Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Props to the Squircle

My new favorite thing is listening to This American Life which is automatically downloaded every week to the new pink Zune my sweetie gave me (as a "just because" present - does he get extra points or what?) while running my 5-mile outdoor course. Somehow when I can listen to Ira Glass help one of his editors get her MCI bill figured out in "When You're on Hold No One Can Hear You Scream" and hear someone's Thanksgiving family horror story my run just breezes by. I highly recommend it. Plus the squircle is awesome.
Happy Xmas All.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thankfully Not A Candidate For Anything, The First

Playing catchup here...A long while back, E and I heard Jeb Bush was in town and of course we had to go see him. I was really curious about what to expect - after all I loathe his brother but Jeb hasn't been given the chance to screw up the country (and hopefully never will!) so I thought I'd give him a chance. Overall, although I was happy to see that he doesn't suffer from his brother's embarrassing verbal skills, I was totally unimpressed. Jeb came to town to talk, not about the future or what he wanted to do, but about "great leadership" - i.e. how great he was when he was governor of Florida.

The audience was small, and consisted primarily of the conservative/libertarian group at work (called the CLAMs!). Jeb tried to pull out some Libertarian credentials - I couldn't quite follow them; something about government being a heart with clogged arteries, post-heart attack and unable to change - but mostly he answered questions from whiny parents and avoided all tough questions. A couple specific comments that struck me:
  • He talked about some of the innovative things he did to help listen to his citizens. For instance, he gave people his email jeb@jeb.org and supposedly got millions of emails, which I'm sure he read carefully. He also held citizen hours, where he let anyone have 5 minute increments to talk to him. Apparently he learned about, “rodents in basements, varmints on streets, traffic lights misplaced”, all, “things important for a governor to know about”.
  • He said that overall 60% of students in college graduate in 6 years, with the #1 degree being psychology. However, he says of psychologists, “we have enough in Florida”. He said he prefers occupations where people are creating wealth. It's interesting since even J wouldn't call psychology a "homeless degree" as he so considerately calls English degrees.
  • Jeb spent a majority of time talking about how education is broken, but as with most politicians we've seen, neglected to come up with any solutions. When some folks in the audience asked for specifics, he offered, “teacher’s unions are bad because they lack accountability. The local Florida teacher’s union mortgaged their building to support my opponent during his campaign…I thought that was entrepreneurial of them.” I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like much of a "solution" to me.
  • A bunch of parents in the audience whined about gifted kids not getting enough money from public schools. Jeb's response, “we’re losing our geniuses" and “high school is boring, even if you’re not smart” E's response:” I went to math camp.” My response, "You've got to be kidding; you work at Microsoft, you can afford to get your kid in some after school classes if it's so important." (The main whiny mom showed up to hear Mitt Romney when we went to see him too, and E and I noticed her clapping and glowing as though in the presence of a demi-god when Mitt said he'd give more money to gifted education too.)
  • Jeb obviously thought interest in politics was something to take seriously; he said, “the fact that you showed up at a PAC meeting for a former governor on a random afternoon means you’ve got something funny going on with your life”
  • Finally, the organizer of the event said, “who will be president - you’re off the record here”. Jeb's reply: “nothing is off the record!”

At least he was right about the last part.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Prohibition

Last Monday I heard just a snippet of Weekday, a discussion about drugs and prohibition vs. legalization vs. other alternatives. Before listening to the show, if asked I would have probably said I would support continuing to prohibit "hard" drugs like crack and meth, legalizing marijuana, and prohibiting guns altogether (amongst non police officers) - just like most good progressives. However, one of the speakers made two good points in favor of legalizing and licensing everything:

  1. Prohibition didn't working for alcohol, tobacco, or coffee (apparently people were killed for using the last two back in the day). I knew about the first one of course - it's one of the reasons I'm for legalizing marijuana - but didn't realize the other two had happened in the past as well.
  2. The speaker made the specific suggestion to legalize opium - force people to get a license to grow it and sell to the state to make pain medications for the poor, who apparently lack access to opiates, especially in Afghanistan, because all the opium is sold to illegal drug dealers.

So it made me think - does it really make sense to restrict access to any drugs? I can't think of anything positive about speed, but I think the same about cigarettes and I wouldn't want to make them illegal (just illegal to smoke anywhere around me, but that's a whole other issue). I think there might be issues; for instance I assume in Afghanistan the state wouldn't be able to pay market rates for opium so I'd imagine there would still be a black market in that case, but you might be able to overcome that with better policies.

So I can almost come to accept legalizing all drugs, but then what about guns? Is being pro-gun-control hypocritical if I want to legalize and license other bad substances? Or is it still okay because drugs (generally) only hurt the person who takes them while guns are much more likely to be used to hurt someone else (although statistics say you're most likely to get killed with your own gun).

At the moment I'm sticking with legalize drugs, ban guns, but I'll have to keep thinking it through. I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Six Degrees of Actual Bacon

Last night I caught the tail end of NPR Presents in which apparently KUOW airs some random other good NPR show. Since I missed the beginning and the end, I don't know what show it actually was, but I do know that I enjoyed it. Ken Jennings, the guy who won the most consecutive times on Jeopardy, was on, talking about his new book and his regular column in a brainy magazine of some kind.

Now I am by no means a Jeopardy-watching regular, but I did see multiple news reports and clips of Ken, and he always struck me as kind of scary and robotic - in fact Mitt Romney kind of reminded me of him (and I think they share the same belief in Joseph Smith's golden plates). However, on the radio he came across as smart, and most surprisingly, kind of funny. In the bit I heard, he talked about random trivia from Washington (like the etymology of Skid Road) and then at the end, he shared the "homework" the show producer had given him. In his column, he often takes two ideas and does a six-degrees-of-separation thing between them, and the producer asked him to do the same with two terms you don't normally find together: NPR and Bacon. And here's how he did it:

Start with NPR
  1. NPR has pledge breaks
  2. Takes you to the Pledge of Allegiance
  3. Which was written by flag companies as a way to sell more flags
  4. The Canadian flag (which he mentioned has an 11-point Maple leaf) is a flag
  5. And Canada brings you to Canadian Bacon

End with Bacon.

Now you know too.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Russian Analogy

And just a quick update on Russia: On Monday, Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev for President, a man who is apparently quite young and unknown, and who will most likely allow Putin to direct from behind the scenes. On The World today they reported that Medvedev has, unsurpisingly, called for Putin to become his Prime Minister after he takes office.

I was talking to A about this today (check out his extremely erudite response to my previous Russian blog post) and he had the interesting idea that democracy, rather than being a totally new form of government, was really just an evolution of a monarchy:
Monarchy ->
King plus multiple Lords with power (ala Magna Carta) or multiple Oligarchs ->
A bunch more Lords or Oligarchs so power is more distributed ->
A way to elect said Lords or Oligarchs (aka democracy).
And so I came to my new Russian analogy - when I don't understand why Russians don't want democracy, what really makes me crazy is that I don't get why some societies are not interested in evolving. It's like the Russians see the folks with the opposing thumbs, but don't care about how easy it makes it to peel bananas. I just don't get it.

Cardboard Economy

According to All Things Considered, we are all ignoring one of the best economic indicators - cardboard production. I love hearing stories like this that take a complex financial thing like the US economy and make a clear analogy with something we can all relate to. It makes good sense - if cardboard production is up (I guess it's not a commodity where the price really changes; it's just a question of how much is being made at a given time) then that means manufacturers are making, and therefore selling, more goods, and that the economy is therefore okay. This is a fun way of looking at things, but I did have a couple of thoughts while I was listening:
  1. The fact that manufacturers are making more goods doesn't indicate where they're being sold, or to whom. If they're being sold in the US, it could indicate that US consumers are still spending like crazy even though their mortgages are falling apart - which doesn't make me, a solidly conservative "debt is always bad" sort of saver, feel all that encouraged. We could also be selling all those goods to countries outside the US which are taking advantage of our pathetically low dollar. Neither of these would necessarily indicate a strong economy.
  2. I feel uncomfortable being happy that we're killing more trees to make more cardboard. Shouldn't we be using existing boxes, and making lighter-weight packaging that takes a lower toll on the environment? I guess on the scale of environmentally-friendly packing material, cardboard is pretty good, but still...Of course my friend M says that he buys non-recycled stuff because it encourages people to grow more trees and is actually more environmentally friendly. C and I had a long discussion about this and agreed that this might be true in places where it's all new trees being harvested, but in BC where older growth trees (read: 50++ years, when trees are in prime carbon reduction mode) are being chopped down, we don't really think that's the case.
  3. As the president of President Container spoke about his operation, I once again had to note that there are a lot of people who work in jobs might as well be on a different planet from mine. I'm very glad that I don't have to think about how many yards of cardboard are going through and whether the cutter is going to get jammed, but I do have to keep reminding myself that there's a lot more people like that then people like me.

So cardboard. I guess it's the new gold standard.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Russian Democracy

A couple days ago on Morning Edition, Gregory Feifer reported on the upcoming election in Russia and how Putin is doing his best retain power. As R has reported in his blog several times, Putin has already served the maximum number of consecutive terms that he can under Russian law (depending on how you count, he might have actually served an extra partial term already) and there are lots of theories as to how he'll retain power. While I find all the potential political machinations fascinating, what I find scary is how little Russians seem to care. In fact, Putin is so popular in Russia that most people would welcome him staying in power indefinitely. This is scary on two fronts:
  1. Putin's government is, for all intents and purposes, an authoritarian regime. He's using the same sort of fear propaganda that Bush uses against the Axis of Evil, referring to the enemies who "toppled the Soviet Union and sowed chaos in the 1990s" and saying a vote for his party as the only way to save Russia. Russia is cracking down left and right on freedoms and liberties, everything from disqualifying a political party because they aired an ad that said Putin is leading the country backwards to (according to a recent Business Week article) pulling a Pepsi ad showing teenagers playing music and just raising the volume when the neighbors complain because it was deemed that it incited anti-social behavior. But Russians don't care; they love Putin.
  2. Russian Democracy is being dismantled after only a few years, and it seems like most Russians actually support it! They don't care if Putin changes the Constitution or changes laws, as long as he stays in control.

One of the quotes in the piece summed it up - a Russian woman said, "The thing is, people really feel a sense of stability and order right now. I'd be perfectly happy if Putin stayed for a third term and violated the constitution". It makes me wonder, how long does a country have to have Democracy before people become a true advocates of the system? We always talk about "bringing Democracy" to the Arab world, and it's clear there are countries which are not yet ready for it - where you need to start slowly and build up the economy and make people feel secure before you have complete Democracies so people don't immediately vote for the strongest candidate out of fear. But Russia has been a Democracy for a while now and it was, more or less, working out, so why don't people care that it's slipping away?

I try to compare it to the US - I think most Americans are extremely proud of being a Democracy and of every citizen having the right to vote*. If someone tried to break the constitution here there would be huge outcry (as there was with warrant-less surveillance). While I think I would have been tempted to set aside constitutional limits on how long a President could serve if it would have allowed Bill Clinton to stay in the White House instead of our current excuse for a leader, ultimately I would never have been in favor of it since laws like that keep also limit the amount of time a horrible leader can be in power. So how long does it take? Do you need to be a Democracy for 30 years? 50? more? before your citizens, who might not agree with each other on most things, at least feel like being a Democracy is more important than their differences?

I guess we'll all have to wait and see how far Putin's "cult of personality" takes him.


* Even though I heard another NPR story last week about how 43% of Americans would trade their right to vote for a $50 Olive Garden gift certificate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

AWAD Surprise

I am a total language geek. I admit it. When I heard about the A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) email list, I signed up right away, and I've been enjoying it for years. AWAD includes a weekly theme of words and their etymologies, and what could be better than that for fun facts to pull out at the dinner table (when you're out of NPR references, of course!) There's also a daily quotation – some of my favorites:

  • You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. -Anne Lamott, writer (1954- )
  • It's hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning. -Bill Watterson, comic strip artist (1958- ), in his comic strip Calvin & Hobbes
  • It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. -Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect and author(1743-1826)

Notice a theme? I love that AWAD is as skeptical about religion as I am!

Today on Weekday, Steve Scher* had Anu Garg, the founder of AWAD, on as his guest, and I had one of those moments where you realize all is not as you expect – like when I looked online and saw that Ira Glass looked nothing like I'd been picturing all these years. I'd always imagined Mr. Garg would have a very regal, clear, Indian-accented voice, but instead he had an accent so thick I could barely understand him. I'd always pictured him living somewhere in central California (not at all sure why) but instead he lives here, in Seattle. I'd always assumed Mr. Garg could reply wittily to any question or comment about etymology, but instead he struggled to find something to say when a caller asked him something that wasn't listed in his book. However, the hour was still full of fun facts about cool words, and there he didn't disappoint at all. I'm only going to leave you with one, because I know you're not all geeky like me:

Teetotaler: Apparently this comes from a speech where someone was advocating that people give up alcohol totally – with a capital "T" – and he said it as T-Total. People heard it as teetotal and started calling folks who didn't drink teetotalers.

Isn't that great? And in perfect time for making conversation with family at Thanksgiving get-togethers. Go Mr. Garg.

* I was horrified today to learn from my friend F, who's "in the know" about our local NPR station, that Steve Scher is apparently a lecherous, unlikeable person. E and F have always complained that he talks too slowly and his intros are all the same, but I've always enjoyed Weekday's guests and now I'll never be able to listen to him without thinking of him trying out lame pickup lines on all the women at KUOW. Yuck!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Presidential Laddie Candidate, The Only

A few weeks ago, right before Hillary Clinton came out to speak, the announcer gave out a teaser by saying that someone even more exciting was coming the next week. At the time, I couldn't imagine who would be more exciting than the top-ranked democrat and first woman with a serious chance at becoming president, until I found out...her husband! Overall, I was definitely impressed with Bill. He is indeed the great speaker that everyone makes him out to be, especially when he starts in on one of his anecdotes - he is a wonderful storyteller and can really weave the story into the message he's trying to get out. His speech to us focused mostly on giving and the environment, and made a few key points:
  1. Giving is growing - there's been explosive growth in NGOS - with 1,070,000 NGOS in the US, half of which were created since 2000.
  2. Giving is getting easier with technology - he told a charming story about what he called his one duty as husband of a senator - going to the NY State Fair. He was there a few months after the Tsunami and a woman came up to him and gave him some cash for his charity. She worked at the state fair and told him that she'd prefer to give online but that she didn't have time to get to a computer, so she was giving him the money directly. He said the fact that even someone without much education and money preferred to give online made it clear that this was the way to go.
  3. Environmental change is only going to happen if you make it economically advantageous - which it already is. All the countries that signed and are sticking to the Kyoto treaty have had their economies improve relative to countries that haven't. (He argued that this was because many new jobs were created by working on environmentally friendly solutions, although I don't know that you can assume that this was really what made the economies better.)
  4. When Jeb Bush was in town (I promise I'm working on my write up - really! I know I have a lot of catching up to do) he spent his whole talk on leadership and never said one thing that was interesting. Bill Clinton was asked what distinguishes a great leader. He responded that great leaders understand where their people are in the sweep of history, can paint a picture of where they want to be and convince people that they should try to get there, and who lived what they believed. He gave only three examples - Rabin, Mandela, and Muhammad Yunus (last year's peace prize winner for micro-loans, who Bill said he campaigned for for years - apparently when Yunus won he told Bill that the head of the peace prize committee told him, "at least that Bill Clinton fellow will stop calling me now)
  5. Someone asked him if he could be appointed Secretary of State. I loved his response - it made me remember that at one point we actually had a president who was smarter than me. Boy I miss those days! Anyway, he immediately explained that a law was passed in the 1960's to prevent a president from appointing a family member to a cabinet post. He explained the history of the law (Congress was responding to JFK's brother being so influential on his cabinet, although he was one of the best Attorney Generals there were according to Bill) and got in a jab at the Republicans (saying the Dems had passed the law because it was the right thing to do even though it wasn't great for them, something the Republicans wouldn't have done). He also said that he shouldn't be appointed because no one should be on the cabinet who the president cannot fire. He actually joked, "I know she could fire me, but the country doesn't".
  6. He ended on a hopeful note talking about African countries which have a large Muslim population still being very pro-American because they see us a preferring diplomacy to unilateral action because of the work we've done to save their kids from AIDS, malaria, etc. He said it won't be rocket science to change our global image once we get a new administration - we just have to prove to these and other countries that America is back.
*As an aside - I found out that Bill was planning to head to UCLA the next day where my little sister would be seeing him, and I considered baking cookies and asking him to be a courier for me, but I thought that might be a bit forward. E wanted me to try to seduce him so that he could show up and get a picture with Bill, but I said no to that one too. Don't want to cause a scandal and hurt Hillary's rankings!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Even more thoughts on voting

Today is Election Day, and for the sake of you, my fine readers, I decided that this election I'd take advantage of the new electronic voting machines and report back. I hope you appreciate the fancy investigative journalism I've done here. According to NPR this morning, 90% of ballots cast in today's election will be done by mail, so most of you probably didn't get a chance to experience this. Some thoughts from my fun time this morning:

  • I'm one of the few and proud who showed up to the polls this morning, along with a gentleman and his four-year-old daughter who said he was teaching her civic responsibility. This is exactly the reason I hate to give up on polling stations, which unfortunately seems quite likely as we move to all vote-by-mail.
  • The polling station ladies were giving out the non-electronic ballots by default this time. When I requested the electronic ballot the woman helping me had to fill out a form, have me read out the precinct information that she'd filled out from a carbon copy, and then have me hand that carbon copy (and read the precinct information out loud again) to the Deibold representative so he could program the card I'd be using. Why is it that the electronic option actually takes more paper than the non-electronic one?
  • The Deibold rep didn't seem to want to help me, either - his instructions consisted of, "you've used this before? no? just put your card in there". I'm glad I didn't actually need help, because I don't think he could have provided it.
  • On the ballot itself, I was very curious as to how they would translate the information that's currently in scantron form on the paper ballots into a web-like UI. I should have realized that they wouldn't - they took no advantage of the opportunities provided by the display and simply presented the exact same interface - three columns, squares instead of bubbles, no links to more information or any improvements to readability.
  • I also only had the choice of either reading the ballot in high-contrast mode or large fonts. Apparently people aren't allowed to want both.
  • Once I got to the end of the ballot, I was allowed to review all my selections and hit "print". You'd think this would print the whole ballot, but for some reason it only printed the first few votes, then asked for more confirmation to print the next few votes, and so on. At any time I could reject the ballot, but it let me know up at the top that I could only reject the ballot twice. I don't know what would have happened if I had tried to reject it three times.
  • Each time I printed, it made this horrible screechy printing noise that I was sure everyone could hear (apparently not; the polling ladies either have bad hearing or the noise is pointed just at the user). When I rejected the ballot just for fun, it called out "ballot rejected". All in all, I felt very exposed.
  • Although I seem to remember that I would be able to see what was being printed out so I could confirm its accuracy, it was actually hidden behind a plastic panel. Maybe I missed something in my non-introduction from the Deibold rep?
  • Finally, when I was done the polling ladies and Deibold man all looked at me curiously so I spoke to them about it for a while and described the experience - it turns out not a single one of them (including the Deibold representative!) had ever seen what the screens look like while voting. I guess they all prefer paper.

There were quite a few important issues on the ballot today, so for all of you living in the area, you've got till 8pm - go out and vote!

What Girls Really Talk About

Warning: Gentlemen - if you're at all squeamish, I suggest you skip this post.

Last weekend my friends C and B and I spent a girl's weekend up at our cabin by the lake. When we got back home, J wanted to know all about what we'd done and what we'd discussed. Unwilling to counter the visions of panties and pillow fights flying through his head, I described our hike and hot tub, the wine we drank, the movies we watched, and outlined a few of the conversations we'd had. What I didn't mention was that we'd had a long and detailed conversation about circumcision. B is the only one of us with children and also the resident expert on Judaism so I was asking her about the rules around it, her personal experience, American norms, and other alternatives (not because I have a child on the way - please don't get any ideas! - but it's always good to be prepared right?). It was an interesting conversation.

Imagine my surprise when, while driving back from lunch today, I heard a story on Day to Day about an Oregon court case regarding circumcision. A divorced couple with a twelve year old son are having a dispute about whether he should get circumcised. His father, who has sole custody (I wonder what the mother did?) converted to Judaism a few years ago and now wants his son to convert as well, and therefore get circumcised. His mother is not Jewish, and objects. She's being supported by an organization called something like "Doctors against Circumcision" who argue that circumcision under any circumstances is bad, although Jews, Muslims, and a large majority of Americans do it. The Rabbi interviewed in the story said that because Judaism is inherited from the mother, the son wouldn't necessarily need to get circumcised if his mother had converted, but because it's his father he would. Other groups are concerned that if the mother wins the case then circumcision might eventually be outlawed entirely, or, as in a case in Chicago, left to the individual to decide when they turn 18.

I've never thought all that much about this topic (until this weekend I suppose) but I don't have a problem with circumcision. However, if there's an appropriateness scale for voluntary surgery on your kids that goes from acceptable ear piercings to horrifying genital mutilations, is it just custom and social norms that puts circumcision closer to ear piercings? I understand the surgery itself, with local anesthesia, is pretty painless for infants, but I don't know how it feels for twelve year olds. And obviously you're not in pain during sex for the rest of your life the way you would be if you were a girl in Africa who'd had genital mutilation. But still, it's a pretty strange thing to do. I don't think this changes a decision I'd make for my own child, but in answer to your question, J, this is what girls really talk about. Along with the pillow fights.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

NPR covers France

Way back before 9/11, I started boycotting French products because I was angry at France's anti-Israel foreign policy and the way they were ignoring or accepting the rise in anti-Semitic attacks within France itself. But it was hard, because while I can live without French wine, it's much more difficult to live without French cheese, and I found out that it's really quite difficult to find any semi-fancy soap that isn't made in France either. It was also hard because I love France. I've probably spent a good six months there between various trips, and I've travelled to all parts of the country (and have I mentioned the eating of the cheese? )

Well, I gave up on the boycott long ago (not too long after America spiraled into the absurdity which was Freedom Fries) but I was still pleasantly surprised when Sarkozy was elected this past May. Part of it was because his name is so much fun to say, but most of it was because he is the first pro-Israel (and pro-US; they often seem to go hand in hand don't they?) leader of France in a long time. And while normally I'd shy away from a conservative politician, France's version of liberalism is too close to socialism for my taste - while I like the idea of working 35 hours a week and spending 6 weeks in the Riviera, I think it's a bit much to consider it a right, especially when your economy is going nowhere.

All this to say, I was interested to hear the news coverage a couple weeks ago about Sarkozy's initial attempts to scrap special retirement privileges for, among other people, miners, train drivers, and opera singers. NPR covered the transit strike several times during the day, and All Things Considered in particular did a good job of interviewing some union workers about how unfair it was and how Sarkozy was trying to ruin what makes France French, but always giving perspective by including folks who disagreed, and mentioning that the vast majority of Frenchmen thought these privileges should be removed. Of course, all news stories took the opportunity to mention that on the same day as the strike, Sarkozy admitted that he and his wife were having issues and in fact their divorce was now final. It made sense to report on this - after all, Sarkozy was having a really bad day and it was interesting, if unfortunate, that these two events would happen simultaneously. But I was sure that NPR was focused on the transit issues and how they would affect France much more than Sarkozy's divorce proceedings, as a serious news station should be. Imagine my surprise when, for the next two weeks, I didn't hear a single word about what was happening in France. What was the outcome of the strike? Will this stop Sarkozy's reforms? What's going he going to try to tackle next? If I want to find this out, apparently I can't do so on NPR.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Presidential Candidate, The Fourth (Part 2)

More thoughts on Hillary:
  • One of the women in the audience asked the question that's been asked of every politician I've come to see,"what will you do to help legal immigrants on H1-Bs". Most other speakers have just answered, "we'll raise the number of visas we grant" and left it at that. Instead Clinton took the opportunity to discuss her policy for illegal and legal immigration. You can read about her thoughts on her website, but what I thought was really interesting was that she pointed out that 10 years ago, people weren't freaking out about illegal immigrants. They were too busy going to work and living their lives. It's now, when the economy isn't doing well, and healthcare is not affordable, and it costs enormous amounts to send your kid to college, that people are concerned, and she says that it's because certain politicians took advantage of this to say, "pay no attention to the poor government policies that got us here, blame the immigrants instead!" Clinton says that what we have to do is work on policies that make people feel secure about their lives, and then the politicizing of the immigration debate minimize and we'll be able to concentrate on helping the illegal immigrants and enticing educated legal immigrants to our country.
  • At one point she spoke about our budget deficits, and she made a great point about how owing enormous amounts of money is not only bad from a basic budget perspective, but from a foreign policy perspective. She said that when her husband was president, China massed on the border of Taiwan. Bill sent in a fleet to the South China Sea and China pulled back. Today if the same thing were to happen, China could simply say, "if you don't remove your fleet we'll start dumping dollars". It was one of the first concrete examples I've seen of problems caused by our government's over-extended finances (aside from the prices J and I had to deal with in London!)
  • Someone asked her how she'd win in Middle America, which is a fair question. She talked about what she'd done when running for Senator in New York. Rather than focusing on areas that were highly Democratic already, she went to very Republican areas to work on reducing her margin of loss. She talked about talking to craftspeople in upstate NY who lived in towns too small to support a marketplace for their goods, and how she worked with EBay to put together an online marketplace for them. Of the 20 people in that town, 5 couldn't figure out how to make it work and gave up, but 5 did extremely well...and those people were more liable to vote for her. She said efforts like that are the reason she won by 55% her first election but by 67% the second time around. And she also said that's what Kerry did wrong - he focused on places like Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada where he already had huge support and could hold rallies that looked good on TV, but he lost in the rural areas that Bush and Cheney visited regularly.
  • Finally, I was also impressed by all her local references. She must give multiple speeches a day all around the country, but she included multiple references to the Seattle area, and did it in a really natural way that made it clear that she'd just absorbed the information rather than having some staff member add bits to specific areas of her speech. She mentioned a book our local congressman had written on the environment, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation on healthcare, and even mentioned a recent product our company had released (actually the product on which my friend B's husband has been working his butt off!). I appreciated the amount of preparation she must have done.

Overall, it was an inspiring hour, and I just wish I could remember all the details. Between the gorgeous changing leaves outside and the candidates coming just to see us, I can pretty much pretend I'm in New Hampshire!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Presidential Candidate, The Fourth (Part 1)

Yesterday I was extremely excited, and a bit apprehensive, because Hillary Clinton came to town. Excited because at the moment she's the person I'm most likely to vote for and I was looking forward to seeing her in person, and apprehensive because after Bill Richardson's abysmal visit, I was worried that Senator Clinton would also crash and burn.

Luckily, I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed. I thought Senator Clinton came off as professional, intelligent, powerful, and even charismatic. She projected just the image I would want for the president of the United States. I took a bunch of notes about what she said on my laptop, but due I managed to lose them somehow (I can only imagine it must have been a secret service mission in which they replaced my laptop with one that was identical except for the deletion of the mail I sent to myself with my notes!). So unfortunately, you'll have to be content with a few thoughts about what I remember:
  • Clinton's speech was the first one of all the politicians I've heard that was organized and logical. She laid out her four issues and throughout her speech you could see she was going through them in a methodical way. It seems like a small thing, but it really made what she said hang together. So what were her 4 issues? Well due to my email screw-up and pathetic short-term memory, I can only remember the last three:
    2. Strengthening the Middle Class - basically improving on health care, infrastructure, and economics
    3. Comprehensive government reform - specifically getting competent people back in government
    4. Restoring America’s standing in the world - can't really argue with that, can you?
  • She told a charming personal story about Sputnik (and no, it wasn't quite as moving as Elaine's). She did say that at the time, everyone felt like the US was in charge and going strong - we'd won the war, we were the only real superpower, etc, and that when the Russians launched this "piece of junk" into space, the Republican president called in the best scientists of the time, created agencies that became DARPA and NASA, and pushed young people into math and science. She said that she was in 5th grade at the time and her teacher told her that President Eisenhower wanted her to learn math and science, and she believed that the President had actually called up her teacher to talk to her personally. Her point, of course, was that at some point in the past Republicans actually listened to scientists, and she took the opportunity to talk about her science agenda, which involves bringing politics out of science while raising the federal funding levels for science organizations.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mr. Kassel's Message

As I was listening to Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me yesterday while driving over to meet up with E for a fun day at Turkfest, it occurred to me that I have no idea what I would have him say if I won Karl Kassel's voice on my answering machine. So I thought I'd do some research. First, I found out this Karl Kassel is yet another NPR reporter who spells their name in an unexpected way. I'd always thought that Castle was a great last name for a guy with such a solid and commanding voice.

After I got over that disappointment, I found out that there's a Facebook group called "All I Want for Christmas is Karl Kassel's Voice On My Answering Machine". Of course, I had to join. Karl Kassel is actually on Facebook himself, but I didn't want to be presumptuous and ask him to be my friend.

Finally, I looked for examples of messages and found out that Mr. Kassel himself has collected some of his favorite messages and posted them here (requires RealPlayer). They seem to break down into a few different categories:
  • People who are trying to get Carl to do something embarrassing
  • People who make fun of NPR geeks who might be calling just to check out his voice (that would so be me!)
  • People who are really impressed with themselves for winning
  • People who write jingles or news articles for Carl to narrate
  • My personal favorite, people who claim they've just run off and eloped with Carl. (J - please don't be sad when you read this, I know we're already married but come on...Carl Kassel!)
So now that I've got some info, I'm waiting to (a) be inspired and (b) actually get on the show and win! But I'm curious about all of you - what would I hear if I called your answering machines after you'd won?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sponsor Trouble

On All Things Considered today, Cheryl Corley reported on a brouhaha going on at an NPR station in Pittsburgh, WDUQ. WDUQ recently decided to return money to Planned Parenthood and decline to have them sponsor a show. I got the impression that they had purchased something a bit more ad-like than the normal NPR "this show brought to you by " because the Planned Parent representative specifically said that they were advertising some of their non-abortion services like birth control and gynecological care, but regardless, it was an NPR ad so I'm sure it was still pretty low-key.

Now, I suppose NPR should be able to accept or reject any sponsor they choose. For instance, according to Ms. Corley, there was a lawsuit that NPR won a while back where the Ku Klux Klan was trying to force an NPR station to let them be sponsors; obviously I'd prefer that NPR would be able to avoid that sort of thing. However, NPR is a publicly funded radio station, on airwaves that are specially set aside for non-commercial/educational stations (actually KUOW, our local station, is an exception to this last part but in general it's true). In my head that puts them in a similar class to a school or library, where you'd expect that they'd have to be pretty open to any sponsor unless they were doing something illegal (I wouldn't expect a crack dealer to be able to sponsor a show, for instance, and the Ku Klux Klan falls somewhat into this bucket since they get persecuted for hate crimes quite regularly). Frankly, if they don't get their money from Planned Parenthood, they'll have to get it from their listeners or the government, aka us.

Even more disturbing, though, is the reason behind this decision. WDUQ resides on the campus of Dunsque University, a Catholic School. From their website:
Duquesne University holds the broadcast license for DUQ's 25,000-watt broadcast signal. The station is a non-academic unit reporting to the Provost and Academic Vice President. Duquesne University provides DUQ with annual in-kind support (facilities and services) and 6% of cash funding. DUQ is considered self-sustaining. This means that DUQ must raise its direct cash operating support from sources outside of the University, such as membership and program underwriting.
Dunsque University was apparently offended by the Planned Parenthood ads and asked that they be discontinued, and the station complied. I can't really blame WDUQ; moving the station would be extremely expensive and the University provides 6% of their cash funding as mentioned above. However, there's no doubt that there's a short and slippery slope between removing a sponsor and editing a story. The University representative interviewed for the story denied that the school would ever make such a ludicrous request, but I have to say I'm extremely skeptical. I thought the whole purpose of NPR being government and listener funded was that public radio didn't have to kowtow to special interests so it could be as fair as possible. Isn't that hard enough these days? It's disappointing that a school that clearly values public radio like Dunsque University would choose to mess with one of its fundamental characteristics.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Mini-ode to Sputnik (and Elaine)

As I was driving home from B's house last Thursday night, I heard a re-broadcast of The Conversation in which Steven J. Dick, a NASA historian, was being interviewed about the history and attitudes 50 years ago when Sputnik launched. It was interesting to hear about the fear that many Americans felt because of the cold war, and to get the perspective of people who were excited about it from an evolution of science perspective. But my favorite was a caller named Elaine who said that she and her husband were camping at Mt. Rainier a month after the launch and they saw Sputnik travelling across the sky at night. She said they were amazed that, "something from our planet was up there in the sky so far away, like a star in the night." She also said that they didn't see it as a threat, but instead, "as a huge expansion for mankind, to have a whole other aspect of life, and life beyond our own boundaries."

I thought she expressed the emotion beautifully - to me that's what space exploration is about - it's a way to reach beyond ourselves, a way to connect with all people on Earth in a quest to put a part of ourselves out among the stars. Maybe I spent a little too much of my childhood watching Star Trek, but to me the thought of space is uplifting, and both I and the host (he actually said "well done Elaine") thought she captured that feeling, and I got home feeling like a better person for it.

So happy 50th birthday, Sputnik, and thanks Elaine.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Random Republican, The First

Along with interesting Presidential candidates, lately we've been getting a strange spurt of random Republican politicians. A couple weeks ago E and I went to see Newt Gingrich speak. When I've thought of Gingrich, which has not been often, I've always pictured this rotund, sweaty man preaching that President Clinton was reprehensible. I certainly didn't expect to find him to be quite charismatic and funny. I'm going to go ahead and assume it's mostly due to speechwriters, but I guess you don't get elected so many times without having a decent public presence. I thought I'd share some quick thoughts from his speech:
  1. He's positioning himself as a centrist; he even said he thinks Senator Clinton has an 80% chance of winning the presidency. Interestingly, J pointed out that Gingrich recently said he'd consider running for president if his people could raise enough money, although as of today he's saying he won't because he can't keep working for his non-profit.
  2. As with all politicians, I'm learning, he talked a lot about problems without giving any real solutions. Specifically, he said education is broken and we’re not likely to get any answers because the media is too into soundbites. His eventual "solution" for this was that technology would solve everything. Okay...
  3. He spent the talk being very pro-science and pro-technology, which of course was appropriate for the audience. Specifically, he said 2/3 of all new knowledge will come from outside the US because we don’t have the relative mass of scientists. He made no mention, of course, of the fact that his party keeps cutting funding for science research.
  4. On the other hand, you can tell he’s not an engineer because he told an anecdote about how he never knows how much money he takes out of foreign ATMs (he doesn’t do the math, just guesses based on where the number is). He asked for a show of hands of who else is in the same boat but didn't get very many.
  5. A couple of soundbites: "The Republican battle cry for next year is 'we’re bad, they’re worse'" and "Nobody has made money in America betting against the Clintons"
  6. He gave us a history lesson - apparently the US has had 8 cycles of fundamental change, whatever that means. Along with Jefferson's time and Lincoln's era, he said his “Contract with America” is one of those fundamental cycle. Humility may not be one of his greatest virtues.
  7. And of course, I have to critique his website, http://newt.org. First of all, the ego in using his first name is pretty astonishing. Secondly, it's funny he doesn't own newt.com. On his website you can pay to download his iNewt podcasts, and real Newt fans can buy a signed gavel for $199. Hanukkah is coming up, but please don't buy one for me.
  8. Finally, he ended by saying, “Tell all your smart friends to vote or they have no cause to gripe when the dumb people are in charge!” I'm embarrassed to admit I couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And more swear words

Today on Weekday, Steve Scher interviewed Steven Pinker, one of my favorite linguists. I didn't listen. That's because, along with interesting political speakers who visit here at work (like presidential candidates and my soon-to-come review of Newt Gingrich), we get to see interesting authors too, and we were lucky enough to get Dr. Pinker in to speak about his new book.

It was a great lecture, and I recommend everyone read his new book because as an audience we spent the better part of an hour and a half laughing out loud at some of his examples, but my favorite was his discussion of how you can tell a lot about human thought by the obscene language they use (I've never heard so much bad language spoken in such a short period of time; and hearing it at work just made it that much more funny!) and brief divergence into how swear words in different languages don't translate. Specifically, he said that in Quebec, being a very Catholic society and the place where he grew up, the worst swear words you can utter are, "Damn Tabernacle" and "Damn Chalice". He also said that he's single-handedly trying to resurrect a phrase last commonly used in the sixteenth century because he loves its beautiful alliterative imagery: "Kiss a cow's cunt". Not quite "Three hundred hairy bears!" but still pretty good.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Know Thy Neighbor

On Tuesday I got stuck listening to The Conversation. I think Ross Reynolds is a great moderator - he lets people voice their opinions, cuts them off respectfully, and doesn't impose his viewpoints. Unfortunately, I'm not really that interested in hearing what the Hoi Polloi think - I'd rather hear from someone who's actually studied the subject under discussion and can make reasoned, thoughtful arguments. All that to say that I'm usually not a fan of the show.

However, at the end of the show on Tuesday Mr. Reynolds interviewed a member of Know Thy Neighbor Oregon. This year Oregon passed two laws supporting Gay and Lesbian equality (one for same-sex domestic partnerships, and one for anti-discrimination) and some citizens are trying to get initiatives on the ballot to overturn those laws. The Know Thy Neighbor organization is trying to educate people about those initiatives to ensure that if they sign the petitions, they are doing so with full comprehension of what it would mean for Oregon's Gay and Lesbian citizens. They're also letting people know that if the initiatives make it on the ballot, they will publish the names and addresses of every person who signs the petition.

My initial thought on hearing this threat was positive, "good, maybe that'll keep people from putting this offensive initiative on the ballot!" However, that was followed quickly by, "ouch, that's a serious violation of people's privacy and would I still feel the same way if this was an initiative I agreed with?" However, the representative of Know Thy Neighbor made what I thought was an excellent point. The whole point of the initiative process (which I have all sorts of issues with, but I'll cover that another time) is to let citizens act like legislators and sponsor laws. If a legislator sponsors a law, that goes into the public record. Similarly, if a citizen sponsors a law, it's reasonable to do the same. I actually think this should be taken a step further - let's make every name, at least, public for every initiative petition that people sign. This would serve several purposes:
  1. It would improve the accuracy of the petitions because you could check whether your name had shown up on the list and get it removed if you didn't agree with the initiative
  2. It would allow people to sign petitions online rather than relying on running into someone looking for signatures. This happened to me when the anti-smoking initiative was in its petition state - I really wanted to sign it but almost missed the opportunity until finally on the last day I tracked down a man with the petition standing around in front of Trader Joe's.
  3. It would potentially make it cheaper to add initiatives because you wouldn't need to hire folks to collect signatures. This isn't a good thing because I want more initiatives (since I don't) but I'd prefer to see a level playing field so people like Tim Eyman with a huge organization behind them would not have as much of advantage over people with no financial backing who want to do things like stop smoking.
  4. Finally, it might encourage people to actually read the literature for the petition they're signing, or at least ask a few questions before they do so.

So I'm thinking I should start collecting signatures for my new initiative to publicize all initiative signators. Any interest in joining my cause? :-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

NPR v CNN

It's always nice to have a reminder of why I'm an NPR junkie.

Last week as I was driving to the gym, I heard Sylvia Poggioli report on the fires in Greece. She described the devastation, but also talked about the protests going on in Athens to decry the government's lack of preparation and alleged negligence in underfunding the firefighters. She covered the potential repercussions to upcoming elections (more people are undecided), and, most interestingly, mentioned that many people think the fires were set intentionally because Greek forest land is inadequately documented and the zoning officials are corrupt so by burning a patch of land, people can take over what was once a natural resource and use it to build homes. All in all, in just a few minutes she gave a multi-faceted insight into the fires.

Then I went to the gym, went into the "ladies only" area (J thinks it's offensive and that there should be a "men's only" area too, but I like it because the TVs all have the subtitles turned on and there are actual windows and natural light), got on the treadmill, and noticed CNN was doing a report on the fires in Greece too. The gist of their story? "There are fires, but don't worry they're under control, but it's hot so there might be more...now let's talk about Princess Diana".

Good to know that CNN is where you go for a nuanced discussion of someone who died 10 years ago. I'll stick with NPR.

Monday, August 27, 2007

More thoughts on Voting, Part II

To continue yesterday's thoughts:
  1. The guys running the electronic voting machines (EVMs) are technically inept. I was excited to find out that I had a choice between an old-school "scantron" ballot or an EVM. Since I don't trust that newfangled technology stuff, I went for the old school. However, I then asked the Diebold technitian (I guess every polling spot had one) for a demo since I've been really curious about them. He got very confused saying he couldn't really show me because I'd already voted, but when I asked him to just talk me through it he agreed. According to him, I would have gotten a number from the election officials which corresponds to my precinct (and therefore the various races I was eligible to vote in) and he would "burn" it onto a smartcard. Okay, he didn't actually call it a smartcard, and he's completely wrong about burning it but whatever. Next, I would put the smartcard into the machine, ignore the old-school number pad that was attached (he couldn't tell me what this was used for), and use the touchscreen to cast my votes. I even got to see the paper trail, which would have recorded my vote on receipt paper under glass, so I could see it to confirm my vote, but not tamper with it or take it with me. Technical ineptitude aside, I was reasonably impressed with the EVM so I'll give it a shot in November.
  2. The poll workers were so happy to see me. The polling place was pretty empty, as expected during an early odd-year primary, and it was really cute how excited they were to have someone young-ish, interested, and competent there (there was one other guy trying to vote while I was there, but he was old and curmudgeonly and totally confused by the fact that you had to choose only candidates of one party, not both - more on that later).
  3. I've heard from several Canadians that they don't understand why Americans have such low voter turnout until they first see an American ballot and realize how long it is and how much research you have to do to figure out what to vote for. I guess there you just pick your party or person and that's it. I wonder if we should consider something similar, but then I go back to my point about people needing to make an effort to vote, and I think, "why bother"?
  4. I'm totally befuddled by the fact that Washingtonians get so freaked out at having to declare party allegiance during the primaries. In California you registered as a Democrat (or Republican if you were from Orange County) and that was that. When you went to vote you got your Democratic ballot, and all was good. Here people can't handle that. They want to vote for anyone they like during the primary, and when that was declared unconstitutional they tried the current method which has you "declare" a party at the top of the primary ballot and then only vote for the candidates on that section of the ballot (this is what was causing the curmudgeon mentioned above some confusion - he understood declaring one party, but wanted to vote for candidates in all the party ballot sections). Why is this so awful? J even uses it as an excuse not to vote in the primaries - he claims he's protesting. What I don't get is how a system with no parties works better - let's say you have 10 Republican candidates and 2 Democratic ones vying for a spot - if the Republican vote gets split 10 ways it's likely you'd have 2 Democrats on the ticket in November. That's great for me (generally) but seems pretty unfair. I'm fine with the primary system as is, but I'd love to see a full-election system where you could vote for candidates in priority order, so that if your #1 candidate didn't get more than 50% of the votes, your vote would roll down to your #2 candidate and so on. That way you could vote for the small-party candidate without feeling like you were throwing away your vote.
Anyway, there are just a few of my many thoughts on voting. Now if only I ruled the world...well, at least the polls would be populated by tech-savy geeks who would know about upcoming elections. It would be a small step forward.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Some Thoughts on Voting, Part I

August 21st was our primary, and, as always, I did my civic duty, went to the polling place, and voted. I love voting, particularly the satisfaction of reading through the voting pamphlet ahead of time, discussing any questions or dilemmas I have about propositions or candidates with friends, and going in and marking my vote on a scantron and inserting it into the submission machine. Yes, I'm the worst kind of keener and a complete geek. That said, there were a lot of interesting things about both the voting experience and the atmosphere around it.
  1. There are some dumb people working at the polling stations. I always thought I might want to volunteer at a polling station, but I'm now convinced that would be a bad idea. Some examples - one of the women working at the poll did not know what my voter registration card was (!) and was shocked to hear that there would be another election in November. When she asked one of the other poll workers how she knew that (the other worker and I were having a conversation about the upcoming election) that rational woman mentioned that she'd gone to training. The clueless woman said, "so did I! You must be so smart."
  2. The vote by mail requirement might be delayed. I really love going to the poll to vote. In fact, I think if people can't get off their butt (and they don't have a good reason like being out of town or disabled) and make the minimal effort required to vote, they shouldn't really be allowed to. After all, fewer voters means my vote counts more. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the numbers for this election: Poll votes-29,531, Absentee ballots-192,840. Anyway, the clued-in poll worker mentioned above told me that King county hadn't decided when it would go to vote-by-mail only elections, so I might have a few more that I can go to the polls for.
  3. I think people don't vote because they don't get stickers. In my youth in California, we got stickers that said "I voted" and all us keeners wore them all day long to remind other people to vote too. I loved those stickers, and I don't know why we don't have them here in Washington. It seems like a small price to pay.

More tomorrow.

A Pleasant Surprise

Yesterday Rick Steves was interviewed on Weekday in some fun NPR cross-pollination. Usually I listen (or rather, try not to, bears excepted) to Rick Steves on weekends when he's putting on his "gee shucks, I'm just an American, I don't know what I'm doing" persona, and usually I change the channel. I think Mr. Steves created his persona of the American who's never left Kansas before back in the 1980's, and unfortunately his show seems about as relevant, as he pesters his guests, invariably guides in some country in Europe, with inane questions and talks over their responses. I've also had one bad experience using his guidebook (it sent us to several uninteresting places and bad restaurants in Paris years ago when travelling with friends) and I've heard that the best way to use his books is to read them to find out which little town in Italy to avoid - because if he mentions it, it will be filled with tourists.

However, Mr. Steves has two things going for him - J likes his TV shows on public television, and since he's a local I had one of my few "celebrity sightings" when I saw him snowboarding at Steven's Pass last winter.

Now he has a third thing - instead of interviewing him about travel, Steve Scher interviewed Mr. Steves about his support for de-criminalizing marijuana. Who would have thunk it? Even more surprising, Mr. Steves was actually quite eloquent about his position, bringing in a lot of his experiences travelling through Europe (did you know that in Zurich by law all publicly accessible bathrooms have to have blue light - technically blacklight, as C. and her sister were quick to point out to me last night while we were discussing this - so that junkies can't see their veins? And syringes are available for sale from vending machines outside.) and also bringing up the good point that kids aren't dumb, and if we tell them pot is the root of all evil and will make them poor, ugly, and pregnant, they will figure out that we're lying and stop believing all the other things we say too.

I have to say I agree. I grew up in Berkeley, where you can walk around any respectable neighborhood and notice the distinctive aroma of marijuana. I don't know anyone in high school who hadn't tried it, and I know two successful adults (as in, folks my parent's age - I'm not prepared to admit that I'm an adult yet) who have smoked pot every single day for decades with no deleterious effect. I also know a guy my age who, while he graduated from college and has a reasonably successful career, cannot function in a social situation without smoking up hourly. So yes, marijuana can be a bad thing if abused - but so can alcohol - and we've come to the realization as a society that it's more important to treat alcoholism as a disease than as a crime. It would be nice to see this topic be de-politicized so we can all stop wasting our effort and money trying to solve a non-problem. At least I got the pleasant surprise of having Rick Steves stand up for a cause that I agree with.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Nuclear Power

David Kestenbaum did a report on All Things Considered today about France's plans for storing nuclear waste from their reactors. Some astounding amount of France's power comes from nuclear reactors, one of the few things the French government seems to have handled competently (they need power and don't have natural reserves, so nuclear is a reasonable solution). What I didn't realize was that the French aren't all enamoured of nuclear power, even though they have been using it safely for years. I always assumed that fear of nuclear energy would go away after enough exposure to it, but according to Mr. Kestenbaum, 1 in 3 French people is opposed to nuclear power, and only 1 in 5 is actually for it (I'm not sure how those numbers worked out, but it's an EU poll, so we can only imagine).

The biggest issue there, just like here, is where to store the nuclear waste. In France they've mandated a location - a city called Bure - and are dumping enough money there to convince the residents that it's a reasonable idea, although many still don't like it. Here, Yucca mountain has been under discussion for years as a spot to store our nuclear waste, and we don't seem to be any closer to a resolution. Honestly, though, I think it's just a matter of perception - people are disproportionately scared of radiation without really understanding it - perhaps because they don't really understand it.
In my college physics class (thank goodness for Professor Muller - even if it was the worst grade of my entire university career, at least he made it fun), we watched a documentary about attitudes of people who lived near a nuclear reactor. One of the men who worked at the facility was found to have elevated levels of radiation, but on investigation it was discovered that the radiation wasn't coming from the nuclear plant, but instead from naturally occurring radon in the earth. When local people found out about this, they were relieved, because the radiation was coming from "natural" causes. They went about their daily business, continuing to hate and mistrust the nuclear power plant and not worry about the fact that they were all going to get cancer. Of course as physics students, we knew that it was only the type of radiation, not the source, that mattered. But we weren't surprised to see that average Americans didn't understand that distinction.

Similarly, we don't seem to have problems finding places to build new coal power plants in the US, but no one wants a nuclear waste facility anywhere near them. I don't get it - the pollution caused by the coal plants is going to have a much larger impact on the environment and people's health - at least in the near future - than a waste facility. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a complete proponent of nuclear power, and frankly I wouldn't want any kind of power plant or waste facility in my backyard. But if I had to choose, trying to address the energy crisis by expanding our nuclear facilities seems like a much better way to go.

Clementine

Although the song Clementine is really about water safety, the only part I ever remember is the first verse:*
In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine
Lived a miner, forty-niner
And his daughter Clementine

According to Melissa Block on All Things Considered today, the place where the miner lives is actually quite important. Note the contrast - in Utah we've sent a search and rescue team, three of whom died, to try to find six miners who are trapped and likely dead. (In fact, I have to say I'm really surprised that every news report keeps acting as though there's actually hope that they're alive. I seem to remember them being a lot more pessimistic - and realistic - about previous mine cave-ins. Why do they continue to think these miners are alive after so long?) Anyway, in China, 181 miners have been trapped for the last couple of days, and aside from the beginning of some protests from the miner's families who want information from the mine owners, nothing has happened. Ms. Block reports that there were many warnings of flooding causing dangerous conditions which prompted several mines in the region to close, but this particular mine didn't close, whether because they had safety gear that actually made it safe or because economics prevailed. Either way, there is a distinct lack of outcry and action. Even more astounding is the fact that 13 people die per day in coal mines in China, and this is after new safety standards have greatly reduced the casualties per ton of coal extracted. I guess if I had to be a coal miner, I'd rather be in Utah. I certainly can't think of many other circumstances for wanting to move there.


*I do actually remember the chorus and the last verse about kissing Clementine's little sister, but let's not get into that.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I'm not as short as I think I am

I didn't think about it much, but I guess I always assumed that Americans were pretty tall, on average. If I had to have guessed, I'd have said that we were taller than most Asian countries, and probably shorter than folks in Scandinavia. Strangely enough, I would be right today (more or less) but not in the not-so-far past. As Frank Deford mentioned on Morning Edition last Wednesday, apparently Americans actually used to be the tallest country in the world, but the winner now is Holland (followed by Denmark).

American Average height (for men) = 5'10''
Dutch Average height (for men) = 6'1"

Considering that my minimum bar for men I date is 6 ft (yes, I've broken it a few times, but that's the goal) I guess if I were still single I'd head on over to Amsterdam and see if I could get a guy to buy me some tulips.

I did a bit of web research on this and came across some (completely unsubstantiated) fun facts:
  • About 100 years ago, 25% of men who attempted to join the army in Holland were rejected as being too short, less than 62 inches tall
  • In recent years, the Dutch have had to make changes to building codes in order to provide taller door frames

But what I thought was most interesting were the possible reasons for Holland and Denmark having such tall people. My assumption was that it was just good genetics, but apparently what's really key is that wealth is spread more evenly in Scandinavia (thanks to the 60%+ tax rate, I guess) so on average more people are well nourished and able to get to their maximum genetic heights, whereas in the US there are more pockets of malnourished people who bring down our average.

And since taller people tend to earn more money, I now propose a new political platform for one of the many conservative presidential candidates to adopt: up the money we put into food stamps, and America gets taller (and richer). I think it's a winner.*


* Yes, I do realize it's also completely circular in that people who are taller make more money (according to the linked article) because they are better nourished because their parents are smarter and make more money and pass on good IQ points but still...maybe the Republicans won't figure that out. (Read Freakonomics for a similar experiment giving books to every kid in the hopes they'd be smarter too.)

My new favorite word

Overheard Wednesday, on All Things Considered: "happenstantially". Even Robert Siegel was clearly so impressed he had to repeat it to make sure he'd heard it right.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Web 2.0 Faceoff

On August 3rd, Danah Boyd spoke on On the Media about the social striation of social networking sites, specifically Facebook vs. MySpace. Her description boiled down to this: Facebook is for elitist college-educated people, while MySpace is for grungy non-college bound blue-collar folks. Boyd claims that this is because Facebook was started by a bunch of Harvard kids while MySpace was started by some kids who wanted to keep track of their favorite rock band concerts.

Now I had done absolutely no conscious thinking about this topic, and actually I have very little interaction with MySpace at all (I'll admit to being on Facebook - I like being able to keep tabs on what my baby sister is doing at college and see other photos from friends, but I really only joined as part of some research I was doing at work). However, I will admit that in my head, MySpace was always in the "skanky" list. I remember reading an article in Time (or possibly Business Week) a year or two ago where one of the 100 most influential people was a girl who had made a huge business out of selling suggestive pictures of herself based to her 100,000+ friends on MySpace. However, when the topic came up at work recently in a discussion of web design, MySpace was also immediately and consistently consigned to be a "don't" by my colleagues. I guess we've all bought into the "MySpace is skanky" hype.

What I do wonder is when the assumption was made that people who are into music don't go to college. I suppose the idealized view of a band groupie is someone who's sort of anti-establishment, but I taking it to the next step of assuming they're also all uneducated seems extreme. Either way, I'm not planning to hit MySpace any time soon. I guess that makes me an elitist, college-educated snob.

Bonus: check out one of my favorite geeky comics on Facebook: http://xkcd.com/300/

NPR meets Presidential Candidate, the Third, Sort Of

Imagine my excitement when two of my favorite blogging topics, NPR + Presidential Candidates visiting the area, coincided! I posted a few weeks ago that John McCain was coming to visit our fair company, and I'd be attending and posting a review of his visit and my thoughts on him as a presidential candidate (don't worry, I haven't randomly changed my political stripes - this was going to be purely speculative). However, I got an email a day or so beforehand that unfortunately he had to postpone his visit until a later date. I was really thrilled to hear on NPR that very day that John McCain was postponing a trip to Seattle and Portland because he wanted to go vote on a bill going through Congress. It's like the folks at NPR reads my blog! Okay, not really, but still...I can pretend.

Unfortunately the next speaker we have coming to town is Jeb Bush, who is neither a presidential candidate (I hope!) nor someone I really want to see in any context that doesn't involve giving him tomatoes to throw at his brother. We'll see if I attend.

Personal update

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, it has been a long and difficult couple of weeks. Friends in high seas, a slightly disappointing beginning to a new enterprise, seven Harry Potter books to read, and general ennui and exhaustion. However, yesterday J and I celebrated our first year of marriage with a lovely dinner and walk, so I'm ready to begin anew. I'll start with a couple quick posts of catch-up and then hope to get some good NPR listening (especially with my new favorite NPR correspondent now working locally - go Ann!) in soon.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Picking on Nigeria

I guess it's better than picking on China again...last week on Morning Edition, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton (yet another fabulous NPR name) covered the environmental disaster caused by burning natural gas in Nigeria's oil fields. I was surprised to hear that Nigerian natural gas is burned on site in the oil fields rather than being used for energy because the oil coming up is worth so much money that it's not worthwhile to separate and transport it. The fires created are actually visible by Satellite (they actually specified that you can see the fires in Google Earth and there's a picture on the NPR website, but of course you could use any company's satellite viewing technology). Why is this a problem?
  1. It causes more carbon emissions than any single source in the rest of Africa.
  2. Natural gas flares worldwide account for more emissions than all the Kyoto treaty projects will prevent combined.
  3. Nigerian villages nearby are poverty stricken and have no electricity, even though their natural resources are being used. Nigeria in general suffers from energy shortage.
  4. The nearby villagers are getting sick from the polluted air, and the heat is killing their crops.
  5. All that energy is being wasted - the World Bank (through wikipedia) says it's enough to supply the entire world with their natural gas needs for 20 days.
So why is this picking on Nigeria rather than just alerting us to a serious environmental issue? Well, there are two reasons:
  1. In the piece, Ms. Quist-Arcton devoted one quick sentence to the fact that Russia actually burns more natural gas than Nigeria does. So why aren't we picking on Russia? Surely they have more infrastructure and natural gas pipelines already in place, and getting them to change their habits will have more impact overall
  2. Secondly, Nigeria is one of the few places in the world where they're lowering the amount of gas flaring (they promised to eliminate it by 2008, and although they won't make that target, they're making progress towards it). Again, why not pick on countries that aren't doing their bit?
So there you go, picking on Nigeria. I guess it wouldn't be news if it wasn't picking on someone.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Things you don't often hear on NPR

TMBG being interviewed on Studio 360 about mermaids and discussing the fact that they're not erotic because they're lacking certain "parts", and then Kurt Andersen, who's interviewing them, saying, "but you can get to second base!"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Contagious Fat

According to Allison Aubrey on Morning Edition, fat is contagious*. It's not in the standard sense of sneezing on someone and causing them to suddenly gain seven pounds (although wouldn't that put a whole new spin to the phrase, "i spit on you") but in the sense of ideas and social norms. Using information collected from a 30-year heart study in one town along with records of social networks among the participants, a study found that those who had friends who gained weight were more likely to gain weight themselves. Neighbors apparently didn't count.

I thought this was a bit overstated, but a few of the points really made me think:
  1. The amount that I eat is definitely influenced (not controlled, but influenced) by how much the other people I'm with are eating. If no one else is ordering dessert, I won't either, and conversely if everyone is ordering dessert, I'm much more likely to indulge. On Tuesdays when I go to C's house, I generally eat less than I would at home, simply because she and her husband do (my hips thank you, C!). I'm not any less full, but if I were cooking at home I'd probably serve myself more without thinking about it. So in that sense, my friends' fat (or lack thereof) is contagious.

  2. The vast majority of my friends and co-workers are quite fit and relatively conscious of eating healthy food. In fact, over the past couple of years, many of them have lost quite a bit of weight. This trend seemed to start as some people started taking advantage of a weight management program offered by work, but I noticed at the time that it also affected others (like me) who weren't on the program. I wonder how much of that was inspirational, how much was people not bringing unhealthy snacks to share, and how much was happenstance.

  3. I definitely feel social pressure that it is somewhat uncool to diet or exercise to lose weight. Acceptable reasons would include the nebulous "be healthier" and the more specific "train for a race" or "control blood sugar". I've even found myself using this logic with J, saying things like, "you should go running today because you want to be healthier" rather than, "you should go running today because I'd love it if you had washboard abs". Depending on the specific folks I'm with, this stricture can be more or less severe, but I do remember a friend telling me disdainfully that a mutual friend had taken up exercising "only to get thin!". I wonder what effect this pressure has on fat contagion.

And because this report was on as I drove to work, NPR has not only informed me, but I'm probably less likely to sneak into our group admin's office and steal a cookie today.


*Technically it's according to New England Journal of Medicine, but Ms. Aubrey is the one who brought it to my attention.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Secularism

On days like today (and most other days too, of course!) I feel lucky to have a friend like E, who is a Cypriot and can fill me in on Turkish politics. In the morning as I was driving to work, Morning Edition had a piece on Turkey re-electing their Prime Minister, whose opposition fears that he is "too Islamist". If E hadn't explained it to me a while back, I wouldn't have understood the way many Turks feel about the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern republic of Turkey as a secular state, and I would have been confused at a Muslim country being worried about a leader being "too Islamist".* Atatürk seems to have been a great proponent of education and women's equality, but also of not passing laws that forced people to change their ways or their religious beliefs, but simply encouraged them towards tolerance and secularism (for instance, his wife wore a headscarf, but he married her in a civil, not religious ceremony). It's hard to argue with a man who said, "A nation which does not practice science has no place in the high road of civilization. But our nation, with its true qualities, deserves to become - and will become - civilized and progressive."

Then this afternoon on my way home, I heard Robert Seigel interviewing the director of The Washington Institute's Turkish Research Program, Soner Cagaptay, on All Things Considered. It was a fascinating interview, and Mr. Cagaptay's main point was that the political discussion in Turkey had changed from "Islamist v. Secular," where secular was apparently an easy choice, to "Muslim v. Secular". The latter was causing secular party to lose support as, understandably, many Muslims, when forced to choose, were choosing "Muslim" over "Secular". This reminds me of the debates here where the conservatives have managed to re-frame the discussion over the past years from "Republican vs. Democrat" to "moral vs. liberal". Under those new names, you can see why people who would align themselves with the Democrats would instead give allegiance to the "moral" party (well, I wouldn't, but I guess I would call it "traditional vs. progressive" and hence choose the latter). Anyway, in Turkey the debate has been re-framed, and it's split the country approximately 50/50.

Up till now, the military has always stepped in if they felt that the Republic and values of Atatürk were at stake, and apparently the Turkish elite, appreciating the progress under the Republic, have approved of that. (Isn't it surprising to see the intellectual elite and military on the same side?) And now we'll have to see what happens, and whether Turkey can preserve itself as a country where one can be both a Muslim and a secularist, and whether it can do it without a violent military coup. I hope, as an example to the whole world (including us, who could really use a reminder of what a secular government looks like!) that it can.

* I also wouldn't have known that you can't search for Turkish swear words on Google without getting back a whole lot of porn.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Picking on China...Some More

Is it just me, or is everyone picking on China? Here are just a few of the stories about China on NPR in the past couple of days:
  • A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy
  • Consumers Sue over Tainted Pet Food from China
  • Starbucks Closes Coffeehouse in Forbidden City
  • Congress to Grapple With Chinese Food Safety
Plus tons of news stories about the things I've blogged about over the past little while. I think if there was a tag cloud of news stories recently, China would easily be in 72 point font.

That's why I was not surprised to hear two stories about China in a row on All Things Considered as I was driving home today, but I was surprised that both took a somewhat new slant.

The first story started out sounding like all the other coverage - Chinese and international news agencies aired an undercover report investigating the use of cardboard as a filling in dumplings. What was fascinating was that apparently after this report came out to much horror, it turned out that it was a hoax (and the reporter was arrested, which I thought was an interesting reaction). Beijing news apologized for not following up on this more carefully...except, there's also rumor that Chinese sensors actually forced them to issue a fake retraction because the story wasn't a hoax at all.

The second story was about finding Chinese stars for the NFL. Since Yao Ming joined the NBA, Chinese interest in basketball has risen dramatically, but the Chinese are apparently not so into football because they consider it a pretty barbaric, violent sport (one of those cultural differences that make life so interesting, since we think nothing of it here but even theoretical cardboard-filled dumplings would have necessitated a federal commission). Because of this, the NFL is having trouble getting any players from China, and those few are all training as kickers because it's a position that requires the least amount of violence and a lot of precision. Despite the fact that four Chinese players had been training all year, none of them were actually allowed to play. What I found most fascinating was the interview with one of these players, who said that he guessed the NFL didn't want him to play even when his team's kicker was injured, because they were protecting him. I just can't imagine an American saying that, can you?

And that's it for me regarding China, at least for the next week.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Update on Presidential Candidates

John McCain is coming to town in early August. Stay tuned for Presidential Candidate, the Third!

And More on China

According to Morning Edition yesterday, knock-offs in China aren't all bad. Apparently there's a huge market in Harry Potter rip-offs, or versions of Harry Potter that take place in China, for instance, an example from 2003 (according to Slate.com) Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon, in which Harry encounters sweet and sour rain, becomes a hairy troll, and joins Gandalf to re-enact scenes from The Hobbit. Somehow it makes me smile to think that even if they have to deal with messed-up, potentially deadly drugs (see yesterday's post), at least they don't have to worry that Harry Potter #7 will be the last time they get to hang out with Harry and friends.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

China's Take on Food Safety

On Morning Edition yesterday, Renee Montagne reported on the execution of China's head of food and drug safety, which was ordered because the guy embezzled money, took bribes, and approved medications that ended up killing at least 10 people. According to Chinese standards, his punishment was very severe, because the reality is that bribes and corruption seem to be a norm in doing business in China, even though every once in a while the government turns around and condemns people for actions that they've been silently condoning or even encouraging up till then.

What's strange to me is how much of a big deal corruption and general safety issues with Chinese products has become. A friend of mine recently moved to China for six months and found this link, which goes through the long list of recalled products from China just in 2007. So the question is, with China being the manufacturer to the world for years now, is this a recent phenomenon or is this something that's been happening all along but just hasn't made headlines? And does this recent execution, which seems quite extreme to my Western ears, mean that Chinese people will be able to rely more on the safety of their food and drugs, or is it just a publicity stunt to show the world that the Chinese government takes this issue seriously?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pandering

KUOW, our local NPR station, runs their own local news as most stations do. Unfortunately, yesterday that meant that they did yet another whole piece pandering to Rachel Corrie's parents (see my previous post on this topic). In this case, they reported on Corrie's parents, who are suing Caterpillar, the manufacturer of the bulldozer that was involved in the accident that killed her. Their case was thrown out originally but they're trying to get it re-heard by the appeals court. KUOW went ahead and interviewed the Corrie's attorney, letting her talk about how the Israelis were committing war crimes by knocking down Palestinian houses. This would have been a perfect opportunity to throw in a comment that every credible investigation has showed that Corrie was killed by accident after she'd been warned to stay out of the area, but apparently KUOW didn't want to do that to a local "heroine". What a shame to hear them continue their completely biased coverage of everything Corrie.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Plankton Credits

On Marketplace last night, Alex Schmidt reported on the business of selling carbon offsets, and specifically a new facet of it: plankton. In all the time I've been ranting about individual carbon offset buyers and the fact that they're busy buying indulgences for their hummers* I haven't really put a lot of thought into the people selling credits. I do feel like there's something kind of sketchy about being paid to plant trees, which for some reason seems like it should be an altruistic act, not an act of capitalism. But on the other hand, it's nice when people doing good for the planet get paid for their effort. Now, with the US poised to possibly (finally) sign the Kyoto Accords, there's the chance that we would set up a real system where companies would have to cut their carbon emissions or pay for offsets (it's already like that in Europe) so of course there are lots of companies investigating interesting ways to cut carbon in the air.

Schmidt's story was about one company in particular that's trying to artificially induce plankton to grow in the ocean by dumping iron into it. The idea is that the plankton will act like a tree planted on land and reduce CO2 in the air. What Schmidt failed to do was ask any questions:
  1. What happens to the iron when you dump a bunch of it in the ocean? I can't imagine that that's good for the sea or the fish long-term.
  2. How long does the plankton keep sequestering the carbon? As far as I know, when a plant dies it gives carbon back off as it decays; does plankton do the same?
  3. What will be the long-term effect of lots of additional plankton in the ocean? Will there be disproportionate growth in the populations of fish that eat it? Will it prevent the ocean from the current carbon sequestration it already does? Will the plankton give off some other chemical we don't want?
  4. According to wikipedia, there are potentially a lot of positives about adding iron to oceans that need it, making them more productive and healthier, but who's to say that the companies trying to sell offsets will stick to oceans that need iron?

I love Marketplace and the economic perspective they take on stories, but it seems like for this one, Kai Ryssdal needs to take over and try again.

*There was a great tongue-in-cheek article about this in a recent issue of Time Magazine, actually, where the author suggested that we allow parents to buy credits when they want to hit their children. They'll purchase a credit which would pay off a parent who regularly hits their kid in exchange for them taking the day off. The child abuser is happy, the kid who would have gotten hit is happy, and the parent who bought the credit is happy. The credit-buying parent's kid, not so much.