Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fargo Tea Party Draws More Protesters Than Democratic Delegates

On a day when the temperature was in the 40's, the wind was blowing, and a light rain mixed with snowflakes fell, the North Dakota Tea Party drew more people to protest outside the Democratic Convention than there were delegates inside the Fargo Civic Center to hear them. A crowd of over 400 sang the national anthem, made their voices heard on healthcare and other issues, and vowed to take back government.

The proceedings were very civil; frankly, the only unpleasantness I witnessed were a few people wearing laminates from the convention crossing through the proceedings while Partiers were trying to talk and a man attempting to sing over the young lady performing the anthem. Neither of those things is anything to get bent out of shape over. But compared to the protesters, the conventioners were the only group who could boast any impoliteness.

The much-ballyhooed security brought in to keep the peace were singled out by more than one speaker (Rob roamed the crowd with a microphone letting anyone who wanted to talk have a go) with praise. By 2:15 the guards (actually Fargo police officers) had left.

Master of Ceremonies Scott Hennen, in a bit of theater, set up three chairs with the names of Byron Dorgan, Earl Pomeroy and Kent Conrad affixed and invited the namesakes to come out and take questions from the crowd. I don't believe any of the three were present other than Pomeroy (who, for some reason, arrived in a limo with the Presidential seal displayed on it. It was upside down, which for all I know is some nod to protocol. Regardless, it looked odd). The Representative declined the invitation.

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Goin' Partyin'

Tomorrow is the North Dakota Democratic convention. It's being held at the Civic Center in downtown Fargo. Outside the convention the North Dakota Tea Party is going to be holding a rally. I'm going to attend the rally along with Rob Port of Say Anything and some number of SA readers/contributors.

I'll be bringing my cameras (video and otherwise) to record some of that horrible right-wing violence I've been hearing so much about lately. Expect reports/picture/video in this space over the next couple of days. It should be interesting.

Wealth Is Not A Zero Sum Game

Senator Max Baucus spewed ignorance all over a bunch of reporters. While taking questions about the passage of the healtcare abomination bill, the Senator had this to say:
"This is also an income shift, a levelling, to help lower income and middle income Americans... The maldistribution of income in America has gone up way too much. The wealthy are getting way, way too wealthy."
Think about what those statements imply. Time's up. Here's what those statements imply:
  • An American can be said to be "too wealthy".

  • It is the function of government to decide when a person is too wealthy.

  • Wealth is a zero-sum game; that is, the only way for one person to get wealthier is for another person to get poorer.

  • It is the function of government to redistribute wealth from those deemed "too wealthy" to those deemed "needy".
Each of the above statements can be taken to be positions supported by Senator Baucus. In each of these positions, Senator Baucus is dead wrong.

The idea that a person can be deemed "too wealthy" is absurd on its face. We tell people that they need to be productive members of society. That they need to go to college, get a job, earn a salary and pay their taxes. Senator Baucus is amending that plea: don't get too wealthy, or you'll be ostracized. Don't be too successful, or we'll have to punish you.

Further, who would trust the government to decide who fit the definition? Going back to the campaign trail, the current definition of wealth is already set by the President at an absurdly low figure of $250,000. Ask yourself, do you know anybody who is worth that much? Do you think they're "too wealthy"? If you found out tomorrow that you were worth that much, would you consider yourself "too wealthy"?

The above beliefs depend on the idea that there is a static amount of wealth in the world and everyone is fighting to increase their piece of the pie at the expense of others. If you believe that this is true, I hope you don't own a business. Otherwise, every dollar you make is actually serving to move your customers closer to poverty. You have to believe that a company like Microsoft or Nike or Target has consigned millions (if not billions) of people to poverty by growing so large.

I'm sure you see the folly of this belief. But it serves as the basis for wealth distribution in America; the idea that government needs to be the arbiter of wealth, taking it from those who are deemed to have too much and giving it to those deemed to have too little. If this sounds suspiciously like the old Communist saw "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", that's only because it is that saw, dressed in 21st century American liberal thought.

Let me clear: I don't think Max Baucus is a Communist. I'm saying that if he believes these things, he is economically ignorant.

That a Senator of the United States could subscribe to these beliefs should be a wake up call to voters not just in Montana, but everywhere. Listen to what your representatives in Washington say. If they spout this sort of nonsense, at the very least do yourself and everyone else in your state a favor and vote them out. Unlike wealth, Congressional seats are a zero-sum game. The only way to increase our wealth is to trade people like Max Baucus for people who think building wealth is a good thing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Just For Kix Competition

Nacy's Just For Kix team competed at the United We Dance competition at Moorhead High School on Sunday. While they didn't win, they did a great job and Macy had a great time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

This Time, Our Sin Wasn't Apathy

If the healthcare bill fight has taught us one thing, it's that the federal government doesn't care about you. Your opinion doesn't matter. Your opposition doesn't matter. Your voice doesn't matter. Support for healthcare reform, even in this watered-down incarnation, has been pitifully low and sinking faster each time President Obama pushed it in a speech. Massive rallies in Washington and smaller ones throughout the United States were ignored (except when the "objective media" pushed the "racist" or "extremist" angles). Assurances from an angry population to their Senators and Congressmen that a vote for the bill would be repaid with a vote for their opponents come November were ignored. House Democrats couldn't hear, what with all the tax money being thrown at them in exchange for their votes. Perhaps they were stuffing dollars into their ears.

But despite all the opposition, the abysmal polling, the unified opposition to the bill by Republicans, the bill passed anyway. America now has a large new entitlement to pay for, though the current Congress made sure to leave the details to their furture selves. There is a lot of talk in the blogosphere today about how we the people are to blame for this. We voted for Obama, after all. We put solid Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Therefore, it's really our fault. I disagree. If anything, we the people are at fault for our gullibility. Our willingness, despite all history to the contrary, to believe that our elected officials would do what we wanted.

By now we should know that any overlap between what is best for the country and what is best for politicians is mostly coincidence. They have far too many masters with far too many resources for us, the voters, to count much. Our only leverage is our vote. And when we can only use that leverage every two or four or six years, our voices get drowned out by the contractor who want to write a fat check to the campaign fund or the banking executive who wants to fly the esteemed Senator to Aruba for a conference (hey, bring your family and turn it into a vacation!). And even when it is our turn to cast a vote, government counts on complacency and laziness to carry the day. "I didn't raise taxes, I didn't cut Social Security, I should be fine," they say. And they're usually right.

But this is different. Americans made their opposition to this bill loud,clear and obvious from the beginning. As the President "doubled-down", our voices got louder. We protested. We wrote letters. We blogged. We made phone calls. We wrote op-eds. All of it fell on deaf ears. Short of taking up arms and storming the halls of Congress, we did what we could. This is one time apathy can't be blamed. Our gullibility in 2008, yes. But not our apathy since.

This bill, while it will be signed by the President, is not out of the woods yet. It's Constitutionality will be challenged. State governments are already lining up to do so. The fight isn't over. But the lesson we should take from this isn't that the American people are stupid, or that we don't care. It isn't event that we put the wrong people in charge. It's that government is not your friend. It serves a different master than the one envisioned by its founders and described in its Constitution. The healthcare bill is all the proof one should ever need to believe in limited government. It can't be eradicated, not should it. But it must be contained, for that is the only way to ensure that our voices aren't ignored. Our government has shrunk only sporadically; generally it has grown, and it will get a lot bigger once the President puts ink to paper. Hopefully this act will be the catalyst in a small government movement that will bring the people's voice back to government. While we've let government grow, we've let that voice shrink in timbre far too long. Maybe that's our greatest sin.

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Irony, Thy Name Is Finnish Gun Laws

Meet one of the baddest men who ever lived: Simo Hayha. He was a farmer when the Soviets invaded Finland in the 1939-1940 Winter War. He killed 700 invading soldiers in 100 days. The Soviets dedicated relatively huge amounts of resources to killing him. In the end he was shot in the face and fell into a thirteen-day coma. On the day he awoke, the war ended.
Häyhä stood just 5 ft 3 in (1.6 m) tall, which was one basis for his choice of weapon, an M/28 or M28/30 Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle that suited his small frame. He also rejected a scoped rifle in favour of basic iron sights for other reasons: it meant he presented less of target as he could keep his head lower; it negated the risk of his position being exposed by sun glare in a telescopic lens; and lastly open sights were not prone to fogging up or breaking which was a concern in the snow and ice of the Winter War.
Really, an amazing story of a man fighting to defend his country, his home from invaders. This being 2010, I immediately wondered what Finland's gun laws looked like.

It turns out that Finland allows private gun ownership, requiring a license much like we do in the United States. One of the requirements is that the prospective owner must state a valid reason for owning a gun. There is a list of acceptable reasons. While hunting and target shooting are on the list, self-defense is not.

The (New) Secret To A Woman's Happiness: Lazy, Uninvolved Men

Maybe radical extreme feminists are right; men should be killed off. After all, we can't do anything right. First we were cavemen who forced our women to stay at home and fry us up a steak after our hard day at the office. Then we deprived them of the joy of raising a family by making them go out and be highpowered executives. We wrapped their sexuality in a straightjacket followed by turning them into sex objects for our amusement.

Now, after years of abdicating responsibility to her when it comes to raising the kids and running the household, we're crushing her sense of self-worth by helping out too much.
When it comes to gender dynamics, women are caught between a rock and a hard place. Some men haven’t changed their way of thinking and still expect us to take care of the house and the kids; even if you do find a guy who helps out, he might make you feel worse about yourself just by doing his share.
Wait, who's stuck between a rock and a hard place again?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Should You Have To Commit A Sex Crime To Be Labeled A Sex Offender?

The Georgia State Supreme Court recently upheld the state's right to place felons on sex offender registries even if the offense was not sexual in nature. Georgia's law exposes a common, expanded notion of what a sex offender actually is.
Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2007, the states are required to have statutes demanding sex-offender registration for those convicted of kidnapping or falsely imprisoning minors. The Georgia court ruled that the plain meaning of “sex offender” was overridden by the state’s law.
In the case heard before the court, a then-eighteen-year-old man held a seventeen-year-old girl for a brief time during a drg deal gone bad. There was no sexual component to the crime. But as the above quoted passage shows, the state is required to treat cases like that as if they were sex crimes.

I'm certainly not going to defend the client, Jake Rainer, in this space. He clearly deserved to be punished for his crimes -- a fact he did not dispute. I'm also not going to ask if justice is being served by treating men like Mr. Rainer as sex criminals (I don't think it is). What I am going to ask is this:

Does it serve the purpose of protecting the people?

Two cases mentioned in the linked article paint a picture of an overworked, understaffed bureaucracy charged with monitoring sex offenders and failing miserably.
A registered sex offender held Jaycee Dugard captive and raped her for years in California unbeknownst to a parole officer who visited the property where the ongoing crimes were taking place. The authorities also regularly checked the home of Ohio registered sex offender Anthony Sowell. They eventually found 10 buried bodies there only after a woman accused him of rape in September.
Authorities charged with keeping tabs on sex offenders are stretched thin, and bloating the system with people whose crimes, while heinous and deserving of punishment, do not include the sexual element the offender registry was intended to record weakens the protection against real sex criminals.

Would Jake Rainer's absence from Georgia's sex offender database have affected the Dugard or Sowell cases? Probably not. But how many criminals like him are on state rolls, requiring man hours that law enforcement agencies can't afford to waste?

In Rainer's case, it looks to me like the Adam Walsh Act just has its priorities a little off. Tier III offenses are the most serious and Rainer's crime is listed there: nonparental kidnapping or imprisonment of a minor. Notice that there's nothing in there about sexual contact. But if you look at the Tier II offenses, which require a 25-year trip to the offender registry, you see the following: sex trafficking of a minor. Sexual acts with a minor age 12-15.

In other words, you are deemed a sex offender for life if you don't let a seventeen-year-old girl get out of your car. If you have sex with her twelve-year-old sister or sell her sister as a sex slave, you're on the hook for 25 years. That seems a little off. I'm sure there was a good reason, probably anecdotal evidence, to back up this reasoning. But I think it highlights once again the law of unintended consequences.

The consequences here aren't that a non-sex offending criminal got put on the sex offender registry, it's that the law has the ability to put many people like him on it, to the detriment of those who look to the registry as a source of security.

New Chapter In Optical Woes Is Written

Macy has been complaining of headaches for over a week now. This of course screamed "eye doctor" at roughly 1,000 decibels. Yesterday I took her to see our optometrist.

Macy's headaches are being caused by weakened ocular muscles which cause her to be slow in focusing. When she has to change from looking at something close to her (such as a piece of paper she is reading) to something farther away (like the chalkboard), her eyes work extra hard to quickly adjust. As the day wears on the muscles get tired and she gets headaches.

To fix this, the doctor has prescribed Macy bifocals. Yes, bifocals, the preferred accoutrement of old people everywhere. Hopefully they will work and in time she won't need them anymore. If not, there may be some therapy in her future (though the doctor says she sees this quite a lot and the glasses fix it over 90% of the time).

The good news is that kid bifocals don't have the big line under them that scream "I can't see anything, no matter how near or far!". Macy took about ten minutes to find a set of frames she liked and seems okay with the whole thing. As for me, I'm amused more than worried.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Mistakes You Are Making Right Now That Keep You From Getting Laid, Dude

There's an article on GQ that bills itself as "a style guide to everything you (as a guy) are doing wrong". I agree wholeheartedly with this list, largely because I am guilty of none of them. They include things like frosting the tips of your hair, wearing sports jerseys, and getting fake tans.

I thought I'd add a few more things to the list.
  • Having anything attached to the back of your car that isn't required by the state.Grateful Dead stickers. Gore 2000. Those inane Coexist things. They don't make you look smart, connected, or witty. They make you look like the type of person who wears tennis shoes with a sport coat.

  • Wearing tennis shoes with a sport coat. It's meant to strike the perfect balance between dressy and relaxed. Instead, it says you don't own shoes you can't play basketball in.

  • Wearing pajamas in public. Shockingly, women are more likely to perpetrate this hideous crime on the public, but guys shouldn't do it either. Not even if your date wears Hello Kitty PJs to T.G.I. Fridays.

  • Capri pants. You either read this one and said, "duh" or there is no hope for you. That is all.

  • Pink.Clothes. Cars. The singer. Doesn't matter.

  • Pretending you like crap just to get laid. This seems counterintuitive until you realize that most of the crap marketed at women has a dual purpose: as a manhood test. Twilight, Sex and the City, Grey's Anatomy -- professing admiration for these things might seem to get you closer to that girl you've been eyeing. What it really does is cause her stud detector reading to drop faster than support for government healthcare. It's an easy trap, don't fall for it.

  • Little dogs. Okay, this may just be me. Dogs are supposed to be big an vicious, like Cujo, or big and loveable like Scooby Doo, or big and lazy like that one dog I had.

  • Being seen reading GQ.Sorry, GQ. You know I'm right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Better Living Through Taxation Doesn't Work

Alcohol. Tobacco. Sugar. These things have been labeled "bad" and regulated at one time or another in our society. Prohibition went the farthest, securing a contitutional amendment to outlaw its target. Of course, this was later repealed. It turned out that Americans liked alchohol and found ways around the ban. Eventually the government capitulated and reversed a trend of lawlessness, bootlegging and black market "gin mills" that flooded the market once legal outlets were removed.

The tobacco war was fought another way: excessive taxation. By raising (and re-raising, and re-re-raising) the consumption tax on tobacco, we were assured that the goal was to reduce smoking and save lives. And better still, the taxes could be used for all sorts of wonderful things, like schools and hospitals. The problems started when the taxes began to work. Smoking was down. Then the woeful stories about tax shortfalls started. It turned out that maybe the public good wasn't the only (or even major) reason to tax smokers out of existence. Once the well began running dry, the taxes should have faded away -- after all, they were instituted to get people to stop smoking, right? -- instead there was (and still is) much handwringing over what to tax next to make up for all those inconsiderate people who either dropped dead or stopped smoking.

For some, sugar is the next bogeyman to be targeted. New York is leading the way with its soda tax. After all, obesity is a major problem in this country, right? And these fat people can't be expected to take care of themselves. They aren't going to get off the couch and stop drinking Mountain Dew and eating Twinkies just because they know they should. So they should be taxed a bit more. Sounds fair, right? I mean, it's not like people can just go around eating whatever they want. It turns out though that Americans like their soda like they like their alcohol: freely available. In this day and age, it's much easier to let your representatives in government know an idea is bad, and that appears to be what is happening on the sugar front in New York.

In Philadelphia, on the other hand, they're trying a different tactic: making the manufacturers and distributors pay the tax instead of the consumer. This way, they get to keep tax-averse constituent groups off their backs while raising revenue off those evil corporations. The problem is, this approach allows the cost of the tax to be dispersed across product lines, meaning the price of soda may not change at all. Wait -- I thought the purpose of taxing soda was to get people to drink less of it, and the extra revenue was just a nice little side benefit? Not to worry, say proponents: we'll just make the tax so high that that's not an option. What could go wrong?
Grocery stores and corner shops will be harder pressed to absorb the cost. With their already thin profit margins, they can ill afford to make a big product like soda a loss leader, Raju said.
Other than smaller operations possibly going out of business, nothing. It should come as no surprise that the Philadephia law's main proponent is it's mayor, a man named Nutter.

Meanwhile, back in New York, they are already preparing to fire the first shot in the newest front in the war to decide what you eat and drink: salt.
What could possibly go wrong with legislation like this? Using taxation to dictate behavior doesn't work. Oh, it might curb the behavior, as it has with smoking. But it simply feeds the addiction of every government that employs it: the addiction to tax revenue. If public health were really the goal, these sorts of taxes would disappear once the behavior is conquered. That doesn't happen. Remember when tobacco settlement money was supposed to be used only for smoking cessation initiatives? That went out the window as soon as this local budget or that one ran red. The assault on the tobacco industry stopped when governments couldn't get any more money out of them. Now Coca-Cola, Pepsico and the like are the new R.J. Reynolds. In New York anyway, it appears that Morton's is next.

NY Post and links via The Conumerist
NY state assembly link via (via Overlawyered)

(Crossposted at Say Anything)

Remembering The Flood of 2009

Just about one year ago today I spent my first full day out tossing sandbags to fight the great Fargo flood of 2009. I remember the day I went to build dikes and found that the below-freezing temperatures had turned the sandbags into ill-fitting blocks of ice. Fun times. If you're in a mood to reminisce, you can check out my gallery here. In the meantime, here are a few photos from back then:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Impressions of Boston

So I've spent my first day in Boston since I was about thirteen, and I've come away with some impressions:
  • Everyone jaywalks. I mean everyone. Of course, when I do it it's just called "walking".

  • The Cheers bar is more "dank" than "cool".

  • Grill 23 was recommended to us as oen of the best steaks in town. Norman's in Fargo is better (though our waiter was awesome).

  • The city is absolutely beautiful at night.

  • I would trade a hundred of the leopard skin robes in my room for a single coat hanger.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Things Were Better When Horsepower Was Provided By Horses

Transportation secretary Roy LaHood, in between TV appearances to wag his finger at Toyota (competitor of governmetn-run entities like GM), has looked into the abyss of a future filled with smart cars full of weird, incomprehensible gizmos and proclaimed it not so good.
LaHood also wants "a device to shut down phones and BlackBerrys when the engine is started." And he's not a fan of GPS, satellite radio, and other enhancements that make time in the car more enjoyable, explaining in curmudgeon dialect that "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."
Forget all the unintended consequences -- if I'm in an accident but the engine is still running, will I be able to call for help? Not even if I'm stuck in a runaway Toyota? -- doesn't that quote smack of "things were better in my day"? You know, back when women weren't allowed to drive and you stopped cars with your bare feet. When traffic signals were controlled by trained monkeys and traffic reporters rode astride pterodactyls.

I heard a radio spot this morning on my drive to work. It solemnly intoned that texting while driving is a dangerous thing, like smoking napalm or dating Amy Winehouse. It said, "get rid of all distrations while driving". I wondered if that included listening to the radio, the oldest driving distraction of all.

(Link via Overlawyered)

States Doubling Down To Make Pensions Solvent

There's a betting strategy that is especially common to blackjack players: when you lose a hand, keep doubling your bet until you win. In theory, you are assured of not losing anything. This theory depends on two factors: 1) having enough money to afford to keep doubling until you hit a hand, and 2) not running into a hot dealer. The other problem with this theory is that it begins with the assumption that you are going to lose and sets as a target "getting back to even". It appears that some states are subscribing to this strategy to try and "get back to even" when it comes to funding their public pensions. As private companies continue to move assets out of the stock market and into other vehicles like bonds, t-bills and cash, states that are watching their pension funds evaporate are instead buying into riskier high-return stocks.
“In effect, they’re going to Las Vegas,” said Frederick E. Rowe, a Dallas investor and the former chairman of the Texas Pension Review Board, which oversees public plans in that state. “Double up to catch up.”

Though they generally say that their strategies are aimed at diversification and are not riskier, public pension funds are trying a wide range of investments: commodity futures, junk bonds, foreign stocks, deeply discounted mortgage-backed securities and margin investing. And some states that previously shunned hedge funds are trying them now.
This is the same sort of behavior that caused banks and mortgage brokers to suffer the wrath of the President and the "banks are evil" crowd. That state governments are willing to do this is not only hypocritical, it's inane. After all, they have the recent memory of collapsing stock markets to show them why this is a bad idea.

Don't misunderstand; investing in the stock market is a good thing. Stocks are a great way to build wealth when you understand that results aren't guaranteed. I set aside a small bit each month to dabble with the understanding that it could be lost. What the states are doing is different; they're trying to cheat death in a sense. Public pensions all over the country are failing. The obvious answer is the cut payouts where practicable. Perhaps increase the retirement age. These are hugely unpopular with the benficiaries however and invoke the wrath of the unions. The other possibility is to raise taxes. This is hugely unpopular with the taxpayer and, with the rise of the Tea Party, this is not a good time to do that. That leaves cutting other programs and services to cover the shortfall. Instead, these states are opting for a fourth way: investing what's left into high risk/high reward stocks in an effort to snatch victory from the jaws of insolvency. It's the equivalent of letting it ride.

Perhaps I'm going to expose my lack of understanding of how fund management works and if so, I apologize. But it seems to me that pension funds should be handled the same way as a retirement fund for an individual. Earlier in a person's working life, monies are more heavily invested in stocks and other higher-risk investments. The purpose is to ride the market for years, surviving the dips under the belief that in the long run, the market will be ahead of where it was when you started. As you near retirement age, the balance of the investment moves ever more towards safer vehicles like bonds. This is to protect the gains made from the market and ensure a steady income once retirement is reached.

Pension fund managers should be able to determine where the payees are in that cycle and manage the funds similarly. In other words, if a large percentage of the workers to benefit from the pension are younger, more of the available funds would be in stocks. As the workforce begins to skew older, the funds are shifted to bonds and the like. That should provide a hedge against dips in the market and ensure that the older workers are taken care of. Again, forgive me if this sounds naive. I certainly bow to the expertise of any profession fund managers out there.

Of course. the role of unions can't be overlooked in this. Pension fund managers are loathe to revise the models on which the pensions are built, as revising the expected rate of return downward in a down market can have far-reaching effects on the budget and prompt a backlash from the unions.
The $30 billion Colorado state pension fund is one of a tiny number of government plans to disclose how much difference even a slight change in its projected rate of return could make. Colorado has been assuming its investments will earn 8.5 percent annually, on average, and on that basis it reported a $17.9 billion shortfall in its most recent annual report.

But the state also disclosed what would happen if it lowered its investment assumption just half a percentage point, to 8 percent. Though it might be more likely to achieve that return, Colorado would earn less over time on its investments. So at 8 percent, the plan’s shortfall would actually jump to $21.4 billion. Contributions would need to increase to keep pace.

Colorado cannot afford the contributions it owes, even at the current estimated rate of return. It has fallen behind by several billion dollars on its yearly contributions, and after a bruising battle the legislature recently passed a bill reducing retirees’ cost-of-living adjustment, to 2 percent, from 3.5 percent. Public employees’ unions are threatening to sue to have the law repealed.
One or two of these states could certainly hit it big; I've seen blackjack players hit their hand with the double down method before. But most of the time it doesn't work. You just run out of money too fast or you find yourself playing against a hot dealer. Most of these states are going to end up gambling their pensions away completely.

(Crossposted at Say Anything)

Shipping Up To Boston

I'm leaving at 5:00 am tomorrow morning with a couple of coworkers for a trip to Boston. We are visting some customers to get some insight into how thier businesses use our software and ways in which we could make their lives less of of living hell. Customer visits are always fun, since you usually don't know what you're walking into. They could have all sorts of complaints and not be shy about it. They might greet you with torches and pitchforks and suddenly you find yourself standing at the top of a tower waving your arms and grunting. All because you just wanted to be loved.

Your only real defenses to this are to remain calm and to show them some cool feature that will solve all their problems, one they didn't know existed. Luckily, my software suite is going into version 11 and is pretty jammed packed with stuff.

Anyway, I haven't been to Boston since I was a wee lad. I'm looking forward to seeing some leprachauns and the Pope. Also, I hope they have beer there. To get my self in the mood, I've been listening to the Dropkick Murphys on continuous loop for the past 72 hours.

Ooh, all that violence. I hope I don't run into a gang of street toughs while picking clovers and eating Lucky Charms. Ah, Boston. I remember it well.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Good Start On My New Year's Resolutions

One of my New Year's resolutions was to get promoted. I had been working at it for almost two years, as my managers had been pushing me to fulfill this requirement or that competentcy in order to make the jump to the next pay level.

I got word today during our midyear reviews that I have made the grade. It was pretty unexpected (at least at this point; I was thinking more end-of-year) but certainly welcome. I can't go into details about my pay grade and where I am on the complex levelling chart Microsoft uses to keep all its employees straight as we aren't supposed to talk about those sorts of things. But as of March 15th I am climbing one more rung on the Microsoft ladder. So, yay me!

From A Torrent To A Trickle: North Dakota Should Expect Less Federal Dollars In The Future

Byron Dorgan is leaving the Senate. When that happens, North Dakotans should expect to see a sharp decrease in the amount of federal dollars funnelled to the state.
In its annual report, Taxpayers for Common Sense attributes North Dakota’s continually high ranking to the level of influence its Democratic congressional delegation wields.

Dorgan is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Water and Energy Development. In that position, Dorgan has secured millions of dollars for state projects including flood protection, rural water development and university research.
So North Dakota is a national leader in sucking at the government teat. Yippee. I realize that trumpeting how much federal tax dollars you bring to the state coffers is a point of pride for politicians. It's expected from a dishearteningly large percentage of the population. Dorgan's replacement is not going to be in a position to siphon anywhere near the numbers he could. Dorgan was so "successful" that he eclipsed another North Dakota representative, Earl Pomeroy, who was credited with only $200,000 in individual earmarks. In defending his record while brushing aside tranparency concerns raised by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Dorgan said:
“The reason they call them earmarks is to implicitly to suggest that they are unworthy, and that’s simply not the case,” Dorgan said. “These are wonderful investments in North Dakota’s future. … Part of them are investments we are owed, and part of them deal with flood control and building jobs.

“If they don’t think those are wise investments, then we have a real disagreement,” he said.
Which is a wonderfully obtuse way of knocking down a strawman. The call for transparency from Taxpayers for Common Sense doesn't mean it thinks the investments are unwise. Of course, there's a lot more money coming to the state in the form of farm bills and other programs. Those get left out in all the talk about "flood control" and "building jobs". What Dorgan should be asking is, if we are "owed" so much money by the federal government, why are they taking so much from us in the first place? In the long run this means that the percentage of the bloated federal budget pie that gets sent back to North Dakota will be smaller. From that standpoint I understand the allure of having an old hand in the Senate. But shouldn't the goal be to reduce the pie?

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thinking About The Iraqi Elections

(Note: This post first appeared in a slightly altered form on Say Anything. Click here to read the post in it's original form.)

The Iraqi elections are coming up tomorrow, and I've been thinking for a couple days about writing a post about it. It hasn't been easy, as I've read numerous blogs and newspaper articles about it, and I wasn't sure if there was anything that hadn't already been said: this is an important election for Iraqis; it will determine whether Iraq continues down the path towards democracy or slides back towards religious sectarianism; Sunnis are restless because so many of their candidates were blacklisted by the election council. It's not that I don't think the election is newsworthy; quite the opposite.

So as I struggled with what to say it occurred to me how things have changed in the past seven years. Whatever happens in this election, we know Saddam Hussein (remember him?) won't lead the balloting. A bloodthirsty, murdering tyrant won't be at the helm. The fretting over whether a secular or religious slate will win pales in comparison to the Iraq of seven years ago. No slate will garner 95% of the vote the way Saddam did in the dark days of his reign, and that's a good thing.

In the aftermath of the invasion, when sectarian violence threatened to tear Iraq apart and the media was breathlessly waiting (some would say hoping) for civil war to break out, it looked like the grand aspirations for the country were misplaced. That for all our good intentions, nothing would really change.

Contrast that with today: Sunni leaders are calling for calm and restraint tomorrow. More, they are calling for Sunnis to vote tomorrow, arguing that by refusing to participate they will only be weakening themselves more. The candidate slates made up of hardline Islamicists are expected to fare poorly. The promises being made by the candidates fall under the aegis of running government more efficently, providing more jobs and improving security. In the last election it revolved around rebuilding the country, finding ways to get the power back on and battling a strong and deeply rooted insurgency. That is progress.

There have been rumblings that violence will ensue in the aftermath of the voting, fueled by supporters of losing candidates and disgruntled Sunnis who feel they are being squeezed out of the power structure. Incidents may very well happen, and that will be a shame. Hopefully those incidents are few in number and small in scope. Those incidents, if they occur, should not overshadow the changes that have taken place in Iraq in the last seven years.

This is not to say the journey from totalitarian state to democratic stronghold is complete, or even nearly over. There is still a long way to go. Corruption and sectarianism still prevail in many quarters. Violence still erupts. Outside influences still work to derail the effort. But none of those issues have succeeded yet, and with each day that passes their ability to do so wanes a little bit more.

I remember how the purple finger came to be a point of pride in Iraqis and a symbol of the hope they had in their new democratic experiment. Purple fingers will appear in large numbers tomorrow (and indeed already have; police and the military have already voted in order to provide security for polling places). While those stained appendages still represent the possibility of the future, we, as outsiders watching from afar, should stop and realize that they also represent how far the Iraqis have come.

Some other takes on the election:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Macy's Just For Kix Team

Lede Of The Week

This opening paragraph is so awesome I had to share it with the world (at least the .0000001% of it that reads this site):

A Navy captain was demoted because she berated and assaulted her crew, not because she led her guided missile cruiser on a drag-race with another U.S. warship in the Pacific, an investigation shows.
I am not condoning any of the former boat commander's actions. Using your position for political gain in the military is not unheard of, but it's still wrong. Assaulting your crew is obviously unsupportable. Using millions of dollars of taxpayer-funded warship to reenact a scence from American Graffiti is certainly grounds for losing your command and getting demoted.

It just reads so cool...

Senators Look To End Ban On Gay Blood Donations

Here's a piece of legislation that Republicans should get behind. It has been illegal for a man to donate blood if he has had gay sex since 1977 (the law was passed in 1983 but extended retroactvely six years). This isn't 1977. In 2010 (and really, for years now) we can successfully screen blood for HIV and other blood-bourne pathogens. In a country where blood banks are going begging, there isn't a good scientific reason to turn people who want to donate useable, untatined blood.

The lawmakers stressed that the science has changed dramatically since the ban was established in 1983 at the advent of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Today donated blood must undergo two different, highly accurate tests that make the risk of tainted blood entering the blood supply virtually zero, they said.

The senators said that while hospitals and emergency rooms are in urgent need of blood products, "healthy blood donors are turned away every day due to an antiquated policy and our blood supply is not necessarily any safer for it."
There is one group who is on record as supporting the current policy: advocates for those with hemophilia.

People with hemophilia, a bleeding disorder, require periodic transfusions and in the past, before screening techniques were improved to ensure blood was HIV-free, were among those most at risk of contracting the virus.
I don't want to dismiss their concerns completely. If I were in need of transfusions on an ongoing basis I might look on any perceived risk as unnecessary. But I'd like to think I'd also realize that the same screening process I trust to make sure I don't get HIV from some drug addict selling blood for dope money can be trusted to make sure I don't get it from a gay man.

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

Administration, Desperate To Get Something Passed, Turns To Immigration

In the midst of all the talk surrounding the use of the budget reconciliation [*] process to pass healthcare reform, the Obama administration is turning to immigration reform in hopes of getting something (anything!) passed before the midterm elections.

The basis of a bill would include a path toward citizenship for the 10.8 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Citizenship would not be granted lightly, the White House said. Undocumented workers would need to register, pay taxes and pay a penalty for violating the law. Failure to comply might result in deportation.
Note the “might”. I am giddy with anticipation at the prospect that lawbreakers “might” be punished.

Democrats are having trouble finding Republican support for the bill. Of course, this is being framed as more “party of no” nonsense. The real reason there’s no Republican support is that the proposed bill does nothing to deal with the underlying immigration issues that Republicans care about. Effectively granting illegals citizenship doens’t discourage illegal immigration. I especially like the bit in the article about charging them a fine. Most illegals came here with nothing and many of them still have nothing. Where are they going to get the money to pay fines? No doubt a program would be set up to assist them with this. More welfare.

The purpose of this bill is simply to shore up support in a latino community that, along with every other group promised a truckload of rainbows and unicorns hope and change, is starting to get restless with an administration that is unable to get anything done despite having every conceivable advantage.
Immigration reform should come in two forms: exporting illegal immigrants and making it easier for legal immigration to take place. Empower federal, state, and local authorities to arrest illegals when they are discovered. Allow businesses to report them when they are discovered during background checks. Deport them quickly. Ease the process for legal immigration, especially for those that posess a useful skill. Welfare seekers should be turned away. Those that want to come to America and contribute to their communities and the nation in general should be welcome. Those that don’t shouldn’t. It really should be that simple.

Craft a bill around those principles and it should be easy to find Republicans who will vote for it.

[*] A quick aside: I’ve noticed that Democrats are winning at least one small skirmish in the healthcare fight. What has long been known as the “budget reconciliation process” is now routinely being referred to without the “budget”. I think it’s important to note that the tool being discussed by the Democrats was designed to bypass gridlock over budgets, in order to ensure that goverment could continue to function. That it is being used for healtcare “reform” is something that should be getting more attention.

(Crossposted from Say Anything)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I'll Have The Soup, A Mai Tai, And Oh, A Handlebar Mustache

Donna, her brother Ryan, and I settled in for lunch at the Raffle Cafe inside Mandalay Bay this afternoon. We had just taken in the Shark Reef exhibit and were ready for some food after watching all those carnivores. We chose the Raffle because the other 73 restaurants in the hotel were full of Lowe's salespeople, who were in town for some sort of convention. As far as I could tell, Lowe's spokesman and Lex Luthor actor Gene Hackman was not in attendence.

It turned out to be a great lunch. Donna had some tomato soup that hit the spot. Really, really good, apparently. As we were being seated, a large man with a weathered complexion, tattoos, and a shock of white, close cropped hair (with a handlebar mustache to match) was getting up from the next table. I recognized him, but it was Ryan who was excited. So excited he let the guy walk away. I chased him down and got him to pose for a picture:

Ryan with Paul Teutul of American Chopper

That's three celebrities we've met on this trip (along with my new friends Penn and Teller). Not bad!

Oh, and what made this lunch so great for me?

I ordered a Mai Tai with lunch and the waitress brought me two. That' right. 2-for-1's. Best Lunch. Ever.

Dam, That Thing's Big

(Click on images to view in 800 x 600)

Penn & Teller With A Bullet

I've been a fan of Penn & Teller since I saw them deconstruct a magic trick involving a semi running over a man on television years ago. If you haven't seen their show Bullshit you're doing yourself a disservice. Tonight we went to see them perform live at the Rio where we just happened to be staying. It was quite a show, and I managed to get myself up on stage for the finale.

It was a trick I've seen them perform on television before: the magic bullet trick. They were looking for volunteers who had experience with firearms, and when they mentioned military experience, I raised my hand. Penn Jillette focused on me like a laser and asked me about my qualifications. When I told him I was trained on firearms in the Air Force, I was in.

The trick was set up this way: Penn showed me a cloth bag with several bullets slotted inside like a bandolier. I was asked to select one and make sure it was real. Sure enough, it was a copper-jacketed .357 round. I had seen them before; my father owns a .357 magnum.

Next I was asked to mark the bullet (the actual projectile) with my initials. I was given a choice of three markers to use, each a different color. I chose blue. Next I chose a purple marker and drew a really crapy representation of a poker chip on the casing. Another volunteer was performing the same actions with Teller on the other side of a yellow stripe laid on the floor. No one on the stage was to cross the boundary, to ensure that the bullets could not be traded from one magician to another.

Then I was handed a .357 short barrel. I rolled the cylinder, checked the barrel, cocked it experimentally. Sure seemed like a functional handgun to me.

Next I was presented with a piece of glass affixed to a pedestal. I knocked on it with the microphone I was using. Yep. It's glass.

I loaded the slug into the gun and gave it to Penn. I was ushered to the first row for the rest of the trick. Penn and Teller donned bulletproof vests, and, with the glass-on-a-pedestal contraption between them, fired at each other from about 30 feet apart. Afterward, I was called back on stage. The glass had a bullet hole in the lower right quadrant. When I reached my hand across the barrier, Teller spit a .357 bullet into my palm. It had scoring on it to that indicate it had travelled through the barrel of a gun. More importantly, it had my initials on it. Penn then opened his gun and had me remove the shell casing. I smelled it; gunpowder. On its side was the same crappy drawing I had made minutes before.

Monday, March 1, 2010

View From My Window

That's right. Vegas, baby! Donna and I are staying at the Rio for four nights. This is my first time at the Rio (and Donna's first time in Vegas), and I must say this is one nice hotel. Huge room, clean (at least as clean as a microbe-drenched cootie factory can be), and a liquor store right next to the elevator. There's also about seventeen restaurants in the place, about eight of which I want to try.

We're doing the touristy thing today and at least part of tomorrow with Donna's parents and brother, who are in town until Tuesday after attending Sunday's NASCAR race. After that, Donna and I will meet up on Thursday for the return trip, her arms laden with shopping bags and my wallet stripped bare from an overdose of poker and craps. Vegas rocks!