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.


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:

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.