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Archive for April, 2008

The small community of Manteca about 60 miles East of San Francisco is witnessing an economic disaster-in-the making, as the housing market is on the edge of collapse. Foreclosures have skyrocketed recently and hundreds of homes on the market have remained unsold and vacant for extended periods of time. Some homes are in a state of complete disrepair, and abandoned swimming pools have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

We lived in Manteca a few years ago. It was a beautiful small town, hardly touched by urban blight. The streets were lined with stately trees, its library was staffed with friendly employees, and its schools were neat and clean. It could have been described then as a classic small town community, a wonderful place to raise kids.

Now, an over-extended mortgage market has reached this ideal Northern California haven from the traffic and congestion of the Bay Area. As buyers default on excessive payments, mortgage holders are left holding the bag. Even public auctions are poorly attended, meaning the holders will either have to lower the minimum bid floor or let the properties fall into further disrepair, stretching civic resources such as police who must now increasingly patrol deteriorating neighborhoods.

Manteca’s population was around 63,000 in 2006. That’s up from 49,000 in 2000. The current population may sound substantial, but in context, it’s about within the population range of other Valley communities. Nearby Tracy, for example, is 57,000. The most populous nearby city is Modesto at 189,000.

Contrast those figures with some popular Bay Area communities: Napa 73,000; Santa Rosa 148,000; and San Mateo 92,000. A number of smaller towns ring the Bay Area, but many in the East Bay are packed together so tightly that a newcomer might believe all are one city.

Along with Manteca’s population increase came rising home values. In 2005 the median household/condo value was $416, 000 compared to $156, 000 in 2000. Now the air seems to be escaping from the balloon.

Still, if you are tired of an urban environment and can tolerate a 60-mile commute twice a day, you might like to check out Manteca. Two things to watch out for. It’s deathly hot in the summer and plagued on some days in the winter with a fog as thick, damp, and cold as an icy cloud from outer space.

On balance, though, it’s a pleasant location for a growing young family with kids. For a good deal more information, click here.

p.s. I wrote this at the beginning of the mortgage collapse but never got around to posting it. Now seems like a good time.

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SFWillie has written an excellent commentary about Barack Obama’s recent remarks on his planned approach to foreign policy.

According to Barack, he will return to the “traditional bipartisan realistic policy” of Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, and John Kennedy.

Admittedly, the policies of those three presidents, as well as every president we’ve elected since 1789, were more effective than the policies of the current incumbent of the Oval Office.

But the resurrection of those old presidents sends a negative signal to the mass of Barack’s supporters, the young people of the 21st Century, the Facebook generation.

These individuals were drawn to Barack because he is clearly an individual of the future rather than  the past. In Barack, these young people see the promise of hope and optimism.

To retain young voters, Barack needs to layout his own foreign policy. If he wishes to craft a policy that consists of elements of the policies of others, fine. That’s what realism means, using the best approach possible to protect the vital national interests of the United States without regard to the sources of the approaches.

But rather than evoking old names as testimonials in the manner of a slick salesman selling insurance, Barack must present his policies as his own. Riding the coattails of old names sends a message that he really isn’t as original as he has presented himself.

Unfortunately, recent events may render Barack’s foreign policy irrelevant. The institutional media and the talking heads are in a state of high anxiety over the connection between Obama and the Reverend Wright.

Unless Obama can get beyond Wright, his chances of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee are slim to none. But even if he rises above Wright, his chances against McCain aren’t much better.

What can Obama do to reverse his downward slide? Well, he might want to consider paying attention to Karl Rove.

In a recent Newsweek Magazine essay, Karl Rove decided to play the kindly old political mentor and strategist, offering advice to help Barack rise above the earthly static.

Karl would make a fantastic advisor-mentor, provided that he has a sincere bone in his body when it comes to advising any Democrat, much less Obama.

But, he had a couple of good thoughts. The one I honed in on immediately was his suggestion that Obama develop a story and stick to it. Using the Wright case as an example, Rove lays out the shifting sands of Obama’s explanations.

Rove is right on target. The strongest element in Republican strategy and a primary cause of Republican political successes is to stick to the script: never change a story, never admit a mistake.

If Obama follows that simple rule, he’ll be inside the ten yard line, first down, goal to go.

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…who’s got the rice?…

The world-wide food shortage doesn’t surprise me. But the shortage of rice in Silicon Valley was a shocker when I first read the story. Like most unsophisticated Americans and a Californian by rearing and attitude, I assumed that the supply of rice in California was limitless.

California is the nation’s number two state in rice production, and most of that is grown around Sacramento. You’d think those California growers would take care of their kin first and foremost. But I now see, after a little research, that the rice market doesn’t quite operate that way. Rice growers sell to the highest bidder. Usually, that will be an overeas market.

Why so? Most Americans don’t eat that much rice, anyway. They may venture into an Asian-cuisine restaurant once in awhile, but rice isn’t a daily part of the American (or European) diet as it is in Asia.

And the amount of rice consumption in Silicon Valley is infinitesamal when compared to consumption in, say, the Philippines. It’s the economy of the rice market, stupid. Rice, like all commodities and politics, follows the money.

Still, there are some strong markets for rice in a few parts of America. Black beans and rice is a Cajun staple, and something called “dirty rice” is widely consumed in East Texas. I’m not exactly sure why it’s called dirty, but I think it’s because the rice hasn’t been milled and shined to resemble Uncle Ben’s.

I’ve run across some other rice dish variations, too. In some parts of the South, rice pudding is a desert. In fact, my first exposure to rice as an edible (I thought a rice paddy was where duck hunters went to to freeze their buns off) was something an aunt called “chocolate rice pudding.” The thought of it today evokes a slight gag, but it was great when I was a kid.

The first “real” rice I encountered was on Day One in basic training. I call it real because the taste of it wasn’t gussied up with sweets. This meal was a combination of chili and rice. You could eat it separately or mix it as you choose. My preferred style was separately, a spoon of chili followed immediately by a spoon of rice.

Later, sophisticated international travel exposed me to some real goodies, rice dishes I still love, stuff like curried-rice and fried rice. I think I would almost attack someone for a good dish of curried-rice.

In the U.S., rice growing has given rise to a couple of diverse economic activities. One is tourism. Every year in Stuttgart, Arkansas, center of America’s rice growing activity, thousands of duck hunters descend on the tiny community fot the annual duck calling contest. Visitors spend big bucks in the area.

Another activity in and around Stuttgart is fish farming in the flooded rice paddies. The growers have an innovative way of harvesting the fish. They drive a big ole mobile conveyor belt which scoops up the fish and dumps them into a truck. The fish are then shipped all over the world to eager buyers.

A similar activity occurs in Louisiana and Texas. The ancillary crop in those states is crayfish or crawfish, as you choose, but which most people call crawdads. Don’t ask me why. All I know is that a crawdad boil is one of the biggest events in Cajun country. I’ve eaten crawdads. Biting into one is kind if like curling your teeth around a piece of leather that tastes like swamp water no matter how much Tabasco you pour on it. It ain’t lobster, yaw (Texans can’t pronounce “L”).

Okay, now that I reread this brief post, I’m not sure if it has anything in it relevant to the Bay Area, except the Silicon Valley-rice connection. That’s close enough for government work. Besides, it’s Monday and you know how Monday’s are. Never buy a car that rolled off the assembly line on Monday.

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One of my favorite sources of information is city-data.com. The site has a plethora of information about almost every inhabited settlement in the U.S.

It’s a great place for casual browsing if you want to learn things about your hometown, or about any town for that matter.

Depending on my mood, I may look for real estate info, including recent lists of properties sold along with the selling price.

But I think my favorite city-data feature is its forum. Readers post questions and wait for answers from knowledgeable residents and ex-residents.

This is the “dirty” question that piqued my attention and  brought 73 replies from a wide-range of city-data fans. By some quirk, the query appeared in the Albany forum:

“Is there any city as dirty as SF? I am surprised at the amount of garbage in the street.”

Most of the respondents agreed, but quite a few added a caveat or two, like, “Yeah, it’s dirty, but have you been to Newark or New York?”

Others agreed that, yes, SF is dirty in spots like the Financial District and around the Civic Center. Other parts are quite clean, though.

A few respondents included photos of spotless rows of apartment buildings, while one challenged the photo approach by noting that the area looks clean but it really isn’t.

My preferred response was this one:

“SF is more dingy than dirty. A lot of the old houses could use a power wash, and it has far fewer new condos and apartments than cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Diego. The mild weather also seems to keep some people from showering.”

I don’t know about the showering bit, but given the homeless population of SF, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The dingy part seems right on the mark. A few years ago, many parts of the city were sparkling white. The whole effect when approaching on a ship from the Pacific or an airplane overhead was of a shining jewel. No more.

On the other hand, Oakland isn’t quite what it used to be, either. Cities, buildings, and people age.

 

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May 5th is a national holiday. In Japan. It’s called Children’s Day, and it’s a day to celebrate children, who are universally regarded as a national treasure in Japan.

At one time, there were two “Days,” Girls’ Day on March 3rd and Boys’ Day on May 5th. But after the end of World War II, the Japanese Diet (national legislature) combined the two and created a holiday.

On May 5th, children dress in traditional Japanese clothing styles and festivals are held in every town and hamlet in Japan. Sometimes the adults, especially the men, decide to become boys again by drinking sake, Japanese nectar of the Gods on a par with shots and beer in America, which will addle the brain quicker than any substance I know of.

In America, we don’t have a national Children’s Day. Instead, we have a series of days between January and August every four years that we call Primaries or Caucuses.

Rather than celebrate our children, who we call Politicians, we encourage them to rip one another to shreds in the manner of a school yard melee while we clap and cheer from the sidelines.

And then after the melee has ended, when only one child remains standing, everyone comes together, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, shaking hands, congratulating each other for a game well played, and immediately begin preparing for the next round of Children’s Days.

In May 2008, we’ll have a couple of festivals, one in Indiana and one in North Carolina. Ours will fall on May 6th rather than May 5th, but that’s close enough for government work and political analysis.

Our primary contest, the one that counts at this instant, is between two contestants, one male, one female. Barack versus Hillary. See the connection? Boys, Girls.

Although I am not a betting man, my money, if I had any, would be on Barack. I believe in omens and signs, and I believe it is prophetic that the Holiday in Japan was Boys’ Day first and foremost . Voile! Barack is going to take the whole ball of wax.

My logic is impeccable. At least as impeccable as the logic of the hordes of Talking Whatevahs who trumpet Hillary over Barack or vice versa. When in a state of utter confusion, fall back and apply your own standards.

You’ll be right there with the rest of the political loonies.

Oh, did I forget to mention? The Christie Yamaguchi Children’s Day Festival will be held on Saturday, May 3rd, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. in the Peace Plaza, Bush and Webster, Japantown, San Francisco.

I expect the event will be well attended. There are about 12,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry living in San Francisco and around 80,000 in the Greater Bay Area.

Try not to have too much Nectar of the Gods, guys.

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…and hand grenades…

Frankly (I hate that word but it’s apropos here), Barack didn’t even come close in Pennsylvania.

Hillary walked away with a ten percent margin of victory, 55 to 45, over Barack in yesterday’s PA primary. Already, the statisticians, analysts, Talking Whatevahs, Spinmeisters, and Water Cooler Political Pros are parsing the numbers.

Barack supporters offer the same old bromide. “Pain don’t hurt.” Maybe not. But in PA, his pocketbook may be wincing a little today. He poured enough money into the state to permit the Governor to declare a tax-free day.

Hillary’s Horde, on the other hand, is trumpeting her win as amazing, a wipeout, devastating, and other perhaps more graphic and powerful synonymous words and phrases, like “We whupped his ass.”

The latter probably won’t appear in the polite media, but I can already feel my Arkie cousins’ cackling e-mails as they wend their way over the ‘net.

Can we take anything away from this primary that we didn’t already expect? A couple of clues may be worth thinking about. Blue collar Whites preferred Hillary as did White females. Oh, and did I forget to mention, White males preferred her as well. And older folks, gollee, they love Hillary.

This pattern will assume greater meaning in the general election. The Republican Party is whiter, older, and more traditional than the Democratic Party.

Already, John McCain is appealing to those segments of American society with references to “The Greatest Generation,” the men (weren’t many women in the Army then) who fought and won the Second World War.

That is and will remain a powerful appeal to the predominant demographic groups that comprise the U.S. voting public, and some White Democrats have already suggested that they will vote for McCain if Barack is the Democratic candidate. Should that occur, it will be a pathetic commentary on the dichotomy that still splits our country.

Somewhere along the line, the Democrats will need to decide who can best meet John McCain in the ultimate battle between the old and the new. The Democrats may trumpet change, but will they choose that road with Barack or settle for a lesser degree of change in the form of America’s first female president who is closely tied to the old political establishment.

Final decision time is a couple of months in the future. In the meantime, let’s settle back and watch the overheated, blustery Talking Whatevahs, many of whom believe that Hillary’s PA hand grenade inflicted a political wound on Barack that he may find difficult to recover from.

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A few nights ago I watched Sex in the Civil War on the History Channel. I was kind of surprised because I didn’t know people actually engaged in sex in the 1860s. I thought it originated with the Hippies in the 1960s. In my mind, birth was kind of like spontaneous combustion. It just happened. Or, a woman swallowed a watermelon seed.

Now that I think about the matter, I suppose those old folks with their Burnside whiskers and hoop skirts could have figured out a way to overcome these obstacles. The human mind and genitalia are quite innovative.

Back then a person in search of sex had to be persistent. Although traveling brothels and freelancers hung around the edges of Army camps and battlefields, displaying their fully-clothed wares and awaiting eager customers who apparently were driven into a frenzy by the imagined pleasures that lay below seven layers of crinoline, the task of actually reaching El Dorado wasn’t as quick and easy as ducking into a booth in a classy speakeasy for a quickie.

Or as simple as booking a call girl on a business trip to D.C. Even so, Eliot Spitzer wasn’t the first high muck-a-muck to take up with a prostitute. A couple of Union generals used the same consort at various times. In fact, prostitutes were so numerous and Union army soldiers so hungry for feminine companionship that 40 percent of the Union army occupying Nashville contracted VD (venereal disease then, STD now).

A whole euphemistic code language evolved around the sex business. For example, “Please pass the butter,” was code for let’s play around a little. These interesting linguistic twists gave rise to a philosophical concept called hermeneutics, the study of hidden meanings. It all started when a curious supply clerk asked a mess sergeant one day if he needed more butter because the soldiers were always hollering “Pass the butter.”

One thing I noticed about the women of the 1860s. They were coyote ugly, what with their yellow skin and cellulite thighs clearly visible through their polka dot stockings. The sales of Tennessee sipping whiskey skyrocketed around Army camps, as soldiers needed to be drunker than skunks before entering Paradise. That’s the way people talked back then.

Today, modernity has altered the sexual landscape. Neither men nor women wear a lot of clothes. In fact, on a good day on the beach, you’ll be lucky to spot even a teensy weensy yellow polka dot bikini unless it’s been tattooed on. And only fools pay for sex.

And only exceptionally foolish fools pay with a credit card.

 

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