Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The handiwork of Satan himself

Evangelicals could certainly get a good start on uprooting the Devil, ol' Scratch himself, if they were to head up to Redmond, WA, and beat—just physically wallop—the evil bastards responsible for Visual SourceSafe. It simply sucks. So isn't it great, there's a new version coming out! 'Scuse me if I don't rush out to try it. They've had, well in my experience anyways, eight years to make it not lick balls. I say no more chances. I'm using Subversion at home and it's pretty sweet.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The drive to universal health care

I've been an enthusiast for universal health care for quite some time. I'm going to start toting up all of the benefits of a universal health care system, as well as discussing the various forms that a universal health care system here in the U.S. might take. To be fair, I'll also contrast the benefits of such a system with the benefits of the current system and the disadvantages of each system also. However, in the research that I've done, this is a clear win for the universal system.

I'm starting this because I really need to start tracking all the times that I hear items where I think, "You know, removing health care expenses from the situation would completely change that equation." As a "for example," the West Contra Costa country school district is looking at changing the benefit structure for teachers as they retire, a change necessitated entirely by the health care costs being incurred as teachers retire. On the one hand, it's the district's obligation to live up to the promises they've made to people who've been working in some of the neediest schools in the nation for quite paltry wages in one of the most expensive areas in the world. What kind of choice is it to ask someone (as was described on NPR this morning) to make the decision between retiring now and taking a reduced pension or retiring with a full pension but receiving reduced health benefits? At the same time, the district is saddled with rocketing health care costs and serious revenue problems. The officials there are faced with their own terrible choice between funding their obligations to retired teachers and cutting school programs for children that already face cuts in just about every area of support they receive.

Now, remove the burden of providing health care from the school system. Yes, the burden would still fall somewhere, but it wouldn't be something unique to the school district. Based on the experience of other industrialized nations and some of the unique factors that make health care so expensive in this country (both of which I'll discuss more later), costs would go down for insuring these retirees, while the costs would also be distributed in a number of different manners, removing the acute pressure on particular providers.

This goes beyond just school districts, of course, and can be seen in the problems faced in pension programs for the legacy airlines (the actual pension pay is an issue there, but the cost of funding health care also factors in majorly), workers compensation programs (remove the need to assign liability for a health claim and workers comp just... goes away...), and more.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Random monkeys

So C & I are working on the Saturday L.A. Times crossword puzzle. Stumped by one of the clues, I type "sacred song" into (where I had already found a couple of clues; yeah, maybe it’s cheating, but mind your own goddamned business) I get the following response:

No entry found for sacred song.

Did you mean Sacred monkey?

Uh… no I didn’t, but thanks for the suggestion.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Bachelor recap

OK, so we went to the live broadcast of the season finale of The Bachelor. I wanted to bring my camera in, but it's safe to say that that wasn't in their plans, so... that didn't happen. So I'll just give a basic recap.

Basic recap: lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong day. Really long day.

OK, a more detailed recap.

We pulled up—right on time, I'll add—in front of what appeared to be an old public school book depository or maybe an abandoned DMV building in Glendale. This was the studio. My first thought was that the whole series had been filmed in New York. Now these girls come out here for their big night, the big finale, and they're probably expecting to driven out in a limousine to some large complex in Studio City, with palm trees and the Hollywood sign in the background and instead... they're gliding past graffiti-covered body shops and carnicerias to a book depository building in Glendale. Yuck. But OK.

So we go up and have to sign in. There's a huge line of people waiting to sign up. At this point, we're thinking, fuck this, let's just blow this off and go to LACMA and have corned beef sandwiches at Canter's or something. But we stuck it out. We finally got signed up and got our dandy bag lunch. Awesome. Peanut butter pockets and a rotten apple (Carrie's wasn't rotten, but the whole bottom of mine was rotten and moldy; nasty).

So then things really started happening. Not really. Nothing ever really started happening. But we moved from where we got the bag lunches to standing in another line. Then we went inside and got seated, so that was good. And then they did the show. So that was pretty exciting too. If you saw the show, well, it looked pretty much like that. If you didn't, then you probably don't care. Either way...

What was interesting—not unexpected, but interesting—was the gender make-up of the crowd. There were, I think, 5 men there out of a crowd of probably 150 people at least. It was a chick fest to the nth degree. We ended up getting moved to the center of the back risers behind the rose where the rose ceremony was going to be held. Our theory is that they thought it would be good to have a guy visible. As it ended up, we were pretty spectacularly unvisible, although we did crop up once near the beginning of the show.

I'm not going to recount what happened on the show—suffice to say that they really did not need to fill three hours with it—but there were a few interesting things.

First, they cheated a little bit. All of bumps were filmed an hour or two prior to the show, so whenever they were going to commercial and Chris Harrison said, "We're here live in Hollywood" or words to that effect, it was bullshit. It was like a Linda Richman routine: "The Bachelor Finale Live in Hollywood is neither live nor in Hollywood; discuss." Not a big deal, but there it is.

Second, the few times that I've seen famous people (I haven't seen that many, because they seem to actively avoid me; I'll write that up sometime), they've appeared quite different from their two-dimensional representations. Dolly Parton was probably the most egregiously weird (you'd think her boobs would dominate, but when I saw her outside Rockefeller Center one time I couldn't stop staring at the enormous five-story-tall wig on her head), but it's been fairly true in my experience. Well, here everyone looked exactly the same in person. Oh, Charlie O'Connell was a bit taller than I expected. The women looked exactly the same. Chris Harrison looked and sounded exactly the same. I wonder what that guy's gonna do when the Bachelor/Bachelorette is finally cancelled?

The really strange thing was the presence of the women's families. I was really wondering how bizarre it was going to be to have Charlie ditch one of the chicks in front of her family. That would have been massively uncomfortable for everyone involved. And, regardless of your take on reality TV, I can say with certainty that the principals involved take it seriously, at least at the time and at least in this instance. That was finessed by Charlie dropping the bomb on Krisily in her dressing room.

Eventually it was over, the Bachelor claimed his womanly prize (and she did look pretty damned fantastic, I have to say; the spurned woman was also quite lovely, which isn't a shock considering she was Miss Rhode Island USA), we were served Martinelli's sparkling cider (no way you're getting free booze out of these cheap bastards), and we were on our way. Seven hours of ass-numbing pain and no real revelations. We do, however, have another check on our list of "Things to Do in Southern California:" Been to a TV show live, check.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Bachelor finale!

w00t! Got me and the li'l lady tickets to the live season finale of The Bachelor! How dorky is that?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Headlines are not scalpels

I understand the point, but if you really parse it, I can guarantee that this isn't true: Therapies Cut Death Risk, Breast-Cancer Study Finds. Most studies have found that, no matter what therapies you try, your risk of death rockets up about 100% the moment you're born and stays there. The only therapy shown to cure you of dying is death: at that point, you're pretty much in the clear.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

What is there to debate about Bolton?

From today's N.Y. Times:

U.N. Nominee Asserts His Independence on Intelligence

With a vote scheduled today on his nomination, John R. Bolton said a policy maker should maintain the right to "state his own reading of the intelligence."

Oh, ha ha!!!! If, by "intelligence," you mean transparent self-serving lies and, by "his own reading," you mean making shit up, then I guess, yeah, Bolton is independent as hell. But let's suppose your intelligence analysts say, "We are not certain that country so-and-so has chemical weapons." In response, you say "I think they do have chemical weapons. Only give me intelligence that backs up the idea that so-and-so has chemical weapons." Is that your own reading? Or is that deciding what the conclusion should be then fitting facts around it? Because one of those is appropriate behavior and one is not.

I think that it's the one that is not.

Let's take the intelligence on Cuba discussed in the article:

Among newly declassified documents being reviewed by the committee are some from the Central Intelligence Agency expressing vehement opposition to testimony on Cuba that Mr. Bolton planned to give in June 2002, at least partly on grounds that Mr. Bolton was presenting as the government's view a conclusion that Cuba possessed biological weapons, when the intelligence agencies were not so certain.

One memorandum sent by an unnamed C.I.A. official to George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, told how a meeting in mid-2002 on the Cuba testimony "quickly grew contentious when we discovered that Mr. Bolton had left instructions that we confine our comments to sources and methods issues or to substantive information that strengthened the under secretary's argumentation in the proposed testimony."

OK, that's not right. We've demonstrated, in the largest venue possible, that there can be great damage to our credibility—not just of the person speaking but of our entire nation—when suppositions and theories about intelligence are stated as facts. Uranium from Niger, WMDs ready to launch in 45 minutes, and missile tubes are just a few, not to mention Colin Powell's dog-and-pony show at the U.N. Security Council.

Now we're debating whether or not we're going to send one of the very architects of this "intelligence of assertion" to the U.N. while our credibility is already shredded. Should anyone be surprised that other countries are leery of our declarations on Iran and Korea's nuclear programs and other intelligence?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

What's going on with the trade deficit?

So the trade deficit is at its lowest level in six months (since the deficit six months ago was another record, that still doesn't mean that we're in particularly great shape, but any progress is better than none). That's pretty good news and will help in a number of areas, including strengthening the dollar, which in turn reduces the price of oil world-wide.

But what I'm interested in is what exactly is going on with this. The trade deficit goes down when the amount we export goes up and/or the amount we import goes down. So part of the change is easily explainable and really pretty overdue: the weakness in the dollar should reduce the price of American-made goods, making these goods more attractive to foreign buyers. This is the "amount we export goes up" leg.

The big question is what's happening in the "amount we import goes down" category. A corollary of the weak dollar is that imports become more expensive to Americans, and the amount we import should therefore go down. That hasn't really happened until now, partly because much of what we import, in the form of oil, is relatively stable and mandatory. But what's extremely curious is this:
A drop in the trade deficit with China - to $12.9 billion in March from $13.9 billion deficit in February - accounted for a good portion of the decline... The decline in imports was most pronounced in volatile areas like drugs from Canada, and clothing and household goods from Asia. Textiles and furniture also experienced notable drops.
What's really interesting about that is that textile import quotas were recently eliminated, leading to fears that textile production in China would swamp world markets. This has, to some extent, proved correct. As noted in The Standard, a Hong Kong-based Chinese business paper, "imports from... mainland [China] leapt by up to 534 percent after a global quota system ended at the beginning of this year. "

But this has not been the case in the U.S.:
Markets had been expecting the bilateral trade deficit with China to reach record levels due to the recent lifting of US textile quotas. In the event, not only did imports from China decline for the second consecutive month, but US exports to China rose for two months in a row.
Now, as noted in the N.Y. Times article, clothing is a fairly volatile segment of the market. But the fact is that clothing is also very sensitive to pricing. The greatly increased Chinese clothing production and export of clothes and other textiles should lead to steep reductions in the cost of clothes. Couple this with the fact that the value of the Chinese renminbi is tied to the price of the dollar, which means that the increased cost of imports due to the weakness of the dollar is not a factor.

One possibility is that there has been a slowdown in textile purchases due to a glut of textiles having already been purchased in the previous months since the removal of the quotas, a not indefensible idea since we have been running record trade deficits the entire time. Another possibility is simply that this is a glitch in the trade numbers and the next couple of months will see us right back to our old habits.