Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: How many of these protesters are anti-Semites?

From my relatively centrist, relatively elite position, the Occupy Wall Street movement seems a lot like the Tea Party movement. Both are full of extremists who tend to have poor educations and an unsophisticated understanding of the economy and our political system. They both hate the Federal Reserve, but have no idea how much better off we are with it. They don't have a fundamental understanding of monetary policy. They want to shut down the GATT and the WTO and free trade, but they never studied the deleterious effects of Smoot-Hawley. They just are not that smart. I don't think the Occupy movements are full of Stanford and University of Chicago PhD's.

But there is a major difference in the two populist surges: the Occupy Wall Street movement has an explicitly anti-Semitic element setting the tone.

The left tried for a long time to portray the Tea Party groups as "racist." But the evidence was weak. I'm sure there are a handful of white, right-wing extremists among the Tea Party who are prejudiced. But the movement itself--to reduce government spending, lower taxes, and to abide by the Constitution--never focused on blaming one group or another for our country's problems. Its focus has always been on an amorphous hatred of big government.

The Tea Partiers have lately favored Herman Cain's bid for president. They don't seem to care about Cain's skin color. They care that his 9-9-9 plan (a rather simplistic plan that would probably harm the interests of lower-income people with a national sales tax) is in line with their ideology.

By contrast, there has not been a big Occupy Wall Street protest anywhere in the country which has not had signs blaming the Jews for America's problems. For hundreds of years--all the way back to the time 1,000 years ago when the English kicked all of their Jewish citizens--the hatred of "the 1%" has been a hatred of the Jews. When people say they hate Wall Street or they hate big banks or they hate people with money, they are at the very least mimicking thousands of years of anti-Semitism, very often explicitly.

I am not saying that all people on the far left are anti-Semites. In fact, many of them are Jews. What I am saying is that this hatred of the people who work for or run banks or who trade bonds or who fund capital calls is right in the tradition of centuries of anti-Semitism. It is scapegoating "the other." It is blaming someone else, some minority, for your own problems.

Up until the 1960s, this sort of anti-Semitism in the United States was mostly the province of the right. But Malcolm X and later Louis Farrakhan made hatred of the Jews popular on the left.

If you find someone who hates Israel in the U.S., he almost certainly will be a left-winger, likely someone protesting today against Jewish bankers. Those who call themselves anti-Zionist never seem to cover their tracks to prove their hatred of Israel is not hatred of the Jews. They don't protest against maltreatment in the Middle East. You never see the so-called anti-Zionists in Davis protesting the inhumane governments of Syria or Iran. They never denounced Ghadhafi or Saddam Hussein. They instead have focused all of their hate on the Jews, protraying Israel as a bastion of evil.

It's funny, though, because Israel is the best country in the Middle East. It always has been. It is not perfect. It deserves criticism for many of its policies. But those doing the criticizing should also be critical of the far worse crimes against humanity committed by Hamas and Hezbollah and the Turkish government and god-forbid the brutal Saudi Arabian regime. The one country which has free speech and democratic elections and has a successful market economy and good schools and fair courts is the only one they hate? Yes, the anti-Zionist left is really just anti-Semitic.

Today in the L.A. Times it was reported that a woman who works for the L.A. Unified School District and is a protestor against the Wall Street Jews in Occupy Los Angeles was fired, after she called for Jews to be kicked out of the United States:

"I think that the Zionist Jews who are running these big banks and our Federal Reserve, which is not run by the federal government -- they need to be run out of this country," McAllister said in the video by Reason.tv, a Libertarian-leaning news organization.

Do you think anything this blatantly racist was ever spoken at a Tea Party rally?

I don't think the Occupy Wall Street movement of the left will amount to anything in our national politics, even though it seems to be very widespread. They don't really have any sound political ideas. They seem to just have this hatred for "the other." But if any of them are disturbed by the anti-Semitism of their movement, they owe it to our country and the sake of decency to stop tolerating so much anti-Semitism. They need to go to those sit-ins and carry a sign denouncing the hatred of the Jew.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What the water experts say:

I recently interviewed some UC Davis water experts regarding the sustainability of Davis continuing to draw its municipal water from wells, including the deep aquifer. Here is what I found out:


Richard Cowen, a professor emeritus in geology, told me: "A city the size of Davis (and it will increase in population) will locally deplete almost any aquifer. That will draw water inward to replace it. That situation can continue for a while, but in the end is not sustainable.

"The useful life span of a deeper aquifer depends on its geology and its source of recharge, neither of which I know. We are talking years rather than decades, I would imagine, without knowing the facts.

"Careful monitoring would give warning that an aquifer’s life is limited. But given the difficulty of finding an alternative, we might find ourselves in a bad bargaining position as time begins to run out. In other words, if we have a better alternative right now, why go to the trouble and expense of drilling into a new aquifer that has to be a diminishing resource?

"The Sacramento River is the biggest and cleanest water source in the region, and could certainly supply municipal water for Davis forever because its water is renewed from rain and snow every year. It would be much more reliable in the long term than any aquifer."


Gregory Pasternack, a professor of Watershed Hydrology in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, told me: "If you look at the facts on face value with no questioning of assumptions, then sure, Davis uses a lot of water and will be using ever more, so more supply and better supply is needed. A number of shallower wells in Davis are contaminated now and the good, deep aquifer varies in depth and water quality from East to West. Davis has spent a lot building one or more wells and then decommissioning without production due to manganese in the east, so that is a problem. The vision of getting high-quality surface water makes sense in that view. Deep groundwater can supply a lot, but do we really want to use that so heavily and ignore future generations? I think more deep groundwater wells would work for a while, as every community in the region is now probing for that same sweet spot at ~800-1000' depth."

"What bothers me is that we need to get serious about changing our water system more radically to get to where we need to go in terms of quality and quantity. If we were starting from scratch, we would never build the system like this, emptying all our best water onto lawns (or maybe they would, but shouldn't!). We would use low-quality water from shallower, cheap wells to irrigate, preserving the good, deep groundwater for household use only. Well, we are not starting from scratch, but the opportunity is here now just the same. We only get one shot to make this major investment in infrastructure, and what happens if the surface water conditions or water quality don't pan out over time due to climate change or legal rights issues? In fact, many neighborhoods have extensive greenbelts and buffer lands that could be used to run independent irrigation pipes OR we could open up the roads and run the pipes underground- just get it done one time and never have to worry about treating all that lawn water. Then retrofit the houses to take irrigation water from the new lines and leave the deep groundwater for household use."


Thomas Harter, a Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and holder of the Robert M. Hagan Endowed Chair in Water Management and Policy, told me: "The issue, as I understand it, is not about the availability of groundwater, it is mostly about its quality and suitability a) for drinking and b) for meeting wastewater discharge requirements. I defer to the experts of Davis groundwater quality to speak to that topic and what future trends they may see. As to the question, whether groundwater will suddently change it's quality or will suddenly disappear in an unforeseen event - the answer depends on your perspective. Indeed, neither of these events will happen overnight or from one week to the next - the change is gradual. But when it takes a decade or more to develop an alternative water supply, "sudden" means: less than ten years. In that sense, we may indeed "suddenly" see changes that we cannot accurately predict today; water quality standards - which classify drinking water quality to be either "bad" or "good" may also change "suddenly", i.e., over the next decade. So, I do understand the need for planning ahead."


I asked Steve Grattan, a water specialist who studies "Salinity effects on plants at the plant and field scale; agricultural drainage water reuse and management; salinity-trace element interactions in plants; evapotranspiration" this:

Do you believe deep aquifer well water is a reliable, long-term source of water for Davis? Why or why not?

"This question is best answered by ground water hydrologists. However, my feeling is that if the Sacramento River is a viable option, the water will be of better quality than many of the ground water aquifers that supply the city of Davis. What is uncertain is the dependability on surface water supply over the long term. Certainly there will be continued droughts in California where various water users will compete for its (river) use. Another issue that needs to be considered is the gradual shift in peak water flows in many California rivers to earlier times. With climate change, not only is the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains moving to higher elevations, snow melt is generally occuring earlier where peak flows are now occurring earlier in the year. This affects how much of this water is stored in dams vs how much is released down stream. With that trend, there may be merit in trying to re-capture that early flows in ground water aquifers by diverting it to flood plains. How this may affect water supplies for the city of Davis I am not sure but it is something important to consider."

If and when the deep aquifer dries up or no longer produces good water, will we have a number of years of advanced warning, or will we be shocked to find over night that we can no longer rely on our deep wells?

"If and when the deep aquifer dries up it will likely be a gradual process. It will not be something that happens over night. There will be a warning with sustained drop in aquifer depth over time. The water quality may also become progressively worse in quality over the years.

Based on what you know about the alternatives, would you recommend Davis go forward with its surface water project? Or do you think we are just as well off to wait 10 or 20 or more years before we spend the money it will take to bring Sacramento River water to Davis? Why or why not?

"It is never too early to begin to think about alternate water supplies. Ideally it would be valuable for the city of Davis if it had both sources available. The top priority would be Sacramento river water and during prolonged droughts, rely on ground water supplies. Ultimately it comes down to economics and water demand among the various water users."


By email, I asked Professor of Hydrogeology Graham Fogg if the deep aquifer was sustainable:

"This is poorly understood because of (a) the unknown future changes in groundwater quality due to downward movement of poor quality groundwater from agricultural and urban sources (Davis is not unique in this regard), (b) the unknown effects of increased pumping by the City in the so-called deep aquifer, from which UCD already withdraws drinking water, and (c) the unknown (to me at least) future demands for water in Davis when one considers growth and possible conservation measures. Of course, even if the groundwater quality continues to degrade, there is always the option of treating the groundwater to remove dissolved substances, much like we do routinely with surface water; but this costs."

How many years will the deep aquifer last?

"It's best to think of it as an "aquifer system" rather than an aquifer, because most of it consists of a complex network of aquifer materials (sands and gravels) and non-aquifer materials (silts and clays), and the latter are by far most prevalent. The groundwater levels appear to be recovering more or less fully every year following the dry season, indicating it is not yet in overdraft with respect to water quantity. In most any city where groundwater is the sole source of drinking water and landscape water, however, it is possible for demand to grow to the point that groundwater overdraft occurs. In that case, the aquifer system would not dry up and blow away, but there would be more severe restrictions on water use, like vastly reducing landscape watering, which is a large but non-essential part of the water demand. (I realize, it's an uphill battle in N. CA to get people more accustomed to lack of green grass, but since landscape watering in this part of the world is the largest part of the urban water budget, this issue will be receiving more and more attention.)

Will we have advanced warning before the aquifer dries up?

The changes in groundwater quality will not be sudden, but will likely continue on a decades to centuries time scale.

Do you believe that the Sacramento River water is a reliable and sufficiently safe long-term source for our municipal water?

Hydrologically, the Sacramento River water would be a reliable long term source. Legally, not sure because that is not my area of expertise.

Based on what you know about the alternatives, would you recommend Davis go forward with its surface water project?

"I am not sufficiently up to speed on the latest information (and related economics) to answer the big question. However, I would keep in mind the following guideposts:

"(a) The groundwater system is vulnerable due to long term degradation of water quality and potential for future overdraft. Many cities that rely solely on groundwater seem to eventually reach overdraft conditions.

"(b) Based on (a) and the water quality vulnerability, any planner in his right mind should jump at the chance to secure surface water sources that can be used in conjunction with the groundwater (i.e., use more of the surface water when you have it, keeping the groundwater in the 'bank'; use more of the groundwater during drought). Especially if that can be accomplished reasonably economically.

"(c) The common sense in (b) looks even better when you consider the wastewater discharge limitations that the Regional Board is apparently enforcing strictly. If the Board really will be requiring that Davis reduce drastically its salt load from wastewater discharged into the Delta watershed, then the only viable alternative I am aware of is for Davis to reduce the salt content in its drinking and landscape water by using substantially more Sac. R. water, which is much lower in dissolved salts.

"(d) The common sense in (b) also looks even better if the opportunity to secure the surface water is arising now and is unlikely to ever arise in the future.

"(e) The question probably hinges mostly on the wastewater discharge issue. If this will be strictly enforced, then Davis seems to have little alternative but to bring in more Sac. R. water if it can. If this discharge is not strictly enforced and never will be (big ifs), then Davis could probably make do just with groundwater. If they go groundwater only, then when the quality worsens, they will have to invest in water treatment in the coming decades. If and when they reach serious overdraft conditions, their only recourse would be to eliminate most lawn watering entirely. Such a measure would possibly be used to manage or reverse overdraft, but would require a major shift in attitudes of the citizenry."


I asked Qingfu Xiao, a research water scientist at UC Davis, if the deep aquifer was reliable:

"This is totally depends on how we (are) managing and using this resource. As more and more lands are used for buildings, streets, and parking lots, one problem, to make (the) deep aquifer well water reliable, is to use new technology and management to balance the groundwater withdraw and recharge. And the technologies are there at reasonable cost USGS has been testing recharge groundwater at relatively large scale in L.A."

How many years do you think deep aquifer water will last?

"It depends on how we pumping and recharging rate. It is a management issue. It will last longer than predicted because the fresh water line from Lake Berryessa (UCD), and water conservation from both technology and education."

Based on what you know about the alternatives, would you recommend Davis go forward with its surface water project?

"We should go forward with this surface water project. But, at the same time, we need rethink how we keep our groundwater system healthy, change our landscape design to increase groundwater recharge (water banking?). Multiple water resources will improve water quality and reliability for Davis."

Monday, June 13, 2011

America is happy: good triumphed over evil: the Mavericks beat the Heat: Dirk is a champ; LeBron is a chump

Outside of South Florida, all of America is happy. The lovable Mavericks defeated the hated Heat in 6 games, winning the NBA Championship.

There has been much speculation as to why America was rooting for Dallas, and why America so hates LeBron James. Most of the talk centers around "The Decision," where LeBron held a one hour interview on live TV in order to announce last summer that he was going to sign a free agent contract with the Miami Heat.

That is part of the reason no one but Heat fans wanted to see LeBron win. But it's not the biggest reason. Here, then, are the top 10 reasons why America rooted for Dallas and against Miami in the NBA Championships:

1. The spurned woman syndrome. LeBron James grew up near Cleveland in Akron, Ohio. LeBron never had another girlfriend in the pros. He was married to Cleveland. He had played his entire career with the Cavaliers. Cleveland had been a good and loving wife. Cleveland did everything in her powers to make LeBron happy. Cleveland paid LeBron the top salary possible. Cleveland tried everything it could to acquire good players around LeBron to help him win a ring. Yet the second a prettier girl shook her hips in LeBron’s direction, he fell for the bait. He left his loyal wife for a younger, sexier model named Miami. No one loves the man who quits on his loyal wife. We identify with the spurned woman.

2. Cleveland as an underdog. It is not just the case that Cleveland has a poor economy, bad weather and miserable people. It’s that Cleveland never has had much luck with its pro sports teams. The Indians had a few good teams in the 1990s, but they haven’t won since the 1950s. And the Browns, ever since the great Jim Brown retired in the 1960s, have been a perennial loser, almost always finishing with a losing record. But that bad luck seemed to have turned around with the arrival of LeBron James. He took them to the Finals a few years ago; and each of his last 4 years in Cleveland had made the Cavaliers one of the best teams in the NBA. It seemed like just a matter of time before the Cavs would finally win it all. But then LeBron bolted. By quitting on them, he took away that hope for that underdog city.

3. The Decision as a shocker. It makes for much better theater when you have a drama and you don’t know the outcome. So give LeBron credit for not spilling the beans in advance of his announcement that he was going to play for Miami. But because no word had leaked out, just about everyone thought this was all a big show about nothing—that he would remain with the Cavaliers. So the shock was all that much worse when he announced he was quitting on his team, his city, and his fans. The second we collectively recovered from LeBron's sucker punch, the shock turned to anger, hurt and disappointment.

4. The Decision as egotism + The Miami Dance Party. It’s hard not to be an egoist when you have the god-given gifts of LeBron James. That said, he came across as terribly arrogant when he stated, “I am taking my talents to South Beach.” Never mind that the Heat play in Miami, not South Beach, which is in a different city (Miami Beach). The fact that he referred to his “talents” in the third person made it sound as if he pictured himself as above a human being, that he carried around this amazement known as his “talents.” Add to that the egoism of the celebration held in Miami before the season in which LeBron and his new mates danced and laughed and proclaimed they would win 8 championships as a group. That is hard to like when LeBron had never won anything.

5. The Conspiracy. The fact that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, all of whom played together on Team USA conspired well in advance of their free agency to form a super team in the NBA makes this Miami Heat group feel inorganic. It’s not that they are a super team. The Lakers are a super team. The Celtics are another. There have been many past teams which had multiple superstars in their primes at the same time. But unlike all of those who came before this Heat team, the others were formed one piece at a time by the draft, by a trade or by adding a single free agent. In this case, it was clear that the Team USA teammates went around the traditional system. They took charge. They created this Miami Heat super team. And the team feels inauthentic for it.

6. Dallas as an underdog. The Mavericks have been around as an expansion team since the 1980-81 season. Yet they had never won a championship. Everyone loves the underdog. Everyone will keep on loving Dallas, unless they hurt us by continuing to win. Then they will be an overdog.

7. Dirk Nowitzki as an underdog. Dirk has been viewed for a long time as a very good, yet somewhat soft Euro. He’s a 7-foot tall man, yet all he seemed able to do was shoot from the outside. But after 13 years in the NBA, after progressively getting better, developing toughness, playing better team defense, learning how to drive to the basket and post up, and learning how to take charge of his team and to command respect from his opponents, his story arc is one fans can identify with. He overcame his own faults and worked and worked until he was good enough to win. Unlike LeBron, he was never handed the expectations of being an all-time great. He just made himself into one.

8. Race, but not racism. The fact that Dirk Nowitzki, the best player on Dallas, is white and that whites are generally bad at basketball compared with blacks, makes any great white player an anomaly and to that extent an underdog. As such, all very good white players tend to get overrated and over-loved in the NBA. If half the league were white, no one would care. But because 85% of the league is black and because 95 percent of the greatest players of all time are black makes the fans, who are naturally drawn to the underdog, root for the rare good white guy. This may sound like white racism. However, I think it is the same thing in other sports where most of the athletes are white and the black star is rare. In hockey, the few great black players get extra love for it. The same is true with black golfers, white sprinters in track, black swimmers, black skiers, etc.

9. The other Mavericks. Jason Kidd, for one, has been in the league a long time. He is one of the best point guards of all time. He will be in the Hall of Fame. Yet he had never before won a ring. Another is JJ Barea, a little man who came up big time and again in this post-season. I think people are happy for Jason Terry, who started out playing poorly but improved as the series went on and was the best player on the court in the final game.

10. The ugly factor. LeBron is not a good looking man. I don't think anyone hates him for that. However, his ugly face makes it easier to see him in the role of a villain. The same could never be said about Michael Jordan, who was born with good looks and loads of talent.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Would it be so wrong to appoint a person to replace Gabby Giffords in Congress until she is well enough to do the job?

The AP is reporting that Gabby Giffords is back in the hospital following her most recent surgery:

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has been transferred back to her rehabilitation hospital in Houston after recovering from last week's surgery at a nearby hospital.

The 40-year-old Arizona Democrat had been recuperating at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center since last Wednesday's surgery to implant a synthetic replacement for a portion of her skull. Doctors also gave Giffords a permanent shunt to relieve fluid buildup in her brain.

Part of Giffords' skull was removed Jan. 8, the same day she was shot in the head in a shooting in Tucson that left six dead and 12 others wounded.

While I am terribly sympathetic to Ms. Giffords and hope for the best for her recovery, I have been thinking lately about how unrepresented the people of her Congressional district have been since Giffords was attacked in that Safeway parking lot.

I think we need a better way to deal with a member of Congress who has become temporarily (or possibly permanently) incapacitated: the governor of her state should be authorized to appoint an interim member who would serve in her place until the Congresswoman has healed or her term expires.

It would be unfair to Giffords to remove her from office in this case. She was duly elected. But it is unfair to her district to have no representation in Congress for nearly 2 years.

I recognize that the Arizona governor is a Republican and Ms. Giffords is a Democrat. So perhaps the fairest choice would be to allow the head of the Democrats in the state legislature to have a veto over the interim appointee. That would hopefully mean the person chosen was agreeable to all parties for the time being.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Judge Rosenberg claims my column was “full of misstatements and misconceptions.”

In the April 26 edition of The Davis Enterprise, an op-ed penned by Yolo County Judge David Rosenberg will be published. Judge Rosenberg’s piece, which is now available in the online edition of the newspaper, is an attack on my April 13 column which questioned whether now is the right time to be spending $5 billion on 41 courthouse projects, one of which will be built in Woodland.

New Yolo courthouse will benefit residents
By David Rosenberg

Under the headline “Courthouse plans straining budget,” your columnist Rich Rifkin (April 13) challenged the new Yolo courthouse project. His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.

As a public service, I will count up every misstatement and every misconception I made.

In fact, a new courthouse project was approved (years ago) for Yolo County, costing about $173 million. The land already has been identified and acquired, the design phase is now under way, leading to the start of construction, hopefully, at some point next year.

So far, Judge Rosenberg has failed to point out a single misstatement or misconception of mine.

However, even the headline of Rifkin’s column is inaccurate.

The judge should know that I have nothing to do with the headlines. Those are written by the editors. That qualifies as the first misconception in this exchange.

Rosenberg 1-0 in misconceptions.

This project is not straining any budget — state, county or local.

I never stated in any way that this project is straining any budget. That counts as a second misconception for the man who worked so hard to get a public skate park built in Davis.

Rosenberg 2-0.

Not one penny of taxpayer money is used for the courthouse project.

I never said the 41 courthouse projects would be funded by a tax. I explained carefully in my piece how a new fee would be attached to all parking tickets, moving violations and other criminal convictions in which the convicted is not sent to prison.

I won’t charge Judge Rosenberg for a third misconception, here. Rather, I will charge him with a blatant deception. His effort is to mislead his readers, making them think I wrote incorrectly how the funds for his courthouse will be generated.

Rosenberg 2-0 in misconceptions plus one deception.

No state general fund money is used for the project.

Again, I never stated that any general fund money would be used. That counts as deception number two for Dave.

Rosenberg 2-0 in misconceptions plus two deceptions.

The project is completely funded by a statewide surcharge assessed against everyone convicted of a violation of the criminal law.

I think this statement qualifies as deception number three and misstatement number one for Yolo County’s presiding judge. He misleads his readers with “a violation of the criminal law,” because almost all of the money will come from traffic offenders and parking violations. And because, when a person is sent to prison (see EDIT 1) he normally does not pay the fee but works it off, Judge Rosenberg knows that it is not “everyone convicted” who will pay this surcharge.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 2-0. Misstatements: 1-0.

Rifkin’s column asserts that the money for the new courthouse could better be used elsewhere.

It could be better used elsewhere at this time. What I wrote was that until we are out of the economic and budget crisis, we should put off funding luxurious courthouses like the one planned for Woodland.

He says “with that much largesse, Yolo County could pay off almost all of its $175.5 million unfunded pension liability to the miscellaneous employees.” Interesting theory.

Thanks for your interest in my theory, Dave.

But Rifkin ignores several facts.

Let’s hear your facts, your honor.

First, to do so would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.

I did not ignore that “fact,” Davey! I suggested that the Legislature change the law. I noted, “…there is no reason SB 1407 could not be temporarily changed.”

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 2-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

Second, to do so would ignore the constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.

I never said these fees should be used to pay off the county's debt. I merely noted that the amount that Yolo County's pension funding for its miscellaneous employees is short is nearly identical to the amount the new courthouse would cost. In other words, if Yolo County had this money, it could pay off this debt.

It’s hard for me, a layman, to argue the state constitution with a superior court judge. However, I believe the judge knows he is being duplicitous, here. He admitted as much some paragraphs down when he wrote this:

“Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for ‘other purposes’ and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.”

So which is it, judge? You state that the money cannot be used for other purposes, and then you state that the money is being used for other purposes. Is your left brain not communicating well with your right brain? Or are you just trying to deceive your readers?

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 3-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

Finally, pursuing Rifkin’s “logic” to the ultimate conclusion, government should not pay for capital projects but should divert its money to pay for debt service or operations.

Once again, this public servant is trying to deceive his readers. Either that, or he just did not read my column carefully.

I never mentioned anything about not paying for capital projects. I never even said the judge’s shiny new courthouse project should be abandoned. I simply suggested that while we are in a severe budget crisis, it is questionable in my mind whether now is the best time to be spending this $5 billion it will cost to build 41 courthouse projects, 35 of which are brand new buildings.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 2-0.

I suppose the city of Davis should not have built or repaired roads, or parks or pools, or the Veterans’ Memorial Center or the Senior Center — per Rifkin, the money would have been better spent in operations.

The judge seems to have no factual points to make. So instead he just makes up shinola like this. The fact is that I don’t object to roads or public buildings. I simply argued in my column that while the state is drowning in red ink, it would be a good idea to put off this $5 billion expenditure.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 3-0.

The reality is that it is never easy to accommodate long-range projects such as roads, bridges, canals or buildings.

Actually, the judge is wrong here. It’s not that hard. Our state has passed scores of bond measures to fund these sorts of projects. Since 1996, we have approved more than $21 billion in general obligation bonds. For details, see what the Legislative Analyst’s office reports.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 4-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

The immediate demands for operations are always great. Kudos to the governor, the Legislature and the judicial branch for recognizing this and for creating a logical funding source for new courthouses in California: a fee charged only to persons convicted of crimes. Who better to pay for court facilities?

Repeating himself, as the judge is wont to do, Rosenberg states that these courthouse buildings will be paid for by convicted criminals. He conveniently fails to mention that almost all of the money will be generated by a large surcharge on traffic tickets and a smaller charge tacked on parking tickets.

Do you wonder why the judge didn’t explain that in his tirade?

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 5-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

Rifkin goes on to say that Davis City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald mentioned to him that the price of the new Yolo courthouse is almost three times the price of the “luxurious” Mondavi Center. But surely Greenwald and Rifkin understand that a courthouse is not a theater.

A courthouse is not a theater? Thanks for letting me in on that, your honor.

A courthouse is a complex structure, unlike any other building. The current Yolo courthouse facilities see more than 300,000 separate trips of users and visitors each year.

That’s another way of saying about 1,000 people each day go into our courthouse. I wonder how that compares with the foot traffic in a typical big box store?

A courthouse has special security needs, the requirement for three separate pathways (for the public, for in-custody defendants, and for judicial officers and staff), unique courtrooms, public-serving counters, jury assembly space, holding cells, interview rooms and numerous other requirements.

Further, the new Yolo courthouse will be a LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, using the latest energy-saving technologies.

I wonder how many times in this column Judge Rosenberg will tell us that the new courthouse building will be LEED certified? I think LEED certification can be a nice thing. The new Target is LEED certified.

As an aside, there are a lot of environmentalists who are critical of LEED certifications. The famed architect Frank Gehry, who designed the purposefully weird Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, has, for example, said that LEED certification is often given for “bogus stuff.” I never charged that Rosenberg’s building will be given LEED points for bogus stuff.

Certainly, $173 million is a great deal of money — but it is what it costs to build a courthouse. The new courthouse planned for Sacramento County is pegged at about $510 million.

The judge likely read that in my column, where I noted that the “new 35-courtroom Sacramento Criminal Courthouse is slated to cost $509 million.” Maybe he wants you to think the $172.9 million project in Woodland is cheap by comparison?

The main thrust of Rifkin’s column is that in these difficult times, the money for courthouse construction could be better spent by being diverted for other purposes.

That was my main point, judge. I am glad to see you understood what I said.

Whether true or not, Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for “other purposes” and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.

Recall that a few paragraphs up, Judge Rosenberg, who is an expert on the constitution, said this could not be done. Have you decided, Dave, which way is it?

So, clearly, the Legislature — which thrashes around for available pots of money in difficult times — has, in fact, diverted courthouse construction funds for “other purposes” already.

Good. I thought you told me that was unconstitutional. I guess you were thinking of some other state constitution when you wrote that.

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 4-0.

Fortunately, the Yolo courthouse project is so high on the list of critical projects that it will (sic) unaffected by this diversion.

It looks like no one edited Rosenberg’s writing. Not only does it have grammatical errors (“will unaffected”), but no one pointed out to the judge that he repeats his points again and again.

Rifkin’s column then goes on to denigrate courthouse projects as “Taj Mahals.” That is inaccurate and unfair.

How is that a denigration? The Taj Mahal is fabulous. Wikipedia says, “It is widely considered as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and stands as a symbol of eternal love.”

Misconceptions: 2-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

Courthouses are important public buildings that last many generations. The current historic courthouse in Yolo County has lasted almost a century. The new Yolo courthouse will be a courthouse for the next hundred years.

I have not seen any architectural renderings for the new Rosenberg courthouse. However, my guess is that it will feature a lot of high end d├ęcor. If it doesn’t, I will gladly buy Dave a coffee in downtown Woodland.

It will not be an insubstantial building — it will house 14 courtrooms, a jury assembly area to accommodate more than 300 prospective jurors, clerks’ offices and counters for the public, holding cells for in-custody defendants, security stations and many other features unique to courthouses.

Did you say it will house 14 courtrooms?

In addition, the new courthouse will be a LEED building, built to the best standards of environmental efficiency that we can muster.

Wait a minute, Dave. Didn’t you already brag that it will be a LEED building? Is it not against the law in Woodland to repeat yourself in your same column?

The Yolo court facilities are among the busiest — perhaps the busiest — public buildings in the county.

Maybe that’s because our district attorney has a tendency to bring every possible case to trial, rather than reach plea agreements with defendants? I don’t know if that is true. However, I have read that argument in a widely read Davis blog.

Rifkin’s criticism even goes so far as to challenge the five-story projection for the new courthouse.

Goes so far as to challenge? I stated its height as a matter of fact: “The five-story project will house 14 new courtrooms, each twice the size of the courtrooms in the historic edifice on Court Street.”

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

Five stories, while clearly substantial, will not be out of place on Main Street in downtown Woodland.

I never said it would be out of place.

The historic Hotel Woodland — just down the street from the proposed courthouse — has four stories and roof facades.

As it happens, the Hotel Woodland is more than five blocks from where the Rosenberg Courthouse will be erected. Most of the existing structures adjacent to the block between Lincoln and Main and Fifth and Sixth streets, where the courthouse will be, are one story tall.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 7-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

The current historic courthouse on Court Street has four stories. There is a processing plant on Main Street just four blocks east of the proposed courthouse that is more than five stories in height.

The point is that the new courthouse must hold 14 courtrooms and attendant court uses.

You say it will house 14 courtrooms?

While the courthouse could be four stories, or even three stories, that would be poor planning. A shorter courthouse would have a larger footprint, taking much more of the land and thus restricting future expansion in 10 or 20 years.

The judge claimed above he is building this structure to last 100 years. Now he says in 10 or 20 years he wants it built even larger? Which is it, Dave?

Misconceptions: 4-0; Deceptions: 7-0. Misstatements: 5-0.

One problem with state buildings is that the state builds only for today’s needs, not for tomorrow’s requirements. The current needs for Yolo County are 14 courtrooms.

You say it will house 14 courtrooms?

In 10 years we will need more. By using less of the land, the court has the ability to expand on site.

Maybe instead of spending a lot more money in 10 years, we can make use of the historic courthouse on Main Street a decade from now?

Rifkin then criticizes the 14 courtrooms planned in the new courthouse by asserting that each will be twice the size of the current courtrooms.

I never criticized that. I merely pointed it out: “The five-story project will house 14 new courtrooms, each twice the size of the courtrooms in the historic edifice on Court Street.”

It is apparent that the judge has poor judgment when deciphering between a criticism and a statement of fact.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 6-0.

It is certainly correct that the new courtrooms will be twice the size of current courtrooms.

He even agrees with me! Wait! I thought he said my column was full of misstatements. Maybe that was just the judge exercising poor judgment?

But what Rifkin fails to say is that current courtrooms are less than half the size of a standard California courtroom per state minimum standards.

This is circular logic, your honor. You and your fellow judges arbitrarily decide what the standard is, and then you declare our courtrooms fail to meet that standard. What I wonder is, what percentage of cases tried in our current Yolo County Courthouse must be moved to other facilities because the current courtrooms are too small? If it is greater than 1 percent, I will buy Judge Rosenberg a second cup of coffee in downtown Woodland.

Our current courtrooms were built in prior generations — our historic courthouse was built to house two courtrooms and we currently have eight courtrooms shoehorned into the building. We have two courtrooms in trailers, and others in rented buildings and in converted holding areas.

That’s a fine argument that at some point we need a new courthouse facility. I have not challenged that. I have simply questioned why, when the state is more than $15 billion in the red, we can’t put off this $5 billion, 41 courthouse program for a few years?

When the new courthouse is built, Yolo County will finally have standard-size courtrooms like other counties in the state.

Is that really what is bothering you? That other counties have bigger and better courtrooms than you have? Shouldn’t you be explaining how many trials had to be moved out of our county because our courtrooms are too small?

The need for a new Yolo County Courthouse is manifest. Our current facilities are scattered throughout the city of Woodland. The historic courthouse is ancient, and seismically unsafe.

You say it is seismically unsafe? Really?

Maybe you meant to say that it does not meet current seismic safety standards in California. But that certainly does not mean it is not structurally sound enough to survive the tremors that hit Woodland.(Note: there are no worrisome fault lines in or around Woodland. The closest faults are in the Capay Valley)

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 7-0.

Every single one of the existing courtrooms is substandard.

Yet they do not seem to be obstructing justice in Yolo County at the moment. As such, waiting a few more years until our economy recovers and the state’s fiscal crisis is resolved would not hurt anyone (other than a few judges who want nicer digs right away).

We have inadequate space for jurors, who often have to sit on stairways. We have no space for children. The wiring, plumbing and electrical systems are ancient. Hallways are shared by in-custody defendants, witnesses, victims, jurors, members of the public, judges and staff. It is truly medieval.

Truly medieval? Medieval times ended in the mid-1400s, before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. You must have meant to say the historic courthouse is truly Wilsonian. It was erected in 1917.

Misconceptions: 3-0; Deceptions: 6-0. Misstatements: 8-0.

That’s why Yolo wound up at the very top of the food chain in terms of critical needs for a new state-of-the-art courthouse. The citizens of Yolo County deserve no less.

You don’t mean to say, the court employees and judges deserve no less?

At the beginning of his piece, Judge Rosenberg claimed my column was “full of misstatements and misconceptions.” He never once pointed out a single misstatement or misconception of mine. Yet his op-ed was riddled with errors, each of which I noted above. It is sad that a public servant like Judge Rosenberg feels compelled to attack my work with so little regard for honest argument. He restated many of his points, simply because he had so little of worth to state. He had no direct refutation of anything I wrote. I feel embarrassed for the judge for having submitted this piece of drivel. It makes him look small.

EDIT 1: David Greenwald of the Davis Vanguard explained to me that the fee is not waived when a person is sent to prison. Rather, he said, the criminal must work off his fee in that case.

However, some court fees may be waived by a judge due to financial hardship. See Court Rule 3.50 to 3.58:

The rules in this division govern applications in the trial court for an initial waiver of court fees and costs because of the applicant’s financial condition. As provided in Government Code sections 68631 and following, any waiver may later be ended, modified, or retroactively withdrawn if the court determines that the applicant is not eligible for the waiver.

EDIT 2: Here are the six new fees imposed by SB 1407:

1. Proof of correction fee, $25 -- This fee is now collected per citation. Effective January 1, 2009, the fee will be collected per correction. $15 on the first correction and $25 on any additional corrections on the citation are remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
2. Traffic violator school fee, $49 -- 51% of fee collected remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
3. Criminal conviction assessment, $35 -- $35 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
4. Criminal conviction assessment, $30 -- $30 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
5. State court construction penalty, $5 -- Increase remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.
6. State court construction parking penalty, $4.50 -- $3 remitted to SCFCF - ICNA.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One artsy gang banger ...

The people who say, "truth is stranger than fiction," just don't read much fiction. But once in a while, the truth is as hard to believe as fiction.

If I saw a crime drama on TV in which a murderer confessed to his crime by having his chest tattooed with all of the details of the murder, I would find that hard to believe.

If additionally the homicide investigator who discovered the tattooed man with all the details of his crime depicted on his chest only knew the details of that murder because before he was promoted to his new position he had been a beat cop in the exact neighborhood this strange killing took place, I would find that an incredible coincidence.

Yet apparently in the Pico Rivera section of Mexican L.A., there is just such a stupid killer and just such a lucky cop. This is from the L.A. Times story:

The process was routine. L.A. County Sheriff's homicide investigator Kevin Lloyd was flipping through snapshots of tattooed gang members.

Then one caught his attention.

Inked on the pudgy chest of a young Pico Rivera gangster who had been picked up and released on a minor offense was the scene of a 2004 liquor store slaying that had stumped Lloyd for more than four years.

Each key detail was right there: the Christmas lights that lined the roof of the liquor store where 23-year-old John Juarez was gunned down, the direction his body fell, the bowed street lamp across the way and the street sign — all under the chilling banner of RIVERA KILLS, a reference to the gang Rivera-13.

As if to seal the deal, below the collarbone of the gang member known by the alias "Chopper" was a miniature helicopter raining down bullets on the scene.

Lloyd's discovery of the tattoo in 2008 launched a bizarre investigation that soon led to Anthony Garcia's arrest for the shooting.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Teachers need to be paid based on their performance, not on seniority

The L.A. Times reports today that the L.A. Unified School District is moving in the right direction, but in my view that district still has not yet gone far enough:

In a dramatic turn for the country's second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified released school ratings based on a new approach that measures a school's success at raising student performance — the first in a series of high-stakes moves that will thrust the district into the center of the national debate over education reform.

Next month, the district will take the more controversial step of providing thousands of teachers with confidential ratings of their performance using the same approach, known as value-added. The district is also negotiating with the teachers union to include such measures in teachers' formal performance reviews, an effort the union bitterly opposes.

Along with some peer-review and the judgment of a school principal, how much progress a teacher's students make should determine how much the teacher is paid.

The new measure of academic success has been a top priority for incoming Supt. John Deasy, who formally takes over Friday. It comes as districts throughout the country are wrestling with the reliability and the proper use of the value-added approach, which estimates school and teacher performance by analyzing students' improvement on standardized tests in math and English.

There are, of course, some subjects, like art or music, where measuring student progress objectively is difficult. In those cases, peer-review and the judgment of the principal should decide how good the teacher is.

The district has had the data to conduct its own analysis for years but had never done so. Officials have said their adoption of the approach was hastened by a Times series and database released in August that rated elementary schools and about 6,000 elementary school teachers according to their value-added scores. The paper will release an updated database with the scores of 11,500 elementary teachers in the coming weeks, and later this year plans to expand it to include middle schools.

The L.A. Times has done a great public service with its project to promote value-added measurements of teacher performance.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's new school performance measure is likely to surprise many parents, who have traditionally compared schools — and at times purchased homes — based on the state's Academic Performance Index, which rates schools on a 1,000-point index based mainly on their students' abilities on standardized tests.

One thing I have never believed is that school A is better than school B if A has better test scores. The higher test scores are mostly a function of the home environments the students come from. However, if students at school C are making significantly better progress than students at school D are, then C is a better school.

Likewise, a teacher whose students come in with scores in the 50th percentile and leave with scores in the 60th percentile deserves more credit (and money) than her counterpart whose children scored in the 60th percentile coming in and stayed in the 60th going out.

The value-added approach focuses on how much progress students make year to year rather than measuring solely their achievement level, like the API, which is heavily influenced by factors outside a school's control, including poverty and parental involvement. Value-added analysis compares a student with his or her own prior performance, largely controlling for outside-of-school influences.

Because value-added is based on standardized test scores, most experts agree it should be one of several measures to determine school or teacher performance.

One argument against using standardized test scores is they force teachers to teach to the test. I don't see a problem with that, as long as the standardized tests are asking the right question. The reform is not to get rid of the tests; it's to make the tests as good as they can be.

Some critics say the value-added approach is too volatile to be used for teacher evaluations, but most experts say it is more accurate for campuses because it is based on the performance of hundreds, if not thousands, of pupils.

If volatility is a problem, then grade teacher performance over a few years, not just one.

The district's ratings, dubbed "Academic Growth Over Time," can send parents a very different signal about a school's performance. Take, for example, 3rd Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, which has an API score of 938, putting it among the highest-scoring schools in the district. Under the new growth measure, 3rd Street is one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district.

"We've got to do a better job and reexamine," said 3rd Street Principal Suzie Oh, adding that she was shocked by the results.

It would not surprise me to know that some schools in Davis which are deemed very good are in fact not helping students make much progress.

Board member Richard Vladovic later said, "I think this is going to be a great tool to help parents."

But A.J. Duffy, outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in an interview that he suspects that administrators will use the new information punitively.

Punitively? Well, yes, if a teacher sucks.

Duffy and other union leaders have said they will not agree to a new teacher evaluation system that includes student test score data because they believe it is unreliable and will narrow the curriculum.

The teachers unions, predictably, want more money and no accountability for performance.

I agree that there are many great teachers, and all great teachers are underpaid. However, unless we insist on accountability, we won't get the best efforts out of our teachers and we won't get rid of those teachers who need to be fired.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How to amend the Constitution without amending the Constitution

The San Francisco Chronicle has an interesting story today about a multi-state effort to change the way we elect the president.

Constitutionally, the electoral college chooses the president. This reform would not change that. It would alter the way most states choose their electors to the electoral college, and by doing so ensure that the winner of the popular vote would always be the winner of the electoral college vote. In effect, it would render the electoral college meaningless.

If AB459 is adopted, the 55 electors in California would no longer be determined by the popular vote in California. They would not be determined by the vote in Congressional districts or other districts. Rather, they would be given to the party whose presidential candidate won the most popular votes in the 50 states plus D.C.

This action would not be done in California alone. AB459 will only take effect if a collection of states with 270 or more electoral votes combined goes along with it. Once that happens, every state in this coalition would hand all of their electoral college votes to the plurality or majority winner of the popular presidential vote.

In effect, this is an effort to take power away from the handful of states whose popular vote for president tends to be close. New Mexico and Iowa, for example, get a lot of attention from the Democratic and Republican nominees, because the popular presidential vote in those states tends to be close. They are the swing states. A state like Texas gets no attention, because it will surely go to the Republican. Likewise, no one campaigns in California, because the Democrat will win no matter what.

But if California and Texas promise (by law) to award all of their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote (instead of each state's popular vote), then every marginal vote in California and Texas will count.

In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote. Had the AB459 system been in place in states which compose a majority of the electoral college, all of the Texas electors would have been Democrats and Gore would have been elected president.

AB459, the legislation that (Assemblyman Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat) supports, would change California's system. He said states that pass similar legislation would agree through a compact to award all their votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. The laws wouldn't go into effect until states representing 270 electoral votes, a majority and the number needed to elect a president, agree to the compact.

Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maryland - with a total of 73 electoral votes - have passed the legislation proposed by National Popular Vote, a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley and founded by Stanford Professor John Koza, who came up with the idea.

I suspect if this system takes effect in enough states, the attorneys general in the so-called swing states will challenge its constitutionality. This compact won't explicitly get rid of the electoral college. But it will implicitly make it irrelevant.

Two-thirds of the time and funding invested by presidential candidates' campaigns in 2008 was spent in a handful of swing states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, said Hill, while strongly Democratic California and other states where the outcome was considered predictable were left out of the mix.

Republican presidential candidate "John McCain and (Democrat) Barack Obama in 2008 both raised $150 million from California - and they spent together less than $30,000 here in the general election," Hill said, a fraction of 1 percent of their total advertising budget.

That $30,000 figure is telling. That is less money than Don Saylor and his buddies in the firefighters' union spent winning Saylor's seat on the Davis City Council.

Popular-vote supporters intend to change that in time for the 2012 presidential elections, guaranteeing that candidates would spend more time, resources and effort wooing states around the country rather than concentrating on swing states.

One thing to note is that the effort in California is bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans, here, understand that the electoral college math forces national candidates to ignore us, because we are now such an overwhelmingly blue state. In fact, marginal voters, Democratic-leaning or Republican-leaning, really have no reason to vote for president under the current system.

In California, former state Senate GOP Leader Jim Brulte and former Republican Rep. Tom Campbell already have joined the popular-vote effort. A 2008 Public Policy Institute of California poll showed 70 percent of likely voters support the idea.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro: Upon her death I ask, was she the least qualified VP nominee?

Reuters and all other news services are reporting the death, today, of former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro.

Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic congresswoman who became the first woman on a major party presidential ticket as Walter Mondale's running mate in 1984, died on Saturday at the age of 75, her family said.

Ferraro died at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston of a blood cancer after a 12-year illness, according to a statement from her family.

Her passing reminds me that Ferraro was a nobody when Mondale chose her to be his running mate. She was a back-bencher in the House who no one had ever heard of. Her sole qualification seemed to be her gender. She was not especially bright. She was not especially accomplished. She was not a leader of a faction of her party. She was not an expert on any important topics facing the nation in 1984. She was not worthy of being one-heartbeat away from the presidency.

Walter Mondale chose Ferraro because he was desperate. He was getting wiped out in the polls to President Reagan and hoped that his choice of Ferraro would inspire independent women and moderate-Republican women to vote for him. It was a bad play and it failed. Mondale lost every single state but Minnesota in the electoral college. (He also snagged D.C.)

To know if Ferraro was the worst choice as a VP nominee since I have been following politics, I will apply four equally weighted criteria to all the nominees, judging them at the point they were selected. I will exclude all sitting vice presidents from consideration. The categories of judgment are:

1. Experience in high office;
2. Leadership of a party faction or regional leader;
3. Expertise in an important policy area;
4. Intelligence/articulateness.

Each criterion is worth up to 100 points. Going back to 1972, here are all of the Democratic and Republican vice presidential nominees with their scores:

1972 (D) Sargent Shriver 65 + 15 + 60 + 85 = 225
1976 (D) Walter Mondale 90 + 90 + 62 + 70 = 317
1976 (R) Bob Dole 60 + 70 + 50 + 60 = 240
1980 (R) George HW Bush 95 + 80 + 95 + 50 = 320
1984 (D) Geraldine Ferraro 10 + 5 + 20 + 50 = 85
1988 (D) Lloyd Bentsen 80 + 75 + 90 + 65 = 310
1988 (R) Dan Quayle 20 + 5 + 5 + 10 = 40
1992 (D) Al Gore 80 + 75 + 90 + 80 = 325
1996 (R) Jack Kemp 90 + 75 + 85 + 65 = 315
2000 (D) Joe Lieberman 80 + 65 + 85 + 83 = 313
2000 (R) Dick Cheney 95 + 70 + 85 + 78 = 328
2004 (D) John Edwards 20 + 40 + 20 + 90 = 170
2008 (D) Joe Biden 90 + 65 + 75 + 50 = 280
2008 (R) Sarah Palin 5 + 5 + 0 + 10 = 20

Of the 14 nominees, there are four categories: the highly qualified; the qualified; the unworthy; and the unqualified.

The good news is that 7 of the 14 rank as highly qualified. In order they are: Dick Cheney (328); Al Gore (325); George HW Bush (320); Walter Mondale (317); Jack Kemp (315); Joe Lieberman (313); and Lloyd Bentsen (310).

These three were qualified, but not necessarily the best picks: Joe Biden (280); Bob Dole (240); and Sargent Shriver (225).

With just his one 6-year stint in the US Senate and nothing else John Edwards (170) fits the unworthy category.

Finally, three nominees were clearly unqualified: Geraldine Ferraro (80); Dan Quayle (40); and Sarah Palin (20).

Thanks to Quayle and Palin, Ferraro no longer goes down as the worst VP nominee. R.I.P.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The day innocents won't be killed by maniacs in high speed police pursuits is not far off ...

The answer was not Toyota's electronics systems.

The mystery that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was investigating was "unintended acceleration" in the Toyota Prius and some other Toyota models. The NHTSA's conclusion is that the problem was "improperly installed floor mats, sticky pedals, and driver error."

Yet the unintended consequence of this inquiry will be the solution to a serious danger in all urban areas: high speed police chases.

I'll get to that in a moment. Here is what Discover magazine reports about a finding of the NHTSA:

It wasn’t too surprising when scientists first hacked into a car using its own onboard diagnostic port—sure, it’s easy to get into a car’s electronic brain if you’re already inside the car. Now the science of car-hacking has received a digital upgrade: Researchers have have gained access to modern, electronics-riddled cars from the outside. And in so doing, they’ve managed to take control of a car’s door locks, dashboard displays, and even its brakes.

Imagine for a moment the California Highway Patrol is chasing a car driven by a murder suspect. Instead of racing at over 100 miles per hour through heavy traffic, the CHP can simply take control of the suspect's car and shut down its electronics, stopping the car and locking the driver inside.

The oddest part of these findings, which were presented this week to the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration, is that they weren’t entirely intentional: It was all part of an investigation prompted by the Toyota acceleration problems, and was meant to probe the safety of electronic automotive systems. But testing those system’s safety also uncovered some flaws.

Insofar as this gives police agencies the power to stop a vehicle without a high speed chase, I don't see this as being a flaw at all. It should be designed into every car.

Here is how they did it:

The researchers took a 2009 sedan (they declined to identify the make and embarrass the manufacturer) and methodically tried to hack into it using every trick they could think of. They discovered a couple good ones.

PC World reported this trick:

By adding extra code to a digital music file, they were able to turn a song burned to CD into a Trojan horse. When played on the car’s stereo, this song could alter the firmware of the car’s stereo system, giving attackers an entry point to change other components on the car. This type of attack could be spread on file-sharing networks without arousing suspicion, they believe. “It’s hard to think of something more innocuous than a song,” said Stefan Savage, a professor at the University of California.

Discover notes that "built-in cellular services that provide safety and navigational assistance, like GM’s OnStar, can also be used to upload malicious code."

Technology review reports:

The researchers found that they could take control of this system by breaking through its authentication system. First, they made about 130 calls to the car to gain access, and then they uploaded code using 14 seconds of audio.

The obvious fear is that some malicious outsiders could get ahold of this sort of remote control and mess with an innocent person's vehicle. However, Discover notes that is not likely:

In the wrong hands, the technology could certainly be harmful; once a hacker gains access, they can do anything from sabotage brakes to monitor car movements (by forcing the car to send GPS signals). But the engineers say the “wrong” hands wouldn’t have the know-how to undertake these complicated procedures—at least for now. As Stefan Savage, a computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told Technology Review: “This took 10 researchers two years to accomplish,” Savage adds. “It’s not something that one guy is going to do in his garage.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What should we do with a perjurer whose recantation frees an innocent man?

From the L.A. Times, a story about bad evidence leading to a conviction:

A man who has spent 20 years behind bars for a murder he insists he did not commit is expected to be released from Los Angeles County Jail on Tuesday after several witnesses recanted their identification of him as the killer in a drive-by shooting.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge overturned the conviction of Francisco “Franky” Carrillo, 37, on Monday afternoon, finding that the recantations and other evidence undermined his conviction for the 1991 killing.

Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo made the decision after listening to more than a week of testimony from the witnesses and watching a dramatic reconstruction of the crime scene that raised questions about what the witnesses could have seen on the evening of the shooting.

My question in this case is whether the witnesses should be prosecuted for perjury. It seems like they belong in prison, and that they owe civil damages to Franky Carrillo.

The only reason I can think of for not prosecuting those witnesses at this point is that doing so would discourage witnesses who perjured themselves in the past from coming forward and admitting they were liars.

The case underscores what legal experts say is the danger of relying heavily on eyewitness testimony. Studies have shown that faulty identifications are the biggest factor in wrongful convictions and that witnesses are particularly unreliable when identifying someone of a different race. The witnesses who identified Carrillo are black, while he is Latino.

This is really beside the point. The problem in this case was not mostly that the prosecutors relied on eyewitnesses or that the witnesses were the wrong color. The problem was that these eyewitnesses were liars.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Things are looking worse every day in Japan

On a Fox News show this evening, I heard a supposed nuclear energy expert, Jay Lehr*, pronounce with conviction that there would be no health consequences in Japan from the meltdowns taking place at various reactors in that country.

Then, at the next commercial break, I turned to CNN where the scroll at the bottom of its screen read: "Japanese government expects serious health consequences from nuclear meltdowns."

I wanted to believe the guy on Fox. But it struck me that the Japanese government would not say there will be health consequences to its people if there was even a small chance the guy on Fox was correct.

Here is the latest report from the Washington Post:

Japan’s nuclear emergency turned more dire on Tuesday after the third explosion in four days rocked the seaside Fukushima Daiichi complex and fire briefly raged in a storage facility for spent fuel rods at a fourth, previously unaffected reactor.

Officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the nuclear complex, said radioactive substances were emitted after a 6:14 a.m. explosion, which took place in the unit 2 reactor. The blast took place near or in the suppression pool, which traps and cools radioactive elements from the containment vessel, officials said. The explosion appeared to have damaged valves and pipes, possibly creating a path for radioactive materials to escape.

That sounds bad.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan told the nation Tuesday morning that radiation had already spread from the reactors and there was “still a very high risk of further radioactive material escaping.” He advised people within 19 miles of the plant to remain indoors. He urged calm.

If there were no health risks, I don't think the prime minister of Japan would be urging people who live 19 miles away to remain indoors.

Tokyo Electric, which over the weekend said it had 1,400 people working at the complex, said it was evacuating all but 50 workers. Kan hailed those workers, who he said “are putting themselves in a very dangerous situation.”

Tokyo Electric would not say this was a very dangerous situation if it were as safe as Fox News's Jay Lehr thinks it is.

Tuesday began with a fire that broke out in a pool storing spent fuel rods at the base of unit 4, which had been shut down for inspection before last Friday’s earthquake. Radioactive substances might have spewed outside from the fire, officials said, because the structure housing the pool was damaged by Monday’s explosion at unit 3.

Half an hour later, the explosion at unit 2 took place. Experts said that, unlike the two previous explosions that destroyed outer buildings, this explosion might have damaged portions of the containment vessel designed to bottle up radioactive materials in the event of an emergency.

I claim no expertise, but that sounds very bad.

The explosion — more serious than the earlier ones — was followed by a brief drop in pressure in the vessel and a spike in radioactivity outside the reactor to levels more than eight times what people ordinarily receive in a year, the company said.

I can't spend an hour in the sun without getting too much solar radiation. I cannot imagine how bad it is to get 8 years of radiation in one day.

The new setbacks came on the heels of a difficult Monday at Fukushima Daiichi unit 2, one of six reactors at the site. Utility officials there reported that four out of five water pumps being used to flood the reactor had failed and that the other pump had briefly stopped working. As a result, the company said, the fuel rods, normally covered by water, were completely exposed for 140 minutes.

Given that the Japanese are about the most competent people on earth and they cannot handle this, I wonder how much worse this disaster would be in another, less advanced country.

The string of earthquake- and tsunami-triggered troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi plant began Friday, when a loss of grid power (caused by the earthquake) followed by a loss of backup diesel generators (caused by the tsunami) led to the failure of cooling systems needed to keep reactor cores from overheating.

In hindsight, it seems like it was a terrible idea to put nuclear power plants in a zone with both earthquake and tsunami risks. In California, we have two nuclear power stations, San Onofre in north San Diego County and Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, on the coast.

I don't think either one is at risk of being flooded by a tsunami, though there is a serious earthquake risk at Diablo Canyon. When I was in college, I protested PG&E building a nuclear generating station right on an earthquake fault. It still seems like a bad idea to me, though it has operated safely for more than 20 years.

The U.S. 7th Fleet said Monday that some of its personnel, who are stationed 100 miles offshore from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, had come into contact with radioactive contamination. The airborne radioactivity prompted the fleet to reposition its ships and aircraft.

Using sensitive instruments, precautionary measurements were conducted on three helicopter aircrews returning to the USS Ronald Reagan after conducting disaster relief missions near Sendai. Those measurements identified low levels of radioactivity on 17 crew members.

What is so sad about this heightened radiation leaking into the air is that the victims of the tsunami and earthquake need hordes of relief workers to come in and help them with food, water, shelter and medical care, but it is now dangerous for anyone to expose themselves anywhere near the nuclear plants.

“Let’s hope they can get these reactors under control,” said Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They’re not there yet.”

My hope is that in the next decade we build dozens of new nuclear power plants in the United States. But we should try to learn every lesson possible from what has gone wrong in Japan, so that we don't have any such meltdowns and are as prepared as necessary for them to survive natural disasters.


*I just looked up some facts on Jay Lehr. He is not a scientist of any sort. He has a PhD in economics. He works for a conservative think tank called The Heartland Institute. He makes his living as a motivational speaker. I discovered, among other things, he is a global warming skeptic (though, of course, he has never studied climate science or any hard science). Yet he goes around preaching some crazy theory that carbon dioxide plays no role in global warming.

Mr. Lehr rejects the global consensus of the IPCC scientists which say this about carbon dioxide's role in warming our planet:

The reason the Earth’s surface is this warm is the presence of greenhouse gases, which act as a partial blanket for the longwave radiation coming from the surface. This blanketing is known as the natural greenhouse effect. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapour and carbon dioxide. The two most abundant constituents of the atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – have no such effect. Clouds, on the other hand, do exert a blanketing effect similar to that of the greenhouse gases; however, this effect is offset by their reflectivity, such that on average, clouds tend to have a cooling effect on climate (although locally one can feel the warming effect: cloudy nights tend to remain warmer than clear nights because the clouds radiate longwave energy back down to the surface). Human activities intensify the blanketing effect through the release of greenhouse gases. For instance, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 35% in the industrial era, and this increase is known to be due to human activities, primarily the combustion of fossil fuels and removal of forests. Thus, humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere with substantial implications for climate.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to take Mr. Lehr seriously, even if he calls himself an expert on nuclear energy. The government of Japan knows much more about what is happening with its reactors than this Fox News ideologue, Jay Lehr.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pictures from Japan

There are a great number of photographs on news websites of the devastation in Japan from the tsunami and the earthquake. Here are five images I thought were especially impressive:

This could be Japan's version of the China Syndrome

After I published a short blog entry yesterday regarding the troubles with 5 of Japan's nuclear power plants and Hillary Clinton's very bizarre account of the USAF delivery mystery coolant to one of them, a much scarier event took place--there was a massive hydrogen explosion (see photo above) outside of one of the damaged reactors.

Here is the L.A. Times account:

A day after responding to one of the worst earthquakes on record and a massive tsunami, the Japanese government sought to allay fears of a radioactive disaster at a nuclear power plant on the country's battered northeastern coast.

The outer walls of the Fukushima power plant's No. 1 reactor were blown off by a hydrogen explosion Saturday, leaving only a skeletal frame. Officials said four workers at the site received non-life-threatening injuries.

The inner container holding the reactor's fuel rods is not believed to be damaged, said Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and workers were cooling the facilities with seawater.

If this kind of explosion happened in most countries other than Japan, I would be highly skeptical that such a blast would not pose a great threat to public safety. However, I have faith in the Japanese. I hope what they are now saying is true. If any country could design their facilities to weather such a horrific natural disaster, it would be the highly competent Japanese.

In a press conference shortly after the explosion, which left the facility shrouded in plumes of gray smoke, Edano explained that the reactor is contained within a steel chamber, which in turn is surrounded by a concrete and steel building. Although the explosion destroyed the building, it did not occur in the chamber.

"The escape of hydrogen mixed with the air between the chamber and the concrete-and-steel building and led to the explosion," Edano said.

Hydrogen explosions tend to be awesome. Their ferocity makes me wonder if we really want to move from gasoline powered cars to hydrogen fuel cells.

"Tokyo Electric Power Co. has confirmed that the inner reactor is undamaged," he added. "There was no massive release of radiation."

Still, the reactor was already showing signs of a partial meltdown after Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake had prevented the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo from fully powering its water cooling system. Without it, the facility could overheat and explode, spewing radiation into the air.

If that reactor explodes, I would guess that will set back the expansion of new nuclear power plants in the United States by at least 20 years. That would be a shame, given that nuclear power is one of the only technologies which can produce electricity at a reasonable price and emits no carbon dioxide. Given the realities of global warming, we must start producing more of our power from clean sources of energy, and nuclear power should be in that mix.

People were reportedly fleeing the surrounding area and Japanese television was urging people to cover their faces with wet towels and not to expose any skin to the potentially contaminated air. An evacuation zone was doubled to a 12-mile radius around the plant by Saturday evening.

It seems like I have seen this movie before: Japanese people wearing face masks running away (from Godzilla) in a mass panic.

Japan relies on nuclear power for a third of its electricity and is said to require exacting safety standards for its plants.

I don't think Japan has ever had a better choice than nuclear power for its electricity production. The problem, though, is when you get a crisis like this and 11 power plants are shut down, you are in a serious bind. You cannot produce enough electricity to provide power for your people and industry.

That said, there are many other countries, mostly in Europe, which are even more reliant on nuclear power than Japan is.

Here are the top 10 most reliant on nuclear energy:

Lithuania 78%
France 77%
Belgium 58%
Slovakia 53%
Ukraine 46%
Sweden 44%
Bulgaria 42%
Hungary 39%
Slovenia 39%
South Korea 39%