Saturday, June 29, 2013

Music Input / Music Output

Wow, stuff going all the way back to April!
  • Overhover, "Time Capsules II", 2012. Another Brooklyn band -- that playlist is getting long. Fairly nice tunes, not particularly memorable. 3 stars.
  • Iron & Wine, "Ghost On Ghost". Really singable, enjoyable songs. 4 stars. Need to check out more of his material.
  • Flaming Lips, "The Terror". These guys have gotten so conceptual. This sounds like a soundtrack. Lots of noises. There is also a track "The Terror (Full Album), 54:58 long -- hmmm, the other tracks total 46:46, so not just them all played together. 3 stars.
  • Phoenix, "Bankrupt!". Seems a bit more ethereal in the arrangements than earlier work. No really memorable songs. 3 stars.
  • Fitz & The Tantrums, "More Than Just A Dream". Motown lives. Really catchy, danceable tunes, great arrangements, really like the vocal duo. 4 stars.
  • Little Dragon, eponymous (2007) and "Machine Dreams" (2009). So I went back and harvested the 1st 2 albums by the swedish/african american techno R&B group. The more I listen to these the more I like them. The grooves are so sparse but compelling. 4 stars for both. I shuffle play my 4 star and up playlist fairly often. And both of these, I thought, I will be happy when any of these songs come up.
  • Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City". Nothing jumped out at me from this, except for finding the vocal synthesizer used on "Ya Hey" to be somewhat annoying. But, the more I'm listening to it, the more I like it. So, 4 stars.
That brings us up to the middle of May, time to go to Europe!

On the output side, For the last 2 months I have been one of the hosts of the Tuesday Night Rock n Roll Party @ Henry Clay's Public House, on Upper across from the old courthouse. Here's the FaceBook group if you want to join and get invitations every week. Joining me in hosting are Brent Carter on guitar and vocals, Logan Lay on bass, and Evan Strippelhoff on drums. David Ponder, a most excellent vocalist and guitarist, filled in for me when I was Europe and for Brent once -- nice to have him in the mix.

Maybe trying to play a little less blues. A couple of decent turnouts, one really slow night. Some good new people who I'd never played with have been out. Need to get some of those back.

So with this every Tuesday, Blues Jam at Cheapside Wednesday and Jammin' at Paulie's on Sunday, getting a lot of playing in. Sometimes I play real well, other times not so much so. I'd feel that with this much practice, the trend is hopefully upward.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Classical Economics Reminds Me Of Creationism

My study of Economics proceeds. I would by and large say I am pretty discouraged by what I am finding.

Last week I finished reading "Keynes The Return Of The Master" by Robert Skidelsky. (Note: many edits/revisions to this post, it still misses much of what it could have communicated, but it's getting old and needs to ship.) Skidelsky is considered one of the greatest living Keynes scholars, having written a 3 volume autobiography. He is also a coauthor of "How Much Is Enough: Money And The Good Life" which I greatly enjoyed and harvested much wisdom from and posted about here.

So this book reviews (New) Keynesian vs (New) Classical economic theory, and then explores how Keynesian ideas could have helped prevent the Great Recession, and could help get us out of the Great Recession.

Classical economic theory is pretty scary. It still adheres to the 18th century principles of Adam Smith: that free unregulated markets will always be the best economic system. So we should all trust "the invisible hand" to make everything work out in the long run.

It reminds me of Creationism because it is not a science that gathers data, creates and tests hypotheses, and graduates the successful ones to theories. Just as Creationism starts with the answer -- god created everything -- and then seeks to filter and warp data to get to that answer, classical economics also starts with the answer -- free, unregulated markets are the best -- and works backwards from there.

The framework this creates is, well, bizarre. Or to quote Skidelsky, "To the non-economist they will seem mad". Economics is basically about equilibriums, particularly between supply and demand. To that we add:

  • the rational expectations hypothesis (REH). This says that all the agents in a market -- buyers, sellers, workers -- will always act rationally to further their own best interests. This implies things such as, workers will immediately be willing to work for less as soon as they see that the demand for their labor is dimished. Yeah, right. It also implies that all the agents have perfect knowledge of everything. It has as a cousin the "wisdom of the crowd" thinking we now see re the Internet.
  • real business cycle theory (RBC). Originally Classical economics denied that there should ever be boom or busts. It added the idea of business cycles where something changes, like oil prices, regulations, or weather, or a new invention comes out, creating a shock to the system, with a boom or a bust until the system regains equilibrium.
  • the efficient market theory (EMT). This says that "shares are always fairly priced" -- again ignoring partial information and time lags. Risk management models are based on this, and are modeled with Gaussian bell curves -- which ignore the possibility of "Black Swans" -- events 10 or 20 sigma (standard deviations) off of the bell curve mean.
  • Say's Law which says that "the supply creates its own demand". I guess this implies "marketing is king".
  • the Arrow Debreu model assumes "that all trade takes at one unique point. ... Time only featured in the form of 'futures markets'". This seems like a very elegant simplification to make the math easier, but, saying that at each instant in the history of an economy, its entire future is predefined seems nonsensical.
  • Open, efficient markets will create full employment.
  • The latest New Classical thinkers use Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE models) as their workhorse. Gots to figure out how to code me up some of those ...
According to Shidelsky, New Keynesian economics uses a lot of the same concepts, but then tacks on Keynesian concepts. So let's move on to Keynesian economics.

  • All markets have uncertainties that cannot be predicted by equilibrium models.
  • Agents will hold rather than invest or spend money when high levels of uncertainty make them afraid. This goes into models as LM: Liquidity/Money.
  • Risk is measurable, uncertainty is not.
  • Following the crowd is a strategy that diminishes uncertainty.
  • Government regulation can help manage uncertainty.
  • While Classical economists believe that slumps should be combatted solely by the central banks increasing the money supply, Keynesians also believe that direct government stimulus (spending) may be necessary. This assures that the money doesn't just get created, but also get spent. Re what is going on now: the Fed has increased the money supply by a factor of 3, but mostly the money is just being hoarded.
  • Say's Law is repudiated. The current Great Recession is attributed to a lack of demand, which Say's Law says should not exist. Demand problems, which can be acerbated by agents' uncertainty making them save rather than spend, are the root of busts, rather than supply problems.
Shidelsky sayes New Keynesians attribute market failures -- booms or busts -- to "asymmetric information". For example, in the 2008 meltdown, the traders, ratings agencies, and other insiders knew that the CDOs (Consolidated Debt Offerings) were crap, the people they were selling them to absolutely didn't.

Ahhh! I had forgotten about this. The stick figure cartoon that completely explains the subprime crisis! Subprime => sublime!

Another thing that is completely ignored by classical theories is that in our globalized era, capital moves around much easier than labor. Labor does move, as view immigrants in lower (or higher) paid jobs worldwide, but it's a lot harder to physically move your person, and possibly your family, than it is to do an international funds transfer. So the labor market must adapt to changing conditions much more slowly than the capital market. Which makes (New) Classical models === shit.

The next section of the book talks about Keynes. I guess I'll have to read a bio at some point (it would join Albert Einstein and Harpo Marx on the list of biographies I've read -- I've never been much on them). He didn't like math. He believed in economist intuition, pretty scary. He got his experience with economics as an investor. He fairly successfully managed his own, his friends, and some institutional funds. He was political and a persuader, like Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz are today. He died young, age 62 (says the 62 YO man), in 1946.

So now, let's look at history according to, which school of economics was winning.

  1. From the 18th century until the Great Depression, Classical economics ruled.
  2. Keynes formulated his ideas and published them during the Great Depression. Keynesian principles, in the form of the Bretton Woods agreements, were used to build The World Order after World War 2. But in the 70s, the Keynesians pushed too hard for government control and regulation. Additionally the stagflation (high unemployment and inflation both, which is not supposed to be possible) of the late 70's gave more ammunition to the conservatives.
  3. The New Classical domination begins in the 80s, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deregulating everything, busting unions, and otherwise trying to regain the classical ideal of completely free, unregulated markets. Milton Friedman ("the gnome of Chicago???") was the intellectual leader of the New Classical economists. An additional factor that is mentioned: the fall of the USSR and the general failure of Communism took the pressure off of Capitalism to appeal to the working classes. So the capitalists basically then put the pedal to the metal.
  4. The Great Recession now has New Keynesians on the upsurge. Particularly since the predictions of the New Classical economists -- notably hyperinflation from the 3x money expansion that the Fed has done -- have been completely wrong, while the predictions of the New Keynesians -- notably that austerity measures in face of a weak recovery would throw countries back into recession -- have been mostly right.
Skidelsky then compares the periods 2 and 3 above. In general, he finds that the economy did much better during period 2. Interesting that there were no recessions (GDP annual growth less then 3%) in period 2, while there were 5 recessions during period 3. Period 2 had average GDP growth of 4.8% versus 3.2% in period 3 -- 50% greater growth rate before "greed is good" became ascendant. Unemployment was also lower, 4.8% versus 6.1% Meanwhile, income and wealth inequality have skyrocketed in period 3, with the 1% now holding 40% of wealth, while the bottom 40% of Americans have less than 1% of the wealth.

Keynes was actually as much of a philosopher as he was an economist. He thought that economy, wealth, and money were only means to the end of achieving "the good life". Instead we have:

Today, wealth increase is the only goal that Western society has to offer.
Jesus Christ said, "It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." -- one of his teachings that has been universally ignored since the advent of Protestantism.
OMG, the number of times I have thought about all those Escalades lined up, waiting their turn to try to drive through the eye of a needle! So sad that irony is completely lost on modern evangelical christians :-(

Keynes thought that capitalism would be phased out once its work was done; that there'd be plenty for everyone; and that we'd all have 15 hour work weeks. People of his time simply could not imagine the greed and the selfishness that would become sanctified from the 80s onward.

Part of this is in the nature of money. I can look at my possessions, and make a judgement, "I have enough of those". With money, it's harder. It's hard to know that you have enough money to last to the end of your life, given that you are (rightfully) afraid to rely on Social Security to take care of you in your retirement.

Ha ha, Keynes preference was for

arranging our affairs in such a way as to appeal to the money-motive as little as possible, rather than as much as possible.
Keynes also rejected economic Darwinism. Interesting too, he predicted that our modern system of huge corporations and mega-banks would be much more liable to shocks than the older individual investor model, which does seem to be the case.

Similarly, the New Classical economists have stated that the new forms of derivatives, of which CDOs are one example, help to create a "perfect market", where every type of trade imaginable can be made. And they further claimed that this "perfect market", with every form of asset interconnected with every other, would provide greater stability against shocks and bubbles bursting. Instead, it did the opposite: one component went bad and brought the other components under stress as well.

Which reminds of a thought I've had re the massive failure of the ratings agencies (S&P, Moody's and Fitch). They had no math, but you would think that, when creating an investment vehicle from multiple components, the rating cannot be greater than that of the lowest rated component. Instead, I think they basically did the opposite: use the rating of the highest rated component. These guys are getting sued and fined pretty heavily, but as with everything about 2008, there will be no criminal charges. Here is an in-depth article on the failure of the ratings agencies by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.

An interesting point: Canada pretty much sailed through the 2008 crisis. No banks had to be propped up. Why? Because banking in Canada is not such big business as it is in the US and UK, such that Canadian banks did not have the political clout to get themselves deregulated. So they could not partake in the type of risky behavior that caused US and UK banks to fail.

So going forward?

  1. Break up the big banks. Now that the mega-banks know that their failures will be covered by the federal government (i.e. our tax dollars), they are back to the same risky behavior and wealth-extraction-quick schemes that led to the 2008 collapse.
  2. Put back in place some version of Glass-Steagal, which separated commercial and investment banks and insurance companies.
  3. Require banks to have more reserves and less leverage.
  4. Help with the growing inequality by more heavily taxing "unearned" wealth, particularly via estate taxes.
  5. Wealth in the US has to quit going so much into the pockets of the 1% and into investment in new businesses, products, and infrastructure. Everyone is uncertain and sitting on their money (keeping it liquid) instead of buying and investing.
There is a weird note towards the end of the book. Skidelsky proposes changing how undergraduate economics is taught, to make it much broader, and he proposes splitting microeconomics from macroeconomics for postgraduate study. Seems to me like that will take a long time to make a difference with current problems. But, as I said at the start, Economics as a science or discipline certainly does not impress me as it is now.

Seems like I've tried to cover a lot of the topics of this book, but I have just scratched the surface, and have, I am sure, incorrectly summarized some of the points. But surprisingly, this is not a long book and is a fairly quick read. It was the best overview of economics that I have read so far. So I do recommend it highly.

To summarize:

  • Classical economics => free markets good, government bad. And, as this is a conservative formulation, of course feel free to ignore any and all data to the contrary. Government attempts to affect booms and busts always just make things worst. The Great Depression and the Great Recession were both caused mostly by there being too much money and credit in circulation, which created bubbles that popped.
  • Keynesian economics => uncertainty exists, free markets are imperfect and will go through booms and busts, government money policy and stimulus spending can help with these.
So what is it that discourages me? The (New) Classical models, with their end-of-time predictability, seem completely bogus. It's funny, my hero, Paul Krugman, I think in the prefix to "Fix This Depression Now", since it's the only book of his I've read, says somewhat, "I wanted to study psychohistory, like Hari Seldon of the Isaac Asimov Foundation novels -- and economics is as close as I could get."

So what is really lacking to me is sociobiological concepts. As I see it, bubbles are driven by herd behavior. Something starts trending up, and everyone rushes to get onboard. And then, when bubbles pop, herd psychology pushes everyone to sell, sell, sell, even if they're losing money.

But, Consumer Confidence numbers are published. Are Business Confidence numbers also published? I'll have to research that. Those could easily fit into models to try and measure uncertainty.

But instead of realistic sociobiology in economics, we have explicit anti-science -- how can we prove no matter what, that free and unregulated markets are the best, regardless what of all available data says?

OK, back to the books, study continues ...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A 4 Dimensional Picture

The reviews said that "The Shining Girls", by Lauren Beukes was a scary, creepy, great read. I commented on her 1st novel here and on her 2nd novel here. This one is quite a bit different from those. I bought it in hardcover at Joseph-Beth because it sounds like a good vacation book to share.

The book is indeed as good as the reviews suggested. It's about a serial killer in a time traveling haunted house who kills young women from the 1930s to the 1990s. For each victim, we get a little bit of their life story in their unique decade before the gruesome and disturbing murder scene. The heroine -- the one who got away, but who is now kind of a freak because of the horrible scars he left her with -- is believable and sympathetic in her pain, and the supporting characters are good too.

A lot of the details of the time travel go unexplained. The chronology of the story jumps around across 7 decades. At the end, you are left with a 4 dimensional picture that to me was elegantly complete and better with the lack of details.

I left the book in Florida, to scare one of my daughters or daughter-in-law when they visit. Definitely recommended, 4 stars.

Addendum: I just finished "Salvage And Demolition", by Tim Powers. This is a novella in clapbook form I picked up from the library. It also was a nice, simple time travel tale that bites its tail and vanishes like the Beukes story does. A nice quick read.

I also recently liked the movie "Looper". I think it's maybe the best time travel movie I've seen, not sure why. But again, it is a pretty 4-d picture.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

End This Depression Now!

The title of this post is also the title of the 2012 book by economist Paul Krugman (my hero). It is hard to believe that the Great Recession, which Krugman is calling a Depression, has been going on since 2008 -- so long that you can write books about it. In the book Krugman calls for Keynesian government spending as the only way to get us out of the long term and potentially permanent elevated unemployment which, as of now, is the main thing wrong with the economy. The Fed cannot do anything more to stimulate the economy by lowering interest rates because they are already essentially zero. So now it is buying up bonds, mortgages, and anything else it can to try to stimulate growth.

Unfortunately, business and the banks seem to be happy to sit on this money and not create jobs. And meanwhile, conservatives follow the deficit red herring to our undoing. When the economy is slumping, you do not practice austerity and try to reduce deficits; you do that when the economy is booming. According to Krugman, the stimulus package of early in the Great Recession was too small by at least a factor of 3.

Meanwhile, in recent news:

  • the world's most famous Excel spreadsheet error invalidated the scholarly paper by Reinhart and Rogoff which (wrongly) concluded that growth suffered if a country's dept/GDP ratio exceeded 90%. With the data corrected, there is no correlation found. This paper was used world-wide to justify austerity policies.
  • Most Austerian/Austrian economists have been predicting hyperinflation since 2008. But the Fed has tripled the amount of money in circulation, and inflation remains at 2% -- lower than Krugman thinks it should be.
  • Latest figures show deficits shrinking faster than expected.
  • Germany is talking about going from austerity to stimulus.
So the austerity proponents are back on their heels. Not that it matters to the TeaBaggers in our congress -- they are notoriously oblivious to that thing we call Reality. We'll hope for the best -- a sensible congress in 2014 -- and keep our fingers crossed.

Krugman points out a possible reason that the business community wants austerity rather than than stimulus, from an essay by economist Michael Lakecki in 1943.

As long as there are no routes back to full employment except that of somehow restoring business confidence, he pointed out, business lobbies in effect have veto power over government actions: propose doing anything they dislike, such as raising taxes or enhancing workers' bargaining power, and they can issue dire warnings that this will reduce confidence and plunge the nation into depression. But let monetary and fiscal policy be deployed to fight unemployment, and suddenly business confidence becomes less necessary, and the need to cater to capitalists' concerns is much reduced.
So it's about maintaining the power of business over public policy. And this is a great power. As Chomsky points out, no political party in the U.S. ever seriously opposes business. I mean, look at the Obama administration's "Too big to prosecute" attitude towards all the criminals in banking who apparently will never have to do any jail time, and will get to keep their $100Ms in bonuses. And, since everyone's 401-K's are so heavily invested in the stock market, we all want business to do well. But, as with their seemingly insatiable appetite for wealth, leaders of business seem to also have a healthy appetite for power. You've got to have power to make sure you can keep those channels of obscene wealth open, right? The money must flow!

Part of the reason that neo-Keynesians like Krugman get so much right is that Keynes got so much right.

The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.
-- John Maynard Keys, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
I think that this gets back to Economy of Plenty concepts. Business and the rich want to fight it because they like their current power. But is poverty anything other than political? To quote Matt Tiabbi, in this excellent article:
Here's a quick and easy rule: any time any politician, pundit, TV talking head or self-proclaimed financial expert starts comparing the U.S. federal budget to anything other than the U.S. federal budget, that person is automatically full of shit and should be instantly voted off the conversational island, if not outright beheaded.
So when simpleton congressmen compare the US government and its debt to a family spending too much, or a corporation going bankrupt, they are dead wrong -- because the US government can print money, and the others can't. It is a fundamentally different animal, and simple-minded, wrong analogies definitely don't help anyone understand the problems or the possible solutions. And, possible solutions definitely include an Economy of Plenty

Finally, here's someone else trying to stop the stupid deficit tunnel vision that has greatly impeded the world's recovery: Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor under Clinton. Here's a post of his talking what the real problem facing us now is: jobs.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

3 Novels

Heading into My First European Vacation, I finished 3 genre novels.

"Scratch Monkey", by Charles Stross. This was the 1st novel of most excellent sci-fi author Charles Stross. It was available for download I think 18 years ago (at his book signing in Lexington last year, Charlie said 17 years ago), and I got the key from him by email, but never read it. It is available now for free here. So I finally got around to reading it. Surprisingly, many of the concepts that he exploited later are present here. But, very uneven pacing, and somewhat confusing plotting, and a depressing ending. Still, if you're a fan, prolly worth a (free) read. 3 stars.

Next read "Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1-5)", by Hugh Howey. This got some press as being stories that were originally self-published as e-books, following which the author refused normal publishing channels after they became successful. It is a post-apocalypse dystopian world. The plotting and pacing are decent. No really new concepts of any type. 3 stars.

Finally, read, "Hide Me Among The Graves", Tim Powers. This is a straight-up sequel to his 1989 novel "The Stress of Her Regard", which featured Byron and Shelley fighting rock-based life-form vampires in Switzerland. The vampires are now in England tormenting later literary figures. I have always loved how Powers invents his own completely unique versions of magic, souls, vampires, the fisher king -- unique and quirky. For example in this one, there is the street sweeper who, if you offer him very odd payment terms, can sweep up your footsteps so that the vampires lose track of you.

Still tho, this seemed somehow to be pretty much by the numbers. At time the plot seems to be arbitrarily prolonged by dumbass actions of upper/middle class British twits. But, this won't stop me from reading Power's next, and next, and next books. 3 stars.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Dumbass In Europe

Last August, our youngest daughter and her husband started 2 year contracts teaching 2nd and 3rd grade, respectively, at the American International School of Zagreb (Croatia). So we went to visit them. As their school is still in session, we figured we would just visit with them for a weekend, and spend a week before and after vacationing in Europe.

I had been to Europe 3 times before all on business: once for 3 days to Chamonix, France, at the base of Mont Blanc, for the users conference of one of our software distributors; once to London and Bristol, England -- my meetings in London were cancelled for 2 days, so I did get to do some sightseeing there; and once to Bristol. My wife had been to Europe -- Munich, Bavaria, and Venice -- for a week with some of her family ~25 years ago.

At the top of both my and my wife's bucket lists was: Paris. So on Saturday, May 18 at 3:30, we flew to Paris via Detroit, arriving at 8 am Sunday morning at Charles De Gaulle airport. We took a cab to our hotel (56 euros), the Hotel Eiffel Turenne. The room was tiny but the location was fabulous: on the Avenue de Tourville 1/2 block from the Ecole Militaire metro stop on the #8 metro line. That is also the southeast corner of the Champs du Mars -- two large blocks of former parade grounds, now park. At the center of the northwest boundary is the Eiffel Tower.

The nice lady at the hotel gave us a recommended walk: up the Champs du Mars to the Eiffel Tower; across the Seine to the Trocadero; then to the Arc de Triomphe; then down the Champs Elysses to Avenue de Winston Churchill; then between the Great and Small Palaces (museums) over the Alexander V bridge; then by Invalides (church) and back. It was a great walk, around 4.4 miles. The Arc de Triomphe is in the middle of a huge rotary that is called the Charles de Gaulle Etoile (star). 12 streets meet there, arranged very close to geometrically correct, with a 30 degree angle between. The Champs Elysses is amazing: 8 lanes of traffic with 20 yards of sidewalk on both sides. You wonder, where did all this space come from and you learn, in the 19th century they did indeed tear down large parts of the city to make way for these ultra-broad avenues. Also striking was the trees lining the Champs: 40-50 feet tall but squared on the sides and tops like hedges?!?!? There were also very pretty small public plantings. I remember one at Avenue de Franklin D. Roosevelt that had blue and purple wildflowers highlighted by white tulips.

We lunched at a place called Tribeca in the Rue Claire district, which was just a couple blocks north of our hotel. This was lots of street vendors selling all kinds of stuff. We had a list from a friend of our Brooklyn daughter who lives in Paris of restaurants to try, but we wound up mostly eating in cafes near the hotel or the place we were visiting. I had escargot twice -- excellent! -- lamb chops twice, shrimp twice, veal, mussels. Nothing very fancy at all, but all very edible.

At that point we'd had enough walking, so we hopped on a tour bus and rode around -- in the cold rain. It rained every day we were there, and temperatures were 45-55 degrees -- chilly! Being the dumbass I am, I went without a coat! So Tuesday I gave up and we bought me a jacket at an Adidas store on Champs Elysses.

Every place we were in Europe, black locust trees were in full bloom. That puts the climate about 3 weeks behind Lexington.

Monday we got up early and did the Louvre. 8 line to the 1 line on the metro -- we really found the Paris metro easy to use, and my wife had bought a Paris Pass thingy that included a 5 day metro pass. The Louvre is huge -- by far the biggest museum I've been in. After a couple of hours, we decided to go for The Biggies and call it a day. So we saw the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo and called it quits. We then took a boat ride on the Seine. Interesting views of the city.

Tuesday we got up early and did the Musee d'Orsay. The Louvre is the old stuff, Musee d'Orsay is the new stuff. Great impressionist collection on the 5th floor, Gaugin and Van Gogh on the 2nd floor. Lunch at a cafe across the street from the museum, then rode the metro to Champs Elysses to buy my jacket. Then we took the metro to Montmartre, and climbed up the last of the hill to the Espace Dali, which was small but had some nice Dali sculptures, and went into the Basilica of Sacre Couer, which has some beautiful architecture.

Wednesday we got up early (I'm noticing a pattern here -- but getting there 1st thing in the morning the lines were minimal -- later in the day they got very long) and took the C train 20 minutes southwest to Versailles. Did the indoors in the morning (Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous, and Decapitated), and the outdoors in the afternoon. Mercifully the afternoon was sunny and mild. We ate at Helio's Pub in Versailles. I had mussels mariniere. Interesting, very low garlic, mostly diced shallots and parsley in addition to the white wine. The waiter had been raised right by his mom to like heavy metal. He got busted by the manager when he put on some Rival Sons -- modern metal -- for us to hear.

Thursday we slept late, yay! We took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and went up to the top. Great views down the 12 avenues. Then we took a tour bus to Ile de la Cite and saw Notre Dame. The area around Notre Dame was definitely the most touristy we found in Paris. I bought myself this fine Paris Metro map t-shirt for gigging.

We finished up with walking on Ile de St. Louis -- east of Ile de La Cite. Again very touristy, lots of quirky shops. The guide books said they had great ice cream there, and we'd wanted to have a crepe. So we had a late afternoon snack at Les Fous de l'Ile of bertillon ice cream (chocolate) on a crepe. The bertillon ice cream was almost like icing -- very rich. Les Fous had a fabulous collection of pictures, sculptures, and other art forms representing chickens.

We discussed a couple of times going to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, but we'd done so well in avoiding long lines that we decided against it. We did walk the 1-1/2 blocks to Ecole Militaire to snap a pic.

Paris was, at the time, the most beautiful city I'd ever been in. The food was good. The Metro was great and easy to use. My wife and I both got to speak some French. The people were uniformly friendly and helpful.

Friday we took the metro back to CDG (9.5 euros for 2 tickets) for an 8:30 flight to Zagreb. So great to get to the baggage claim area and see our daughter there waiting for us with a big grin on her face!

We took a cab to their apartment. It is huge! A great big living room and two huge bedrooms, a central entry foyer, a smallish kitchen, 1-1/2 baths. And right on the #14 tram line.

We then went to see Christie's school. We got to meet her class -- so cute, and they all love Miss Christie so much! We dropped into Ian's classroom too.

That evening we dined with Christie, Ian, and 3 of their coworkers at a restaurant overlooking Zagreb named Sestinski Lagvic. Getting there we had the 1st of only 2 snafus on our trip: the cab driver taking us there followed his GPS the wrong way over and around a mountain instead of the direct route. So a 30 kuna cab ride became 160 -- and that was with him turning the meter off 3/4 of the way. He refused to take less, so we paid it. 5 kunas per dollar. So not optimal, but not so bad in the greater scheme of things.

The restaurant was beautiful with a great view. Here's the party: Christie is next to her mom.

So the traditional Croatian dinner was: cheese; roasted vegetables; and big plates of meat. I think we had beef and rabbit, maybe? Very little seasoning, but there are dishes of ivar (sp?) -- a fairly bland red bell pepper and eggplant mix -- to use as a sauce.

Saturday we took the trolley to downtown Zagreb. At the central square (with the statue) there was some marketing-type thing going on with women racing in high heels -- ugh. The open air market was great, tons of fresh food. We wandered around, and the high point for me was encountering the Nikola Tesla statue.

That evening we ate at a somewhat more upscale restaurant called Trilogiya. The changed their menu daily depending on that the chefs found shopping at the market that day. I don't remember what I had but it was quite a bit tastier than the night before.

Sunday Christie and Ian rented a car and Ian drove us to Rovinj on the Adriatic Sea on the Istra peninsula. It was (of course) rainy as we left. At one point we came through a tunnel and said "Look at those pretty white flowers" -- but it was snow! But finally, we came through a tunnel near Rijeka on the coast to bright sunshine and a beautiful day.

We walked around the peninsula that makes up most of Rovinj, climbing tiny winding streets up to the church at the top. Here's the view from the north side.

Here's a tiny, winding street.

Here's the Rovinj assault team.

Then we had lunch at a great restaurant named La Puntulina. We ordered a cold seafood appetizer plate and it came out with 8 kinds of seafood, all very tasty. Ian had a mussels mix that I snitched some of -- there was one type of mussel that was closed until you pulled out a little key-like section of shell, after which you could open it -- we didn't figure it out until the waitress showed us. I had a warm octopus goulash dish, very good. Then Ian and I chilled in a cafe while Christie and her mom shopped.

After the drive back to Zagreb, we had dinner at Christie and Ian's neighborhood restaurant, Pivnica Mlarnica. I had a mixed grill, good sausages and more meat! From Zagreb on, meat was pretty much what was for dinner.

Zagreb was quite a change from Paris. Downtown Zagreb had some old architecture, the rest had that soviet bloc look to it. The people seemed dour, particularly the older ones. You were not to raise the issue of their civil war when they fought the Serbs to exit Yogoslavia in 1993. And I felt like I was able to understand basically 0 of their slavic language. No common roots you could discern. Da and Ne for Yes and No. Hvala for Thank You.

Christie and Ian had started one class in Croatian but had a horrible teacher. They are trying again, but I'm guessing they'll have learned enough Croatian to be useful just about when it's time to come home.

Monday morning, Christie and Ian took us to the train station, and we caught a 7:30 train to Vienna. What a pleasant difference it is to travel by train. You find your car, you stow your bags, the train leaves. At some point a conductor wanders through and stamps your ticket, and border patrol (for Croatia and Slovenia) come through and stamp your passport. No standing in line for bags or security, emptying pockets, getting frisked, etc. Zagreb to Vienna was 6.5 hours. I booked it 1st class to see the difference. I think we actually liked 2nd class better (on the leg from Vienna to Prague). We had a compartment to ourselves with a door that closed. 1st class had bigger seats, but it was in an open car -- with only 1 other passenger. Both trains had a food car, with the standard coffee machine, and food in plastic bags.

But, bad news, after the 6.5 hour train ride, I had 4-5 hours of landsickness. The rocking of the train pretty much like the rocking of a boat, I guess. After drinks, dinner, and sleep, it was gone, but, still, this implies I probably cannot sleep on a train without risking weeks of landsickness afterwards :-(

Just over the Austrian border there were snow-capped mountains to the west.

In Vienna we took a cab to Lindner Hotel am Belvedere -- 20 euros I think. The hotel seemed very new and was very nice. It was 3 short blocks from the entrance to The Belvedere, an old palace turned into a museum. Lots of Klimpt, who was Austrian, good stuff. Very nice fountains, which were turned on -- the fountains at Versailles had all been turned off. That evening we ate at a somewhat upscale place named Huth. Great appetizer, stewed beef heart -- sliced very thin in a mushroom sauce with small morels. I had some big morels from the Mountain Mushroom Festival a few years ago -- 4-5 inches long -- and I didn't particularly feel they were worth the price or the trouble. These were about 1 inch long, and gave a mouthful of tangy mushroom goodness, delicious! My entree was calf's liver, which was OK.

That night we had tickets to the Mozart Orchestra at Musikverein Golden Hall. It was the only thing playing while we were in town. 30 pieces, with a baritone and a soprano for the operatic pieces. Mostly single pieces and songs -- the most they did of one thing was 2 movements of a clarinet concerto. Then "Blue Danube Waltz" and an audience participation hand clapping thing at the end. Pretty popish, but I enjoyed it, and the hall was beautiful.

Tuesday we slept a little late and then walked through the Botanical Gardens of the University of Vienna, which were also around 2 blocks from our hotel. We lunched at a local corner cafe -- I ordered the lunch special, which turned out to be a ribeye with some veggies. We then took a bus tour of the city. I didn't pick a very good one. We saw a bit of their old city, then headed to a panoramic vista location, and then switched to a boat and cruised on the Danube. Also got to go through a lock that lowered us 4 meters to the level of the Danube Canal. The tour left us off in the central city. We'd been having a running joke that I kept identifying domes as astronomical observatories. Here is an actual observatory dome on the canal in Vienna.

We walked back to the hotel via the city park, which was pretty, and saw some outdoor, basketball court-sized soccer fields with some intense games going on. We ate at a restaurant on the way, I had wiener schnitzel -- dry as always -- but it came with german potato salad that was excellent. Later the bartender at the hotel was giving me tips on how to make good german potato salad like that.

1-1/2 days was not near enough to do Vienna justice. It is also a very beautiful city. I got to speak a little German. And we were back on euros again.

In Paris and Zagreb, there was no tipping. There was no place for a tip on credit card slips. Vienna was back to tips. But at the small restaurant where we had lunch, the waitress said "that's too much!" The next restaurant told us 10% is the max you're supposed to do there. At the next stop, Prague, it was tipping again, at 15%.

Another oddity in Vienna was this: at our lunch in the neighborhood restaurant, when the waitress came to tally our check (die rechnung), she opened our bread basket and asked how many pieces of bread we had eaten. We were then charged for those. Similarly, in Prague I think, the bill came with 2 euros for "couvert" -- basically a cover charge, to cover bread, water, or you just sitting in the restaurant!

Wednesday morning we took a cab back to the train station and caught a 8:30 train to Prague. It was a 5 hour trip. In the Prague train station, I got Czech korunas from the ATM -- 20 per dollar. Plus we found the taxi stand easily -- in Vienna we came out the wrong entrance of the station or something and wandered a few blocks in a circle before we found the cabs.

We took a cab to the Red Lion Hotel -- 285 korunas. This near the top of the hill across the river from the Old Town, and around 2 blocks from the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral that dominates the Prague skyline. So that afternoon we walked around St. Vitus. It is truly impressive. It looks bigger than Notre Dame on the inside. It was only completed in the 19th century.

We were supposed to meet my old friend/WRA Pavel Platchky for drinks, but he stood us up. So we ate at the Red Lion. I had smoked pork (== ham, duh), with red and white cabbage and very good potato gnocchi.

Thursday we wandered down the hill and crossed the Charles Bridge -- statues on both sides very 30 feet -- into the Old Town. It is amazing. Domes, spires, statues, paintings, frescos everywhere. Absolutely beautiful, it beats Paris. After a while you kind of go, OK, enough already, and then you see more awe-inspiring architecture.

After getting worn down by mid-afternoon, we took a cab back to the Charles Bridge and wound up in the Kampa Park restaurant looking over the Vltava River -- which was up 1/2 meter at the time, and flooded a couple of days later. Hunh, website says the restaurant is currently closed due to the flooding. I had a wild garlic soup with black trumpet mushrooms and parmesan that was delicious. But, with the bad weather, their patio was closed, and they were booked solid for dinner, so they kicked us out.

We went back up the hill, where the people at the Red Lion refused to recommend another restaurant to us ?!?!? ("eat here again"). We did hook up with Pavel for dinner at a restaurant a few doors up the hill, it was nice to see an old friend.

So Paris held the mantle as Most Beautiful City for only a week. Prague has much more striking architecture. The area of Prague we were in and Old Town were completely tourist traps: restaurants, cafes, shops, thai massage, nightclubs, theaters. Coming back up the hill one night we hear just a drummer playing, mostly bass and tom toms, and it's coming from a club with 6-7 very provocatively dressed young women standing out front smoking, and a fire eater performing inside to the music.

Prague is Pinochio's home town? There were lots of marionette shops, and the Marionette Theatre was performing "Don Giovanni".

And lots of tourists. Big Japanese tour groups. Menus were in Czech, English, German, Russian, and sometimes Italian. But the city is so beautiful that you don't care, it seems right for it to have worshippers from all over the world.

Czech was another slavic language. Ano for Yes, Ne for No. After 2 days I was still struggling to remember that Thank You was Dekuji.

Friday morning, May 31, I got up at 4:30 to take a cab to the airport for a 7:10 flight home via Paris and Detroit. Here begins trip snafu #2. Prague was completely fogged in. We left 2 hours late and missed our connection in Paris. They put us on a flight 2.5 hours later, not so bad. We left Detroit 1 hour late waiting on crew. We got to Lexington and circled for 1/2 hour while they tried to move an airplane with a flat tire that was blocking the runway?!?!? Never heard of that before! Of course, they finally give up, fly us to Cincinnati, and bus us back to Lexington. So we get home at 1am instead of 5pm, and our bags don't get here until late afternoon the next day. But we did make it home.

So overall, weather was lousy, cold and rainy, but it was nice when we did the gardens at Versailles, and when we were at Rovinj on the Adriatic. I think 4 countries in 2 weeks is probably 2 too many. Of course most of the people there speak English, but we both seemed to want to make some effort to learn a little bit of their language, and 2 days is not near enough, particularly for slavic languages. So I think we're likely to target romance language countries, particularly French-speaking, in the future.

Money management: best was my Capitol One credit card, which did straight-up currency conversions with no fees. Good was my ATM which came through the Shazam system and appeared to be doing pretty much straight up currency conversions as well. Bad was AAA, which charged us 8% for euros to take over there, and the currency place in Detroit, which charged 15% and $7.95 to convert our euros back into dollars -- ugh. Also good was our hotel in Prague, who changed euros into koruna at the going rate with no fees.

Drinking in Europe: in Paris they had martinis on the menus -- I guess they put Vermouth in them, they didn't taste right and were very small. No bourbon in Paris at all?!?!? The place in Versailles had Wild Turkey and Four Roses. Mostly drank red wine there. In Zagreb, red wine or beer. The Croatian and Bosnian red wines we had were very good. In Vienna, white wine and beer -- I started having a beer with lunch there. And the 1st beer on some menus was often a weiss beer, yum! Unbelievably, our hotel bar had Maker's Mark, Bullit, Blanton's, a couple other bourbons, and Sazernac rye. In Prague, mostly drank beer as well.

The 2 weeks went by quickly, and we were both glad to get home. It will be interesting to see what our next travel destination is. Maybe St. Martin in February? We'll see, I guess.