Thursday, April 30, 2009

High court bombshell - NPR: "Supreme Court justice Souter to retire."

I wish I could write more about this but it's been one of those days.  See you tomorrow, dear reader.  I'm exhausted.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Save the Earth, buy an SUV – Jeff Jacoby notes in "The fuel-efficiency paradox" the counterintuitive phenomenon that as fuel efficiencies rise people drive more, so consumption does not really drop. Last summer, I demurred from long vacation drives because of $4 gas. This summer, I'll probably take the Pontiac Vibe down the Eastern seaboard to visit friends and family.
It depends on whose ox is being gored

Veronique de Rugy has an interesting analysis on budget deficits and interest rates in "When do deficits matter?" Money quote:

John Maynard Keynes, the 20th century’s preeminent defender of deficit spending, famously quipped, “In the long run, we are all dead.” Keynes did not give much guidance, though, on how we would pay for the funeral.
Nice one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'll go along with that

In the New Republic, here's Jonathan Chait on Arlen Specter:

When a politician switches parties, it’s customary for the party he’s abandoned to denounce him as an unprincipled hack, and the party he’s joined to praise him as a brave convert who’s genuinely seen the light. But I think it’s pretty clear that Specter is an unprincipled hack. If his best odds of keeping his Senate seat lay in joining the Communist party, he’d probably do that.
And I'll go along with this too:

Obviously, it’s a disaster for the Republicans.
But I'm hearing echoes of "permanent Republican majority" here:

Obama’s approval ratings are high and holding steady, Democrats remain far more popular than Republicans, Democrats held the first special election, and now they’ve picked up a party switch. It’s still early, but Obama is starting to build a self-sustaining psychology of success.
Here's a plausible – even likely – scenario where it all falls apart for the Democrats and it's already unfolding here in Massachusetts. Throughout the campaign Obama and his buddies were happy to play the class warfare card while making this solemn promise that nobody making under $250,000 a year would pay a "single dime" in additional taxes. But when you have debt like this, there's simply no way that the filthy "rich" can pay for everything. In addition, this Wild Toad's Ride of spending is coming just as the bill is coming due for the Baby Boomers' Social Security and Medicare.

So we've started out by taxing the non-rich with a regressive cigarette tax and Obama floated the Blue Dogs idea of returning to PAYGO rules again where budgets deficits are offset by spending cuts or tax hikes. This gives Obama an "out" to say "hey, I didn't want to raise taxes, but I gotta follow Paygo rules." Others think that a European-style value added tax is inevitable. China is worried we're just going to monetize our debt by printing money and devaluing the dollar.

Back to Massachusetts. Here in the Bay State, the state government (including former governor Mitt Romney) happily adopted an expensive health care mandate "deferring until another day any serious effort to control the state’s runaway health costs." Beacon Hill could never get a handle on the unions and runaway pensions are commonplace. The Big Dig sucked up untold transportation dollars. Now the bill has come due and Beacon Hill is "forced" to raise the sales tax to 6.25% because they couldn't control spending when it mattered. A backlash is brewing against Governor Deval Patrick who (IMHO) has a steep climb for re-election. Even the moribund Massachusetts Republican Party is showing signs of life again.

If (when?) the Obama administration employs the Otter defense ("you screwed up, you trusted us!") to raise taxes on everyone to pay for all this stuff we bought on the national credit card, there will be a political reckoning where Americans need to decide whether we want a European economic model or the traditional American model.
Sir Michael Caine declares: "To America!"

Telegraph UK: "Britain is going to need far more people like Sir Michael Caine"

His name, as they say, is Michael Caine. And he's not a happy bunny. The 76-year-old film star has revealed in colourful terms that he has had it, and will leave Britain if taxes get any higher.

"The Government has taken tax up to 50 per cent, and if it goes to 51 I will be back in America," he said at the weekend. "We've got 3.5 million layabouts on benefits, and I'm 76, getting up at 6am to go to work to keep them. Let's get everybody back to work so we can save a couple of billion and cut tax, not keep sticking it up."
Hear hear! (H/T Insty)
Beacon Hill approves sales tax hikeBoston Globe: "House lawmakers approved a sales tax hike last night by a veto-proof margin, capping a dramatic showdown with Governor Deval Patrick after he threatened to veto the broad-based tax increase."

Wonderful. A new benchmark for Massachusetts. Goodbye, retail business.
But I can still type - I'm just back from the dentist and my entire face is frozen. Somebody called my cell but I didn't pick up since my tongue is a slab of meat right now.

Speaking of, well, speaking I found this site called Presentation Zen about the art of giving a speech. One thing I noticed at this technical conference I just attended is the increasingly sophisticated presentations, full of videos and animations. Usually I consider flying text and ornate slide transitions as distracting window-dressing but some of the technical presentations I saw with active 3-D graphs were edifying and instructive.

It's a far cry from the days when presenters could be identified by the stack of projector slides they were carrying.

Monday, April 27, 2009

More money, Massachusetts

You know, generally I like the Boston Globe newspaper. But when they run editorials like this one today, I find myself yearning for their bankruptcy:

We don't think the effort to reform pensions, ethics, and municipal benefits should relax a bit. But let's face it: Without some kind of tax increase, life will be unsustainable for too many vulnerable people.

Those who think they don't need government services should thank their stars, and dig a little deeper.
Yes, it's a problem that some worthy social programs will be slashed. But Governor Patrick and Beacon Hill should have considered those cuts while they dawdled over pension reform, Big Dig overruns, and the half-billion hole created by forcing everybody in the state to get health insurance which – instead of driving down costs – has sent them skyward. (Also, see here and here.)

Now the state senate is urging a 6.25% sales tax (up from 5%) and the Globe says: "C'mon what's a little bit more?" The Globe, which has extensive experience in deficit spending, should adopt the same policy. Raise the price of a daily paper by a quarter and see if your finances improve.
President Never-look-straight-ahead - In the tennis game of an Obama speech, it's a look to the left, a look to the right...teleprompter meltdown!

Extra – TOTUS responds.
Situation normal: Osama Bin Laden dead or maybe not: "President Asif Ali Zardari said Monday that Pakistani Intelligence believes that Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is dead but acknowledged they had no evidence."

That and $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks. We should have expected no less from a guy named "As if!"
Update (4/28) - OMG, that was a typo. Thanks, eagle-eyed commenter!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Edwards flips, but not in his usual way

Today's NASCAR race at Talladega was a crash-fest for the ages, from the "Big One" at lap 8 to Carl Edwards' 200mph airborne flip into Ryan Newman's car and then into the track fence. Seven fans were injured due to the 99 car's debris, but it's an absolute wonder that nobody was killed, including Carl Edwards. His totaled Ford landed 20 yards short of the finish line and he still climbed out and sprinted the length to the line, a la Ricky Bobby in (appropriately enough) "Talladega Nights."
Amazing Race update – China marathon

After last week's elimination, we're down to the Final Four and we're still in China. Teams head from Guilin to Beijing where they need to find a foot massage spa. This seems to continue to help Team Esquire since Tammy & Victor both speak Chinese; at the airport, they ask for plane seats as close to the front as possible. Then they ask (in Chinese) to put the remaining teams in the back of the plane. There's a palpable chill between Team Sistahs and Margie & Luke, due to last week's run-in.

Team Ginger arrives at the parlor first and it's the Roadblock: one team member receives a foot massage. However, this traditional Chinese foot massage is very aggressive and clearly painful. Jaime of Team Ginger starts crying. Kisha chews on a towel because of the pain. Tammy embraces her zen and simply breathes through the massage. After the massages, teams head to a sports technology school or something.

The teams are bunched pretty close after the Roadblock and at the natatorium it's the Detour: Sync or Swim. Teams may either do a synchronized dive or swim eight lengths of the pool. Tammy & Victor arrive first and choose to do the dive since they can't swim very well. Kisha & Jen choose the same option for the same reason. However, the three meter board is too high for Team Sistahs and they back out to swim. Meanwhile, Team Ginger and Team Say What are putting on the advanced Speedo swimsuits for their swim.

At the Swim Detour, they keep showing the much slower swim times for the Racers vs. Michael Phelps' time in the Beijing Olympics. Team Ginger finishes first and heads to the Pit Stop at the Drum Tower. They're followed by Margie & Luke. Meanwhile, Tammy & Victor change from synchronized diving to swimming because they can't hit the water at the same time. Kisha & Jen (mostly Jen) are wracked with anxiety at either swimming or diving. It seems like either Detour is insurmountable for Team Sistahs. Team Esquire leaves as Jen is crouched on the floor, crying; so it looks like Team Sistahs is done. They're both doing the swimming Detour with life jackets on.

There's some dramatic Amazing Race editing where they try to make it appear the teams are lost in traffic or something, but Jaime & Cara (who left the Detour first) arrive to the mat first where Phil is waiting. Curiously, he announces that Team Ginger is "the first team to arrive" and not, as I've noted many times, "Team #1." Hmmmm... It turns out that this is one of those "continuation" legs of the Race and Phil hands them another clue envelope directing them to the next task.

Keep on Racin'!

Next week – Chinese food that isn't General Tso's chicken.
Save the Earth, buy a Hummer - Jeff Jacoby explains the counter-intuitive relationship between gas prices and green policy.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Quixotic, quizzical and exotic wordplay

NPR: "At Scrabble tournament, it's all about the Q"

It's hip to be square this weekend at the annual National School Scrabble Competition in Providence, R.I., where fifth- through eighth-graders are facing off in a two-on-two version of the board game.

First prize is $10,000 - and "Q" is definitely the hot letter at the tournament, which kicks off tonight. The team that makes the best play using a Q gets an extra prize from basketball star Shaquille O'Neal: The Phoenix Suns have donated one of his jerseys.
Remember that "qat" and "qaid" are legal Scrabble words. "Shaqzilla" is questionable.

It's all about the wordplay.

The Massachusetts health-care experiment

One of the motivating factors behind the Bay State's push to make everybody get health insurance was to curtail expensive emergency room visits. The idea was that if people visit a doctor before their condition warrants a trip to the ER, it would save Massachusetts money in the long run. How's that working out?

More people are seeking care in hospital emergency rooms, and the cost of caring for ER patients has soared 17 percent over two years, despite efforts to direct patients with nonurgent problems to primary care doctors instead, according to new state data.
Beacon Hill insists we shouldn't interpret failure as, well, failure:

Massachusetts officials yesterday cautioned against drawing conclusions about whether the state's new insurance mandate has failed to ease overuse of the emergency room, saying more years of data are needed to measure the law's impact.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Geh bai widdalidda hep fumma fends – This video of Joe Cocker comes with subtitles that may or may not be correct. (H/T Ace)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Today is Earth Day, or something – Scrivener: "Save the Earth. Grow the economy." FWIW, this post is begging for a recap of the Simon-Ehrlich wager.
Phasing out Social Security's universality

Hate to be a broken record on this (will future generations understand that idiom?) but in today's WashPost editorial, they propose a fundamental change to Social Security:

Reduce Social Security benefits for the well-off while protecting those who depend on the program. As controversial as Social Security reform is, every serious policy expert recognizes the need for changes, including benefit reductions. Better targeted reductions than across-the-board cuts.
Social Security already has a built-in progressive structure, but this would irredeemably alter the program from one based (roughly) on the total taxes paid into the system by each taxpayer to yet another welfare program.
The torture issue, then and now

I was going to write something about the ongoing torture debate until I found out that Jeff Jacoby already wrote it. First of all, I agree with Jacoby and Jim Manzi that torture is un-American:

At a time when not only conservative hawks but even some notable liberals were making the case for using torture to thwart Al Qaeda, I contended that the cruel abuse of terrorist detainees was something we could never countenance - not just because torture is illegal, unreliable, and a threat to the innocent, but because it is one of those practices that a civilized society cannot engage in without undermining its right to call itself civilized.
But there's also no denying that the consensus on torture has shifted eight years after 9/11. It's this shift in opinion that puts the CIA into a sinusoidal wave of response from extra-legal action to tentative inaction. Push too hard and it's torture; not hard enough, and who knows?

Senior terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at first "resisted giving any answers" when asked about future attacks, but waterboarding led him to divulge "specific, actionable intelligence." One result was the foiling of Al Qaeda's planned "Second Wave" - a 9/11-like plot to crash a hijacked airliner into a Los Angeles skyscraper.

But what if it hadn't been foiled? Suppose the CIA had been denied permission to use brutal interrogation tactics, and Al Qaeda had consequently gone on to murder thousands of additional victims in California. What kind of conversation would we be having once it became known that the refusal to subject KSM to waterboarding had come at so steep a price? How many of those now blasting the Bush administration for allowing torture would be blasting it instead for not preventing a second bloodbath?

None of this is meant as a defense of torture, which I oppose as adamantly as ever. But even those of us who were against the Bush interrogation policy should be able to acknowledge the good faith of those who disagreed and the exigency in which they found themselves. To say nothing of the lives their decisions may have saved.
To be sure, in the wake of 9/11, Congressional leaders were asking if the CIA techniques were tough enough:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

"The briefer was specifically asked if the methods were tough enough," said a U.S. official who witnessed the exchange.
Seven years later, the two Democrats who were present at the briefings now claim they don't know nothing about no torture:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who in 2002 was the ranking Democrat on the House committee, has said in public statements that she recalls being briefed on the methods, including waterboarding. She insists, however, that the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal — not that they were going to be used.

By contrast, the ranking Republican on the House committee at the time, Porter J. Goss of Florida, who later served as C.I.A. director, recalls a clear message that the methods would be used.

"We were briefed, and we certainly understood what C.I.A. was doing," Mr. Goss said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, who was committee chairman in 2002, said in an interview that he did not recall ever being briefed on the methods, though government officials with access to records say all four committee leaders received multiple briefings.
It would seem perfectly defendable to state that America has shifted from Jack Bauer mode since 2001 and an honest discussion would start with both the techniques and the results of torture. Regrettably, the Obama administration redacted positive views by Admiral Dennis Blair in the initial release of CIA documents, opening themselves up to the familiar charge of playing politics with intelligence. Here's the National Intelligence Director again:

"I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past, but I do not fault those who made the decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given."
I'm confident that, despite Obama's recent red meat to the blogging Left, there will be no prosecution of anybody from the Bush administration for actions taken during an overheated moment in time. If so, the first witness for the defense will be Dennis Blair and the second will be Nancy Pelosi.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On a "bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009"

Here we go. NY Times: "Banned techniques yielded 'high value information'"

President Obama's national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists.

"High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the intelligence director, wrote in a memo to his staff last Thursday.
I really don't have time to give this proper attention tonight so I'll kick it over to Ace and Minuteman and Patterico. Gotta go to bed; more tomorrow.
Goin' down in a heap - Massachusetts' awful governor Deval Patrick is not polling well lately.  The man really seems overwhelmed by his office.  Maybe Kerry Healey can give it another shot next election.
From the KGB archives - Commentary magazine has web-only preview of "I.F. Stone, Soviet agent - case closed."  Quote: "To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy."  OK, then.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The national latte

Here's Greg Mankiw on Obama's call for $100 million (with an "m") in budget cuts:

Just to be clear: $100 million represents .003 percent of $3.5 trillion.

To put those numbers in perspective, imagine that the head of a household with annual spending of $100,000 called everyone in the family together to deal with a $34,000 budget shortfall. How much would he or she announce that spending had be cut? By $3 over the course of the year--approximately the cost of one latte at Starbucks. The other $33,997? We can put that on the family credit card and worry about it next year.
The ship of state is sinking and the Obama administration is lightening the load by tossing all the ping-pong balls overboard:

President Obama, whose healthcare and economic stimulus initiatives threaten to dramatically inflate the federal budget deficit, heralded a new push Saturday to cut wasteful spending in Washington....

The president singled out a move by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to end consulting contracts to create seals and logos that he said had cost the department $3 million since 2003.
I have to ask: are there no dissenting voices, no devil's advocates, no consiglieres, on Obama's staff? Because I can only imagine the President threw out this risible idea and the White House sycophants nodded with great intensity at the revelation that office supplies can be purchased in bulk. It's enough to make you feel sorry for Robert Gibbs, who has to somehow explain away this nonsense.

ExtraWizbang: "Seriously. Obama can't even go for a billion in savings?"

More – Moderate Voice chirps happily: every little bit counts! Really, that's what you're going with? Suddenly I feel so much better about the $10 I'm saving every month for my kids' college tuition.

Update (4/21) - USN&WP Political Bulletin: "Obama cabinet spending cuts ridiculed."
This one's for you, Des - Lovers of musical oddities, rejoice.  Slate has "A brief history of the spoken-word pop hit."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Amazing Race update – Stepping on toes in China

Team Mighty Mites are starting out this leg with a three-hour time penalty because they broke the rules last week by trading stuff from their backpack for a taxi ride. The five remaining teams are heading from Bangkok to Guilin, China where they need to find a hair salon. Team Esquire is psyched because, well, Tammy and Victor are Chinese and can speak the language. Thus, they perfectly understand their driver when he says: "I'm lost." Team Sistahs jump ahead because their later flight actually leaves ahead of everybody else's delayed connection.

At the first clue, it's just a "go here" clue and teams have to go to Bridge #24. Luke gives Jen an elbow sweep at the clue box which leads to a minor expletive. OK, she called Luke a "bitch" because it was a "bitch move" – whatever that means. At the bridge, it's the Roadblock and teams have to train a cormorant to retrieve a fish. Luke does a big shove to Kisha so there's some bad blood building here. Team Sistahs finish first, just ahead of Team Ginger; they need to head to the Ancient South Gate.

Back at the first clue box, Team Mighty Mites hit their Speed Bump which is part of their penalty for the last leg. It's not difficult: they just need to wash and dry hair at the salon before they can continue. They're quite a bit behind the other teams.

At the South Gate, it's the Detour: Choreography or Calligraphy. Teams may either learn a dance or carefully copy Chinese characters. Everybody picks calligraphy except the former cheerleaders on Team Ginger. Michael & Mark are just arriving at the Roadblock. Back at the Detour, Chinese-Americans Tammy & Victor tell their calligraphy teacher that if they don't win "our parents will cry themselves to death." Jaime & Cara can't believe they can't complete the dance and one of them starts in with the "do you speak English" complaint. This isn't the first time where one of the redheads is annoyed to find that people around the world don't understand English. After all their work, they decide to give up the choreography Detour but then they figure it's too late to switch and go back to dance.

Tammy & Victor finish their Detour and travel by foot to the Pit Stop, which is next to two pagodas. But three teams finish close together and runners Kisha & Jen arrive first, followed by Tammy & Victor, then Margie & Luke. An argument ensues between Team Say What and Team Sistahs about who shoved whom. Margie seems to be taking it in stride until Team Sistahs appears to be laughing at deaf Luke's angry signing. Then her mother instinct kicks in and she starts yelling back at Kisha & Jen. I heard on the Internet that this argument lasted 45 minutes but it's cut short here. Anyway, Team Ginger finishes their dance and Team Mighty Mites can't make up their penalty – they are eliminated at the mat.

Final standings:

#1 – Team Sistahs – Kisha & Jen
#2 – Team Esquire – Tammy & Victor
#3 – Team Say What? – Margie & Luke
#4 – Team Ginger – Jaime & Cara
#5 – Team Mighty Mites – Michael & Mark – PHILIMINATED

Next week – Painful foot massages.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Nobody doesn't love Mark Martin - The 50-year-old racer won tonight's NASCAR race at Phoenix, holding off a strong Tony Stewart.  A steady stream of guys he just beat came to Victory Lane to congratulate him.

OTOH, it's becoming increasingly clear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not a race car driver.  He's a franchise who just happens to drive a car occasionally.  Sorry, Junior Nation, but you know it's true.
Shut up, they explained - Two stories on the tolerance of the Left when it comes to the marketplace of ideas: first, David Horowitz details how "Campus leftists don't believe in free speech." Then Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank acts surprised that the Left is in a perpetual state of outrage: "It made sense for them to be angry when George W. Bush was in the White House. But now, even under Obama, the anger on the left is, if anything, more personal and vitriolic than on the right."

Extra - Flashback to this study indicating how the Left uses language and logic to make their philosophy clear to everyone.
Saving for college - This NY Times article offers some advice.  I'm linking to it because it mentions the Fidelity 529 credit card (which I have) that dumps 2% of your credit card purchases to a 529 college account.  Every little bit helps.
Smoot what-now? - Fox News: "Congress to end tax-free online shopping."  Ah, this will end well, just like every other time Congress has moved to restrict free trade.

Farewell, Amazon, we barely knew ye.
Back from Orlando

Briefly, here's the rundown of Wi-Fi access during my business trip to Florida:

Bradley (Hartford/Springfield) Airport - Free Wi-Fi
Newark - Not free
Orlando - Free
Ronald Reagan/Washington - Not free
Hotel - Allegedly free, but with a complicated configuration
Convention center - Free

Should there be a federal mandate for complimentary Wi-Fi everywhere?  Yes.  Yes, indeed.  I have a blog audience to consider - literally dozens and dozens of readers.

In other travel news: all my flights were wonderful and my 6'2" frame wasn't the least-bit cramped in those spacious airline seats.  But I kid.

Finally, the staff at the Springhill Marriott in Orlando were superb.  Very courteous, helpful, and professional.  Kudos to you!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kids need discipline and adults need to be adults

On the tenth anniversary of Columbine, former teacher and author Caitlin Flanagan reflects on “The High Cost of Coddling

"He's going to end up in reform school," we would say of a bully or a fighter, some luckless child of a rotten drunk or a mean single mother. One way or another, it came to pass: Boys disappeared and were not missed.
Due process? Who knew, who cared? All we knew was that the funny-looking, heavy-set boy who used to smash kids' heads into the porcelain backsplash at the drinking fountain of Cragmont School was no more a menace in our lives.
Flanagan details how classroom killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were cast as the misunderstood misfits instead of a threat and attempts to impose discipline were half-hearted and easily circumvented. In the conclusion, she calls for a return to the lost art of parenting:

In my teaching days, no single document shaped my thinking as much as Flannery O'Connor's 1963 essay called "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade." It concerned neither guns nor violence, neither cliques nor experimental approaches to the treatment of adolescent depression. It was about . . . books. In defending the teaching of the great works of the Western canon rather than those of the modern day (which kids far preferred), she said something wise, the sort of thing an adult might say. She said that the whims and preferences of children should always, always be sublimated to the sense and judgment of their elders.
"And what if the student finds this is not to his taste?" O'Connor asked. "Well that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."
Hey, nobody wants to fight with the kids, but it’s part of the job.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Graph included - Ross Douthat on the tea parties: "So if you're inclined to sneer and giggle at the Tea Parties, keep in mind that just because a group of protesters looks ragged, resentful, and naive, that doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong to be alarmed."
Time to focus - Big presentation this afternoon.  Must...avoid...Memeorandum!

Update - In the words of Andy Bernard:

"Nailed it!"

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's tax day - David Walker on CNN: "Why your taxes could double."  You know what that's about.
Netbooks everywhere - Lots and lots of tiny laptops, especially from European conference attendees.  Macbooks are not well-represented among the technical crowd.
Science & defense - I just finished watching a presentation by an Israeli professor who was using optical fiber to monitor for underground activity.  Specifically, the fiber is used to sense for smuggling tunnels used to move weapons from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.
Wi-Fi woes - It's free at Bradley Airport but you have to pay (natch) in New Jersey.  However, there's complimentary access here at the conference so everyone can check their email.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bloggin' from Bradley - Well, I forgot to remove my belt going through the metal detector and forgot that I can't bring on a bottled water.  I think the Aquafina conglomerate is behind that one, so they can maintain their monopoly in the terminal.  Also, I was directed through the only "puffer" kiosk which blows air on passengers to detect for explosive residue.

I have a connecting flight through Newark so the whole day is blown sitting in airports, drinking coffee.  Well, at least I can check the news on my new netbook.

Monday, April 13, 2009

South to the Sunshine state - I'm off to another conference where I'll be presenting a paper titled "Reliability of optical fibers in a cryogenic environment."  How cool is that?  (Yuk yuk)  Wi-Fi is everywhere now, so I'll be checking in with enthralling updates.
Hybrid limousine liberal environmentalism

How's that for a word chain? Anyway, here's "Green is the new luxury" from this Sunday's Boston Globe:

Protecting the environment is seen as a liberal cause, but new research suggests that it may be just as much a "limousine liberal" cause. Researchers were tipped off by surveys showing that people bought the Toyota Prius primarily because it made a personal statement, not because of environmental conservation. This led the researchers to theorize that so-called green products allow people to signal not only their altruism but their ability to afford altruism. In other words, green products are now status symbols. In several experiments, people who first read a short story that primed thoughts about status competition were then more likely to prefer a green product. However, when status was taken out of the equation - by telling people that they'd be shopping in private or that the green product was cheaper - people were actually somewhat less likely to prefer the green product. These findings imply that marketers should sell green products as a form of luxury, rather than as a form of charity.

Griskevicius, V. et al., "Going Green to Be Seen: Status, Reputation, and Conspicuous Conservation," University of Minnesota (March 2009).
But then that would mean all those Hollywood greens are phonies. Say it ain't so!
From the Wall of Sound to three walls of concrete - LA Times: "Phil Spector convicted of second-degree murder."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Amazing Race update – Bangkok 5

Well, it's back to work after a two-week hiatus. There are five teams remaining on the Race and they're staying in Thailand, traveling from Phuket to Bangkok. Let me take this moment to note that "Bangkok 8" is a great piece of fiction if you're ever looking to understand Thai/Buddhist culture.

Everybody's on the same flight and then they all arrive at the Roadblock where one team member must attach a propeller to a traditional Thai boat. It's really not that hard putting a nut on a bolt and Team Say What? finishes first. But now everybody has to negotiate the confusing river system and find a particular pier with the next clue. Team Ginger goes back to their taxi for their packs, which may or may not be the right thing to do, depending on whether the boats return to the original dock. Victor of Team Esquire can't figure out "righty tighty." Team Sistahs leave the dock but not only do they leave behind their backpacks, they leave their fanny pack with their passports.

Margie & Luke arrive first at the next clue which is a Detour: Broken Teeth or Broken Record. Teams may either find dentures for five toothless Thais or sing karaoke in the back of a "party taxi" as it drives through crowded Bangkok streets. The teams who had left behind their bags are yelling at each other; Mike & Mark in particular can't agree on whether to do the Detour first or get their bags. Everybody chooses the party taxis except Team Say What since deaf Luke can't sing very well. They finish first and head to the Pit Stop.

Team Sistahs finish their Detour next but they don't have their bags, passports or, in Kisha's case, shoes. They convince a taxi driver to take them to the Pit Stop for free but I don't see how they can continue the Race without their passports. In a previous Race, I distinctly remember (found the link!) that a team that left their shoes behind had to buy new ones in the airport on the next leg. In other words, when you "check in" at the Pit Stop, you can't go back for your stuff. Sure enough, Phil tells Kisha & Jen that they cannot be checked in without their passports. On the flip side, Team Mighty Mites went back for their bags but haven't completed the Detour yet.

It's hard to tell who's going to make it to Phil. But Team Mighty Mites completes their Detour and heads to the mat ahead of Team Sistahs. However, they are announced as "the fourth team to arrive" and not "Team #4" which is always bad news. It turns out that in their desperation to pay taxi drivers, Michael & Mark traded stuff from their backpacks and even handed over a wristwatch. This is explicitly against Race rules and they must serve two two-hour penalties (four hours total) which essentially kills their chances for this leg. However, it's a non-elimination leg so they're still in the Race. But they still have to serve their time penalty and then face a Speed Bump on the next leg.

Final standings:

#1 – Team Say What? – Margie & Luke
#2 – Team Ginger – Jaime & Cara
#3 – Team Esquire – Tammy & Victor
#4 – Team Sistahs – Kisha & Jen
#5 – Team Mighty Mites – Michael & Mark

Next week – Tension at the mat.
Easter SEALS - Fox News: "American ship captain Richard Phillips rescued safely from Somali pirates" By Navy Seals, according to early reports.

Extra - Blackfive: "How the rescue happened"

More – Let's be honest: if this had ended badly, the criticism would have been swift and heavy on President Obama. He deserves credit for approving a rescue mission over inaction and thank heaven for advanced scoping optics and American sharpshooters.

And, of course, Memeorandum has links for all.
Happy Easter!

From First Peter, 1 3:9

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

WashPost: Yeah, Obama's going to raise your taxes

That promise that taxpayers earning under $250,000 won't see their taxes go up (“not one dime!”) will be non-operational soon. Here's the Washington Post with an editorial on “Who pays taxes
This matters because the simple truth is that in the coming years, taxes will have to go up to help close the government's gaping fiscal hole. Much of the budget gap should be covered by spending cuts, but judging from recent budget proposals by both parties, neither has an appetite for reductions anywhere near what will be needed.

When taxes go up, they should be increased in a way that makes the tax code more progressive. Income inequality has widened for the past three decades, and it only makes sense for those who have benefited to pay more. But there is a limit to how much the tippy top should bear. President Obama has promised that taxes will not be increased for families making under $250,000. That is a promise that will probably have to be dropped down the road. There just isn't enough revenue to be found above that figure unless we create a system so lopsided that voters would always want more government spending because it would come at such a low price.
This last point was the crux of a significant argument I had with an old friend on election night: Exxon now pays more in taxes than the bottom 50% of taxpayers. When half the population is indifferent the cost of government, there's no brakes on its expansion. Q.E.D.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Night Lights fever - So Coach Eric is going to the East Dillon Lions?  Is Riggins still going to San Antonio State as Lyla heads off to Vanderbilt?  Who's going to be playing for the Dillon Panthers next season?

Either they're going to follow these characters to college (Tyra too!) or there are going to be a lot of new faces in Dillon next year.

Your Bay State tax dollars at work, such as it is in Massachusetts

Boston’s mass transit system, the MBTA, is flat broke:
The MBTA would halt all evening and weekend commuter rail service, eliminate six Green Line stops, discontinue lightly used bus routes, and lay off 805 employees if the agency does not get legislative help with its $160 million deficit, according to a state document.
Here’s a clue why fares will soar. Boston Globe: “MBTA rehired retired officials
Four MBTA officials who retired under the agency's generous pension plan were then rehired under contracts to do their old jobs, earning large consulting checks even while they continued to receive their full pension payments, according to public records.
I think it’s time to run for public office.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Snot-nosed kid - What's the deal with that red-headed brat who won't eat the paella his mother made for dinner?  Then she orders him pizza!  Annoying.
We're all Billy Joel now

Here's Megan McArdle with "The incredible shrinking public pension funds"

America's public sector pensions have been a scandal for years. It wasn't that long ago that they finally got around to doing their accounting the way that normal pensions do: by showing how likely their assets were to generate enough revenue to pay for future benefits. When they did, we found out what critics had long been claiming: many pension funds for state and local governments were disastrously underfunded. Politicians had gotten into the habit of promising generous pensions as a "cheap" giveaway to powerful unions.
There's a story on VH1's Behind the Music about how Billy Joel went to his safe-deposit box at the bank to get some cash and it was stuffed to the brim with IOUs from his then-manager Frank Weber. (Joel would sue Weber and his own lawyers for breach of fiduciary duty.) That's exactly what's going to happen in about thirty years when Social Security goes bankrupt, pensions implode, and tax rates soar to cover universal health care. And when Generation X asks where the money went, Washington will shrug and stammer: "Dude, it's long gone."
Commies in our midst - For the 47% of Americans who aren't sure if capitalism (for all its recent faults) is superior to socialism, I suggest you watch this and/or read Joshua Muravchik's important book.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Stupid with money

This morning, I heard Massachusetts District Attorney Martha Coakley complain about "people victimized by predatory lenders." Meanwhile, Congress is moving to firmly close the barn door on the escaped horse of the mortgage crisis by passing the The Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act of 2009. Here's a snippet from the Los Angeles Times:

The bill would also impose a federal "duty of care" standard requiring loan officers to offer applicants terms and rates that are "appropriate" to their income and ability to repay.
Wow. Well, thank heaven we now have federal law in the works to make sure that banks do what they should have been doing all along. Because if banks are reckless with their lending practices they could lose money get a government bailout.

Maybe the time has come for a national curriculum on personal finance. Here's lesson #1:

But since we've now established that it's the government's role to keep Americans from doing dumb things with their money, shouldn't we outlaw payday loans?

Payday lending businesses provide short-term cash to borrowers who pay a fee and give a post-dated check to the lender, which is typically cashed after the borrower's next payday. Payday lenders charge interest rates of 400 percent or more on an annual basis. Since most loans are quickly repaid, the actual rates paid are much lower than that.
How about rent-to-own businesses?

Although installment payments are low -- usually less than $20 a week -- the charges at these outlets are far higher than the interest rates charged by banks or credit-card companies, often running as much as 200 percent. As a result, products end up costing three or four times their retail price.
How about federal intervention against extended warranties?

This holiday season, shoppers are expected to spend over a billion dollars on extended warranties for laptops, flat-screen TVs, other electronics, and appliances.

And almost all of it will be money down the drain.

Retailers are pushing hard to get you to buy extended warranties, or service plans, because they're cash cows. Stores keep 50 percent or more of what they charge for warranties. That's much more than they can make selling actual products.
And so on. Look, people make poor financial decisions because they don't understand basic concepts like interest and debt rollover. And there are many in Congress who are willing to let the banks do whatever they want because they accept huge sums of campaign contributions. But I'm not at all convinced it's the role of the federal government to make those decisions for Americans. Better to teach citizens a little fiscal common sense than submit to another expansion of the nanny state.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Get happy!

H/T Maggie. I like the exponential growth, esp. at the start.
Skyrockets in flight - Interesting thought from Slate's Explainer: can the North Koreans even track the missile they launched or do they light the fuse and watch it lift off? The computers they use must be leftover Vic-20s or something.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Dud - NYT: "North Korean missile launch was a failure" Achieving nowhere near orbit, everything fell into the Sea of Japan.

Update & clarification (4/6) - That earlier report included a misleading map: it turns out the missile went higher and farther than originally reported, sailing all the way over Japan.
Avert your eyes, America - Scrivener: "The real federal budget deficit for 2008: $3 trillion, not $455 billion."
We interrupt this program - Whoops, no "Amazing Race" tonight.  Instead, CBS has another one of those country music awards shows.
Didn't see that coming - Reuters: "Estimated US taxpayer cost for bailout jumps"  No way!  Fortunately, it's only another $167 billion which is chump change these days.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The greatest dog ever. On this there can be no debate.

Fifteen years ago...(you can probably see where this is going.)

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I went to an animal shelter here in the Pioneer Valley and rescued a nine-month old Labrador/Dalmatian mix. She was all black except for a spotted belly and the tops of her paws. We named her "Abbe."

Through the years, she was a great, loyal, playful, hilarious, protective, great companion. (Did I say "great" twice? Yes I did.) She was as active as a Dalmatian but not (too) aggressive and then she would be as gentle as a Labrador around my kids. She was banished to the floor at bedtime but would sneak up during the night and we surrendered to the inevitable. She loved to walk and smell and smell and smell.

I remember my late father teasing Abbe by slowing starting a question: "Do you...?" which was enough to telegraph that a walk was coming. I remember running after her when she slipped the leash at Lake George. Her last-in-class finish at obedience school. When you got her wound up, she would run up and down the stairs in crazy laps of boundless energy. Gosh, she was fun.

Six months ago, she couldn't run anymore and soon afterwards couldn't go on long walks. Two months ago, she couldn't walk at all and then she couldn't stand. We had to prop her up for eating and the results of eating. Then, most recently, Abbe was inconsolable when off her pain medication and we knew what had to be done.

The staff at Valley Vet in Hadley were wonderfully sympathetic and Abbe was put to sleep so peacefully. Now, I'm left here with a half-box of the Natural Choice Senior biscuits she adored and memories of a destroyer of rugs, devourer of table scraps, and all-around marvelous companion.

Goodbye Abbe.
Small is big – NYT: "Light and Cheap, Netbooks Are Poised to Reshape PC Industry"

Occasionally I have to travel for business so I picked up one of these netbooks last month and, so far, I love it. My Acer Aspire One is only about 7x10" but so powerful I can run the Office 2007 suite without any problems. There's no optical drive but I got a cheap USB plug-in from Amazon to load CD software and music. Oh, and it has a built-in webcam which I have no idea how to work yet.

This Wired magazine article was influential in my decision to get one: "The netbook effect: How cheap little laptops hit the big time." Cheap is right: mine was $300 and if you're not playing graphic-intensive games, it will fit the bill just fine.
Ward Churchill gets an USFL-sized settlement - Denver Post: "Churchill wins CU suit but awarded just $1"

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Democrats plan to kick Grandma into the street

House majority leader Steny Hoyer has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal of unvarnished audacity titled “We Can't Run Deficits Forever - Controlling entitlements is the next priority.” Let’s jump to the key graf:

But the single most important thing we can do to get our budget under control is to deal with the costs of our entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Fixing Medicare and Medicaid is inseparable from health-care reform. We will never be able to control the growth in spending of these programs as long as health-care costs continue to increase at more than twice the rate of inflation. We know the policy options necessary to make Social Security fiscally sound: restraining the growth of benefits, bringing more revenues into the system, and raising the retirement age, among others. We simply need the bipartisan will to choose and implement such reforms. This will be an excellent test of the Republicans' newfound commitment to fiscal discipline.
Hoyer either has a short memory or enormous cojones to suggest that – now – Republicans need to be the honest brokers of entitlement reform. Remember this “crucial moment of cooperation”?

I suspect that the GOP is tired of playing Charlie Brown to the Democrats’ football-holding Lucy. The Dems are in charge of all legislative levels of government so I’ll give them this advice: you first. Let’s see the Democrats’ plan first and then the Republicans can steal all the tricks from the Dems’ playbook. Let's try out the big cudgel:

Restraining the growth of benefits” = Grandma is going to have to subsist on cat food
Bringing more revenues into the system” = Sky-high tax hikes on working Americans
Raising the retirement age” = Who won’t see benefits until after they’re dead

Don’t come crying to the GOP that you want bipartisanship. What the Democrats really want is political cover for the hard choices that must be made before the wave of Baby Boomers swamps the ship of state. It's all you, baby.

Extra - Andrew Biggs: "Growing costs"

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Nothing to worry about, move along - Echoes of my previous post, here's another pundit who thinks there's no chance in Hades that Obama will allow General Motors to go into bankruptcy.  It's a big ol' bluff and the UAW holds the cards.
Eric Holder to Constitution: whateverWashPost: "Justice Department lawyers concluded in an unpublished opinion earlier this year that the historic D.C. voting rights bill pending in Congress is unconstitutional, according to sources briefed on the issue. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who supports the measure, ordered up a second opinion from other lawyers in his department and determined that the legislation would pass muster."

According to a Justice Department spokesman, Holder sought the opinion of legal scholars who argued the D.C. vote is constitutional. I'd really like to know the names of these "scholars" who magically conjured a new meaning of "state" from the explicitly-worded U.S. Constitution. I doubt even one Supreme Court Justice could pretzel-logic this one.

Extra – From the Corner:

The conclusion that the new OLC - led by deputies (including very liberal legal academics) selected and appointed by the Obama administration - reached is not merely the same conclusion that OLC reached under the Bush administration two years ago. It’s been - or, rather, had been, until Holder’s override - the Department of Justice’s consistent position dating back at least as far as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 or so.
So much for legal precedent.
Massachusetts' always-pending pension reform

Here's Jeff Jacoby in today's Boston Globe:

For years the political class has taken care of its own at taxpayers' expense. That is why so many former public employees enjoy retirement perks far more lucrative than anything typically found in the private sector. "The nation is dividing into two classes of workers: those who have government benefits and those who don't," USA Today noted in 2007. "The gap is accelerating in every way - pensions, medical benefits, retirement ages."

All of that was galling enough when the economy was strong and the Dow was flying high. Now - in the midst of deep recession, with the market prostrate, millions out of work, and retirement portfolios worth far less than they used to be - it is infuriating. Beacon Hill's worthies can feel the growing backlash, which is why they declare so solemnly that pension reform is a "priority."
The practice of double-dipping and the MBTA's "23 and out" has been known by Beacon Hill for years, but there's never been enough political heat to boil over. Now that the economy is soured, Bay State politicians are discovering it's difficult to ask for more taxes when they fail to do the very job they've been elected to perform.

If character is "what you do when nobody's watching" then political character must be making difficult choices before your hand is forced.