Wednesday, January 30, 2008

1-30-08: Military Underage Drinking and States' Rights

I've heard this saying many times before: "How is it fair to have some one die for their country but not be able to legally have a beer?" Well, Representative Fletcher Smith of South Carolina (I'm pretty sure he's a state representative) is taking that saying to heart and doing something about it.

I don't see this as a Republican vs. Democrat issue (although Reagan was President when the drinking age in South Carolina was brought back to 21 back in 1984). I see this as an issue of common sense. To say "It's the best thing for the state as it increases safety," is bullshit, since most states only have the law so that they continue to receive federal funds. This goes back to what I call "soft lawmaking," which is when a state is pressured into changing its laws for fear of losing federal money for schools or highways. It's OK to say it's all about the money. At least it's honest. But when it's brought out as a moral obligation, it just gets on my nerves.

What Fletcher Smith is doing is pretty remarkable. I commend him for the effort, since I firmly believe in states' rights.

The article is short, and misses the point completely. Here's one paragraph that really shows it:

"Safety advocates oppose the Greenville Democrat's bill. They say many studies show that giving alcohol to people younger than 21 does not make life safer for the military, nor for others on the nation's highways."

Oh what brilliance must have gone in to these studies! Underage drinking isn't safer than it's alternative? I hope the leader of the study wins a goddamn Nobel Peace Prize for his breakthrough. The whole point of what Smith is doing isn't to make life safer, it's to show that the country shows some appreciation for its troops. I doubt the bill will go through, as neither party will be keen on losing federal highway money, but I'll be happier knowing somebody out there in a state congress has the gall to stand up for state rights.

I'm not for underage drinking, however. This could virtually be anything, like give an extra state tax break for military members and their families. It just so happens to be something that wasn't brought up by South Carolina; it was brought up by the Federal Government. If a state feels that it's based solely, or at least mostly, on a safety issue, that's fine. But it's not. South Carolina changed its existing law, which had previously been changed to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, in order to reflect a federal mandate. Until states stop relying on federal funds, laws like that won't get changed. It's probably safer in the end, but that's debatable. There are enough drunk drivers over the age of 21 to show that selling it at that age prevents drunk driving in general.

Come on, South Carolina. Let the soldiers have a beer. If they're willing to lose life and limb because some other country can't manage itself properly, why not let them have one back in a country that doesn't have IEDs all over the place? There are enough safeguards in existence today to keep drunk drivers off the road that I'm sure any issues that could possibly come up are either present today and are impossible to resolve (like really good fake ID's) or manageable (like cutting people off at a bar).

Monday, January 28, 2008

1-28-08: False Perceptions

I heard an interesting interview on 60 Minutes with an FBI field agent named George Piro, who interviewed (not interrogated) Saddam Hussein for several months. Piro did one of the best jobs in FBI history at retrieving key information, including facts about the WMD mystery and the genocide against the Kurds.

But one part of the interview really got me thinking. Piro explained how Saddam knew very little about the United States, as we did not know Saddam. We knew he hated the Kurds, that's for sure, and Piro explained that he felt no remorse. But what we didn't know about him was that he respected Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and feared Iran above all other countries. He hated Iran. And he hated the Bushes. I can't say I blame the bastard, but I'm not on his side.

What Saddam did know about the United States was through, of all things, Hollywood movies. His perceptions of our culture were based on fictional stories about high school life and fancy CIA movies. Can you imagine? This guy was an enemy of the United States, and he had little to no knowledge of the culture. I'm not saying he should have known more; I'm just amazed. But then it got me thinking: so many countries are perceived falsely by foreigners who rely on incomplete, or sometimes false, media, such as films or TV shows. You don't really know what a culture is like until you participate in it. I was surprised at how modern a city Bangkok was when I arrived there. I had slightly different visions of Italy and Japan. I'm happy that they were different, though. It makes me want to travel more.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

1-27-08: The Obama Win

I'm not a registered Democrat, and I don't really care who wins the nomination, but I have to say that I am intrigued by the star power of Barack Obama.

His win in South Carolina was quite impressive, I have to say. Despite all the back-and-forth bullshit between him and Hillary Clinton (and John Edwards' brilliant "Do you see all this pointless bickering?" stance), Barack came out on top in a key primary. This isn't going to guarantee him a win in any of the many primaries on Super Tuesday, which is just days away, but it's not going to hurt him much.

I was listening to a podcast the other day that discussed the role of Bill Clinton in Hillary's campaign. Just to point out, I see no reason for Bill not to campaign for his wife, but when Hillary says "We all have dedicated spouses helping us in this race," she's a bit off. Granted, I'm sure Michelle Obama is a great help for Barack, but she's not a former President. Bill probably has a bit bigger pull than Michelle.

Anyway, there was an incredibly annoying guy named Lanny Davis on the podcast. Lanny served as Bill Clinton's Special Counsel while he was President, and Davis continues to help the Clintons to this day. Well, on this podcast, all I can say is that whatever good he was trying to do, he probably threw a couple fence-sitters off his side. To me, at least, he came off as arrogant, abrasive, somewhat rude, and just plain stubborn and "lawyer-like." He picked apart everything, even some things Tom Ashbrook asked him! Ashbrook is a very smart man, and does a great job staying neutral in his show, but Davis was obviously getting on his nerves. For almost two solid minutes, Ashbrook tried to give Davis time to speak, but Davis would start off (I think three or four times) saying "I'd just like to be given time to respond." It just went back and forth! It was frustrating even to the unbiased listener! I would bet anything that Lanny Davis was the guy who suggested to Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings to ask the famous question: "That would depend on what you mean by the word 'is.' " This guy was just outrageous.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

1-26-08: Negative Campaign Ads

It sure seems like campaigns really don't change much, despite any real advance in technology. Sure, it is easier nowadays to find out what the candidate stands for. I read an interesting post in Freakonomics just yesterday posing the question of whether or not this has been the best primary season ever. Steve Dubner (the author) thinks so, citing how it's easier to find out what a candidate stands for with all the coverage and debates, and more importantly, it's possible to see how well they serve as a manager with the complexities of modern campaigning. It's an interesting viewpoint.

But one thing really hasn't gone away: negative campaign ads. I hate them. They ought to do negative campaign ads against negative campaign ads in general. What's more annoying is when candidates pull negative ads, but then explain what was in them anyway. Mike Huckabee pulled off a classic not too long ago (in campaign time, at least) by calling a press conference to show the press an ad he pulled off the air. Come on, Mike. You're better than that. He seems like a nice guy, but he too plays the negative ad game, and it's not cool. Oddly enough, I haven't seen any negative ads against Ron Paul, and I haven't seen negative ads from his side against others. Interesting.

But the bickering is simply pointless, and apparently it's starting to cost the Democrats. I think that's awesome, since it shows that voters aren't as dumb as one would think. Personally, when I see a negative ad against some one, I use it as a reason to NOT vote for the candidate from whom it came. Let's say Mitt Romney puts out a big TV ad against John McCain, saying this and that about McCain's voting record and whatnot (which isn't fair since Romney has never served in Congress so there's no parity). I'm going to look at that ad and say "Well, Romney's pulling the bully card out, so I trust him a little less. That's just an example, of course. I'd vote for Romney over McCain, but that doesn't mean I'm voting for Romney. Right now, my order of preference is: Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee.

Why Ron Paul? Well, he's big on the economy, which I like. I don't really care too much about health care since I have it and plan on having insurance for the next four years. I also like that he sticks to the Constitution through and through, and his voting record is remarkably consistent. I like that. I also like Giuliani because he supports nuclear power, has management skills, and is a tough bastard. I only really pay attention to the candidates who not only agree with my positions, but care about those positions more than others. I couldn't really care less about pro-life or pro-choice. Personally, I see no need for the government to get involved with that. It's far too intrusive into personal privacy, and a kid is a kid when they're born. You can make a law against abandoning an infant, but birth control and abortion shouldn't be the government's business. The church might have a say, but not the law. The law protects residents and citizens of the United States, not residents of women's wombs.

Friday, January 25, 2008

1-25-08: Good Advertising

Every once in a while I'll hear or see a really good advertisement. Tonight I heard a great one on the radio for Cumberland Farms. It involved two guys reading from a list of peculiar names, like they were checking them. One guy would read off names, the other would check, but the names were Petunia or Bessy or names like that. The list-checker guy would always reply with a no. Then, a woman comes on and says "Yep, we here at Cumberland Farms are proud to say that none of the cows used to produce our dairy and other products were on the Mitchell Report."

My first thought was that it was odd, but then I immediately thought: "Brilliant!" Just look at it this way: who buys stuff at Cumberland Farms? It's usually families. Let's say, for argument's sake, it's usually moms with sports-loving husbands. The moms may not know about the Mitchell Report, so they might hear the ad on the radio and have no idea what it's referring to. But then, later on, they approach their husbands. Here's one possible scenario:

Wife: "Honey, I heard something interesting on the radio. Do you know what the Mitchell Report is?"
Husband: "The Mitchell Report? Wow, were you listening to talk radio or something? That's a baseball issue. Some ex-Senator did an investigation into steroids and compiled a report. Fucking Roger Clemens was named! What an asshole. I hate Clemens. What station were you listening to?"
Wife: "Oh just a station I listen to sometimes. It was a Cumberland Farms commercial."
Husband: "Cumberland Farms?! No shit. I love Cumberland Farms! Geez, when was the last time we went there? I love their fuckin' cookies. Geez, they're good. We should go there some time to buy cookies and talk baseball!"
Wife: "Sure thing. Let's go tomorrow!"


Thursday, January 24, 2008

1-24-08: Massachusetts Cell Phone Ban

It looks like Massachusetts is getting in on the cell-phone ban action. It hasn't passed through the state senate yet, but my guess is that it will soon. Personally, I think it's a good idea to limit cell phone conversations (while driving) to hands-free. It's a real distraction, and similar laws have worked to some degree in New York and Connecticut.

The issue on the table with Massachusetts' version is the insurance surcharge for first time offenders. I can understand where they're coming from with this, though I don't really know why it's there. It should be enough to fine the person, but if they're being hit from both ends, it will likely get their attention better. I'm not sure if that part of the bill will make it through the senate, though.

The other issue that I've seen come up in a good conversation I had with some of my buddies is: should it be enacted at all? Doesn't it infringe on our freedoms? Well, that's where you have to realize that this bill is going to infringe upon a privilege. A right should not be changed by the government, but there's no such thing as the right to operate a motor vehicle. You need to take a test and be certified to operate legally. There are certain restrictions that are placed on motorists, including speed limits and seat-belt laws, that are designed for safety. Why, then, wouldn't it make sense that a law is enacted that adds on to safety? I think it makes complete sense, but my buddies in Massachusetts might just be in shock.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

1-23-08: Expert Criticism

It seems with all this talk of a recession, there are many non-economists in the news talking about how likely it is that we're either in or will soon be in a recession. Yet, whenever a report is made by an economist, say... Ben Bernanke, that states that a recession is not being predicted, there's another person saying the data points the other way. It might just be the news trying to create an argument for ratings, but it seems to be a theme: experts can't be trusted.

Well... not exactly. Experts can, and should, be trusted. That's why they're called experts. If there aren't many people who know more than you about a particular topic, and you maintain objectivity, then you should be the go-to person. But, no matter how smart you think you are, there's somebody with an opinion out there that's the complete opposite. It happens all the time. Despite all the expertise that exists in governments and companies worldwide, there's enough ignorance out there to fuel newsworthy arguments.

A month or so ago, an intelligence report came out saying that Iran had likely shut down its operations to enrich uranium several years ago. Despite the length and expertise devoted to the report, many people doubted it (including President Bush). Now, I voted for Bush, and I agree with a lot of his views, but this is one that I'll chalk up to his biggest flaw (and strength): his stubbornness. It's a common human trait, and it crosses party lines. People often find it difficult to change their minds about something once it's set. It's just natural. There's some good psychological study somewhere that would explain this, but for now let's just call it stubbornness.

Expertise is no match for stubbornness. You see it every day. Here's an experiment you can try for yourself: find some one you know and talk to often, propose some fact (it doesn't have to be true, just make it appear that way) that you think would disagree with one of their political beliefs, and see what happens. I would bet that they would either find holes in the methodology of whatever study found the fact, or they'd propose another fact that would counter it. It depends on how strongly they feel about the topic, as well. If they don't really care, they're more likely to either agree with it or just take it at its face value. Try it out.

It's remarkable how often some one with an expertise, like economics, is criticized using arguments that are often baseless, incorrect, or simply strange. I heard a caller on a radio program last week say that we're in a depression because of the state of the housing market. They guy was a civil engineer in the construction industry, so it would make sense that he not only knows the poor state of housing, but he also feels very strongly about it. But his argument is far too narrow, which shows a bit of ignorance on his part. I'm sure he's a great engineer, but he's no economist. I wonder how he'd think if an average economist came up to him on the job site and told him the house he was building was going to fall down because one nail was hammered in wrong. Wow, that's a hell of a metaphor.

Friday, January 18, 2008

1-18-08: So Cal for the Weekend

I'm in San Diego for the weekend visiting my girlfriend. I have to say, the weather has been good so far. It's fair, and not bitter cold like back home.

But the trip here wasn't exactly stress-free. I flew out of Bradley International Airport in Hartford (I think they fly to Canada). The drive up there was easy, fortunately, and getting to the gate was very nice. But... then the stress set in. I was concerned over my layover in Cincinnati, which was a mere 48 minutes. So, when I saw that my flight to Cincinnati was delayed by 70 minutes, I knew I was in for an interesting trip. I went up to the desk to ask about the connection, and was told the next flight (with available seats) would probably be the next evening, or this evening. BUT they'd get me a hotel room, which I guess is fine. I wasn't exactly thrilled about staying a night in Cincinnati over San Diego, but it's better than nothing.

The flight to Cincinnati left as quickly as possible despite the delay. Apparently there had been some mechanical issues or something, maybe an icing problem on the wings. Nothing to worry about, I suppose. I sat next to a guy a few years younger than my father, and we struck up a good conversation. After about 30 minutes, I found out we were both graduates of WPI, so we started talking about how crazy things were back when he went there, and it was genuinely nice conversation. He also was making the connection to San Diego, and told me that he had spoken with a bunch of other people who were in the same situation.

Before we landed in Cincinnati, the flight attendant gave us the great news: she had heard "on the back end" that they were holding the plane to San Diego. So, once we disembarked, it was a bee-line for the plane. Shorted lay-over I'll ever make, I'll tell you that much. It couldn't have been more than 3 minutes! But the flight was nice. I sat next to an older French gentleman (at least he was reading a French magazine), and we had an open seat in the middle. I ended up landing in San Diego only 30 minutes later than expected. All in all, I am very satisfied with my trip. Thanks, Delta! Ha. I hope that ends up on their website.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

1-16-08: Soul(less) Food

Remember that sheep they cloned years ago in Scotland? I think it was named Dolly. I remember how crazy some people got over the experiment, mostly religious people and animal rights groups. I never quite understood why the animal rights groups really got into the debate, since it’s simply giving another animal a chance to live. I suppose they believed a clone animal shouldn’t be seen as a freak (though, by being the only cloned sheep in history, it is a freak of nature). Who knows.

Now they’re going to make food from cloned farm animals. For now, it’s only cows, pigs, and goats. No sheep yet. At first I thought it was pretty wild, but it seems now to simply be incredibly interesting. It raises really interesting questions.

Let’s tackle one particularly fascinating scenario involving this new movement toward clone cuisine. I will make two assumptions in this: 1) cloned animals have no souls and 2) there are many people who do not eat meat because they protest against eating something they see as having a soul. Now, it’s very true that many people go meatless in their diets for many other reasons. I just want to address the particular belief that involves soul eating. I’m also very aware of the arguments for and against animals and cloned animals having souls. Again, let’s just take those two assumptions and run with them.

Would some one who doesn’t eat meat because it had a soul eat a cloned animal? And, the other side, would some one who eats meat feel awkward eating soulless meat? It’s pretty interesting. I’m sure some people would say “Well, I just don’t think it’s nice because they brutalize cows.” But… if they create something simply for the purpose of using it for food… is that really brutal? If the food industry hadn’t used the technology, the cow wouldn’t exist in the first place, so is it really appropriate to say “it must have a chance to live”? I’d think these people would obviously have a problem with cloning in general, but could it be possible that part of their dislike is simply because it would cause a conflict with their beliefs? What I mean is: if the animal only existed to become food, would they believe that it should have the right to not live? How would that work?

The real issue would be whose rights it would really be regarding the animal’s existence. Does a clone have rights? It’s not really an individual, since it’s just a copy of another individual. Where does God fit into all of this? There are many questions, and I have to be honest, I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating cloned beef. It would give a whole new meaning to “rare.”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

1-13-08: Crazy Sports Parents

I had the pleasure of witnessing something that I haven't seen in some years now, and definitely haven't wanted to see since then: crazy sports parents. I was at a hockey rink last night before the team I coach was scheduled to play, and there was a game on before us that featured two surprisingly talented "Mite" level teams. Mites are anywhere from six to eight or nine years old. It was the top level of the age group, and the two teams were pretty good. But the graceful play on the ice was only 1/2 the game, because the parents of the away team were absolutely insane. One guy shouted almost non-stop for five minutes at the referee after his son's team was scored on because the goaltender didn't cover the puck quickly and the whistle wasn't blown before puck went in. Rather than realize it was just a tough play for the goaltender, the father in the stands took out his frustration on the referee. It's a scene played out in rinks, stadiums, arenas, fields, or any sports venue all over the country. It's wrong, and it has to stop.

From the age of 12 to 17, I refereed ice hockey. It was good money, and great exercise. But it's a brutal and taxing job when it comes to the crowd. For years, referee organizations have had trouble retaining young referees, because they so frequently quit because of all the abuse they receive from over-eager parents and coaches of young players. I can't remember how many times I was screamed at or berated by parents who were convinced I had somehow deliberately made or missed a call just to hurt their son or daughter's careers. It gets ridiculous. I didn't quit at 17 because of the parents; I got another job with better hours.

Since that time, a new initiative has emerged known as "Zero Tolerance." I even saw a sign at the rink last night advertising it. Basically, it says that there shall be no abuse of officials during games. The rinks are supposed to help enforce it, but many don't because it's a hassle to deal with crazy parents. Only a couple times can I remember having to deal with an ejection, and the way it's normally done is actually pretty clever: you just run the clock until the guilty party leaves. When I was 17, I was refereeing a squirt level game (9-12 year olds) and a father was just going ballistic, to the point that other parents had to calm him down. Well, the guy started shouting how he was going to kick my ass, so I just said to myself "Some poor kid is going to be even more embarrassed if I don't throw this asshole out," so I told the kid running the clock to just let it go. My refereeing partner was a couple years younger than me, and he was nervous because he had blown a call. I just said "Just stand in the middle of the ice with me and stare at the guy until he leaves." I told the coaches, and BOTH OF THEM AGREED. The guy's son was easy to pick out: he was all alone on the bench, crying. After a few minutes, I thought some one was going to run in with the rail to put the guy on, because it was mob rule in the stands. You start wasting everybody's time and you'll be surprised how quickly people turn on you. The guy protested, but left. He later went to apologize, but I just smiled and said "I don't want your apology, buddy. I just never want to see your face in the stands when I'm on the ice." He was pissed, and fuming, but I never saw him again.

I'm only talking about the aspect of abuse of officials, though. The fact that so much pressure is put on the kids is a whole other issue. But what I saw last night reminded me of how bad I felt for young officials. One of the refs couldn't have been older than 13, and he was getting just bombed with boos and sarcasm from the stands. I wanted to go up to the guy yelling and just say "You know what, he probably did blow a call, but I bet you've never been in his situation. I have, and I have no stake in this game, but I know I don't like you. Do you think yelling at a 13 year old, young referee is good for the game? Is that how you want your seven year-old son to play? Do you want him to grow up thinking everything is unfair and it's OK to just shout sarcasm at referees? I hope not."

Please, if you have or ever will have a child that plays competitive sports, which I wholeheartedly believe are good overall for a child's development, don't go crazy at games. I have seen how terribly harmful it is to the game, the child, and the officials. Your child may be precious to you, but it does not give you the right to abuse another person who is only there to maintain order. It's wrong, and people who do it are hurting the sport.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

1-12-08: Follow-up on Switchgrass

I made a post a few days ago about Switchgrass, which is a prairie grass that is capable of producing up to five times as much energy as it consumes during production. Well, apparently they're further along the path to using it than I thought, which is a good thing.

In a Scientific American article from January 8th, it is said that farmers in Nebraska and the Dakotas are starting to grow the plant in massive amounts in order to use it for biofuel production. This is simply marvelous. Not only will massive production cut down on overall cost, but it will bring the plant in the limelight as a better alternative than corn ethanol production. On top of that, it is a native North American plant that already grows on farmland, so farmers are familiar with it. It also doesn't need to be replanted, as it is a perennially growing grass.

Another great thing about all of this is that the Department of Agriculture is helping out, so the government has its hand in this. That's reassuring, since I was worried that special interest groups would get too involved in blocking this from even starting. In addition to the USDA, the Department of Energy is chipping in and helping to build six cellulosic biorefineries, which will be used to refine the product. So that makes two government players in the game. So long as they don't stay in too long, things should be good.

I'm looking forward to seeing things like this flourish, mostly because I believe it will help our economy. We've relied on foreign oil for too long, and the OPEC countries need to sweat a little. If we cut down our foreign oil dependence by even just 10%, just look at the billions they would lose. Oh yeah, food prices would come down too. It might not be a revolution, but it's a good start.

Friday, January 11, 2008

1-11-08: The Economy

I have a bit of a small fascination with the economy. It's not like I want to go and become an economist, but it's not something I'm shutting out. I just think it's interesting how things work. But I don't really like the details enough to see them all the time and do a lot of data mining. That's just boring.

One thing I know about the American economy, as most people should know since it's pretty simple, is that it's so complex that no one person can ultimately control it completely for any span of time. Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Fed, knows his role and his own limited power. He made an interesting statement the other day about how it's so difficult, even for experts, to decipher anything absolute using economic data. There are too many hidden variables and relationships between known variables to accurately forecast for even short periods of time. It's possible to roughly predict, but that's often done using historical data, which Bernanke loves.

Economists tend to be boring people when you talk to them, at least that's the public perception. But I've read things written by economists that is just plain neat. There's a blog on called Freakonomics that has posts about all sorts of interesting articles or studies within economics. Give it a read. I subscribe to it via RSS; it makes for a great funk-breaker at work.

But one thing is for sure about the economy right now: it's not in great shape. How bad a shape it's in is subjective. And this is the overall economy. There are certain sectors that are at the top of their game right now, like health care and exports. They're keeping things afloat. Housing is in a real downturn right now, and people seem to be worrying more and more about recessions, despite the assurances from the Fed and other economists. But apparently that's not enough for some people. They have their minds set. One guy on the radio, who worked in the construction business, called it a depression. But that's just from his perspective. I'm sure if he worked for Exxon he'd feel differently.

The question is what the average individual, tax-paying American should do. Should we cry out to the government to provide a boost by spending (some say up to $100 billion)? Should we fight against outsourcing? Should we cash out our 401(k)'s now?

Well, I can't tell you what you need to do, but I'll tell you what I'm doing: BUYING. I increased my contribution by 4% in the last two months, and I might go up even more. I'm not slowing down at all; I'm speeding up while the market's down. My mentality is that I'm not going to be a bull or a bear, I'm just going to buy when it's low. Ben Stein says it best in his Yahoo Money column. I don't plan on selling anything for decades, so buying low now just seems to make sense. It's like a stock sale. I don't really dabble much in individual stocks, but the mutual funds are a good deal now. So, if you're years away from selling and don't need the cash now, buy more. The people who really need the money now should've invested in cash years ago. I'm sure they're fine.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

1-10-08: Meaningless Words

Sometimes I hear stories on the radio or TV and hear strange and meaningless sayings. Take today as an example. I was listening to a story on the way home from work about an incident on a flight near Calgary, something about bad turbulence that injured several passengers. Canadian officials said they had already started a full investigation. Not a half investigation, a full one. Then again, when was the last time you heard about a half investigation being done? Probably never. So why say full investigation? There may be some technical reason for saying it, but I don't know why, and I bet most people don't either. So just say investigation. I'll know what you mean.

This then reminded me of the variety of meaningless, wasteful terms and cliches that are used so frequently in the news and politics. Since it's an election year, you heard it all too often. So and so is for change, or reform, or they're for the people. Oh really? And last election the candidates were just in it for the cash or the recognition. I like listening to Ron Paul because he sounds different. It's like that movie with Robin Williams, where people elected a comedian as a president and people weren't all that shocked (there was a glitch in the voting software that was the reason, but that's another story). They just liked him because he was different.

I don't necessarily think the terms are completely meaningless or that the candidates are all phony. I'm sure they're good people who honestly think they have all the answers. But they don't know people well enough. People get tired of the same old thing. After a while, they just welcome change for the sake of change. And that's a bad thing. You have to know how to balance your delivery so that people don't get bored. It's sad, but it's just human nature. So when I hear candidates use the same cliches as before, I try my best not to ignore them, because I know there's a message being lost in there.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

1-9-08: Polling

Yesterday was another example of how unreliable most polls really are. Despite all the statisticians' and pollsters' best efforts in predicting the winner of the Democratic Primary, they got it wrong. The excuse I heard was that it could have been late voters who voted for Hillary because they heard she cried. Isn't that something. People were swoon by Hillary and threw off the numbers that much. One poll had Obama up by 13%. She would have had to cry enough to fill a river that would rival the Mississippi to sway voters by that much. And... wouldn't some voters go AGAINST her as well? Some people see that as weakness.

Excuses like that only hide the fact that many polls are entirely inaccurate and unreliable. Exit polls are usually poor ways to know, and phone polls are just a joke. Case in point: people have been known to change their vote every time they receive a call from a pollster. Today, they might say Obama, tomorrow Hillary, and Friday they could be all for Edwards, or maybe McCain! People aren't as honest as they should be, and annoyed people who are polled almost daily will lie out of spite.

The other issue is that the same people who are polled are not often the same people who vote. Some people just don't vote, others change their mind before the election. Polls simply aren't that predictable.

I think the biggest issue isn't the methodology, it's the overuse of polls in general. Every news organization has their own poll that they do, because they don't just want to report the news as it happens, they want to predict the news. It's just one step up for the paying customer. Why wait? We've got it all set out for you! It's bad enough that they do all of our thinking for us nowadays with all the talking heads deciphering the topic of the day (did you ever stop to think how reliable a former lawyer or a former industry professional can really by?), now they're coming up with the news before it even happens. Just tell me when it happens, and stop feeding the polls down my throat.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

1-8-08: New Hampshire Primary

Today is a huge day for New Hampshire. Having lived there for 10 years growing up, I was always amazed at just how excited the entire state gets during primary season. It's very ordinary for some one to meet a candidate multiple times, without trying! It's an amazing process that takes the whole state by storm for close to a year.

No matter who wins, it's not the end for the top candidates. There are plenty of primaries to go before the summer conventions, but it is the first. Seeing McCain win again is interesting. Not sure if I'll vote for him next month, but we'll see. No bets are off right now, but right now he's not my guy.

The thing that so many people from outside the Granite State don't see is how heavily influenced the state's economy is during primary season. Hotels are booked, restaurants are booming, the tourism is enormous, and the state toll roads are packed. It's a great time for New Hampshire when the candidates come around. There's a state law that it has to be first. I think it's interesting. I don't like it when people call it sad. That's unfair to the good people of the state. People I grew up with. My girlfriend's from there, so it has to be a great state.

So tomorrow, after all is said and done, people will pack up and wait for another four years for the next round. It might not be quite the same, since this year there wasn't an incumbent running, but it's a fun time. I strongly recommend partaking in some of it if you can.

Monday, January 7, 2008

1-7-08: Switchgrass

I've been paying a little attention to the push for alternative fuels. Personally, I think nuclear power isn't get its fair shake, but that's another issue. Today I heard about a study done about Switchgrass, which is grown mostly on the prairie but can be found in many places. It's cheap to plant, grows well on its own, and is easy to harvest. Oh yeah, and they can make ethanol with it at nearly five times the efficiency of corn ethanol production.

The idea that you can take something that's relatively useless as switchgrass and make it into something that can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil is quite amazing. It's in the early stages of development, so there are bound to be setbacks, but it's good to know that actual work is getting done. Corn ethanol is simply too inefficient, and therefore expensive, to be a viable alternative energy source. It's driving up food prices, which hurts all Americans.

What's unfortunate is there isn't a huge lobbying firm that's out there to support switchgrass. Maybe some one should start one. I'm sure there are a million catchy phrases out there for slogans. Just look at all the possibilities for the word "Switch." Shit, "Switch to Switchgrass" is simple enough. People like catchy slogans. Corn ethanol just sounds lame compared to Switchgrass. It seems more like the bad boy of the ethanol producing plants, but at the same time it's so much more efficient. It's just like the thug that's actually a good guy who helps kids. Like Ice T or some one like that. He could do Switchgrass commercials!

What I hope is that something like this becomes viable in the next five to ten years. But, it's never easy to go against the mainstream. People know big oil will fight this. People know there are probably setbacks in changing it no matter what. But what people need to know most of all is that it's not going to be easy. It's not supposed to be easy. But with studies like this, and those to come, it's reassuring to know that at least something is getting done in the search for viable alternative fuels.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

1-6-08: Social Security Debit Card

Did you hear about this new program the Treasury is doing with social security debit cards? Genius! I think it's a really great idea overall.

First, it saves the Treasury money on sending out paper checks, to the tune of $0.80 PER CHECK. All that money stays in the Social Security Trust Fund. The cost had been $44 million last year with all paper checks. If half of the approximately 4 million people sign up for the debit card, that will save multiple millions of dollars. That's money that can stay in the system and grow over time.

The target of the program is the abundance of people who receive the benefits but do not have bank accounts. Rather than encourage them to go out and get one, it's more practical to just give them the savings up front. It's a good idea either way, since it does save money on both ends because those people won't have to pay the check-cashing scoundrels a fee every time they want their checks cashed. I know it's a business, but I also know the word scoundrel is underused.

What I most like about this program, since I am decades away from collecting benefits, is that Treasury officials have noted that this is just a step forward in the goal of an all-electronic Treasury. They already encourage online tax return filing, which is very nice. My guess is that within 10 years, 99% of all of the average American's dealings with the Treasury will be all electronic. Hell, let's make it 5 years. I only say 10 because it's difficult for old people to adapt to new technology. Just four years ago, 28% of them said in a poll that they had bank accounts. With all the possibilities with online banking, and how advanced it is, you can't guarantee that that 28% will be willing to adopt new technology in any short span of time.

What this doesn't do is solve social security. It does make it a little more efficient, but it seems to me like a cork plug on a slowly sinking ship. It will help, but if things get too bad, it won't really matter. A cork plug does no good on a ship at the bottom of the ocean, and if the funds are depleted by the time I get a debit card, it'd only give me access to an account with nothing in it. But still, it's a good step in the right direction, but it doesn't even begin to solve the major issue.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

1-5-08: Boats; Debate

I went to the New York National Boat Show today at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. It was quite an experience. My dad's thinking about getting a boat for when my parents retire to North Carolina in several years, and wanted to do some preliminary searching.

My biggest surprise was how welcoming boating people are, at least the sales people. Granted, they're sales people, and I'd imagine all sales people are looking for suckers. Fortunately for us, we weren't planning on buying anything, though I was taking a good look at the Stingray 230LX, so we didn't have to worry about getting a bum deal. The funny part was that the first boat my parents looked at was the one they came back to at the end and called their favorite: a Sea Pro 180CC. They even liked it over a Boston Whaler, which is the default buy for New Englanders.

The yachts were something else, though. We didn't go into one, since the lines were ridiculously long, but we got some good looks from the outside. I'd love to buy one some day, maybe live on a boat for a while. That'd be neat. Maybe for 6 months or a year. I don't know if I'd want to live there much longer, though. You can only eat so much fish.

The other thing is all the shit you can buy to put on your boat. It's unbelievable. I saw special beds, all sorts of fancy boat equipment (including a Garmin GPS weather mapping device), and a whole bunch of stuff that just doesn't seem like it's close to necessary on a boat. It's just funny sometimes.

Overall, it was a pretty interesting experience. It was a pretty nice day out, which was nice. I don't know when or if I'll buy a boat, but it's not out of the picture.

On another note, I'm watching the Republican Presidential Debate in Manchester, NH on ABC as I'm writing this. I haven't watched many of the previous ones, but this one is pretty good. The Youtube debate was a joke, but this one seems to be pretty interesting.

Right now they're talking about health care. It's pretty neat to see all the different views on it. To be honest, I'm not sure if Mitt Romney's plan is a good one. I don't like how he wants to basically make it mandatory to buy insurance, but he does believe in the market. Giuliani's big on savings accounts, which is fine. I like McCain's incentive-based home care plans and his addressing the pharmaceutical companies. Thompson let me down a bit in his plan. Just doesn't seem to be much to it. Ron Paul seems pretty fair in his non-interference plan. But the one I like the best is Mike Huckabee, who goes right to the heart of the issue: preliminary care. I did a project in a hospital in Thailand a couple years ago, and the doctors there all spoke out on how expensive secondary and tertiary treatment is. If people took better care of themselves, through good diet and exercise, they'd stay healthy more often. That's pretty simple and practical to me! I'd give the edge to Huckabee on that one, in my opinion.

The big thing for me is that I'll only vote for a candidate who has similar views with me on issues I actually care about. If Giuliani is pro-choice or not is not my problem. If Romney is a Mormon, that's fine. I don't care. My big issues are (in order from most important): economic policy, social security, health care, immigration, terrorism (though it was among my top issues in 2004), and government spending. If some one is in agreement with me on those issues, that's all I essentially care about. Experience, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are not a problem (outside of Atheism, which is the only exception; I have my right to oppose an Atheist President). Why? Because a person who firmly believes there is no God likely lacks the sense of humility that is required to not only lead America, but to relate to Americans in a general sense.

Friday, January 4, 2008

1-4-08: Iowa Results

I wasn't really surprised to see Huckabee do so well in the Iowa caucuses yesterday. I didn't think he'd win by that sort of margin, but I wasn't really shocked to see him win. It'll be interesting to see how things go in New Hampshire, since Romney will likely have the edge there as a former governor of Massachusetts. On top of that, Romney's economic policies will be more important than his morals, which won't help Huckabee.

The much bigger surprise was Obama's margin of victory, and the fact that Hillary finished in 3rd. Not exactly devastating, but nevertheless quite interesting. I don't pay a whole lot of attention to the Democratic race, but my bet is that Hillary will win in New Hampshire, with Obama coming in second.

No real shocker that Dodd and Biden dropped out. The unfortunate part of the Iowa caucuses is that they really screw the little guy. If you don't get 15% of the "votes" at one particular meeting place, you get NONE. It reminds me of my company's overtime policy in a way. We need to work a certain amount of hours before any real overtime starts to add up. Then, after a while, they all count. It's just a different way of doing things. Either way, that usually explains the margins of victory in caucuses, and why primaries are more fair to long shot candidates.

If I were to do a power ranking of the Republican candidates going into New Hampshire, I think I'd put down (in descending order): 1) Romney and Huckabee (tie) 3) McCain 4) Giuliani 5) Thompson 6) Paul 7) Hunter and Keyes. I wouldn't be surprised to see McCain make a decent showing in New Hampshire, but I would be absolutely shocked to see Romney drop below third. That would be devastating to his campaign. I went to a Huckabee speech in New Hampshire a few months ago (got my picture in the paper there, actually). He has a pretty good following there. We'll see how all that goes in just a few business days.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

1-3-08: Michael Bloomberg

I was listening to something quite interesting on the radio regarding the apparent revival of the Michael Bloomberg for President campaign. I remember hearing about his possible campaign months ago, but that he wasn't sure. He still isn't 100% sure, but he has a remarkable amount of support going for him to run as an independent.

I remember, when I was a kid, all the hype surrounding the Ross Perot candidacy. But, then again, the media made the decision for the people by not inviting him to major debates. Perot, a very bright man, is mostly remembered for his big ears and bar graphs. But Perot, like Bloomberg, had a ton of money that he poured into his campaigns in 1992 and 1996. In 1992 he won almost 19% of the votes for President. That's saying something, considering he was running against Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

And Perot doesn't have the political clout that Bloomberg has, and Bloomberg is a media mogul. I typed in "Bloomberg" in Google News just a minute ago. The first result was an article from the Wall Street Journal entitled "President Bloomberg?" and the second was an article about the stock market from Bloomberg Media. On top of that, he's done a great job as Mayor of New York, and he has even more money than Perot ever had (nearly 3 times as much). Some say he could devote $1 billion to his campaign. He has the resources.

But could Michael Bloomberg win? I think so. His big thing would be that he'd be the anti-establishment guy by default. People eat that shit right up. I don't know if I'd vote for him yet, but he is fiscally conservative, which is a good thing. I don't really care all that much about some of the social issues, but he seems to be doing a solid job in a major executive position. And, since there seems to be no clear contender in either party, why not now? I think, if anything, it would be an interesting Presidential election later this year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

1-2-08: First Day Back; FOX Forum

I survived. I don't know how, or why, but I did. Let's just say the past few days have been murder on my body clock. And this morning, at 1:15AM, it decided that it was time for me to wake up, after about 3.5 hours of sleep. So, for 3 hours, I stayed awake, then finally managed to fall asleep until 6:30AM. Hopefully tonight will go better.

I do like my job. I came to that realization this vacation. I knew I liked it before, but I realized just last week that right now I'd rather be doing what I am than most other jobs. Sure, a cozy job at Google might be cute and all, but working for the Department of Defense has its perks. It's an interesting work place.

One of my co-workers came back today from a 6.5 week vacation. He took all of his vacation at the end of the year. I can't imagine coming back from that, but he does it pretty much every year. But, if you think about it, that's a really good idea. It gives you something to look forward to every year, and it's so long that by the end of it you actually WANT to go back to work. That's not half bad. When I get that much vacation time, I might just do that. For now, though, I'll use my three weeks wisely.

Tomorrow is the Iowa Caucus. I did a tiny bit of reading on the process, and listened to a bit on NPR about it. To be honest, it seems almost too archaic to even be genuine. No potential for absentee balloting is just strange. So members of the Armed Forces and students who can't make it to the caucuses simply don't have a say. Yet, they vote in the election next year. Isn't that just ass-backwards? I'm glad Connecticut does a traditional primary. I do miss the New Hampshire Primary, though. Growing up with that was interesting.

Any one want to do an over/under on any long-shot candidates? How does 1.5% sound for Alan Keyes in New Hampshire? Poor guy never gets a fair shake.

Speaking of not getting a fair shake, did you hear about the FOX Forum coming up right before the NH Primary? They're limiting it to candidates with double-digit polling figures. What kind of bullshit is that? They say it's due to "limited studio space". Limited. Studio. Space. You can't be serious. This is just blatantly wrong on FOX's part. You can't cut out low-polling candidates before an official primary. It's just wrong. Now they have virtually no shot at having their voices heard. And how reliable are polls anyway? Without a clear front-runner, it would make sense to have ALL the candidates represented. How can you possibly say you are Fair and Balanced if your balancing involves unreliable polls? It's just stupid, and I'd rather not see one at all than one deliberately set up to eliminate the long-shot candidates like Ron Paul, Alan Keyes, and Duncan Hunter. FOX should be ashamed. Get a bigger bus, FOX. I'm sure you can find the money somewhere. There's absolutely no way I'm watching the program, and I encourage you to boycott it as well.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

1-1-08: Primary Season Revs Up

Well, it's finally here: Primary Season. Oh, it's been here, but not officially. With the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary coming up within a week, it's time for voters to really make up their minds. Most haven't, which is OK, but the time is fast approaching. I'd hope people would put more into their decisions than last minute pushes by the candidates.

I had a thought while on the treadmill regarding the Republican nomination. It's a close race right now, but I think Romney will likely get my vote. It's between him and Ron Paul. I was supporting Fred Thompson for a while, but I'm no longer sure about him. I like Mike Huckabee, but I don't think his Fair Tax is for me. I think Romney's a bit better with his stances. And poor Alan Keyes. I agree with most of what he has to say, but I haven't heard ANYTHING about his campaign. That's just too bad, I think, because he might not even be around for the Connecticut Primary. I hope he is, because he might get my vote.

Anyway, back to my thought: wouldn't it be interesting to have Mitt Romney running with Ron Paul as his Vice President? If you think about it, it'd be quite a powerful combination. Romney has more experience in an executive position than Paul, and Paul is an experienced legislator. Wouldn't it make sense to have them in the positions in which they have experience? No, Paul wouldn't be able to get all of the stuff done that he wants, but I think he'd be in a BETTER position as President of the Senate to help monitor Congress. He'd be a powerful man in a place where he could really effect change.

I got the thought in part from a race I was in for President of my Fraternity in college. I wasn't sure if I really wanted the position, but I had wanted Vice President for well over a year at that point. So, when the time came, I was elected Vice President and my chief opponent, who went on to do a fantastic job and was eventually elected President of the Inter-Fraternity Council, was elected President. It was a great move put on by the older members of the Fraternity. I was in Thailand on project at the time, but realized that it was the right move for the greater good. What is most important is to put the right people in the right places, not the most popular people in the most powerful places. If it worked out for my Fraternity (shameless self-promotion: we won the Chapter of the Year award among all chapters nationwide), it might just work for our country.

Of course, Mike Huckabee also has a good amount of executive experience, but like I said before, that whole Fair Tax issue just doesn't feel right. Sure, it's been researched over and over again by economists, but would it make it through the Senate? Well... maybe it would... if Ron Paul were there!