Thursday, July 20, 2006

Curmudgeon Break

The Curmudgeon is off with the family for a traditional summer vacation. If we're truly inspired, we'll do a post or two from the road. But don't count on it!

We leave you with this: Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican, just got back from a personal trip to Iraq. He declared that conditions in Baghdad are far worse "than we'd been led to believe" and urged the beginning of immediate troop withdrawals.

The truth will come out.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

George Allen: Against Stem Cell Research; For Disease

Virginia Senator George Allen, continuing his career as a cipher for George W. Bush, yesterday voted against a bill to permit federal funding of stem cell research.

Allen's Virginia Republican colleague, John Warner, voted for the bill, reflecting the will of the vast majority of Virginians.

Let's face it, stem cell research is gonna happen. It will be funded outside the U.S., particularly in Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia as we lose our edge in yet another scientific field. Fortunately, it will also be funded in at least some U.S. states whose politics are not dominated by religious ideologues.

Stem cell research holds the promise of improving treatments and even providing cures for dozens of serious diseases. So, if you, a family member, a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor are suffering from one of those diseases, remember it when it comes time to vote in November. Remember that Allen voted for disease over cure.

So just what is Allen up to? Running for President, of course. He hopes to appeal to the hard core Christian right in the GOP primaries while more "moderate" Republicans duke it out in the "center." (Moderate Republican increasingly being an oxymoron.)

Here's a way to give Allen the time he needs to campaign for President outside Virginia: boot him from the Senate in favor of Jim Webb, a truly moderate Democrat who, like John Warner, supports federal funding of stem cell research.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Loudon Gridlock--Greedy Developers

Developers are pushing Loudon County to open up a huge tract of land to construction of some 27,000 new homes.

Virginia's Dept. of Transportation has performed an initial study showing, not surprisingly, that such a massive development would add 300,000 car trips PER DAY to the already overburdened roads, exacerbating highway gridlock throughout Northern Virginia, particularly along I-66, Rt. 50, Rt. 28, Dulles Access Rd. and the Greenway.

The developers have reportedly offered to fund $200 million in highway improvements around the project, a figure that at least some Loudon supervisors seem to think is generous.

Let's look at the economics of the project and see.

This is a roughly $10 billion development, assuming an average home sales price of $350,000 and 27,000 homes ($9.45 billion to be precise). That's probably quite conservative.

Assuming the developers have a profit margin of 10 percent (also very conservative), they stand to make about $1 billion on the deal. Indeed, having purchased property zoned for about 5000 homes, they stand to make a killing if the property is rezoned for 27,000 homes. In other words, they want Loudon County to give them a huge gift.

Under the circumstances, $200 million--about 2% of the overall project--is a pretty paltry sum for road improvements (and it won't buy much, either).

Developers need to pay for the external costs of their projects, just as manufacturing companies need to pay for things like pollution control and other externalities of their enterprises.

If Loudon is to go forward with such a massive development (something all current Loudon residents, and many in Fairfax and Prince William Counties as well, will surely regret down the road), it needs to assess the developers with a realistic sum.

Our math suggests that something on the order of $1 billion--10 % of the project and equal to the profits the developers hope to earn--would be more reasonable, although it may still fall short of what's needed.

If the developers balk, so be it. (We predict they won't.)

[You can bet the developers will cut other corners as well. We're reminded of a story told us by a pastor at a church in the Cascades, a massive residential development between Rt. 7 and the Potomac River. The developers set aside all of four pieces of property for churches to serve more than 50,000 people. Heck, we've got more than four churches in my Arlington neighborhood of roughly 700 homes.]

Let's hope the Loudon Supervisors get real about where all this is headed.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Highway Curmudgeon

The Curmudgeon travelled to New York this weekend. Our travels always bring out a few curmudgeonly incidents.

To wit:

The Tank is Only Half Full

Thanks, New Jersey Turnpike administration, for giving us "full service" only gasoline at your rest stops. Full service means you wait in a long line while a couple of guys, evidently recruited from our "loser" commercials, take their time putting gas in cars whose owners could easily do a better job faster.

What I really liked was that after waiting 15 minutes, our full service guy somehow managed to fill our tank only half full. We didn't notice until a bit down the road. If the trip had been 70 miles longer, we would have had to fill up AGAIN.

Of course, gas prices are again through the roof, and headed further skyward. Thank goodness Congress, with its priorities straight, is debating a bill to protect homeowners from any interference in flying the flag. (Is this really a problem?)

Delaware's Burden on Commerce

Another favorite part of driving in the Northeast Corridor is Delaware. We only drive about 18 miles through Delaware, but we spend about the same amount of time there as in Maryland, thanks to the inane Delaware toll booth.

Delaware has the only two-way toll left on I-95. For years they liked to charge odd amounts, like $1.25, so that they could make everybody wait for change. Recently, they raised the toll without making any improvements to get rid of the perpetual gridlock. They have a couple of EZ Pass lanes, but everything is so backed up that you can't get to them.

The Delaware back-up has existed for years. We really don't think they care.

That's why the Curmudgeon won't be supporting Joe Biden in the coming presidential race.

Off My Tail

As usual, we enjoyed the testosterone cases who insist on driving 90 mph, tailgating and weaving in and out of traffic.

Fortunately, in 20 years computers will drive cars and we'll all get where we want faster and safer.

Signs of the Times

Our favorite signs along the highway (yes, we should have pictures, but we don't):

1. Information Police

(Did NSA open a branch office next to the Delaware Memorial Bridge?)

2. Slow Restaurant Food

(Quite accurate, especially if three busloads of campers arrive moments before you do.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

$$$ For Webb

Today we met with Jim Webb's northern Virginia finance committee. Good, enthusiastic group. Upbeat campaign staff. The man himself came by and was looking fit and trim as usual--in "born fighting" mode.

We've got our work cut out for us--lots of money to raise!!

So, all you friends, relatives and acquaintances--hide your wallets; you'll be hearing from me soon!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

W's Deficit Bullcrap

Today the Dissembler-in-Chief announced that the budget deficit for the current fiscal year will come in well below projections.

Instead of another whopping deficit of nearly $400 billion, we will have a deficit of "only" $300 billion this year.

Oh joy!! It's a sad state of affairs when this counts as "good news."

Of course, Bush and the GOP are trumpeting the revised figures as evidence that their tax cuts "worked", i.e., that they pumped the economy up so much as to increase tax collections.

Let's examine this flawed logic. In 1993, after years of Reagan/Bush I deficits, Congress passed a small tax increase proposed by then newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton. That was followed by an enormous economic expansion and a huge increase in tax revenues--mostly from the larger economy, rather than the tax increase itself--that wiped out the deficit and produced a decent surplus.

In the 2000 election, Al Gore proposed devoting part of the surplus to a modest, middle class tax cut; he would put the rest in a "lock-box" for use in future years as social security and Medicare obligations grow with an aging population.

Oh no, said Bush and his cronies. Let's pass a big tax cut aimed primarily at the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, and let's make it bigger than the surplus--guaranteeing we'll have another deficit. And sure enough, the surplus engineered by Clinton disappeared before the first year of W's mismanagement of our government.

So what we got after 2000 were enormous deficits--financed by everybody--while a precious few rich folk got large tax cuts. The economy responded sluggishly, taking probably longer to recover than from a typical recession.

Finally, after five years, the economy is growing at a good clip again (it would have done so regardless of the Bush tax cuts, which did little for most people). It is growing particularly well at the top--among those who were beneficiaries of those tax cuts. Corporate profits are up and so are capital gains on investments. So tax revenues are on the rise, as they were in the 1990's (after a tax increase).

The only problem is that this time we're STILL running a huge deficit--$300 billion folks--and the CUMULATIVE deficit under W is something like $1.5 TRILLION. And the only goal Bush has set before he leaves office is to "cut the deficit in half." (As if it he had inherited a huge deficit and whittled it down, rather than created it himself.)

Now, imagine if instead we were $1.5 trillion to the positive (or more), and had devoted the surplus to Medicare and social security. Then, our country would be in decent shape--we could even have adopted a good Medicare drug plan, instead of one designed by the drug companies to benefit themselves.

But that's not the case. In coming years we face some tough choices if Congress can ever come to grips with our real problems, instead of imagined issues like flag burning. Interest rates are rising, which means the debt service on the accumulated debt of the borrow and spend Republicans will grow exponentially in coming years.

Unfortunately, long after W is gone (and hopefully remembered in the same breath as Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding) the rest of us will still be paying for his reckless fiscal policies.

Monday, July 10, 2006

McSoccerfest: Simple Soccer for the Masses

Oops! The Curmudgeon got real busy the last few days, especially with taking the boys to the McDonald's Soccerfest in Columbia, Maryland this weekend, so we haven't posted since last Wednesday--sorry about that!

We'll get back to all the political stuff and consumer whining shortly, but for now a plug for McSoccerfest, as it is known.

I'm Lovin' It

The McSoccerfest has been around for a number of years and is one of the larger soccer tournaments on the East Coast. Despite some misgivings about McDonald's as the sponsor of a youth sporting tournament, we think it's a great event.

First off, it was really well-organized. The people running it were friendly, responsive, knowledgable and generally experienced.

The venue was also great: the tourney took place at a large soccerplex in Centennial Park near Columbia, Maryland. Some of the fields were artificial turf and some were grass; all of the ones we played were in fine condition. While there is not enough onsite parking for everyone, there was ample parking and regular shuttle bus service nearby. All my kids and parents made it without significant delays.

(An aside for our Virginia readers: Maryland has some wonderful roads, at least around Columbia. You won't find much that compares in Northern Virginia, because the GOP mavens who run things in Richmond think we're just a piggy bank for the rest of the state.)

Best of all, as far as we're concerned, is the tournament format and its informality. Most soccer tournaments are organized for and limited to so-called "club" or "travel" teams. They involve a lot of paperwork, are expensive and have lots of rules about everything. They're intentionally exclusive. We'll resist the temptation to say something snooty about them.

Big Tent Soccer

McSoccerfest is simple and inclusive. All games in the tournament are 4 v 4: that is, four players against four players on a small field with no goalies. They have brackets for recreational teams, travel teams and "elite" teams in just about every age bracket from 6 years old to over 35 years old. Rosters can have no more than six players, so everyone on a team gets plenty of playing time.

There is no requirement that players be from an existing team--you can form one up just for the tournament. (I had two teams; my older son's consisted of six players from his existing team; my younger son's was a true "pick-up" team, with players from four different regular teams.)

The registration process is fairly simple, and there are no elaborate rules for player "cards", uniforms, etc. (For our pick-up team, we made up a name--"Lightning Aces"--and had yellow T-shirts printed up the day before the tournament.)

Unlike most travel tournaments, where games are played over two days, all games in the McSoccerfest are played in one day--really a half day (they have a morning session and an afternoon session). Games are short--only 20 minutes--but quite intense. Each team is guaranteed at least 3 games, and many get four games.

The cost is relatively low--$115 per team (or $140 if you find out late, like we did), compared to $400-$500 for a travel tournament.

And while McDonald's is the title sponsor, there wasn't any McDonald's food (other than free coffee and some occasional free samples) on site. There were some food vendors, however--frankly, they made us wish for Mickie-D's.

All in all, the boys had a blast. We didn't win anything, but we were certainly competitive in our divisions. We even got home in time to watch the bad sportsmanship in the World Cup finale.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Verizon: Forget "TV Freedom"--Just Fix My Darn Phone!

As we've reported here earlier, Verizon and other Telco's have been spending bundles of money on misleading ads to promote legislation in Congress that would eliminate net neutrality. They are also promoting "TV Freedom"--legislation to let the telco's compete with the cable companies for television service.

We have no problem with so-called TV-freedom (is a duopoly free?)--after all, the cable companies, like Comcast in our area, are competing to provide local phone service.

Unfortunately, we just found out where all the money for those massive lobbying/media campaigns has come from: the telephone repair budget.

Yesterday we lost phone service after one of our typical nasty summer thunderstorms roared through. (We also lost our cable TV, minutes before the end of the Italy v. Germany World Cup game.) In the past, that hasn't been a big deal.

But yesterday I tried to reach Verizon for nearly an hour (on my cell phone) to let them know our landline was out. First, the "automated assistant"--you know, the lcomputer lady who never understands what you are saying and loves to ask you to repeat yourself--was "having problems." (Who does the automated assistant call when she needs repairs?)

Then we had to wait forever for a live person (do they really have any?), only to be cut off after 20 minutes. So, after saying some bad words, we tried again. After another 25 minutes, we gave up and decided to try the option offered us on the recording--go to (We could do this because Comcast had already restored our cable service.)

So we go on the net and make our repair report. And guess what? Verizon promised on the internet that they would have the problem fixed by . . . July 10.

Wait a second--July 10 is next Monday, for gosh sakes. Is that really the best they can do? We're hoping they do better, but as of now it's been 24 hours and no sign of telephone service. (But lots of their ads on our television.)

Meanwhile, callers to our house get a busy signal. That's nice: instead of a message saying our service is out, they get the impression we are simply hogging the phone; they keep trying and getting more and more pissed--not at Verizon, the true culprit here, but us. Thanks, Verizon.

It's no wonder folks are signing up for Comcast's telephone service (one of the main reasons we haven't--so far--was a perception that there would be more phone outages on an internet phone; maybe that's no longer true!)

(Today's Wall Street Journal had a nice piece on how consumers are using the web, including blogs, to expose companies for bad service. We here at XCurmudgeon are happy to do our part!)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Looser: Dairy Queen

The Curmudgeon and his lovely wife enjoyed a brisk, hot, humid 35 mile bike ride today, our idea of "fun" when the kids are off at day camp on an otherwise beautiful pre-4th of July holiday.

(In the small world file, while grabbing a quick lunch in Reston, we ran into an old law-school buddy we hadn't seen in at least five years! We talked up the wonders of early retirement.)

Hey Dude, That's My Caramel Chip Cheesecake Blizzard!

Now, while taking a respite in the air-conditioning, the Curmudgeon decided to make a quick post to award our periodic "looser" award to Dairy Queen. (Reminder: the "looser" award goes to an advertiser that has managed to portray boys/men as losers, misspelled as only a loser would.)

We're a little reluctant on this one just because we're not sure where we'd find a DQ around here if we suddenly got the itch for some of their food fare. Perhaps if we drove to West Virginia?

Anyway, here's the offending ad: a businessman gets on an airplane with his overnight bag and something in a cup. He finds his seat and places the cup--a Dairy Queen cup with something ice-creamy in it--on a seatback table while he starts to put his bag in the overhead bin. The guy in the next seat over--also dressed as a businessman, spies the treat-filled cup and begins helping himself to a few bites. This guy, in particular, comes across as a loser--bald and sneaky looking (not that there's anything wrong with bald).

This causes the first business guy to lose his grip on the overnight bag and drop it on the head of a nice black lady, while an elderly white lady in the next seat squeals. The man grabs his DQ cup, but then has to put it back down and the whole scene repeats itself--the other man eagerly sneaks a few more spoonfuls and the bag again falls on the nice lady. The guys begin to fight over what we eventually learn is DQ's Caramel Chip Cheesecake Blizzard. The guys come across as real losers, while the two ladies are victimized.

(You may ask why we don't also award DQ a gluttony as well; the answer is that the Curmudgeon is partial to ice cream, especially paired with caramel (not so keen on the cheesecake part); anyway, we didn't see anything to suggest it was an outrageous portion size.)

We guess it's supposed to be funny, but it's not--it's just another ad conveying to boys that even men in the business world are dead-enders.

Desperate Burger King

While on the topic of Loosers and Gluttonies, what is it with Burger King? Now they have ads for some kind of Super Stacker burgers with up to four patties. The burgers are portrayed as huge--indeed one is dropped on a midget and pins him to the ground. It seems to us that Burger King is just out-and-out desperate. No big surprise: a group of private equity firms bought BK a few years ago and then squeezed everything they could out of it; recently, it went public again, bringing vast riches to the investors, but there wasn't much meat left on the old bone of Burger King and we think they're struggling quite a bit.

Solar House Anyone?

We're thinking of going solar. We have a decent southern exposure with lots of roof area. With electricity prices about to skyrocket in our area, the time may be right. Anyone out there have experience with this--recommendations for a contractor, pros, cons, etc.? (Our likely plan would be to put in a photo-voltaic array, plugged into the power grid; we're not trying for heat and hot water, at least for now.)