Wednesday, February 28, 2007

NBC's "Lucky Case" Rip-off Scheme Spreads Like A Cancer Through Television

Suppose Howie Mandel, on NBC's popular "Deal or No Deal" game show, took time out from each broadcast to urge viewers to send in $1 apiece for the chance to "win" a $10,000 prize. And suppose far more than 10,000 viewers sent in their $1 in the hope of winning, leaving NBC with a tidy little profit?

That would be an illegal lottery, and pretty soon some folks--maybe even Howie--would be in jail.

About a year ago, we wrote about NBC's shameful "Lucky Case" promotion on "Deal", characterizing it as not much different than an illegal lottery because it requires entrants to pay a $.99 "premium text messaging charge" to enter.

Unfortunately, this scam is now spreading to other NBC shows, and even to mighty American Idol on Fox. NBC has a similar promotion on its "1 Vs. 100" game show and on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice". These "contests" are heavily promoted during the shows, during just about every commercial break.

The similar promotion on American Idol is not quite so pervasive--we've only seen one quick promo for it during each show, probably because Idol commercial time is just too valuable to squander.

So why are these rip-offs spreading? Easy: its all about the money. Just take a look at this June 2006 press release from the company that manages the Lucky Case game for NBC. According to the press release, there have been 57 million entries to the game, with just $1 million paid out! That means someone--presumably the cellular carriers and NBC--is pocketing nearly $56 million. No wonder this phenomenon is spreading like a cancer throughout television.

(To be sure, you can also enter these games on the internet, for free--if you can parse through the extremely small print on your television screen to figure that out. Presumably, only a very small fraction of entries are over the internet or NBC wouldn't devote so much time to the promotion.)

Furthermore, there is some small print in NBC's rules that suggests entrants may end up paying more than $1 per entry. The rules contain this little notation:

"In addition, a premium text message charge of $.99 will apply to all text messages sent and received in connection with the Promotion. You will receive a "thank you" text message the following day including a DEAL OR NO DEAL Insider message."

In other words, it appears that you will get charged another $.99 for the "thank you" message--isn't that sweet, paying for a thank you! (If you don't want to get the thank you's, you can pay another $.99 to text a message asking not to receive them.)

So it may be that NBC and its cell-phone carrier cronies have earned not $56 million, but over $100 million on this scam, and that's just from Deal or No Deal.

These slimy promotions should be OUTLAWED, plain and simple. They're actually more devious than a lottery. At least if you enter a straight lottery, each ticket you purchase has an even chance of winning the prize. In these TV contests, roughly 80 percent of the entries don't even have a shot at the drawing--but if you buy multiple tickets, i.e., pay a lot more, then you have shot!

Back when Eliott Spitzer was Attorney General of New York, we could've counted on him to do something about such an egregious scam. We hope a few legislators will get up the gumption to put a stop to this nonsense.

It Shouldn't Be So Difficult!

Yesterday we decided it would be nice to have a place on XCurmudgeon where a reader can sign up for alerts when we've added a new post.

We figured it wouldn't be too difficult. Sure enough, we quickly found a website called Blog Alert that let's you do this.

The sign up was a simple two-step process. The only complication was that it asked us to "type in your feed URL." A note added: "This should NOT be the URL of the blog, it should be the URL of the blog's RSS feed."

Okay, so how hard could it be to figure out the "feed URL," we thought?

Turns out it's not easy. Numerous searches of Blogger Help and broader searches on Google revealed a lot of technical jargon about RSS feeds, etc., but nothing on the seemingly simple task of figuring out the feed URL for your own blog. Eventually, we found a website where you could type in your blog URL and it would supposedly reveal the feed URL, but the program didn't work.

In the end, we took an educated guess. If you sign up for the alert and nothing happens, then our guess was wrong. We hope to get everything straightened out shortly.

But really, why can't Blogger have a simple solution to this?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Al Gore Should Wait

Following the long and boring Academy Awards, many folks are renewing their efforts to get Al Gore to run for President again.

We have no idea whether Al is inclined to do so--we'd think he's having a lot more fun, and arguably doing more good, with his current gig.

But, if Gore is motivated to give it another try, he should wait. As they say in the movies (now that he's a sort of movie star) "wait 'til you see the whites of their eyes."

Conventional wisdom is that the '08 presidential race will be so expensive that a candidate has to get in now to be able to raise enough money. Indeed, the money race has already claimed Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as a victim, and deterred others from entering.

That conventional wisdom doesn't apply to Al Gore (or to Newt Gingrich on the GOP side, either). If Gore decides to run, he'll be able to raise a boatload of money in short order.

Better off to wait as long as possible, which we think is probably until about September. During that period Hillary, Obama and Edwards will be clawing each other to death, to the point that none of them will be all that attractive come the end of summer. In fact, we're already getting pretty sick of them. Moreover, it looks like both the Democratic and Republican nominating races are going to devolve into three-way contests where no candidate has a decisive advantage.

Thus, the longer Gore can wait, the cleaner he'll look. In the meantime, he can take the high road, possibly even earning a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. He doesn't have to criticize any of the other Democratic candidates--indeed, he can praise them all. Then, when he does enter, it can be "for the good of the party."

In contrast, if Gore enters now, he'll soon get bogged down in sniping, especially with Hillary's crowd, about all kinds of issues besides global warming. His initial momentum will soon fade--just look what's happened to Obama. Come September, he'll be just another muddy Democrat in what could be a four-way race with no decisive leader (or, he could knock out Edwards--Gore is even cleaner than Edwards on Iraq, and we're not sure what else Edwards really has to offer besides a pretty face).

It's an interesting scenario historically. In 1960, Richard Nixon lost a squeaker to JFK--many Republicans claimed the race was stolen from Nixon in Chicago. Eight years later, he came back to win (during a very unpopular war) with a much more "checkered" past (couldn't resist) than Gore's is now. After LBJ bowed out in '68, the race was almost as wide open as this time around. Could history repeat itself 40 years later (without the subsequent downfall of Nixon, of course)?

Only time will tell. Gore can afford to wait.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Yes Virginia, You Can Recycle Plastic Bottles And Bags!

Salon reports that the rate of recycling plastic bottles in the U.S. has declined from 40% in 1995 to only 23% in 2005. (See Plastic Fantastic Bottle Recycling.)
The total amount of plastic bottles recycled has stayed the same--about 775 million pounds--but the number of plastic bottles has nearly doubled during the same period of time, so the percent recycled has gone down (and the amount ending up in landfills has increased massively).

One reason for the decline is that many Americans apparently don't realize plastic bottles are just as recyclable as glass. So, readers, you're now on notice: recycle those plastic bottles.

(Most plastic bottles are made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The bottles can be ground up and turned into pseudo-polyester and other materials. Demand for ground PET is particularly high in China, which, according to Salon, can't get enough of the stuff at present.)

Also, you can recycle plastic bags (and keep them from decorating trees as in the photo above)! That includes not only the plastic bags you get at most grocery stores and other retailers, but the bags that your newspapers come in. DON'T put plastic bags in your recycling container--instead, you need to return them to your local grocery store, most of which have a bin for such returns. (You don't need to remember to return them too often: just set aside one plastic bag to hold the rest of them--you can cram an amazing volume of plastic bags into that one holding container.)

As Salon points out, we could easily boost the return rate for plastic bottles by imposing a five cents return deposit on them, something California has done with great success.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mark Sanford: SC's Faux Green Governor

Perusing today's Washington Post, the Curmudgeon was surprised to see an op-ed piece on global climate change from none other than South Carolina's very red Republican governor Mark Sanford.

The headline, "Why the Right Needs to Get Invested in the Search for Climate Change Solutions" was certainly provocative. Could it be, we wondered, that even someone as far right as Mark Sanford was finally seeing the light on global warming?

Nope, not really. Sanford makes the logical point that conservatives need to join the debate on global climate change or simply be left out. He describes himself as a "conservationist," which means that, like many Republicans, he supports state tax subsidies to wealthy landowners to create "conservation easements" that restrict future development.

(We're not against conservation easements so long as the tax subsidies are not unreasonably generous and the restrictions on future development are real, which they often aren't. We are against conservatives like Sanford who "oppose" regulation and "raising" taxes, but don't think that subsidies in the form of tax breaks are also a form of regulation and state expenditure. If Sanford really meant what he says, he'd simply "encourage" wealthy landowners to set aside their land from development out of the goodness of their conservative Christian hearts.)

Apart, however, from saying that if conservatives don't act, they'll cede ground to "far-left interest groups", Sanford offers no prescription for action.

(When Sanford speaks of "far-left interest groups," he means anyone to the left of his far right agenda. And when he speaks of people "losing their rights and freedoms" he excludes Taliban-like Christian activists in his party who would love to tell the rest of us how to live our lives, especially in the bedroom.)

The plain fact is that South Carolina is far behind the curve when it comes to policies that will combat global warming. For example, South Carolina has no net metering law, which would require local utilities to allow businesses and homeowners to tie distributed renewable electricity sources, such as wind and solar, into the local power grid. SC is one of less than 10 states that don't have a net metering provision; its neighbors in Georgia and NC both have such laws.

The absence of a net metering law is a real hindrance to those who want to fight global warming. We recently suggested to a very good friend, who tries to lead a green lifestyle in South Carolina, that he put up a wind microturbine and a few solar panels on his Sullivans Island home. (Sanford also has a home on Sullivans Island, a thin barrier island, rising just a few feet above rising sea levels, to the north of Charleston harbor. The wealthy enclave is pictured above.) Our friend said it was not practical since SC has no interconnection option.

Nor can our friend opt, as he could in many other states (including NC, but alas, not Virginia), to purchase "green power" from his local utility, at a premium charge, to encourage the utility to finance development of alternative sources of energy.

South Carolina is blessed with abundant sunshine, and along it's coast and some parts of the state's mountains it also has ample wind resources. SC also has the finest coastline on the Eastern Seaboard, with beautiful wide beaches and the most tidal marshlands of any state. All of which is greatly imperilled by rising sea levels and the threat of more frequent and more intense hurricanes.

If Sanford was serious, he'd try to put together a package of "incentives" (not regulations) and "tax breaks" (not state spending) that would enhance the "rights and freedoms" of South Carolinians by encouraging them to develop the state's largely untapped renewable energy resources. He'd try to make the state a leader--not a laggard--in that arena, which, by the way, holds the promise of new jobs and technologies.

He'd also promote conservation--not land conservation, but energy conservation. To do so, however, he'll need to embrace at least some moderate levels of "regulation," such as requiring that new homes be built to certain green standards. Is that such a big deal? Not really--the state already has numerous regulations and building code provisions applying to construction. Adjusting them to promote conservation is not really "new" regulation unless Sanford simply wants to do away with all the existing requirements.

Sanford is probably correct that if conservatives don't act, the rest of the country and the world will. And he might not like what comes of that.

So, Mark Sanford, if you're serious, try leading by example and action, instead of empty words. You can start by putting a wind turbine and some solar panels on your beachfront farm, and making sure that other South Carolinians can do likewise without interference from the local utility.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

D.C. Ski: Wisp Versus Wintergreen

For Washington, D.C. area families that ski, or want to give it a try, we here review two nearby ski resorts that you should consider.

This ski season (and last year, too) we took our family skiing at both Wintergreen and Wisp, two comparable ski resorts both about a three hour drive from the Washington area.

We give the clear edge to Wisp for families interested in beginning/intermediate skiing. Since we're not expert skiers, we can't say which of the two resorts would be better if that's your gig.

Wintergreen is located southwest of Charlottesville. To get there, you drive to Charlottesville on Route 29, which is a four lane divided highway most of the way, but has many traffic lights. You then drive west on I-64 for a few miles, before taking a couple of very scenic two-lane country roads the remaining 20 miles to Wintergreen.

Wintergreen has 25 trails in three distinct ski areas: the Highlands, which is for expert skiers only; Dobie/Diamond hill, which is for beginners; and Eagles' Swoop, which is mostly for intermediates.


Wisp is located adjacent to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County Maryland, which borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania and is as far west as you can get in Maryland. It is easy to reach. Take I-270 west to Frederick and pick up I-70 west. I-70 turns into I-68 west near Cumberland. Continue on I-68 to Route 219, a well-maintained road that takes you right up to Wisp. The distance from Arlington is 180 miles.

Wisp has 32 trails, roughly evenly divided between expert, intermediate and beginner.

Why We Like Wisp Better

Both resorts are fine for families trying to get away locally for a weekend of skiing. They are much more comprehensive than some closer ski areas, such as Massanutten, Bryce, Liberty and Whitetail. Some resorts in Pennsylvania, such as Seven Springs, are also about the same distance and comparable in quality, but we haven't been there in some time.

One big advantage of Wisp is that it is more reasonably priced than Wintergreen. We were surprised to find that lift tickets and rentals at Wisp were about 20% less than Wintergreen. For a family of four and a weekend of skiing, that's about $100 (or more) difference, so it does matter. (Frankly, we think Wintergreen's rates are out of line.)

We also like the training/teaching facilities at Wisp much better than those at Wintergreen. Wisp has a large section at the base of its mountain set aside for learning to ski. There is an area for little tykes, with its own "magic carpet" lift; there is a larger area for true beginners, which is right next to the ski shop; and then there is an even larger area, just up the hill, for beginning skiers to practice a few runs before they hit the lifts (this area is slso serviced by a magic carpet).

At Wintergreen, there is a virtually flat area, removed from the ski shop, that has a magic carpet lift, for beginners. It is too flat, and it's difficult to get to. For the littlest tykes, there is a separate area on the other side of the ski shop, also hard to get to. And beginners who are just getting started are consigned to the "Potato Patch" lift, which frankly is not very easy and intersects with a large crowd of other skiers. (There is a small tubing hill in the middle of all this--we wonder whether Wintergreen didn't cannibalize it's teaching area a few years ago to create the tubing hill.)

Both Wisp and Wintergreen have tube sliding parks. We've been on "The Plunge" at Wintergreen and it certainly was fun. We haven't tried the "Bear Claw" at Wisp, but looking at it, we'd guess it is comparable to the tube run at Wintergreen. Wintergreen also has a smaller tubing hill, called "The Slide," for little kids. Wisp does not have a comparable smaller tubing run, so Wintergreen wins if you need to take small kids tubing.

We give the nod to Wisp for snow, however. Wisp gets over 100 inches of natural snow each season. On top of that, it has amazing snow-making capability--they can make twelve inches of snow across the entire mountain in one day. When the recent warm spell finally broke a few weeks ago, we noted that Wisp quickly covered its slopes and opened up trails. Wintergreen gets a lot less natural snow than Wisp. It depends heavily on snow-making and while its snow-making system is good, it doesn't compare to the one at Wisp. While Wisp was rapidly opening trails a few weeks ago, Wintergreen was more slowly covering its mountain. The combination of snow-making and natural snowfall at Wisp also means you have a decent chance of skiing in powder, as we did this past weekend.

Wisp also has a better overall layout. The main lodge is at the base of the hill, serviced by three lifts. Large windows give you a nice view of several of the main slopes. The primary food service area and the ski shop/rental area are all conveniently located in the same building. Several lifts converge at the top of the mountain, making it easy to transfer between different areas of the resort, and making most trails accessible from multiple lifts. This helps distribute the crowds across the mountain. Eventually, Wisp plans to build a mountaintop village at the peak, which will make it even nicer.

At Wintergreen, the cramped ski rental area is separate from the food service area and nowhere near any ski shop. One nice feature is that you can practically ski out of the rental area, although you have to go down a narrow, treacherous slope that is usually lined with fallen skiers. (At Wisp, since you're at the base of the hill, you have to schlep to the nearest lift.) Wintergreen's main lodge is pretty divorced from the ski trails, and there's no place to sit and watch skiers as you sip on a hot toddy.

We also give the edge to Wisp on food service. The main dining hall at Wisp has the traditional high ceiling, large windows and blazing fireplace of a lodge. It is about four times the size of the main eating area at Wintergreen, which is dark, low ceiling'ed and practically windowless. Wisp has a slightly greater variety of food, at very reasonable prices, and can handle a large crowd. Wintergreen has limited options with slow service and higher prices. Wisp also has two bars off the main dining floor, whereas you'll have to go to another building for libations at Wintergreen.

For the young and adventurous, Wisp also offers more options for jumps and tricks. Wintergreen has one "terrain park" (the Curmudgeon avoids these, but the kids are pulled in like moths to a light) with a few rails and ramps for jumps; Wintergreen this year also added a separate terrain area on the side of one of the beginner slopes. In contrast, Wisp has two larger terrain parks, two half-pipes, a couple smaller jump areas and a separate intermediate trail with some pretty big ramps for jumps.

If you want a traditional hotel room at Wintergreen, you're out of luck. Wintergreen does offer a variety of condos, ranging from studios to larger units suitable for families. There are also many options at Wintergreen for renting homes. However, Wintergreen is really isolated--no town nearby--so eating options are quite limited and the local "trading post" falls far short of a full scale grocery store. Wintergreen does have a pool/spa/fitness center that is first class. But then, that's not why you're going up there, is it?

Wisp does have a hotel. Not a particularly nice one, but it'll do fine for a ski weekend. Wisp also offers an array of condo and home options, many along Deep Creek Lake. Wisp has a decent pool and an okay fitness center. Unlike Wintergreen, however, Wisp is surrounded by other civilization, including many restaurant options. (Make sure to try an enormous 20 inch pizza at Brenda's, just down the road a bit.)

We found the staff at both resorts competent and friendly.

Bottom line: if you're a skiing family in the Washington area, you'll probably have a better experience, with greater value, at Wisp than at Wintergreen.

(FYI: we still go to Wintergreen, mainly to rendezvous with family members from Raleigh, NC. Wisp is too far from Raleigh for a weekend outing.)

Supreme Mess: High Court's Philip Morris Decision

Yesterday the Supreme Court reversed a $90 million award of punitive damages against Philip Morris made by an Oregon jury and sent it back for further consideration.

The 5-4 decision is a mess. It really has nothing to do with tobacco or Philip Morris. Instead, it reveals a non-ideological split among the justices on how to deal with punitive damages in general. Or perhaps it just shows what happens when the Court rules in a case it probably shouldn't have taken to begin with.

In the underlying case, the widow of a smoker sued Philip Morris in Oregon state court. The jury found PM liable for a bit under $1 million in compensatory damages, ruling sensibly, as juries usually do, that the smoker certainly played a considerable role in causing his injuries and ultimately his premature death. (In fact, juries most often rule for the cigarette manufacturers because smokers have long been well aware of the dangers.)

The jury also awarded punitive damages of nearly $90 million against PM for what the trial court labelled "reprehensible" behavior in the marketing of cigarettes and in connection with various public relations activities.

In recent cases, the Supreme Court has been limiting large punitive damage awards from juries, generally ruling that the size of the punitive levy must bear a relationship to the compensatory damages. Most courts have interpreted the Supreme Court's rulings to mean that punitive awards must be no greater than a single digit multiplier of the compensatory award (although the Supremes have never said as much). In the Oregon case, the punitive levy was nearly 100 times the compensatory damages, so PM argued it was unconstitutionally disproportionate.

The Oregon courts, well aware of the Supreme Court's recent jurisprudence on punitives, held that the award against PM satisfied constitutional concerns because PM's behavior was allegedly so bad, i.e., "reprehensible", that the added amount was justified.

In the end, the Supreme Court focused on whether the trial court had allowed the jury to award punitive damages based on bad conduct that affected other smokers, not just the plaintiff in this particular case. And that's where the problem with taking the case in the first place comes in. It turns out there really isn't a good record in the case as to just what the jury relied upon in making its punitive award.

That's no surprise here. Courts often save the punitive damages part of a case to a separate phase at the end of the proceedings. The exhausted lawyers, tired juries and harried judges spend little time on this part of the case, usually introducing little additional evidence. Instead, the lawyers engage in emotional pleas that often are successful in whipping a jury into a frenzy. Then the court issues a very vague instruction to the jury as to what it can consider, and the jury often goes haywire. The result is a crummy record for review purposes, not just in the Oregon case, but in most tort cases with a punitive award.

In the Oregon case, the majority said that it would be acceptable for the jury to consider evidence of PM's behavior toward other smokers in considering WHETHER PM's conduct justified an award of punitive damages, but that it would not be constitutional for the jurors to base the AMOUNT of their punitive award on the injuries to other smokers, who, after all, are not parties to the case.

While that may sound like a good distinction, we agree with the dissenters who say the standard is too fuzzy to apply. However, most courts will probably get around the problem by issuing jury instructions that make the distinction, but don't really tell juries how they're supposed to proceed. Absent some clear indication of jury misconduct, the instruction will likely immunize most verdicts on review.

The business community would like to see the Supreme Court adopt an easier to apply formula, under which punitive damages cannot exceed compensatory damages by more than a set ratio.

While that would certainly be easier for everyone, don't look for such concrete guidance from the Supreme Court. The Court is not a rule-making body. It would not be appropriate for the Court to adopt a strict multiplier. Instead, the Supreme Court set principles of law, which then guide the lower courts. Given the wide variety of situations in which punitive damages may arise, the justices are loathe to tie the constitutional noose too tightly around the jurors' discretion. So look for more case-by-case adjudication of the punitive damages awards to divine the principles that will limit juries. We hope that the next case will have a better record, making for a better decision.

In the meantime, Philip Morris gets another shot at the Oregon courts, and another argument in its arsenal to protect itself from ruinous liability in future single smoker cases. And that's pretty much all it needs: since smokers actually lose most cases that go to trial, and since PM has ample resources to defend multiple lawsuits, it can defend these cases indefinitely so long as one or two punitive awards can't break the bank.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fluorescent Aussies, Green Californians, Red Virginians

In a rather stunning development, Australia has announced that it will ban traditional incandescent light bulbs in just three years, requiring the entire country to conserve electricity by adopting energy-saving compact flourescent lights.

Imagine the United States having the willpower to do something that dramatic! (If we did, we could reduce electric consumption by several percentage points.)

We hope that by the time the Aussies' long-lasting fluorescents burn out (7-8 years) the next generation of even more energy stingy lights--LED's like those blinking on your modem--will be ready for prime time.

We were at the Wisp ski resort in western Maryland this weekend and are happy to report that the lodge there has converted most of its lights, including basic lamps in guest rooms, to flourescents. (Soon, we'll review Wisp from the skiing standpoint and compare it to Wintergreen, another nearby ski resort we visited this season.)

On our way home, we also noted with interest a large wind farm perched along a ridge near the continental divide, which much be as good a place as any to "mine" the wind. No doubt some see the huge turbines as ugly, but we think they're beautiful--a lot nicer than a tanker full of Arab oil.

While it's good to see individuals and businesses in our neck of the woods adopting conservation measures and investing in renewable energy, it was rather shocking to learn this weekend (courtesy of the Washington Post) that Californians, on average, have just half the per capita electricity use of Virginians. (Californians: 6732 kwh's/per capita; Virginians: 13,748 kwh's per capita.)

That proves the point of some of our regular commenters, who note that Dominion Power would not need to string ugly new high voltage cables (or build a costly new nuclear power plant) if Virginians simply adopted a number of fairly simple conservation measures.

(By the way, those California figures are BEFORE factoring in California's aggressive program to invest in renewable sources of electricity, particularly solar.)

How does California do it? Partly it is the high cost of electricity in the Golden State, but a lot of it has to do with how the utilities are regulated. California has adopted de-coupling, which allows a utility to profit even as its sales decline. This encourages the utilities to invest in conservation instead of simply promoting increased demand. (Also, we note that if you pay double the rate for electricity, but use half as much, the cost really isn't any higher.)

It's pretty clear that decoupling, along with some aggressive state programs such as strict building codes that require conseration measures, really works. If the entire U.S. consumed electricity at the same rate as California, we could retire dozens and dozens of dirty coal-fired electric plants and reduce our dependence on mid-east oil.

Virginia legislators are still considering a bill to re-regulate the electric utilities here--essentially Dominion Power. Previously, we urged the General Assmbly to table the bill that they've been rushing through (it was drafted by Dominion) so that a broader group can study it and make recommendations. Seeing that Virginians are using double the electricity of Californians (who aren't exactly living a deprived lifestyle) only reinforces the point. Something is wrong here in the Old Dominion. With thoughtful regulation, we, too, can live the good life without destroying the environment and contributing to flooding of our coastal communities.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Virginia GOP Hates The Chinese Year of the Pig

What is it with Virginia Republicans and Americans with ancestry in Asia and India?

Evidently, it wasn't enough that former Republican Senator George Allen insulted a native Virginian, whose parents immigrated from India, by calling him "macacca" and "welcoming" him to "the real Virginia and real America."

Now macacca Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates, once again showing their true colors (or lack of color as the case may be) have shown that Allen's retort was not an isolated incident.

Recently, Del. Adam Ebbin, from Arlington, introduced what one would've thought was a non-controversial joint resolution to recognize the importance of the Lunar New Year and the contributions of the roughly 350,000 Asian/Indian/Pacific Americans living in the Commonwealth.

Fluffy resolutions like this fill the General Assembly's calendar. Rarely do they make any waves.

But Ebbin's resolution attracted an unusual amount of opposition from macacca Republicans in the House. The Rules Committee (like all committees, controlled by the GOP) removed references to the Lunar Year 4075 and the Chinese Year of the Pig, and also deleted a reference to the importance of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans of Virginia.

Then, after those changes, four Republicans on the committee still voted against the resolution. In the full house, 14 Republicans and an independent also voted against the resolution.

(We thank the Arlington Sun Gazette for the info on this one).

While Mrs. Curmudgeon, who is Chinese-American, barely pays attention to the Lunar New Year, she can't understand what's so offensive to these Republican legislators that they'd vote against Ebbin's resolution.

It wasn't all that long ago--1969 to be precise--that it would have been illegal for the Curmudgeon to marry Mrs. Curmudgeon under Virginia's anti-miscegenation law (struck down in the aptly named Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia). We suspect that in their hearts of hearts, some of those same legislators that voted against the Lunar New Year resolution also miss those "good ol' days."

Sadly, macacca lives on in Virginia. Let's hope the coming election at least thins the herd.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Kaine, Obama, Davis and Tunnel Politics

Tim Kaine is going to endorse Barack Obama. Good for him. Given Virginia's rather lowly status in the presidential nominating process, Kaine could easily have afforded to just sit back and wait and see what happens, i.e., play it safe.

We just love the way this got reported in the Post today: "The sources [who leaked Kaine's decision ahead of a formal announcement] spoke on condition of anonymity because they do not want to preempt the formal announcement." If that were so, they would've simply kept their mouths shut.

[Ever since the Post (and its sister publication Newsweek) adopted a policy of stating a reason why a source wishes to stay anonymous, it has been filled with these silly--and obviously phony--rationalizations. Our favorite are the sources who spill the beans on national security matters and then say they didn't want to be quoted about sensitive national security matters. Hey, if they're that sensitive, you shouldn't be talking to reporters about them!]

We digress. Speaking of Tim Kaine, Representative Tom Davis has pulled the rug out from under Kaine on the issue of whether Metrorail's Orange Line extension through Tyson's Corner to Dulles Airport should be underground.

Davis, who wrote to Kaine last year, along with Rep. Frank Wolf, urging Kaine to support an above-ground rail line through Tysons lest the whole project be delayed, has now flip-flopped (despite saying "I don't think that's a flip-flop") and advocates the tunnel approach.

Normally, we kind of like Davis, a pretty moderate Republican, but on this one we have to wonder what's up. Is it, as the Post suggests today, that Davis's wife, Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a Republican State Senator from Fairfax County, is feeling the heat on the project? Could be.

Putting in a tunnel will raise the cost of the project significantly--by as much as a billion bucks. (Ignore the tunnel proponents who tell you otherwise--their numbers are way-cooked.) And it will take longer to complete.

We're not necessarily saying a tunnel is a bad idea--it is certainly true that putting the new line underneath Tyson's would give the region a chance at making itself over in an attractive way that may be greatly appreciated in 20 years.

However, it is important for members of Congress to be straight with Virginia officials--especially Kaine--about the significance of changing to a tunnel plan. We're sure that, all things being equal, Kaine would be delighted to support a tunnel. But we doubt that all things are equal on this one, and having Davis play politics only muddies an already murky picture.

Meanwhile, we wonder when someone's going to face the other big issue/problem with the Orange Line extension: the Rosslyn tunnel chokepoint. Extending the Orange Line to Dulles is a wonderful idea and will be great for everyone in the region. The only problem is that the vast expansion of ridership on the already crowded Orange Line will never work unless planners figure out a way--sooner or later--to add a Potomac River crossing to the Metro network. Right now, Orange and Blue Line trains go through the single tunnel between the Rosslyn (Virginia) and Foggy Bottom (D.C.) stations about as often as they can during rush hours. Switching Blue Line trains to the above water crossing parallel to the 14th Street Bridge--part of Metro's plan--will help for awhile, but in the long term there is going to be a need for another tunnel (or bridge) to service the number of Orange Line trains that will be needed to handle traffic all the way out to Dulles.

Davis probably expects he'll be retired before his constituents figure that one out.

Legislature Stiffs NoVa on Transport Bill Conference

It's getting down to the wire in the Virginia legislature, with the House and Senate passing significantly different versions of a bill to fund desperately needed transportation improvements in the state.

The two competing bills, which are of greatest interest to the large and ever-growing population of Northern Virginia, have gone to a conference, where representatives of the House and Senate will meet in private to see if they can somehow make a sausage out of this hash.

So, what did the leaders of the two GOP-controlled houses of the Virginia Assembly do to make sure NoVa's voice is heard on this critical issue? Basically, they gave NoVa the finger.

Eleven conferees have been appointed. Only ONE is from NoVa, Tim Hugo from Fairfax County. Meanwhile, the Norfolk/Hampton Roads/Virginia Beach region--which also has a big stake in the legislation--has FOUR representatives.

What a snub to NoVa, which under both bills is expected to tax itself to pay for improvements. The big difference is whether--under the House version--NoVa will also suffer cuts in other important programs as money is diverted from the general fund.

For all you Northern Virginians, especially in Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William and Stafford Counties, who have Republican reps in the General Assembly: take note. If you're tired of sitting in traffic day-in and day-out, you need to replace your rep with a Democrat. Otherwise, you're just sending your state tax dollars down a drain in Richmond to help out the rest of the state.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dominion's New Route

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Dominion Power has decided to re-route it's new high voltage line so that it runs along an existing line, and today the Post reports that no one is happy with the new proposal.

We have to say, the Post's reporting on the issue is a bit too negative, giving way too much play to opponents of the line. The new proposal is more expensive--$60 million more--because instead of running in a straight line between two substations, the line will curve in a giant arc that is much longer.

Still, we think it's a reasonable compromise, although we are sympathetic to the notion that Dominion gave in to Middleburg millionaires only to stick it to residents of more modest means in other parts of the state. But since the new route follows that of an existing high voltage line, we think it makes the most sense by reaching the best balance between providing for the future while minimizing the disruption to NoVa's landscape.

To be sure, we're with those who think there are alternatives. Fairly simple conservation measures alone could forestall this new line (check out how we reduced out power bill by 30 percent here), whereas aggressive investment in distributed renewable energy (wind and solar) could eliminate the need.

BUT, we don't see any sign of the willpower in the legislature that would be needed. Indeed, quite a few GOP lawmakers have complained about the line when it impacts THEIR constituents, but other than proposals that simply dump the problem on someone else, we haven't seen any of them pushing for a REALISTIC alternative, such as REQUIRING Dominion to INVEST significant sums in conservation and distributed energy. (It would take tens of thousands of businesses and residences to adopt conservation measures for it to work. That ain't gonna happen without serious legislation). All these legislators are really doing is sounding off--a lot of bark, but no bite. And you can bet that those same legislators will give Dominion what it wants when it comes to the bill Dominion is pushing to "regulate" itself.

Super Duper Garbage Zapper

This is really quite amazing.

A company called Startech Environmental has developed a fully functioning machine that zaps garbage with a plasma ray, breaking down all molecular bonds into their elemental components. The Plasma Converter (pictured here) burns at roughly three times the heat of the sun's surface, so it's a little like tossing your trash into the sun to vaporize it. The only byproducts are a molten glass, which can be used in household tiles or asphalt, and a hydrogen/carbon monoxide gas that can be burned to fuel the machine and produce excess electricity.

The machines aren't cheap--$250 million a pop--but just one can take care of all the garbage and trash generated by a city of 1 million, while also producing several megawatts of electricity (or, it can be configured to produce hydrogen for fuel cells and other uses). Landfill be-gone!

What's amazing about the Plasma Converter is that it works on anything except nuclear waste. Any organic material, metal, concrete, plastic, even toxic substances such as dioxin, can be fed into the Converter and quickly be broken down into simple elemental gases. Literally, garbage can be fed directly from a trash truck into the converter, which can handle 2000 tons a day. (St. Lucie County Florida is building an even larger one that will handle 2000 tons of new trash each day while also eating up 1000 tons of trash in an existing landfill and generating electricity for local residents.

Talk about a clean technology!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Preventing Identity Theft With Biometrics

It's estimated that millions of Americans now suffer the crime of identity theft every year. There's a fairly good way to stem the epidemic. Unfortunately, it requires banks and other credit issuers to take responsibility for a problem THEY have created.

Think of it this way. You're a good citizen, minding your own business. Then you apply for a loan, or try to rent an apartment, and you're turned down because you have a bad credit record. It turns out someone stole your identity, got a bunch of credit cards, racked up debt and, of course, never paid. Now, whose fault is that? It is the fault of whoever issued the thief credit in the first place, because they were negligent in verifying the identity of the thief.

The identity theft problem has gotten so out of hand because banks and other issuers of credit (mainly retailers) have made it too easy to grant instant credit with the most minimal of effort by both the credit applicant and the credit issuer. Most credit issuers require only a social security number, a matching name and a birthdate in order to issue credit, often on the spot.

[Worse yet, the Washington Post reports today that banks are now seeking to extend credit to illegal aliens without social security numbers. The rest of us will end up paying for this fiasco.]

Any moron with half a brain can find names and birthdates on the web. All they need to go with that data is a social security number, and those are relatively easy to come by because they are stored in thousands of databases and exchanged all the time. One of the greatest sources of such information is theft by insiders, who can make easy money with little likelihood of being caught.

The government never intended social security numbers to be used as some kind of secure device for identifying someone, and social security numbers clearly fail miserably for that purpose. So why do banks use them so widely? Because its cheap and the banks can fob their losses off on the rest of us.

Here's what we need to do to greatly reduce identity theft: (1)make banks and other issuers of credit liable for costs incurred by consumers in connection with identity theft; (2) prohibit banks from issuing credit based soley on a social security number/DOB/name; (3) require issuers of credit to collect biometric information unique to individuals.

At its simplest, it works like this. Someone goes into a department store and applies for instant credit. The store clerk takes a digital photo of the person applying for credit, and collects a fingerprint on an electronic portable fingerprint pad (these exist and are economical). (Or it could be an iris scan, or something else.) That alone would discourage most imposters from applying since it would give police a ready trail to follow.

For more remote applications, there are still ways to collect similar information. For example, phone applicants could be required to consent to a voice print that could be matched with a database. Applicants by mail could be required to make a follow-up appearance in person at a local bank for a digital photo and fingerprint/iris scan/whatever. Since almost everyone lives near a bank branch, this wouldn't be too inconvenient.

Credit issuers would have to initiate a period for existing cardholders to submit their identifying information so that they could have databases against which to compare imposters, but that shouldn't be all that inconvenient either. (And anyone refusing to sign up within a reasonable period could be denied protection if their identity is stolen in the future.)

Biometrics are not foolproof. Since any biometric ultimately has to reside in computers in digital form, they can be stolen. That's one reason it is important to require a credit applicant to show up somewhere in person to be photographed and submit their biometric identifier. If there is a problem, they can more easily be tracked down. And, of course, thieves don't want their photos taken, their fingers printed or their irises scanned.

Frankly, this isn't all that difficult a problem to fix--all it takes is a little bit of will.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Green Developments

Today, the Curmudgeon will cover a series of Green developments that have been accumulating on our desk.

ACE Challenge

In case you didn’t see the comment from Miles on a recent Curmudgeon post, Arlington County, in conjunction with Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) is sponsoring a “Green Living Challenge.” The challenge awards points for various actions and challenges you to earn 100 points to obtain a Green Living Certificate. For example, you get 10 points for composting lawn clippings.

[If you’re an apartment or condo dweller, you’ll get a nice head start with 35 points just for living in a denser residential cluster. That seems a bit unfair to us detached home dwellers—at a minimum there should be a sliding scale of density, awarding some points to those in townhouse clusters and those with smaller lots.]

All in all, a good way to check up on your green living efforts and stretch for more.

DC Net Metering Woes

We’re sorry to learn, from a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, that the D.C. Public Service Commission evidently is dragging its feet on net metering, stalling homeowners who want to add solar panels to their abodes. According to the letter, in the Sunday February 11 Outlook section, the PSC hasn’t yet approved a standard contract by which homeowners with service from Pepco can interconnect with the utility. Absent such a contract, Pepco's holding up homeowners who are all ready to go.

We’re not sure whether it’s deliberate foot-dragging, or simple incompetence, but this isn’t something that should be all that difficult. Dozens of states have well-established net metering programs that include simple standard form contracts between a utility and a homeowner seeking to interconnect a solar photovoltaic system to the grid. (Heavens, even Dominion Virginia makes it pretty easy.) We agree with the letter writers—if the PSC can’t get it done quickly, new Mayor Fenty should get a new PSC.

How To Use Compact Fluorescents With Dimmers

One problem with energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs is that they don’t work well with lights on a dimmer switch. The Curmudgeon has experimented around and figured out a partial fix. (You can now purchase fluorescents that work on a dimmer, but they are very expensive.)

If you have several lights on one switch with a dimmer (like the Curmudgeon’s office, which has four recessed floodlights on one switch) try replacing all but one of the standard incandescent bulbs with fluorescents. We found that if we replaced all the bulbs with fluorescents, we got constant flickering (and burned out one specially ordered, expensive, fluorescent after one week). But if we left an incandescent bulb in the circuit, the problems went away. You won’t be able to dim the lights, but you can simply turn them on and off like other lights, while reducing your power bill considerably.

Exciting Personal Wind Generators

As we’ve pointed out on the Curmudgeon more than once, solar power is still not very economical, but wind energy is quite competitive. However, most homeowners aren’t in a position to install wind turbines. Until now, that is! According to the Wall Street Journal, which today had a special section devoted to the “New Math of Alternative Energy,” a company known as Southwest Windpower, Inc. has developed wind microturbines for use by individual homeowners.

This is pretty exciting stuff: “The latest model Southwest Windpower is bringing to market costs $10,000 to install and is designed for homes with at least half an acre of land. The turbine sits on a tower nearly 35 feet tall and can generate approximately 425 kilowatt hours per month of electricity, according to the company’s chief executive, Frank Greco.”

That’s a pretty good deal, folks. For perspective, the Curmudgeon’s 2.5 kw solar array cost about twice that to install, and should generate about half the amount of electricity. In other words, the microturbine will have a payback about four times as fast as a solar array. Furthermore, for an average homeowner using 10,000-15,000 kwh of electricity each year, the nearly 5000 kwh put out by such a microturbine would put a big dent in their bills.

While it won’t work on the Curmudgeon’s miserly one-eighth of an acre, we’d think a lot of the folks out in Loudon and Prince William Counties whining about a new Dominion high voltage line could easily afford to put these babies up on their estate properties. For more info, go to the company's website.

Solar Power Cost Calculator

BP Energy now has a calculator on its website that will help you estimate the cost of installing a solar photovoltaic system on your roof, including the savings you'll get on your electric bill. You can find it HERE. Simply plug in your zip code and the size of the installation you’re thinking about and the calculator will give you a good estimate of the cost. (We tried it out to see if it would come up with an estimate close to what we actually paid. It worked.)

Defer Dominion Regulation Bill To Next Term

The Virginia General Assembly, which adjourns February 24, has reportedly been racing to adopt a complicated bill that would re-regulate electric utilities in the state—i.e., Dominion Power. The bill was largely drafted by Dominion, with environmental and consumer groups given a very brief (and inadequate) opportunity to provide comments before the bill was introduced.

This is a really important issue that shouldn’t be rushed. The General Assembly should defer this legislation until next year, but should also direct appointment of some kind of committee that includes representatives of Dominion, the PSC, consumer groups, environmental groups, the Governor's office and others to take a hard look at the issue and come back with a more definitive proposal.

At a minimum, if the legislature is going to adopt a bill highly favorable to Dominion—as no doubt it will—it should extract some key concessions and use the opportunity to improve the state’s policies on climate change. At a minimum, the legislation should remove the ridiculously low cap on the number of consumers who can interconnect with Dominion under the state’s net metering law; it should require Dominion to offer the same “Green Power” program if offers NC customers; and it should set targets for investment by Dominion in renewable energy and energy conservation. We’re sure there’s more—that’s why a deferral is needed.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Josh Wolf Is Wrong

A word to my fellow lefty bloggers: stop defending Josh Wolf!

For those of you who don't know who Josh Wolf (pictured at left) is, he's a 24-year-old California blogger and "freelance journalist" (which could mean anything) who has been imprisoned on civil contempt charges for 170 days now, which is the longest for any "journalist" in U.S. history.

Why is Wolf in prison? He videotaped a 2005 protest at a G8 economic summit in San Francisco, portions of which he aired on his website, during which a police car was vandalized and a police officer injured. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed the videotape as part of their efforts to identify the protesters involved in the unlawful acts.

Now the liberal blogger community is all up in arms about Wolf, making him a cause celebre' and urging folks to support his defense fund, yada, yada, yada.

What is the basis of Wolf's defense? Once commentator put it this way: "Wolf correctly refuses to surrender unaired video footage because journalists must remain independent and never become arms of law enforcement." (This commentator, among others, wants an absolute shield law for all journalists.)

We don't buy that. Nor do we think our fellow liberal bloggers would be very interested in this but for that the particular case involves left wing protesters. If, instead, Wolf was a conservative blogger who had videotaped Ku Kluxers beating up civil rights protesters, we don't think any of our friends would be wasting their type on the case.

[By the way, the judge who threw Wolf into jail is not exactly a right winger. He is Judge William Alsup, nominated by Bill Clinton at the suggestion of Senator Barbara Boxer. Alsup clerked for liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and did civil rights work in the south before moving to California and becoming a successful lawyer. We suspect that Judge Alsup is keenly aware that the facts of this particular case could just as easily involve a scenario like the once sketched above, with prosecutors seeking material from some right wing group like the KKK.]

So let's separate ourselves from the particular facts for a moment and examine the issue more dispassionately. First, let's say, for the sake of argument, that journalists should be completely shielded from demands from law enforcement authorities to provide evidence in criminal investigations. Is Wolf a journalist? Tough question.

There are an estimated 25 million bloggers in the U.S. today. Shielding them all as journalists would be unreasonable. Of course, there's a plausible case that Wolf is not just a "blogger"--that his activities go further. By the same token, he's not an easy case--someone employed by a traditional media organization. Ultimately, even with a shield law, courts in cases such as this would have to make time-consuming determinations of just who is a "journalist" entitled to protection. Is Ann Coulter a journalist? Not in our book.

Put that aside, however, as we have a bigger problem with the notion that "journalists must remain independent and never become arms of law enforcement."

These are two different concepts that are not mutually exclusive. If all journalists, of all stripes, colors and ideologies, are subject to the occasional requirement that they turn over potential evidence in a case, that doesn't mean they aren't "independent." Any citizen who has evidence in a criminal matter and who fails to respond to a valid court ordered request for such information, or who destroys it, can be subject to charges of obstruction of justice and other related charges, and can be jailed for civil contempt. We don't see why journalists somehow lose their "independence" by being subject to such laws.

That said, we support NARROW exceptions for journalists, mainly related to protection of confidential sources. Even the confidential source privilege shouldn't be absolute, but their are good policy reasons for having such a privilege--primarily that it enhances the ability of the press to engage in investigative functions, whereas law enforcement authorities have their own investigative tools available--they usually don't need to force disclosure of the names of confidential sources to do their jobs (might make it easier, but that's not the point).

Indeed, the Scooter Libby trial is a good case in point about the obligation of citizens to cooperate in criminal probes. Libby is on trial for allegedly lying to investigators, not for "leaking" classified info. He should have told the truth and let the chips fall where they may. If he didn't tell the truth, he deserves jail time.

Now, what about the issue of journalists becoming "arms of law enforcement"? Well, turning over a videotape of a demonstration does not make Josh Wolf an "arm of law enforcement." The tape will show what it shows. It may or may not be useful to the investigators. For all we know, it may show that the injuries sustained by the San Francisco policeman were not caused by any protesters, or that they were caused by Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh hoping to cause trouble for the protesters.

To be sure, Josh Wolf claims that his videotape doesn't show any of the activity that prosecutors are investigating, and says he even offered to let the judge view the tape to see for himself. Wolf contends that the prosecutors are just on a fishing expedition to identify "activists" in San Francisco.

Sorry, we can't write special rules for every case, forcing judges to review the evidence and do the prosecutors' jobs. As for the claim that prosecutors are really just digging up dirt on activists, that's paranoia. We really doubt they have time for such silliness, and Judge Alsup is correct to let the prosecutors do their job absent some real EVIDENCE--not suspicion--of some other motive.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the injured policeman's family. Here he was doing his job in a mostly peaceful protest by mostly good people who have a legitimate beef about globalism. Then along comes a small minority--maybe just one or two--of people who take advantage of the protest to destroy a police car and injure a police officer. These people give the rest of the protesters a bad name. If they've stepped over the bounds from political protest to criminal activity, they should be jailed.

In any event, turning over unaired video footage of an event where a crime occurred does not make journalists--of any stripe--into "agents of law enforcement." Instead, it makes them typical good citizens.

We have no sympathy for Josh Wolf. He's embarked on a wrongheaded cause. He should give it up and do the right thing--turn over his videotape.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Global Warming: Beware The Greenland Effect Downplayed By IPCC

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a widely publicized updated policy summary (the detailed scientific reports won't come out until later this year) of the latest scientific consensus on global warming. (See IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers.)

The headlines largely focused on the conclusion that scientists are now more confident than ever that (1) there has been warming of the planet over the past century, and (2) that such warming is caused, at least in large part, by human activities that include burning of fossil fuels.

Most articles also highlighted conclusions from the summary that, left unchecked, continued carbon emissions from fossil fuels will contribute to significant additional global warming over the next century, and that such warming is highly likely to raise sea levels by 7-23 inches.

The new IPCC report is good because it shines a spotlight on global warming and intensifies the debate over what we should do about it. It is unfortunate, however, that the summary was written so conservatively that it has, unwittingly, provided fodder to the climate change skeptics who say we needn't do anything other than bask in the warmer winter days.

Those skeptics typically argue that taking steps to reduce carbon emissions will be far more expensive and counterproductive than simply living with a modest rise in sea levels of 7-23 inches over the next century.

If that were all there was to it, we'd probably agree. While a sea level rise of 23 inches--nearly two feet--would have major implications for many coastal cities, we think most would be able to adapt over the long period of time being contemplated. Just think how much cities have changed in the past century.

Unfortunately, that's not all there is to it. Put aside conclusions about growing desertification and major changes in weather systems. The elephant in the room, cryptically acknowledged by the IPCC report and all but ignored by most news articles and commentators, is the vast Greenland ice sheet.

The problem is that, at present, there is not enough information known about the Greenland ice sheet and how it may be affected by global warming to form a scientific consensus, so for the time being it is being shoved aside.

[Note: the Antarctic ice sheet is a different story. Warming in the southern hemisphere has been much less than in the northern hemisphere and is expected to be less going forward. The consensus is that even under the more dire scenarios, the Antarctic ice sheet will show little shrinkage over the next century--it may even get larger due to increased precipation.]

But there's certainly enough to worry about Greenland if you look for it, and we think the report's authors wanted us to be aware of the risk even as scientists take a closer look and acquire more data.

Here's the biggie: about 125,000 years ago, average polar temperatures were 3-5 degrees centigrade higher than today due to differences in the Earth's orbit. Sea levels during that period were likely 4 to 6 meters (i.e. 12-18 feet!) higher than today at that time, mostly because of the retreat of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic ice fields. (See p. 10 of the IPCC report.)

The likelihood of average temperatures in Greenland and other Arctic areas increasing by 3-5 degrees C over the next century are not small. Indeed, the IPCC report has computer modelled scenarios that could result in significantly higher temperatures in the Arctic region (to as much as 6-7 degrees C) by the end of the century.

Here's the dry scientific language that is most alarming (p. 14 of the IPCC summary):

Models used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedback nor do they include the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking. The projections include a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993-2003, but these flow rates could increase or decrease in the future. For example, if this contribution were to grow linearly with global average temperature change, the upper ranges of sea level rise for SRES scenarios shown in Table SPM-3 would increase by 0.1 m to 0.2 m. Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.

In other words, right now scientists don't have adequate data to forecast what will happen to the Greenland ice sheet and how it will affect sea levels, so they haven't factored in any contribution more than what has been observed over the past decade. BUT, we know that 125,000 years ago, the Greenland effect was huge. So, don't be surprised if in our next report, after more data is in, we raise our estimate considerably.

For now, scientists think it would take thousands of years for the Greenland sheet to retreat to the point seen 125,000 years ago. But, they really don't know., especially if temps go even higher than before.

The question is, are we willing to take that risk for our great grandchildren? We shouldn't. Our great grandchildren will have no choice but to live in a world without significant oil because by then their forebears will have depleted most of it, regardless whether they do anything about carbon emissions. We owe it to them to develop the new technologies now and not bet their future on the gamble that sea level rises and other climate changes will be "manageable".

Monday, February 05, 2007

You Call This Progress?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal, ever the apologist for George Bush's failed policies, put forth an editorial entitled "Progress in Baghdad." Let's contrast the WSJ editorial with what happened in Iraq this weekend.

WSJ: "[T]he last few days in Iraq have actually featured good news, as the government seems to be making some progress on key political and social issues. . . . the Baghdad plan is having an effect. . . Sunni jihadists are fleeing the capital in anticipation of a crackdown . . . clearly the bad guys are taking the joint U.S.-Iraqi effort to pacify the capital seriously. . . . For the moment at least, Iraq seems to be inching in the right direction."

So how did all that "progress" pan out this weekend in Iraq?

From the New York Times:

"A mammoth truck bomb obliterated a popular central Baghdad market on Saturday, ripping through scores of shops and flattening apartment buildings, killing at least 130 people and wounding more than 300 in the worst of a series of horrific attacks against Shiites in recent weeks."

"'Maliki and the Americans are sons of dogs because they do nothing to protect us,'" said one elderly man, crying and shouting as he was surrounded by younger men.

But that's not all. "Several Sunni neighborhoods came under retaliatory attack Saturday night" as they were struck by mortar rounds.

There's more: "The calamity in Baghdad came after a bloody day throughout the rest of Iraq that included a coordinated volley of seven car bombs in Kirkuk. . . . Gunmen fatally struck Iraqi forces twice in Samarra [killing 6 policemen in one attack and four soldiers in another]. Iraqi police also battled insurgents in a neighborhood of western Mosul on Saturday, while a large bomb wounded three policemen in another part of western Mosul. . . . The American military on Saturday reported the deaths of six more servicemen."

Some progress.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Democrats '08--The Race For Fourth Place

As the Democratic field for the '08 presidential race continues to grow, the race is starting to become a bit clearer.

After an initial surge of support, Obama appears to be settling into a more distant second place behind Hillary, who is unlikely to go much over 40 percent in national polls. Meanwhile, Edwards has cemented himself in third place, not far behind Obama, and unannounced candidate Gore looms in fourth. (For a chart with five recent national polls, click here.)

The big question in our mind who will emerge in fifth place, which is really fourth if, as we expect, Gore sticks to his guns and does something far more useful than running for President? (Granted, the longer Gore doesn't run the better he'll look to many party activists, especially as the rest of the field muddies itself while Gore collects a Nobel Peace Prize.)

For the alternative fourth place emerger, we'd put our money on New Mexico Governor (and former U.N. Ambassador, and former Sec. of Energy) Bill Richardson, a hispanic who'd have more appeal if he had a hispanic sounding name.

We think fourth place (without Gore) could turn out to be a great strategic position. Anyone polling lower than fourth will have difficulty raising money and surviving beyond the first three weeks of primaries and caucuses. Indeed, we think a few who have entered the race so early will also drop out by late Fall for lack of interest in their campaigns.

Fourth place, however, is good enough to raise money and hopes, and has the potential to show momentum coming out of the early primaries/caucuses, and thus emerge as the Hillary alternative if Obama and Edwards get stuck.

We like Richardson's chances as a dark horse better than the rest of the dark horse field. First, he's not a sitting Senator, so he won't bear the burden of a do-nothing Senate that won't accomplish a darn thing all year since everyone is running for President. Second, he's a governor, and governors do well in these contests--and with the only competition being from Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, we'd give the nod to Richardson. Third, IF Richardson can tap into hispanic voters AND get them to vote in primaries--two big IF's--he could do well in early primaries in big states if California and Florida move their's up.

What Richardson needs to do now is see if he can break out of the 2% pack (the gaggle of candidates polling 1-2% in national polls). If he can get up to just 4-5% it will help him raise money and maintain credibility as a candidate. So how does Richardson break out of the pack? It won't be easy. What he needs are some poll numbers from individual states putting him in third or fourth place, preferably with some low double digits. Nevada is one opportunity, but California is another and would be huge. Richardson has little chance of doing much in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, so he'll have to concentrate on the west, even as everyone else ignores it. (Query--will the media ignore the west, too?)

Now back to Obama and Edwards. While both are widely liked and admired, we're starting to wonder if either will be able to break out against Hillary and her machine. Edwards is tacking far to the left, and will do well in Iowa and South Carolina. But beyond that will he really have broad appeal? Obama will remain popular, but can he beat Hillary anywhere early on? It's hard to see where his strong base will be (unless it's California). If all Obama manages in the early contests is a distant second--or even third to Edwards--he will quickly fade.

That leaves the door open to a surge of support for Fourth Place in the mid-primaries.

Of course all this would be much more interesting if it was October or November of this year, instead of February. A lot could happen between now and then. A lot will, and most it will be largely irrelevant. We kind of wish the whole campaign could be placed in suspended animation for at least the next six months, but since that's not going to happen, what the heck, we'll speculate with the best of them.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Energy Conservation Works: How The Curmudgeon Reduced His Electric Bill By More Than 30 Percent

Periodically, the Curmudgeon has reported on our efforts to conserve electricity. Now, we have our first full month of data after implementing most of our conservation measures. The results are quite satisfying: in the January billing cycle (12/28-1/28) we used 783 kilowatt hours of electricity, down from 1208 kwh last year (about a 35% reduction) and down even further from 1466 kwh in 2005. Our January electric usage was also the lowest we've ever had for any month.

Notably, we achieved this reduction without putting ourselves to any discomfort or inconvenience, and, as explained below, did most of it--with one large exception--at minimal cost.

There are three main components to our effort to reduce consumption of electricity produced by Dominion Power, which provides almost all Virginians with their electricity.

First, we installed solar electric panels a couple of months ago. (See "Solar Energy: Good Feel, Bad Deal.") The solar panels contributed 65 kwh of electricity in January--not much, especially considering the cost. But we are still fiddling with the configuration of the panels, which are not picking up as much afternoon sun as anticipated. We ought to be able to get the solar panels to contribute about 150 kwh in January--and more in the sunnier months to come--once we get everything fixed. That's good news, since it means we can go even lower next January.

Second, we have almost completed replacing most of our standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, which use 75% less electricity for the same amount of light. Since January is a relatively dark month, lighting constitutes a large percentage of our electricity use (especially with two kids doing their best to light every room in the house). We estimate that switching to the fluorescent lights accounted for most of the reduction in energy use for the month--as much as 350 kwh. Considering that the flourescent lights cost about $300 (we have a lot of lights, many requiring specialty bulbs) and the solar panels cost about $20,000, you can easily see where the most economical option for saving energy lies.

Third, we have made a concerted effort to turn off all computers, modems, routers, printers, monitors and speakers every night. Each of these devices uses very little power in standby mode--2-15 watts at most--but together they add up, especially over a 10-12 hour period. We estimate that shutting them all down (putting them on one or two switches makes it easy) saved us 30-40 kwh.

The latter two steps cause no inconvenience--no one has to freeze or swelter, or sit in the dark, or put off any activities to accomplish them. And while the fluorescent bulbs require a modest investment and a little time to install, they last 6-8 years, meaning you won't have to think about them for quite awhile.

We might add that one other step we took, two years ago, single-handedly reduced our electric bill by nearly 10,000 kwh: we had an electric heater in a greenhouse attached to our home, a legacy of the previous owners. When we converted the greenhouse to a sunroom with energy efficient insulated glass, and replaced the electric heater with baseboard heat from our existing gas boiler, our electric bill plummeted while our gas bill barely budged. (We'd still like to find a way to reduce our gas consumption, which ain't cheap, short of shivering all winter.)

For more tips on reducing your electricity consumption, we recommend this excellent website on Saving Electricity, which is easy to follow, answers lots of questions and does a good job of explaining why things are so.

Katrina Punitive Award Against State Farm Reduced

Recently, we analyzed a $2.5 million jury award against State Farm Insurance Co. in Mississippi arising out of State Farm's refusal to pay a couple for damage to their home caused by Hurricane Katrina.

As we predicted, the federal court has now reduced the award of punitive damages from $2.5 million to $1 million, which is in keeping with Supreme Court guidance that punitive damages generally should not exceed four times the compensatory award in a case. (The jury awarded approx. $250,000 in compensatory damages in this case.)

In the meantime, the judge overseeing the case has asked for more detail on a broad settlement of Mississippi hurricane claims reached between State Farm and other litigants. We anticipate that the court will eventually approve the settlement after a bit of tweaking on the details.