Thursday, May 29, 2008

Food Economic Zen ... er, Sen

Amartya Sen (who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on famines) had an op-ed piece in the NY Times yesterday on the recently rising food prices. He hits most of the major points very well (said the grasshopper). To summarize him and the other points going on: There are both temporary and long-term changes going on. The supply shocks are all temporary and can be resolved quickly. The world is still producing more food than ever. It's the demand shocks that are longer-term. Rising incomes and population mean greater food demand, and that has been known and foreseen for quite some time.

So why did a few temporary supply shocks generate so much hoopla? There are two (possibly three) other pieces going on, though, that make it more difficult: government policy, government policy, and (possibly) speculation.
  • Policy 1 - Ethanol subsidies. The US ethanol subsidies are diverting large amounts of farmland and production to fuel rather than food. In addition to increasing food prices, though, there are several other unintended effects. 1) Ethanol production in the US is not only inefficient economically, but environmentally since it takes more fuel and creates more pollutants to grow the corn and turn it into ethanol than it replaces. (Ethanol production in Brazil is a different matter.) 2) As de Gorter and Just point out as summarized here, the combination of ethanol mandate and subsidy is actually serving to subsidize OIL. Little of the money is going to the farmers the programs are ostensibly geared towards, and at the same time harming the environment. That's some bad policy juju.
  • Policy 2 - As food prices increased, civil unrest increased in a number of economies, demanding that the government "do something." So they do some of the worst things possible: freeze food prices (so now there are no incentives for farmers to increase production, and let's not forget that lower prices actually benefit the rich and not-so-poor more than the actual poor because of their buying power) and tax or block exports in an attempt to force food self-sufficiency (which combined with the first effect is more bad juju, but more importantly leads to even higher world prices for everyone else, starving neighboring countries and giving more impetus for other governments to do the same). Meanwhile, actual agricultural development projects go by the wayside, slowing supply increases yet further.
  • Eventually (some people surmise) we get to a threshold where people get really scared and we have food-bank runs. My adviser was worried I was "one of those people" when I mentioned it might be a good time for us to sell our food storage and make a profit. I reassured him our own stockpiles were acquired for religious purposes two years ago, and really wouldn't make us any money.
The thing is that this is all happening in a time when there is (worldwide anyway) plenty of food. Sen got his Nobel for discussing the emergence of a famine that occurred with bumper crops as a result of bad government policies and problems in the market system. He concludes, "Domestic economic reforms are badly needed in many slow-growth countries, but there is also a big need for more global cooperation and assistance. The first task is to understand the nature of the problem."

The other issue that is easy to forget with all the headlines
is that prices aren't that high in real terms. Once you take out inflation, yes, food prices are currently higher than at any time since 1988, but they are still lower than at any time before that! I would show you the graph I just made for Chapter 7 in the book I'm writing with Per and Fuzhi, but it isn't copying well. They are still less than half what they were in 1974.

Keep in mind, this isn't the first time we've seen a price spike. In 1996, prices increased by 50% from one year to the next and commentators began shouting that it was the end of cheap food. It wasn't. Prices went back down as production increased thanks in part to the higher prices from the year before. The supply shocks in this case will be over and gone next year. The real question is how long the misguided government policies will still be in place. Per is sufficiently confident, he wrote in the last draft of Chapter 7: "By the end of 2008, food prices had once again entered a new long-term downward trend although at a higher level than where the previous trend ended."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Comback Kid

For our anniversary, we all chipped in to get a new camera. Hyrum and I used our birthday moneys (Thanks, Grammy!) and Joy had some play money saved up. So now we can behold the new and improved Hyrum, now in 7 megapixels!

Before (8 pounds 2)

After (over 9 pounds 5)
"Hey, Daddy! I feel like I ate a cow, but I don't look any bigger. Where's the beef?"
The beef is on your ribs that we can't see anymore and your drumsticks that now have more beef on them than pigeon wings have.
"... Beef on drumsticks?"
Nevermind, son.

The biggest difference? I drool a lot more.

I'm back! Didja miss me?

Ohhh, Daddy. What a big mouth you have! I can see all the way to Catalina Island.

Some people like Obama. Some people like McCain. I'm voting for Mommy.


Ooh, can I have a turn with the power tools, Dad?

From Shadow to Joybreak: an Emmaversary

The scriptures are full of something they like to call “types and shadows,” certain people or situations that remind us of our Savior. Moses was a type (Jesus is the prophet like unto Moses, Deut 18:18; Acts 3:22; 1st Nephi 22:20). The brass serpent Moses raised up was a shadow (if we would but look, we might be saved, Num 21:9; John 3:14; Alma 33:19), as is the Paschal lamb (Ex 12:5; 1st Peter 1:19). During the Old Testament times, the purpose of these types and shadows was to point the mind forward, inspire hope and faith, and teach something about who the Messiah would be, to prepare the hearts of the people to receive Him when He came. They are also there so that we, looking back, can say, “It was you all along” (Isa 48:5).

I have a little theory. I don’t know how universal it is. I don’t know how accurate. But I have a new little theory. I’m starting to think that God prepares us for our spouses as well by creating types and shadows of them. As we meet those shadows, whether in person or books or movies, something within the soul rings out a tone of eternity, and we are touched and excited by them. As we then look back, we can say, “Of course. It was you all along.”

The original title of this post was going to be: I’m in Love with My Emma. But as I wrote it, I realized (apart from being needlessly mischievous), that I was learning something about me and about Joy from these fictional women I was rhyming off. So now a grander, more fitting title, the moral I learned tonight, and then … the rest of the story:

Journal excerpt, Friday, Apr 25:
We’ve been reading Emma this year, and we just got to the part where Mr. Knightly and Emma reveal their feelings for each other. I love this scene so much! I enjoyed and relished and really hammed up my reading of it. When I told Joy how much I love it, she asked why, and I went into rapturous comparisons between my own struggles to win her with his to win Emma.

Oh, the trepidation I felt approaching her for the first time to tell her my intentions were quite serious! It took me a month from the time I realized them to get up the courage. I told her I wasn’t asking [yet!], but just telling her that it was my goal to make her fall madly in love with me so she would marry me. Like Knightly, I bet that the best outcome I could hope for was that she would keep talking to me. After my Emma calmed down from not-quite hyperventilating, she told me she couldn’t say yes, but she couldn’t say no either. (Whew!)

Neither his Emma nor mine realized just how much in love with her knight-ly in shining armor she was, least ways, not for most of the book. My Emma asked me several times during our courtship if we couldn’t just remain friends forever. I told her that was exactly what I wanted: to be friends forever and ever and ever. Eternally sealed friends. … I don’t think she appreciated that answer then as much as she does today.

Some people say that the first year of marriage is the hardest. Some say the third. Some say the fifth (what’s up with these odd numbers anyway?) Our stake president told us that it’s the first 50,000 years that’s the hardest. Once you get through that, it’s a lot easier. As Knightly testified, she has borne with me as no other woman could. She has borne with me for three blissful years of flagrant matrimony.

But Joy has many other names too. Rather than go through all the comparisons (I’ll do that with Joy later tonight!), I’ll just start listing a few of the wonderful leading ladies who were created as a type and shadow of her. How many of these heroines can you identify, and how are they like the Lovely and Gracious?

Joy is my Emma, my Arwen, and my Anne with an e.
She is my Lizzie, my Jane, and my own Fanny.
Joy is my Fiona, my other Fiona too,
My Belle, my Sabrina, and my Roxanne true,
My Dear Friend, and my Marguerite.
By any other name, she still maketh me complete.

Most recently, as we discussed why we have different reactions to a certain book we’ve been asked to read, I discovered that she is Eden to my Milo.

Of course, none of these women is really Joy, just like none of the prophets are really Jesus, and they could never replace Him. How thankful I am for all these shadows who taught me first to hope and to dream, and now to gaze in awe-filled appreciation and wonder at the Lovely and Gracious She Who Said Yes.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Death in the Family

Brrryanna D. Watson
-- my Friend, Companion, Comfort, Baby, and Schoolmaster to prepare me for Joy --
passed away last week.

Dad let me know (out of nowhere) over dinner on Friday night. When he said, "We said goodbye to Bryana," the look on his face was as if he were starting a story, and I waited for the Not Funny punchline. But he didn't continue to say "as we left her at the vet" or "and she waved back." It took a couple minutes, as he told me about how they had to make the choice to have her put down, for it to sink in. Joy said my eyes looked like something had died inside.

[As you can probably surmise, this is going to be a long one, as much therapy for me as anything else. I haven't had time to properly mourn her yet, and this is part of that. So there's no need to read on if you don't want to ... as if you ever needed to. Anyway.]

We met Bree around the beginning of school in 1992. Mom's cat had just died and we went to the animal shelter to find her a new one (we were down to just two at that time, and that just wasn't right). Dad instructed us in the car, "Now, we are here for your mother to find a cat. We are all here to help, but no one is allowed to fall in love with a cat except your mother." He then proceeded to fall in love with a long haired cat named Princess who became his office cat for many happy years.

Mom and I continued into the kitten home. I was looking along one wall of kittens (hmm, kitten ... kitten ... another kitten....) when one in the far corner I couldn't see reached her paw outside of the cage and batted me on the nose! I turned to look at her ... and was instantly smitten. She was so adorable! I asked if I could please hold her. The lady got her out of the cage and she just leaped into my arms and climbed up onto my shoulder. She began rubbing my face with hers and purring and purring like she had found a long-lost friend. They had named her "Brrryanna" because when she spoke, instead of saying "Meow," she said, "Brrrow?"

Even though she was only 9 months old herself at that point, she had already had a litter of kittens. She had been living on the street when the shelter found her. Years later, an x-ray found that a BB pellet had been shot into her during that time too. I always liked the image of having saved some poor young woman from a really bad situation (Cosette or her mother from Les Mis?) and given her the home and a chance to be loved she had always deserved.

Mom and Dad discussed it with me. They agreed I could have her on condition that I take care of her and pay for everything. I asked them some questions about how much cat food and vet trips cost. I didn't make anything like that. I sadly concluded that I couldn't have her. We went home.

I continued being sad for the next couple weeks, when I came home from school to discover Brrryana there waiting for me. Mom told me, "She is my cat. She will sleep in your room and you will take care of her, but we will pay for it." My best guess is that my parents decided that since I was mature enough to know I couldn't take care of her, I was finally ready to.

Oh, I loved little Bree! She and I would lay on the floor while I did my homework, with her sometimes batting at my pen to get my attention. She loved to chase balled up pieces of paper around the room. She always climbed up onto my shoulder, where she could perch like a parrot, and purr happily, sometimes rubbing my face, sometimes licking my hair (as in the picture).

There was just one problem, really. She never did learn how to use a litter box. She particularly liked school papers. Once when I told my teacher I couldn't turn in an assignment because my cat had peed on it, everyone laughed and said what a bad liar I was. So I brought it in the next day in a plastic baggie and said she could still have it if she wanted. Some few groused that I had probably left it in her box, but I was generally believed after that. She did end up teaching me not to leave anything important on the floor that way, though. She also taught me to make my bed and put a plastic sheet over it to protect that too.

Mom and Dad cared for her for six years while I was at BYU or on my mission in Germany. Once on my mission, I sent her a old sock I had worn out. Mom and Dad pulled it out, wondering what that was for and tossed it on the ground. Bree came right up to it, rubbed her face up against, purring happily and batted it around. Every morning for months Mom would come downstairs to find it in a new place because Bree had been playing with it during the night. She remembered her daddy.

When I moved out here to Ithaca, I finally managed to get an apartment that would allow pets and took full ownership of my little girl. Dad and I drove out here from California, with her slightly drugged. She was a perfect little angel on the trip, staying put in her litterbox most of the trip until we stopped for the night, when she would get out of her box, join us in the hotel room, and use her box in the bathroom. She never tried to escape. You could leave doors and windows wide open and she would never leave.

She really changed a lot in Ithaca. She had always been the kind of cat that would sit on the back of the couch all day, eat and drink, and that's about it. In Ithaca, she came alive. She learned to speak a great deal. One of her favorite activities was to look out the window at the squirrels. She followed me back and forth in our small apartment whenever I paced. She slept with me, laying close up to my chest with her head resting on my hand. She was a good part of the glue that held me together through a few very difficult years until I met Joy. She also got sick a lot, so I would walk with her on my shoulder for an hour to get to the vet to have them tell me they still didn't know what was wrong with her.

Bree happily accepted Joy when she came around, willing to rub against her shoe or sit in her lap when Joy let her, but also willing to give Joy her space. Joy was touched by that. But as our courtship got more and more serious, Bree became a more difficult problem. Joy couldn't stand the thought of living in the same house with an animal that sheds, let alone one with Bree's bathroom problems -- we didn't know Joy was allergic to cats at that time, but she often said she wished she were so she had an excuse for her aversion to them.

I brought Bree home with me to California the Christmas that I proposed to Joy (who was also staying with us). Again, she was a perfectly well-behaved puss on the plane [and no, she wasn't in my luggage]. While there, I made the difficult (heartbreaking) decision to leave Bree with Mom and Dad so Joy could feel comfortable in our home together.

It was the right thing to do, particularly in light of what we know now about Joy's allergies. I got to visit Bree once or twice a year when I came home, and though she had calmed back down to a tired, noisy old cat, she remembered me. By the time she turned 15, she was too old to really climb up onto my shoulder anymore, but if I put her there, she would purr contentedly. Last Christmas she couldn't even manage to hold her balance on me anymore. I just sat with her in the upstairs bathroom to talk to her, pet her, and let her walk around me and mew (then change my clothes and wash up for Joy).

When she went downhill, she went down fast. Mom and Dad got real concerned about her and got her in to the vet immediately. Since her last visit, she had contracted diabetes and her kidneys had failed, so she was seriously dehydrated, and had an infection. There was no way to cure it all, particularly the kidney failure. I know that putting her down had to have been the right decision.

Every time I went home, I knew it could be the last time I would ever see my beloved cat. So every time we left I said a tearful goodbye. Even so, my real regret is that I wasn't there when she was put down. I wanted to be there for her, to let her know she wasn't alone, that I loved her so much even though we had to be apart. I should have been there, I keep feeling, even though it probably makes no real difference. I try to tell myself that's impractical, even if I had been let in on it before it happened: no time, no money. But even though I was hurrying to get my dissertation draft done, I could have kept working on it on the plane and been back in time to meet with my committee. And even though we really don't have much money left over after Hyrum's birth and the mobile home we just bought, I did get a free ticket on my last flight that I was going to use for Joy to visit her family at Thanksgiving that I could have (selfishly) used to be there for Bree.

Dad tells me that she felt loved and purred a bit when she brought her in, so she wasn't alone. I know they've taken very good care of her, given her (as Dad put it) a good retirement. I'm really so very thankful for all they've done, paid for, and particularly put up with! on her/my behalf for some 13 of her 16 years. Mom posted a very nice blog (after I was told) with memories from the other family members about Bree.

I am comforted in knowing that, in one strange sense, it was the right time for her to go. When I was a teenager and then a YSA, her constant love was a sign of hope that someone from outside the family could choose to love me. She had always completely accepted me and taken me in from the first, and I was able to love her too, faults and all. After I met and grew to love Joy, I referred to her more often as my baby. I learned to be gentle, and to give appropriate, loving discipline. And now we have a real baby. My baby.

Hyrum doesn't perch very well on my shoulders. He hasn't learned to purr, and "Brrrow" is a little beyond him too. He doesn't much care for it when I scratch behind his ears. But he feels so right in my arms and will be fun to hug. His smile is just as expressive and as freely given, and someday he'll even learn to talk! And he loves being bounced, which Bree would never have put up with. It's a good trade, and always was. But I will miss her.

There is one other grand comfort, from the "sealed portion" of the scriptures. In the Bible Dictionary under the entry for the Revelation of John, it records among the doctrinal points in that book: "Animals are resurrected from the dead, and there are animals in heaven, redeemed by the blood of Christ (Rev. 5: 11-14; D&C 77: 3, HC 5: 343)." God willing, we'll be together again. And our grand hope is that, in the resurrection, Joy's perfected body won't be allergic to cats anymore, and she can rejoin our family forever. Another reason to be thankful for the Atonement of Jesus Christ!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Warm up book reviews

I have only one beef about most book reviewers: they either LOVE everything, or else nothing is ever good enough for them. When I see someone’s list of book reviews, and every one of them gets high praise, I just don’t know what to do with it. What does a bad book look like? How can I tell if your idea of a good book is the same as mine?

This has been more important to me than usual since I didn’t end up finishing two of the books I most recently read, and both of them from previously trusted and enjoyed authors. In both cases (Margaret Weis’ The Soulforge and Dafyd ab Hugh’s Balance of Power) there was just too much sensuality for my comfort level. When Weis and Hickman had written other Dragonlance books, there had been some romantic (and not so romantic) scenes, but they generally drew a respectful curtain over the more intimate parts and I loved the Dragonlance series, so have been eager to eat up anything they produced, even when some of the recent stuff was fairly challenging to my worldview or too dark. Weis writing alone apparently did not feel the same compulsion anymore, and that was very disappointing. I’ve tried rewriting and rephrasing my beef about ab Hugh’s recurring references that objectified women, but haven’t really found one I like (because of course, if I detail what they wrote, then I’m writing it too and bringing to your mind something I didn’t want in mine in the first place, and that just seems wrong – a bit worse than saying, “Wow! This smells nasty! Take a whiff” and thrusting the hairy leftovers under some unsuspecting victim’s nose.) I’ll leave it at that and move on.

So I was very disgruntled this month after stopping two books in a row before halftime. I don’t give myself much time for pleasure reading these days (I’d spend whole summers reading as a teen). Putting down a book and walking away is a very difficult thing for me to do generally, but I made up my mind as a teen that I wasn’t going to read books by authors who felt compelled to put a little lust into every book. You can have perfectly wonderful romances without treating women as objects. (On that note, Joy and I just finished Emma and are working on The Scarlet Pimpernel. Good stuff!)

Thankfully, the book I most recently finished, Federation, did not have that problem. It was a fairly well written book covering three main characters: Zefram Cochrane (inventor of the warp engine which allows faster than light travel, for those of you with only moderate knowledge of the Trek universe), James T. Kirk with his Enterprise crew, and Jean Luc Picard with his. Their adventures overlap and merge and mingle in a manner that is at times breathtaking, but at times trite and overdone. I should perhaps mention after my earlier tirade that Cochrane manages two romances based on love and mutual respect. The ending cheese was spread on just a little bit thick for my taste, but it overall left me feeling very invigorated, with a grander vision of purpose and dignity. It even made me feel like my dissertation had a place in the cosmic whole, and during a week when I was occasionally hating my work that was quite the accomplishment.

Federation was an incredibly well-researched book, referring to many of the events in the Trek universe and weaving them together in a tight storyline. The authors, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, had an accurate and generally inspired vision of who each of the characters are in their respective series (another Trek book I read had Worf doing and saying things no Klingon would. And yes, I’ve been on a small Trek kick recently.) The primary drawback it had was that it had the misfortune to be written in between Generations and First Contact, the first two Next Generation movies. In First Contact we meet a very different Cochrane than the intellectual, philosophical, utopian dreamer who just wants to be left alone, and it was difficult trying to reconcile the two.

Just to try out one more, before these three I read another fairly good book, Dead Man's Ransom, #9 in the Cadfael mystery series by Ellis Peters. Peters always writes an engaging story, and Cadfael himself – a former crusader turned monk who solves the murders that happen around his abbey during an English civil war without modern forensics, fingerprints, or any of the advantages enjoyed by any criminologist from Holmes to Grisham – is generally intriguing. The problem is … Peters has a rut. It’s the same guy who’s guilty every time! I won’t tell you who it is in case you decide to read them, but before the character even made his entrance, I knew whodunit. That’s disappointing. Now, the story around that rut is always different and engaging, so I’ll keep on enjoying them. But one does almost long for a mysterious Mister X whose existence is only revealed in the last 5 pages, or that maybe someone who looks guilty would actually be guilty for once. Ah well.

The real purpose of this exercise was a warm up. I’m in the middle of reading a book I’ve been asked to review, and the fact is … I’m hooked on it. I’m so thoroughly addicted I could hardly concentrate on my work today because the characters kept popping into my head! So I wanted to get some complaints out there on some other books so I can demonstrate 1) that I am a discriminating reviewer and willing to call books on their errors, 2) get it out of my system, and 3) just practice writing that style a bit so I can do a better job of it when I do the real thing.

Sorry for the lack of Hyrum pictures. I’ll try to do better next time.