But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord

It seems only appropriate that Kevin Spacey should play the lead in House of Cards. The recent outburst of sexual assault allegations following an article in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow‘s serial exposé of Harvey Weinstein has gone well beyond salacious gossip and appears to be resulting in substantive legal consequences as well as a, most likely more important, shift in the unwillingness to tolerate foul behavior. I say appears to be because we’ve yet to see the powerful face consequences. It’s good to see people speaking up for themselves and coming forward — finding their power as it were. I’ve some hope that generally acceptable behavior will change for the better, and ladies will no longer need to use their hatpins to ward off unwanted advances.

A smattering of folks have been shocked to find gambling in Casablanca. Open secrets aren’t actually, y’know, secrets. They’re more like intentionally unenforced violations of the criminal code. The perpetrator is friends with the president or the district attorney — or the perpetrator is the president or the district attorney — or the victim’s silence is bought through fear or money or both. This ability of power to do what it wants isn’t an American disease. It’s essential to the nature of power. Power does because it can. A similar scandal is roiling Parliament — France isn’t being left out — but traditional abuse in Afghanistan has been traditional for centuries: The U. S. Army overlooks this, effectively sponsoring it, because “we need them.”

It does beg the question, however, why we overlook these sorts of things for so long while they are so well known. They hang out in society as jokes until they are inappropriate, unacceptable. Our understanding of the casting couch shifted from twittering about sleeping one’s way to the top to disgust at an abuse of power. How long were jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys circulating in Protestant circles before the spotlight fell on the truth? The gym coach at my high school would have girls sit on his lap. We’d yuk it up: “Sit on my lap and we’ll talk about the first thing that pops up.” Ha ha. So funny.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

One of my college roommates was a page in the House. We didn’t talk much. I seem to recall he had trouble with the school and left after one semester. In that time and place he fit the profile of a troubled youth. He told me a story once, of Congressional shenanigans involving vodka enemas and sexual encounters with Congressmen. Nothing shocking, I’m sure, except he was a minor and an employee. He’s dead now.

Forgiveness, it is thought, arose to maintain the social group and because revenge isn’t possible in some circumstances. This is necessary and generally works to maintain the group. But parasites exact a cost. They take advantage of the overwhelming desire to maintain social cohesion. We allow them to continue, because we think we need them. We think their abuse of power is somehow justified, in the greater interest of our tribe, that it’s not our business, or because, frankly, some of us don’t care. Luckily, the Forest Troop of baboons provides some evidence of what’s possible when abusers are cast into the outer darkness: everyone benefits.

Practice What You Preach

A wonderful pitter-patter of rain this morning. A frustrated pitter-patter of No. 2 Son practicing his drumming before school. He’s fighting frustration; the practice is hard for him. He does not yet understand that the practice is what makes it easier — with everything. Sometimes I think that’s a novel idea, but it’s more likely a common, misunderstood, and often forgotten one, especially when our art glamorizes the finished product and ignores the struggle it takes to get there. It takes a lot of work to look this good.

I’m an uncomfortable actor. I’ve not been on stage much: in fact, I can count the plays on one hand: God, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver! But I’m not uncomfortable because of the lines, or the singing, though I don’t think I’m very good at either of those things. I just don’t feel like the other person. I’m me, reciting lines. That’s not acting.

Back when personal websites became blogs, a number of blogging how-to articles sprouted up. How to optimize search traffic. How to construct your personal brand. How to have an authentic voice. I read the same pieces now about one’s social media presence: “cultivate your personal brand on your LinkedIn profile so that recruiters will love you and the job offers will come pouring in.” Seems to me that an “authentic voice” would get in the way of any personal branding or profile marketing I might do, so I intentionally decided not to focus on anything. If I write about technology or politics or work or whatever, it’s because I’m interested in it, not because I’m actively cultivating a particular identity. I suppose that might hurt my prospects.

A long time ago, scandalous behavior ruined careers. Or, if not scandalous behavior, then the wrong opinion, dragged from the recesses of past journal articles, whatever wrong meant at the moment of judgment, not necessarily what was wrong when it was written. Teenage me abandoned hope of a career in public service because standards were too high; it was as if one had to set his slippery sights on high office early in life and never waver from that goal. We call that “ambition.” One had to play a part I could not play: I can be somewhat blunt.

Could not play? Really? Identity is as much a process of becoming as it is of being. We adopt masks throughout our lives: perhaps because we are unhappy with ourselves, perhaps to play a role we imagine the crowd asks us to play, perhaps to play a role in a game, perhaps to experiment with possibilities, perhaps because it is our profession,  perhaps to give us confidence. Fake it until you make it. Practice it. I could have chosen that path, and still could. I could carefully edit this site so that it reflects an image I want to present, and prune out the unsavory, contradictory bits. Keep them to myself. Others do.

Everyone does. “Think before you speak,” I was admonished as a child. Be considerate. Every little thought is not entirely unfiltered, yet. There’s a certain laziness to using expletives with abandon; one’s language becomes imprecise. The sense is often maintained, but exactly do I mean when I call someone a fucking asshole? It takes some discipline to find other words, but gets easier. The same applies for any speech: criticism of any kind springs to mind. It’s initially harder to find words beyond “that sucks,” but even “I don’t particularly care for this” provides more value. Meanwhile, there’s that slight pause, diminishing over time, during editing.

It’s been said that character is what you do when no one is watching, when we are no longer performing — when we relax and lower our shields.Are you a teetotaler in public, but a drunk in private? It’s nice that one can maintain the illusion, but there’s still a problem. Once we excuse character flaws because of tribal membership or policy preferences, then we are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirming that the ends justify the means: that the only thing that truly matters is winning, not how the game is played, as if there are no consequences to collateral damage. Have we lost the sense of how the personal informs the political? Or lost the language to understand it?

You become what you choose to practice. If you choose to practice evil, then what are you?

The Masks, Twilight Zone, Season 5, Episode 25

Gaming the System

Today is election day. The children, in this school district, have the day off. It should be a state or national holiday, if elections are important to this civil society, or even if they are just a spectacle. I intentionally did not vote in uncontested races.

I’m conservative. I believe that what exists has value, even if not readily apparent. I do not believe things should be changed for light or frivolous reasons. This generally means that I despise a lot of what passes for conservatism these days. The moral decay of society — I’ll bet you think I mean something else by that than what I mean by it. See how corrupt we’ve become? — pits my conservative inclination in constant war with my desire for a purging flame. But one thing I would see changed is how the system is turned upon itself, where the letter of the law subverts the intent. (Now, if perversion is the intent, then we need to have a discussion about principles. I’ll bring my whip.) Such as in, for example, elections.

The present system, unless otherwise specified, requires only a simple majority of those voting for a representative to be chosen or a proposition to pass. The assumption is that to refrain from casting a ballot is to abstain, a neutral position. The ballot itself has only binary options: for or against. This assumption leads to trickery such as adjusting polling hours and voting requirements in order to affect who votes and how many votes are cast. More generally, it’s become a means by which incumbents maintain control over the system rather than one where the outcome of the election reflects the will of the people. Gerrymandering is the best known case of the incumbent picking his voters.

Anyway, here in New York State we have, in addition to local town and county governments, various special districts with the ability to tax: the school district, the library district, the fire district, the water district, the sewer district, the i-have-a-fwend-in-wome district, etc. The bulk of local taxation arises from the school district budget and secondarily from the town budget, which is predominantly highway maintenance. During the general election, local offices are often uncontested, having been resolved in party committee meetings or a primary earlier in the year. Elections for the special districts might not to be held on the same date as the general election. The library district, for example, puts its budget up for a vote during the general election, while the school district budget vote and school board elections are by law held in May. The fire district is planning a special election for a bond referendum, to be held in December.

I suggest the following two changes, in addition to the one I made in the first paragraph.

  1. There can be no uncontested elections. None of the Above is always a candidate.
  2. Winning requires a majority of the total population, rather than of those who participate in the election.

I’m sure there are problems with these suggestions. For one thing, they’ll make it more difficult to win an election: That’s intentional. Let’s try it with something significant but inconsequential, such as a bond issue for a local fire district, or the school board.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.

Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?

Whataboutism works because it’s true.

Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.

We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.

Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,

Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.

[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….

Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:

They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?

Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.

Pictures of It Didn’t Happen

Twitter and smartphones have changed the art of citation on the Internet. It’s not enough to quote something and to link. A picture must also be included of the source with the quoted text highlighted. (Then the link and attribution are forgotten.) Perhaps this practice arose because the sources are easily deleted or altered. But everything digital is malleable. Pictures can be fabricated.

This is not a tweet by Donald J. Trump.

The question arises, what can we trust? Photographs, of the non-digital variety, have been the subject of manipulation since the invention of the medium, whether for monetary fraud, such as spirit photography, or for political, like the memory hole. Some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, adopted strict usage practices around photo manipulation to ensure trustworthiness. Other publications are less concerned about objectivity in the pursuit of their art. We made the distinction: is this a representational work with a claim to objectivity? Or is it art, potentially with a claim to so-called truth? What helps guide us now?

TED Radio Hour talked the other day about our understanding of memory and new techniques for altering it. We’ve known our experience is plastic for some time: lawyers lead the witness. But these medical techniques of memory alteration are the premise of Philip K. Dick‘s 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” frequently remembered as the motion picture Total Recall (1990), and pose a quandary: Should we? What is real if we can remember a fictitious vacation on Mars? No wonder some people think Apollo 11 landed in Arizona.

Funny how the Big Questions of Life have indefinite answers, if any. What is Real? What is Illusion? What is True? The same questions troubling us long ago bother us today. Is there anything there outside of our senses? Our sight grows old and dim. Our memory lies. We forget. Perhaps the Ancient Greek word for truth is intentionally precise: not forgotten.

What’s to be believed? Our dementiaThe treachery of images?

Whose Safety is Secured through Obscurity?

The rules of the game determine how it is played. And if few but the players know the rules, the spectators can be confused. They might believe in an ideal version of the game that doesn’t exist, but which they insistently tell new observers is how the game is played.

I speak of politics and the making of laws.

To satisfy this discrepancy between the taught ideal and observed behavior, I propose the following, none of which I expect to be adopted:

  • that there be one or more rooms, legislative chambers if you will, reserved for the purpose of making laws;
  • that all debate on laws be within the legislative chambers;
  • that debate cannot start or continue unless a majority of the rule-makers is physically present in the chambers;
  • that all debate be a matter of public record;
  • that all discussions outside of the chambers in which rule-makers participate be a matter of public record;
  • that, except in cases of national emergency requiring a declaration of war, all meetings of the assembly be held after sunrise and before sunset, local to the chambers;
  • that all bills pertain to one and only one subject;
  • that if a bill cannot be introduced and read aloud in its entirety before the end of a day, then the bill must be reduced in scope until said reading is possible;
  • that all votes be taken in person in the chambers in the full view of the assembly;
  • that all votes be attributed to the voter.

Much of the business of Congress is conducted secretly, alone or in small groups, under the cover of darkness, not unlike a conspiracy against the Public. And when Congress does act in public, it is naught but a performance.

But, you might ask, what about National Security? Are we at War that such an exception is necessary? Who then are we at war with?

It’s a Grand Old Flag

I do not think I come from unique circumstances, nor that I am exceptionally gifted an observer, but I continue to be astonished at the number of people I know who do not understand what it is that President Trump is doing or how it can happen here. The common explanation for this is that Some People have been living in a bubble, but that’s not entirely correct. There is indeed proximity bias, but there have also been perversions of the available data which are only visible if you read the footnotes. The unemployment rate is the best example: it’s low — only if neither those people who are no longer looking for work, nor those who are imprisoned and have no choice about the work they do, are counted. Makes things look rosy, yes?

The rosiness is not evenly distributed.

Jimmy Carter hit the nail directly on the head with his “Crisis of Confidence” malaise speech: there’s a deficit of meaning.

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else—public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

Donald Trump (or Steve Bannon) provided an easy answer, one which is very appealing to a lot of people. It seems to solve so much.

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance [emphasis mine] to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”

The world was not an easy place before Trump, except for a lot of Americans. It was not a safe place, except for a lot of Americans. Obama was not Flash Gordon, nor was Bush, nor Clinton, nor Bush, nor Reagan, nor Carter, nor Ford, nor Nixon, nor Johnson, nor Kennedy, nor Eisenhower, nor Truman.

This particular problem has been brewing for some time, and the solution is not in who is President.

Evolution in Action: Civilization Edition

The land disappears beneath the sea at high tide in places where it hadn’t until recently — places such as Hampton Roads and Norfolk, Virginia, which is somewhat important to the U.S. Navy.

And yet, paying attention to the battlefield is apparently not as important as just blowing things up. Last year, Ken Buck (R-CO) offered an amendment to H.R.5293 — Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2017, to prohibit expending any funds on adapting to changes in the environment.

“When we distract our military with a radical climate change agenda, we detract from their main purpose of defending America from enemies like ISIS,” Congressman Ken Buck stated. “This amendment refocuses the military on our real enemies.”

Because doing something would only be a distraction? I suppose flood walls will come from another part of the operating budget. Next we won’t even be considering implications or planning to adapt. At least there’s been an independent risk assessment.

This year looks to be even more exciting for risk mitigation, with a President and his appointees who think that the evidence of their senses is a hoax. That’s already had a chilling effect: CDC pre-emptively cancelled a conference on the subject. Not to worry: Mar-a-Lago will be OK.

It’s rather extraordinary how short-sighted some people can be. Whether or not the gradual increase in sea level is the result of a global increase in temperatures triggered by the Industrial Age or not, the sea is rising. A hopeful attitude in response to any change is to say that we’ll adapt; it won’t be so bad. Well, sure, if we don’t refuse to adapt.

My Fellow Americans

I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.

Given the vitriol of the campaign, Donald Trump’s victory speech sounds normal, the same as any other president-elect’s gracious magnamity.

But.

Define “American.”

“Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

Many of us here in America have been talking past each other for decades, and don’t seem to realize that. Some do. Most use what we consider terms of opprobrium in an argument, attempting to persuade another to our view of correctness, not understanding that others don’t attach the same connotations to the terms. Each argument disintegrates into preaching to the choir rather than attempting to persuade another. Then, if such difference of opinion is pointed out, one insists no true American could hold such views. We have shared values, after all. That may well be, but those shared values are to some degree wishful thinking. Perhaps instead we share only fear and enemies. Enemies are certainly more concrete than values.

It would not do to assume that we agree what “American” is. And if you think that idea is absurd, you need to get out more.

On Trusting How We Count the Votes

There’s some discussion in the news that the Russians might be influencing the results of the U.S. presidential election by hacking the machines various jurisdictions use to register voters, as well as those that count the votes.

Ha!

Those of us in the trade have been warning about this for years, most notably Freedom to Tinker — several researchers at Princeton University — and consider the introduction of digital voting machines an over-reaction to the brouhaha preceeding Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). There was no reason for Bush v. Gore, and there was no reason to “upgrade” the voting systems. There was only impatience. But what do we plebeians know?

Anyhoo, the computers eventually settled upon by many jurisdictions don’t have any means of verifying that the votes cast are the votes counted, which is the basic problem here. If one can’t tell that the vote has changed, how can one trust the results?

One can’t.

Which is what makes this particular threat interesting.

If one cannot trust the result because one cannot trust the process, then one need only cast doubt upon the process in order to make the result untrustworthy. In short, it’s not necessary for the Russians to have actually hacked the voting machines. It’s only necessary for people to think that it’s possible that the Russians might have hacked the voting machines.

Luckily there’s an easy fix for this problem: use paper and count the votes by hand.

But you’ll have to be patient.

Transitioning to a Post-Westphalia World

What prevents the signatories of the TPP or TTIP, and their ilk, from just saying no when the investor-state dispute settlement provisions don’t go the way they’d want? That is, if the state still has a monopoly on the use of force, can’t they just kill the investors?

Or, to put it another way, isn’t binding arbitration only binding if one feels bound by it?

Take some time to read this overview of the system [full series] from Buzzfeed for more detail.

In which apathy sets in

Huh? Apparently the school budget was up for approval on Tuesday. I didn’t notice.

This is the first year since I became a property owner that I’ve not paid attention to the various shenanigans that attend the school budget process in New York. I think this means that my attempt to ignore those things whose outcome I have little probability of affecting is working. Maybe next year I’ll add Federal surveillance policy to that list.

http://www.arlingtonschools.org/pages/arlington_schools/Board_of_Education/2014-2015_Budget_Development

The school board had already decided to close the Arthur S. May Elementary School building instead of altering it for ADA compliance. In my opinion, this is a grave error — location is the only thing that matters in real estate. The location of the Arlington Middle School next to a major highway and a dilapidated K-Mart is part of the urban removal tragedy of Poughkeepsie, though there are a handful of homes nearby.

The district may be able to find someone to rent Arthur S. May; it’s got a great location.

What this does mean, however, is that I’m still really glad that I have four children and so can calculate my property tax as tuition per child.

(Tuition will be $2750 for the coming school year.)

Against Full-Day Kindergarten

The Common Core State Standards website asks,

Q: Why do we need educational standards?

A: We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is the goal of primary and secondary education. (Let’s also ignore the missing hyphen between post and secondary.) Will full-day Kindergarten help in achieving this goal?

No.

Why not?

Because extreme differences in academic ability collapse by the fourth grade. All of us, including children, learn at different rates. In general, those differences disappear on average by the time we are about ten years old, or fourth grade. I understand the difficulty of scientific experiments on humans, but we do what we can; and what we can do shows that there’s no evidence that learning a subject earlier makes a difference.

So, what exactly is the point of full-day Kindergarten?

On the Arlington Central School District Budget (2012-2013)

Arlington Central School District budget planning for FY 2012-2013 has resulted in a fairly good budget. I particularly like the appendices that are included for the first time in this year’s budget book.

Budget creation is a bit of a balancing act. This year our district has done well in limiting the increase in costs — unlike the adjacent Wappingers Central School District which has chosen to add a potential long-term increase in costs in order to secure a one-time grant — so I will vote to approve the spending plan.

Late last year the Poughkeepsie Journal relayed the news that the district wanted public input prior to planning the 2012-2013 budget. I e-mailed the following:

By the time the budget discussions arrive, the costs are fixed in contracts, so staff reductions are the only option. It’s during contract negotiations that the board needs to consider the effect on the budget. If the budget is capped at a 2% annual increase, then don’t agree to contracts that will result in a 4.29% increase.

I should have written the costs the district controls are fixed in contracts. There are other costs imposed by the United States and New York State which can change the budget numbers significantly. These include, among other things, required administrative reporting changes, curriculum changes, and, most predictably, contributions to the pension funds. The U.S. and New York typically pass these costs on to the localities. It is reasonable for localities to support the cost of public education, but not when they have not been party to the decisions that have increased those costs.

But, as in previous years, Arlington has not yet confronted the need to project long-term budget impacts during contract negotiations, and will, once again, need to discover $4,000,000 in reserve funds, operating cost reductions, and a tax increase to cover an increase in labor costs. The district’s costs are primarily labor-related, so any persistent reduction in cost must consider labor. And if the district cannot reduce labor costs caused by Washington and Albany, then it must address those it can.

More information on the Arlington budget can be found at the district’s web site.

How Stupid is the Mass Media?

Check out the headline on this article: CNN Poll: Still no front-runner in the battle for the GOP nomination.

Of course not, you stupid shit. They just started campaigning. It’s a [expletive and a half] horse race. Did you see the 137th Kentucky Derby last weekend? That was a fun two minutes. Shackleford started off well in front of the pack and led into the final stretch. But he didn’t win, did he? The favorite? He lost too. Animal Kingdom came up from 13th place to win.

Who the fuck cares who the front-runner is? It means nothing except bullshit headlines and cheap stories for the likes of you.

Dear Amtrak: Learn How to Price Your Service

Apparently you neglected to read my last letter, but with the fast approach of National Train Day and the increase in oil prices making your services slightly more competitive, I thought it might be helpful to bring up the topic again.

Your pricing skills suck. Are you intentionally trying to lose money and ridership?

Suppose that a family of four — or six — wanted to travel to Disney World from New York. This is a not uncommon occurrence, and provides the basis for over 250 flights per day by many airlines from more than five airports in the New York metropolitan area. The cost of air travel is currently going up, up, up due to some small upset over in the oil-producing regions, so where a seat on JetBlue from JFK to MCO would once have cost $50, it’s now between $100 and $150. This is an opportunity! And you’re missing it!

And you’re missing it in a big way. Look, I understand that it takes capital to improve infrastructure, and that you’re hobbled by riding on tracks owned by others, but it’s almost like you’ve intentionally set your prices to encourage folks to drive. For me to take a family of six to Disney World by plane costs almost as much as staying in one of Disney’s “moderate” resorts and going to all of the parks every day of my visit, so I, and many others, might be looking for a slightly less wallet-reducing option. And the first thing that comes to mind is driving. But who wants to drive the first 24 hours of their vacation? Or, who wants to spend three days driving, two days there, and three days driving back? No one. But the other option is too expensive. Buses? Ha! That’s worse than driving, especially with little kids. How about the train?

This is where you’re completely missing the opportunity. The cost per seat from, for example, New York Penn Station to Orlando is $106 per person for a 21 hour trip. That’s slightly cheaper than the more expensive JetBlue seat, but you forget the time differential. Time is, after all, money, which is why travelers choose to fly on JetBlue for 2 hours for $150 instead of suffer on Amtrak for 21 hours for $106. You need to take your utter inability to get anywhere fast into account when pricing your service. And when you’re more expensive, even if only by $7, than the cheapest option, you completely lose. No one wants to pay more money for the privilege of getting somewhere slower.

Yet the cost of airfare gets worse as one moves away from hub airports. This is where you have an advantage. It costs less to feed from Poughkeepsie to New York and thence to Orlando than it does for JetBlue to fly direct from Newburgh to Orlando. In terms of convenience for me, I’d much rather leave from Poughkeepsie than from JFK. If you can get your prices down to something approaching the cost of gasoline plus a hotel room, you might have a fighting chance in earning my dollar. But then you totally destroy any opportunity you had with the sleeper options. $358 for a room for two people? $658 for a slightly larger one? What? You think you’re a hotel on Times Square? I’m just looking for a contained, flat place for my kids to lie down so that they don’t spend the night in the bar car.

You have two options: lower your prices, or build faster trains. Because we’re sure as Hell not going to pay $658 for two cots or $640 for uncomfortable seats when we could pay less than that on gas and a swank room at the Holiday Inn Express.

On the Matter of the National Popular Vote

I’m on Mrs. Clinton’s e-mail list because I haven’t unsubscribed yet. Today, the list sent me an e-mail about bills currently in the New York legislature to change how the State allocates its Electors. The bills under consideration in New York are A-489 and S-1820.

I don’t think their plea for me to contact my legislators had the result they intended.

New York is generally ignored during presidential campaigns because the results are too predictable. Why should the candidate of any party bother to stop here when it’s obvious that one of the candidates will win by a landslide?

New York is not the only State with this problem. Any State which allocates all of its Electors to the person winning a simple majority of the vote, and then proceeds to vote consistently for one party over another, loses influence. That State is now safe, reliable, the old girlfriend you turn to for brief satisfaction when the one you lust after pushes you away. Sure, she’s good for a screw, but who really cares what she thinks?

While I would like to see changes in how New York State allocates its Electors, I do not support the proposal to give our Electors to the candidate which wins a majority of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. (What? Puerto Rico and the Territories still don’t count? And you call yourself a democrat!) This particular effort is an attempt to ensure that the person who wins the Presidency is the person preferred by the majority of all voters, but didn’t gain much traction until the supposed wrong done to Mr. Albert Gore in 2000. Because the problem was obviously the system, and not our impatience.*

If we ignore historical curiousities that restricted the electorate, and assume that the voters expressed the Will of the People, it’s rare that the winner of the popular choice has lost the Presidency. There have been 56 elections under the present system. Of those 56, 4 were not won by the winner of the popular vote.** That’s only 7.14%.

I would prefer, instead, that New York allocate its Electors proportionately, rather than in the winner-take-all manner that it does now. And I would like for New York to use the so-called instant run-off ballot, which would allow voters to rank several candidates according to their preferences.

Continue reading “On the Matter of the National Popular Vote”

Frak That

There’s some discussion up in Albany of permitting the use of hydraulic fracturing to remove natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation upstate. In the industry this is colloquially called “fracking” because afterward you’re pretty much fucked.

The problem with fracking, as with other environmental issues, is one of negative externalities. That is, the company extracting the resource does not bear the full costs of its operations, and certainly not the full costs of its failures. This creates a moral hazard, both at the extraction company, which cares nothing for the people who can no longer drink their water, and in the government, which aligns itself with the corporation rather than the citizens, as in Pennsylvania.

Beyond that, I fail to understand why an industry that burns off natural gas from oil wells as waste would be granted the privilege to extract natural gas in a manner that most likely has adverse effects.