October 31, 2008

The weather was warm and calm.  On this hallowed evening we had 120 various-sized trick-or-treaters show up.

That was a relatively low number.  I wonder if we counted wrong.

Ted Stevens Needs Your Vote

October 27, 2008

Upon today’s conviction by a jury of his peers, legendary Senator Ted “Internets” Stevens probably worsened his chances of being re-elected to the U.S. Senate.  He certainly can keep his campaign going to Voting day next week, since neither the Constitution nor Senate rules prevent a convicted felon from serving in the Senate.  There is one thing that Stevens can’t do, however.

He can’t vote for himself.  He can’t vote, period.  Maybe.

The State of Alaska prohibits convicted felons from registering to vote until after they have served their sentence, including probation.  At this moment he is a convicted felon.  Since Stevens is already registered, though, does this mean he can still vote?  I can’t find any Alaska precedent to answer this, but my guess is that if he were an ordinary citizen he would be stripped of his right to vote the moment the jury passed judgment.  Some astute reporter ought to get us an answer to this one before next Tuesday.

The Dismantling of St. Gerard Church

October 22, 2008

I have not heard much flak about last Saturday’s Buffalo News article regarding the possibility of moving St. Gerard church to Norcross, Georgia, brick by brick (then again, I was out of town all weekend).  Tim Tielman, of course, is against the removal of this historic building.  To Tim, every building built during Buffalo’s glory days is historic.  His solution to the vacant Catholic churches, many in desperate need of repair:  “Work a bit harder [about how to reuse them]”.

I’ve done a 180 in my opinion of Tielman and his Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, whom I originally respected as someone looking out for Buffalo’s heritage.  Now I just think he’s an obstructionist.  And reactionary, someone living entirely in the past.  And full of screeds but no real solutions.  An attention addict.

The Catholic Church, I would hope, is about the people and not the places.  Telling the Church to think harder about how to save empty buildings in a locale that has lost half its population is tantamount to telling them to spend money and resources where they least benefit the community they have dedicated their lives to serve.  Dereliction results to half the buildings in an area that needs half its building space.  We only have so many Ani DiFrancos and an incredible number of vacant churches – and other historic but decrepit buildings – and hardly any money anywhere to save even a fraction.  Tielman needs to get real.

The Catholic diocese may have a unique (and rare!) opportunity to see one of its buildings take on a new life, and I for one would love to see a piece of historic Buffalo in the Atlanta area.  The London Bridge is still the London Bridge, even if it spans an artificial water channel in Arizona.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to travel throughout the country and find Buffalo heritage everywhere?

Why is Gasoline so Expensive in Buffalo?

October 21, 2008

At the Buffalo Gas Prices website you’ll find this graph (or one very similar to it):

It is difficult to understand why, one year ago, Western New York gas prices were roughly 5 cents per gallon above the national average, yet today they are 47 cents above the national average.

If you’re from Buffalo, doesn’t this just stick in your craw?  I dug around trying to understand the price differentials and came up with a number of unsubstantiated answers, all speculative:

  • Supply and demand factors
  • Lack of local refineries
  • Distance from pipelines and refineries
  • State formulation requirements
  • State taxes
  • County taxes
  • Local greed

I thought that reformulation was an issue, as New York is one of those states that 1) must use reformulated gas to reduce pollution in its major urban center; 2) forbids use of MTBE, leaving only ethanol as the oxygenator of choice and potentially raising the cost of gas.  But that doesn’t explain why Western New York has the most expensive gasoline in New York State.  New York City prices (as of 10/20) averaged only $2.94 per gallon.  The Upstate average is $3.20 per gallon.  And here we are at $3.31 per gallon.  None of the factors above lead to a rationalization of the huge price differential that we’re paying at our end of the state.

Of course, there is one plausible explanation as to why the oil companies charge us more than in other areas:  Because they can.

And no amount of writing to my State Assemblyman will change that.

My Dinner with Newt

October 16, 2008

Newt Gingrich was the keynote speaker at last night’s BioMed Upstate conference hosted by the Foundation for Healthy Living.  The moderately well-attended (but overly long) conference focused on the barriers our state imposes on the Life Sciences economy and solutions to overcoming those barriers to accelerate growth in Life Sciences.

The sessions drifted off-topic to the various ways the New York stifles economic growth in general and to the great divide between Upstate and Downstate, to which the attendees agreed “Change is needed“.   As to what that meant and who should take responsibility for leading it, those answers were not so clear.  Not so clear at all.  And the conference was pretty dry – academic in nature, almost dispassionate really, and IMHO was very poorly attended by industry representatives who are ultimately the ones who create jobs and/or leave the state.  Numerous academics and government officials were in attendance, but the one group that could really make a difference was way under-represented.

Anyway, Newt was pretty interesting.  He made a point about how poorly the Federal Government doesn’t understand the difference between investment and expense.  He cited that the Baby Boomer generation alone will cost the U.S. $1.6 trillion in health care costs just for treatment of Alzheimer’s patients.  But if treatments could be found that delayed the onset of severe symptoms for just 5 years, the costs would drop $600 billion.  Then he challenged the audience:  If you could save $600 billion over the next 20 years, how much would you spend today?  Newt’s implication was that far too often the government won’t budget for that kind of savings – they won’t make the investment – because today it’s just an expense with no short-term benefit.

Conferences like these raise important questions but rarely do the spawn that passionate white knight who can lead the charge to a new way of thinking, and actually persist long enough to stimulate real change.  How do we convince our political leaders to reach beyond the policies of the past 50 years to something that bears future fruit?  At the conference, we were at a loss to answer that question.


October 14, 2008

There is something about the transition to autumn – the arboreal colorfest, cool nights, glistening frost in the morning sunrise – that thrills me to be living in an area that is witness to true seasonal change.

Yet as Fall sets in it’s even more of a pleasure to be graced by a week of extraordinarily warm, sunny and weather so beautiful that every scene is spectacular – with or without trees!

Soon the snow will be flying.  It will be beautiful then, too.

The Giant Saturnian Hexagon

October 13, 2008

Saturn has a hexagon on it.  A really big hexagon.  That’s pretty amazing for a planet that is mostly gas, a planet light enough that if it could be brought to earth, it would float in water.  So whatever it is it’s, like, hexagonal clouds, not something sticking out of a hard surface since there probably is no hard surface on Saturn.

What is this hexagon thing?  It’s at the planet’s north pole, and did I mention that it’s really big?  Clouds both inside and out seem to move around it without disturbing the hexagon.  In fact, the hexagon pretty much doesn’t move in relation to the clouds.  It rotates with the planet.

As an engineer and science nut I just hate when a reasonable explanation for some new observation isn’t available.  Atmospheric hexagons certainly haven’t been observed on Earth or elsewhere, just at Saturn’s north pole.  It is, so far, a one of a kind phenomenon that has scientists a bit puzzled, looking for some rationale to explain it.   Maybe Arthur C. Clarke was onto something when he wrote 2001, he just had the wrong planet.

In the meantime, a European satellite orbiting Venus is currently observing Earth, looking for signs of life.  So far it hasn’t detected any.

So, What ARE the Fundamentals?

October 9, 2008

I have been intrigued by the use of the phrase “The fundamentals are strong”.  It’s been used often by the Bush Administration until recently, and just a few weeks ago by John McCain to indicate that our economy is still strong, without ever defining what the fundamentals are.  Ironically, the person who originally coined the equivalent phrase is none other than Herbert Hoover.  Whoa boy.

I don’t believe that the fundamentals have been strong for so time, but I wasn’t sure and so didn’t know whether or not to believe either the Bush Administration or John McCain.  So I dug back to my college economics texts to get an idea of what the economic fundamentals are.  To Samuelson, they include

  • Inflation (or consumer price index) – the lower, the better
  • Economic growth (or gross domestic product) – the greater, the better
  • Wages – Higher is better
  • Unemployment – the lower, the better
  • Industrial production – growth is good
  • Worker productivity – more is better
  • Balance of trade – Positive is good
  • Strength of the dollar – stronger is better

Respectively, in the past 12 months these indicators are up, flat, flat, up, down, up, negative, weaker.  Six of the eight are pointing in the wrong direction, one is neutral, and one (worker productivity) is positive.

I thought so.

The fundamentals are strong” might not be the wisest of political statements to make, in light of where the economy’s been going.  Nonetheless, the Presidential candidates might be better spending their time talking about it, since all the rest of us are.

Monday’s Election

October 9, 2008

The election on Monday is close – really close.  Originally the conservative segment looked to be ahead by a dozen points, but in the past few days the liberal segment has gained considerable ground.

In Canada.  Conservative Stephen Harper’s “Stay the Course” rhetoric is causing consternation among many voting Canadians as their economic woes worsen daily.  Their stock market is also tumbling as fast as the U.S. markets and suffered its worst one-day drop in 20 years this past Monday.  Stephane Dion’s Liberal party is four points off the Conservative’s 33% plurality.

Neither the Conservatives nor Liberals will likely get enough votes to create a solid majority, meaning that for the third time in a row, Canada will have to form a coalition government.  It also means that Canada will have a fractious Parliament to deal with fractious issues.

This is important not only to us border states but to the nation in general.  Canada is still our biggest trading partner and we import more oil from them than any other country.  What goes on in Canada generally impacts us more than what goes on in Europe, although you’d never know it from watching the news.

Food Poisoning

October 7, 2008

So I had all these thoughts inside my head to write about.  More on the economy and those crazy credit default swaps, Zogby Research, the upcoming presidential debate, Geoge Bush’s recent words to soothe America (or perhaps himself; notice how the phrase “The fundamentals are sound” isn’t being said anymore)?

All that has been put aside while I recover from what I think is a bad case of food poisoning, brought on by my wife, the chaplain.  Actually, it was probably brought on by some Maryland crabs she bought while in Baltimore.  They were delicious, for about an hour or so.  Since then I’ve been dividing my time between laying on the couch in a fetal position and running to the bathroom to vomit.  Ooh; too much information there.  I won’t mention that that’s not the only bodily orifice that’s seen more than enough action for a while.

I can’t eat, and the general weakness that goes along with that is probably more a revelation than the nausea.  It’s only been a day since I’ve been able to digest anything and already the fatigue and inability to stay focused has set in.

Pity the many poor whose lack of a next meal is a constant, whose life under these conditions is not rare, but commonplace.

NYS-sanctioned Social Programs for Inmates

October 5, 2008

There was an article on this past Saturday’s Buffalo News opinion page describing the ways in which New York State is trying to reduce prison recidivism.  These programs, social and educational in nature, try to help inmates nearing parole to transition back into society without relapse.

Many of these parolees spend a long time without freedom as we know it; but they do get free room and board, and they make friends (we are, after all, social animals).  Many regain their freedom with no clue how to find a job, how to hold a job, how to reintegrate into a society that generally wants little to do with them anyway.  Many find that they have more friends (or their only friends) behind bars.  The stigma attached to them and the very limited opportunities work against many of them from day one on the outside.

Re-entry programs don’t always work but even a modest goal of reducing the rate at which parolees end up back in jail is something to shoot for.  It is more than a humanitarian gesture:  The cost to incarcerate someone in a state prison is currently $32,000 per year.  And each court case resulting in conviction costs an estimated $50,000.  Reduction of recidivism by just a few percent pays for these social programs many times over.

This is also the kind of program that will be on next year’s chopping block as New York looks to trim billions of dollars from the budget.  Penny-wise, pound foolish.

The House Bailout Bill

October 3, 2008

The House of Representatives added to and otherwise modified 34 sections of H.R. 1424, the so-called bailout bill, passed by the Senate two days ago.  They then voted on and passed it and the President signed it into law about two hours after that.  It took $150 billion in earmarks to sweeten the deal enough for 59 Representatives to change their votes between Monday and Friday.

All told the Bush Administration and Congress have added roughly $1.4 trillion to the national debt since January.  This does not include the 2008 budget deficit, which will add between $200 billion and $400 billion more.  The Dow Jones responded with joy by only dropping another 157 points.

We have crossed the line from Capitalism to Socialism.  Capitalism when the markets are adding to the coffers of the wealthiest institutions, Socialism when taxpayer-funded bailouts are needed to shore up those same institutions because of those markets.  I notice that suddenly, no one is using the term Socialism, but there it is.  Stan O’Neal is probably busting a gut on his yacht right now, laughing at all those Congressional patsies.

One must wonder that a bill, written in a few days with 170 sections and 450 pages, could possibly be cohesive and not swiss-cheesy.  Do you think that big financial companies with leagues of lawyers and accountants will spend a lot of effort to find all those loopholes that will benefit them the most?  I do.

They got their Christmas bonuses early this year.  We got coal.


October 2, 2008

Did Sarah Palin say Nu-cu-ler during her debate?  Four times?


The Senate Bailout Bill

October 2, 2008

President Bush’s bailout bill was 3 pages in length.  The one that the House of Representatives defeated was 106.  The Senate bailout bill passed on October 1st is 451 pages.  Historians will note that this is a mental health bill with a few additional provisions.

Only the first 113 pages of the Senate bill are actually related to the bailout.  The remainder are essentially pork barrel provisions attached to get Senators to vote for the plan, including:

  • Renewable energy credits
  • FUTA surtax
  • Alternative minimum tax relief
  • Tax breaks for teachers
  • Investment in Washington, DC
  • Something about wooden arrows and children
  • and on and on

There are 101 energy, tax, mental health, Federal land and disaster provisions – something for everyone.  It has essentially become an energy and tax credit plan with an oh-by-the-way bailout attached to the front of it.  This is how we legislate.

Read it here if you’d like.  It’s a PDF document.

Yet the non-bailout riders in the House plan will wildly top this.  I am wildly disgusted and will torture myself by poring through the House bill as soon as I can find it.

Throw the Bums Out

October 2, 2008

I’ve been trying to come up with the right words to say how I feel about the $700B giveaway to Wall Street.  It is clear that measures to increase confidence in the markets are necessary and that the alternative – hanging all those Wall Street dealers by their balls – would not be civil (although it might make for good reality TV).  It is unclear to me that a monetary bailout is either prudent or effective.

What bothers me greatly is that the issue of a housing market and lending bubble has been obvious for years, yet nothing was done to oversee or regulate those that were taking advantage of it.  Even a television show was created to profit from the hysteria surrounding unsustainable home price escalation.

Wall Street and personal greed notwithstanding, this was a preventable calamity had Congress chosen not to look the other way until the crisis was upon us.  Indeed, it appears that that the U.S. governs by crisis, that politicians have only enough political will to hope the problems away – until they are, too late, already in the belly of the beast (and us along with them).

To make it worse, bailouts create the expectation of future bailouts.  This is an ever-tightening spiral that has us already circling the drain.  We saw it in the 80’s with the S&L bailout and the creation of Resolution Trust; we see it today with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG.  Tomorrow it will be the airlines and automotive industries, and then the medical system.

I am so steamed about this because the people who are supposed to be leading this country have contorted the definition of leadership to the very exclusion of it.  They bloviate whenever a camera is rolling, bicker about the other party throwing up roadblocks, pass pork-filled budgets and then have the gall to run for office based on proven leadership.

It’s time to throw the bums out.  All of them.  Every. Single. Incumbent.  Maybe, just maybe, the next group of politicians will get the message that we’re fed up and just won’t take it anymore.

Curious Correlation

October 1, 2008

Jen’s Recent Weight Measurements:

Dow Jones’ Recent Behavior:

Coincidence?  Maybe someone should have a talk with her before the economy tanks.

Airport Security

October 1, 2008

Airport Security may be necessary today, but it doesn’t have to be so annoying.  I can tolerate the long waits, being forced to remove my shoes (whew) and display what kind of deodorant and toothpaste I use, but there is something that I think could easily change, and it would brighten everyone’s experience.

The color.

If there’s anyone from the TSA out there listening, then please consider the fact that there are colors other than battleship gray that you can use to liven up the X-ray machines, the scanners and especially those trays that we stick our shoes and laptops into.

This is so cheap and easy to do, and would go a long way to making a dreary experience less dreary.  Thanks!