Friday News Chum: Autos, Subways, Buses, Hotels, Secession, GF Wheat, and Hats

Well, it’s Friday at lunch, and you know what that means–it is time to clear out the bookmarked links that didn’t quite form into themes (although, as I type in the times, there does seem to be a general transportation/travel theme). So here we go… (and as a reminder, I’m still looking for thoughts regarding use of iTunes 11 with the iPod Classic):

  • Three-Cylinder Power. This article from the LA auto show caught my eye. Evidently, Ford has a new 3-cyl. Fiesta, and the engine is designed in such a way as to give more power than a conventional 4-cyl. engine. The trick is to turbocharge the engine, combined with patented engine mounts and with weights installed outside the engine, on the pulley and flywheel to address the inherent unbalance of 3 cyl. If this approach works, I’m guessing we’ll see some revolutionary strides in small car efficiency.
  • Subway Problems. We all know how Super-Storm Sandy knocked out the NYC Subway system. What you probably don’t know is the work involved in getting it running again. Here’s an interesting article on why it is going to take a long time to restore the R train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. One of the longest tunnels, it saw all of its electrical equipment coated in salt water. Not good.
  • Busing It. Megabus is returning to California, with low-price tickets between Vegas, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland to Union Station. This is of particular interest to me, as it provides an easy way for my daughter to get from Berkeley to Los Angeles (and then Red Line or Metro-Link to the valley). However, as the service is run by Coach USA, I’m unsure it will last (given Coach USA’s problems — they used to run the Flyaway). Still, I hope it succeeds.
  • The Cost of Hotels. LA Observed has an interesting discussion on why hotels cost so much, working off an article from Slate. There are a number of basic reasons: travellers tend not to bargain (especially when on expense accounts), and hotels don’t need to discount all rooms (they can discount the unsold few at the last minute). [By the way, this may be similar to the demand pricing Megabus uses to discount tickets — a few tickets purchased really early may be cheap, and tickets purchased at the very last minute may be cheap.] The Slate article itself talks about the excessive taxes, location costs, and high level of services, but concludes “Hotel customers tolerate these marked-up amenities because they generally aren’t very interested in driving a hard bargain. The business traveler is likely to feel that he “needs” appropriately located accommodations and isn’t going to be interested in exhaustive research about the costs and benefits of staying someplace cheaper and more remote. What’s more, he’s generally not paying out of pocket. A responsible employee will of course try to be reasonably frugal, but even so frugality is benchmarked to local costs. “
  • Costs of Secession. We’ve all be reading about the secession petitions, and even humorists have addressed the subject. But here’s a more interesting question: Suppose you have a DOD Security Clearance and sign a secession petition. Does that affect your security clearance? This article explores the question. When you think about it, it is a real issue: you have an individual who has just publically advocated working against the US government. Is that adverse information, and does it bring into question their loyalty to the US. As Ben Franklin once said, “Oh sure, harmless. I know how these things happen. You go to a couple of harmless parties, sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee. No, thank you, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life writing in Europe.”
  • Gluten-Free Wheat? An intriguing article in the LA Times about some scientists who believe it is possible to engineer a wheat variety that goes not contain gluten. It might be possible, but I’m not sure I’d trust it… for a number of reasons. First, I would be far too afraid the processing would contaminate it with other wheat; secondly, I’m still unsure about engineered food.
  • Finishing With the Hat. And lastly, an interesting story about a woman who lost her hat while traveling. It was a hat her mother wore during her last days of chemo. How is she solving the problem… she’s putting the request on social networks.

P.S.: Received my first challenge coin today. Cool.

Music: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me (Martin Short): “Glass Half Full”


Misinterpretation Arising from “Winner Take All”

I’ve been trying to avoid political posts since the post-mortem post, but something in today’s paper just got to me. In an article about the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and his desire to stand firm on taxes there is the line:

Even though election-day exit polls showed most Americans have said they prefer the president’s approach — asking upper-income households to pay higher taxes — Boehner believes his party similarly won a mandate against tax hikes as the majority party in the House.

Boehner’s belief that he has a mandate based on the house majority is wrong. House seats are essentially winner take all: If a Republican is elected to represent a district, that does not mean that the district all agrees with that candidate. Further, the “winner take all” effect for congressional districts is amplified by the effect of Gerrymandering. In most states, districts have gone to particular parties because they were specifically drawn to permit that party to win. In some districts, there was no opposition to vote for. That, my friends, is not representational government. The article on Gerrymandering pointed out that overall, more Democratic votes for congress were received than Republican votes, and that wouldn’t surprise me either.

By the way, this goes both ways. Looking at the electoral map and numbers (332 to 206), you might think there was a strong Democratic mandate. You would be wrong. Here’s a map (h/t David Bell) that shows the states deformed to reflect population:

Deformed Electoral Map
As you can see from this map, things are pretty much equal (especially when you realize Florida should be blue). Want more evidence? Here’s map showing voting by county where the shading along the line from blue to red represents the vote (h/t to Cousin Cole on Facebook for the original post of the map):

2012 Presidential Election Vote Percentages By State
The point — which politicians seem to conveniently forget — is that there is no mandate for either side. The country is pretty evenly divided: who we wanted for President, the makeup of the senate, the voting for congress. This means that the best solutions are the ones that exhibit understand and concern for all sides, that include concerns and ideas from both parties, and that neither party is happy with. Far too often, we forget that a compromise is a solution that neither side loves, but that all sides are willing to hold their nose and live with. Obamacare would fall into that category, only the Republicans moved the goalpost at the end.



It’s Not Over Until The Cat Pictures Are Posted — An Election Postmortem

Now that the election is over, a few post-mortem thoughts:

  • My parents used to have a staff CPA whose hobby was mapping elections. He would get maps of the country by county, and color in the map based on the percentages for each presidential candidate. I think of this everytime I look at the electoral map of the US. When you look at the map by county, it seems pretty red. But then you need to remember that most of those red areas (not all) are much less dense; the urban cities are blue. Look at where the pockets of blue are. The country is really pretty divided. This even division is seen in the popular vote.  Remember the electoral college can give a lopsided result — it was designed to do that to give states, as states, a larger voice. The popular vote was very close: 59.8 million for Obama vs 57.1 million for Romney. This means that parties that want to win the White House, must appeal to the middle. Your base will go for you pretty much because they don’t want the udder guy. But finding the middle ground is essential for the White House, and despite all the calls that he was an extremist and a socialist, Pres. Obama was viewed as slightly closer to that desirable middle ground than Gov. Romney. An interesting note on this comes from Election Projection: “Remarkably, the much-maligned John McCain garnered 3 million more votes in 2008 than Mitt Romney did this year.”
  • What will our leaders take away from the election? That’s a good question. Hopefully, Pres. Obama will work harder to get Congress to adopt compromise positions. He says he will do so. To do this, however, the Republicans need to stop moving the goal posts and agree to compromise for the good of the country. That means ditching Grover Norquist and the Conservative PACs, and doing some thinking for themselves. It means Congress needs to be republican in the sense of our form of government, doing what is right for the country and not depending on polls. The congressional leaders need to work to get their parties to work together and not have gridlock. They need to abandon this notion of doing anything to deny Obama a second term. He has it, nuff said. They need to work to get their party back in the White House, and to do that they must demonstrate they can govern from the middle, not just their base. They need to demonstrably work for the country, not just their party.
  • The Republican Party has some soul searching to do. They don’t have a national leader for the party now. Appealing to the Tea Party fringe did not win them the election; a more conservative Romney would not have helped. Either the Republican Party will need to move to the center or it will splinter. Another problem they need to attack is apathy. Again, look at the Electoral Projection link above (they are the R counterpart to Andy Tannenbaum’s D Scott notes that a major reason the R side lost was apathy (although this was true on both sides: Romney may have received less votes than McCain, but Obama received 10 million less votes than in 2010). Even with a D candidate that  the R’s were strongly against, either the base or the moderates couldn’t get out and vote for Romney. That says something about the candidate, who was supposedly the most palatable of the field. My hope for the Republicans is that they move closer to the Libertarians (i.e., they become less conservative on social issues), while discarding some of the more extreme Libertarian positions (death to the Fed, massive cuts to Defense). That may be their path to success. As for the R 2016 candidate, I predict Chris Christie of NJ.
  • The Democratic Party has a different problem. Come 2016, it may be wide open for candidates. Biden will try to run, but if he does I don’t believe he would win the election. He’s a great VP, but I’m not sure he would give the presidential view. The Dem’s winning candidate: Hilary. If she runs in 2016 and the economy is anywhere near decent, I think she has a great chance of victory.
  • The Senate elections demonstrated a few things. First and foremost, don’t be a douch about women. Second, although we hate the other guy, we generally like our guy. This is why incumbents win.
  • The Congressional elections demonstrate that even more. For as much as we are “toss the bums out”, we happen to like our particular bum. It’s the other bum that’s doing a bad job and should go. In my district, we had a battle between two good bums: Berman and Sherman. My guy lost (Berman) and we have Sherman. But in the end, its all good, as I agree with Sherman pretty much as well.
  • Proposition-wise, it was a mixed bag. Prop 30 passed, which is good for parents of UC and CSU students. 38 went down to defeat. The death penalty wasn’t overturned, meaning there are still higher prison costs (but 36 did make 3-strikes better). 35 passed, demonstrating that a badly written law that is more punitive can whoop the ass of an appropriately crafted law by the experts. Measure B passed (condoms in adult films), meaning that LA county has just driven out another industry (or driving it underground). However, I’m noticing that many articles are getting things wrong, such as this Gawker article that states: “Los Angeles already requires adult film actors to wear condoms in shoots approved by the city; Measure B will expand that requirement beyond the city limits to surrounding areas, including the infamous Porn Valley where most of the country’s porn industry is based.” Gawker fails to realize that the San Fernando Valley is already part of the City of Los Angeles, and thus the LA City law applies to productions in the valley. The major difference between the city and county ordinances is enforcement. So, hopefully, it won’t hurt the economy that much. This is more of a concern for the county portions of the high-desert, Ladera, and perhaps those cities that lack any ordinances (Malibu, WeHo?). Measure J didn’t pass, but I expect to see it again in a few years. What is striking, looking at the state results, is the divide between the urban and more liberal coastal counties and the more conservative central and eastern counties. The divide in California isn’t North/South, folks, it is East/West.
  • To me, the fascinating result of the election was in PR, which voted overwhelmingly for statehood. Will Congress act and make Puerto Rico our 51st state? Somehow I doubt it, as it doesn’t benefit both parties. They want balance, and there is not another state they could add to achieve it (Guam? Oh please. DC? Fuddgedaboutit). They would need to split Texas or California, and that’s unlikely to happen.
  • I found it very useful during this election to try to see all sides. I did not follow (primarily because it fell under the NYT Paywall). Instead I followed Andy Tannenbaum’s excellent Electoral-Vote.Com… and, based on Andy’s recommendation, an equally data-driven blog from the other side, Election Projection. They gave me different views of the same number, and I felt I had a more realistic projection. I also, by the way, listened to not only CBS, NBC, and ABC last night, but Fox as well. Fox was actually quite interesting, as they were exploring why the other side called things too early. I actually agree with that — calling the election 1/2 hour after the polls close in California is just wrong.
  • Does this election mean the US is doomed? You might think that, reading the pundits from the other side. But I’m hopeful that this will help us regain the middle ground. I have a strong belief that our leaders — from all parties — are working for the same goal: a safe, strong, and secure American. As Obama and Christie demonstrated after Sandy, we can come together when we want to. Let’s build on that.
  • One thing we must not do: resort to name calling. I will admit I was wrong when I made fun of Pres. Bush back in 2004 and 2006. That just feeds the fires of partisanship. I’m already seeing some Romney supporters doing it again. Obama isn’t the devil; the country isn’t doomed; most taxes will not go up; the country is not going to hell. A single president does not have that power; that’s why we have governmental checks and balances… and congress. Take a deep breath, and lets start working… together.

Lastly, to all of my friends who were supporters of a side that lost…. Back in 2004, I took comfort in the song below. With a minor word change or two, perhaps it will help you: (source: Austin Lounge Lizards, “The Drugs I Need”).

You say the last election didn’t turn out like you planned.
You’re feeling blue and clueless, you just don’t understand.
You’re sad, sulky, sullen, moping and morose.
You’re woefully weak and weary, semi-comatose.

You stare at your computer screen devoid of any joy and hope.
You’re so depressed. You can’t get dressed. You’re noose-ing up a rope.
Just remind yourself when you can’t stand it any more:
That we’ve been through some crappy times before.

We’ve been though some crappy times before
Slavery, unbridled knavery and the civil war.

Don’t stop caring, stop despairing, get up off the floor.

Because we’ve been through some crappy times before.

Intolerable intolerance has swept across the land.
The gospel thumping homophobes have got the upper hand.
They are peeping though the windows and they are creeping through the door.
But we’ve been through some crappy times before.

We’ve been through some crappy times before.
McCarthyism, Prohibition, and the World Wars.
We’re up a the creek, the boat is leaking, still we will reach the shore.
But we’ve been through some crappy times before.

Though we hear reassurances that everything is fine.
It’s been a while since we heard a canary in this mine.
When you think it’s really bad, it gets a little worse.
But keep on looking forward, though we’re going in reverse.

You shout out that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes.
He lies so much that you could hang your laundry from his nose.
The fox is in the hen house and the wolf is at the door.
But we’ve been thought some crappy times before.

We have been thought crappy times before.
Indiscretion, floods, Depression, Vietnam and more.
The sun has set but don’t forget another day is in store.
Because we’ve been thought some crappy times before.

The election is over… until the next one (oh boy, a mayoral race in Los Angeles). We now return you to your regularly scheduled cat videos.


Speech and Politics: How to Address the Effects of Money as a Political Voice

This morning, I received an interesting comment on a recent post:

It now seems that the best our electoral system can produce are candidates who can convince corporate donors that they will provide the best return on investment. That leaves voters holding their noses and choosing the one they believe will do the least damage, as neither candidate represents their interests. That has long been a serious problem, which the Citizens United decision has greatly exacerbated. Those who feel their vote doesn’t count have reason to feel that way. Once elected, politicians have to start raising money for the next election. There’s no time to listen to constituents who aren’t writing large checks. Fixing this serious problem would require politicians willing to sacrifice their careers by spurning their donors in favor of their country. The system strongly selects against any candidate who might have ideas like that. That’s why I always put a clothespin tightly on my nose before I vote. I wish I didn’t need the clothespin.

This got me thinking, so I set it aside to think about over lunch. Well, I’m eating lunch (a chicken salad wrap) as I write this, so I guess it is time to think… I’d like to break this though experiment into three parts: (1) why didn’t this happen in the past, (2) why is it happening now, and (3) what can we do about it.

In The Past

Why didn’t we have this problem in the 1800s and early 1900s? The answer is that we did: politicians were in the pockets of corporate interests. That’s nothing new, and it goes back for ages — starting when someone realized that someone else’s decision could benefit them. What may have made it less of a perceived problem is that the nature of elections was different. Although candidates took money for votes, they didn’t need to raise excessive money to fund campaigns. That changed as more and more offices transitioned from ones appointed by state legislators to ones directly elected by the people. Add to that increased media outlets for advertising and an increased ability to move around the country quickly, and you see an explosion in the amount of funds spent on campaign advertising.

Why Now?

Our increased media outlets lead to the need to saturate the airwaves. That costs money. The American people have tried to level the playing field by introducing campaign reform… but the courts have viewed this as a free speech issue. Advertising is a form of speech — it isn’t that far of a stretch to move from printed handbills to TV ads. One can understand why there are no restrictions on who can make such speech, and why political speech must be unrestricted. Now that’s in the abstract. One needed only to watch the TV last night to see how that was being abused by PACs. We also see abuse of free speech on the Internet, where any kook with an internet connection can publicize their crazy conspiracy theory through websites and comments at news sites.

What To Do About It?

This is the hard part. Freedom of Speech is cherished in the US. In the past, we had some limitations on speech simply through the cost barrier of getting something printed and distributed, or having to get letters through an opinion editor. Those limitations no longer exist. Further, there are no limitations on groups pooling money to create a larger voice — be it a union, a non-profit advocacy group, a political action committee, or a corporation advancing their interests. To what extent is it reasonable to limit speech? How can we only limitthe udder guy?

I think the answer comes from two directions.

The first is transparency. When speech is made, it must be clear who is making that speech. That means, ultimately, that the individuals or lowest level organizations funding the speech and directing the message must be easily discoverable. That means, for commentary on news articles, one cannot hide behind aliases. Although there is some risk in doing this (especially if the speech is borderline treasonous or seditious), I think making clear the contents and origin of the speech permits informed reception of the speech, just as food labeling laws make us more informed consumers of food.

The second is reasonable limitations. Although we might not be able to limit the use of money as speech, we should be able to limit the use of money as a way to drown out speech. In other words, there should be saturation limits, so that all viewpoints can have the opportunity to be heard. This may require judgement from broadcast media personnel of the “side” of a particular advertising. The intent here is two fold. First, money should not provide the ability to limit speech by reducing the available locales for speech (i.e., you can’t buy up all the airtime so your opponent either has none or is forced to low-exposure channels). Secondly, money should not provide the ability for colluding viewpoints to saturate media (i.e., so multiple PACs from the same end of the political spectrum can’t saturate the airwaves with the same message that is ostensibly uncoordinated). In other words, people shouldn’t be able to abuse the rules.


I don’t think we can get rid of money as a political influence, much as we like. I don’t think we can get rid of money as political speech. What I believe we can do is limit where that money is used to allow all voices to be heard and to prevent oversaturation. We should also be able to make it clear who is making the speech.

Your thoughts on how to address this problem are welcome… after you vote, of course.



A Final Reminder – Vote

If you are an American Citizen… a final reminder… please remember that one of the benefits of citizenship is the ability to select our leaders and decide the direction for our government. Today, you have that ability… an ability to do something that many people in the world do not have the ability to do… an ability that many have give their lives to defend so that you can do it. Don’t waste it .. get out there and vote.

If you need help, you can find my positions on all the ballot candidates and propositions here (state propositions), here (federal offices), and here (state and local offices and local measures).

To those of you who are not citizens…. just be thankful that much of the craziness will be over by tomorrow. We thank you for your patience.



Because He’s Not Obama / Because He’s Not Romney

To all my friends who are voting for a President candidate simply because he is not (insert name):

Please don’t.

By that, I mean you should not vote for a candidate because he is not the other candidate. That’s how we’ve gotten into this mess. People voted for Bush because he wasn’t associated with Clinton. People voted for Obama because he wasn’t Bush. All that does is get somebody out of office. But who does it put in?

When you vote for President, vote for the candidate whose positions you agree with. This should be positions they have held consistently throughout the campaign, and the positions of their party platforms (as opposed to the positions they suddenly adopt to get votes at the end of the campaign). Once the udder guy is out of office, these are the positions they are going to be working towards — what they will work to legislate, the positions that judges they nominate will support. These will be the goals of their administration — both social and political. If you can agree with those positions, then support that candidate. If you can’t agree with those positions, then find a candidate you can support. If you can’t stomach any of the candidates, don’t vote. Don’t just vote to get someone out of office; remember your vote puts someone in an office for four years.

As insight into this, there are two good articles in today’s LA Times I recommend. The first explores how Mitt Romney makes decisions. The second explores how Barack Obama makes decisions. Ask yourself: In a Chief Executive, which decision making approach do you want?

As always, an informed and educated voter is a better voter. Even if they vote for someone I disagree with.


Just a Little Election Reminder…

By now, I’m sure you’re tired of the election. If you are in a swing state, you are especially tired of the Presidential election. If you are not, you believe your vote for President is meaningless, but you’re tired of the election anyone.

I’d like to make a plea. Even if you are tired, vote. Vote as if your life depends on it, for it does.

No, I’m not necessarily talking about the Presidential election. I’m in California, and voting for Obama. I’m one of many Democrats, and if I was Republican, I’d be outnumbered by those Democrats. So I might think my vote doesn’t count… but it does.

There are many contests on your ballot. Propositions. Congress. Senate. Local. Local measures. Some are competitive; some are not. But there is at least one of those measures or people that will have a direct impact on your life, and the contest going the way you want depends on you getting out there and casting your vote. It is vital that you vote.

For me, that issue is Proposition 30. It will directly affect my pocketbook by affecting UC tuition. But for someone else, it may be the Senate election. The state assembly. Other propositions. But I guarantee you, at least one will affect you, and you must vote.

You can find my positions on all the ballot candidates and propositions here (state propositions), here (federal offices), and here (state and local offices and local measures). You can find my thoughts on the various debates here (3rd debate)here (2nd debate), and here (1st Debate), and here’s a pointer to my observations on the VP debate.

(insert contest here) is depending on you. Get out and vote!


Political Absurdities: Trump, Mourdock and Rape, Dead People Voting, and Editorials

I was going to write today about a couple of articles related to gasoline and gas stations, but I’m going to put those aside because of some interesting political articles I saw today: