moldybluecheesecurds 2

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Redefining pie

Make every second count, because you never know when you might have an extra one?

Actually, the addition of "leap seconds" to our clocks has been happening since 1972, when scientists working with atomic clocks realized that Earth's rotation is actually slowing slightly. The problem comes with computers, which are sometimes hard-programmed with 60-second minutes. It's a little hard to reprogram a computer chip, although it's been done.

I'm more interested in what this scientific discovery of earth's slowing rotation means for our standard definitions of time. If Earth continues to slow, then minutes begin to be longer, containing more seconds, in order to keep the standard of 24 hours, 60 minutes per hour. But really, the definition of an hour is 1/24th of an earth rotation, a minute is 1/60th of an hour, and a second 1/60th of a minute. So shouldn't we really be redefining what a second is, instead of adding extra ones?

It's kind of like saying that each pie tin is a little larger than it used to be, so instead of making the slices (or pies) bigger, you just mash an extra piece in there every once in a while. Maybe we need to redefine what a pie is.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A poem

Twas four days before Christmas,
and all through the home,
jff ran whooping,
the semester was done.

75 pages written,
single line-spaced,
but now all submitted,
free! by God's grace.

Fsck yeah - that's why I'm a Democrat

From my friend at 28th Avenue
From The Hill:

“None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former judge and close ally of the president who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who has led a bipartisan filibuster against a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, quoted Patrick Henry, an icon of the American Revolution, in response: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Two branches of government say no to intelligent design

Intelligent design was put in its rightful place for the second time in as many months today, as a federal judge joined the voters of Dover, PA, in rejecting this spurious science curriculum. Intelligent design is the religious belief that the development of humans was too complex to be explained by science, but it's being paraded as a legitimate "alternative" to evolution in the science classroom. Fortunately, this federal judge knows as well as the Dover voters that just because someone says religion is science doesn't make it so.

Ne'er a feeling so manly

I'm not a plumber. In fact, aside from the occasional chain-in-the-toilet-tank detangling, my best plumbing experience prior to yesterday was Super Mario Bros. 3.

But then it started. *drip* The faucet had never presented a problem before. *drip* But now turning off the water really just meant *drip* starting the auxiliary water service. *drip*

The problem wasn't just the *drip* dripping, but that the rate seemed to *drip* be increasing. *drip* Pretty soon *drip* you could fill *drip* a pint glass *drip* in under an hour *drip* with the water *drip* off. *drip* *drip*

So I finally *drip* called the pfaucet company *drip*, because they *drip* have a lifetime guarantee *drip*. Without argument, *drip* they sent two replacement *drip* parts that arrived *drip* yesterday. *drip* *drip* *drip*

In about five minutes, I successfully replaced the cartridge thing, finally stopping the incessant dripping and more than doubling my plumbing experience. Eat your heart out, Mario, a new plumber is in town!

To my two faithful readers:

PREVIOUS CONVERSATION
Blog reader: "Did you see my comment on pre-sesquicentennial celebrations last week?"

jff: "Oops, I must have missed yours because there are, uh, so many."

NEW CONVERSATION
Blog reader: "Did you see my comment on severance pay for Uptown window washers?"

jff: "Yeah, I wrote two pages back to you! Didn't you see my response?"


Starting earlier this week, I finally turned on comment notification. Which means I will actually be reading comments, soon after they are posted. So for my two (or three) dedicated readers - I'm listening.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

9/11 doesn't change the rule of law

After the recent relevation that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans in hopes of ferreting out terrorist plots, I'm going to say Congress should consider impeachment hearings. Because if it ends up being true - and it probably came from multiple, high sources to be printed in the NY Times - what this really means is that Bush willfully overrode all domestic laws restricting the arbitrary use of surveillance on American citizens. The last time we had a leader doing these kinds of things, a few patriots got together to give these arguments for his overthrow:
Of course, Bush continues to claim that 9/11 changed everything. To that I can only quote the inestimable DarkSyde from DailyKos:
Does that really make sense? Our rule of law and constitutional chaperone of personal liberty survived presidential assassinations, two World Wars, the Holocaust, standing armies millions strong, and scads of thermonuclear tipped missiles pointed at out heads, and we're going to trash our traditions and Constitution because a cabal of religious fanatics with box-cutters trained in a stone-age country got lucky?
9/11 may have radically changed our perception of the world order and what presents the gravest threats. It does not change the fact that we are fundamentally a society of laws and that no one is above the law. Including the president.

(kudos to 28th Avenue for the quote link)

This has to be worth at least 2000 words

Normally I pride myself on being nuanced and thoughtful in my political discourse. But this is too damn funny for that:

Friday, December 16, 2005

Congressional poetry - no really, it's good

Kudos to my friend on 28th Avenue for this link. A Congressional Democrat was pretty sick of the "Defend Christmas" lobby and read this original poem in protest of House Resolution 579 which "Express[es] the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected."

The poem is an excellent critique of this empty posturing, but my favorite part of the affair: the Republican who proposed this Congressional waste of taxpayer time refused to add other religious holidays to the resolution. Because we all enjoy religious freedom, but Christians are a little more free...

Another day, another beta. This time, Yahoo makes it worth it.

I just got invited to try the Yahoo Mail Beta version today. It's rendered via flash DHTML.

The good:
1. Drag and drop. I can take messages, read them in the preview pane and drop them into folders. Very slick.
2. Right-click context menus. Want to mark that message as read? Done!
3. RSS feeds in my email. Without the fscking ads that Gmail throws in there. That's right, Yahoo trumps Gmail on this one.

The bad:
1. A minor, nitpicky thing: when I dump unread messages in the Trash, don't tell me I have unread messages in the trash. I know they're in there.

The hopeful:
1. That this may be the first step in solving Yahoo Mail's chronically slow access to email.

Overall: A-

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Nothing says Merry Christmas like a plasma TV

Lacking sufficient time and energy to report on real news, the 24 hour filler folks have been reporting on a "controversy" between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays." Apparently, hordes of WWJD-bracelet-wearing maniacs are put off when the Wal-Mart clerk says Happy Holidays. There's even a bill in the state legislature in Georgia to save this right to say Merry Christmas.

Much like early Christians, these folks are suffering, for many reasons:
  • The tree in the town square is called a holiday tree
  • They are wished a happy holiday
  • Their government can't say "Merry Christmas" to Jews and Muslims
  • They are invited to holiday parties
To hear them report it, these terrifying acts are a "violation of rights," "religious persecution," and "an offense against the majority."

Sarcasm aside, the irony is that Christmas is supposed to be the celebration of the coming of Christ, the savior to Christians around the world. It's supposed to celebrate the potential for salvation, but also the good works that Jesus did. Instead of spreading the real message of Christmas, these religious nuts are complaining that the very people who have tranformed their holy day into a crass commercial enterprise won't say Merry Christmas.

Because nothing says "peace on earth and goodwill toward all" like having the Wal-Mart clerk "Merry Christmas" you as he loads the 42" plasma TV into your trunk.

The good Father Neal put it well:
“Even Christianity has moved away from some of Jesus' real teachings...The way we deal with Christmas, in this culture with the chaotic schedules and the kind of gift giving we get involved with, perhaps the deeper question is let's bring Christ back into Christianity rather than worry about Christ back into Christmas.”

Gift "guides"

Ever since Thanksgiving, every circular in my newspaper, every commercial flyer in my mail, every techie website claims to have the ultimate gift guide. Is someone under the impression that I am lacking in gift ideas?

My family tends to be pretty straightforward with Christmas. Here's a list of things I would like, but feel free to shop for something else if you have a great idea. So the idea of a gift guide is laughable.

Of course, none of these purported gift guides really are. They don't help you navigate through things appropriate for someone who just started college, or a middle-aged aunt. No, they are just the same old advertisements with the prices removed, because with celebrating the birth of Jesus, money is no object.

Merry Christmas. (or happy holidays?)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The economics of sexuality, part 2

The author of the controversial New York Times magazine piece on the influence of AIDS on sexual preferences responds to questions about stigma, sample size, and the politics of being gay.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

You are still worthless

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is now dead. He is a four-time murderer, it's true. But he's spent twenty years on death row trying to make amends: as a Nobel-nominated anti-gang activist and children's book writer. Twenty years, he has tried to do good for the bad he did.

There has to be some irony that the same week Williams is put to death, Christian fundamentalists are complaining that somebody (those damn secularists!) stole Christmas. If we're such a Christian nation, then what happened to forgiveness?

So what kind of message do we send, when a man spends 20 years of his life trying to make amends for his wrongs and is summarily put to death? That he is still worthless.

Will the next death row inmate even try?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sex sells, but sexuality?

The accepted scientific thinking is that sexual orientation is genetic. In other words, you like who you like because DNA says so. But some economists decided to look at an American social survey, and they discovered something interesting. Knowing the cost of getting AIDS can alter sexual preferences. In other words, sexuality has its price.

First, they took a social survey from 1992, a time when most people with AIDS were gay men. Their findings were based on an interesting idea. Look at the sexual preference of people whose family members have AIDS. Since sexual preference is genetically based, then you'd expect a higher proportion of gay folks.

Nope.

In fact, zero men who had a family member with AIDS (most likely a male) reported being gay. On the flip side, women with an AIDS-stricken relative were twice as likely to express a preference for other women. As in, not a potentially HIV-positive man.

In other words, knowing the cost of AIDS made people a lot more likely to try to avoid it, even in their sexual preferences. It may be more than sex that sells.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Really, it's the truth*

Editorial cartoonist Tom Toles captures the essence of the Bush administration's issue with the truth. Don't forget your snow brush!


Surpluses are back (if you don't count gravity)

So Minnesota has a state budget surplus again. Apparently, this improving economy President Bush is always talking about finally got talked into showing up. So the state now has about $1 billion in surplus funds over the next two years. Or maybe not.

See, in 2002 two majority leaders in the Legislature were running for office and the state budget was tanking big time. Instead of actually solving the problem, they found a neat way to make the budget look better - take out inflation! In fact, to really help out, only take out inflation calculations on the expenses side, but leave it in on the revenue side. To an economist, this is like legislating that gravity should take a break. Inflation doesn't stop because you tell it to.

Anyway, all kudos for the Star Tribune editorial staff for riding the Legislature on this one. Obviously, even before the state pays back schools for delaying their payments, it needs to restore good fiscal management. And that means putting gravity...er, inflation, back in the budget.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Pizzaman

Get the inside scoop on pizza delivery, local politics, and the abrubtly-shortened life of Mr Whiskers. All in one place!

Put your shoes on, clip your nails, and let's get serious about anti-terror

A counter terrorism expert just wrote a piece on Wired saying that for all the crazy safety stuff we've attempted, the two things making air travel safer these days are not bomb-detection machines or banning nail clippers. Instead, its those reinforced cockpit doors the FAA and airlines had resisted for years on financial grounds and the simple awareness of civilian passengers that they might want to fight hijackers.

Preventing terrorist attacks is a tricky business and few solutions are ever simple. But the United States isn't notable for its strategy in anti-terrorism. For example, we could arguably prevent more terrorism if we took all the money for the Iraq War and put it into homeland security. Or more directly, perhaps the money spent making Americans remove nail clippers and shoes before entering airplanes could have gone to better intelligence gathering (on terrorism or on WMD in Iraq), pick your fav.

So says Bruce Schneier, who worked with the federal government to design better air travel safety measures. Basically, instead of continually being reactive (checking all shoes after the attempted shoe bomber), safety has to be smarter. The way he puts it, we have to stop trying to prevent the latest movie plot terrorist and start thinking strategically about reacting effectively (by having good first responders) and planning ahead (by improving intelligence gathering). Hard to argue with that, unless you need to run for office this year.

The speed-walking smoker

I ride the train to school most days and really enjoy being able to combine mass transit with the short walk to campus from the station. This 5-10 minute trip actually ends up being the majority of my exercise most days, so it's particularly nice to have some time to just think about the world. It was very enjoyable until I started encounter him.

This guygets off the train at the same stop, walks in the same direction, and at approximately the same pace. This is already annoying, because nobody likes it when they end up in that awkward situation of walking alongside a stranger, both of you going the same speed. But this guy likes to rachet up the fun by lighting up as soon as we leave the station platform.

Since I prefer to walk in clean air, I'm left with one option: outpace the guy. I tried letting him get ahead one day, and had to sit in his cancer stick miasma for the entire trip from station platform to school. So I walk faster. However, the sprinting smoker seems to take this as a challenge, upping his own pace and requiring me to set a pace somewhere between brisk walk and dumb-looking speed walker. Asshole!

Even ferrets care about the death penalty

Over at the business, there's some deeper analysis of capital punishment, including some figures on other countries around the world that still use it.

For some additional reading, there are several pieces analyzing the scientific evidence on the supposed deterrent effect of the death penalty. Fagan's testimony to the NY state legislature notes that most studies don't separate between types of murders. A crime of passion, for example, might be less susceptible to deterrent effects than a calculated murder.

Basically, I think capital punishment is more reflective of a desire for revenge than justice. I also feel that people didn't get interested in the deterrent effects until they were under the gun to produce some good reasons for having capital punishment other than "that's what we've always done." Capital punishment is like many "traditions" in America that should be allowed to go the way of slavery, literacy tests at the polls, or institutionalization of the mentally ill.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Dump the death penalty

California is considering the case of a death row inmate scheduled to be executed on December 13th. Stanley Williams was a notorious gang member and a four-time murderer, but has spent his 24 years in prison turning his life around by becoming a noted antigang crusader. He's even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But unless the Governator commutes Mr. Williams' sentence, he will be killed two weeks from now in the hope that his death will make amends for the four lives he took more than 20 years ago.

To be honest, I am frustrated that this country still debates the death penalty.
Numerous studies have shown that it has no deterrent effect on crime. It costs no less than life imprisonment. And it's arguable whether it is a more severe punishment to make someone spend 50 years without personal freedom or to kill them quickly and painlessly. So really, do we like the idea of vengeance that much?

Mr. Williams is an interesting case because there's little doubt of his guilt, but yet he's spent 24 years trying to make amends for the harm he caused. The Christian Science Monitor article highlights an interesting point - if we kill Mr. Williams, what message does that send to the rest of prison inmates? Basically, it says you are too bad to be redeemed. That even doing Nobel Peace Prize quality work is not enough to save us from the inherent evil in you.

Having spent the last few months researching the juvenile justice system, it's clear that America has a problem with accepting rehabilitation. Just a few states are really proactive in helping juvenile delinquents - helping, not punishing. And these states are rewarded with dramatically lower reoffense rates than their more punitive peers (like Minnesota). Research shows that many adults also can be redeemed through treatment, particularly for mental illnesses that afflict a disproportionate number of inmates.

And add to this the fact that death penalty cases have been prosecuted so sloppily, that due process rights have been violated so regularly, that former Illinois governor Jim Ryan commuted the death sentence of every death row inmate in the state, nearly 200 inmates!

I'm of the philosophy that people will take opportunities to redeem themselves. Mr. Williams has and will continue to work as an antigang crusader if his sentence is commuted. Many other death row inmates have similarly committed themselves to making good out of a life gone horribly wrong. These folks still serve time, unquestionably, and some will never feel ashamed for their horrible crimes. But they still spend a lifetime behind bars, just like the good ones.

It's time to dump the death penalty, like every other civilized nation on Earth. It's not worth it.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Turn to corn

With energy prices hitting record levels, it's no surprise people are looking to alternatives to imported fuel oil and natural gas. Wood burning stoves have been around for a while, but the latest and greatest rendition takes renewable resource heating to a new level: corn-burning stoves. These stoves can put out heat for up to 40 hours on a single load of corn and avoid some of the disadvantages of wood stoves (i.e. importing bugs with cordwood). I'm seriously thinking about the possibilities...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

I'm sold on intelligent design. It just has to be fair.

It's obvious. If the Kansas school board is going to support non-evolutionary theories in the classroom, they have to be fair. Those of us with alternative beliefs must be respected as well.

Fashion note #2

The belt loop fashion note reminded me of another fashion thing. In a group of mixed-gender young adults in a casual environment, sock color is often indicative of relationship status. Bachelors buy their socks in bags at Target for $6.99. Men in relationships have full-time fashion advisors (whether female or gay partner) and white socks get relegated to exercise and yard work duty.

Next week: hopefully back to more serious topics.

Fashion note #1

So I realized today that there is a fail-safe way to determine how formal your pants are. Belt loops. My jeans and other casual pants have 5. Some of my "business casual" pants have six. My wool slacks (see, they even have a fancier name) have 7.

Enjoy this insight while you can. In all likelihood, this will be the only fashion note ever posted here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

It's no cash cow, but a hybrid car still has its benefits

This guy has a full-blown economic and financial analysis of the benefits and costs of hybrid cars. His conclusion? It's not worth it yet.

While I applaud his extensive effort, he leaves a few things out...including several government incentives, such as the $3,150 federal tax credit starting next year, and a bevy of state financial incentives. Several states also allow hybrid drivers access to HOV lanes even when driving solo and Boston is considering offering free meter parking downtown.

Omninerd also leaves out one big thing: used cars. Given the ridiculous premium on a new car that depreciates as soon as it leaves the lot, what about the financial benefits of switching from a 1999 Accord (to use his example) to a 2004 Toyota Prius? It may not be a big personal cash cow, but a hybrid car is one way to help the environment and pay a little less at the pump.

All blame and no shame

With the lies finally having caught up to him, his administration under investigation for perjury and other crimes, and his policy efforts DOA, the President has decided to step up the blame game. Understandably tired of being held accountable for the numerous miscues that led to the Iraqi morass, Bush has gone on the offensive. Those who criticize him are flip-floppers because many of them originally supported the resolution to go into Iraq - ignore the man behind the curtain, you followed him after all! Oh, and as usual, we are helping the enemy and hating the troops by "sending mixed signals."

Sure, there's plenty of politics here...but the arrogant attitude of the President represents his entire party. Republicans came to Washington in 1994 full of energy, ideology, and a desire to reign in overbearing government. If they still had their principles, they'd know that they have seen the enemy, and he is us.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Science v. religion? Try democracy!

To those saddened upon hearing that the Kansas Board of Education approved of teaching pseudoscientific "intelligent design" alongside evolution, take heart. This week, Dover, Pennsylvania residents injected a fresh dose of democracy into the science v. religion debate. Their school board had recently done something similar to the Kansas Board, watering down science curriculum with religious theories. Well, the people of Dover spoke loud and clear, tossing out every incumbent school board member in this week's election. God Bless America!

Screwing the oil men will mean screwing ourselves

Are oil and other energy companies reaping immoral profits in a time of price crunches? It depends on your perspective.

Some folks see big profits as a sign of profiteering off needy folks during Hurricane Katrina and other disasters. There are even some U.S. Senators who talked the oil companies into coming down to Congress to explain how they made so much money while prices were going so high.

The other side of the coin...is that oil companies made a lot of money because:
a) supply got tight as the hurricanes hit oil production facilities
b) prices went up with scarce supply

The Economist has an article (paid regitration required, sorry) defending the oil companies or, more specifically, the basic economics. They argue that this is how supply and demand works and that slicing off oil company profits with a "windfall tax" will just screw us later when poor investment in infrastructure leaves us with even tighter supply and higher prices.

I'm with the Economist on this one. If you prevent people from making money when they serve in a time of tight supply, you remove the incentive to do so. Even if we did something smart like using the entire windfall tax profit to build alternative energy infrastructure, we still leave a specter of arbitrary profit seizure over the energy market. It's not good politics.

Monday, November 07, 2005

"Hard choices"

Congressional Republicans have rediscovered their inner fiscal conservative and have come to budget-cutting with vigor not seen since President Clinton balanced our budget in the late 1990s. Of course, this budget balancing will require some "hard choices," like cutting working families off food stamps, cutting working families from child care assistance (that helps them continue to work), and $70 billion in new tax cuts

E.J. Dionne says it right, that asking Americans to make hard choices means admitting that you can't finance a war on tax cuts, can't finance homeland security on tax cuts, and can't pay for national disaster relief on tax cuts. In other words, ask the wealthy and the middle class to pay for what they're getting.

On the other hand, it's fun to reduce any bootstrap building programs to the poor, since they can't make political contributions (like oil companies) and are less likely to vote.

If we're finally ready for honesty in budgeting - paying a fair price - then sign me up. But stop kicking the poor while they're down.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Desiring acceptance doesn't mean opposing a cure

For a class on science and public policy, I’m reading about how some Germans oppose stem cell research and other genetic therapies because of the intrinsic dignity of human life. Some even go so far as to say that it’s better to support persons with disability with stronger social programs and tolerance than through stem cell research.

I’m sorry, but I think that given the choice, most “people with disabilities” would be delighted to give up that moniker and just become “people.” Now, there are many compelling moral arguments for restricting stem cell research (although none I agree with), but I cringe at the idea that being born with a disability means you should refuse a cure if it’s available.

Think of it this way. It’s been a great social accomplishment that people with physical or mental disabilities have come to be understood as people who are different instead of evil or cursed by God, as many were even a hundred years ago. The recognition that their disability comes from genetic mutation or illness means we should make as much effort toward curing them as we do for curing cancer or preventing smallpox. Does such research negate the value of greater social acceptance of people with disabilities? Absolutely not. But it shouldn’t be precluded by it either.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Hark! Is that the sound of political backbone?

Congressional Democrats have made the French look like hardball players in the years of President Bush's administration, so it's nice to see them sticking up for America again.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Loud and proud

This guy at the computer next to me was talking to his significant other while I was trying to work. His rather gruff and unfriendly demeanor caught my attention, especially as the conversation reached its conclusion. She obviously had just said something like "I love you" to him and he sort of mumbled, "you too."

She felt a little peeved that he wouldn't give the same response, judging by his forthcoming lame excuse that he was "in a room full of people, but you're in a room by yourself."

According to Rico Suave, to express love when near other people is "not proper."

Screw that. When I love someone, I say it loud and proud!

Monday, October 31, 2005

It's worth your time

Although I frequently feel like the media's obsession with human interest stories leads to too many "How tyrannical rule in China affects this small town family" stuff, sometimes it's incredibly compelling. There's a kid named Reece Meikle who died from an incredibly strange blood disorder last year and whose death baffled the medical community in Minnesota. It's a great story of how doctors reached the limits of their profession and how a family had to deal with the trauma of an inexplicable death of a wonderful young man. Read it.

Day 1: What killed Reece Meikle?

Day 2: Watching as the worst comes true

Day 3: From hospital lab to crowded wake, one question: why?

Day 4: Ruling out everything in search for answers

Day 5: Making peace with the unknown

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Trying listening to those advisors, buddy

I just saw this while reading for a graduate class on the interaction of science and politics. Three years ago, the Chairman of President Bush's Council on Bioethics wrote in his vision for the council that, "Some efforts to prolong life may come at the price of its degradation, the unintended consequences of success at life-saving interventions." So why were so many Republicans trying to keep Terri Schiavo, human vegetable from a better life in the hereafter?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I can be "that guy"

Sometimes I feel like a misunderstanding in a conversation leaves me defending things I don't care about or didn't even agree with. I hate that. I tend to assume that people have good intentions and mean to be agreeable, so I tend to approach disagreement with curiosity. Other people do not.

I guess it probably happens when I have no vested interest and the other person does. Then my curiosity could be perceived as both lackadaisical (because I have no firm opinion) and contrary (because the alternatives all look equally appealing). That's like the guy who can never tell you what he wants on his pizza. Hmm, annoying.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Is a real campaign the best way to an impartial judiciary?

What's more important? Knowing the judge you present your case to is an impartial witness to the evidence brought before her? Or knowing which political endorsements she has and what her opinion is on issues like Roe v. Wade? I'd suggest that the typical mudslinging, partisan election is inappropriate for judicial campaigns.

Example number one. In recent elections in Illinois, a state Supreme Court election cost the two candidates a combined $9.3 million. In the last contested race for the Supreme Court in Minnesota, the two candidates spent $37,000. When money becomes more important in politics, so will the people who have it. Justice should be impartial to wealth. Electing judges with full-blown campaigns could compromise that.

Point number two. Supporters of partisan and hard-fought judicial races have no appreciation for the fact that the kinds of information aired in a campaign would have little to do with competence on the bench. Traditional political campaigns are filled with issue positions that get boiled down into character attacks (your tax policy means you hate America!). I fail to see how having that kind of illumination on Election Day will get us better judges.

The Minnesota man who brought forth the lawsuit challenging the state's regulation of judicial races argues that folks who fear real campaigns "fear democracy." Judging by the election of George W. Bush, the hoopla over gubernatorial recall and referenda in California, etc, I'd say that people should have a healthy fear of democracy. Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom, notes that sometimes more direct democracy just asks for trouble. His assessment of California's trouble of popular legislation mirrors his assessment of problems in Third World countries. They both struggle with what he terms illiberal democracy - a tendency to let democracy trump rule of constitutional law.

While the people might be the source of laws in democracy (indirectly), no one is above it. We need well qualified people on the bench to enforce and interpret our laws, not just good campaigners.

Jones, stop Googling and get back to work!

It's no surprise that many companies are starting to crack down on employee internet use. I've never understood why so many workplaces allow their employees free access to the internet. I've been in very few job situations where I required internet access for work-related activity. The rest of the time I spent surfing news sites, checking email, or doing onling shopping. Good for the economy, perhaps, but not for business.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Never, ever drive drunk in this county

There aren't many times that rhythm becomes a prerequisite for testing clean at a DUI stop. Good thing this guy can dance. Too bad he can't stop talking.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Gambling with their lives, and their money

It's an honor to know that so many servicemen and women are serving the United States so honorably around the world right now. They're willing to put their lives on the line to protect our country and to defend our interests abroad. So what does it say to the soldiers when we find a way to take back millions of their paychecks to pay for their own entertainment?

A dirty little Pentagon secret is that American military bases around the world have slot machines, allowing soldiers to participate in some harmless diversion, or perhaps squander their entire paychecks. When Congress ordered the Pentagon to study the effect of gambling on military families, the Pentagon first hired PriceWaterhouseCoopers, but then decided on an internal investigation when it seemed the contractors were a little too interested in the truth.

See, the military makes $120 million a year on its gambling soldiers, and although many of its casino games are on overseas bases, it has only one problem gambling treatment center for troops in the entire world. In fact, for many soldiers, admitting a gambling habit is the short route to a dishonorable discharge.

So let's get this straight. We take advantage of stressed troops' need for entertainment to get their money from gambling. We justify it by using the proceeds for other entertainment for them. We refuse to treat them if they have a gambling problem (that's hard to avoid if they can't leave the base). And then we refurse to let a third party do an honest survey of the problem. Nice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Smokers pay again

Everyone knows that smokers already pay. They have to buy their cancer sticks. They pay big-time state taxes. They sit or stand outside of many establishments. But now Northwest Airlines is taking the health issue one step further. Employees who smoke will now pay higher health insurance premiums. I can't recall the last time I agreed with these pillow-depriving, peanut stealers, but this policy strikes me as good sense. You want to engage in health hazardous, smelly behavior? Don't expect me to pay for your oxygen tank.

All nastiness aside, I'd hope the health insurer also cuts a deal on quitting programs, because people who smoke can't always help the habit.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Spin the turbine, but watch the bird

Sometimes my fellow environmentalists drive me nuts. In my mind, it's a great triumph that businesses are finally taking alternative energy seriously enough to start investing in some fairly large scale wind power projects. The Nantucket Sound wind project, for example, will put out a projected 419 megawatts per hour. Ironically, the greens are actually mounting opposition to wind energy projects.

Apparently, wind turbines can have one specific environmental impact as they absorb wind energy by spinning turbines. Those large blades have a tendency to whack anything out of the air nearby, including birds of prey or bats. Some environmentalists are clamoring for the shutdown or relocation of certain turbines because of the potential impact on airborne species.

If these requests can be accomodated with a minimum of fuss, I say great. But in general I find it appalling that anyone from the green movement is lobbying against wind power. Think of the alternatives. Are spent fuel rods from nuclear plants an improvement over a few dead birds or bats? Are we willing to trade off wind power for more coal and oil and the requisite pollution? Greater dependency on foreign oil?

Sure, I exaggerate. Most of the changes seem fairly superficial such as avoiding key migration routes and habitats. But in the grand scheme of things, we're much better off letting those turbines spin.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Bad news? Watch out for terrorists!

All credit to my friend at 28th Avenue for posting a link to MSNBC's story on "The Nexus of Politics and Terror." It illuminates the Bush Administration's willingness to politicize terror threats to kill unfavorable news coverage. Coincidence ten times over? I think not.
Someone much more creative than I decided that the Lord of the Rings would be much better with some of the witty dialogue of the Princess Bride.

GOLLUM: You were supposed to be this legendary manservant, you were this great loyal companion, and yet there are crumbs on your jacket!
SAM [to FRODO]: Well, I’m carrying food for three people, and Gollum’s got only himself.
FRODO: I do not accept excuses! I’m just going to have to find myself a new gardener, that’s all.
SAM: Don’t say that, master Frodo. Please?
FRODO: Did I make it clear that your job is at stake?

Inconceivable!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

I must confess that while I find the idea of confirming My Little Crony to the Supreme Court somewhat repugnant, Pat Oliphant makes a good case (in 1000 words or less) for why Harriet Miers might be worth a second look.

Monday, October 10, 2005

My Little Crony

So you already got my opinion post on Harriet Miers, but here's the take of a wise and talented editorial cartoonist.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A legacy called "My Buddy"

Harriet Miers appears to be nothing more than a crony appointment to the Supreme Court. Despite her lawyerly background, she has zero judicial experience, leaving Bush to offer this assertion of her qualifications: "I've seen into her heart."

Quin Hillyer of Newshouse points out how this is one dumb political move:
Now the Ted Kennedy left will have a field day portraying Miers as an unqualified crony while the political right remains unenthused and silent -- because they, too, consider her an unqualified crony.
George Will is scathing:
There is no reason to believe that Miers' nomination resulted from the president's careful consultation with people capable of [sophisticated] judgments [about competing interpretations of the Constitution]. If 100 such people had been asked to list 100 individuals who have given evidence of the reflectiveness and excellence requisite in a justice, Miers' name probably would not have appeared in any of the 10,000 places on those lists.
Even the conservative blog Powerline could say nothing better than this:
Prior experience doing the same work is universally considered important for almost every job that requires skill...It's important to note, however, that while prior judicial experience is a valuable qualification, its absence doesn't necessarily make a nominee unqualified.
If the unenthusiastic reception of conservative pundits isn't enough, Bush should perhaps be concerned by this news note from FOX News:
Anti-abortion group Operation: Rescue on Tuesday promised an active campaign to get Bush to withdraw her nomination.
So the far right campaigns against her, mainstream conservatives are unenthusiastic, liberals are disgusted, and the President "knows her heart." How touching. President Bush should be considering his legacy, if nothing else. Teapot Dome, anyone?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A gun toting robot that doesn't suck

What happens when you combine the maker of a popular robotic vacuum with the Army's need to locate snipers in urban warfare settings (i.e. Iraq)? Enter REDOWL, a little robot that can locate the source of gunfire with 94% accuracy and illuminate it with visible or infrared light (the latter visible with nightvision goggles). This little piece of hardware can apparently be added on to robots already in use by the army. Fortunately, there are no plans to give these iRobot devices firearms, but we can't discount the value of an urban soldier that would clean up between firefights.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

In my 10 minutes of sanity

I'm using the brief, 10 sanity-break to give you a message from the trenches: don't ever assume that graduate school means you get good teachers. In fact, I discover that the proportion of poor, mediocre, and good teachers seems fairly constant at whatever level of education. I suppose one can be grateful that at this level, I can go rate my professors or find out who can't teach before I sign up. It's sad to see that providing a public service like a ratings site - potentially saving hundreds of students from needing a blog entry to restore their sanity - is considered defamation. All I can say is, if you don't want people to think you suck, maybe you should teach well.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I'm am one with nerddom

According to my recently completed Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator test, I am an Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiver. This puts me in good company with some famous nerds (Einstein and Asimov) as well as with Nietzche, perhaps signifying my unending "will to power."

Colloquially, this means I am a big picture guy, sometimes overly committed to factual evidence at the expense of individual feelings. It also means I perceive my life as some sort of "great work" or crusade (only on Saturday mornings). However, Wikipedia has a much more verbose discussion of my personality type, based on the psychologist Jung, which I find intriguing:

[Introverted Intuition folks] are enigmatic, 'unearthly' people who stand aloof from ordinary society. They have little interest in explaining or rationalizing their personal vision, but are content merely to proclaim it. Partly as a result of this, they are often misunderstood. Although the vision of the artist among this type generally remains on the purely perceptual level, mystical dreamers or cranks may become caught up in theirs. The person's life then becomes symbolic, taking on the nature of a Great Work, mission or spiritual-moral quest.

[Introverted Thinkers] usually avoid notice and may seem cold, arrogant and taciturn. Alternatively, the repressed feeling function may express itself in displays of childish naivety. Generally people of this type appear caught up in their own ideas which they aim to think through as fully and deeply as possible. If extreme or neurotic they can become rigid, withdrawn, surly or brusque. They may also confuse their subjectively apprehended truth with their own personality so that any criticism of their ideas is seen as a personal attack. This may lead to bitterness or to vicious counterattacks against their critics.

Hmm, I can't say Jung has really hit the mark. Maybe you should check with my friends.

Friday, September 23, 2005

It won't be us on the porch

There's a term in economics called full-cost accounting. It's basically academic-speak for the idea that when you buy something, you should pay not only the sticker price, but also for environmental damage in shipping or manufacture, the cost of disposal or recycling, etc. Since it's kind of a geeky economics term, it was fascinating to see an entire editorial this week devoted to the idea that people who live near water should perhaps be prepared to pay the full price.

It'd be pretty hard not to feel bad for the sufferers from Hurricane Katrina, especially as they're about to receive a double-dose with Hurricane Rita. Obviously, every measure should be taken to ensure their safety, reunite them with their loved ones, and help them rebuild their lives. But maybe not exactly as they were.

See, the federal government, via your pocketbook and mine, subsidizes these folks in New Orleans and elsewhere that like living near water. That's because flood insurance is socialized. Private insurers offer it - but it's administered and subsidized by the federal government. So instead of preparing for floods by paying realistic premiums or living away from flood-prone areas, we wait for perfectly predictable disaster to strike. Then, with mind-numbing monotony, we collectively foot the bill for people living below sea-level or in a floodplain to rebuild in exactly the same place. Again and again and again.

Here's an idea - let's make flood insurance a private cost. Let the folks who like beachfront housing be aware that they have to pay for their house when the pretty ocean decides to spawn a hellish hurricane. We could keep rebuilding on the coasts and in the floodplains, but that just encourages people to live there. So let's try something new. Let's allow Trent Lott to pay for his own coastal home - since neither you nor I will be sitting on the porch any time soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Politics and pop culture all in one!

Think you know everything about politics and pop culture? Challenge this webpage, which says it can guess the dictator or the sitcom character! It took me three tries to stump it.

Ferrets do music?

Across the way, my friend Ferret has a minor piece on musical humor you might enjoy. That is, if you are a musical geek.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Brilliant, Norm

With Hurricane Katrina gone three weeks now, the political debate of how to pay for the cleanup is heating up. Projections show the cost could exceed $200 billion, nearly doubling the federal deficit in the course of a single natural disaster. The Bush Administration has basically said that it's all going on the credit card. I think Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht (MN) put it well, "It is not my definition of compassion to simply write checks from the federal government and expect our children and grandchildren to pay for it."

Democrats in Congress, sadly, are once again waiting to be the naysayers instead of stepping up with a tax plan. Yes, you can't raise $200 billion without taxes (unless you want to try fees a la MN Governor Tim Pawlenty).

As dumb as the collective Democratic Party is in Washington, at least they still have Norm Coleman to make them look good. His contribution to the Katrina discussion? "What is needed now is strong leadership." He expressed disappointment that Bush has not created "a key leadership position to coordinate, oversee, and implement" the recovery effort. Bush did have someone in a leadership position. His name was Michael Brown and he was more qualified to herd Arabian horses than manage natural disasters, in keeping with Bush's tradition of picking people who are loyal instead of competent. Sound familiar, Norm?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance" part 3

I think you make a good point about Roberts - that just because the partisan atmosphere is so polarized and that he's nominated by one of the most hidebound administrations in history shouldn't automatically sink his appointment.

The media would never assist you in coming to that conclusion, though, since they like to cover things like Senator Biden's characterization of the hearing: "a Kabuki dance." That was public radio, which managed to convince me that Roberts is being made to jump through a lot of hoops without a whole lot of substance.

However, while I do agree that he shouldn't have to say what his personal views are on abortion, removing life support, or other issues that frankly will come before the Court, it doesn't mean he doesn't have to share anything.

I've been told that in addition to sidestepping (rightfully so) some of the personal questions, Judge Roberts also refuses to discuss why he arrived at certain decisions in previous cases. I don't see why discussing that should be a problem for him. As he has stated, he intends to decide cases "in light of the court's precedents, with an open mind. I will not take to the court whatever personal views I have on the issues...[my perspectives] will be based on my understanding of the law."

It may be that a politician has no real concept of what "understanding of the law" is about and hence, they fall back on perspectives on current political issues. But I sense that Roberts just doesn't want anyone to find out he may be of the same school as Clarence Thomas, who doesn't believe in stare decisis (that courts should follow precedent).

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance" part 2

Next, Mile High friend weighed in on Roberts' failure to recuse himself from a recent case involving the US government:

While I agree with your points in principle, I honestly can't trust any appointee from this administration. I don't know what their intentions truly are, but I feel that it may be some backhanded attempt to remove another check from our gov't. The fact that the administration won't even release some of his writings from his work with Reagan (that's troubling enough for me) says to me that he's a Bush insider. Overall, he has a very thin record on the bench. Therefore, his writings and statements, when he worked for the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration, become very important.

From the LA Times: JUST FOUR DAYS before the Bush administration named John G. Roberts Jr. to fill retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court, the District of Columbia federal appeals court decided a case called Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld. In a crucial victory for the administration, the court upheld President Bush's creation of special military tribunals for trials of alleged terrorists and denied them the protection of the Geneva Convention. Roberts was one of the judges who decided that case, but he should have recused himself.

While the case was pending in his court, Roberts was interviewing with high White House officials - including Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove - for a seat on the Supreme Court. In the words of the federal law on judicial disqualification, this placed the judge in a situation where "his impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

If he didn't recuse himself in a case where he is in meetings with the defendant concurrently, he can't be trusted. I don't dispute the fact that he has a great legal mind since I saw his carefully worded and legalese responses to the questioning, but I think he's worth opposing, if only to send a message that we want openness and truth throughout the gov't.

The Confirmation "Kabuki Dance"

On a mailing list I administer, we're having a nice little roundtable on John Roberts, so I thought I'd share our collective wisdom for your edification (in chronological order):

First up, law school friend shared his letter to our US Senator:
In a few short days you will be asked to vote on the confirmation of Judge John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the United States. As a constituent, however small and insignificant that may be, I would like to express my desire that you vote to confirm him.

Although I have generally stood for liberalism, the Democratic Party and generally against the seemingly endless displays of selfishness and insensitivity of the Bush administration, I am confident that John Roberts is a great candidate for any seat on the Supreme Court. If there is any doubt about how he will do his job after the confirmation hearings (in which he is doing an excellent job), history gives us little to fear.

Since the beginning of this country, Presidents have tried to stack the Court with nominees who they believe will espouse the views of their parties and themselves, but almost universally to their chagrin. Instead, due to the unwavering commitment to the Rule of Law by the Justices, it has been almost impossible to determine how any given individual will rule on a number of issues. Even the Court's most conservative Justice, Antonin Scalia, rules on cases according to their legal merit and not due to his own personal and religious beliefs. He has spoken and written extensively on this issue.

Both history and the present lead me to believe, then, that although Judge Roberts may have been nominated during an extremely polarized time in our political history, and by one of the country's most uncompromising administrations, he is still a wonderful candidate for the position of Chief Justice. I hope that you will consider his qualifications outside the scope of simply the political, and instead consider him as a great legal scholar and judge. I believe he will serve this country well for many years to come.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Where racism is still alive and well

My ferret friend took issue with my post on racism a few days back, but to his credit, he misunderstood part of what I was saying. Basically, I wasn't saying it's racist to show black folks committing crimes (although I'd be happy to show him some interesting statistics from media studies showing how news broadcasts disproportionately feature black folks committing crime instead of whites. Nor was I arguing that just because more people of color are arrested does that a priori mean we are all racists.

The Disproportionate Minority Contact issue in the juvenile justice (and criminal justice) system means that people of color are in the system in numbers beyond what we would expect from their presence in the general population. Many statistical studies have shown that, controlling for actual crime rates (on self-reports and in comparison studies), people of color are arrested, tried, incarcerated, etc. in numbers disproportionate to their proportion of the population. That means that even if blacks or hispanics or vietnamese folks actually committed more crime than whites, they still are arrested and incarcerated more than whites are.

The point is not that we should stop catching people of color who commit crime, but that we shouldn't be overlooking the white folks who do drugs at up to six times the rate of black folks or who commit white collar crime at similarly disproportionate rates and never get caught. (end of rant)

A quick note on the Katrina disaster: there are a number of news stories that demonstrate how the federal response was less organized and useful than it was for past hurricane disasters (i.e. Andrew). However, I don't think it's right to jump to accusing federal agencies and the President of racism just because the disaster response was bungled. After all, there are plenty of alternative explanations, such as Mr. Brown of FEMA being an unqualified nepotistic appointee, President Bush playing guitar and eating cake for two days after New Orleans was swamped, or the large number of National Guard stationed overseas in our new front in the war on terror.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nerd's Harry Potter experience ruined in nerdiest way imagineable

From the Star Tribune paper in Minneapolis, a story of someone's Harry Potter experience being ruined by a plot spoiler:
"I was happily playing my online drug of choice, "World of Warcraft." While my orc warrior wandered through the streets of Orgimmar, a troll ran through town screaming, "SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE! SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!" I hadn't even started the book yet. In a fit of rage, I decided to duel the troll. Didn't work. He killed me. Stupid trolls."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Never, ever give up your vacation

It's hard work being president. That's why, despite being fully aware of the scope and timing of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush took some badly needed R&R time, eating cake and playing guitar! This man disgusts me. Can we please have a president who gives a damn? Or even pretends to a little more rapidly?

Oh, and just to show you where the noble, first amendment protected press is on this one, here's the most insightful look I've seen of the looting in New Orleans. Yes, from American's Finest News Source, no less.

Some politicians are dumb

I qualify my title because I happen to know quite a few people in politics who are really bright, but some national political figures are doing their profession a disservice (again). The NY Times reports that several states and the federal government are contemplating ideas such as price controls, repealing gas taxes, and other interventions to help bring prices down. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea:

1. Demand - Economics 101 teaches us that lower prices increase demand. As the photo caption in the Times article points out, some people stop buying gas when it gets more expensive. Lowering the price will encourage them to buy more. If our problem is supply interruptions, spiking demand by lowering prices seems to be A Bad Idea.

2. Conservation - the best way to make someone change their habits is to make it expensive. For example, every $1 increase in cigarette taxes reduces smoking by 10%. If we want people to conserve gas by buying hybrids, carpooling, etc...then lowering gas prices is the last thing to be doing.

3. Investing for the future - we all know that gas is limited. It may not run out for decades, but we might as well start preparing now. You know all that technological innovation that's supposedly going to save our assess when oil runs out? Well, even the smartest tech can't compete with government subsidies for gas and oil. Let's give hydrogen, wind power, and the rest a fair shake. In fact, let's use that gas tax revenue to invest in alternatives so we don't torpedo our economy with shortsightedness. We've tried that plenty of times already via the deficit, needless wars, and other innovations of the Bush administration.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

They Grow Up Fast

I'm currently studying adolescent development for a study on the juvenile justice system in my state. The material I'm reading is a fascinating look at how brain development during adolescence molds kids from mental incompentents in terms of judgment and reason to full adults. It becomes all the more interesting in the context of the justice system, because in the more serious cases, the desire is to punish youth like adults.

Two years ago, a 15-year-old kid took his father's pistol to school and murdered two people. He killed one kid on accident, and then chased down a second and shot him in the head in cold blood. I don't deny the murder was heinous, but the question is whether or not this kid really deserves the life sentence he received last week.

One study in particular I've read shows that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for judgment, reasoning, and impulse control. New research shows that this area doesn't fully develop until humans reach their mid-20s. The fascinating connection to criminal justice is that judgment, reasoning, and impulse control are key tools to both avoid criminal activity and to being competent to stand trial. So if a 15-year-old kid commits a horrible crime, there are two serious questions:
1) Did he know better or was he developmentally capable of controlling himself?
2) Is he competent to stand trial and is he as culpable as a fully developed adult for the murder?

I feel like this kid's sentence was a political thing. He ran someone down and shot them in the forehead - the gruesome nature of the crime insured he'd stand trial as an adult whether or not his brain really makes him one. If he'd been sentenced in juvenile court, he'd have received treatment, done time for community service, gone through therapy, and had a second chance at life at age 21. Instead, he can't get parole until 57.

One commentator on juvenile court says that the reason we even have a juvenile court system is that kids deserve a chance to emerge from their juvenile delinquency with their "life chances intact." I know that the two dead kids won't get their chance, but will two wrongs make a right?

Monday, September 05, 2005

Race as humor

My friends and I, white middle-class folk, often josh around about racial stereotypes. It's probably easy, given the countless advantages we've enjoyed growing up, attending good schools, and (for many of us) getting advanced degrees. So it hit me when two thoughts intersected this weekend: a friend mentioning his interest in race relations and some good journalism on race from the Daily Kos readers.

This country still has a lot of racism. It's easy sometimes to take to heart what the Bill Cosby's of the world have to say about attitudes against achievement in certain segments of the population. I think it's attractive because believing it means that it absolves me of responsibility. But I and my white counterparts could probably stand to do a little more to protest racism when it so clearly rears its head as it did in those AP picture captions.

I'm glad to find myself doing a bit these days doing research on juvenile justice and investigating what insiders call disproportionate minority contact (DMC). It's a technical term that basically means blacks, hispanics, and other racial minorities are overrepresented in arrests, incarcerations, and other aspects of the juvenile justice system in ways that clearly have nothing to do with a propensity to commit crimes.

One study I read discussed how probation officers were more likely to say black kids were "internally motivated" (by bad attitudes, disrespect for authority, etc...) to be delinquent while white kids are seen as "externally motivated" (affected by drug/alcohol addiction, mentall illness, family dysfunction...) Funny part is, white kids are the real druggies in America and black kids disproportionately live in families that put them at a higher risk for delinquency. So, as usual, things are bass ackwards.

I guess the point is that we have a long way to go, despite having constitutions, bills of rights, and laws that all support the spirit of equality.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The economics of gas gouging

Since Hurricane Katrina took out a wide swath of oil platforms and refineries on the Gulf Coast (see this cool NY Times graphic),
there have been widespread accounts of price gouging at the gas pump. Some folks have reported gas prices as high as $5 a gallon in the immediate vicinity of New Orleans. Others have reported that gas shortages are making it hard to find places to fill up. I guess I get confused when people talk of price gouging, though, because there's some basic economics behind the higher prices.

I realize that it is considered morally reprehensible to raise prices in response to natural disaster, but gasoline is a little different from water, food, or shelter. First of all, it's not a survival necessity. Second, the supply is very limited. Gas stations need their tanks refilled regularly and a disaster that wipes out infrastructure suddenly makes gas very scarce. Econ 101 teaches us that scarce items should become more expensive, since people become more willing to pay higher prices for scarce items. But isn't that price gouging?

I say no. There are plenty of examples of people acting panicky and irrational after disasters like this, and artificially low prices just encourages it. If gasoline has to stay cheap, people will fill their car plus 3 or 4 extra gas canisters (just to be safe). There's no quicker way to guarantee the gas will run out. If, on the other hand, a gas station can charge whatever it wants, some people will decide not to buy gas, a few people that really need it won't be able to afford it. But at least we won't suffer widespread scarcity.

I'm no fan of paying $3 a gallon for my gasoline, but I don't really have a problem paying fair market value.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Intelligent design discussion nailed by comic strip writer

I'll freely admit that I normally find the "Opus" comic rather uninteresting, but sometimes the analysis of political issues is boosted by unexpected sources. The comic that ran Sunday, August 28 pretty much sums up the ridiculousness of the term "intelligent design." Of course, there are some more traditional writers who point out why even those who believe in intelligent design are forging and fighting a false argument.

In a Baltimore paper, this writer points out that the debate over intelligent design is not about curricular differences - it's a debate between science and faith. Wikipedia has a fairly good summary of the intelligent design concept, and it does a good job of illustrating how intelligent design fails several tests for being an actual scientific hypothesis (such as being able to be proven true or false).

Alas for the days when one could actually argue the facts. Instead of being blatantly obvious that we should teach children science in school and faith at home, the intelligent design crowd turn this into another us v. them. We're restricting their freedom of faith or we hate Christianity.

You know, I'm a believing Christian and I don't have any problem reconciling the idea of God with evolution (after all, if God created Earth, she probably got evolution going, too). I wish these folks would open their minds a little. If nothing else, maybe they can laugh a little at Opus.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Continued productivity

I'm starting to believe that actual life productivity is inversely proportionate to the amount of time I spend blogging. As can be refereced in my many previous posts, there was a lot of activity prior to the July 1 end of my formal employment, and substantially less since I have become employed as a contractor. When it's blogging v. wage slavery, I post. When it's blogging v. working outside, however...

I just finished one of the many non-blogging things that occupies my time lately. Online shopping, this time for inkjet cartridges. As you may know, inkjet printer companies are the greatest unhanged scoundrels in the known universe, as they sell printers at near cost in order to suck you into a lifetime of cartridge slavery. Does that 50 mL cartridge really cost $24 to produce? I think not.

Many enterprising folks have started producing "refill kits" and "compatible cartridges" to bust the monopoly of the name-brand companies. I successfully shopped around once before and decided to try again. The caveat being that you can never be sure if the website you plan to order from existed last week and will still next week. I finally found a guy who reviewed inkjet websites for cost, customer service, etc. Thank God! I almost tossed my money and my credit card number into the ethers when I found a site with great prices that had no security for its shopping process. Am I seriously supposed to just transmit my order information naked through cyberspace?

Anyway, disaster was averted and my new ink is coming via Printpal. Ah, the torrid affair of internet shopping.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Snort me a river

When your toilet is slow, it becomes a constant battle to keep gross things down. Plunger and muscle combine to free blockages and send the undesireable material away. Well, unfortunately for those who use cocaine, they're flushing a little more than piss. They're flushing evidence. In Italy's Po River valley, users are flushing as much as 10 pounds of cocaine residue every day into the river.

Scientists were shocked to discover that the drug use suggested by the test of the river water is nearly three times higher than estimates by scientists and law enforcement officials. In other words, the numbers don't lie the way people taking surveys do.

I can't wait until this new testing method hits sports facilities. Stadiums will test the water leaving the locker room, causing a rash of on-the-field peeing by athletes. And you thought swuts was bad...

Alright already

Granola friend just gave me hell for letting my blog degrade into an archive of past spoutings. Since I spent less than half of July in my home state and no time at the office since July 1 (owing to the new job being a "work at home" deal), it's a little tricky to find time to blog. But then there's things like this that deserve commentary.

If you don't know, The Onion is a satirical newspaper that is only occasionally quoted as fact by foreign news outlets that don't know any better. And yet they do seem to capture the spirit of silliness in American politics. Sure, the White House hasn't actually denied Karl Rove exists, but only because there are 18 million easier ways to avoid holding him or anyone else accountable for outing a CIA agent.

People say they respect Bush for sticking to his guns even if they disagree with him. I would, too, if he actually did it. But Bush was quoted saying that they would bring the person responsible for leaking Valerie Plame's identity to justice. Instead, he's trying to protect Rove and everyone else at the expense of honesty, openness and justice.

If we want to elect someone who'll stick to his guns, let's find another Paul Wellstone. Or even a wrestler.

Walk 320 rods in these shoes

I just spent 4 days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern
Minnesota this past weekend. My fiancee and I went with another
couple and had a blast. It was my first time, so I learned all about
"double packing," "portaging," and not eating all your food for
breakfast on the first day (sorry, hon, I love my breakfast!).

First, some terminology. A portage is a rugged
path connecting two bodies of water. You portage your gear and
canoes by carrying them distances from a few hundred feet to a couple
miles. Except that in portage lanugage, you travel in "rods." Although I had an intellectual grasp of "portage" before this trip, there is nothing like carrying and balancing a 50 lb. canoe on your shoulders to teach you what portage really means.

The kicker was the third day, which had been planned as the "easy day." It was, on paper. Then we took a wrong turn and marched some 300 rods in the wrong direction and our friends went another 200-300 rods ahead of us. Much hilarity ensued as we had to find them, go back, find the path, go back, get the packs, go back, and help them bring their canoe and packs. And by hilarity I mean ass-nasty heaving and grunting and swearing and sweating.

Rule for next vacation: no to backpacks and yes to valets.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Luck of the Irish?

I went in for an interview for a research job today and I discovered that it wasn't really an interview. Instead of asking about my work style, how I problem solve, or what my experience was, I was confronted with a generous pay rate and an offer to "start immediately." When my previous job vanished on July 1, this was not what I expected...

My previous employment vanished when I told my employer in June that I planned to take two weeks (unpaid) vacation at the beginning of July. Since they had hinted since my hiring six months previous that I wasn't the person they were looking for full-time, I wasn't particularly surprised to find that I'd be unemployed upon my return from vacation. So it meant a plung back into unemployment, my second in a year.

Surprisingly, this span was as short as the first. Last time I finished a contract job (January), I got a call the end of my first week of unemployment giving me a great analyst position. This time, I went on vacation, got engaged, and returned to a phone call about a job opportunity in research. To top it off, it pays better, has more flexible hours, and even greater responsibility.

For the agnostic reader, there's your proof. God is good.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Beautiful exhaustion

Four frisbee games, a thunderstorm, and a visit to the Pizza Ranch. It pretty much sums up a great day with K. We're playing in a two day tournament and finished day one 0-4 but with a lot of fun and energy.

I also took some time to shoot the breeze about politics, which I feel distant from since forgoing my desk job three weeks ago. In fact, I often check my email only twice a day now - *gasp*

Anyway, I took some time to discuss the latest political weaseling with friend Josh. Is there any reason why Americans should have to accept a farce of justice at our highest levels of government? If I stole a $5 video from Target I'd pay a fine or do some time. But when a politician or top bureaucrat discloses top secret information for political gain (e.g. Karl Rove), everything changes. The President, who famously said that we are with him or the terrorists, decides he can afford one traitor in the government. The press lets the issue slide for two years because they decide that being a watchdog is one thing, pressing for justice is quite another. And then "the people" just seem to accept it as the cost of doing business. Or worse, just take sides every time, making the actual actors look like patriots for leading their head-butting herds.

Ridiculous.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Service with a smile

Vacation was a blast. We went east, driving through Illinois to Detroit, through New York and to Acadia National Park. We also hit my family reunion in New Hampshire and K and I got engaged! Not a bad trip! As a bonus, we also received a hotel room upgrade in Sault Ste. Marie on the way home, getting an in-suite jacuzzi for the price of a regular room! Now that's service. Contrast that with an experience at Don Pablo's this evening...

Our waitress comes by quickly to bring us the requisite chips and salsa. Good. Then she assumes that since we've cracked the menus we are ready to order. After placing a drink order (prices not marked in the menu...), we politely ask for a couple more minutes. Now I am known to complain that the extra minute you ask for often means five, but I also like more than 20 seconds to peruse the menu. What's the hurry, anyway, we sat down to eat at 8:30pm!

She gets our food order and then disappears into the ethers. Drinks are emptied, chips are depleted. We see her once, with fresh chips and salsa, but she doesn't hang around long enough to see beverages running low. That requires a flag down, at which point we tried to ask for waters as well as refills. Except that she takes off like the starter's gun just fired. She comes back next with the bill. "I'm not trying to rush you," despite the fact she never asked how the food was and didn't ask if we wanted take-home boxes despite rather full plates.

So we tipped low. K, having worked as a waitress, also left a note on the receipt about poor service so our waitress doesn't mistake a low tip for service for "low tippers."

Not the worst service I've received, but it's never good when the wait staff makes you feel like it's problematic to ask them for something.

I'll just reminisce about that Days Inn back in Michigan...

Friday, July 01, 2005

The end of drift

It’s my last day at my job and I leave tomorrow on a badly needed vacation. In some sense, though, it’s not a vacation from work that I need, but a vacation from my nebulous work circumstances. I haven’t had an open-ended job since May of 2003. I had a great research position I took at that time but that had a limited timeframe. And then I took this job as a temporary thing that kept being extended. But there’s something frustrating and ultimately un-engaging about knowing that you’re leaving. I think human nature is to become emotionally connected to our life experiences and having so many jobs that are fleeting works against that.

I’m thankful that my personal life is becoming steadily more stable and glad that it’s acting as a strong counter-balance to the challenges of work and school. Now if it could just get a little less busy :-)

Anyway, my faithful readers (both of you), I’m off to the East Coast for vacation starting tomorrow until July 13th, so don’t expect any posts. I’m going to be “car camping” (a term I didn’t know existed until two weeks ago having done it all my life and having called it just “camping”) so I don’t plan to post to the blog. But I’m sure you’ll find something else good to read in the meantime.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Building freedom, or just a better building?

Replacing the fallen World Trade towers, the newly redesigned Freedom Tower in New York City features many new terrorist-thwarting measures including a “heavily reinforced concrete core, steel bars on every floor and a lobby set back from the street and draped in protective panels of titanium and stainless steel.”

I’m not questioning that this building is more likely to withstand terrorist attack than the WTC did. But are we going about this the right way?

The Bullseye Problem
Seriously, if we are so sure that this building is going to be the target of truck bombs or airplanes, then why are we building it? To open a new front in the war on terror? To say we can build the unbreakable building? Does anyone recall the Titanic?

The “Just One Better” Principle
No matter how well the Freedom Tower is equipped, the surrounding buildings will not be so terrorist-proof. Nor will the surrounding people. Building something so defensible will just shift terrorists to softer targets. Like malls.

The War on Terror
So we build this enormous monument to freedom with massive defenses against truck bombs, etc. What does this imply about our progress in the war against terror? If we’re winning, shouldn’t I feel more secure? After all, it’s one kind of security to install a home alarm to make my home safer; it’s quite another sense of security to feel like I can leave my doors unlocked. If we’re not fighting a war to win the peace (i.e. security option two), then what are we doing?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A cyberspace debate on Friedman

Okay, so "debate" might be streching it a bit, but this guy did link to my commentary on Friedman's most recent geo-green post. His assessment is rather different from mine (quote: "Thomas Friedman is a jackass"). He takes issue with Friedman's supposed obsession with the Toyota Prius.

I feel like he missed the point. Energy independence isn't as difficult as it's made out to be and a number of very accessible technologies can make it happen. Friedman is arguing that we shouldn't be talking about nuclear plants, oil exploration or wars in the Middle East and should instead invest in conservation. You don't have to drive a Prius. You can drive a go kart or a Ford Expedition for all I care, just stick a hybrid, flexible fuel engine in there so you can get 300 miles to the gallon. Or have the government kick in the money, because the money we spend there will prevent us from having to spend money here.

An ounce of prevention

Three strikes and you’re out! Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!

Tough on crime? Not so much. Nicholas Kristof looks at how the politics of crime-fighting are often far removed from the discussion of what actually works (similar to the use of arthroscopic knee surgery).

For example, an new automobile anti-theft device has reduced car thefts in Boston by half. But insurance companies offer no rate discount. Same for burglar alarms for homes. The most effective are silent alarms that would result in the capture of burglars. But again, there’s no financial incentive (not to mention the scary fact of having a burglar hanging around for a while longer. And one more example: hiring cops is more effective at crime reduction than building prisons. But we spend money on prisons instead of cops or education.

It’s time for politics to get to where we can have a serious discussion about what works. It’s one thing to act tough for the masses; but once you get elected, do your job. In other words, give people incentives to act in a way that benefits the public by installing crime preventing alarms. And hire more cops to prevent crime instead of locking up offenders. Let's start spending our money on prevention instead of just talking tough.

I'm sure crime victims would agree.

(Look for an upcoming post on how this scientific/results look at abortion could drastically lower abortion rates without having to overturn Roe v. Wade. Which would be bad anyway).

A nerd can still love Star Wars

I finally saw Star Wars Episode III this weekend and I have a III point summary:
  • Seeing movies along is fun.
  • Great movie.
  • George Lucas has been redeemed (mostly).

K was in Los Angeles this weekend and with nerd friends unavailable I decided that the wait had gone on long enough. I took off for the 9:45 showing at my local cinema, got my “small” size popcorn and pop and headed to my seat. Did I mention I planted my butt in the seat exactly 10 seconds before “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” crossed the screen?

It was a good omen. Because this movie was good.

I had this nervous anticipation about Revenge of the Sith. After all, I was one of those lifelong Star Wars nerds (my college first-year dorm named our corridor the Mighty Wookies) and I had been disappointed by Episodes I and II. Were those critics right? Was my childhood reverence simply overriding my ability for fair judgment?

No. Because Episode III proves that Star Wars can still kick ass. I laughed at inside jokes, I bit my nails during tense scenes, and I felt drawn to the characters. Yes, there was actual character development. Hayden Christenson was good. Not just un-bad, but actually good.

So I forgive George Lucas. Well, mostly. Because Episode III shows that Star Wars can still be good 28 years after the original. Of course, it also demonstrates that Episodes I and II didn’t have to suck.

Oh well. Harry Potter 6 comes out in July, Goblet of Fire comes to theaters this winter, and book “4” of George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows is out in November. We nerds will be plenty busy.

Personal responsibility

What, have I gone to the dark side?

No, but over at a Business of Ferrets, my friend has a good point on the stalemate of the Minnesota Legislature. He points out that legislators aren't getting the job done because they don't have to pay. I have a solution.

To avoid having the poor, the ill, and the average citizen pay for the crap they call legislating at the capitol, I say we do the following. If the legislators fail to adjourn the session within the alloted time, we put a hold on all their paychecks. Each day, we deduct $100 from their pay until the day they finish. Each day the legislature is in session after July 1, we subtract $1000. This way, we penalize those who are responsible and we make headway in solving our $700 million budget shortfall.

Some say that junior legislators have no say in the budget negotiations, but this guy disagrees. I have trouble having much sympathy. Your inaction will result in critical shutdowns of state government services. And you're missing your family vacation? Boo fuckin' hoo.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Meta-arguments

Monty Python had a great sketch on having an argument, in which one character requests to start an argument and then proceeds to start an argument over it. It would be hilariously funny if it wasn’t such an accurate picture of how Republican leaders “debate” political issues these days.

In today’s paper, Paul Waldman nails the Republicans for their consistent “change the argument” strategy. From John Kerry’s “flip-flops” to the current overreaction to Sen. Durbin’s comments about Guantanamo Bay, many of the Republican leaders prefer “meta-arguments” – arguments about the arguments. This keeps the media coverage and political discussion well outside the bounds of substantive dialogue.

Waldman has two great examples. When Kerry was accused of flip-flopping, he responded with, “I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?” To the Republican leadership (and the news media), Kerry’s verbal gaffe was worse than the war that has caused 13,000 American casualties.*

And then there’s Durbin’s comment on the FBI’s Guantanamo report where he remarked that the abuses “sounded like something from the prisons of a dictatorial regime.” Waldman’s description of the Republican response deserves full quotes:
Republicans beat their breasts in outrage, saying Durbin had compared every man and woman serving in uniform to the Nazis, even that with his Senate speech he put Americans' lives at risk and gave succor to Osama Bin Laden

Maybe someday we’ll return to debating political issues (if in fact we ever really did), but for now, stay tuned for the latest right-wing spin on Waldman’s piece!

*Naturally, I now hate the troops, America, and give aid and comfort to Osama, Nazis and the devil for mentioning that any American lives have been lost. “Would I rather have Saddam back – he gassed his own people”

Friday, June 24, 2005

Tyranny of the majority

You’ve got a house. You’ve put a lot of hours painting, redecorating, repairing, and remodeling. It’s an emotional as well as financial investment.

You’ve got kids. It’s the only house they’ve known. They grew up finding Easter eggs in the corners of rooms and playing games in the backyard.

But the town council has decided that your land is a prime location for a “new urban” development, complete with upscale condos, a fru-fru coffee shop, and a clothing “boutique.”

You’ve got property rights on your side, but according to the Supreme Court, they’ve got eminent domain.

Apparently, it’s up to elected officials whether or not there’s a better public use for your land than you using it. While there’s a long history of using this power for railroads, highways, and other mass projects (even privately owned ones), the decision leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

in a minority opinion, Sandra Day O’Conner wrote that, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

In Minneapolis, a largely poor, African American community was razed to make way for Interstate 94 several decades back. At least that was a public works project. The development in this decision was to be primarily for the benefit of private companies (even if it does raise the tax base).

I’m sure there’s someone with a snappy rejoinder that sums this up, but I’ll just stay this decision stinks.