Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Parmesan Bailout

What do you do with 100,000 wheels of cheese? If you’re Italy, according to Morning Edition today, you buy them from cheese-makers and donate them to charity to help the struggling parmagiano industry. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book Outliers (which I just read since I sneakily gave it to C for her birthday and she kindly loaned it back to me when she was done), one of the ways to measure intelligence that’s not captured in IQ tests is to see how many creative uses people can come up with for everyday objects. So I will try to suggest a few of my own:

  • Build a bigger mousetrap
  • Create a human maze (ala the Wooz), and if people can’t figure out how to get out, they can eat the walls for sustenance
  • Use them as renewable-source tabletops
  • Roll them down highways and track the patterns made by the gravel to see if you need to re-pave the road
  • Stick them over very large bonfires and dip large pieces of toast into them after they melt into a creamy “fondue”
  • Dye some of them red, green, and blue and then place them end to end for a giant game of twister

Feel free to help me out by adding some more!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NPR Fan Bailout

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. For the past couple weeks, I’ve been on the fence about whether we should bail out the Big Three car manufacturers, and I’d pretty much decided that we shouldn’t. Yes, they employ many people, and those people in turn keep many others in business. Yes, they’re a core American industry, etc etc. But really, I couldn’t imagine that lending them billions of dollars would actually accomplish anything. They need the money to “restructure” which really just means lay people off – that doesn’t seem like it will do much for the economy. And they don’t really seem to have a viable plan to get back to profitability. All that, and I didn’t appreciate (other than for its humor) the fact that they CEOs of Ford, GM, and Chrysler each flew their own private jet to go begging in Washington last week, and seemed shocked that they weren’t going to just get whatever they asked for.

But that’s all changed, because now I know that the CEOs of Ford and GM, at least, listen to NPR. Last week on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, they joked about the CEOs and their corporate jets, and Roxanne Roberts suggested that they should have just driven to Washington. Although Peter Sagel thought that would be a horrible idea because of they’d break down in Pittsburg, apparently the CEOs were listening! Last night on All Things Considered, in what I struck me as a very funny piece, Brian Naylor and Michele Norris reported not only that the CEOs of Ford and GM were driving to the new set of hearings in Washington this week, but also what type of cars they would be using – a Chevrolet Malibu hybrid sedan and some kind of Ford hybrid. The CEO of Chrysler may be driving to Washington, but Chrysler won’t say for sure, citing “security reasons”.

So there you go – if the car companies are run by NPR listeners, they must be in good shape. Bailout approved!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Belt Tightening

In regards to belts, there are some obvious things you’d think of when it comes to pregnancy, like needing to buy a bigger one, but one of the results they don’t warn you about is that you can’t actually see your belt when you’re putting it on. This makes belt tightening quite challenging and requires a mirror and some skill. Which is why I was especially entertained by a story on Marketplace last Wednesday about belt tightening – not the economic kind, but the actual belt type. Sean Cole did a hilarious job of interviewing people who make belts about what’s happening in the economy, and apparently belt tightening, specifically punching extra holes in existing belts, making shorter belts to use less material, and appreciating the new trend for skinny belts, is quite prevalent. In fact, given how many people talked about making their belts actually tighter since they’d lost weight you’d think we didn’t have an obesity crisis in this country. My favorite part was when he did his “man on the street” interview that went as follows:

Strangely, some people thought I was talking about money.
WOMAN 3: It's important to not completely retract. Confidence in the market has a lot to do with people's spending.
COLE: I think that's very wise and cogent. I am actually talking about your belt, your belt.
WOMAN 3: I think you need to expand your definition of belt tightening.
COLE: Really?
WOMAN 3: Yeah.


Pieces like this make me remember why, even in these depressing economic times, Marketplace is one of the most informative but also entertaining shows around.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A True Professional

Reason #371 why Ann Dornfeld is my favorite KUOW reporter: she's a true professional. This morning, without bursting into laughter, she reported on a local man who had his genitals eaten away by some kind of fungus while in jail and had just settled his lawsuit against said jail for $300,000. Of course I feel sorry for the poor guy, but I could not have said those words without at least a snicker.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Presidential Grammar

Last night on All Things Considered, Robert Siegel outlined the official NPR rules for presidential grammar in a response to a letter from an irritated viewer. Being a total geek, I was thrilled to know that that there was an official policy and to hear it explained, but I must admit I’m not sure I understand it. The rules seem to be:

  1. For a current president, use “President X” for the first reference, then “Mr. X” for all remaining references
  2. For an elected but not yet serving president, who happens to currently be a Senator, use “President-Elect Y” for the first reference, then “Senator Y” for all remaining references

I can understand that President-Elect Obama is a long and inelegant title and that Senator Obama is more compact. However, it seems to me that “Senator” includes the same number of syllables as “President” and is, if anything, a less valued title given that presidential approval ratings are in the 20%’s (Who on earth are the people who still approve of him, by the way?) but Congress hit 9%. So why does the President get demoted to “Mr.” while the President-Elect gets demoted only to “Senator”? Grammar nitpickers in my reading public, please help!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting Day!

Sorry, I have about four half-written blog posts about cool NPR stories that I haven't gotten around to finishing, but it's election day! NPR is full of stories about electioneering, voter fraud, and general voter excitement, which is what I experienced.

Today was my last ever vote at a real polling place because King County is going absentee-only after this election. Given that 90% of King County votes absentee already, I was really surprised to see the crowds at the polling station this morning, and excited crowds at that! Unlike some places on the East Coast, I only had to wait about a minute before checking in and getting my ballot, but there were more people there than I'd ever seen in an election, including the last presidential election.

It's really too bad that we're going to get rid of this opportunity for educating our kids and just getting together to do our duty as citizens, especially since in order to tally absentee ballots we apparently have to go through a lot of rigmarole (see this description from The Stranger). There are also lots of stories of people who have signatures on their ballot envelopes that don't match their signatures on record, or who accidentally signed their ballots and invalidated them (you can't sign the actual ballot, just the envelope). Does this really seem like a good system?

Either way, happy voting everyone! And if you haven't yet (and you live in WA), go vote Yes on I-1000.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Voting the Issues

This seemed to be a good day for folks interested in health care as a political issue. First, this morning on Day to Day, they compared Senator Obama and McCain's health care plans. Trudy Lieberman explained that under McCain's plan families would get a $5000 tax credit to buy health care, but

(a) this wouldn't grow as health care costs went up,
(b) average cost for health care for a family of 4 is $12,000, and
(c) if you get health care from your employer, you'll have to start paying taxes on it.

For the latter, I'm not sure what happens if you work for a self-insured company like Microsoft - would I pay taxes on a set amount per year that Microsoft pays to "insure" me or would I pay taxes on any money spent on my personal health care? If it's the latter, it seems like people who are really sick could potentially end up losing income because they have to go on disability at the same time they might have to pay astronomical tax bills. Obama's plan is supposed to allow anyone currently insured by Medicare or their employer to keep their current coverage while people who don't have either will have the opportunity to buy "government" insurance. The latter is a little unclear, but at least it doesn't sound catastrophic like McCain's plan. I can't see how his plan helps a single person, but it certainly could hurt quite a few.

Then, on Marketplace Jeremy Hobson interviewed some laid off Wall Street workers about what regulations they thought were needed and would influence their vote in the next election. One of them was laid off in February and while he had enough money to cover expenses, the fact that he lost his health care as part of losing his job meant his health care bills shot through the roof right when his income tanked. (Correction: as my good friend B, who worked in the benefits industry in a former life, points out, he didn't really lose his health care, but he had to start paying for COBRA out of pocket.) I hadn't really thought about the fact that having health care tied to your job really means you get hit right when you're down, but it just shows that even Obama's plan doesn't go far enough in really providing health care as a right to all Americans as it is in every other developed country.

Ultimately this election I'm doing a lot of voting against people. I'm voting against Dino Rossi rather than for Chris Gregoire for Governor because he's a creepy lackey for business organizations. I'm voting against Toby Nixon rather than for Roger Goodman for State Senator because Toby sent a flame mail complaining about something I'd done at work years ago that had no basis in reality (go ahead and call me petty, but I'm not voting for him!). And I'm voting against McCain (and most decidedly against Palin - don't even get me started there!) rather than for Obama. McCain's crazy health care plan is just one more item on the list of reasons I think it would be a disaster if he won.

15 days and counting.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Wednesday Silliness

NPR seemed to be getting it’s sillies on last Wednesday, and it made for a great day of radio.

First of all, A pointed me to a fabulous story on Morning Edition about Russian leaders. This could have been a very serious or even depressing story, but instead Robert Krulwich chose to focus on the fact that Russian leaders have alternated through history as bald, then hairy, then bald, then hairy etc. And not only did he cover this very silly issue with aplomb, but he then created a song!! I couldn’t possibly do it justice by writing about it, so I suggest you check out the whole story and song here.

Then, on All Things Considered Robert Siegel decided to do some investigative reporting on the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig” after the most recent Obama/McCain contrived controversy. For those who haven’t been paying attention, especially to manufactured insults, the “controversy” went something like this:
  1. Obama said McCain was just like Bush and that his policies would not be real change, but just “putting lipstick on a pig”.
  2. The McCain campaign accused Obama of sexism because Palin had made a joke about lipstick last week saying that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull was lipstick.
  3. Obama said that was foolish.
Because McCain’s accusation was so ridiculous I was frustrated to hear that Mr. Siegel was going to give it any credence at all by reporting on it, but he went beyond the normal “here’s what happened” to doing a classic investigation.

First, he did some research into how long the phrase has been around and played some classic examples – such as McCain himself calling Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan (and note she’s a woman too!) “putting lipstick on a pig”. Not content with that, Mr. Siegel called up Joel Salatin, best known by foodies around the world for his role in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a sustainable-growth farmer. Salatin was out in his field with 50 pigs and some “ruby red” lipstick and proceeded to attempt to actually put lipstick on the pig. He complained that the pigs didn’t have much lip and it was more like putting lipstick on a hairbrush, and also that the pigs seemed to prefer to eat the lipstick rather than wearing it, but after a short struggle he was able to report back that the pig indeed did not look any better with the lipstick on. Excellent reporting, and very, very silly.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Really, Really Big M's

On All Things Considered last night, Adam Davidson talked about what would have happened if Fannie May and Freddie Mac had failed, and I was shocked to hear that the amount of debt that they’re in for is $5 trillion dollars, which puts them at a larger debt than any other country (aside from the credit-riding US of course). What that means is that if Japan or the UK went bankrupt, it would have a smaller financial impact on the world than the potential bankruptcy of Fannie and Freddie. This is pretty scary news and really gives a perspective on both how important and how crazy these two companies are. As someone who’s averse to any kind of debt, it seems to me to underscore a lot of what’s wrong with our American culture.
One thing to note is that I was surprised at how much debt Fanny and Freddie were carrying, but at least I know that they were private institutions. That’s more than I can say for Sarah Palin, who seems to think that they’re taxpayer funded but doesn’t see her complete ignorance of important issues (among many other things to be covered in an upcoming blog rant) as a problem.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Primaries

Yesterday was Primary day, and I was unprepared. As I said in my prior post, I've been a bit distracted, and although I am the PCO* for a neighboring district and spent a couple hours leaving Primary-day endorsement pamphlets (i.e. cheat sheets) on the doorsteps of Democrats in my precinct, I hadn't had a chance to read through and mark up my voter's pamphlet the way I usually do. Plus, at around 7pm I was at C's house as per my normal Tuesday night tradition and realized I had totally forgotten to go to the polls! Luckily, C was understanding so we hopped into my car, drove home to get my voter registration card, voter pamphlet, and one of my left-over cheat sheets, and walked to my polling station.

We arrived in good time - there didn't seem to be many people there and the older women who always (wo)man the sign-in tables seemed excited to see us. I think I was a little more excited than most people who come through there, because they asked me if it was my first time voting, and then were very excited that C was there as an international observer. The poll worker reminded me that if I didn’t want C to look over my shoulder, I had a right to tell her to go away, which was not necessary but kind of cute. We decided to try the electronic voting machine again just for kicks, and headed over to the one machine available. (During this time, perhaps 5-10 people came in and voted, all using paper ballots.) Some things I noticed beyond what I shared during last November’s election:
  • This was the first (and I really hope, last) year of the top-two primary. In this new system, Washington voters who for some reason have missed the fact that the purpose of the primary is to let party loyalists choose their candidates for their own party can now vote for anyone they want, with the top two vote-getters ending up on the general election ballot. Although in most cases this means a Democrat and a Republican will end up there (which cuts out the smaller parties completely) there are some areas and races where, after the election yesterday, two Democrats or two Republicans will end up on the ballot. This seems pretty dumb to me because if you have, for instance, three really capable Republicans and two really capable Democrats on the ballot, and assuming you have approximately a 50/50 split of voters for each party, you could end up with each Democrat receiving 25% of the vote and each Republican receiving 16.5%, and then end up with two Democrats on the ballot because the Republican vote got split amongst more qualified people. I don’t get why this is an improvement.
  • As part of this top-two primary, each candidate has to say which party they associate with, but there’s no way for you to tell which of the “Democratic” candidates is the one that the party is really backing. However, the Republicans have figured out a sneaky system. I’d heard that Dino Rossi, the main Republican gubernatorial candidate, was planning to say “supports the GOP” instead of “supports the Republican Party” to avoid negative connotations about the Republicans in this election year . It turns out that all the “official” Republican candidates were doing the same thing, while the unofficial ones didn’t seem to get the memo. For the Democrats, though, you had to rely on your cheat sheet, if you had one.
  • Last November I said that my printed-out ballot was hidden behind a plastic cover so I couldn’t review it. It turns out you can lift the cover to watch it print out. I have no idea why they wouldn’t have just used a clear cover so you could see it at all times.
  • C and I tried to select a write-in candidate for one office, and it turns out you need to type in the candidate name and also their party affiliation. I found this very odd – I guess you could just type in your party affiliation and hope, but what happens if you got it wrong?
  • I was amused at how uncomfortable C was about looking over my shoulder while I voted, despite the fact that I’d invited her to do so. I don’t know if it was because the whole “secret ballot” thing was drilled into her as a child or if it’s a Canadian thing (always a good place to put the blame) but either way, you should know that if C comes to the polls with you, and you haven’t done your research on a particular candidate so you hand her the voter pamphlet and tell her to read it and tell you who to vote for, you will be privy to a pretty funny look of shock and horror.
  • Finally, some voting machine humor from XKCD for your entertainment:


*Precinct Committee Officer (or something like that)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Gumdrop's Progress OR Why I've Been Too Distracted To Post

Come January J and I will be welcoming a new NPR listener to the planet, known currently as "The Gumdrop". Over the past months I've been updating my messenger picture with Office Online clipart to track the gumdrop's size and thought I'd share the collection so far with you. I find it pretty astounding myself.




Here's to many more years of growing and learning and excitement to come!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Cell-etiquette

Today on Morning Edition there were two stories back-to-back about California’s new cellphone driving policy. I was pretty confused about what the actual policy was, but it seems to boil down to this: as of today, drivers can’t hold their phones while talking. That’s it. If you want to text, dial, play solitaire, read your email, or use the vibrate mode in a way other than it’s intended, that’s fine. But if you’re talking, you need to be hands-free. So I have a few issues with this, as usual:
  1. The goal of this law is to reduce accidents, and I can understand that cell-phone talking causes distractions. But it seems like there’s no specific data that backs up the fact that talking on your Bluetooth headset is any better for distractions than holding your phone. I’ll agree it’s more comfortable, and I’ve enjoyed using mine the last year or so, but less distracting? And certainly, it seems like if anything dialing and writing on your phone take a lot more concentration and are therefore even more distracting, so why not ban them too?
  2. My real goal with this law (and it’s all about me, of course) would be to enforce J’s cellphone etiquette. I read on Slate.com that the currently accepted rule is that you should only be talking, texting, or playing with your phone in the same circumstances under which you’d be solving a crossword puzzle. When I brought this up to my group of symphony friends they suggested you could do a crossword puzzle in a collaborative way, so we decided we should really go with Sudoku. So if you play Sudoku while driving (and it is still legal, remember) then talking while driving should be fine too. But I certainly don’t play Sudoku while out to dinner with friends, and I wish J wouldn’t either. Also our same friends decided that while C’s husband’s “other girlfriend is his boat”, J’s “other girlfriend” is a “regularly changing set of small electronic devices” so I think it’s a good sign that he needs to keep his cellphone in his pocket where it belongs…but that’s a whole other matter.
  3. California has had gubernatorial press conferences, ads, and public statements galore regarding this new rule, to make sure people understood what was coming. But Washington apparently implemented the same law today as well, and I haven’t heard a peep about it anywhere. Are we not worthy of a couple quick commercial announcements, or have I been living under a rock and just not noticed?

So for those in California, and those in Washington state, I bid you good driving, with your cellphone firmly ensconced pretty much anywhere but next to your ear. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Emerald or Jade or Maybe Even Olive

I am green with envy. Perhaps even chartreuse. And I deserve to have my NPR-groupie credentials taken away from me. All because Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me was filmed right here in Seattle this week, and I didn’t go. Oh, I tried to go, in a wishy-washy way. I think back in September some time I realized they were going to be here and found out tickets were already sold out and never thought about it again. But my friends A, R, and M were not so dismissive. They had foresight. And they also checked the website in August and bought tickets. Last night on our way to see Joshua Roman’s last concert with the Seattle Symphony (we’re also Joshua Roman groupies – such nerds) the three of them told me all about it. I believe M is writing about it in his blog so I’ll post to that as soon as I see it, but the short version: it was really cool. Karl Kassel had a bodyguard. He also apparently manages to do all his impressions without moving anything below the neck – a true radio professional. Apparently there was quite a bit of lewd humor, which the three of them assume will be cut out of the real show. And the show must have been good, because this morning while J was “running errands” he ended up spending most of the time in his car listening to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me instead. So the moral of the story is – if you hear that Wait, Wait is coming to a town near you, don’t delay. Green is not a color that goes well with most outfits.

*Update: M's blog post can be found here. He says he or A may write more about it since he just covered a couple specific bits, but at least you can get a bit more detail.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Milk Madness

In more catch-up blogging, Sasha Khokha did a report on Marketplace a couple weeks ago about raw (unpasteurized) milk. He discussed a growing trend for people to spend $12 a gallon buying raw milk for its supposed health benefits, and quoted a mother who'd been giving her daughter raw milk since infancy saying, "I knew if breast milk is all natural, there has to be another all natural way to feed your baby." Obviously if it's "natural" it must be okay (see previous rant about "natural" radiation).

Statements like this are so disappointing - it's clear that well-educated people are being deceived by so-called “experts” who prey on their skepticism or disappointment with real science and medicine. Somehow they don’t start thinking that there was a reason Louis Pasteur invented the process named after him - people were getting sick from bacteria in their milk. Why on earth would drinking raw milk be healthier? This is the same false logic that people use when they get conned by vitamin salesmen or “doctors” selling a treatment with no scientific backing.

I feel a bit hypocritical in that I've always thought the fact that we don't allow unpasteurized cheese in most states is silly, but then (a) I am a bit cheese-obsessed and (b) I’m sure you can get different flavors from unpasteurized cheeses, but I certainly don't think they're healthier. And now that I’ve heard this story, I might have to reconsider my stance. As proven by the pasteurized La Tur I had this weekend during my visit to Berkeley, you don’t need to raw milk to get some exquisite flavors.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sci-Fi Story in our Midst

Pickings have been slim on NPR recently – few things have stood out enough to make me want to take a break from all the hecticness (to coin a word) and catch-up sleep I've been indulging in recently. But I did want to catch up on a couple stories that made it through the noise.

I’ll start today with a story on Weekday a few weeks ago. I came into it part-way through, as I was heading to work from the gym in the morning, and assumed that Steve Scher was interviewing a sci-fi author. They were discussing these clearly fictional communities where the local newspaper only prints happy news (which reminds me of this site) and children need visas to visit because only older people are allowed. But then I realized something horrifying – this wasn’t actually fiction. Apparently these communities are real, and springing up all over the US. They’re geared towards retired people who want easily accessible social activities and clean, well-maintained neighborhoods, which is fair enough. What’s creepy is that they want this with no children around. Andrew Blechman, who was the guest on the show, suggested that in addition to the obvious reasons for not wanting children (lower noise, crime, etc) there are more devious ones – you avoid having to fund school districts with your taxes, and you’re less likely to have minority families because they tend to live in multi-generational households, which wouldn’t be allowed. I think many would agree that this society does not generally treat our elders with the respect they deserve, but is this really the answer?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Subway Gropers

On Monday, Tovia Smith reported for All Things Considered about Boston’s campaign to crack down on people groping other people on the subway. Not riding the train regularly myself (because we can’t get our transportation act together enough to actually build a rail system) I’m still well aware of the normal “ick” factor of using public transit when it’s really full. You’re squished up next to other people, some of whom clearly need a post-work shower, others who are perfectly nice but just not the person you’d want to snuggle up with on in a normal situation. On top of that, you have to keep from falling while the train moves, and maneuver your way to the doorway in time to get out at your station.

Still, trains are awesome and I’d kill for a subway system here like the one in Tokyo. The hotel where J and I stay whenever we go there is right next to Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world, where they hire men in white gloves to push passengers into the cars in order to maximize space at rush hour. Being an American, and especially travelling around Japan with a very tall husband (or my equally tall co-workers), I can usually stand near them and enjoy the little circle of privacy that forms. But a few years ago, one of my Japanese colleagues told me, quite matter-of-factly, that she regularly travels with a pair of scissors so that when men try to grope her she can poke them and make them stop. I was horrified, both at the fact that she regularly gets groped and that she casually talked about jabbing a sharp object into people to stop them, and assumed this was a strange Japanese cultural thing. Apparently I was wrong.

The Boston crackdown effort, which consists of signs warning people that they’re being watched and encouraging women to report incidents, as well as sending out decoys to try to lure flashers and gropers, has been successful in raising the number of arrests and filed complaints for sex assaults. If nothing else, I hope that it makes it clear that being groped shouldn’t just be accepted as a necessary evil of using mass transit. There are going to be bad people out there, but that surely we can find a solution that doesn’t mean we have to start carrying pointed objects in our pockets at all times. That would be a definite “ick”.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

True Professional

On Monday, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were in Sichuan province in China when the 7.8 earthquake hit, getting ready to do an unrelated set of stories about China. Ms. Block was actually taping an interview as the earthquake hit, and Morning Edition on Monday played a recording of her reaction and continued reporting.

I grew up in California so I’m no stranger to earthquakes, and I certainly don’t freak out when the ground starts shaking. During Loma Prieta, I was walking down the stairs of my parent’s house carrying a toddler, and I just walked to the sidewalk and waited for the shaking to stop. We did earthquake drills where we’d stand in a doorway or under a desk (although strangely, we weren’t taught the “triangle of life” technique that C learned in elementary school – Wikipedia claims that this is a controversial theory but apparently it’s accepted by those wacky Canadians). Most importantly, we learned to consider ground shaking to be a normal event.

That said, if you were recording my reaction, there’s no way I’d sound like Ms. Block. Partway through her interview, you can hear a rumbling, and the first thing she says is, “what’s going on, the whole building is shaking”, and then, “oh my goodness, are we in an earthquake?”. These statements could sound completely panicked depending on the particular tone of voice, but Ms. Block managed to make it sound like she was merely curious. As she went on, she described birds flying, bricks falling off buildings, and even mentioned that the ground was “undulating under [her] feet”. Somehow I have a feeling that if I was in the middle of an earthquake, “undulating” would not be the word that would come to mind. Perhaps later, but not right then with a microphone in my face. Clearly that’s what separates the true professional journalists from us mere mortals.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Wait till you hear my recipe for making my own dirt!

Yesterday morning, instead of listening to KUOW, I tuned into our other local NPR station - KPLU (aren't we lucky that we have two?). KPLU markets itself as "NPR News and All That Jazz" but more importantly it also boasts my friend A filling in as the local host of Morning Edition this week! Listening to the radio when you know the person who's speaking is a whole new experience, and a lot more fun. A did a great job - her voice was very soothing, and we all enjoyed listening to her call traffic "sticky". I'm hoping she uses one of my suggested phrases for traffic tomorrow, and actually intend to pay her money (or give her extra chocolate) if she calls it "slower than a cat putting on its pajamas". Most impressive, however, was when she managed to not laugh out loud while setting up an upcoming segment on Do-It-Yourself Designer Water.

In this segment, Dick Stein was interviewing a Seattle Times food writer and got the story turned on him when she asked him to tell her about his secret recipe for "making water". Based on the description, I was expecting anything from a machine that takes hydrogen fuel cells and purifies the water they create to hand-blown glass bottles filled with water collected at Lake Valhalla. It seems I was nowhere close. Mr. Stein was convinced that carbonated water from Europe has smaller bubbles, and is therefore tastier, than cheap-o local carbonated water, but he didn't want to pay more for water than he does for gas (in these days of $4 gas, that's saying something). Instead of going the fancy restaurant route (led by, among other places, Chez Panisse, located in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley where I grew up) or choosing to go my grandfather's route and buying a home seltzer machine for his tap water, thereby both saving money and not wasting plastic bottles, his "recipe" consists of taking a bottle of QFC sparkling water and adding some plain water from his tap and a lime. I was very entertained, both that this could be called an actual recipe, and that anyone would choose to give it air time.

At the same time, as A pointed out, he did say that drinking grocery-store fizzy water was, "like swallowing an electric fence". So props for the funny analogy at least.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

What's Next?

Just a quick rant about the latest Senator Obama news. On Tuesday every show on NPR was full of news that Senator Obama is now denouncing Reverend Wright, with whom he formerly disagreed but couldn’t part because he had been a good friend and mentor for 20 years. He claims he’s denouncing him because he “is not the same man I met 20 years ago”. What did the Reverend do to deserve this? Did he share new, more offensive opinions? Actually, no. All he did was spend the past few days re-stating the same illogical and hateful views, including that the US government created AIDS and that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is the equivalent of Apartheid. But somehow – clearly because public opinion demanded it – Senator Obama now claims that he’s so horrified that he has to denounce him.

There are two problems with this. First, I can’t believe that someone who listens to hateful speech for 20 years doesn’t pick up some of it, even if he claims he disagrees. There’s a reason the UK has one of the highest rates of anti-Israel sentiment, and I lay the blame firmly at their skewed public media source, the venerable BBC. Similarly, if all the churchgoers at Trinity United heard absurdities every day, some of it will stick – and I’m concerned about a president who subconsciously believes these things.

Second, and almost more important, is what the media will find out next about Senator Obama. Throughout this campaign, few have looked beyond his charisma, and this is the first piece of dangerous information to come out about him. Both Senators McCain and Clinton have been in the public eye for long enough that it’s unlikely we’ll find out anything serious and new about them. But if Senator Obama wins the Democratic nomination, what additional dirty laundry will be aired between now and November? And will it be ugly enough to make him lose the election? I’m not a huge fan of the Senator, but I still think four more years of Republican rule would be much worse for the country, and possibly the world.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Surveillance

I'm not usually a stickler for privacy. When people freak out over people tapping phones without warrants, or covertly checking out someone's library record, I usually shrug. It's not that I don't think that these things could be taken out of context and used to build a case against someone who doesn't deserve it, but I guess I have a naive faith in the justice system and assume that if such a thing happened, it would be unpleasant but the truth would prevail. There just seem to be bigger things to worry about, and frankly, my list of library books or transcripts of my phone conversations would most likely either bore anyone paying attention.

That said, I was definitely concerned about a story on Morning Edition last Monday in which Vicki Barker reported on schools in London using surveillance camera data to figure out whether someone actually lived in the school district as they claimed. (And tracking under-age smoking, along with other minor crimes.) There are a few things about this privacy breach that put this in another class for me, and I don't know which is the one that upsets me the most:
  1. The information is not going to affect national security; is it really necessary to use subversive means to obtain it?
  2. There are other easy ways to get the information (ask for phone records, utility bills, or even ask neighbors).
  3. They asked parents for private information in order to even make use of the surveillance camera data (like car license plates) but didn't tell them what that information would be used for.
  4. The footage is video footage, which somehow seems more intrusive than text.

Either way, I'm befuddled as to how this tracking was done. I've often heard reports that even though London has an insane number of video cameras (one for every 14 people) that capture every street, it's so expensive or time consuming to retrieve a particular camera's footage that even when crimes such as car theft or muggings could be solved with it, they don't bother to get the footage out. Add that to the fact that I was unaware that video software was good enough to truly track a particular car, and the fact that I don't know how the information that your car goes from place to place is a perfect indicator that you live in a particular area, and I become really confused, and concerned.

It sounds like a few people are starting to sue and protest this behavior, although they're not getting very far. Britain's Information Commissioner warned people a few years ago that they were, "sleepwalking their way into a surveillance society". I can't help but agree - to me this type of surveillance steps way past the slippery slope and may just hit the chasm below.

No Longer (Thank Goodness) A Presidential Candidate

As you may recall, E and I saw Mitt Romney a few months ago when he was on his campaign stump and I was kind of creeped out by him. That hasn't changed. However, a week or so ago, All Things Considered reported on his speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, in which he gave a top ten list of the reasons he left the presidential race. I was shocked to hear him be amusing, but even more so because he did it partly by making fun of himself. It doesn't mean I would have wanted him to be the Republican nominee - he agrees with Bush on everything and with himself on nothing (talk about a flip-flopper!) but I was impressed to see a more appealing side of him. A couple of my favorites are below (you can hear the whole thing here).

There weren't as many Osmonds as I thought.
I was upset that no one had bothered to search my passport files.
I needed an excuse to get fat, grow a beard and win the Nobel prize.

And my favorite:
There was a miscalculation in our theory: "As Utah goes, so goes the nation."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Water, Water, Everywhere

A couple days ago on Morning Edition, I heard yet another story about how tap water is now dangerous. This time the story was about Congress starting a series of hearings on the findings that tap water in various cities was found to have minuscule amounts of multiple prescription drugs, and included a scientist who said that although tests had determined that people were not affected by such minute amounts of individual drugs, it was not clear what the results could be from ingesting the combination of all of them.

Now I'm normally concerned about pollution, and the idea that our water is laced with random medications is kind of scary. But the more I hear about it, the more I get frustrated. First of all, the proportions of chemicals they're finding are tiny - so much so that we are only able to trace them now with the latest equipment; just a few years ago we wouldn't have even known we had this problem. That doesn't make them safe, but it does mean we're in a media-induced frenzy over something that likely has been going on for a long time.

Second, water is one of the few truly recyclable resources, as many drought-ridden cities are starting to realize. Cleaning and filtering sewer water, while it definitely has the "yuck" factor, is much cheaper, takes less energy, and has fewer bad byproducts than de-salination, which somehow seems so much less gross. Desalination is extremely energy-intensive, which is why it's generally done only in oil-rich, water-pour Middle-Eastern countries. Furthermore, Ocean water isn't actually all that clean - there's a whole lot of raw sewage (thank you, Victoria and Mr. Floatie, among other places!), garbage, and salt. And after they de-salinate and remove that briny, gross stuff, what do plants generally do? Throw it back in the ocean, of course, so the problem just gets worse. Cities like San Diego are finally figuring this out and building sewage to tap plants despite public concern.

Clearly we're not going to get away from this problem. There's less "clean" (i.e. evaporated, rained down, and filtered through some rock into a stream or lake) water available and more people who want to drink it. We can do better at conserving by reusing our grey water for gardening and other non-potable needs, but ultimately we need to drink. The only alternative I can think of is for all of us to start drinking mead. Either the alcohol will kill off anything bad in the water, or if it can't, at least we'll all be happier.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Geoducks

I have a strange fascination with Geoducks. Perhaps it’s because they’re just so odd-looking, or because I’d never heard of them before moving up here, or because they are so much fun to say (Gooey-duck! Gooey-duck! Who doesn’t love that?) or because Mike Rowe did a segment on them in Dirty Jobs, but I just think they’re interesting. And it seems I’m not the only one – when a few of us first went to our local pub’s trivia night, we all agreed that Geoducks was a great name for our team. It was entertaining listening to the Irish announcer mispronounce the word until some irate Pacific Northwesterners in the front area corrected him.

Anyway, I was interested to hear yesterday morning on KUOW’s local news about a current conflict between local Geoduck farmers and people living in the South Sound. Apparently the South Sound neighborhood group is up in arms over the extensive Geoduck farming that’s going on, claiming that it creates silt that goes into their yards, creates trash that goes into the Sound (nets and plastic pipes) and disrupts the shoreline environment. I’m a little confused about how the land-use rights work, and whether the homeowners actually “own” pieces of the beach, and what parts are used by the farmers, but I can certainly see the concern. On the flip side, some biologists said that Geoducks and shellfish in general were good for the marine environment, although they specified that there are “not many scientific publications about Geoduck farming,” if you can imagine.

With almost no information on which to base my decision, I’m going to say I support the Geoducks. If nothing else, more scientific research must clearly be done. So support your scientists in supporting the Geoducks, and I think our world will be a better, and more-informed place.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Green Buildings

Monday on All Things Considered, Michele Norris reported on Beijing’s ambitious plan for every new building to be 50% more efficient and environmentally friendly by 2010. It’s great to see the Chinese government thinking about the environment since there are plenty of counter-examples and issues, and since China has so much construction going on it’s a reasonable thing to focus on. However, I still wish the focus wasn’t on green products but conservation.

In the Seattle Times this weekend there was an article about going green, and it started with a great question – how many green products does it take to reduce your ecological footprint? The answer? As few as possible. Green products are great, but buying more to save the planet is going about it backwards. I’m totally guilty of this – between the two of us, J and I probably have 15 heavy-duty plastic water bottles so we can avoid using disposable water bottles. Do we really need so many? Same with fancy new buildings – I get that people need places to live and work, and if we have to build them we should certainly do so in as environmentally friendly a way as possible, but wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to need less stuff in the first place?

I also read – I think in Seattle Magazine - that the various certification programs, particularly the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™, can encourage some unfortunate behavior by developers trying to tack on just enough features to reach a specific certification level while not actually thinking holistically about the best way to design a building (how to situate it on a site, where to source the materials, etc). I think LEED is a great start – it’s hard to improve something you can’t measure – but I just worry that the Chinese government will focus on this one element and then rest on their laurels regarding the rest of the environmental issues.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In Which I Feel Flattered, And A Little Worried

When I started this blog, I assumed that I’d have about 5 readers, all of whom would be my friends who I’d be babbling to about NPR anyway, and this is more or less true. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a trend where people I’ve written about find my blog posts and actually comment on them! I’m really flattered that they bother – and really excited to prompt a reaction, whether positive or negative, but it definitely makes me double-think what I post.

For instance, Steve Orfield, who I wrote about in Thinking About Silence, responded with more info on the story I mentioned. And Alex Schmidt posted a long response to my story on Plankton Credits in which he disagreed with some of my comments and reminded me that Marketplace is produced by American Public Media and therefore not truly NPR. I told this story to my friend F, who has had to sit through many dinners surrounded by people who work in public radio thanks to his cool NPR reporter girlfriend, and he says that he’s gotten lots of grief over mislabeling APM as NPR too, so I felt better. And a few months earlier than this, Michael Oshman, director of the Green Restaurant Association, had some really valuable comments on my story about the Green Restaurant Certification.

I wonder if there’s a trend, like maybe environmental posts get more activity? Or posts where I ask more questions rather than just going on about my opinion? Either way, I’m certainly flattered…but it does remind me that posting to the internet is definitely not the same as ranting in C’s kitchen. It’s a big, public world out there, and hopefully I’ll be able to occasionally write something that inspires folks to talk back!

Hiatus

I’ve been busy, KUOW had their pledge drive and therefore had fewer inspiring stories, and blogging just didn’t make it high enough on my to do list for the last few weeks. Sorry! I’ll try to do better.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Audacity of (False) Hope

No, this isn’t going to be an analysis of a presidential candidate’s “groundbreaking” recent speech on race relations that, now that I’ve read the transcript several times, I still find beautifully worded but lacking in any substantive message and full of misleading equivalencies. In fact, this blog post is not political at all. (I’m sure you’re all breathing a sigh of relief).

Instead, it’s about one of my pet peeves: people who take advantage of those in dire medical situations with unsubstantiated and expensive cures that “your doctor doesn’t want you to know about”. I’ve always been surprised by people who take tons of vitamin C because it will cure what ails them, or people who think that just because something is natural, it must be healthy. (My favorite story there, which I may have mentioned already, is a video we watched in Physics class where people were not worried about “natural” radon that was polluting their homes and giving them cancer, but they were worried about the non-existent levels of radiation coming from a well-built nuclear power plant nearby.) But about a year ago I read an expose on the entire vitamin industry called Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry that explained some of the lies and politics the vitamin industry goes through to get people to use their products without having to do any rigorous safety or effectiveness testing. Recent news stories about Airborne show that this is something that’s prevalent even where you wouldn’t expect it.

That said, I was horrified to hear an NPR story last week that gave an entirely positive view of an experimental use for stem cells. I originally heard the story on Morning Edition last Tuesday. It described a $20,000 treatment that one Chinese doctor was doing where he would inject stem cells into children to cure a particular form of blindness. American doctors were advising their patients not to get it done, but parents willing to try anything were going there. I was disturbed that they were reporting the story as though it were proven fact that, because there were a few cases where the children seemed to improve, this was a great new treatment that might change the face of medicine. There was absolutely no skepticism in the report, except in the form of, “well our Doctor was skeptical about this, but we didn’t believe him and did it anyway and now look how great things are”. This plays right into the fears and assumptions that the Vitamin industry plays into – “we know something your Doctor doesn’t want you to know about”.

So I was relieved when, the next morning, Renee Montagne interviewed Dr. Borchert, who’s in charge of the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital in LA, to give his opinion on this miracle cure. He made some great points, including (a) This particular form of blindness can improve on its own, so there’s no telling that the stem cells had anything to do with the recovery and (b) If the treatment were really as simple as injecting a few stem cells, then $20,000 is an insane amount of money to charge and shows they’re taking advantage of the patients. Ms. Montagne also interviewed prominent Chinese scientists who are worried that this false treatment will ruin China’s entire reputation in biotech.

It’s clear to me that this is yet another way that people have the audacity to sell “hope” to the folks who need it most, but without delivering any of the real results. I hope next time Morning Edition takes the time to get the full perspective the first time around.

Monday, March 17, 2008

NPR Library

Nancy Pearl, who writes the Book Lust series, is often interviewed on Weekday and while I love books and talking about books, I can’t imagine buying a book that is just a list of other books that someone recommends. Where would you start? And why would you trust her taste?

Last Tuesday, though, NPR acted like my own private book recommendation engine. First of all, I had started reading The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford the night before because I’d heard him on The Conversation a few weeks earlier. I was actually pretty proud of myself because I convinced our company library that they should order the book and check it out to me so that I didn’t have to wait in line at the regular King County system, which is excellent but can take a while for popular books. Also, although I found the book didn’t hang together quite as well as Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything I’ve actually found more relevant instances to throw out, “well, in this book I was reading it said that…”, helping me in my constant quest to be erudite and witty at dinner parties.

Anyway, on Weekday that morning, E.J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right talked about how religious people don’t necessarily have to end up in the conservative camp and how some of them are really living their religious values and finding themselves more drawn to the left. Given that I have to work really hard to not just assume that all strongly religious people are not crazy right-wingers by default, I think this book is a good one for me to try. Then later that afternoon on The Conversation, Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart, authors of Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes* discussed lots of fun anecdotes about politics, making me want to go check out their book too.

See, who needs Book Lust when you can hear it straight from the authors’ mouths? Now that’s effective marketing.

*What is it about books today that every single non-fiction seems to be titled Pithy Short Phrase: Longer and Sometimes Still-Witty Explanation? It’s getting a bit old.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Horsey Dilemma

Yesterday on The World, Genevieve Oger reported on the Bridgette Bardot Foundation’s efforts to get French people to stop eating horsemeat. Horsemeat used to be poor man’s meat in France, but now it only accounts for 2% of meat eaten, and it’s more expensive than beef or pork, but the Foundation is focusing on giving out pamphlets and pressuring markets to stop carrying it. They admit their real goal is to try to get people to eat less meat in general, but they say that such a goal is unrealistic so they’re focusing on this particular issue.

As someone who gave up red meat with no problems 4 years ago (and pork a year or so ago; that’s much harder even for a good Jewish girl like me…mmmm…bacon) I have no real interest in trying horsemeat, although since I do eat meat when I travel abroad I wouldn’t be averse to trying it if I were in France. However, images of My Little Pony aside, I have two issues with the Bridgette Bardot Foundation’s plan:
  1. I really don’t see how eating horsemeat is any worse than eating the meat of any other large herbivore. If anything it might even be better when it comes to the environment and humane treatment of the horses since there aren’t any large factory farms that raise and slaughter horses. I assume that therefore most horse’s lives while alive are probably a great deal better than your average meat cow, and they probably consume more grass and less oil-based-fertilizer-enhanced corn.
  2. Convincing people not to eat horsemeat is not going to raise the number of people who are vegetarians or even those who eat less meat. I would be willing to bet that for every person who goes to the store to buy horsemeat and doesn’t find it, they will simply buy some other meat product. Why is the horse more special than any other mammal? It’s really just a cultural thing – it’s the reason some cultures eat dogs but no one here would even consider it – and if France’s culture still thinks eating horses is okay, albeit for a very small percentage of people, that’s fine by me.

At best this is a showy effort to bring attention to the plight of animals that are bred for the food chain. Realistically though, I think this is much like the efforts of a few socialites ten years ago or so to pass an anti-horsemeat initiative in California – it was an activity for folks with too much time and money on their hands, and the opposition encouraged us to, “Just say Neigh”.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Thinking about silence

Weekday had an interesting program yesterday about silence. There were a lot of interesting parts, especially around how true silence is so hard to find, how people measure really quiet noises etc, but I was most interested by a story told by Stephen Orfield, who founded a lab that measures noises and is apparently listed as the quietest place on earth in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Mr. Orfield’s lab was hired by Harley to help them figure out how they could lower the amount of noise made by their motorcycles to meet European standards without losing market share, which their focus groups had shown would happen if their bikes were less loud. Mr. Orfield managed to record all the different bits of the current Harley noise and played these sounds for people to ask whether they saw them as powerful, weak, fun, lame, etc. He said that although when people came in they said they loved the whole Harley noise and when they left they said the same, the actual data showed that there were lots of individual parts of the noises that customers found unpleasant. By removing just those but maintaining the parts that people really associated with Harley’s image, they were able to lower their overall noise but keep people happy. I thought this was really fascinating because it just goes to show that we don’t know what happens in our own heads. Just like in so many other areas, when it comes to sound, we have opinions that aren’t based on what we think.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Despicablest

I always thought that there was nothing more despicable than someone who convinces someone else to become a terrorist. Now I've been proven wrong - Peter Kenyon last night reported on All Things Considered how there's suspicion that the head of a psychiatric hospital conspired to hook up unstable women with terrorist recruiters, culminating in a suicide bomber attack earlier this month which killed almost 100 people.

Brainwashing young people and convincing them that their lives will hold more value, not if they go to school and find a cure for cancer, but if they blow up as many innocent people as possible, and then paying them off so they know for certain that their families would be better off with them blown up than alive, is horrific, much more horrific than the poor brainwashed young men and women themselves. But preying on people who are mentally ill and convincing them to do the same takes appalling to the next level.

I really do try to get into the heads of people who disagree with me - I get that people who consider abortion murder want to prevent other people from having them, even if I disagree. Same for embryonic stem cells. But I just can't wrap my head around the motivation of these terrorist recruiters and the people who help them. I think what mystifies me the most is that these people are rational enough not to go blow themselves up, but then logic fails me when I try to understand what cause can possibly be important enough to make it worth convincing people to kill themselves and hordes of others. Any suggestions to help me comprehend would be welcome.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Faux Russian Candidate

Yesterday on Morning Edition Gregory Feifer reported on what I think is a brilliant and scary plot by Putin to create a fake opposition candidate. All the candidates that have any chance of getting significant backing or media (like Garry Kasparov) have been blocked at every turn with claims that the signatures they needed to make it on the ballot were forged. However, now there's a new candidate, Andrei Bogdanov, whom no one has ever heard of but who had no problem getting his candidacy approved. Mr. Feifer interviewed plenty of Russians who had no idea who this guy was either, and his interviews with the candidate made him sound like an absolute novice who was really excited because, although no one showed up to see him on his campaign stop, a few people in the street recognized him.

Personally, I think this sounds like it's right out of a novel. Not only does Putin have pretty much absolute power to go with his popular support, but he's not content with that and needs to exert complete control by actually creating a fake candidate to consolidate the opposition on someone harmless. How much do you want to bet that right before the election Mr. Bogdanov comes out and says that he supports Putin after all?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Firming up my status as a wannabe Canadian

It's not NPR, but after spending the weekend in Montreal with C and her sister J, I now have a favorite CBC radio catchphrase, "this show will be on at 8pm, or 8:30 Newfoundland". Apparently everything in Newfoundland happens a half hour later.

Also, in Canadian-wannabe-ness news, I went to the primaries today to vote in our election that doesn't count. I had to declare a party when I signed in, but then received a ballot that, though it had both party options on it, was as close to Canadian in simplicity as any I have seen. I think even C would have been happy to vote on this one!(Sorry for the fuzziness and strange yellow lines; I only had my cell phone camera with me.)

Publisher's Point of View

Earlier this month I heard Lynn Neary on All Things Considered talking about a publishing house called Publishers 12. Their gimmick is that instead of publishing loads of books, they just pick one per month and focus all their attention on it. It was an interesting take on the publishing industry as a whole; one of the people interviewed for the story called book publishing "legalized gambling" and I can see why - for a new author, it's impossible to predict what books will be successful. (I was going to say, "or which ones will fail" there, but actually I think you can be pretty sure that a coffee table book on broomsticks, even though it might interest a strange few, will soon be found in the bargain bin of your local Barnes and Noble.)

Anyway, it seems like a reasonable idea to pick just a few really good books - this is great for the environment because it doesn't waste paper on crappy books that no one will buy (and will end up with their cover ripped off, sent back to the publisher), and it allows the publisher to give a lot of personal attention to the marketing and editing of each book. However, the idea is also worrisome because I certainly don't want some person I don't even know to make the call on what book is worth reading. I especially don't want one who, like the owner of Publishers 12, judges their success by saying that several of their books are on the NYTimes bestseller list, since that seems to me to be entirely about advertising rather than book quality.

But most of all during this All Things Considered piece, I wondered how on earth Publishers 12 makes enough money off its one publication a month to justify all the attention placed on each book. I just hope Marketplace picks this up someday and fills me in.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In which the Democrats teach us to do math

So the caucus was pretty interesting – although in our precinct the votes went 1 for Clinton and 4 for Obama, I was glad I was there and it was great to see so many people there all excited about electing a Democrat to the White House!

I got there an hour and a half beforehand to help set up. In our Legislative District, six precincts met in one big auditorium and had what they call an “area caucus” where the Area Captain (AC) read the rules for everyone before we were going to discuss and vote as individual precincts. To make it more obvious where to go, we set up colored balloons for each area and then I stood outside with a map helping people figure out which color they needed to go to. I also put up a bunch of Hillary signs – it was frustrating because I was the only one of the early volunteers who was a Hillary supporter, and when I asked the AC to make sure it was okay to put up signs in the auditorium she said, “as long as there’s an Obama sign there too” and was mildly rude to me all day. But eventually J showed up with our official “International Observers” C and E (I’d given the AC a heads up that they were coming and she actually called them out as “our Canadian friends who wanted to see how their wacky friends down south do politics” – it was pretty funny) and we got started.

At that point the AC let one speaker for each candidate give a two-minute speech. I’d spoken with another woman supporting Hillary and agreed that she should give that speech because she had a background in marketing and really wanted to do it, but unfortunately she wasn’t super-eloquent. The Obama speaker talked about how he’s so much more electable amongst swing voters and how he was inspirational. (We heard that a lot, and as E said, “what’s wrong with these people’s lives that they need to be inspired by a candidate? Can’t they find inspiration themselves and look for someone who can actually get the job done??”) We then broke up into our precincts to write down our names and initial votes, and I ended up giving my one-minute speech for Hillary at this level. They’d asked us to focus on one issue that was especially important to us, so for those who are curious, this is more or less what I said:

I work at Microsoft, so I see every day how hard it is for us to find and hire college students with a strong foundation in science. And that’s a problem, because maintaining our leadership in science and technology is what’s going to keep America strong and thriving, grow our economy, and help us start making a dent in fixing our environment.
So when I read Science magazine’s rave reviews of Senator Clinton’s science platform, I knew I had to support her. She’ll raise funding for the NSF and NIH, she’s got a bunch of creative ways to motivate more research in the right areas, and most importantly to me, she’s made a 100% commitment to take politics out of science.
I’m supporting Hillary because she’s smart, she can hit the ground running, she’s wildly competent, and she can win in November. Please come join me!

I got a lot of applause, but no one changed their vote because of my speech or any other discussions. It was interesting to see how different the various precincts were – some of them had long, long discussions and arguments back and forth; ours just had my speech and a response speech for Obama, something along the lines of, “I’m not just supporting Obama because I’m black; I’m supporting him because I have a friend who knows him and says he’s really nice.” I'm not sure about you, but I wasn’t super impressed. Then one woman got up and said she was voting for Hillary because we’ve been dealing with the politics of fear for so long, and people need to stop fearing that Hillary can’t win in November and should vote for her because she will make a better president. Finally someone else got up and gave another “Obama didn’t vote for the Iraq war” speech. That speech seemed to be very popular in the other precincts too, which just goes to show that math is not people's strong suit since Obama was not actually a Senator during the vote and wouldn't have been able to vote either way. C says she supports Hillary because she didn't vote for the war in Vietnam.

Anyway, next they tallied the votes (this was done by all the precincts at once with instructions from the AC – “copy column A to column C. Now multiply column C by column B. Now…”. It felt like a huge elementary-school group math lesson) and asked if anyone wanted to change their votes given the speeches (no one did) and then we chose delegates. I would have run as the one Clinton delegate or alternate, but there was a woman who really, really wanted to be a delegate and someone else who wanted to quite a lot, and I didn’t want to get in the way of energized people getting involved.

Overall, I’m happy I was there. J's been griping about the whole primary system because Florida and Michigan got disenfranchised (he has a good point; I think that’s appalling) but he seemed to have a fun time hanging out with a couple of our neighbors and cracking jokes with E and C about how the Democrats were teaching us to do math.

However, I’m also glad it’s over – I went a little overboard in my time and mental energy investment. I’m bummed about Obama’s win, but Clinton’s still got a chance overall and really the most important thing is that one of them winds up in the White House. And on that front, after all my phone calls trying to get some people to speak for Clinton at the caucus (that was horrible – I will never again agree to do cold calls) I saw a couple of people I’d talked to who were at the caucus because of my call, and interested in participating more between now and November, and my friend A ended up running her precinct’s caucus and getting elected to be a Clinton delegate after the training she attended with me a few weeks ago, so I guess I’m helping that goal at least.

With my caucus report complete, I'm going to do my best to stop writing about politics for a bit. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Numbers I Can Work With

Today on Weekday Steve Scher interviewed several people about campaigns and politics, including Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics. She shared information on individual donations by people in Washington, grouped by the company where they work. Microsoft employees donated the most in the state, and specifically the top donation-getter was Senator Clinton (by quite a bit, actually - something like $130,000 to $80,000) while the top Republican was - are you ready - Ron Paul! That must explain all the Ron Paul signs I've seen around campus. Romney was next in line for Republican donations, but the best news was that Microsoft employees were the top donators to every Republican except Huckabee.

It makes me feel pretty good to know that the majority of employees here are not falling for the articulate but content-lacking hype which is Senator Obama. I'll get behind him if he's the eventual nominee, but if I have the choice give me someone who can hit the ground running, who is intelligent and thoughtful, who is practical and will get stuff done - I'll take Hillary Clinton any day.

And while you're at it, read this for an awesome articulation of what I've been thinking when I hear all the arguments and media coverage against her (thanks S for the link!).

Friday, January 25, 2008

Uncommon Look at Sderot

On Wednesday the news was full of reports of the hole knocked into the wall between Gaza and Egypt and the fact that Palestinians were pouring through the wall to buy essentials (which, depending on the reports you listened to, included a brand new washing machine that one man attempted to tow by donkey cart and lots of cigarettes along with food and medicine). Almost all of the coverage either alluded to or flat out stated that the people in Gaza were in a blockade because Israel had decided to retaliate against some "home-made missiles" being lobbed at "Israeli border towns" (as though because they're home-made they're less destructive and because they can only reach border towns, we shouldn't consider them too serious). A few mentioned that the civil war between Hamas and Fatah had a bit to do with all this as well, but most implied that Israel was cutting off all supplies - including electricity, which is blatantly untrue yet bandied about by many of the media outlets.

Anyway, after hearing this coverage of the story all day, including on my very favorite show Marketplace which normally steers clear of one-sided reporting but yesterday interviewed economist Youssef Dauod in the West Bank about what the Palestinians need most - including "the hospitals will need the energy for people not to die," I was pleased to finally hear coverage of the flip side of the issue - what's happening to all those people living in the "border towns".

Linda Gradstein interviewed a few of the residents of Sderot, one of the main towns that's been the target of Kassam rocket attacks because it's so close to the Gaza border. When people say there are rockets, you have to understand that this means 200 rockets fired in the last week, each accompanied by alarms that go off when a rocket is incoming. I can't how someone would handle living in that situation (thank goodness my family lives far enough North that the current generation of missiles can't reach them). Ms. Gradstein did a sensitive interview with a mother who's been traumatized, needing medication to stay calm but clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, only not really post-trauma because she's still right in the middle of it. She also interviewed a hairdresser who deals with the terror by designing a Kassam rocket hairdo, and a seller in the fruit market who blamed the Israeli government for being too kind to Gaza – giving them electricity, gas, and food. All in all, it was nice to see some attention given to the other victims of this horrible situation. I don't doubt that conditions in Gaza are terrible, and I wish that there could be peace there once and for all, but the only way we'll get there is if both sides are given equal, fair exposure so they can appreciate each other's challenges and hopes. For once I can say at least one show on NPR did a good job with that.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dutch Land Grabs

Last week I caught the second half of a story on All Things Considered. I tuned into:

but that can also mean forcing people to relocate. "Of course, it's difficult to come in and say well, '30 years ago we wanted you to live here, to be a farmer, but now we want you to move out to keep the system safe,'"

and jumped to the conclusion that this was a story about repatriating white farms in Zimbabwe. Until I realized it was actually a discussion of Holland's farsighted policy and planning for increased global warming and dealing with flooding. So now I will forever link Zimbabwe with Dutch land grabs.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rock, Paper, Scissor for President...and Other Fun Caucus Facts

Last Sunday A and I went to get some good ol' fashioned caucus training. Being both frustrated by the complexity of caucuses (relative to our upbringing in nice normal primary states) as well as interested in the details of how they work, it was certainly an interesting experience. I thought I'd share a few of the things we learned, for those who are equally enamoured, although I certainly won't blame you if you aren't.
  • First of all, apparently you shouldn't go to a meeting of the Democratic party if you don't want to really participate. I didn't mean to do anything more than learn a little bit about what my local Democrats were doing for the election when I went to their meeting last week, but somehow I ended up being elected Precinct Committee Officer (or PCO) of the precinct next door to me, being asked to give a speech about Hillary at the caucus, and going to caucus training a few days later. So be forewarned. But also go to http://www.kcdems.net/ to find out about your local district.
  • Once you're involved, there are things you need to know. For instance, WA state Democrats allow you to vote for anyone in the caucus, even people who aren't running. There's no minimum threshold like there is in Iowa - anyone can stick with their candidate, even if they don't get enough votes to warrant a delegate.
  • And by the way, Republicans assign all the delegates from any state to the winner of that state, while Democrats give proportional representation, so usually Republican choices are apparent way before Democrats are. This year might be different since so far three different people have won the three major Republican states that have voted so far. I'm just waiting for Thompson and Giuliani to pick up a couple states each too.
  • The number of delegates that each precinct gets here in WA is determined by how many people voted for Kerry in the district, presumably in the last general election.
  • When you enter the primary, you sign your name, your gender, your sexual orientation (optional, but strange that they would ask) and write in the name of the candidate you pick. After the votes are tallied the first time and people get the opportunity to try to change everyone else's mind, you can go back and cross off the name of the person you originally voted for and pick someone else. From what I can tell, this somewhat answers one of C's biggest questions (and mine too) which is - how do they report the percentages of votes in Iowa since the precincts just report the number of delegates? This was especially strange since Hillary came in third in the percentage of votes but second in the number of delegates that they think she'll eventually get from Iowa once they have their state convention later this year. Anyway, the sign-in sheet is public record, so the media must have access to it. I don't know how they calculate the percentages so quickly on caucus night since they have to decipher a hand-written stack of paper, but I'm guessing that's what they do.
  • Delegate math is kind of like rounding but not. You take the percentage of people who voted for the candidate times the number of delegates being assigned by the precinct, assign each candidate the full whole number of delegates (so if candidate A got 2.4 and candidate B got 0.6 then A would get 2 delegates and B would get 0). Then you take the rest of the delegates and assign them according to who has the biggest remainder (in this case if there were three total delegates, B would get the last one). We were told that there were cases where this wasn't exactly like rounding, but I think that would mostly happen if you had exactly x.5 and it ended up rounding down instead of up...either way, it's pretty simple once it's explained to you. Unfortunately there seemed to be quite a few people who were confused. It doesn't help that they provide you a multiplication chart that makes it all look way more complicated than it is.
  • After the tallying of votes and the fundraising of the money and the asking of people to become involved (and become PCOs), the next step is the electing of delegates and alternates. I have no idea what would qualify someone to be a delegate more than someone else. I guess stubbornness so you can trust that the person won't change their vote? Anyway, if not enough people volunteer to be delegates, then the precinct loses that vote. I guess if people aren't interested enough to go participate in the Legislative and Congressional State conventions, they can't influence who gets elected.
  • Finally my very favorite thing - if you're distributing the last delegate and two candidates have the same remainder, you break the tie "by lot". According to our caucus training instructor, that means you can flip a coin or do whatever you'd like to randomly choose who gets the delegate. Which gives me an excellent image of people playing rock, paper, scissors to pick the next president.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

P.S. A non-sucky way to go

Cross-country skiing, exuberantly, at age 94 or so. Perhaps while listening to This American Life on a pink Zune, 62nd edition.

What would you choose?

On sucky ways to go...

Drowning in fish parts. Melissa Block reported on the deaths of 20 eagles yesterday on All Things Considered who had died because a dump truck carting bits of fish being discarded from a cannery proved to be too tempting, and while attempting to gorge themselves, many of them drowned. In bits of the fish they were eating. I know they're birds, not people, but still...isn't there something very Greek or Biblical about it? It's like Gluttony personified.

Separating the live drowned birds from the dead ones and cleaning them up doesn't rank too high on my list of things I'd want to do either. I should send in a suggestion to my favorite man on TV, Mike Rowe.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Presidential Candidate, the Fifth

A while back E and I got to see Mitt Romney in action as he visited campus. The event started out well from a comedic point of view, with both a greeter at the door and several of his campaign staff showcasing preposterous Amish-style haircuts. After having seen so many reports of his "presidential handsomeness”, I found him to have a smooth speaking voice and general good looks, but he really lacked a presence. He stood in the front of the room...well, like a guy standing by himself in front of a room. The fact that he moves like C3PO doesn't help either. Some more highlights and lowlights:

  • A scan of his website reveals my favorite political website component yet - the MittMarket. "Do you have items lying around that you don't use? From bicycles that the kids have outgrown to old electronics or baseball cards, your stuff may be someone else's treasure. Now, you can sell these items with little hassle and the added benefit of supporting Governor Mitt Romney." Christmas is over, but if you feel like buying me a gift, please do not do so from the MittMarket.
  • He had a couple of value statements ("pick the right team" was the lamest) but one that I can't help but agree with, and which was calculated to excite the geeky audience he was speaking to - "I love to bathe in the data". I can appreciate someone who wants to make decisions based on lots of data. Unfortunately I wouldn't be able to depend on his ability to process the stuff, based on what he presented to us next.
  • After mouthing a bunch of platitudes geared towards his base, “use the vibrant economy, privatize everything, lower taxes, make people realize that everyone should get married before having kids, reduce dependence on foreign oil, invest in technology , science is good” he ended with, “open up markets” and decided that a PowerPoint deck was necessary for that last point. The deck, aside from having been created in what looked like a 10-year old version of PowerPoint and being full of typos, was basically about how protectionism hurts and other countries have been making trade agreements that don’t include us “because we’re tied to politics” and included a proposal for a “Reagan zone of economic freedom” (I wonder how long they worked to weave the name Reagan into his plan?). There were multiple slides that he looked at and promptly skipped through, and what was most apparent was that he didn’t seem to have a particularly good grasp of what the data he was showing actually meant. So bathing in the data apparently just involved hot water and bubbles rather than real contemplation.
  • He often repeated his position that states and local government should have complete control over everything and therefore he wasn’t planning to put forward a proposal for actually fixing anything (heaven forbid the Federal government should actually accomplish anything itself!) On healthcare, despite his record of getting statewide healthcare in MA, he though each state should “have the opportunity” to do the same but have no federal mandate. On Education, states should give scholarships for strong students to go to college (you can imagine this went over well with the gushing Jeb Bush supporter and her whiny, “why can’t you spend more money on my smart kids” attitude) but receive no federal funding because, “states have money”.
  • I found it interesting that the only time he mentioned our wildly unpopular president was to agree with him. Bush’s current plan for Iraq and the surge is great (“thank god we didn’t have Obama as president”). The only thing the Federal government should do in education is continue Bush’s great policy of No Child Left Behind. Etc.
  • He did, however, close his inspirational speech with a perfect summing-up of his positions. “I want to make America strong, and I’d appreciate your help and all your money”.

Wasn't that handy?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Why Canadians make fun of our low voter turnout

Compare all the craziness of the caucus process, the challenges of voting either through our interminable scantron ballot or digital voting machines, and just generally the over-involved process us Americans go through to what C's Vancouver absentee ballot looks like:
(pencil added for size reference)

And is it any wonder Canadians are more likely to vote?

2008: The Year of Yet More Foodies

My plan was to make this the first post of 2008 before I got all grumpy about caucuses (and I'm not done yet!) so you'll just have to pretend. Frankly, I'm surprised I haven't written more about food since, what with my double-whammy Berkeleyan AND Jewish upbringing, I'm a bit obsessed. Anyhow, as J and I were driving back from our very snowy cabin on New Year's Eve, Amy Stewart on All Things Considered was ranting about people talking too much about food, particularly local food.

Now I can understand how people who are not as into food as I am might find juicy discussions about the orgasmic pleasure of Rover’s Scrambled Eggs with Lime Crème Fraîche and White Sturgeon Caviar a bit boring and perhaps even unhealthy. For instance, I was considering buying a new book by the author of one of the food blogs I regularly check out – Gluten-Free Girl – as a Christmas present and perused the customer reviews, many of which were appalled by the loving, some said obsessive, language that she uses about food which I find simply poetic. So I get that not everyone is into it. And really, it’s no longer creative to write a “How I Ate Locally” memoir – been there, done that.

But people, you do have a choice! You don’t need to buy cookbooks or food memoirs. You don’t need to watch the food channel! You don’t need to go to dinner parties (at least not at my house). But don’t take away the joy from those of us who love food. Following chefs through markets on TV (which Ms. Stewart derides) may not be news, but it is entertainment for people like me. There’s no such thing as “just grocery shopping".

Ultimately, I can think of few things more depressing than Ms. Stewart’s suggestion of the book of 2008 - My Year of Never Ever Talking About Food, Even Once: Your Quest of Finding Something Else to Say At Breakfast.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tell me again why I care about Iowa?

I generally just ignore the "square middle states" as B's husband calls them, and I'm kind of grumpy that I have to hear all about what random people in Iowa think about presidential politics. NPR, along with everyone else, has been talking to tons of people in Iowa about who they're going to vote for, and I've been trying not to care because I think the fact that primaries happen on different dates in different states is completely broken. But that's not what I wanted to talk about here, on my first blog post of the new year. Instead, I wanted to talk about caucuses.

On the local news today I heard to my dismay that Washington state is going to continue to use caucuses this year, as they did during the last presidential election. Apparently the Democrats are going to entirely use the caucus results, while Republicans will use the primaries to allocate 51% of their electoral votes and the caucuses to allocate the other 49%. I'm pretty confused, because I thought that last time we switched to caucuses because they were cheaper than primaries even though they're extremely inconvenient and the number of people who have 2 hours to spare for voting and who bother to figure out the process is small. But if we're having primaries anyway, why are we still having caucuses?

Anyhow, a few minutes later on All Things Considered, Melissa Block reported from the home of Joe Loebach, who was hosting his 6th caucus tonight. First she mentioned that part of the caucus complexity is both getting folks to go (apparently bribing them with food, babysitting, and who knows what else is legit, based on other pieces I've heard on NPR this week) but also allocating people correctly. Each "district" within Iowa has votes according to how many people showed up to vote last time around, so if, for instance, a candidate got all her supporters out to vote but they all went to the same district, it wouldn't help her (Ms. Block compared it to the Democrats getting 10 million extra people out to vote in New York). But from what I understand, you don't have to go to the place closest to you so each candidate has to convince people to disperse around the various homes.

Next Mr. Loebach explained how the caucus this evening will work, and it seems to be just as crazy as the regular electoral system and require regular citizens to (gasp!) do math. People come in (he expects 30 but has room for 50) and say who they're supporting, and get broken up into different areas of the room. Since his house has 2 electoral votes, at least 25% (8 people) need to support a specific candidate for them to have any potential to get votes. If people's candidate of choice doesn't get enough votes, they can change their votes, leave, or go to the "undecided" section, and eventually the house works out whom to cast the two votes for. Then Mr. Loebach calls a magical phone number and punches in some buttons, which "instantly" let some messageboard in Des Moines update, and Mr. Loebach and his caucus colleagues watch this on TV. Simple, right?

So okay, I actually like the idea that you can come in and vote for your candidate and then select a secondary and tertiary candidate if yours doesn't have enough support, but you could do this on a regular ballot much more easily! And I especially dislike the fact that people who are susceptible to peer pressure (or, more common, spousal pressure) are forced to tell everyone who they're voting for, and possibly even shout down people who disagree. This is one of the many reasons I don't like enforcing vote by mail, because often women's husbands fill out their ballots for them and force them to sign. (It might be a good idea in our household if J persists in trying to tick me off by vowing to vote for Huckabee though!). Caucuses just seem to exacerbate this problem. They also remove all the people who can't afford or don't want to be away from their family, or work, or anything else for several hours from the political process. And they also require untrained civilians to do math, always a dangerous proposition. So overall, a bad idea.

That said, apparently I'll be reporting from a real-life caucus in a few months, since otherwise I can't get in my vote for Hillary. Let's hope she's still in the running after the square middle states get their opinions out.