrigation needed to grow their crops, all while guessing what beans and corn will go for.

There is no online banking here. It’s all face-to-face, how are you, Mike, see you later down at TJ’s for a burger.

The Van Cleef business has not exactly followed the Wharton School model. Mr. Van Cleef’s father, Lloyd, 72, was a Navy veteran working as a meter reader for a gas company in Fairbury, about 40 miles away, when a local banker offered him a career change. He worked his way up the banking ranks and then, in 1975, decided to buy the Citizens State Bank in Carleton.

His teenage son, Michael, did not appreciate moving from a town with a Pizza Hut and a movie theater to a town where the passing trains served as entertainment. But he started working in the bank after high school, attended banking seminars instead of attending college, set aside aspirations of law school and eventually became a bank president without pinstripes.

“You do loans, you do deposits,” he says. “You scrape the snow outside. You change the light bulbs.”

Go read the whole thing. And admit it: you want to live in this town and do business with this bank.

25 January 2009

Soup: A Correction

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer graciously informed me that my recent post about soup contained an error. (This is what I get for not reviewing the instructions in Nourishing Traditions from time to time.)

It is important, she reminded me, to begin with fully-thawed meat and soup bones. Then, the soup pot is filled with COLD (not warm) water, and the apple cider vinegar is added to that. The onion, carrot, and chicken/turkey feet are also added at this time. It should be covered and sit that way for at least a half hour to an hour, so the vinegar can draw the minerals out of the bones. Then, and only then, should the water be brought to a boil.

TurboTax Tim

As of a week or two ago, I wasn’t going to publish a post about Tim Geithner, the new President’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury. It annoyed me that Geithner had neglected to pay some taxes in past years, but the initial consensus seemed to be that Geithner had made an “honest” mistake or “common” mistake. (Rush Limbaugh put together a very funny montage of at least a dozen mainstream media commentators all using these same words.)

The more I have read and heard this week, however, the more I've wondered just how “honest” or “common” this mistake really was. And the longer his hearings continued, the more troubled I've grown about seeing this man entrusted with the massive new authority and discretion that has been granted to the Treasury secretary in recent months. Given the appalling lack of transparency that has accompanied the TARP program thus far, the Treasury secretary must be more than a person with a brilliant intellect or financial understanding. Now, more than ever, that position must be filled with an individual of unquestioned honesty and integrity, who has never tried to evade the law for personal gain. The more I learn about the circumstances surrounding Geithner’s tax returns, the harder it is to imagine entrusting him with that authority.

What was the nature of Geithner’s “honest” mistake? Because his employer, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was a foreign entity, the employer did not withhold payroll taxes (the “FICA” you see on your paycheck) for the IRS. Unlike employees of American firms, Geithner and his American colleagues got to keep their entire paychecks. But those FICA taxes still needed to be paid. Geithner’s explanation is that when he entered his W-2 form into Turbo Tax, the software didn’t compute the FICA taxes due --- only the income taxes. He paid what Turbo Tax said he owed, and the discrepancy wasn’t caught until he was audited a few years later. The auditor realized the FICA taxes had never been paid, and Geithner was charged (and paid) the appropriate amount. A good early overview of the story can be found here.

Of course, it turns out that there is more to the story. The IMF clearly explained the FICA withholding issue to its employees--- in writing. And instructed them that they needed to pay the FICA taxes when they filed their 1040. And had each American employee sign a statement affirming that he had satisfied his tax obligations. Does this sound “honest” to you? Read this report and decide for yourself:

The IMF did not withhold state and federal income taxes or self-employment taxes — Social Security and Medicare — from its employees’ paychecks. But the IMF took great care to explain to those employees, in detail and frequently, what their tax responsibilities were. First, each employee was given the IMF Employee Tax Manual. Then, employees were given quarterly wage statements for the specific purpose of calculating taxes. Then, they were given year-end wage statements. And then, each IMF employee was required to file what was known as an Annual Tax Allowance Request. Geithner received all those documents.

The tax allowance has turned out to be a key part of the Geithner situation. This is how it worked. IMF employees were expected to pay their taxes out of their own money. But the IMF then gave them an extra allowance, known as a “gross-up,” to cover those tax payments. This was done in the Annual Tax Allowance Request, in which the employee filled out some basic information — marital status, dependent children, etc. — and the IMF then estimated the amount of taxes the employee would owe and gave the employee a corresponding allowance.

At the end of the tax allowance form were the words, “I hereby certify that all the information contained herein is true to the best of my knowledge and belief and that I will pay the taxes for which I have received tax allowance payments from the Fund.” Geithner signed the form. He accepted the allowance payment. He didn’t pay the tax. For several years in a row.

Question 18 that the Senate Finance Committee submitted to Geithner puts all this together: You provided the Finance Committee with statements from the IMF breaking your tax allowance down into amounts for “Federal Tax Allowance,”” State Tax Allowance,” and “SE Tax Allowance.” These statements show that your tax allowance was deposited into a checking account. You also provided the Committee with copies of checks made out to State and Federal revenue authorities for the exact same amounts as noted on the statement from the IMF for make state and federal estimated tax payments. Did you ever question what your “SE Tax Allowance” was for? When you were writing checks to cover the “Federal Tax Allowance” and “State Tax Allowance,” did you ever think “SE Tax Allowance” was given to you to pay a tax you owed?

Read Geithner's answer and decide for yourself whether you believe him...and, if you do believe him, whether he is the "financial genius" who is the only man qualified to run the Treasury Department today: Looking back now, it is clear to me that the IMF statements to which you refer should have prompted me to realize that it was necessary for me to file a form SE and pay selfemployment taxes. I did not realize this and regret the error.

This story has a particular resonance for me because I am self-employed and have considerable experience preparing my own tax returns. Coincidentally, I have also been using Turbo Tax, and think it is outstanding. Over the years, I have become familiar with the various reportings that my clients are supposed to make to the IRS, using Form 1099, and the taxes I must pay --- even when the client, for whatever reason, fails to report the income to the IRS. I still have a moral obligation to pay those taxes, and have always paid those taxes, even when the IRS doesn't know about the income.

And that’s what is so frustrating about the Geithner situation, and why it has struck such a chord with all of us who are self-employed and have diligently reported and paid taxes on all of our income. Given all the warnings and notices that Geithner's employer gave him, it seems he simply couldn’t have not known he owed the FICA taxes. It's hard to escape the conclusion that he saw an opportunity to keep for himself tens of thousands of dollars, banking on the odds that he wouldn’t be audited. Does this sound like the sort of man who ought to be entrusted with overseeing the IRS --- not to mention being entrusted with disbursing hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of TARP funds?

I don’t expect perfection or sanctity from our government officials, but there ought to be some threshold of behavior which, once crossed, disqualifies a person from receiving the public trust. Would we tolerate an Agriculture Secretary nominee who had illegally obtained food stamps for his family four separate times, even if he reimbursed the program once he was caught? Or a state insurance commissioner who padded four different casualty insurance claims, even if he later reimbursed the insurance companies once he decided to run for insurance commissioner?

23 January 2009

Four Days in a Row

Earlier this week, I noted an odd historical occurrence on January 20th: for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, the S&P 500 Index --- a weighted average of 500 of the largest publicly-traded companies --- closed below the price of a single ounce of gold.

I'm still not quite sure what this means, but I've continued to keep an eye on these markets. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday all saw the trend continue. And then, today, metals markets really shot up. Gold broke $900 during the day, and closed at $899. Meanwhile, the S&P closed at $832 --- a difference of more than 8%. I'll do a little digging this weekend, but I believe it's been decades since we've seen a spread of that magnitude.

S&P / Gold
January 20: $805 / $856.
January 21: $840 / $854.
January 22: $827 / $857.
January 23: $832 / $899.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been sensing for some time that the current situation is different from previous economic downturns. I really hope we're wrong, but I can't help sensing that something really odd is afoot out there. As promised in the past, I am preparing a longer post about gold and precious metals; I've been thinking about and researching it for some time now. In the meantime...well, let's just say that I'd encourage all my readers to keep a prudent portion of their savings in truly "hard" assets.

There is a reason that for 5,000+ years gold has maintained its position as the ultimate currency and store of value.

21 January 2009

The Oaf of Office

I had the television on all morning yesterday as I worked. As melancholy as I was feeling about the day's events, I remain a lifelong politics junkie. It was like watching a star player from a rival team being inducted into the Hall of Fame; as much as I may despise the rival player, I love the game and all of its trappings too much not to watch.

Since childhood, I've known the presidential oath of office by heart. I guess that's why I was so taken aback when the Chief Justice botched it so badly during the inauguration. And why I thought it was so fitting that Dianne Feinstein had said that the Chief Justice would be administering the Presidential "oaf" of office. Did that ever turn out to be a self-fulfilling turn of phrase. Listen for yourself:

Some of my conservative friends immediately began sending around emails ridiculing Obama for not reciting the oath properly. But I jumped to his defense. After all, I asked, what would you do if the C.J. clearly botched the words? Repeat the incorrect words? Point out, in front of hundreds of millions of people, that he'd said it wrong? Or pause and hope the C.J. realized what he'd done wrong, and then correct his own mistake? That final choice seemed to be what Obama was trying to do, and I give him credit for trying to let everybody on stage save some face.

But the problem is, they never did get it right. And part of me wondered if we'd soon see kook fringers begin to claim that the new President had not been lawfully sworn into office, and was therefore illegal. Given the intensity with which some claimed (and continue to claim) that Obama lacks U.S. citizenship, and seeing the degree to which these kinds of charges de-legitimized the more mainstream conservative critics of the man, I was concerned that the "invalid oath" story might develop a life of its own.

So, I was pleased to learn tonight that the Oath had been quietly and privately re-administered this evening, which will hopefully quash all that kind of talk. And we history/political junkies know that there are numerous precedents for administering the Oath more than once. Most recently, a snow storm made any kind of outdoor activity on January 20th, 1984 very dangerous. Ronald Reagan took the Oath privately on January 20th at the White House, and then had a public ceremony at the Capitol later when the weather cleared.

But my favorite example, and the one that most closely parallels the current case, was that of Calvin Coolidge. In a story near and dear to the heart of every notary public (and yeoman farmer), then-VP Coolidge got the news about President Harding's death in the middle of the night while visiting his family's farm in Vermont. His father, John Coolidge, a notary public, swore his son into office then and there. When Calvin Coolidge returned to Washington, some people expressed doubts that his father had had the legal authority to administer the presidential oath. To quash these doubts, Coolidge took the oath again --- this time from a Supreme Court justice.

Heck, I suppose the President could take the oath every day if he wanted to --- much the way public school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. And maybe that wouldn't be a bad idea. Regardless, I'm just glad they got it right --- and hope that four years from now we only have to do it once.


The new President, on his first full day in office, has announced a halt to the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay. And according to the same New York Times story:

Later this week, the new administration is expected to issue an executive order that is to start what could be a long process of closing the detention camp, where about 245 detainees remain.
What is yet unsaid, and what will likely be a key point of discussion over the next year, is just where those 245 detainees will be moved. Discussions on NPR focused on that issue, with commentators explaining that due to the highly dangerous nature of the detainees, no community in the mainland USA will want to house the Gitmo detainees in their local prisons.

Which got me thinking: remember Yucca Mountain? That's the super-secure repository in the Nevada mountains, which according to most objective scientific reports is the safest location in which nuclear waste can be stored for the long term. And yet despite the extreme cost and safety measures taken to build the Yucca Mountain facility, Nevada's elected officials have managed for years to block its opening.
Does anyone think that the NIMBY sentiments will be any less intense when the time comes to relocate Gitmo detainees to mainland prisons? Or that public officials in targeted areas will fight with any less intensity than Nevada's have done.

Like it or not, Guantanamo has one big plus going for it: it's not in anybody's back yard except Fidel Castro's.

My prediction is that we see some modifications made to the existing Guantanamo facilities, or the detainees relocated to some other overseas facility, before we see them set foot in any American's back yard.

20 January 2009

A Day for the History Books

No, not what you think.

For the first time in recent memory, the S&P 500 composite closed lower ($805) than the spot price for one ounce of gold ($856).

Interesting times.

16 January 2009

Maybe Go Outside?

No, we're not going outside much these days: the outdoor thermometer read -20F this morning, and it was in that same range yesterday. I tried to get the old carbeurated 4x4 Bronco truck started, but it refused to turn over. Fortunately, the roads are clear enough for our other vehicles, so I'll try the Bronco again once things warm up.

The upstairs of our barn is so large, it has plenty of room for both hay and a gymnasium-like play area (including a basketball hoop, and space to ride bikes). But when it's this bitterly cold out, the kids are only allowed to play inside. They're beginning to bounce off the walls a bit, but cabin fever hasn't hit with full force yet. We will be visiting two different sets of friends later today, and both have large kid-friendly basements; hopefully that'll burn off some of their energy before the weekend.

Needless to say, in weather like this, one's thoughts turn to parts of the country where kids can actually go outside to play in mid-January. I don't know about the rest of you, but Hawaii would sure be nice right about now (and I don't blame the President-elect a bit for vacationing there last month). But Hawaii was back in the news yesterday for a different reason: they are the first state to make the total conversion to digital television that the rest of the nation will be undergoing next month.

How did it go? The AP has this report:

Even before the change, residents lit up special TV help center phone lines set up by the Federal Communication Commission and broadcasters. More than 300 calls came in Wednesday, and 10 lines were lighting up Thursday.

On home screens, the shutdown message flashed for about a minute in white text on a blue background. Then, a seven-minute announcement video began a broadcast loop that will continue for several weeks on major island stations.

Technicians are calling it the "analog night light."

Officials at the call center made last-minute checks with some 20 TV stations around the islands, with all reporting they were ready.

"The calls we're getting now are from those people who are waking up and saying, `Oh my God, what do I do?'" said Lyle Ishida, the FCC's Hawaii digital TV project manager, just before the switch.

Yes, you read that right. People are waking up and saying, Oh my God, what do I do?

In Hawaii, of all places. How about, uhm, maybe going out and enjoying the beach? Taking a bicycle ride? Planting a backyard garden with all the cool things we can never grow on the mainland?

I couldn't help thinking of a classic Simpsons episode, from all the way back in Season 2, called "Itchy and Scratchy and Marge." In it, Marge goes on a crusade against the violence in a popular cartoon show. When the cartoon is transformed into a non-violent version, the kids of Springfield all get so disappointed they turn their televisions off. I searched in vain on YouTube for a clip of that scene, but long-time fans of the show will remember it well. Here is a detailed summary of that scene from the SNPP fan website:

Marge: Aren't you going to watch the rest of your cute cartoons?

Bart: Naah. Come on, Li.

Lisa: Maybe there's something else to do on this planet...

The scene is repeated in TV rooms all across town, and (to the strains of the first 53 bars of Beethoven's 6th Symphony) the kids step outside, rub their eyes, and proceed to do wholesome childlike things. Krusty meanwhile, tapes his show.

Krusty: Hi, kids! [laughs] [sees empty studio] Huh? Is it Saturday?

At dinner, Marge asks the kids what they did. Bart and the guys went fishing, and Lisa and Janie went bird-watching. They excuse themselves to work on the soapbox racers. Homer is amazed.

Of course, by the end of the episode, the violent cartoon makes a return and the kids are again all camped in front of television sets. But the episode is an interesting social commentary nonetheless.

Some folks, including the President-elect, are pushing to delay the conversion to digital television. But I think the situation in Hawaii demonstrates something that most of us (especially those who have taught school) already know: some people procrastinate and will not take action until they have no other choice. As the AP reported:

"It's really amazing how many people wait until the last minute," said June Gonzales, a member of the FCC team.

It's not as if television is a life-or-death service, the way telephones are. I say do the conversion as soon as possible, and leave the procrastinators with dark screens. Perhaps they'll come outside and see how bright life can be without television.

And it'll be interesting to see what happens in pockets of the country with heavy concentrations of newly dark screens. I bet Robert Putnam is already preparing to study the impact on social capital.

15 January 2009

Endless Soup Pot

This year's winter has been particularly harsh, and this morning was the coldest by far of the season. We awakened to temps in the -10F to -15F range. Needless to say, all the livestock water tanks in the barn are frozen fairly solid. (We know there are electric heating units that can be added to these tanks, but at the risk of sounding irrational, the idea of anything electric sitting in a tank of water kind of spooks us.) At least the barn is tight enough, and has enough animals in it, so the livestock area remained about +20F overnight. The downstairs portion has an 8ft ceiling, which is perfect: high enough so I don't hit my head, but low enough to keep livestock body heat near the livestock.

On days like this (and we've had months of days like this now), all I can think of is: Soup. And more soup.

Since mid-to-late November, I've had soup more or less constantly either in the fridge or in production. When we have our lambs and goats butchered, and when we buy a half a beef from the neighbor up the road, we end up with a lot of neck bones and other odd pieces. I make sure the butcher saves these for us; it's amazing that some people don't bother asking for them. Once or twice a week, I remove one of these packages of soup bones from the freezer and let it thaw. I then put the bones in a large stock pot, fill it about 3/4 full with warm water, and add about 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar. When I have them, I'll also add a couple of turkey feet (when we butcher the turkeys, I wash all the feet and freeze them together in gallon freezer bags), and an onion and a carrot. I let this sit for a few hours, then I bring it to a boil. If there's any scum on the surface, I skim it off. And then I reduce the heat and let the pot simmer all night. This gives plenty of time for extracting all the marrow and nutrients from the bones, and extracting all the gelatin from the turkey feet.

In the morning, I find that the simmering soup pot has helped keep the kitchen warmer than usual --- a nice additional wintertime benefit. I'll then pour the rich contents of the stock pot through a colander and into a second stock pot. As I bring the second stock pot back to a full boil, and allow the meat and bones to cool in the colander, I cut the ends off of three or four pounds of carrots (purchased in bulk from a warehouse club), and run them through the food processor's slicer disk. Less than a minute later, I'm adding all these sliced carrots to the stock. I then peel and clean up several pounds of rough potatoes, run them through the food processor, and add them as well. (We buy "unclassified" grade potatoes from a local produce store, where a 50# bag costs just ten bucks. They have more bad spots than the pristine supermarket potatoes, but all those scraps we cut off get fed to the chickens --- so it's no big deal to us.)

I next add seasonings to the pot: basil, oregano (purchased in bulk from a warehouse club), dried chives from our garden, cayenne pepper, and sea salt. By this time, the meat in the colander has cooled enough so I can break it apart into small pieces and add it back to the pot. The bones become a treat for the dogs, and the boiled-out turkey feet are simply discarded. As the pot finishes returning to a boil, I clean the kitchen. Then I reduce the pot to a simmer and let it go for a couple of hours; I turn the heat off at lunch time, have a couple of bowls for lunch, and let the pot cool all afternoon. Around dinner time, I put all the remaining soup into quart mason jars and stash them in the fridge.

I'll warm up anywhere from a quart to quart-and-a-half on most days for lunch, but on days like these I find myself going through it even faster. On cold winter days, there is nothing as wonderfully satisfying as this kind of rich, nutrient-dense soup that warms you from the inside out.

I think I could eat this for nearly every single meal.

12 January 2009

Yeah, Kind of Like That

Even without video games or cell phones of their own, and without exposure to kids at school who have video games or cell phones, it's remarkable what our children have been able to pick up from their cousins and other relatives.

Homeschooled Farm Boy (HFB) has been reading a book about Guglielmo Marconi, who of course was an early pioneer in the development of radio. Naturally, the book details the history of various forms of long distance communication that led up to radio.

Anyhow, this morning HFB beamed as he informed us of a conclusion he had drawn from the initial forty pages of the Marconi book:

"The telegraph was sort of like the first text message!"

Yeah. Kind of.

10 January 2009

We Hate Barbie

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have never allowed Homeschooled Farm Girl to play with Barbie dolls. Part of the reason, admittedly, is that Barbie has struck us as the epitome of glorified blonde/white sexuality; we don't want our beautiful mulatto daughter thinking there is some kind of arbitrary standard she is falling short of. But even if one opts for the dark-skinned version of the doll, there were other things that gave us pause: Barbie's impossible proportions, and the endless parade of accessories, and...and...the pure commercialism of the entire franchise.

No one ever pressed us to justify our opposition to Barbie, so the whole thing remained largely a non-issue. Few of HFG's friends even have Barbie dolls, so she never asked if she could have one. And we certainly never raised the subject. As a result, we never really thought through or formulated an over-arching explanation for our discomfort with Barbie.

Fortunately, Mary Anne Moresco has done our work for us. In a brilliant article at Catholic Exchange, she puts words to the subconscious thoughts that had been troubling us about Barbie --- and adds some details and additional considerations that never would have occurred to us. In part:

In the late 1950’s Barbie became the first “adult” doll for children. She was copied from a German prostitute doll name Bild Lilli, who was a character in an “adult” cartoon. The prostitute Lilli doll was sold, not to girls, but to men in bars and tobacco shops. Unaware of her prostitute background, Barbie’s American creators used the prostitute Lilli doll as a prototype for the first Barbie doll.

Barbie’s wardrobe was and still remains indecent. The 2008 Holiday Barbie wears a silver gown with a more than plunging V-slit that goes straight from neck to navel, as she poses with gobs of thick black mascara and hand on hip. Barbie recently debuted as a “Happy Birthday Gorgeous” doll-with her shiny teal blue dress slit up the side of her entire leg. Modesty is decency (CCC 2522). How are girls to learn modesty, if they are, almost from infancy, bombarded with an assortment of over-sexed immodestly dressed indecent dolls?

Although America may be blinded by the indecency of Barbie, other countries are not. The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia stated that: “[B]arbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures… are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West.”

Barbie is unhealthy for girls, not just because she is immodest, but because she is so impossibly thin, with a figure that does not conform to normal human proportions. The International Journal of eating disorders has reported that if Barbie’s dimensions were projected to human size, they would be 38-18-34. Barbie dolls can cause girls to dislike their own body shape, and lead them toward eating disorders. ...

Barbie is not only indecent and overly-thin. She is a narcissist. She herself could write a book on self-absorbed excess and acquisition. With disturbing ease, Barbie spreads this debilitating mentality of acquiring and excess to young girls. One look at the magnitude of Barbie’s paraphernalia will show you why. Barbie owns just about everything. This includes over forty pets from a lion to a horse to a zebra; multiple vehicles from a Corvette convertible to a “surfs up cruiser,” Volkswagon, Mustang, Ford, Jeep, “Hot tub party bus,” and a “Jam and Glam” bus; and a mountain ski cabin, a 3-story “dream house,” and “Barbie Talking Townhouse.” And this barely touches the surface of Barbie’s possessions and what has helped make her worth $3 billion a year to Mattel.

Go read the whole thing. Especially if you have a daughter you love.

How Much Have Gun Sales Increased?

An interesting notice was recently sent to all holders of Federal Firearms Licenses. I am not a FFL holder, but found the notice on the BATFE website:

January 6, 2009

Notice to All Federal Firearms Licensees
Regarding ATF Form 4473 Shortage

As a result of an unprecedented increase in demand for ATF Forms 4473 (5300.9) Part I Revised August 2008, inventory of the form at the ATF Distribution Center is running low.

As a temporary measure, ATF is allowing FFLs to photocopy the form 4473 in it’s [sic] entirety until they receive their orders from the ATF Distribution Center.
A notice will be posted at the expiration of this temporary authorized change.

For those not familiar, Form 4473 is the one that the gun dealer must fill out at the time a firearm is purchased, so a background check on the purchaser can be performed. If there have been so many gun purchases in recent weeks that the BATFE can't even supply FFL holders with forms to conduct background checks...all I can say is, "Wow."

But I am left a bit taken aback that the authorities entrusted with determining who is qualified to purchase a firearm seem to be having difficulty determining whether a contraction (it's) or possessive (its) construction is appropriate. And I'm not just picking on the BATFE. Long-time readers will recall that I made the same point about our local hospital in Illinois.

As I said in a post a couple of days ago, misuse of apostrophes drives me crazy.

09 January 2009


The AP is up with two stories about political scandals this evening: one about the impeachment of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and another about the indictment of the mayor of Baltimore.

Here's what's amusing: the Blagojevich story has 816 words. You have to get to word #202 before the word "Democratic" appears in connection with his name. Apart from five references to lawmakers with "D-" after their names, that's the only time we see the D-word in 816 words.

The Baltimore story has 1006 words. We have to read all the way to word #335 before we learn that Mayor Sheila Dixon is a "Democrat." That word appears exactly one more time, in reference to her predecessor.

If the scandal involved an official from the other party, does anyone want to take a guess as to where in the story, and how frequently, we'd see the word "Republican"? Click here in case you're curious.

06 January 2009


I was flipping through the program guide on our satellite TV system tonight, and discovered yet another post-season college football game: the GMAC Bowl. Pressed the info button, and quickly decided that I couldn't care less about either Tulsa or Ball State. But as I prepared to search for a different program, a thought flashed through my mind:

GMAC? That GMAC? The one that's lost an estimated EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS over the last two years, and just last month reorganized itself into a bank holding company so it could tap SIX BILLION DOLLARS of federal bailout money?

That GMAC? That GMAC has coughed up untold millions of dollars to sponsor a bowl game, and now deigns to approach us, the taxpayers, with hat in hand?

And it's not just GMAC. Taxpayers for Common Sense nails all the other bailout recipients that are sponsoring similar events.

Some time back, I joked to a friend that I wondered if we'd see the "Bankruptcy Bowl: Presented by Citi" from Pasadena on January 1st. Looks like we're getting that, plus much more.

I'm starting to get the same feeling that comes over me when I'm at the supermarket, and the person ahead of me at the checkout line has a large cart full of junk food --- and then pays for it with food stamps. And then whips out a wad of cash to pay for their liquor and cigarettes. The analogy isn't perfect, but it's the same visceral revulsion at the sense of being fleeced, and of being taken advantage of by someone "gaming" the system. No pun intended, but the term really does fit.

I tried watching some of the bowl game, but I had to turn it off.

God help this country.

05 January 2009


Our dairy goats supply a nice stream of milk for the family. Our children are lactose intolerant, so Mrs Yeoman Farmer cultures the raw (unpasteurized) goat milk into various things that they can drink. There is usually plenty of extra milk for me to have a cup or two a day to put on cereal.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's mother became gravely ill, she began spending extraordinary amounts of time at the hospital visiting. As the weeks went on, and the illness grew increasingly serious, MYF had little time for anything but visiting her mother and keeping on top of the kids' schoolwork. Milk piled up in the fridge, uncultured, and unfortunately eventually spoiled. I'm still taking it out to the chickens, a couple of quarts per day, to mix with their feed. But I wouldn't touch this stuff with a 100-foot poll for anything but animal feed.

Still more unfortunately, the goats began drying up. The children did their best to milk, in between seeing grandma and wondering if "today" would be the last day to say good-bye, but nothing could stop the inevitable progression of nature: milk eventually dries up. We try to stagger the goats' pregnancies, so at least one of them is always producing milk, but it's not a perfect science. A couple of weeks ago, we were down to about a cup of milk per milking --- or about two cups a day. That was about enough for me to put on cereal, but not enough for MYF to do anything with for the children. As a result, we called a halt to all milking until the goat does can be "freshened up." Needless to say, the two older children (who do all the milking) were overjoyed to have a temporary reprieve from this time-consuming chore.

But I was left in a quandary. The milk in the fridge was getting worse by the day, and soon got to the point where none of it smelled safe. I got by for a few days with breakfasts of fried eggs or bagels, but this morning I was starting to miss my raisin bran. As much as I prefer the wonderful raw milk we get from our goat herd, it was looking like I'd need to go to the store and actually (gasp) purchase some of the pasteurized-to-death chalk water labeled and sold in this country as "milk."

And so I did. I drove into town, parked the car, sauntered into our small grocery store, picked up a basket, and continued walking deeper into the store.

And then it hit me: we have lived here for over a year, and I had no idea where the milk was. The few other times our supply had been insufficient for my cereal, I'd bought milk from a larger (Meijer) grocery store in Jackson. I'd never actually purchased milk at the independent grocery store in our town.

So, up and down the aisles I wandered, inspecting the various refrigerated cases. But I couldn't find the milk. No luck. And I refused on principle to ask a store clerk such a stupid question as "Where's the milk?"

At long last, I spotted it. Way off in the corner, in the back of the store, no doubt placed there to force people to walk past and inspect all the other merchandise on the way. I snagged a quart of milk, and some cream cheese, and headed for the checkout line.

And wished I could find a way to get our goats back in full production again. Today.

Twenty-Five Random Facts about Me

A friend recently tagged me with a request to list 25 random facts about myself. So here we go, in no particular order:

  1. I am unabashedly a dog person.

  2. My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger since the morning she was born.

  3. I have been a fan of Starbucks coffee since they had only five stores.

  4. A Volvo saved my life.

  5. I have read seventeen of the eighteen "J.P. Beaumont" detective novels by J.A. Jance.

  6. I enjoy NPR almost as much as I enjoy Rush Limbaugh.

  7. My favorite college course spent an entire quarter reading and discussing Tolstoy's War and Peace. I still think about that class and draw insights from it today.

  8. The novel I have read and re-read more than any other is Huxley's Brave New World.

  9. I believe there are few sights in nature more beautiful than a sunset behind the Olympic Mountains and Elliot Bay.

  10. My dream car is a fully-restored 1975 Volvo 164E with the 4sp+OD manual transmission.

  11. I have completed 24 double century bicycle rides, but none since 1999. The future Mrs. Yeoman Farmer snapped this photo during the 1994 Seattle-to-Portland ride:

  12. I once rode my bicycle 306 miles in a single day. I plan to never try that again.

  13. I wish I had discovered tandem cycling, with a child stoker set-up, ten years ago.

  14. I have visited every U.S. state except Alaska, Nebraska, Arkansas, Mississippi, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

  15. If I could live anywhere, it would be a farm in rural Snohomish County (WA) between Monroe and Duvall.

  16. I lettered in forensics in high school, and still have my letterman sweater.

  17. I worked at McDonald's all the way through high school, and liked it enough to return for every vacation during college. Despite my "crunchy" orientation, I still eat there when on the road.

  18. I once wrote a letter to William F. Buckley, Jr., encouraging him and National Review magazine to use feminine pronouns when referring to countries. He published the letter, but responded in the negative.

  19. Misuse of apostrophes drives me crazy.

  20. Reading Richard Nixon's book, The Real War, at the age of 14, was what sparked my fascination with politics and current affairs.

  21. I think Casablanca is the best movie of all time.

  22. I proposed to my wife after completing the 1995 Hemet Double Century ride --- and carrying the engagement ring in my pocket all 200 miles while she drove support.

  23. My favorite childhood vacation spot was LaPush Ocean Park, along the Pacific coast.

  24. I was in attendance for Gaylord Perry's 300th career pitching victory on May 6, 1982.

  25. I thank God every day for the wife and beautiful children he has given me.

02 January 2009

Seeds of Our Move

As detailed in various posts, including the blog's very first one, our decision to abandon urban life for the country percolated in our minds for many months (even years) before we pulled the trigger and set that first move in motion.

As you might imagine, it's hard to identify exactly what got the whole thought process started in the first place. Mrs Yeoman Farmer's grandfather owned a farm in rural Indiana, and since she was a girl she'd had thoughts of living in a similar sort of place. But for me, the idea took longer to germinate. I have memories of flying across the country in the middle of the night in the mid-1990s, looking down at the isolated circles of light surrounded by miles of pich black, and longing to parachute down to the farm house I imagined to be in that warm circle of light. And then, hours later, my plane would land at LAX or ORD and I'd be back in a concrete jungle.

But I didn't really start actively thinking about rural life until late 1998. As a political science graduate student at UCLA, I'd come across a remarkable set of data: thousands of pre-election telephone interviews conducted that year in Nevada, using the state's registered voter list as a sample. In other words, I knew that every interviewee was a registered voter, and I knew their address and county of residence. If I could visit each county clerk's office, I could check to see if each interviewee had actually voted in the primary and/or general election that year. By adding that information to my data file, I could produce a conference paper which modeled voter turnout and compared primary voters with general election voters. And so, in early December of 1998, I set out for a ten day driving tour of Nevada with a five-months-pregnant (and sick) Mrs Yeoman Farmer and our two-and-a-half year old future Homeschooled Farm Boy.

I'd carefully mapped the most efficient route around the state, going from county seat to county seat. I'd also called ahead to each county clerk to alert them that I'd be coming, and to confirm the precinct record books would be available. Fortunately, the largest (Clark) sent me a CD-ROM with all the data I needed, so we could bypass Las Vegas. And some of the extremely tiny and isolated counties agreed to look up the handful of names I was interested in and fax me the results.

As we drove through and across the desolate expanses of Nevada, MYF and I were taken aback by how amazingly empty most of the state is. And then, here and there, we would see a ranch or a homestead. But mostly what impressed us were the people we met, at both the cheap motels we stayed at and the county clerks' offices where I did my research. The women in these offices (and almost all of them were female) were extremely helpful, and genuinely interested in assisting with my project. In addition to helping me track down voter records, they also provided numerous anecdotes about life in each county and the way in which elections are conducted. (In one county, for example, State Patrolmen lock the ballot boxes in their trunks and drive them to the county seat on election night, so it's often very late before everything is counted.)

I never forgot about that trip, and the impression it made on me about rural / small town life and the sorts of people who live there. Looking back, I can now see how this trip --- now more than ten years past --- was one of the early seeds that got me thinking about escaping from Los Angeles. But what brought it to mind today was a story in the New York Times about one of those small county seats we spent so much time in: Battle Mountain, in Lander County.

I remembered the place well, because it was so easy for me to access: it was right off I-80, and there was a single main drag through the town. The courthouse was simple to find, and I had fewer than two dozen names to look up. I probably spent more time chatting with the clerk and her staff than I did checking names. Anyhow, the Times story is about how the town is booming these days thanks to gold mining in the area. [I have been working on a separate post about gold and will be publishing it shortly.] The Times piece is an interesting read, well-written and researched, and I sense the reporter enjoyed visiting the town and meeting the locals almost as much as I did --- though, given his NY audience, he seems careful not to sound too enthusiastic about the place.

As for me, the trip was a wonderful experience that I'll never forget, and the Times piece helped bring it all back to mind. Given the pregnancy, and the 2.5 year old bundle of energy she had to contain, the trip was much less wonderful for Mrs Yeoman Farmer. But given how much more clearly I now see the role that trip played in getting me thinking about escaping our urban prison, I'm hoping MYF will appreciate how much fruit her discomfort and trials ended up yielding.


One of the things that originally attracted me to Mrs Yeoman Farmer was her utter lack of pretension. And her disdain for status symbols, and her preference for the practical over the luxurious or the merely decorative. She never wore makeup, and she didn't even like jewelry very much. Though she earned a good salary as an attorney, she lived in a tiny apartment with almost no furniture. Her preference was to spend every extra dime paying down her law school loans, rather than buying the status items her peers were snapping up. With her, what you saw was what you got --- and I very much liked the person I saw and was getting to know.

I can see now that these qualities are essential for making a successful relocation to the country. Her diligence in reducing the principal balance on her loans meant we saved a fortune on interest...and were able to scrape together a down payment for our first house all the sooner, which put us on the path of building the equity we later needed to get into our first farm.

It's impossible to count all the ways that practicality must trump appearance or luxury if you're going to make a successful go of small farming. We certainly do take care of our property's appearance, and keep it picked up, but we above all strive to keep it in good repair. And when the time comes to choose something like a wood burning stove, our number one priority is function rather than beauty.

I'm also convinced that one's attitude toward material goods is a huge factor in whether one will ultimately be happy with a small farm. I've met many people who look at our farm with stars in their eyes, but who I doubt would really be happy when the time came to opt for practicality over luxury. And that's fine. This life isn't for everyone.

An amusing illustration of this came at Christmas. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were annoyed to no end by all the television commercials for luxury cars, spas, pajama grams, and jewelry. This particular J.C. Penny video, while very funny, is a perfect illustration of what we mean.

Anyway, even as I laughed at the J.C. Penny video, I wracked my brain to think of a gift that MYF would find practical --- but also fun and enjoyable. (In other words, a new vacuum cleaner was definitely out.)

Fortunately, it didn't take long. MYF enjoys firearms, and has been a member of the NRA since before we met (or either of us even owned a gun), but hasn't had the chance to do any real target shooting in a very long time. She'd mentioned this in recent weeks, and I'd replied that once the weather warmed up in the spring we could set up some targets and a backstop out in the pasture. Then it occurred to me: why not give MYF the gift of a day at the pistol range at our local gun shop?

Homeschooled Farm Boy and I went up to the gun shop on Christmas Eve, and picked up a gift card that would cover a range session and plenty of paper targets. I then put this into a nice Christmas card, and wrote up everything that was included: the range time, the targets, the use of both of my pistols, up to 500 rounds of ammo for each pistol (I save a small fortune buying it in bulk from an online dealer), and --- most importantly --- a full afternoon out of the house while I entertained the children.

So...how did she react on Christmas morning when she opened the card? She laughed. She beamed. And she called her father to excitedly detail what she'd get to be doing. And she said in no uncertain terms that she planned to go through all 1,000 rounds.

As MYF has continued to tell her friends about her upcoming day at the range, I imagined the television commercial we could put together:

  • One session of range time: seventeen dollars.
  • Several packages of paper targets: fifteen dollars.
  • One thousand rounds of ammo, including shipping: three hundred and three dollars.
  • Having a wife who prefers the pistol range to the spa: Priceless.

Here's hoping that all of you had as happy and blessed a Christmas and New Year as our family has had...