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 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.