Thursday, April 26, 2007

Everything tastes better when you're thirty

This week The World Today (along with most other programs) seems to be doing a series of environmentally-minded shows, likely because of Earth day last weekend. It was also my birthday this week, so maybe they're doing it for me - who knows. Either way, it's been pretty interesting.

On Tuesday night, they reported that Richard Branson is touting Virgin Air's plan to use an ethanol-like fuel instead of regular gasoline at some point in the future. I was glad that they tried to debunk the "we're so socially minded" advertising by interviewing an environmental activist pointed out that bio-fuels aren't that great, because they have a large carbon footprint when you add up all the fertilizer used to grow and store them. Unfortunately, after starting off strong, he began to discuss how if you used grasses or cut down rainforests (why on earth would you do that?) to get the fuel rather than using corn, you would be releasing carbon into the air that the plants were currently locking into the ground (?) and you'd be replacing them with a monoculture (?) and by the way the solution was that we should all stop flying airplanes for the next 15 years or so while we collected fuel from renewable sources. Okay, glad they got someone realistic there.

On Wednesday night, James Fletcher did a great report about indirect carbon footprints. Instead of just looking at our direct CO2, he argued, we should look at the CO2 released by all the things we buy and eat. As an example, he figured out the amount of CO2 released by a cheeseburger. To do this, you need to add up the amount emitted by growing the tomato and lettuce and wheat for the bun, the amount thrown off by transporting the food to the restaurant or processing facilities, the amount used in cooking, and most importantly, the amount that comes from the cow through it's regular bodily functions. A cow releases methane of course, which is apparently 28 times worse for the ozone layer than CO2, and, I guess because they have four stomachs with which to ferment food, and especially because of all the corn the poor things are fed in our industrialized farming society (which causes intense indigestion) - they burp and fart a lot. Enough that the footprint for one cheeseburger is four and a half pounds of CO2! Just another reason for me to be glad I don't eat red meat.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Odds and Ends

I heard a few interesting or amusing things on NPR over the past week which raise some questions.

Local News: The WA state government passed a bill letting gay couples register in a domestic partnership database and get some limited rights such as visiting rights in hospitals, ability to okay organ donation, etc. It's actually a kind of morbid bill if you read it, dealing with autopsies and death, but those are the areas that are important to have protected by law because that's the time that's apt to be extremely emotional for all involved. However, on NPR they reported that the domestic partnership law was available for all same-sex couples as well as different-sex couples who were over 62 or 65 (can't remember which - that's what I get for waiting a week to write this). Personally I think we should all have civil unions and let the religious institutions handle "marriage" or whatever they want to call it, so I'm all for letting unmarried heterosexual couples have domestic partnerships, but why only those over a certain age? Is it because they care more about death since it's likely to come sooner? Is it that they don't want to get married to protect their assets?

Marketplace: Apparently the Mall of America is considered by some the Eiffel Tower of Minnesota. Now I've been to the Mall of America - I spent one summer in Minneapolis with nothing to do but play card games and out of desperation we went to the mall - so I'm especially appalled by the reference. Sure, "Camp Snoopy", the amusement park in the middle of the mall, has some reasonable rides. Yes, there are many, many stores, but they are all overpriced because they have to pay such a premium to be in the mall that they can't charge normal rates. But ultimately it's just a large (largest in the US, actually) collection of stores that you could find in most large cities in America. Yet the Mall of America is trying to get taxpayers to pay for an expansion and people are claiming that folks come out to Minnesota to see the Mall of America just like they come to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. I'm not only extremely skeptical, but also somewhat horrified to see what passes for culture in the Midwest.

Day to Day: Georgia's Turner County High School held its first ever integrated prom this year - yet another example pointing out that the world is not populated only with people like me. Turner County High had its last school-sponsored prom the year desegregation became required - since then the white students and black students have held private segregated proms. This year the students (understandably, but please explain to me why they waited till 2007?) wanted an integrated prom. They still had their separate proms (they claim that it's "tradition") and some white students weren't allowed to attend the integrated prom because their parents didn't want them associating with the wrong kind of people, but they had it. The school raised money to throw the prom and apparently got so much attention and cash that they decided to buy ten iPods and give them away as door prizes. Okay, so - are there seriously still people living in the US who wouldn't let their kids go to a dance with people of another race? Which prom did the kids go to if they were not black or white in past years? And whose brilliant idea was it to give out iPods rather than putting the money into some anti-segregation books at the school library?

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I hate taxes even more than you do. I really, really hate them. I would rather pay more taxes than have to go through filling out Turbo Tax, alternately feeling like I'm stupid because I'm paying too much and fearing that I might be missing something and will have to pay thousands of dollars in a future audit. So I was really surprised that a story about taxes today on Weekend America left me with a temporary warm and fuzzy feeling towards the IRS.

I was not surprised to learn that the IRS wants everyone, illegal immigrant or otherwise, to pay taxes. What I didn't realize was that they do not tell any other federal agency that someone is illegal, and they give refunds to illegal aliens. In the piece, Krissy Clark interviewed a woman who helps illegal aliens do their taxes. Apparently wherever she goes, she talks to workers at hotels or restaurants letting them know that they can pay taxes - and they want to do so ! (I'm guessing the potential refund is more exciting than just feeling like a part of the country, but illegal immigrants who file their taxes also look better when trying to later change to a legal status.) She talked about the fear that many immigrants feel that by filing taxes they'll be found and deported, but she also told a heartwarming story about a man who had worked here for 13 years without doing his taxes and she was able to get him a $600 refund for the past three years, which he sent to his children in Mexico to allow them to buy food and clothes.

I'm still not sure what I think about illegal immigration (see my previous post on the subject) but it's nice to know that the IRS loves us all - as long as we pay up.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Economics of Fat

On Tuesday Helen Palmer did a fascinating story on Marketplace about the economics of fat. Marketplace has a great way of looking at a story in the news from a fresh perspective, and this was no different - Ms. Palmer reported on all the different costs that are caused by or associated with carrying extra weight. Some were obvious, and some were surprising, but to me, these fell into three categories - things that are patently unfair, things that seem very reasonable, and then the squishy in-between.

Patently unfair:

  • Each point on the BMI scale boosts or slashes your net worth by $1,300. This is similar to the finding that every inch of height gets people an extra $1000 or so in salary per year but it's easier to say that the causality might go the other way - people who make less money subsist on cheaper, processed food and put on weight. Either way, it seems totally arbitrary and unfair.
Reasonable or unavoidable:

  • You wear things out more quickly: furniture, beds, car seats, tires (!)
  • Bigger sizes in specialist stores cost more. I remember once when I was younger my grandmother wanted to buy me a dress and we were both surprised that price in the store was higher than what was displayed in the window. The saleswoman explained that my dress cost more because it was a larger size than the display and therefore used more fabric. I thought at the time that made sense, but since of course I've realized that labor is much more expensive than fabric which is why most sizes cost the same amount. However, if you're super petite, or super tall, or in some other way not "average" you have to shop in a specialty store and because fewer people will shop there, you'll understandably pay more .

Squishy in-between

  • Not being given opportunities at work to speak in front of customers because you aren't the image that a company wants to project. This is a tough one - obviously you can be overweight yet be very eloquent, friendly, professional, or whatever else the company wants to project. However, I had an experience where one of our partners changed their onsite representative from an average-weight man to a woman who was so heavy that it took her twice as long to walk to meetings, and who would often fall asleep during them. Unfortunately but understandably, we were less inclined to let that company have an opportunity to give feedback. So if you can do your job well, you should be allowed to do it and given all opportunities to do so; however an overweight representative can affect how others see your company.
  • More expensive health insurance. Statistically obese people are more likely to have more medical problems - that's why some companies are starting to pay for weight reduction programs with the idea that it will cost them less in the long run. However, obviously some overweight people can be very healthy. Insurance is a statistical game though, so it makes sense that heavy people pay more - but I definitely feel conflicted about it.

Overall being fat in America sucks, unless you're in the diet industry. But looking at the economics of it, it seems like some things are quite a bit suckier than others.

Monday, April 9, 2007

In which I am not quite the chump I thought I was OR Things I learned from the dishwasher repairman

I am extremely risk-averse. This isn't always a bad thing, but it does mean that I am a prime candidate to get taken in by those extended warranties that businesses like to pad their bottom line with. I know that they're only trying to sell you the thing because they know you won't use it for that annual maintenance, and that they make an excessive amount of money from them (I read a Business Week article about a year ago that said that warranty sales account for more than a third of Best Buy's operating profit and all of Circuit City's) and yet...when the nice sales clerk explains that it'll only be another $54.86 to purchase a five-year extended warranty...I often fall for it.

But today I was vindicated. Our dishwasher has not been drying our dishes and when the Sears repairman came out to look at it, a service that I was prepared to pay through the nose for, he looked up our serial number and found out that I'd actually bought a warranty four years ago, so our $256 repair bill (labor and a new heating element) was covered. Hooray!

While he was here, the repairman taught me several things that I didn't know - and in lieu of something I heard on NPR today, I will share my fun facts:

  • 90% of the country has hard water. We here in the Puget Sound area have soft water.
  • Those "electrosol" tablets that have pre-measured detergent plus a gel rinse are four times the amount of detergent you need with soft water and a new-ish dishwasher
  • Using too much detergent (see above) makes the rubber gasket on your dishwasher come out
  • Newish dishwashers only use one gallon of water to clean a whole load of dishes.
  • You should always run your kitchen faucet with hot water before starting your dishwasher so the water it takes in is as hot as possible.
  • "Back in the day" we used to keep hot water heaters at 140-150 degrees, but then "the government" decided that we might get scalded so now we keep our water heaters at 120 degrees and the dishwashers ruin their heating elements heating the water back up to a sanitizing temperature, and our washing machines don't sanitize our clothes anymore so we end up going to the doctor's office more frequently and subsidizing that whole industry...Sears hires some very entertaining repair-people.

As you can see, it was an informative day.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Congressional Tourism

Tuesday on All Things Considered Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported on the high incidence of bombings in Iraq's markets, which are attractive targets because with many people in a small area there are often many casualties. She then reported on a US congressional delegation, led by John McCain, who visited the market under extremely tight security (they closed the market down to everyone else and were accompanied by 100 troops). One of the representatives, Mike Pence of Indiana, was apparently very impressed by the market and extremely moved by the fact that a carpet-seller in the market, touching his heart, refused payment from him. NPR wisely went back and interviewed the carpet seller, who said that he actually didn't like the Americans very much but that he knew he should give them a good impression of all Iraqis and after all, they were surrounded by soldiers.

Leaving aside the horror that I imagine Iraqis must feel knowing that they can be blown up while buying bread for their family (by the way, the same horror Israelis feel when going shopping, except that their security forces have had more time to get better at gathering intelligence and stopping the bombers), this story raises several questions.
  1. Why on earth are we paying for our congressional delegation to go shopping? I could understand if they wanted to see the security situation at the markets for themselves, but then they shouldn't have blocked the market off so that they could get an accurate assessment.
  2. Why would a (comparatively rich) congressman from Indiana accept a gift of a carpet from a poor Iraqi carpet salesman whose business has gone down directly because his country invaded? And isn't that a breach of some law about expensive gifts?
  3. It's reassuring to know that congresspeople are just as naive as anyone else. (Well actually it's not remotely reassuring - I would like to think that my elected representatives are much more intelligent than your average person and thus suited to make decisions that affect us all.) It was pretty pathetic that Rep. Price actually thought that the carpet seller was giving him a rug because he was so grateful to US. I will only say this: his previous occupation before being elected was as a (presumably right-wing) radio talk show host.
  4. Props to NPR for being sneaky enough to go back and interview the carpet seller. As I was listening to Rep. Pence gush about what a touching moment it was I was thinking, "I bet the carpet seller didn't see it that way." It's nice that Ms. Garcia-Navarro agreed.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


I love it - someone has clearly been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and has figured out that references to God are much more irritating to your average intelligent person than swear words. Apparently an overly enthusiastic sensor bleeped all references to God in the in-flight version of The Queen shown on some airlines. I think someone should create a religion-free version of all movies similar to Blockbuster, which was accused of editing all movies they carried to remove bits their ultra-conservative management found offensive.