Thursday, March 31, 2011

Total Carbon Emissions v. Per Capita Carbon Emissions, Illustrated by Feet

From Miller-McCune, via Good, we've got a great infographic comparing total carbon emissions to per capita carbon emissions, by country:


Here's the link to the full-size original (.pdf).

Not surprisingly, the U.S. (the world's largest economy) and China (the world's most populous country) are the two largest total carbon emitters, but they look much smaller on a per capita basis. On a per capita, the biggest polluters are almost all small island nations, since these countries have to import almost all of their manufactured goods from very, very far away.

So, we see that all countries - developing and developed alike - have their role to play in fighting climate-change-causing carbon emissions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Report: "Sitting in [D.C.] traffic triggers more heart attacks than eating, alcohol, cocaine, and sex"

My wife thinks that I have some sort of pathological problem when it comes to traffic - I will go to great lengths and spend non-trivial amounts of money to avoid sitting in traffic. Unfortunately, I currently live and work in a place that is notorious for its god-awful traffic - the D.C. metro area is tied with Chicago for having the worst congestion in the country, with the average D.C. driver spending 70 hours a year just sitting in stalled traffic (granted, this analysis of congestion is somewhat flawed, but still, traffic congestion around here is REALLY bad). Fortunately, I live in D.C. proper and work in northern Virginia, meaning that I have a 10-15 minute one-way reverse-commute most days, and I am able to work a relatively flexible work schedule that allows me to avoid most of the congestion most of time time - so I realize that I have it FAR better than most people who drive to work around here.

Nevertheless, apparently I am wise to avoid traffic whenever possible, as Grist reports that sitting in traffic apparently triggers more heart attacks than eating, alcohol, cocaine, and sex:
Air pollution from auto exhaust triggers a greater proportion of all heart attacks (7.4 percent) than physical exertion (6.2 percent), drinking alcohol or coffee (5 percent), exposure to air pollution in general (4.8 percent), negative emotions (3.9 percent), anger (3.1 percent), a heavy meal (2.7 percent), positive emotions (2.4 percent), sex (2.2 percent), or cocaine (<1 percent).
 Reuters confirms that just sitting in traffic is the single biggest heart attack trigger:
"Of the triggers for heart attack studied, cocaine is the most likely to trigger an event in an individual, but traffic has the greatest population effect as more people are exposed to (it)," the researchers wrote.
So, here's to avoiding traffic whenever possible.

As a reminder of the health benefits of avoiding traffic, here's a video of an 8.5 hour commute home from D.C. to the Virginia suburbs that happened as a result of the January 26, 2011 Commutageddon storm (my trip home that day took a mere 2 hours ... thank goodness for small blessings, right?). This is what I do my best to avoid:



Just watching that video raises my blood pressure!

P.S. After writing the first draft of this post, I came across this tidbit that helps explain why D.C. metro traffic is so bad - apparently no one driving around in the D.C. metro area knows where they're going. Watching people try to navigate the highway exchanges and downtown roads, I can't say I'm surprised by these findings.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Infographic: Internet Speeds Around the World

Alright, I'm back at it - though the next couple of posts might be a bit on the lighter side, as I get back into the groove of this whole real life thing.

Following up on my post about how urban D.C. and rural areas are getting robbed by Internet service providers, I thought I'd post this infographic comparing the average speed and price of Internet services around the world. The U.S. is decidedly ..... mediocre.

But hey, at least we're better than Denmark and Italy! But then again, we can't do better than Iceland? Sigh ... I really wish we were up there with Japan and/or Korea:


From Dando vueltas a lo de siempre via Daily Infographic.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Brief Blogging Break: A Chance to Catch Up on Old Posts!

I'll be taking the next several days off, so there will be no new blog posts for a little while. But fear not - the pause is only temporary, and the posting of new articles, reflections, provocation, etc. will resume soon.

In the meantime, check out the archives (over on the right edge of the page) to catch up on past, excellent (if I do say so myself) posts that you may have missed before.

If you make it through the archives and are still desperate for more though-provoking material, check out the (relatively) new site feature: a feed of articles that I find interesting but that I won't have time to write about.

So, take care of yourselves, and I'll be back soon!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wealthy (D.C.) Suburbs Get the Cheapest Broadband, Inner (D.C.) City Areas "Overcharged," Rural America "Pillaged"

From the Investigative Reporting Workshop, via Stop the Cap!, we see a plethora of local Internet service data from American University that shows that:
People who live in low-income areas of the District of Columbia on average get less for their broadband dollar than those who live in the wealthy suburbs — and subscribers in rural areas get the worst deals of all.
Just how much more do wealthy suburbanites get for their broadband dollar than people who live in D.C. or in the rural areas? Quite a lot:


Futhermore, cable Internet service seems to provide more value than DSL service, while wireless service provides the least speed-for-your-buck:


What I am most surprised by are the HUGE differences between the average and median costs of one megabit per second of internet service, however - these huge differences mean that there are some people who are getting SERIOUSLY soaked by their Internet service providers, driving up the average price when compared to the median.

Undoubtedly, part of this is self-selection on the part of consumers (especially non-wealthy consumers), who choose far slower Internet service in order to pay a bit less overall. For example, at my apartment, I only have 2 choices for wired Internet - Verizon or Comcast (I'll not bother comparing with wireless providers, because that would never work for me). With Verizon, I can get 1 megabit per second service (Mbps) for $30 per month, or "1.5-3" Mbps for $35. With Comcast, I can get 12 Mbps for $60, or 50 Mbps for $190. I took 2 minutes to create a little graph to illustrate this:

I'm so proud.

The chart is arranged by value - i.e. by how many dollars one Mbps costs, and a lower $/Mbps ratio = a better value. As you can see, you have to spend A LOT more money overall (bigger blue bar = more money paid per month) to get the best value (smaller red bar = better value for money).

I have a 12Mbps Comcast connection, so I'll also point out that my current $5/Mbit cost means that I get significantly less value for my money than I would if I lived in a close-in D.C. suburb, where I would probably pay $3.67/Mbit (a 27% discount - nothing to sneeze at).

For many consumers, it makes more sense to spend less money overall, and get less value, than to spend more money overall for more value. And the lower level of service for less money overall may be "enough" for them - but it's yet another example of poor people paying more than rich people for the same services (and here's another more recent article on the same thing from WaPo).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tax Breaks for the Rich v. Budget Cuts for the Poor, Illustrated

From the Center for American Progress:

House leaders are unfortunately restricting their proposed budget cuts for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 to nonsecurity discretionary spending in an attempt to tame a $1.3 trillion deficit. This approach is especially shortsighted since the Federal Treasury loses twice as much revenue due to tax breaks than Congress appropriates on all nonsecurity discretionary spending.
The chart below compares the 10 safety-net programs slated for deep cuts with the cost of the tax breaks that should also be considered for reduction or elimination to bring the budget into balance. The column on the left is a list of safety-net programs that have already been targets of the House leadership’s budget ax. The column on the right is the cost to specified tax breaks.

I wish Congress would look at tax breaks and tax cuts as spending increases, because from an economic and accounting point of view, tax breaks and tax cuts are the exact same as spending increases. In this way Congress has for decades (and perhaps since the birth of this country) chosen to "spend" far more on the rich than on the poor, who of course need the spending far more than the rich.

I guess Jesus was right: "For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29). Sigh ....

Note: No, I don't think that's what Jesus actually meant. I, along with liberation theologians everywhere, think that Jesus meant the Parable of the Talents as a critique of social/class inequality, not as some pedantic exhortation to work hard.

Monday, March 14, 2011

House G.O.P. Budget Mad Libs

As the fourth post in my mini-series on the budget during this time of federal budget deliberations and negotiations, we have a little (dark) morning humor, courtesy of Questionable Skills:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Do Many Evangelical Christians Favor Anti-Christian Spending Policies?

This is the third post of my mini-series on budget priorities as Congress tries to prevent the government from shutting down in a few days.

I will be the first to admit that I do not understand the moral framework of many evangelical Christians. I grew up and am Presbyterian, one of the mainstream Christian branches that has a big enough tent to encompass everyone from conservative, traditionalist Presbyterian Christians to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Presbyterian Christians, as well as everyone in between.

However, many evangelical Christians tend to be much less inclusive and much narrower in their religious beliefs and practices, and many are biblical literalists - i.e. they proclaim that the Bible is the unerring, literal word of God. Personally, I don't see how they keep their heads from exploding, if they believe this, given the hundreds of inconsistencies in the Bible (warning: the list I link to is decidedly irreverent, but rather comprehensive), and that the Bible sanctions such things as slavery, selling your daughter, and killing your neighbors for a variety of religious and moral shortcomings, including such sins as wearing cotton-poly blend clothing.

When it comes to financial priorities, however, Jesus (and the New Testament) is hard to misinterpret. From Luke 6:20-26:
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
   “Blessed are you who are poor,
   for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
   for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
   for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
   when they exclude you and insult you
   and reject your name as evil,
      because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward       in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
   for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
   for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
   for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
   for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Granted, Jesus doesn't give a blueprint for what government budgets should look like, but given Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 19:19 - not incidentally, Jesus lists this as the second most important commandment, after the commandment to love God [Mark 12:31]), his admonition to a rich person to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:21), and his reminder that good or evil deeds done to "the least of these my brothers" are good or evil deeds done to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46), I think it's quite clear where Jesus would spend the government's money, if he were dictator.

(Side note: I think that there is a strong argument that Jesus was/is a communist - note that I mean a communist with a little "c," not a Marxist or Leninist, obviously.)

So, I find this poll quite puzzling, which shows that many evangelical Christians are in favor cutting aid to the poor (both abroad and in the U.S.), cutting aid to the unemployed, and cutting health care, while they favor increases in funding for the national security apparatus (as well as public schools):



One of the few popular evangelical Christians whose spending priorities I am able to understand is Jim Wallis, who has this to say about the Republicans' (and apparently many other evangelical Christians') budget cuts:
[T]he moral test of any society is how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. And that is exactly what the Bible says, over and over again.... Taking the cutting knife to programs that benefit low-income people, while refusing to scrutinize the much larger blank checks we keep giving to defense contractors and corporate executives, is hypocritical and cruel. I’ll go even further and say that such a twisted moral calculus for the nation’s fiscal policy is simply not fair, and not right. It is not only bad economics, but also bad religion.
So, I ask, how can such self-avowedly Christian people, like many evangelical Christians, favor such anti-Christian spending policies?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Republicans Advocate in Favor of More Madoff-Like Financial Scams

The second post in my mini-series about the budget, since we (especially those of us who work for the U.S. government) are wondering if Congress is ever going to get around to passing a budget to avoid a government shutdown next Friday night.

I firmly believe that budgets are moral documents. Since people, organizations, etc. can say whatever they like (i.e. "talk is cheap"), the only way to see what's really important to a person, an organization, a business, a government, a non-profit, etc. is to look at their budget - to see what they spend their money on.

Now that I work in government, I am more aware than ever of the extent to which money, and ONLY money (which includes people's time, since people's time costs money), reveals a person's, group's, or organization's priorities.

In that vein, when I look at Republicans' proposed budget cuts, I can only see what I see as poorly thought out, irrational, and/or immoral priorities. Much of the $61 billion in cuts that Republicans are seeking to current budget for the rest of this fiscal year (i.e. government spending from now until September 30) falls on the most vulnerable members of society - low-income families, communities of color, children, low-income college students, and rural areas. They are demanding these cuts after going to the wall to get additional tax cuts for the wealthy in December - $81.5 billion extra in tax cuts in 2011 and 2012 for households earning more than $250,000.

From a financial perspective, tax cuts are the exact same as government spending - so the Republicans are far more concerned with spending money on tax cuts to the already-rich rather than maintaining the social safety net for the most vulnerable members in U.S. society. So much for helping Jesus by helping "the least of these my brothers."

However, what I really want to focus on in this post is the Republicans' attempts to defund financial regulation reform. As pointed out by The Big Picture, the Republicans' budget seems to show that they are hell-bent on enabling more Madoff-like financial scams. As shown by this chart, the SEC's workload has increased dramatically over the past two decades, while the human resources available to the SEC to do this workload have not grown in tandem with the workload:

Percent Change SEC Staff Workload: 1991 – 2000
Source: The Big Picture. Original Data from GAO.
In their blind, irrational opposition to anything Obama has ever said or done, the Republicans want to dramatically slash the budgets of the government agencies responsible for regulating U.S. financial markets, increasing the probability of both Madoff-like scams and financial crises like the one we are currently coming out of.

If budgets are moral documents, what does the Republicans' budget say about them?

Friday, March 11, 2011

If You Want to Reduce the Deficit, Go Where the Money Is - And It Ain't in Teachers' Salaries

As the U.S. federal budget debate heats up (read: drags on interminably) over the next week, I'm going to post a few thoughts on budgeting, budget priorities, and how budgets reveal the priorities and morality of the people writing the budgets.

In the first post of this 3-4 post mini-series, Jon Stewart reminds us that rich people are the ones with money, not teachers, so if you want to reduce the deficit, it would make more sense to increase government revenue from the wealthy, not squeeze teachers further:


Now, I'll be the first to disagree with teachers' unions when they say that "a teacher is a teacher is a teacher; there are no such things as good teachers or bad teachers." That's patently ridiculous - of course there are good and bad teachers, just like there are good and bad doctors, good and bad plumbers, good and bad hamburger flippers, good and bad Congressmen, and good and bad news pundits - and it should be easier to fire bad teachers than it currently is in many school districts.

That said, the U.S. deficit isn't being caused by overpaid teachers or by unions' defense of bad teachers; the vast majority of current and future deficits are being caused by wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush-era tax cuts to the rich, and the economic downturn; therefore, perhaps we should start with those areas if we want to reduce the deficit:


So please, let's stop doing dumb things like blaming teachers's unions. These unions have their faults, but they play a critical role in trying to preserve and maintain quality education in the United States - most importantly, teachers' unions are pretty much the only advocate and lobbying force in favor of public education on the national stage. When politicians, rich people, corporations, private school advocates, etc. all spend millions of dollars to dismantle the system of public education in favor of tax breaks, vouchers for private schools, etc., what would happen to public education if teachers' unions didn't exist to advocate, lobby, and make political contributions in favor of public education and public education funding?

My guess is that the U.S. would slowly revert to a pre-Industrial Revolution system of education in which only the rich (who can afford private tutors and/or private schools) receive quality education, while the rest of society is doomed to learn only what their parents or neighbors can teach them.

I'm reminded of the following cartoon:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Pettiest of Politics: Republican Congressman Tries to Eliminate Funding for Obama's Teleprompter

As reported by Fox News Nation:
The House formally began debate, which is expected to last three days, Tuesday afternoon following some wrangling over the hundreds of amendments lawmakers want to attach to the package. More than 400 amendments were filed Monday night. Among them were a proposal from Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., to eliminate funding for the president's Teleprompter and one from Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, to strip funding for the alteration, repair or improvement of the executive residence of the White House and instead divert that amount to deficit reduction.
Do you hear that whirring sound? That's the sound of everyone who's ever died in military service spinning in their graves, disgusted by what passes for American political "discourse" and "debate" today.

Reminder to Republicans: there are way more important things to work on and think about than the President's teleprompter. Please get to it.

Oh, and by the way, lots of Republicans use teleprompters too - a quick Google search turned up pictures of:
1) Mark Rubio slamming Obama's teleprompter while reading his speech off of a - you guessed it - teleprompter



2) Sarah Palin using a teleprompter to address the NRA


3) Sarah Palin using a teleprompter while on the campaign trail with John McCain


4) Chris Dudley - and that was only on the first page of results.

Oh, and here's a post showing Mitt Romney, Dick Armey, Liz Cheney, Dick Cheney, and Jim DeMint all using teleprompters.

I'm going to take a wild guess and say that most Republicans who have given big speeches have used teleprompters. That's apparently just fine - but somehow it's a terrible sin when Obama uses a teleprompter. I don't get it - perhaps a Republican can explain it to me.

Anyway, let's drop TeleprompterGate and all move along to more important issues, shall we?

Thank God for Small Victories: Supreme Court Declares that Corporations Do Not Have Right to "Personal Privacy"

Even though corporations (perversely and wrongly, in my opinion) enjoy many (most?) of the rights granted to actual, living, flesh-and-blood people, the Supreme Court finally declared that corporations do not enjoy EVERY right granted to actual, living, flesh-and-blood people - namely, the right to personal privacy.

Well, at least it's a start, though much remains to be done.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

My Home State (TN) Proposes Law Requiring Muslims to Rob Banks, Gamble, Drink, Eat Pork, and Dress Like Sluts

As reported by Thinkprogress:
GOP-led states are tripping over each other to compete for the most absurd response to the perceived threat of Shariah law. Thirteen intrepid states are chasing Oklahoma’s unconstitutional coat-tails to bar any consideration of international or Islamic law, even if it means accidentally banning the Ten Commandments or Native American rights. 
But with state Sen. Bill Ketron’s (R) new Senate Bill 1028, Tennessee wins the honor of most radical response to a non-existent threat. Introduced last Thursday, the bill claims that Shariah law “continues to plague the United States generally and Tennessee in particular” and requires Muslims “to actively and passively support the replacement of America’s constitutional republic” with an Islamic state. Thus, adherence to the “legal-political-military doctrine” of Shariah law “is treasonous” and “a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail.”
I'll ignore the obvious unconstitutionality of such a law - after all, the law is essentially threatening to jail people for the free exercise of religion within the sanctity of their own homes, which blatantly violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

What, exactly, is demanded by Shariah law, you ask? Well, such foul and base activities as:

  • Not robbing banks
  • Not gambling
  • Giving money to the poor
  • Not eating pork and shellfish
  • Not charging interest on loans [well, this IS patently un-American!]
  • Staying sober
  • Dressing modestly

Therefore, if you're in a bank in Tennessee, don't be surprised if a drunk Muslim dressed like Lady Gaga and riding a pig crashes through the door and holds the bank up - after all, they're only following Tennessee's own law.

And remember - if U.S. citizens can freely exercise their own religion in their own homes, the terrorists win. WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!??!111?!11!??

Oh, Tennessee ....

(start singing here)

Wish that I was on ole rocky top,
Down in the tennessee hills.
Ain't no smoggy smoke on rocky top,
Ain't no telephone bills.
Once there was a girl on rocky top,
Half bear the other half cat.
Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop,
I still dream about that.
Rocky top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole rocky top,
Rocky top tennessee, rocky top tennessee.
Once two strangers climbed on rocky top,
Lookin' for a moonshine still.
Strangers ain't come back from rocky top,
Guess they never will.
Corn won't grow at all on rocky top,
Dirt's too rocky by far.
That's why all the folks on rocky top
Get their corn from a jar.
Rocky top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole rocky top,
Rocky top tennessee, rocky top tennessee.
Now I've had years of cramped up city life,
Trapped like a duck in a pen.
Now all I know is it's a pity life
Can't be simple again.
Rocky top, you'll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole rocky top,
Rocky top tennessee, rocky top tennessee.
P.S. Apparently the great minds in the Tennessee state legislature ripped this idea off of a white supremacist. Classy move, guys and gals.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Learn How to Be a Good Spouse with These 1930s Marriage Score Sheets

Here are the charts in full, from Thought Catalog. Go through them and see how you would rate as a 1930s spouse:




On the one hand, these charts (especially the wife's chart) are rather creepy - several of the wife's criteria revolve around her physical appearance, and it's expected that the wife should do all of the cooking and cleaning.

On the bright side, these charts show that, at least in some sectors of society, we have come quite a long way down the path of equal rights for women. We're certainly not there yet, but we're a lot closer to the goal now than we were in the 1930s. Now if only we could do things like, oh, enshrine equal rights for women in the Constitution or guarantee equal pay to women for equal work.

Monday, March 7, 2011

My 100th Post Already - A Milestone, and a New Blog Feature

Let the trumpets sound forth in glory, as this is the 100th post to my blog:


Fun Fact: This is also the trumpet fanfare that Ali and I had played at our wedding.

Since I started writing regularly, it's been interesting to see how my writing has really taken on a life of its own - some posts that I think will take 2 minutes to write might end up taking several hours to complete, while other posts that I think will be fascinating and engaging end up going absolutely nowhere and must be abandoned.

Nevertheless, I'm starting to feel like a real blogger - one of the reasons why is that I am getting more traffic from google.com than from the shared links I post on Facebook. Blogger (other blog services probably do this too) lets me see exactly what Google searches bring people to my blog, and some of them are hilarious/fascinating/disturbing. Here are a few of my favorite searches that brought people here:

"getting out of the meth trade" - yikes, I really hope this person got the help they need; I'm sure they didn't get it from my blog.

"funny unintended consequences of laws" - yeah, I love these too. If only lawmakers would think more deeply about the laws they're passing ....

"reminders of how lucky you are" - we all need a pick-me-up now and then ... though I'm not sure this blog is where you should go for one ;)

Furthermore, my blog hasn't turned out to be quite what I expected it to be - honestly, I didn't expect the average post to turn out quite as serious as it has turned out. I expected a greater mix of more light-hearted and/or funny posts, and I didn't expect so many of my posts to be so serious and/or political.

But, as it turns out, the topics that I find most interesting and prompt the most reflection in me are, for the most part, relatively serious topics, as my tag cloud reveals - and as far as I'm concerned, that's fantastic. Don't get me wrong - I find LOLcats, Reddit (especially the rage comics), and stories about stupid consumers as funny as the next guy, but I can't say that they really get my creative and critical juices flowing.

So, here's to my first 100 posts (*Grant raises a glass of red wine*), and to the next 10,000 (*gulp*).

I'm also launching a new feature for the site! I'm sharing all of those news stories and posts from elsewhere that I find interesting but will not have time to write about - think of it as the "Presented Without Comment" section of the blog. The address of this new feed is:


Or, even better, you can subscribe to this new feed via RSS.

And while you're at it, you should subscribe to my blog's main feed, either with this link, or via the "Subscribe To" tool in the right menu bar  ;)

Well, I guess that's it for my 100th post - thanks everyone for reading along thus far - I can't wait to see where the future takes us.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why Save PBS? - The Infographic Version

I love PBS - like most of my generation, I grew up watching Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, and I want that kind of programming to be available for many generations to come. So, here are a lot of good reasons to save PBS, from Daily Infographic:


So, do your part - together, we can help save PBS.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Schwarzenegger Calls for Revolution Against Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas Corporations

Yes, I'm serious - and the title of this post is only a slight exaggeration.

What business are you in? Oil, coal, and natural gas? Oh, I'm sorry to hear that - you are about to be terminated.


Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday all but called for a Tunisian-style revolution to overturn the United States' old energy order.
"It is breathtaking to see: people by the hundreds of thousands who want change ... who want to throw off the old order and subvert the status quo. It is fascinating to me how rapidly the debate in the Middle East shifted from -- could the people rise up to could the rulers hang on?" Scharzenegger said at the United States Department of Energy's ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in National Harbor, Md., according to his prepared remarks. "And then when the demonstrations reached a critical mass, the old structures gave way. They could not stand up to the momentum of the future."
"All of which brings me to you here today," the governator continued. "What you in this room also are saying by the work that you do is: We want to subvert the status quo. We want change. Innovation. We want to overturn the old energy order."
...
"We have about 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year from petroleum-related air pollution, and we have 6.5 million annual hospital visits by people with respiratory illnesses caused by the same thing," Schwarzenegger said. "These deaths are far greater in number than the combined deaths from car accidents, drunk drivers, gang wars, suicides or Iraq and Afghanistan."
I've yet to find any response from Chevron Texaco Corp. or Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens - each of whom contributed at least $500,000 to Schwarzenegger back when he was governor.

I must say, I am cautiously optimistic, given that most Republican politicians mindlessly deny climate change - in spite of overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is being caused by humans, that there is a high probability of catastrophic changes in world water supply, food output, sea levels, etc, and that the worst of these catastrophic outcomes could probably be avoided relatively cheaply (for less than 1% of global GDP per year, which is a bargain, considering the alternative might be the mass starvation of billions of people, the flooding of all coastal cities, etc.). If a few high-profile Republicans like Schwarzenegger start to take climate change seriously, perhaps they'll be able to convince their fellow Republicans to think rationally about the subject.

I'm reminded of the following cartoon, which appeared in the USA Today on September 12, 2007:

091207usatoday global warming.91

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bye Bye, Qaddafi - We'll Miss Your Flamboyant Sense of Fashion

Since my guess is that Colonel/Dictator Qaddafi will not be with us too much longer (though history may as yet prove me wrong), I wanted to pay tribute to the dictator who, over the past 4 decades, has often served as a fashion inspiration to despots and tyrants across the globe. Here are a few of my favorite Qaddafi getups, via Vanity Fair:

In this extraordinary ensemble, Qaddafi manages to combine the subtlety of a peacock with a variety of cloth patterns that go together like oil, water, gasoline, kerosene, and fire. It's truly a magnificent sight - President Obama is so awed (or blinded) by the spectacle that he must avert his eyes, as if he's staring into the face of God Him-/Herself.
I, for one, am quite sorry that this trend never really caught on - wearing a photograph of your favorite political death/execution on your chest in a hand-made frame. That's a lot of wasted potential; just imagine the conversations at dinner parties - "Oh, you're a Thích Quảng Đức man, are you? I'm partial to Nguyễn Văn Lém myself." Or, if you're the kind of leader who prefers a softer touch, you could wear a photo of your favorite underage prostitute instead - I guess Berlusconi must have left his on the plane.
This outfit almost defies description - let's just say that I'm wowed by Qaddafi's ability to hold his head high while wearing anything - including robes that look like they were fashioned from my late grandma's curtains.
This selection is, in my opinion, the best-of-the-best, but if that's not enough for you, you can check out the rest at Vanity Fair.

Well, dear Qaddafi, I think it's terrible the way that you have unleashed the Lybian army (well, a bunch of mercenaries, at least) on the Lybian people, so for that and much more I say good riddance to you - but at the same time, I feel that we have lost the only visionary fashionista among world dictators, which is a shame. I mean, it's not like we can expect Kim Jong-il to pick up the slack, can we?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Economic Illogic of (Discretionary) Snow Days

Ah, the snow day, that much-beloved institution of childhood when you didn't have to go to school. I loved them - but then again, I grew up in a self-employed middle-class family in which my parents had the flexibility to take care of us kids when we had a snow day without too much disruption to their own lives or their business. As Ian Ayres points out, lots of Americans aren't so lucky when it comes to snow days, and he predicts a raft of bad outcomes from the flippancy with which lots of school districts declare snow days:
Holding other factors constant, ... if it snows one inch, you’re less likely to have a snow day if your school has already been canceled four times than if your school has only been canceled one prior time.  This factor is interesting to me because it might play a role in testing whether cancelling school for small amounts of snow is a worthwhile social policy.
I haven’t tested it yet but I think most snow days are ill-advised from the perspective of public health and safety.  I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school.  In our house, we often go out to breakfast on snow days, and to the movies and to play dates.  There is something close to an iron law that the more passenger miles driven, the more injuries and deaths.  And when kids aren’t driving around, they are engaging in more dangerous outdoor activities.
From an economic perspective, snow days externalize risk.  Discretionary snow days don’t reduce risk (I hypothesize), they just take the risk off the school districts’ books and shift it to the private parents.  If I’m right, we should expect to see more injuries to kids the first time there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is high) than the 4th time in a winter when there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is lower).
But wait. It gets worse.  Discretionary snow days make families scramble for child care.  I’d bet this disproportionately hurts working families that are already hustling to make ends meet.  And unplanned child care is probabilistically higher risk.  In sharp contrast to my happy childhood memories of snow days, I’d predict that discretionary snow days expose some kids to risk of abuse, neglect and/or negligent care when they are dumped last-minute at their uncle Ned’s. (And don’t forget the miles driven on snowy roads to get them there.)
Of course, some snow days are warranted - for example, on account of the huge blizzard that forced Chicago schools to close for the first time in more than a decade. Coming from the South (and currently living in DC, which is sort of Southern in many ways), I remember and currently observe lots of snow days being declared that were questionable at best, and oftentimes blatantly unnecessary. How should we take into account the society-wide effects of declaring a snow day? Or should we not, and just stick with our current system, letting parents bear most of the risk and creating an even bigger burden for the most vulnerable members of our society?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Does Everyone Need A College Degree?" - No, and We Should Stop Pretending Everyone Does

This Christian Science Monitor article about a Harvard study that suggests that not everyone needs a college degree got me thinking about the year I spent studying at a German university.

When I was living there, one of the aspects about the German education system that I found quite fascinating (and, at the time, a bit horrifying) was that they track their children into different middle and high schools quite early, at around age 10 or so, if I remember correctly. At the risk of oversimplifying, some kids are put on a university track, some are put on a professional track (similar to an associate's degree in the U.S. - accountants, nurses, etc.), and some are put on a trade track, to learn a skill like plumbing, HVAC installation, etc. Of course, it is possible (though not trouble-free) to switch tracks once a child has been put on a particular track.

While I think the German system might track kids into a particular path a little too early, I definitely see the value in a secondary education system that does not pretend that all kids are going to go to college, and my alma mater agrees:
A new report released by Harvard Wednesday states in some of the strongest terms yet that such a “college for all” emphasis may actually harm many American students – keeping them from having a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood and a viable career. “The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults is clearly badly broken,” concludes the report, “Pathways to Prosperity” (pdf).
...
Despite a clear message that college is important – and a pervasive desire among young students to attend college – only about 30 percent of Americans complete a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, with another 10 percent completing an associate’s degree by then. A massive effort in recent decades to increase those numbers has improved them only slightly.
“It would be fine if we had an alternative system [for students who don’t get college degrees], but we’re virtually unique among industrialized countries in terms of not having another system and relying so heavily on higher education,” says Robert Schwartz, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Emphasizing college as the only path may actually cause some students – who are bored in class but could enjoy learning that’s more entwined with the workplace – to drop out, he adds. “If the image [of college] is more years of just sitting in classrooms, that’s not very persuasive.”
Whether students opt for college or not, they need a range of skills to be employable in the long term, so “college and career-ready skills are really no longer two separate tracks,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday in Washington at an event releasing the report, according to prepared remarks.
Most European countries offer alternative non-university track programs that combine school and workplace learning (and often involve apprenticeships) in a way that gives non-university-bound students qualifications or certifications that have real value in the marketplace - which we are sorely lacking here in the U.S.

A better system might be to have a common curriculum through grade 9 or 10 (as in many Scandinavian countries) and then allow students to pick a different professional or trade path. In Europe, somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of kids follow these non-university paths - numbers that line up with the U.S.'s own bachelor's degree completion rate of about 30% of the population.

In fact, many of the career fields predicted to grow most between now and 2018 require credentials other than a bachelor's or associate's degree, and many of these opportunities will offer solid jobs at good wages. From a public policy perspective, it would be far better to help students who aren't excited by a bachelor's degree to get these professional credentials than to create an even larger pool of college-educated kids who end up working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree:
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree .... This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.
Whatever happens, it's obvious that something's got to change - for example, in New York, most high school students aren't ready for college.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Which Family Names Are Most Prevalent Where?

National Geographic put together an interactive map of the most common surnames in the U.S. by geographic region:

This picture really doesn't do it justice - check out the interactive version here.

It's also interesting to see how U.S. immigration patterns over the years as revealed by family names have remained relatively sticky.

Not surprisingly, my surname is nowhere to be found, but I hope you have more luck with yours.