Thursday, September 30, 2004

Fighting terrorism, one high-mileage car at a time

(UPDATE, NOVEMBER 2006: I've still got stickers and they're still free, just follow the directions below.)

Several months back, there was a lot of controversy over Arianna Huffington/The Detroit Project's linking of SUVs to terrorism. Their point - wasting gas simply funds corrupt Arab regimes that are breeding grounds for terrorism - is completely valid. I think, though, that it would also be useful to create some positive reinforcement for doing the right thing. In honor of those killed on 9-11, in support of those trying to make the world a better place, and as a good luck charm to try and get to the top of the waiting list for buying a hybrid, I had 500 bumper stickers made and will distribute them freely:

I'm waiting for my hybrid before I'll put it on the bumper of my car, but I'll let each person decide on his or her own if their car deserves the bumper sticker. Just send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (the bumper sticker is standard-sized, but folds okay), and I'll send you a sticker. Sorry, one per person. Send it to: B. Schmidt, 265 N. Rengstorff #31, Mountain View CA 94043.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Scientists fight back

From posts by Chris Mooney, I learned about a new advocacy group, Scientists and Engineers for Change. The group is one of the new "527" organizations that make independent expenditures in political campaigns. In this case, SCEC is sick of the Bush administration's interference with science policy, its policy of ignorance towards the decline in America's leadership on science, and its ignorance in general. What's best about this new organization though, is that it's about science, not about John Kerry. I hope SCEC stays around no matter who wins the presidency, and continues to press politicians to listen to actual science, and to support science.

The whole issue of "527" organizations is a different issue. These organizations pour money into campaigns, along with kinds of organizations and some shady operations. Fixing campaign finance is still a huge problem. No one should disarm unilaterally, though, as the Republicans are suggesting that the Democrats should do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Attacked by credit card vampires

This weekend I was paying my credit card bill and noticed that through an oversight I had underpaid my last month's bill by $60. What I couldn't figure out was how that one-month, $60 underpayment resulted in a finance charge of $20. I called up the credit card company and they were happy to explain it to me: as soon as you pay less than the full amount of a bill, you begin paying interest not just on the carryover amount, but also on anything you add to the card in the meantime. My card was one that gives you points for using it, so of course I put everything I could on the card, and they were charging me interest on each purchase from the second that I purchased it. In other words, vampires.

Maybe I'm the only person who didn't realize this is how the financing works, but it got me pretty mad. My vampire card is MBNA, they do a lot of deals with organizations so that the organizations can have their "own" cards. Watch out for them, and carry garlic.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Why the left should support partial privatization of Social Security

Short Answer #1: It will eliminate the possibility of Bush's regressive tax cuts becoming permanent.

Short Answer #2: It will make money for future retirees, even if the stock market performs half as well as it has done historically.

Short Answer #3: Bush will screw it up just like everything else he does; this is a chance to propose something useful.

Please refer to the September 10 post below about the current Social Security surplus and whether the surplus is real, if you're interested in background. The main point I take from it is that the current SS surplus is real, but will entail problems in the future when the obligations created under current surpluses come due, and meanwhile Bush is using that surplus to hide the true size of the deficit he's created. There, now you don't have to read that boring post.

So this is why Short Answer #1 is important. If you partially privatize the SS surplus, then the current budget deficit is shown in its true awful colors. Bush's tax cuts will sunset in 2010 unless made permanent, as he is trying to do, and the income tax cuts are highly regressive, while the estate tax elimination is beyond ridiculous. Partial privatization will show the size of the deficit, and make it impossible to keep the tax cuts as is. Actually, I believe the tax cuts will be modified anyway, but this change will help push the changes in the right direction.

I don't see how the economy would be harmed. Some money currently invested in Treasury notes would shift to stocks and private bonds; no harm there. The federal government would have to offer higher interest rates on T-notes; slight harm to the federal budget, but much less harm than would come from extending Bush's tax cut. It's worth it.

As for Short Answer #2, the stock market historically has a 10% annual return, while T-notes have a 3% return. Many experts don't think the market will match its historical rate, but I'd like to be shown an expert who says it will underperform T-notes over a 20-year or longer period. Show me a financial manager who tells a 25-year old to invest her IRA in T-notes, and I'll show you an idiot. That's what Social Security is doing with revenues from 25-year olds.

As for Short Answer #3, it's self-evident that Bush will mess it up. I've looked at his "proposal" here and here. As this report says, the proposal is so vague as to be meaningless. My guess is Bush will eventually just offer tax deductions for larger IRAs. By his standards that's not bad, it's only skewed towards the moderately wealthy that currently fully fund their IRAs. By responsible standards, however, it stinks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Today's inventions: the Hogmeter and the Interruptmeter

I came up with the first idea after a recent, annoying meeting. It would be a large electronic display showing the names of everyone at a meeting. Every time someone talks, a second display under that person's name shows the cumulative total amount of time the person has been talking, and maybe the percentage of time that person has been talking compared to everyone else. Even if the Hogmeter doesn't shut someone up, it makes what they're doing quite visible.

Kathy had the basic inspiration for the second invention, the Interruptmeter. This could be part of the Hogmeter, and just consist of a third display showing a running tally of how often each person interrupts other people at the meeting.

I think we're just approaching the technological level where voice recognition software could handle this , more or less. I look forward to the day when it happens.

UPDATE 9/17: An improvement on the Hogmeter (already!): if a person exceeds twice that person's percentage of time they should be talking compared to everyone else, a barely-heard oinking grunt will start as he or she speaks, and get louder as the percentage increases. Adjustments can be made for persons chairing the meeting, making presentations, etc. I like this idea even more now.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Identifying exactly who was forced into Bush's place in Vietnam

This post by Matthew Yglesias included the side comment, "Some other young Texan was forced against his will to serve in Lt. Bush's stead". It occurred to me that it might be possible to identify exactly who it was that was forced to go, learn what happened to him, and ask him what he thinks about how things worked out.

The way I'd guess it would work is to figure out who was the last Texan conscripted by the Texas draft board and later sent to Vietnam in the month that Bush got into the "Champagne Unit" of the Texas guard (I think that would have been May 1968). Arguably, this man would be the one that was sent instead of Bush. One thing wrong with that reasoning is that this man would probably be first on the list in the following month, June 1968. Bush did do him the favor of sending this man to Vietnam a month earlier that he would've gone. Would be interesting to find out what happened to this man in his first month in Vietnam.

Since this guy went to Vietnam a month early, though, he also leaves a month early, and somebody has to take his place a month early. The last man conscripted and later sent to Vietnam in the month that our Bush Replacement left also gets the privilege of serving in W's place (arguably). I believe Vietnam rotations were for six months, so there were probably 10-11 men that went to Vietnam a month early for W's sake, and finally one additional conscript at the very end of that chain, right before they stopped sending draftees to Vietnam, who would not have gone at all.

The main point is to put a human face on the cost that Bush's family imposed by using influence to get him into the Champagne Unit. It's something that the media could do.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Portrait of a serial killer

Last movie I watched was the documentary, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Aileen Wuornos was the prostitute/serial killer whose story was the basis for the movie, Monster.

I highly recommend the documentary, haven't seen the fictional movie version. Wuornos could pull off short stretches of seeming sane, but I would challenge anyone to conclude she was anything but crazy in her final speech the day before she was executed. She seemed a tragic combination of terrible upbringing, outright insanity, and rage. I doubt any avid supporters of the death penalty will see this film, and that's too bad (my personal opinion of the death penalty is a wishy-washy semi-opponent).

One sidenote: the documentary maker said that virtually everyone who knew Wuornos betrayed her in order to get money in a deal for a Hollywood movie. I'm very interested in knowing whether that deal, which the documentarian clearly condemns, resulted in the fictional movie Monster that has received such acclaim. A bit of brutal Hollywood irony, if true. Even more ironic is that the DVD makers stuck a trailer for Monster at the beginning of this documentary.

UPDATE: So it turns out I'm only about 2 degrees of separation removed from a glamorous Hollywood director. I have a source that knew people involved in making the Hollywood version of this story, Monster. I broke my source's ankle and got her to talk: apparently the Hollywood director (Patty Jenkins) visited Wuornos extensively and was on her good side, so the exploitation may be less of a concern, at least for people other than Wuornos' relatives and friends.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Homer Simpson and the Social Security surplus

In one episode of The Simpsons, a desperately-hungry Homer (is there any other kind?) seeks out his Emergency Donut Stash. The Emergency Donut is missing, however, replaced with a note: "I owe Homer Simpson one donut. Signed, Homer Simpson." Homer shouts out in despair, "Damn that guy! He's always one step ahead of me!"

An little-seen parallel may exist between Homer Simpson and the federal government regarding the Social Security surplus.* While the federal government as a whole is running a huge deficit thanks to the Bush Administration, the high payroll taxes funding Social Security have created a "surplus" where Social Security is taking in more than it spends. The idea is that this surplus will be saved for the future when the Baby Boom generation retires in droves, with a small population of younger workers unable to pick up the entire tab for their elders' SS funding.

The parallel to Homer arises because that Social Security surplus is invested federal government securities, Treasury notes. These are functionally the same thing as bond notes, which are functionally the same thing as loans. So the government is getting real dollars from workers and their employers, converting that money into loans to itself, spending the money now on the Bush deficits, and describing those current liabilities it owes as the Social Security surplus that will pay for Baby Boomer retirement. So is this surplus any more real than Homer's IOU?

Actually, it is somewhat more real, but that does not make everything hunk-dory. If Homer had the ability to tax donuts away from Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, or to reduce spending on their education to help him buy donuts, the analogy to the SS surplus would be a lot closer. I believe the SS surplus is real in the sense that the federal government will never default on Treasury notes, even ones it issued to itself. T-notes are too valuable in international finance to do anything that would reduce their reliability. However, the government will have to find the money from somewhere to pay the T-note obligations. Expect higher taxes and reduced government benefits in return. Baby Boomers may get their Social Security, partly, but will see other benefits like Medicare get cut.

This might seem somewhat abstract at this point, but knowing what you think about whether the surplus is real will help you decide what, if anything, needs to be done to change Social Security. I'm unsatisfied with most of the answers I've seen so far, but that's for a later post.

*P.S. I will swear on a stack of Bibles that I came up with the Simpsons analogy completely on my own. Unfortunately, in the process of writing this I committed my second-ever act of blog research to see if someone else had the idea, and someone did. Damn this guy! He's always one step ahead of me!

P.P.S. Simpsons purists may note some slight discrepancies from the actual TV show. Please don't flail me, I'm writing from memory. Noone could possibly expect me to do multiple acts of research for a single post. Do you think Homer would do that?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

I've listened to about half of the audio version of the 9/11 Commission Report (available here in audio format, or here in a free, downloadable PDF). It's 20 hours total, so it will be awhile before I hear the whole thing. Maybe I'll have more to say at the end, but the thing that strikes me so far is that its effort to stay bipartisan makes the narrative clearly political. I mean that in the sense that it goes to such great political/diplomatic lengths to avoid making conclusions about what the US did or should have done, even when conclusions would be valuable. I suspect they avoid assigning blame for the past so that they could maximize unity around their recommendations for the future. I'm not sure that's the best way to learn from history.

Still, it's very important to read it, and makes a good contrast to Clarke's book, Against All Enemies. It's been several months since I listened to Clarke's book, but the contrast struck me most where both described an aborted attempt to pay Afghan tribal forces to capture or kill Bin Laden in 1998. Clarke described the proposal as "half-assed", but the Commission indicates that it was the last good chance to get him. The Commission implies that Clarke may have played a role in killing the project, and that George Tenet at CIA did as well, saying the mission would only be defined as successful if Bin Laden was captured, not killed. The Commission doesn't clarify, but this suggests that Afghan tribals would not have been paid if they killed Bin Laden.

The Commission emphasizes the uselessness of viewing this in hindsight and draws no conclusions, but that doesn't excuse all mis-steps. If the project was the last best chance, then you should probably take the chance, even if it is half-assed. Saying that capturing alone, not killing, constituted success also was a huge mistake, even discounting hindsight. Police units kill dangerous people all the time in the course of trying to capture them. Policemen still get paid. Tenet's definition was intended to stop the project.

Tenet, the Clinton administration, and Clarke himself all come off somewhat worse in the Commission report than in Clarke's book. I still have no doubt though that Clinton did a better job on terrorism than "War President" Bush.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The 1,000 milestone

I wrote this on May 11th:

"Sometime before the November election, the 1000th soldier will die in Iraq. I expect a lot of soul searching in the media. I also guess that both presidential campaigns already have their written statements prepared for that day."

According to this website, we've now hit that date. There's been some mention in the media, but less than I expected.

I have little doubt that we'll hit the 1,500 fatality milestone, half the number lost on 9/11, sometime in 2005. I don't know if the number of US fatalities in Iraq will ever exceed the number who died on 9/11, but I am more pessimistic about that now than I used to be. At the current average of 2.2 American deaths, that will happen in March 2007. If our death rate gets 50% worse, then it'll happen in May 2006. Those dates are not in the immediate future, but it's quite imaginable that Iraq will not get much better in 2 years than it has in the last year and four months.

Monday, September 06, 2004

America the Book the Audiobook

So I'm a late convert to Comedy Central's news satire, The Daily Show (my only excuse is I don't own a television), but I'm an early convert to the book resulting from the show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Audiobook): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. Okay, the title is ridiculously long, but the book is hilarious, pointing out the inconsistencies in American and some foreign democracies.

They converted me in the first five minutes, with an initial disclaimer that listening to an audiobook is no substitute for watching television, the true source of accurate information about the world.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Media in denial on hurricanes and global warming

Chris Mooney has a good post on how the media is ignoring the connections between hurricanes and global warming, citing the book Boiling Point that I had blogged about earlier (on August 17).

The post inspired me to take this blog to a new level - I committed an act of research, doing a Google News search on "Hurricane Charley" and "global warming". You can see the outcome - 23 hits, a mix of a few left-alternative news sources discussing the potential link, random posts that coincidentally contain the same words, some conservative news sources, and non-American news sources discussing the potential link. I think the foreign coverage says something by way of contrast. A Google News search for "Hurricane Charley" gave 47,000 hits.

One additional point the post doesn't discuss directly: it's newsworthy to mention that any particular hurricane may have been caused or worsened by global warming, even if you don't know for sure. The fact that global warming has made and will make extreme weather events even worse is also newsworthy, and worth more than 23 marginal mentions out of 47,000 articles.

Update, 9.6.04: Blogger John Fleck notes that the current scientific consensus does not find that hurricanes have increased in intensity in the last fifty years, although the consensus also considers it likely that warming will make hurricanes more intense. That point suggests I should back off from saying warming "has made" extreme weather even worse. I'm not going to back off completely though - hurricanes vary a great deal over time in natural cycles, and warming could have made them worse than they otherwise would've been. Better science might determine that in the future. The point about warming making extreme weather more intense in the future remains valid, however, and one that is appropriate to bring up in news about the weather.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Bush tells half-truth, recants the truth part, lies about recanting

News outlets have widely covered Bush's statement saying "I don't think we can win" the war on terror. He later recanted that statement, claiming he meant that there would be no enemy surrender ceremony, but that we would win the war on terror.

The half-truth was in the use of first person plural tense. Had he said "I can't win the war" it would've been entirely true. Bush thinks terrorism exists because terrorists hate freedom, not because of root causes like the Arab-Israeli conflict and Western support for tyrannical Muslim regimes like Saudi Arabia. If terrorism has no root causes, there's no way you can defeat it completely.

The press is wrong in suggesting that he mis-spoke -- Bush said what his advisors have been telling him, but forgetting that he wasn't supposed to tell that to the whole world. The claim about it merely referring to a surrender ceremony is an obvious lie - the transcript makes that clear.

I have to soften this criticism of Bush in two respects, though. Kerry will not be much better than Bush on pushing Israel to be less oppressive of Palestinians. No politician seeking nationwide office will say that the security of individual Palestinians should be just as important to Americans as the security of individual Israelis - the fundamentalist Christian and Jewish lobbies are too important. But Kerry would at least try to push for peace, which is more than Bush has done.

The other concession I have to make is that Bush is at least talking about democracy in the Arab world. Not doing much anything about it, but he's talking about it, and in our condition of dependence on oil-rich Arab tyrants, talking is an improvement. Just not enough of an improvement.