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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Election Roundup

There's little doubt among political pundits, or from political polls, that Democrats will take over the U.S. House of Representatives when the results are in next week. While it's a complicated math game of the 435 seats, the polls - which are more frequent in the tossup seats - show that Democrats could have as much as a 30-seat advantage when Congress reconvenes in January.

The Senate is much closer and all the more interesting for it. An MIT researcher put statistical analysis to the polls of the Senate seats up for election and found that it would be 50.3 Republicans and 49.7 Democrats. It all comes down to 4 states: NJ, VA, TN, and MO. Democrats are fairly likely to win in NJ, a feat which would put them at 49 seats. A pickup in any of the remaining three makes the Senate even (with Dick Cheney the tiebreaker) and if Dems get 2/3 of the seats in VA, TN, and MO (unlikely according to the polls), they'd have outright control of Congress. We'll see...

Finally, a little look at voter turnout. A George Mason University professor claims that we've been calculating voter turnout incorrectly for years, underestimating turnout by counting ineligible adults (immigrants and felons) as part of the voting age population when calculating turnout. His revised turnout figures show an approximate 5-point increase in national election turnout in 2004 (almost equal to the high points in the 1960s). However, his claim that the revised figures erase the therory of declining turnout doesn't hold water, since there were still substantial declines from the early 60s until the mid-90s. True, turnout has rebounded and the revised figures give a more accurate picture, but let's not be revisionists.

Note: One reason the numbers needed revision is the inordinate number of convicted felons who have lost their voting rights: an estimated 4.6 million in 2000, more than a third of which had completed their sentence.

Finally, state legislatures are also in the balance this election, and as they control Congressional redistricting, it will be interesting to see if Democrats take over in several states and if they start some Texas-style line-drawing.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hot Pants!

From today's news of the weird (and cool, er, hot): Dual Zone Heated Cargo Pants

Stigmatizing fat isn't burning it

In a broad (ahem) look at the social stigmatization of obesity, this article notes that making people feel bad for being fat doesn't make them thinner. In fact, it does the opposite. If social stigma fails, unlike with other social ills such as smoking, what's a society to do?

Who pays the price for climate change

Global warming is coming in like a freight train. Does it matter to you?

Friday, October 27, 2006

How To: talk to a climate change skeptic

The environmental news site Grist has a new feature: how to talk to a climate change skeptic. I particularly like their breakdown of climate change denialist arguments by "level of sophistication":
  • Silly
  • Naive
  • Specious
  • Scientific
Oh those silly global warming deniers.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A diamond is forever, except its value

This Atlantic article is 24 years old, but it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and well-written assessments of the diamond market and the manufacturing of the diamond engagement ring. Even knowing that social trends and customs change over time can't rub away that icky feeling of knowing this trend was marketed.

Update: MSP Airport cabs will take passengers or queue up

In an interesting twist, the Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minnesota found a way out of its dilemma involving Muslim cab drivers refusing rides to people carrying alcohol. Any cab driver who refuses a passenger has to return to the start of the cab queue, a wait of as much as 3 hours for another passenger. I don't think Muslims should be punished for wanting to follow their faith, but neither should people seeking cab drivers be discriminated against for not following Muslim law.

Update 10/26/06: as one might expect, a few other bloggers are weighing in. This guy says we should let Muslims discriminate, but post signs to let people vote with their dollars. Another says that any preferential treatment for Muslims based on their religion clearly violates the establishment of religion and is unconstitutional. Interesting stuff.

Save gas, lose weight!

Fuel efficiency and hybrids aren't the only things affecting gas consumption. Larger Americans are also affecting fuel economy, for the worse. With so many overweight Americans, we're using almost a billion more gallons of gasoline a year than we did in 1960 just to move that extra pudge around.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Soldiers appeal for redress

When the main force of "stay the course" proponents aren't doing the bleeding, it becomes all the more interesting to hear from soldiers on the ground that the mission in Iraq is not going well. Interestingly, there exists a legal route for soldiers wishing to express their frustrations with American military action, via protected communiques to Congress. These "Appeals for Redress" have been sent by 346 service men and women so far. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds as more soldiers learn that they still have civil rights while in uniform.


Four years ago, one of the greatest senators from the great state of Minnesota died in a plane crash just a week before his re-election. Often called the "conscience of the Senate," Paul Wellstone was a passionate believer in social justice, peace, and family values. His vote against the Iraq War resolution in the waning days of the campaign represented just one of his many stands on principle and one that would likely have led to his re-election.

If you're in the Twin Cities area, it's easily worth the cost of admission to see the Great American History Theatre's production Wellstone!, recalling the life of the much beloved senator from Minnesota. There are several times that actor Kris Nelson is so much in character that one can almost hope the Senator himself has returned. Viva Wellstone!

Ignoring the facts on minimum wage

The Economic Policy Institute has recently released a document supporting a minimum wage increase, citing the support of over 650 economists, including 5 Nobel Laureates. So what do conservatives have to say against this overwhelming evidence? Look no farther than Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman for an article that is stunning in its glossing over of the evidence.

First, let's establish Chapman's credentials to dispute the economic evidence. He's a journalist from a big city paper and has been a fellow for libertarian think tanks. His academic work was in business administration and "general studies." You'll note the lack of "economics" or "economist" anywhere in that vitae. So when Chapman argues that, "if businesses could make more money with that tradeoff, the government wouldn't have to force them to do it -- greed would be motivation enough," he's speaking from his deep experience in punditry, not economics.

Chapman does try to enlist the help of someone with economics qualifications, and quotes one economist from the Hoover Institution (where he happens to have been a fellow). This economist says that "the consensus in the trade is that each 10 percent add-on would destroy 1 to 2 percent of young people's jobs. So a $7.25 minimum wage could mean the loss of up to 1.6 million positions." (emphasis mine) Interestingly, this "consensus" position seems to be shared by none of the 650+ economists (and Nobel Laureates) who have presented their evidence to the contrary, so it would seem this "consensus" consists of one economist and Mr. Chapman.

Chapman concludes his argument by nit-picking. Ted Kennedy has said that a family of three with one parent working full-time and the other half-time at minimum wage is still in poverty. That's sixty hours a week, year round, and income of "$15,450 a year in wages, less than the poverty level of $16,600." But Chapman pulls out his slide rule and argues that this is fudging, because the Earned Income Tax Credit - no doubt something Chapman has long supported - boosts this family's income to over $17,000, out of poverty. Yes, Mr. Chapman knows how important it was to clear that up, seeing as how $17,000 for a family with two working parents and one child is a veritable fortune.

Accounting for inflation, the real value of the minimum wage has declined from near $8 to $5.15 and the proposed increase to $7.25 still fails to restore that value. But to do that might be too much, says Chapman, it might actually raise a family out of poverty.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Swiping the "swipeless" credit card

New Radio Frequency ID RFID-enabled credit cards won't need to be swiped (or even removed from your wallet) to make payments, ushering a new level of convenience. It may also enable a whole new kind of credit card theft. With a scanner as small as a pack of gum, someone could get a hold of your credit card information, including your name, card number, and expiration date.

The new type of credit card might make theft easier, but your card company is happy to sell you identify theft protection, only $12.99 a month! Nice. I think I'll stick with the non-broadcasting card for now...

What's that stuff between my toes?

From the inestimable Lifehacker, a link to Ask Alice, a Columbia University professor who helps answer all questions health, from suicidal thoughts to electric toothbrushes.

Is higher education the panacea?

In quite a novel commentary, this contributor to the Christian Science Monitor feels that the U.S. doesn't need more college graduates. Arguing that increasing the number of college attendants will only require depressed standards, he also notes that 6 of the 10 fastest growing occupations require less than a 4-year degree; four require no degree at all.

Will moving more folks into postsecondary give America the edge in the information economy, or simply force a lot of people into unnecessary postsecondary education?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Automated Craigslist searches

I'd like to thank Lifehacker for the tips on becoming a Craigslist power user. I've purchased a few items from Craigslist and gotten some freebies, but sometimes what you want isn't immediately available. And if you have a little time, that's no problem.

What was news to me is that every Craigslist search has an RSS feed. Every time you search for "weber grills" or "beanie babies," a little orange link at the bottom of the results page says "RSS." Copy that to your favorite RSS reader and - voila - real-time updates on the availability of your item.


Featuring another good blog

Looking for good writing on energy, modern day religion, and hypoallergenic cats? Look no further than Solar Kismet.

Huzzah! A new reader!

Some of my recent posts on energy and gas prices actually attracted a reader or two outside my social circle! Not only did these folks find my article interesting, they were also interested in "exchanging links." This means that we each have a link to the other's blog on our pages, which helps more people find our insightful ramblings (we hope).

The first to be profiled is It's So Obvious, a blog by garagejazz that covers three of my favorite topics: politics, energy and jazz (perhaps not exactly in that order). His posts on energy tend to be more in-depth than mine, such as yesterday's look at the Energy Information Administration's release of petroleum stocks and its potential impact on prices. He's got a left-of-center perspective, which also doesn't hurt. Check out his blog at - highly recommended.

I'll profile my second liaison soon, and add his link to the homepage.

The truth about offshoring

When the United States is in the middle of a domestically and internationally unpopular war, is it really the time to reveal that our economic "investments" overseas are often about avoiding labor laws to get cheap, expendable workers? China has just announced that it plans to pass new laws boosting the power of unions and ending labor abuses. From the story, we find that
The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. (emphasis added)

Nothing like exposing the American international business slogan: "the cheapest labor money can buy." Maybe it's time to pay a little more for that plasma tv to make sure it wasn't assembled in a sweatshop by an 8-year-old.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why we eat (that much)

Given the vast scale (pardon the pun) of America's obesity epidemic, I find the kind of psychological analysis done by Professor Brian Wansink to be a fascinating insight into American culture - where we value food based on price per quantity and little else. He's a Cornell psychologists whose food lab tests to see what kind of social and physical cues people use to shape their eating habits. The discovery? That people frequently eat more than they think they did. The cause? Everything from larger dinnerware to the company at the table.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Have booze, won't travel

The Minneapolis Airport has recently been struggling with an issue brought to them by travelers - Muslim cabbies refusing rides to people carrying (even unopened) liquor, citing their religious beliefs. This is similar to an issue arising a few months back, where national attention was focused on pharmacists who would refuse to dispense the morning-after pill, citing their Christian religious beliefs.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Muslim cabbie issue was that the Metropolitan Airports Commission was negotiating with cabbies and considering a special light for the cabs to indicate drivers who would refuse service to booze carriers. In other words, they were ready to accomodate this service distinction.

In an email listserv I read, one respondent found this idea a slippery slope:
Still, this seems to me to set a very troubling precedent. Cabbies are licensed to provide a secular public service that, in my mind, has nothing to do with their personal religious belief systems. If they are allowed to discriminate based upon their personal belief systems, where does it end? A special light for cabbies who refuse to transport scantily clad women? Another light for cabbies who refuse to transport women and men traveling together (unless of course they show proof of marriage)? I recall an incident reported in the local press a few years ago in which a Mpls cabbie kicked a gay couple out of his cab (which I believe violates the city's anti-discrimination ordinances). Perhaps local cab drivers and/or local Muslim leaders can chime in and educate the rest of us on this issue: What are the limits here? When should a cabbie's personal beliefs influence whom he chooses as a client?
The challenge is that both pharmaceuticals and cab rides fall under the purview of state licensing and therefore have a modicum of state oversight. I would think that nondiscrimination clauses should apply in both cases and that these cabbies should not be able to prohibit riders who are carrying legal and unopened substances.

After all, it really comes down to an issue of religion in a secular society - your freedom to practice extends right up until you force your beliefs on me. Christian fundies, take note.

A nifty new way to see candidates debate

Minnesota will be allowing all the gubernatorial candidates in this year's election to participate in 10-day online debate that started this Monday. Check out the announcement from E-Democracy for more details:

E-Democracy.Org and the Blandin Foundation are pleased to announce an online candidate debate with Minnesota’s gubernatorial candidates. The e-debate starts on Monday, October 9th and goes through Thursday, October 19th.

The officially confirmed and participating candidates - everyone on the ballot - include:

* Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Republican
* Atty Gen. Mike Hatch, DFL
* Peter Hutchinson, Independence
* Ken Pentel, Green
* Leslie Davis, American
* Walt Brown, Quit Raising Taxes

With new responses each weekday, this “on-demand” debate let’s you choose which candidates and questions to follow. With Voter Voices (below) you can have your say in text or multimedia. This is what any time, anywhere democracy is all about.

See the debate here or sign up to receive the e-debate e-mail by sending an email to MN Politics

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Don't Eat at Joe's for your health

There seem to be pretty regular stories about how an Asian diet (focused more on fish) or a Mediterranean diet (with olive oil, etc) helps to reduce the incidence of disease. You know which diet never gets mentioned? The American one, since it just seems to make people fat.

What really gets their gourd

When interviewed about the Foley scandal and its potential impact on their vote, many Republican evangelical Christians said that it was a personal moral failing of Foley's and not an issue with Republican leadership. More to the point, several commented along this vein: "I do not believe in homosexuality."

Note to fundies: soliciting sexual favors from minors is not the same as being gay.

Monday, October 09, 2006

See wind turbine construction in action!

In my new job capacity, I'm paying a lot more attention to wind power and this weekend I got to see a recently completed 1.65MW turbine in action. Check out this time lapse video of its construction.

Feed the beast?

It's a whole new world when a Cato Institute chairman not only comes out against "starving the beast" (the principle of shrinking government by cutting taxes) but says that in fact tax increases may be the most effective way to slow government spending.

As promised

Bush's anti-terror policies have made the world safer...

Friday, October 06, 2006

What's in a name?

A name can be from a much-loved relative, a Christian reference, or even a commercial product. But it's also a detriment to your employment hopes if it "sounds black." Lovely.

It's not enough to turn out the lights

It probably doesn't hurt that I have a new job doing research on alternative energy and local economic development, but I've been enthralled recently by ways to reduce electric bills. The concept of vampire appliances has particularly caught my attention, because it's annoying to think that I'm paying for electricity when I'm not even using a device. If you have a TV, a DVD player, or a home security system, check this out.

Oh, and if you're looking for compact fluorescent bulbs that have similar color to incadescents but don't cost an arm and a leg, check out this company for your energy efficient bulbs.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

We'd step in, but we don't want to gay bash

The Daily Show had a great segment this week about the Republican scandal over Congressman Foley, who turned out to be a pedophile that Republican leadership was unwilling to out for several months. One excuse offered by some Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, was that the leadership did not want to be perceived as gay bashing for outing Foley's predatory messages to Congressional pages.

Stewart notes that a party wanting to avoid gay bashing would do well to distinguish between being gay and being a pedophile.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A few points on health care

Rising health care costs come from a lot of places, one of which is simply the fact that we want to live healthier, longer. But this guy looks at some of the most significant ways to address the not-so-necessary costs of doing health care business.