Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chaotic thinking

"When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first."

-- Werner Heisenberg

Part I

Back when I got my first computer (a used Tandy 1000 with two floppy drives, a 300 BAUD modem, and a whopping 384Kilobytes of RAM -- 128 original + a 256 expansion module -- something like the one above) a dear friend named Chuck insisted I look into chaos theory. It was the mid 80s and Benoit Mandelbrot's theories were all the rage in the artworld. Chuck had written a few little bits of code to emulate a series of chaotic orbital decay events using information he'd found someplace or another, and he found the visual patterns they produced endlessly interesting.

About that time I read a short article in the back of some popular tech magazine describing another kind of chaotic function in a program written in Pascal, so I tried my hand at transcribing it into Basic, which my version of MS DOS supplied for me. The resulting program was laughably primitive, only a few lines long. But it worked. Using the PSet command, it located a point on the screen's x/y axes that represented the values of two variables in a simple equation as determined by the value of a third which was controlled by some function I no longer remember. As the program ran, it drew a line of dots that descended the screen till, at a certain point, the line split, which meant that there were two true values for each of the variables. Then the two lines split. Then all the lines split again. And again.

All this happened in an orderly fashion until it got strange. That's the technical term for what transpired -- the lines my program drew are called attractors, and when they break into apparent disorder, one says that they are strange attractors. Strange they were. Dots proliferated in certain regions of the screen, always descending, but in no pattern that was at first predictable. Eventually another, non-linear structure appeared, a cloud of dots that seemed to coalesce into soft arcing forms that mimicked the arcs if the program's initial lines in a curiously organic way.

Part II

Back in October, the PBS News Hour ran a segment in which Paul Solman interviewed Mandelbrot and Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, a book about unpredictability and the limits of what we know for certain. About 5:15 into the interview the butterfly effect and the idea of turbulence comes up in their discussion of what's happened and will happen to the enormously complex international financial system. The ripple effects of the implosion of big players like Lehman Brothers and the maiming of bigger ones like AIG are not confined to the values assigned to their shares or to their debt instruments. Ripples are not confined even to one country. In a structure with as many interconnected obligations and mutual dependencies, a structure as unbelievably complex as international finance, they suggested, the effects of a meltdown can be catastrophic. That's the turbulence fear they express.

Look at the smoke from Bogie's cigarrette above (image from Wikipedia). It rises in a smooth ribbon for a bit, spreads, and expands. At first it's coherent, but at a certain point it becomes turbulent, chaotic. Eventually it no longer appears to be a single form; it is no longer even smoke.

Part III

A series of excellent articles by Brady Dennis and Robert O'Harrow, Jr. in the Washington Post describes the events leading up to the AIG disaster in detail. Here are some links: Articles one, two, and three. They are worth reading. The first part tells how three men who worked at the notorious junk bond firm Drexel Burnham Lambert -- Howard Sosin, Randy Rackson, and Barry Goldman -- conceived of new debt instruments that revolutionized the world's finanial markets. they hatched their ideas in 1986, about the time I was noodling with a short program written in Basic to illustrate chaos.

Partnering with AIG, they set up something called AIG Financial Products to offer novel and complex financial instruments. They made themselves and their company enormous amounts of money. And then things got chaotic:

Financial Products unleashed techniques that others on Wall Street rushed to emulate, creating vast, interlocking deals that bound together financial institutions in ways that no one fully understood and contributed to the demise of its parent company as a private enterprise. In the panic of mid-September's crash, the Bush administration said that AIG had grown too intertwined with the global economy to fail and made the extraordinary decision to take over the reeling giant. The bailout stands at $152 billion and counting -- almost 10 times as large as the rescue for the American auto industry.

Many of the most compelling aspects of the economic cataclysm can be seen through the story of AIG and its Financial Products unit: the failure of credit-rating firms, the absence of meaningful federal regulation, the mistaken belief that private contracts did not pose systemic risk, the veneration of computer models and quantitative analysis.

Note two things in the quote above: 1. "no one fully understood;" and 2. "the veneration of computer models."

These guys are smart. Sosin is an alumnus of Bell Labs, Rackson of the Wharton School of Management. Goldman holds a PhD in economics. But what was constructed -- the net of international financial obligations -- grew too big and convoluted to comprehend.

The computer models they and their colleagues trusted to guide them through it all suggest a poignant clue to Nassim Taleb's worries about our current situation. Edward Lorenz, the MIT mathematician and meteorologist credited with naming the butterfly effect, made his discovery when he was running an early computer weather model. When he reran one simulation, starting not at the beginning but a little ways into the model, the results were wildly different from his first attempt. The data from the second run were rounded off slightly, and the systems he was modeling are so complex that tiny differences in values -- less than a thousandth place in Lorenz's case -- meant huge differences in output.

A butterfly in Beijing can cause a storm in Texas.

Financial Products' management and the kinds of products they conjured into being changed over the years, but its mathematical and model-based business apparently didn't very much. Tom Savage, a mathematician, replaced Sosin (who left because of conflicts with AIG's management), Joseph Cassano, another Drexel Burnham alumnus, took over the reins. But the rigorous vetting of each transaction continued.

But even as Financial Products experimented, Savage said, he continued to stress the need to minimize risk. "That was one of the things that really marked this company, was the rigor with which it looked at the business of trading. . . . There was an academic rigor to it that very few companies match," he said.

"It was Howard Sosin who said, 'You know, we're not going to do trades that we can't correctly model, value, provide hedges for and account for.' "

The models continued to show that the products they were selling (increasingly credit default swaps -- insurance on third-party debt) were only the tiniest bit risky. It would take the chaos of a world-wide depression to make them go bad.

And then, one mortgage too many failed, so to speak. A mortgage securitized in a bundle of mortgages, which bundle was itself secured by a product sold by Financial Products. A cascade of rising collateral obligations and falling credit ratings ensued.

The butterfly flapped his wings.

Now we taxpayers own AIG. It's cost us $152 billion so far.

But Taleb's fear is that this only the first part of the ensuing storm. Turbulence and chaos are like that. What will come of AIG's troubles is yet to be seen.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Somebody always makes money

The New York Times reports that a lot of old hands who were in the thick of the late 80s/early 90s bailout of a passel of failed and failing savings and loans, the Resolution Trust Corporation, are now homing in on the bucks to be gotten in our current mess. Says the Times:
What is obvious to former R.T.C. officials is that, like the last go around, a great deal of money will be made by a select group of investors and business operators, particularly those with government contacts. The former government officials said in interviews that much of what is motivating them is a desire to help the nation recover from this latest stumble. But they acknowledge they intend to be among the winners who emerge.
That $700 billion in TARP money is getting spread around. Deals are getting done. And, most importantly, commissions are being charged.

One interesting outfit emerging from all this is SecondMarket, which bills itself as "the marketplace for illiquid assets." This is curious largely because "illiquid" means there is no market for the asset. Illiquid assets are items of dubious value which are REALLY hard to sell. Say, for example, you own a basket of debt paper issued by a company like Lehman Brothers. What can you do? The debt issuer is bankrupt. If you're the guy charged with telling regulators and shareholders what your assets are worth, you need to find out what an illiquid asset like a bond issued by a bankrupt bank can be sold for. Nobody wants it, true. But there is still something of value left in the corpse of Lehman. Some spare change under the couch cushions, maybe. And your bond gives you claim to a portion of the remaining money pie along with all the other creditors in line for a slice.

The fine folks over at SecondMarket have a plan for you: they work to make markets for junk like that. Even if it's only a few pennies on the dollar, they can find somebody who'll buy your paper. The trick is arriving at the right price.

Currently SecondMarket deals in auction rate securities, bankruptcy claims, restricted securities, and limited partnership interests.

Auction rate securities were once touted as safe as cash. They're bonds with long maturity periods, but which are auctioned monthly or even weekly, so their value fluctuates according to what the market will bear at any given time. It's a long-term debt that behaves like something with a much shorter half life. But about 11 months ago the auctions began to fail. Nobody wanted to buy them because of their risk of default. They once were liquid. They became illiquid.

Restricted securities are financial instruments which are bought from companies under certain circumstances which are not registered with the SEC. They are part of the so-called shadow financial system. Since they may not be sold in the regulated market for financial instruments, they are also illiquid.

Limited partnership interests are basically hedge funds. Here's a telling quote from the SecondMarket Web site:
Limited partnership (LP) interests are ownership rights in investment entities
such as private equity funds, hedge funds, and funds of funds (also known as
alternative investment managers or AIMs). Over the past several years the
secondary market for limited partnership interests, which are typically longer
term investments, has grown tremendously.

The market is expected to continue to grow at a rapid pace as many limited
partners seek to reduce their alternative investment exposure. Many are
requesting redemptions or simply seeking to get out of their positions largely due
to poor fund performance, a need for capital or a desire to rebalance their
portfolios. To fund these redemption requests, many AIMs are selling their
positions at sub‐optimal levels, artificially decreasing capital availability and asset
prices as well as increasing market volatility.
The secondary market is comprised of folks trying to dump shit before the stink gets too strong for their noses or stomachs. And the dumping has pushed the price of their shit pretty far down. It'll go down more, but someday the price will rise. So the plan is to make markets for these items with people positioned to buy them at fire sale prices, people expecting an economic turnaround in a reasonable time.

The management team at SecondMarket includes a "Senior Advisor" by the name of Bill Seidman, a CNBC talking head, a former FDIC chairman, and the fist chairman of the Resolution Trust Corporation. Says Mr. Seidman in the Times:
“It is an enormous market,” said Mr. Seidman, who has already joined two such potential money-making efforts and is evaluating proposals to participate in a third. “I am enjoying this.”
Well there's big money to be gotten. Why not?

Here's why not: We have a system of finance designed to cheat us. Its job is to make industry and services possible. Its effect is to generate imaginary wealth.

Somebody wants to open a cafe? He gets a loan and works his ass off to pay the loan back. A school district wants to build a new computer lab? They float a bond and the honest citizens of the district pay taxes to make the debt right. Somebody wants to open a tech business? He borrows to make it happen and then works to make it happen and repay his debt along the way.

But the financial markets have gotten butt-ugly distorted. They've fallen down the rabbit hole and begun to hallucinate wealth and value when there is none. Market fundamentalists will tell us over and over and over again that they make entrepreneurship possible with their capital machinations, but I can see no proof of this supposition. They only make money for themselves. They care not for goods and services, except insofar as they can buy them with their many many dollars.

At some future date SecondMarket will begin dealing in collateralized debt obligations and mortgage backed securities and other instruments of financial innovation. And they'll make another boatload of money, as will their more savvy investors. When this happens, there will be no increase in entrepreneurship. There will be no new ideas about dinners out or digital widgets or instructional technology in public schools. There will be only dollars.

Can you see what is wrong with this picture?

Department of why not

Houston's Art Guys are selling their name and their abject logo (above). Their Web site indicates the logo was the winning entry in a 1993 competition. Esteemed curator Walter Hopps was the juror. Imagining what the other entries looked like is, of course, futile.

The asking price for the Art Guys brand and logo is a hefty $500,000, which may sound like a bunch in the current depressed market, but as one of the Guys points out it comes to only $20,000 a year over their 25-year career.

Along with their announcement that they are engaged to a houseplant, the sale is designated an official Art Guys silver jubilee event.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Art, money, and big waves

Dave Hickey in Vanity Fair:

Numbers tell the story. In 1976, Michael Milken was estimated to have earned $5 million at Drexel Burnham Lambert. By December of 2007, hundreds of times as many people were bringing home staggering multiples of that amount every year. This radical redistribution of wealth created the illusion of “high art prices.” In fact, art prices have fallen as a percentage of the buyer’s disposable income, so art is statistically less important to the people who buy it. The question of how good the art is and how long it will last is of much less consequence.

So think of the art world as a beach and money as the surf. Waves roll in but they always suck back out, leaving a few masterpieces, taking some beach with them. When a really gnarly monster rolls in, the best we can hope is that it will leave some beach behind and a few treasures in the sand, along with the wreckage and the bodies—because the wave will suck away. And when it does, as it is doing right now, the whales will either hold or dump. If they hold, art will remain a stable-valued, low-liquid commodity. If the whales dump at cut-rate prices, the art world will undergo its first catastrophic value re-adjustment in 40 years. It won’t be pretty, but it will be exciting to watch.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Looks like art, smells worse

Here's a nice graphic over at Slate showing how much money has been committed to assorted bailouts and how much has been actually spent. Totals: ~$5.6 trillion promised; ~$2.3 trillion spent.

Slate's Flash graphic looks very much like a slick, Pop version of a Kenneth Noland abstraction. That's utterly not relevant to anything, except writing the word "Pop" and Noland's name in the same sentence gave me a unnatural rush of naughty glee.

Meanwhile, the New York Times' profile of Harvey Miller, the $1,000/hour bankruptcy attorney in charge of winding down the fetid corpse that once was Lehman Brothers, offers this harsh observation:

From his perspective as Lehman’s undertaker, Mr. Miller believes that the fallout from the firm’s messy bankruptcy could have been avoided. Regulators could have stepped in, he says, not necessarily to save Lehman, perhaps, but to head off the meltdown that followed. “They totally missed it,” he says. “Look what happened.”

When companies rushed to terminate contracts with Lehman, he says, investor confidence plummeted in just about everything — securities and the markets they trade on, corporate debts and the assets backing them, the power of the government and its readiness to use it. In the days after Lehman filed for bankruptcy, he notes, demand for corporate debt utterly evaporated.

The failure of a Wall Street firm poses its own special risks, because other companies that rely on it — such as counterparties to complex financial contracts known as derivatives — are all financially exposed to its collapse.

That’s why Mr. Miller says it was crucial for the government to head off the wholesale termination by counterparties of all their transactions with Lehman before the firm was forced into bankruptcy. “If the Fed or the Treasury said, ‘Let’s say to Lehman, there’s no bailout, we’re not going to save the company,’ they could have supported an orderly unwinding of all the transactions over a period of months,” he says. “It probably would’ve cost the economy a lot less money.”
Lehman owes counterparties and creditors $640 billion. A little planning and order when dealing with that fact beforehand would seem a good idea.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A little bit Moody about investing

A long article in the New York Times today looks into one significant factor in the credit market collapse: bond rating agencies' going too easy on their evaluations of the risks surrounding a slew of mortgage backed securities. In the abstract, it's interesting reading. In real life, it's cause for rage.

The article focuses on Moody's, one of the big rating agencies on Wall Street, and on its role in facilitating the housing bubble (the others are Standard and Poor's and Fitch). Basically, it goes like this: Mortgage originators securitized the mortgages they produced into various financial instruments like bonds, collateralized debt obligations, etc. so they could sell these instruments to investors eager to get a good return on their money. The sale of the instruments produced cash which loan originators could then use to generate more mortgages. It's the job of a company like Moody's to assess the risk associated with the securities and assign a grade to them based on an estimation of the quality of the underlying debt. In the words of a Moody's spokesman quoted in the Times:
“Moody’s credit ratings play an important but limited role in the financial markets — to offer reasoned, independent, forward-looking opinions about relative credit risk, based on rigorous analysis and published methodologies...”
Nice spin with that "but limited" bit, eh?


Let's look at the "reasoned, independent, forward-looking" part of the statement. Financial instruments built out of mortgages and other sorts of debt are often divided into slices called "tranches" (tranche = slice in French) with a heirarchy of risk and reward assigned to each slice. Higher tranches get paid before lower ones. When all the debts in the security are paying as they should everybody gets a piece of the action. But as mortgage holders get behind in their payments or (worse) default, the lower tranches get nothing while the upper guys still get paid. I know that's horribly complex, but that's the way they do things. And complexity can be profitable.

So the Times reports:

Consider a residential mortgage pool put together in summer 2006 by Goldman Sachs. Called GSAMP 2006-S5, it held $338 million of second mortgages to subprime, or riskier, borrowers.

The safest slice of the security held $165 million in loans. When it was issued on Aug. 17, 2006, Moody’s and S.& P. rated it triple-A. Just eight months later, Moody’s alerted investors that it might downgrade the top-rated tranche. Sure enough, it dropped the rating to Baa, the lowest investment-grade level, on Aug. 16, 2007.

Then, on Dec. 4, 2007, Moody’s downgraded the tranche to a “junk” rating. On April 15 of this year, Moody’s downgraded the tranche yet again; today, it no longer trades. The combination of downgrades and defaults hammered the securities.
Millions in debt were rated an excellent risk in 2006. The same -- exactly the SAME -- debt gets a not so good score in a year, and four months later it's junk. Now nobody wants any of it at any price. This one example of a scenario that has been repeated untold times since the boom went bust and would appear to be what passes for "forward-looking" in the world of risk assessment.

Then there's the issue of "independent" opinions. Used to be that Moody's got paid by the people who bought securities, not the guys selling them. That changed in the 70s. Now the issuers of credit instruments pay rating agencies for the rating service, and the conflict of interest is just about inescapable. Add to that the pressures to maximize shareholder profits (Moody's went public in 2000) and you get a real problem. From the Times:

By the time Moody’s became a public company in 2000, structured finance had become its top source of revenue. Employees in this unit rated bundles of assets like credit card receivables, car loans and residential mortgages. Later they rated collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s, yet another combination of various bundles of debt.

Moody’s could receive between $200,000 and $250,000 to rate a $350 million mortgage pool, for example, while rating a municipal bond of a similar size might have generated just $50,000 in fees, according to people familiar with Moody’s fee structure.

A standard of profitability at many companies is its operating margin, which measures how much of its revenue is left over after it pays most expenses. While operating margins at Moody’s were always enviable — in 2000 they stood at 48 percent — they climbed even higher as revenue from structured finance rose. From 2000 to 2007, company documents show, operating margins averaged 53 percent.

Even thriving companies like Exxon and Microsoft had margins of 17 and 36 percent respectively in 2007. But Moody’s and its counterparts were not founded to be profit machines.
Structured finance is a generic term for all those complex securities we've heard so much about as the financial markets spazzed out. The more complex the financial instrument, the more a rating agency could charge to assess its risk. A huge amount of money was on the line with each rating. This is what passes for "independence" in the world of risk assessment.

As to "reasonable," if we are to apply a pragmatic test -- say, looking at whether or not their ratings accurately reflected the realities of the products under scrutiny -- the verdict can't be kind. How could anybody claim that reasonable opinions about risk ended up with a global financial meltdown? As with the tech bubble before it, the housing bubble was irrational, and Moody's was integral to the irrationality.

There is ample blame for this mess. Subprime lenders who asked nothing regarding the credit worthiness of people who were buying houses they couldn't afford, government regulators who allowed big banks and other financial institutions to value their assets according to the "reasonable" opinions of rating agencies and didn't regulate like they should have, banks that leveraged every buck they had on deposit 30 times in reckless bids to maximize profits, doofus home buyers picking up properties on spec so they could flip them quick in an ever-rising tulip mania of a market -- all those guys and others had a big share in the mess.

But credit rating agencies like Moody's enabled a baseless boom by propping up false assessments of the underlying value of the securities that kept the credit flowing beyond any reasonable limit.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Past blast

Back in the early 1980s, a good friend let me use his computer to type up my resume -- my first experience ever with a word processor. The machine was a Kaypro (pictured above) which ran an operating system called CP/M on a Z-80 CPU. With a whopping 64 kilobytes of RAM and two 5 1/4-inch floppy drives, its capabilities were somewhat limited, but it worked as long as you remembered to save your document frequently.

I found the picture today here. Unfortunately, I've lost track of my friend.

Chuck, If you're out there drop me a line.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Money and art

UBS -- the Swiss banking giant which employs retired Texas A&M economics professor, former senator, handmaiden to high finance, and noted pissant Phil Gramm -- the Swiss banking giant which was the center of a recent tax-evasion scandal involving indictments of its Global Wealth Management division and Gramm's fellow UBS board member Raoul Weil over a scheme to allegedly hide $20 billion or more in assets belonging as many as 17,000 US citizens from the IRS -- that UBS -- is the main sponsor of this year's Art Basel Miami Beach. UBS was a sponsor last year's event in Florida, too.

UBS likes art. Or art collectors. Or art collectors' lucre.

ABC News reports:

According to the indictment, UBS bankers "solicited new business from existing and prospective United States clients at Art Basel Miami Beach."

"They sent their salespeople here. They have encrypted computers. They smuggled assets out of the country to help those people conceal what they should have paid the IRS," said Jack Blum, a Washington tax lawyer and consultant to the IRS. "So the question is, why should a bank like that be allowed to continue in business?"
So you go to an art fair to see some art? What're you some kind of schmuck? It's about the cash, numnutz. Sure you can pick up a Clemente at Mary Boone or a Sugimoto at Gagosian. Who can't? And what about a Francis Bacon doodle or a sweet sweet Larry Rivers bauble at Marlborough? Heck pal, with all those tax-free Swiss franks, why not get them both? But don't forget to drop by the smilin' folks over at the UBS booth. The can fix you up for some fine tax scams that'll make your capital gains -- aesthetic or financial -- just plain disappear.

Only chuckleheads play fair.

I don't know. It just came to me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grass fed

Not long ago my wife and I bought a quarter steer from our egg lady. One of the compensations we get for living in a very small east Texas town (a local monthly calls itself the voice of the Upper East Side of Texas, heh) is that we have access to some incredible tasting, sustainably raised meat and eggs. The egg lady delivers a couple dozen free-range eggs -- okay, the chickens range freely, not the eggs -- regularly. And annually she slaughters a steer, parts of which we have bought on a couple of occasions.

A word about grass-fed beef: it's delicious.

Since the animal spends his life walking around and not penned, it can be a bit chewy if it's over-cooked. On the other hand, exercise gets blood flowing in its muscles and a diet of carotene-rich herbage both adds flavor and makes the fat distinctly yellow. Cattle evolved as grass eaters. They have a digestive system designed by millennia of natural selection to get the most out of a very fibrous, low starch diet. This document from Colorado State begins:
The rumen is a fermentation vat par excellance, providing an anaerobic environment, constant temperature and pH, and good mixing. Well-masticated substrates are delivered through the esophagus on a regular schedule, and fermentation products are either absorbed in the rumen itself or flow out for further digestion and absorption downstream.
It continues:

Feed, water and saliva are delivered to the reticulorumen through the esophageal orifice. Heavy objects (grain, rocks, nails) fall into the reticulum, while lighter material (grass, hay) enters the rumen proper. Added to this mixture are voluminous quantities of gas produced during fermentation.

Ruminants produce prodigious quantities of saliva. Published estimates for adult cows are in the range of 100 to 150 liters of saliva per day! Aside from its normal lubricating qualities, saliva serves at least two very important functions in the ruminant:

  • provision of fluid for the fermentation vat
  • alkaline buffering - saliva is rich in bicarbonate, which buffers the large quanitity of acid produced in the rumen and is probably critical for maintainance of rumen pH.

All these materials within the rumen partition into three primary zones based on their specific gravity. Gas rises to fill the upper regions, grain and fluid-saturated roughage ("yesterday's hay") sink to the bottom, and newly arrived roughage floats in a middle layer.

Then comes an illustration that may owe a lot to Carroll Dunham:

Or maybe not.

The point here is that cattle evolved an extraordinary digestive tract that has nothing to do with eating and digesting grains like corn. Feeding corn to cattle is an industrial agriculture practice and owes its being to economic factors and not good animal husbandry. Basically you can get a steer fatter faster on less land if you feed him corn. But a corn diet can also make the steer sick, so he also gets frequent doses of antibiotics.

The economics of corn are downright Byzantine with market distortions arising from huge agribusinesses like Monsanto and from USDA farm subsidies. Growing corn is also intricately linked to America's consumption of fossil fuels (transportation, processing, fertilizer manufacture, etc.) Michal Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma covers much of this info in engaging detail. Apparently there is molecular evidence that US citizens consume more corn (via corn sweeteners, animal flesh raised on corn diets, and so on) than do Mexicans.

Tonight I cooked a T-bone steak from our quarter steer for dinner. Grass-fed beef. I seared it in a steel skillet and let it rest while I fried some turnip pieces in the pan drippings. When they were nearly done, I added a chopped shallot and later some smoked turkey stock. After reducing the stock, I added some lemon juice and some grated horseradish.

I cut the meat off the bone and sliced it for serving with the turnips and juices. Nobody ate better. It was rich and flavorful and simple and right.

It was a huge steak. There is leftover meat for salads later and the bone and trimmings are in a stock pot simmering as I type.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pimp my Prius

Over at Juiced Hybrid you can buy all sorts of widgets to make your Prius cooler, hotter and more efficient. Items range from a bolt-on chassis stiffener:

To a device you plug into the car's diagnostic system that promises to teach you how to improve your mileage:

To an electronic module that will make your Prius run on battery power only at speeds up to 34 mph:

To a $5,000 kit to convert your Prius to a plug-in EV car with 360 lbs of extra batteries and a huge increase in mileage:

Juiced Hybrid claims you can expect up to 100 mpg with the extra batteries.

I searched the site and found no offerings for Prius duallies:

They did have a link to a Prius autocross race, though:

Somebody should organize the Texas Grand Prius (Marfa to Terlingua, say). I'd enter.

Talking and writing

I'm actively procrastinating honoring a review commission. It'll happen, just not today. The ideas are coalescing. The images and wider-world references and associations have begun to arrange themselves. I've not written it, however.

Today instead I did a bit of yard work and noodled about in my studio and on the Web. Here's something I found on line this afternoon via a link at Smith Magazine:

Of course I don't think only about writing. I spend time with my wife, family and friends. I read a lot, watch a lot of politics on TV. But prose is beavering along beneath, writing itself. When it comes time to type it is an expression, not a process. My mind has improved so much at this that it's become clearly apparent to me. The words, as e. e. cummings wrote, come out like a ribbon and lie flat on the brush. He wasn't writing about toothpaste. In my fancy, I like to think he could have been writing about prose.

Yes, I had that cummings line in mind before I began. I knew I was heading for it. By losing the ability to speak, I have increased my ability to communicate. I am content.
The writer is film critic Roger Ebert. The quote is from a Sun-Times blog post that dates from late October of this year. I recommend it.