Monday, April 30, 2007

Richardson Earns An A+ On Orangeburg Debate

It's just one guy's opinion, but conservative Bloomberg columnist and American Enterprise Institute guru Kevin Hassett gave New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson an A+ for his Democratic debate performance last week.

Romney's MBA Approach To The War on Terror; Fixing The General Officer Corps

Did Mitt Romney really say it? Yes. In speaking of Osama Bin Laden, Mr. MBA said "it's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person."

What is wrong with this man?! It certainly hasn't been worth spending hundreds of billions of dollars (and more than 3000 lost lives) to invade and occupy a country that posed no real threat to the U.S., wasn't harboring terrorists and served as a counterweight to Iranian nationalism. We'd like to see Romney come out and clearly denounce the Iraq war as an idiotic mistake and say how he'd remedy it.

But it is worth spending billions of dollars to track down and eliminate a man who orchestrated the death of 3000 American civilians in the most outrageous terrorist attack ever in the world, who we know is responsible for other attacks, and who undoubtedly is, at this moment plotting additional attacks.

Try this on for size Mr. Romney: it's not worth spending millions of dollars to have the Secret Service protect just one man--you--from the possibility that some nut with a gun, easily obtained due to the policies of your newfound hunting buddies at the NRA, might take a shot at him. Why don't you volunteer to give up your SS protection as a sign of your commitment to MBA-style government.

While we're on Iraq, here's an interesting analysis of the failures of our war leadership by the generals, rather than the politicians, in the Armed Forces Journal (thanks to Dave A. for alerting us). We think the failures of our civilian leaders--Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith and many others--are pretty obvious. What this analysis does is point out the failures of the generals, both to prepare for wars of the future and to inform the civilian leadership--and if necessary, the public in general--of the true military needs in Iraq.

The author's (a Lt. Col.) larger point is that the system for selecting and promoting generals is broken, resulting in "mild-mannered team players" who ironically "blame their recent lack of candor [in making public the shortcomings of the war planning effort] on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters." He calls on Congress to create a system that rewards qualities of "moral courage" and "creative intelligence" in the general officer corps. (More officers like Gen. David Petraeous, brought in too late with too little support.)

Liberty Tavern: Great Addition To Clarendon Nightlife

A couple weeks ago, The Liberty Tavern opened its doors for business in a richly restored old brick building at the west end of Clarendon that dates back to 1907. This weekend the Curmudgeon and some friends gave it a try. It's a great new addition to the Clarendon scene.

Liberty Tavern is a full restaurant and bar in a two story building at the corner of Wilson Blvd. and N. Irving Street--right next to the Clarendon Ballroom. It occupies the old Masonic Lodge building that used to be headquarters for the Clarendon Alliance. The Liberty's owners, who are Clarendon residents and real estate developers, did a fabulous job renovating the place, giving the old brick building the feel of an updated tavern from the turn of the century. Tall windows, high ceilings, exposed brick walls, wood beams and prints of historic Clarendon all contribute to the homey atmosphere.

Downstairs is the bar, with a fair amount of seating, both at the bar and at cozy surrounding tables. Upstairs is the spacious dining room.

Walking in on Saturday night without a reservation, at about 7 pm, we were pleasantly surprised to be seated immediately (although we would have been happy to sip a drink at the bar for a bit if need be). Liberty does take reservations, however, most conveniently online at Both the bar and dining room were busy, but not quite full, when we arrived. It was another story when we left a little after 9 pm--the place was absolutely hopping, the bar jammed with happy young Clarendonians.

The place appears kid friendly--we saw some families with children wrapping up their meals as we were seated (but we didn't check out the kid menu for future visits with the varmints).

For a place that's been open just two weeks, the Liberty had its act together. Our service was prompt and efficient. The wine list was extensively filled with very moderately priced selections, paired with a menu of interesting specialty drinks.

The dinner menu is a bit limited, but everything we tried--lamb, steak and the Amish-raised chicken (we're guessing these chickens don't take motorized transport)--was quite good. If you're a macaroni lover, then definitely give the Liberty a try, as it's the first restaurant we've been to with not one, but two macaroni selections (not Kraft, either).

After dinner we had coffee, which came in individual french presses (assisted by Liberty's down the street neighbor Murky Coffee). We also tried out a duet of creme brulee and chocolate brulee, which was excellent (or maybe that was the margaritas talking--recollection of the night is a bit fuzzy by that point).

All in all, a good experience. We doubt it will be so easy to waltz in to a table without a reservation next time!

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Have You Heard The One About The Lawyer Who . . .?

Today's Washington Post had an excellent, but disturbing, column by Marc Fisher about a D.C. lawyer who has sued a local dry cleaners for $65 million over a pair of missing pants.

Here's Fisher's column.

In a nutshell, the lawyer, whose name is Roy Pearson, took a pair of pants to his neighborhood dry cleaners in the District for alterations, and they lost his pants. It happens every now and then. Somehow, Pearson has managed to parlay this into a long-running court case in which he is seeking $65 million after turning down settlement offers of as much as $12,000 for a friggin' pair of pants!

Now Fisher was pretty restrained, letting the facts speak for themselves. (Like Pearson's logic that the cleaners should pay for him to lease a car every weekend for the next 10 years because he currently doesn't have a car and due to his cleaners' bad service he will have to go to another cleaners, which is too far away to walk to.)

The question Fisher might have asked, however, is how did our legal system let this get so out of hand? The system has failed.

First, the judge handling this case, who has voiced concerns that Pearson is "acting in bad faith" should go a lot further: he should dismiss the case, consider assessing legal costs as a sanction against Pearson, and refer the matter to the D.C. Bar for an investigation.

Second, the D.C. Bar should, at least now that Fisher has opened the profession up as a laughing stock, launch its own investigation into Pearson's conduct. The issuance of a law license should not be a license to terrorize. The D.C. Bar has some very legitimate issues to look into here, and if Pearson is, in fact, acting in bad faith or otherwise abusing his privilege to practice law, he should be disciplined.

Third, according to Fisher, Pearson is himself an administrative law judge in the District. The Commission overseeing the ALJ's should also launch an investigation into his conduct, which appears to reflect badly on the ALJ's.

This is, really, an outrageous story, and one that makes the Curmudgeon glad he's no longer practicing law. Can the people who are supposed to safeguard the public from truly malicious lawyers take appropriate action? We'll see.

A Quick Guide To Orangeburg, SC--Home To Tonight's Democratic Debate

Tonight's Democratic Presidential candidate debate, the first of the season, takes place on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

In the wake of last week's tragedy at Virginia Tech, it would pay for the candidates to know their Orangeburg history, especially if they want to appeal to South Carolina's large contingent of African-American Democratic primary voters.

You see, Orangeburg had its own campus massacre, on the night of February 8, 1968, when at least 30 students at SC State were shot--three of them killed--by state Highway Patrol officers during a civil rights protest that started over the refusal of a local bowling alley to admit blacks. (Only three died because the Highway Patrol was armed with shotguns using buckshot, instead of 9 mm hollow point rounds).

Ask any African-American in the state over the age of 40 and they will recall the Orangeburg Massacre like it was yesterday. The Curmudgeon remembers, too, even though he was only 10 years old at the time.

That's because the Curmudgeon's father was, at the time, the Columbia, SC bureau chief for the Charlotte Observer. He was down in Orangeburg--about 50 miles from Columbia--when the violent outbreak occurred, and he later co-authored a book ("The Orangeburg Massacre"), with the L.A. Times' Jack Nelson, telling the story.

Unlike the Virginia Tech rampage, or for that matter countless sad school campus tragedies going all the way back to at least Kent State, the national media virtually ignored Orangeburg, while the state engaged in a cover-up without any FBI or Justice Dept. scrutiny.

Most of the injured protesters were shot in the back, or the back of their arms and legs, as they ran from the initial volley of gunfire. They had been hanging around a bonfire on the campus, built on the third night of protests over the bowling alley, while law the law enforcement presence grew. It was, of course, a time of bitter division in the South, a time of frequent violence. It seemed the rest of the country just didn't care if three black kids were killed in yet another violent confrontation in the Old South.

People haven't forgotten the Orangeburg Massacre. Quite the contrary: the state legislative black caucus has introduced a resolution calling for a new state investigation into the events of that chilly night nearly 40 years ago. A prominent law firm has volunteered to staff the investigation with its lawyers on a pro bono basis. And one of the measure's sponsors is young Bakari Sellers (pictured here), a freshman state legislator who happens to be the son of Cleveland Sellers, a student leader who infamously was prosecuted and jailed--most would say made a scapegoat--for allegedly inciting the "riot" that led to the shootings. (No one else was ever prosecuted; Cleveland was later pardoned; now he is the head of the African-American Studies program at the University of South Carolina. Times do change.)

The state should re-open the matter, for a full accounting was never made. Let's hope the issue comes up tonight--and let's see if any of the candidates know their SC history.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My Breakfast With Bill

This morning the Curmudgeon had breakfast with Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico and serious contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination. It was an intimate group--less than 30--to kick off a big day of Richardson fundraising activities in the area.

For those who missed it, the Curmudgeon recently posted on why Richardson would make a good President.

Our favorable impressions of Governor Bill were reinforced this morning, our first chance to see the candidate in person.

Richardson discussed a wide-range of issues informally, from Iraq to the U.S. Attorneys firings (prominently involving some New Mexico politicos), from energy independence to budget deficits, and much in between.

What impressed us most about Gov. Richardson is the passion with which he talks about the critical need to engage in dialogue, especially with other nations. Richardson served as U.N. Ambassador under President Clinton, spending much of his time in diplomatic discussions with unpopular world leaders, such as the head of North Korea. He was an effective negotiator, and today he pushed hard on the theme that America can't simply ignore leaders and nations it doesn't like.

[The Governor told a revealing story about President Bush, who he ran into at a dinner of the National Governors Conference. After filling the President in on his most recent negotiations with North Korea, which were largely successful, Richardson pressed Bush on the need to engage in dialogue with Iran, Syria and other troublesome states. The President said something like "we don't talk to people we don't like." Richardson replied, "Pretty soon you'll only be talking to the Vatican."]

Richardson also made a similar point about getting things done in New Mexico, where he has been a popular and, by all accounts, effective Governor. One of his favorite tactics, he said, is to assemble a task force of stakeholders who oppose each other on a key issue, forcing them to come together and try to find common ground. The result has often been a better understanding all around, leading to passage of legislation on key issues that otherwise would've been impossible.

The Governor noted, quite correctly, that essentially nothing is getting done in Congress these days on a wide range of major issues, while the states are innovating and moving forward.

The one point we wish he'd made, to tie everything else together, is that his style of negotiating, including confronting his opponents, could be very effective in curing some of the current ills in Congress. One reason Congress has done so poorly of late is that the President shows no interest in engaging with Congressional leaders, on both sides of the aisle, to get things done.

We think the next President needs to be someone who can work with Congress, figuring out how to get legislation passed on the big issues: energy independence, global warming, immigration, health care, tax policy, social security. No matter how good you think an individual candidate's platform, it won't make a hill of beans' difference if he/she can't get it through Congress.

One of our good friends has known Richardson for many years, working with him for part of that time. Our friend reports that Richardson is, indeed, an amazing negotiator, and the best "closer" he has ever seen, having negotiated both with and against Richardson. That's an admirable trait, one we should value in a President, especially after eight years with one who hasn't even tried.
When we endorsed Governor Richardson a few weeks ago, we candidly acknowledged that it would be an uphill battle for him to get the Democratic nomination, but we thought he was well enough positioned. With the Richardson campaign collecting a remarkable $6.5 million in the first quarter, Richardson is even better positioned. He has distanced himself from the other "second tier" candidates--possibly creating his own tier. As the "big three"--Clinton, Obama and Edwards--batter each other, we think Richardson's standing will rise. He certainly has to be viewed as a viable contender.

If you're interested in learning more, helping out, or making a donation, go to:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fix Virginia's Insane Gun Laws

It never surprises us just how strident the NRA is, but maybe, just maybe, they can agree that handguns shouldn't be sold to persons legally judged to be a danger to themselves or others, such as Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hoi Cho.

Federal law in fact does prohibit sale of a handgun to someone judged to be a danger to himself or others, but unfortunately, the feds rely on the states to provide that information to the national database. Virginia, in turn, only provides that info to the database on patients involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

Cho was never committed. But a judge did order him to undergo outpatient treatment, which, in many other states would have been enough to put his name into the database.

Virginia should fix this loophole on its own. But if it doesn't, Congress should override and set clear standards for the states. Perhaps the NRA could assist?

Meanwhile, we're also learning that Cho used 33-round clips of ammunition that would've been barred under a federal law that expired after Bush took over. And, he used hollow point rounds, which inflict greater damage, and thus account for many of the horrific wounds doctors had to treat last week in those students who were injured.

You certainly won't find the NRA supporting any restrictions on clip size or types of ammunition. We guess hunters need those huge semi-automatic clips just in case a herd of wild deer charge them, and they must like blowing out the insides of animals with hollow points--all the more of an excuse not to have to actually eat them.

We've also noted some of the gun nuts saying the real problem was that Virginia Tech students and faculty needed to be armed, so they could fight back. This is such a stupid argument we won't even begin to get into it. However, we will note that two armed police officers in Fairfax County were murdered last year by a deranged young man--also mentally ill, like Cho--who simply had them outgunned with his heavy NRA-sanctioned weaponry.

What Type of Green Will Your Car Be?

Will you be driving a super-clean, green, hydrogen-powered fuel cell car in the future? Or a lithium-ion battery powered electric car? What about a low-emission bio-diesel? Perhaps an efficient compressed natural gas auto? Or maybe something else (hopefully, not a gasoline powered Hummer!).

Last week, we previewed the future of the robo-car--and any of the vehicles we discuss here could also be a robo model sometime down the road. This week, we'll turn to the shade of green you may be driving.

The May edition of Popular Science has an interesting feature in which they handicap the pros and cons of the automotive fuels of the future, predicting the market share each will have twenty years from now, in 2027.

It's a pretty realistic look at the future, although one hopes the timetable can be sped up through some good government policies.

The clear winner in the PopSci sweepstakes is battery propelled vehicles, including hybrids, which obviously are already on the road and making gains. While current hybrids can achieve gas mileage of 45-50 mpg, we can expect to start seeing mass-market plug-in electrics by around 2011, which offer the promise of as much as 100 mpg (of gasoline--you also have to use electricity to charge them). PopSci forecasts a 30% market share for electrics by 2027.

That's some decent news, but of course if all we do is build a bunch of coal-fired generating plants to charge up all those new electric vehicles, we won't make much progress on reducing carbon emissions. (We will, however, be more energy "independent", unless we start importing Chinese coal.)

So what of those fantastic hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that emit only water as their exhaust? The news ain't so good. PopSci forecasts only 2% market share for such cars by 2027. Technological hurdles abound--not only is fuel-cell technology not quite ready for prime-time, but it is very difficult to store and transport hydrogen efficiently, and the needed infrastructure is a long-way off. Also, the current methods for making hydrogen involve using carbon-based fuels, especially natural gas. Hydrogen can be made from water with electricity--that hydrolysis experiment you did in high school--but we'd need a lot of electricity, so once again we're looking at whether we can quickly boost renewable production of all those needed megawatts. Nonetheless, hydrogen fuel cells look like the technology of our grandchildren, something we can look forward to on trips out of the nursing home.

PopSci doesn't see any other technology making a big breakout, either. They put biodiesel at a 4% market share in 2027, with compressed natural gas (CNG) at 3%, and ethanol at 6%. (We think CNG could develop a niche for larger vehicles--trucks and buses--which would make its overall contribution to lower carbon emissions greater.)

PopSci does see big inroads for regular diesel, taking as much as 20% of the market by 2027. So what, you say? Well, modern diesel engines do emit about a third less carbon than a typical gasoline-powered car, getting 20-40% better mileage. That's some progress, but we'd frankly hope to do a lot better in the next 20 years. Also, putting in a diesel infrastructure is the first step toward more bio-diesel use.

What does all this mean? It means we have a long way to go. PopSci's estimates are probably quite realistic--it takes a long time to replace the whole vehicle fleet, and apart from hybrids and diesels, most of these technologies are barely available today. It means in 20 years we'll still be spewing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere from transportation, and we'll still be pretty dependent on unstable mid-east regimes for fuel.

The best way to speed up the transition is to raise the price of oil, coal and other carbon emitting fuels. The faster the price goes up, the faster our transition, within reason. If the price goes up too fast, however, it will simply harm the economy, especially the poor. What we need is a steady increase, big enough to be noticed. However, we shouldn't simply wait for demand from China and India to drive up our prices. Either a cap and trade system or a carbon tax will raise fuel prices.

It's time to get going!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Do Today's Kids Have It Tough?

Has today's generation of kids somehow had it tougher, been exposed to more violence, somehow become more "hardened," than prior generations?
That's the thesis of a front page article in today's Washington Post, which features suburban moms and kids recounting the horrors of the current generation, culminating in last week's massacre at Virginia Tech. As one mom tells it with respect to her 15-year-old son, first it was Columbine, then 9/11, then the Iraq War, then Virginia Tech. An Annandale High student throws in the days of the Sniper scare in Washington.

Somehow, all this brought out our curmudgeonly side. The current generation of kids--ours included--is incredibly pampered and sheltered. Somehow, the adults of our generation--who, it turns out went through a lot more violence and danger than our kids, but managed to be resilient and determined--have passed on fear and anxiety to our heirs.

The Curmudgeon was born in 1958. In 1963, JFK was murdered, the back of his head blown off in television images repeated over and over. His assasin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also promptly shot in televised images. In 1964-65 we watched as police beat the living daylights out of civil rights workers, unleashed dogs on them and knocked them down with fire hoses. Every night we were treated to the latest images of violence from Viet Nam, including a naked girl running down a dirt road after stripping her napalm-burned clothes off, or an alleged Viet Cong spy being shot in the head.

Yet none of that could even begin to compare the ugly violence of 1968. RFK, gunned down. Martin Luther King, murdered. Riots across every major city in the U.S. Watts burning. The Curmudgeon remembers going to a neighbor hood "curfew party" in our home town of Columbia, SC as the black neighborhoods across town seethed with anger. Black power at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. In Orangeburg, SC, three black students were killed, and 30 wounded when state police officers opened fire on their protest at South Carolina State College. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was four days of riots and police in riot gear. I recall my older cousin calling from Chicago, crying, after being gassed in one of the protests.

By then, thousands of young American men were dying in Viet Nam each month. Everyone knew someone who had been killed, or had been drafted to go over.

Things didn't get much better. In 1970, when the Curmudgeon started riding a school bus to a formerly all-black junior high school as part of the local court-ordered desegration plan, race riots throughout the district shut down schools for several days. I witnessed a police officer, who'd come to my school to pick up his daughter after vicious fighting broke out, as he maced a dozen students--13-14 year olds--as a large crowd gathered behind him shouting insults such as "pig".
In 1972, as the Curmudgeon entered high school, terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes in Munich as the world watched in horror. Police and National Guard troops opened fire on student protesters at Kent State and Jackson State, killing many. An angry local kid brought a shotgun to school one day--fortunately, he was disarmed before harming anyone.

Behind all this loomed the very real threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We were deploying ever more nuclear weapons in formats designed to "survive" a first strike from the Red Menace so we'd be able to devastate them just as well as they could devastate us.

And yet, through all this, our parents let us be regular kids. Imagine this: we rode in the front seat of cars with no air bags, no antilock brakes and only a lap seatbelt--a newfangled contraption many ignored--for protection. We could drive at age 15, drink at age 18.

The Curmudgeon would go on hiking and biking trips with other teenagers in high school with no cell phone, no bike helmet and often no itinerary--our parents having only a vague notion as to where we were! We rode bicycles all over Columbia, sometimes going to the local Krispy Kreme (in a questionable part of town) at night to get the fresh, hot doughnuts.

And get this: we walked to school, every day (until we mercifully got a bike) without any parents shepherding us. No one in our neighborhood today would think of letting their child walk to school by himself.

When bad news happened, we weren't sheltered from it. You couldn't be. Back then, there were four television stations: NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS. There were no 24-hours kids' stations--Disney, Nickolodeon, Cartoon Network. If you were watching Saturday afternoon cartoons and something bad happened, like three astronauts burning up in their rocket as it sat on the launch pad, the networks would interrupt with a bulletin and there'd you'd be, watching raptly. But then, things would soon get back to normal--there were no 24-hour news networks to feed with non-stop coverage. Life would go on.

Yes, the current generation of youth have been exposed to some violent times. To be sure, 9/11 was, to the Curmudgeon, far more shocking than anything we faced growing up. But it was not worse than what happened in WWII, which our parents endured. The Greatest Generation, as they have become known, was not afraid. They passed their fearlessness on to us. If only we could do the same for our children.

What A Difference A Little Warm Sun Makes!

It's amazing how a string of warm, intensely sunny days can change your outlook.

Last week, after nearly three weeks of mostly grey, chilly days--far colder than April's average temps--the Curmudgeon and his family were notably on edge, getting depressed Seattle-style for a lack of sunlight and warmth at a time of year when we would normally expect to be outside much of the day. Having the Virginia Tech tragedy occur during this period certainly didn't help matters.

Thank goodness the weather changed. Now we're into our fourth straight day of crystal clear blue skies and warm temperatures (yes, a little too warm now, but we'll take it), and our mood has brightened considerably (and our happy solar panels are churing out the kilowatts at their highest rate yet).

Unfortunately, our allergy suffering son, while happy to see the sunshine, is suffering with the great green deluge of pollen that has materialized instantaneously, making up for lost time.

We hope you were able to get out this weekend and make the most of it. We all know that the twin scourges of summer--humidity and mosquitoes--aren't too far behind. Let's hope it will be a week of good news.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is A Robo Car In Your Future?

Some day, you'll probably be driving--or be driven by--an autonomous robot vehicle.

Rapid progress being made in development of the sensors, computer programs and code, and other technology necessary to power autonomous robot-cars--vehicles that can drive themselves.

In 2004, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--the Defense Dept's futuristic research funding arm) sponsored a challenge in the desert to see if a robotic vehicle could finish an off-road course within a reasonable time. None of the entrants got more than a few miles before wrecking or otherwise failing miserably. It looked like robo-cars were still well off in science fiction land.

Then, in 2005, DARPA repeated the challenge, with a markedly different outcome. This time, four entrants finished the race course in under the 10-hour limit, led by a car (pictured above) created by a team from Stanford (, which finished the 132 mile course in around seven hours. (Two Carnegie-Mellon robo-cars and one from a private consortium followed closely behind.)

This year, DARPA will move the challenge to an urban environment, or at least a mock one, to see how robotic vehicles perform in a more typical driving environment. Up to 20 entries will compete for a shot at the $2 million first prize for finishing the course fastest (without wrecking or running over a mock pedestrian, of course).

These sophisticated robo-races present an excellent opportunity to develop and prove next-generation technologies likely to be incorporated in your car of the future. Some of the technologies are already appearing in select upscale models, in the form of front, rear and side sensors that can detect when another vehicle is too close, either sounding a warning or even making a course correction or brake adjustment.

Fully robotic cars are, no doubt, still many years away, but we could very well see them in specialized environments within a decade, followed by expansion to the broader population.

Of course, all of us would like to keep our manually driven vehicle while EVERYONE ELSE switches to a robo-car (because we all think we drive better than anyone else).

But apart from keeping jerks off the road--or at least off the steering wheel--one advantage of robo-cars will be their ability to communicate with each other. This could allow greater density of vehicles on the road, as well as elimination of traffic signals. For example, if a vehicle can sense that no other vehicle is at (or approaching) an intersection, there is no need to stop. Even with multiple vehicles at an intersection, computer protocols could optimize the order in which cars proceed, or even vary their speeds so that none need to stop. If vehicles no longer need to stop and go in urban driving, they will have significant energy savings as well.

Robo-cars may also be able to sense and find empty parking spaces, without driving around. Indeed, your robo-car could drop you off at the entrance to wherever your going, and then go park itself. Robo-valet! This will be great, since by 2020 every citizen of our country will be at least 100 pounds overweight and unable to walk more than a few feet at a time.

Here's another possibility: robo-car sharing. Let's face it, 99% of people who own large SUV's and pick-ups do so for the 2% of the time they actually need one. Suppose, instead, you joined a robo-car sharing co-op, which had mostly smaller cars--even tiny single passenger commuter ones--and a few larger ones for the rare occasion you need one. The requisite vehicle shows up on its own at your doorstep at the desired time and off you go.

And, of course, we like the idea of the robo-car that takes the auto thief to the local police station.

The Curmudgeon will be pretty old and even more curmudgeonly by the time this all happens, but we predict our grandchildren may not even learn how to drive. Perhaps that will be a good thing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

McCaffrey On Iraq and Afghanistan

Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, who served as President Bill Clinton's "drug czar," has been teaching at the U.S. Military Academy in recent years. McCaffrey recently visited both Iraq and Afghanistan, interviewing scores of key military officers and important civilian operatives in each theater. After each trip, he produced a concise "after-action" report, summarizing his findings.

These should be required reading for anyone with an active interest in the "War on Terror." (They are relatively short, at seven pages apiece.)

The Iraq report can be found here. The Afghanistan report can be found here. (Hat tip to reader Dave A. for sending us these reports.)

McCaffrey is pretty pessimistic about Iraq, but much more optimistic about Afghanistan.

First, Iraq. Today, bombers killed more than 150 and injured scores more in a series of apparently coordinated suicide attacks around Baghdad. The worst was a massive bomb that killed at least 119 in the Sadriya Market of central Baghdad.

Meanwhile, columnist David Ignatius warns of serious trouble brewing in Kurdistan, heretofore one of the most stable regions of Iraq.

So what did McCaffrey have to say after his weeklong visit in March? First, he paints a dire picture on the ground--"the facts":

"Iraq is ripped by a low grade civil war which has worsened to catastrophic levels with as many as 3000 citizens murdered per month. The population is in despair. Life in many of the urban areas is now desperate. A handful of foreign fighters (500+) --- and a couple of thousand Al Qaeda operatives incite open factional struggle through suicide bombings which target Shia holy places and innocent civilians. Thousands of attacks target US Military Forces (2900 IED’s) a month---primarily stand off attacks with IED’s, rockets, mortars, snipers, and mines from both Shia (EFP attacks are a primary casualty producer) ---and Sunni (85% of all attacks---80% of US deaths—16% of Iraqi population.)

Three million Iraqis are internally displaced or have fled the country to Syria and Jordan. The technical and educated elites are going into self-imposed exile---a huge brain drain that imperils the ability to govern. The Maliki government has little credibility among the Shia populations from which it emerged. It is despised by the Sunni as a Persian surrogate. It is believed untrustworthy and incompetent by the Kurds.

There is no function of government that operates effectively across the nation--- not health care, not justice, not education, not transportation, not labor and commerce, not electricity, not oil production. There is no province in the country in which the government has dominance. The government cannot spend its own money effectively. ($7.1 billion sits in New York banks.) No Iraqi government official, coalition soldier, diplomat, reporter, foreign NGO, nor contractor can walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Kirkuk, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi---without heavily armed protection.

The police force is feared as a Shia militia in uniform which is responsible for thousands of extra-judicial killings. There is no effective nation-wide court system. There are in general almost no acceptable Iraqi penal institutions. The population is terrorized by rampant criminal gangs involved in kidnapping, extortion, robbery, rape, massive stealing of public property ---such as electrical lines, oil production material, government transportation, etc. (Saddam released 80,000 criminal prisoners.)

The Iraqi Army is too small, very badly equipped (inadequate light armor, junk Soviet small arms, no artillery, no helicopters to speak of, currently no actual or planned ground attack aircraft of significance, no significant air transport assets (only three C-130’s), no national military logistics system, no national military medical system, etc. The Iraqi Army is also unduly dominated by the Shia, and in many battalions lacks discipline. There is no legal authority to punish Iraqi soldiers or police who desert their comrades. (The desertion/AWOL numbers frequently leave Iraqi Army battalions at 50% strength or less.)

In total, enemy insurgents or armed sectarian militias (SCIRI, JAM, Pesh Merga, AQI, 1920’s Brigade, et. al.) probably exceed 100,000 armed fighters. These non-government armed bands are in some ways more capable of independent operations than the regularly constituted ISF. They do not depend fundamentally on foreign support for their operations. Most of their money, explosives, and leadership are generated inside Iraq. The majority of the Iraqi population (Sunni and Shia) support armed attacks on American forces. Although we have arrested 120,000 insurgents (hold 27,000) and killed some huge number of enemy combatants (perhaps 20,000+) --- the armed insurgents, militias, and Al Qaeda in Iraq without fail apparently re-generate both leadership cadres and foot soldiers. Their sophistication, numbers, and lethality go up--- not down--- as they incur these staggering battle losses."
Despite this assessment, McCaffrey concludes that "the situation on the ground has clearly and measurably improved" since the arrival of General Petraeus and additional troops. We think that's fair--things are better. But today's horrific bombings illustrate how little control we still have. Improvement hardly means we're where we want to be, or even close.

McCaffrey echoes other military leaders who have said Iraq is dangerously stretching our forces: "the US Armed Forces cannot sustain the current deployment rate."

Nor does McCaffrey believe we can achieve a military "victory": "there will be no imposed military solution with the current non-sustainable US force levels."

Instead, our only chance is to persuade "the top 100 Shia and Sunni leaders to walk back form the edge of all-out civil war" while also creating "a regional dialog led by the Iraqis with US active participation"--i.e., talks with Syria and Iran, among others.

McCaffrey acknowledges that time is very short, and cautions that "this whole Iraq operation is on the edge of unraveling as the poor Iraqis batter each other to death with our forces caught in the middle."

At bottom, McCaffrey is saying we need to work out a political resolution in Iraq, and fast, or the surge will be a bust. We don't see enough signs that the Bush administration is working in that direction, especially diplomatically, where our efforts have been tepid at best. Unfortunately, it appears that a reduced force of US troops ultimately will have to draw back to secure bases in the region while a quite awful civil war plays out. We won't be entirely out of Iraq, or the region, for years, no matter who replaces our incompetent President.

Now, what about Afghanistan? (Sorry for the length of this post). As we've said all along, the war in Afghanistan has been slighted from the beginning by the idiotic decision to go to war in Iraq. As McCaffrey succinctly puts it: "The War in Afghanistan has been sharefully under-resourced by DOD throughout the entire intervention in terms of inter-agency involvement, US combat forces, political will, and nation-building resources."

However, "the situation is now turning rapidly for the better" [read between the lines: Rumsfeld is gone.]

"We can, without question, achieve our US national objective of a functioning law-based state -- with a performing, non-drug economy--- which rejects sanctuary for terrorism. This is the cross-over year. The execution of our plan in the coming 24 months will decide the outcome in the country. 90% of the Afghan people (to include the Pashtuns) reject the extremist ideology of the Taliban. They strongly abhor the continuing violence. They are working frantically throughout the country to re-build. They admire and trust their new Army. They are incredibly eager to absorb new lessons, new opportunities. They trust, admire, and protect their Embedded US Trainers. They will support security and progress while remaining a deeply Islamic state. In addition, the Pakistanis are strongly supportive of our goal of a strong, stabilized state. "

McCaffrey goes on to analyze the situation in a number of respects, finding that we have good promise in Afghanistan IF we follow-through on reconstruction aid, police training, resources for the Afghan army (for which he has great praise) and continued NATO support.

McCaffrey also visited Pakistan and concludes that the Pakistanis, "in a very difficult political and military situation" are not actively supporting the Taliban.

His conclusion is encouraging:

"The Afghan economy is booming at 12% growth rate a year. $14 billion has been spent on aid since 2001. Six TV channels and a hundred free/uncensored publications are available to the people. Literacy is increasing rapidly. The ring road is now 2/3 complete. The 40,000 soldiers of the ANA are growing rapidly in numbers and capability. There are 45,000 NATO and US troops in-country. There is a functioning democracy with an elected Parliament ---and a serious, dedicated Afghan President in office.

Afghanistan can be a strategic victory in the struggle against terrorism. We are now on the right path."

We believe the American people continue to support the battle in Afghanistan, even as they despair over the situation in Iraq. Let's hope we can follow through on our commitments in Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming another quagmire.

Tax Follow-up--Samuelson Weighs In

As a follow-up to our post on the equality of the tax system (in which we responded to Ari Fleischer's misleading WSJ op-ed asserting that the rich are being penalized), here is a column by Robert Samuelson--The Rich and the Rest--examining the growing concentration of wealth in the richest Americans.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Arlington for Brownback?!

Could it be? Could lefty, liberal, Democratic Arlington County be a bastion of financial strength for hard-core conservative presidential aspirant Sam Brownback, Senator from Kansas?

It appears so.

According to federal election records, Arlington County's 22201 zip code was the largest source of first quarter '07 campaign contributions to Sen. Sam Brownback's presidential campaign. (We got this from a chart in today's Washington Post, and assume their research is correct.)

Good lord. That's the Curmudgeon's zip code. We'll have to drive around and see if Brownback for President yard signs have begun to sprout in our neighborhood!

Virginia Tech Tragedy

The news is numbing: one student, armed with pistols easily purchased anywhere in gun-happy Virginia, killed and injured more people, mostly young, on the Virginia Tech campus than a typical car-bomber in Iraq.

Our hearts go out to the victims' families and friends in this awful tragedy. We hope for comfort and healing to the injured who managed to survive. We await with trepidation for the names of the dead from our region, wondering if anyone we know will be touched by the loss of a loved one.

We now know that the killer was a Virginia Tech student, a senior in the English department. What motivated him to go on such a rampage? Why is it in our violent culture that people who are affronted--perhaps by a lover's jilt, or a worker's snub--feel compelled to take their revenge on randomly selected innocent victims?

Imagine if this happened every day. What a horror--and yet that is precisely the case in Iraq, a country with one-twelfth the population of the U.S.

What of the enablers--the gun fanatics who insist that there should be no regulation of firearms. The VPI killer was armed with a 9 mm pistol. At one time, federal law limited the size of the ammunition clip one could use with a 9 mm, but that law expired with the Bush/Cheney regime. Yet, the Enabler in Chief plans to attend the memorial service today at VPI. Will he evince a change of heart? Will he say this incident has forced him to look into his soul, to summon the willpower to stand up to the heartless lobbyists of the NRA, who insist that hunters need the leeway to shoot prairie dogs with automatic weapons?

There is no use for a 9 mm pistol other than to kill people. This is a large caliber weapon, and it shows in the Tech tragedy, where doctors have described as "horrific" the wounds they treated on those fortunate enough to survive the shootings.

It wasn't that long ago that Virginia was in the national eye for another shooting tragedy, when a mentally unstable young man in Fairfax County used semi-automatic weapons to outgun police officers, killing two.

Will this latest incident prompt any reconsideration in the Virginia legislature, any thought that maybe Virginia shouldn't be one of the easiest places in the U.S. to purchase just about any kind of firearm one pleases? Firearms that have nothing to do with legitimate hunting and everything to do with murder?

The tragedies pile up; the politicians mouth their hollow condolences. But nothing changes.

For the grieving families, their is no comfort. The lost children could've been ours. We shed our tears with you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sick VPI Shootings

We're just sick over the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech today, with the reported death toll still climbing. Our heart goes out to all the worried friends and families trying to sort out what happened and waiting to hear about their own loved ones.

Tax Day Debate

Today's Wall Street Journal carries some interesting data as Americans write their tax checks to the IRS.

Prominently displayed across the entire top half of the opinion page is a jeremiad by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, entitled "The Taxpaying Minority," repeating the WSJ's oft-stated claim that the current tax system "soaks the rich."

Buried on the back of section B, in the Informed Reader column, is a short article excerpted from the Boston Globe, entitled "Burden Shifts From Rich, Flattening the Tax System."

Wow--wouldn't it be nice to put these two articles side-by-side and see how they stack up?

Are the rich being soaked, as Fleischer argues, or is the burden shifting away from the rich, as argued by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez in a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (the source of the Globe story)?

Not surprisingly, the data points to Piketty and Saez--two very serious economists--rather than the glib analysis of White House propagandist Fleischer writing in the GOP's daily rag.

Fleischer argues that the richest segment of the American population is paying an increasing share of the federal income tax burden. Unlike the WSJ's editors, who frequently write quite misleadingly on the topic, Fleischer at least acknowledges that the richest 1% of Americans have seen their tax burden go up at least in part because they also command a much larger share of all income. (In Fleischer's piece, the richest 1% control about 16-17% of all income, up from 9% in 1979.) But Fleischer says the tax burden of the richest 1% has gone up even faster, leading to the conclusion that they are being "soaked."

What's missing here? Two things. First, Fleischer should give you the figures for the share of wealth controlled by the top 1% of Americans--not just income. The share of wealth of the lucky wealthiest Americans has soared in the past two decades as they have accumulated vast piles of stocks, bonds, hedge funds, private equity, real estate and other investments. It has increased at a greater rate than "income." The marginal tax rate on "income" derived from such wealth is much lower than that on salaries, etc,, but because there has been such a huge increase in such wealth, the top 1% is paying more in tax dollars, but not necessarily proportionately more.

Second, Fleischer leaves out other taxes, especially payroll taxes, which fall disproportionately on lower and middle income taxpayers.

As a result, we have what Piketty and Saez have found--a steady flattening of the income tax burden, rather than the progressive tax system that is taught in high school civics. Piketty and Saez state that, "the current federal tax system is relatively close to a flat-tax rate" and trending more so every year.

So who to believe? Just use your common sense. If the tax code was unduly penalizing the highest earners, then we'd expect to see them faring relatively poorly compared to the rest of Americans. That surely is not the case. Unquestionably, the rich have gotten richer--by every possible measure--over the past few decades, taking an ever increasing share of income and wealth. So don't feel sorry for those poor old millionaires defended by Fleischer. Better to get your news from the back page of the Journal.

Marine General Explains Why He Declined White House Offer As "War Czar"

Retired Marine Corps General John Sheehan penned an important op-ed piece in today's Washington Post detailing why he turned down an invitation to become the White House "implementation manager" for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Others reportedly have also turned down the White House.) See Why I Declined To Serve.

Sheehan's piece represents a good, objective critique of both administration policy and execution. "There has to be linkage between short-term operations and strategic objectives that represent long-term U.S. and regional interests, such as assured access to energy resources and support for stable, Western-oriented countries."

"We cannot 'shorthand' this issue with concepts such as the 'democratization of the region' or the constant refrain by a small but powerful group that we are going to 'win,' even as 'victory' is not defined or is frequently redefined."

Here's the bottom line: "It would have been a great honor to serve this nation again. But after thoughtful discusssions with people both in and outside this administration, I concluded that the current Washington decision-making process lacks a linkage to a broader view of the region [i.e., the Mideast] and how the parts fit together strategically. . . . These huge shortcomings are not going to be resolved by the assignment of an additional individual to the White House staff. They need to be addressed before an implementation manager is brought on board."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Huckabee, Schmuckabee

It's surprising how revealing just 10 questions can be.

Take presidential apsirant Mike Huckabee, the recently former Governor of Arkansas, who is most famous for shedding 100 pounds and fighting obesity (pictured here in his heftier days, on the right).

Time Magazine let readers ask Huckabee 10 questions as part of its regular "10 Questions" feature. Huckabee bombed his responses, clearly revealing a candidate unqualified to be President.

The first question was "why should I vote for you?"--a sure softball. With a great opportunity to distinguish himself, all the Huckster could come up with was "Because I believe that America's greatness is not in its government but in ordinary people. I know what it is like to start at the bottom, and I am very mindful of how hard people have to work to make it." Hunh?

So what?

Then Huckabee tries to explain his statement that America is "currently in a world war." He says we're "fighting against a perversion of the Muslim faith" in which "radical clerics have convinced a growing number of adherents that their purpose on earth is to kill, dismember and destroy as many people as possible." That certainly isn't the purpose of Al Queda and other radical muslim groups. His thinking is, remarkably, even more simplistic than W's.

Then, after denouncing the radical religious beliefs of some Muslims, Huckabee says, in response to a question about why he is "so fixated on unimportant topics such as gay marriage and abortion", that he "would disagree that protection of innocent life is insignificant. It is what separates us as a civilization from the very jihadists we are fighting." Are Muslim fundamentalists in favor of abortion? We don't think so. When we kill innocent civilians while tracking down jihadists, are we excused simply because we call it "collateral damage?" Not really.

Then there's this--for prospective members of the Huckaliban: when it comes to marriage, "the rules are one man, one woman for life." What does he mean by "for life"--no divorce? [Guiliani, McCain and Gingrich might want to ask him about that in a debate.]

The Huckmeister also bristles at the notion that the poultry industry in Arkansas is "wantonly" hiring illegal aliens, saying that he "would expect companies to take every step possible to ensure that their workers are legal." C'mon Governor, you KNOW those poultry operations would fail without illegals. Did you, as Governor, take every step possible to ensure that the companies were ensuring that their workers were legal? No.

We think Mr. Huckabee should go back to his trailer, er, we mean "manufactured housing," at the Arkansas Governor's mansion.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Tale of Thirteen Year Olds In Loudon County; Road Rage in Frederick

What's with those placid outer suburbs these days?

Loudon Teens

The thirteen-year old set was unusually active Tuesday night in the upscale, suburban Great Falls neighborhood of Loudon County.

Police have arrested two thirteen year old boys and charged them with setting fire to a home, which spread to another, and for burning materials outside yet another home just around the corner.

At the same time, two thirteen year old girls emerged as heroes for alerting the residents inside one of the burning homes about the fire that had been set in their garage.

The Washington Post quoted one of the neighbors thusly: "I thought the whole point of Loudon County was it was safe and this kind of thing doesn't happen here." Hey, no place is completely safe. But that kind of thing doesn't happen in our neighborhood in Arlington. (Not yet, at least.)

Frederick Rage

Yesterday, a young couple from Pennsylvania died in an apparent road rage incident along I-270 in Frederick County when a man in a pick-up truck cut them off, causing their car to careen off the highway and flip several times. The Pennsylvania male had evidently been exchanging obscene gestures with the pick-up male and was trailing perilously close behind at high speed, all during heavy rush hour traffic at around 8:00 a.m.

Police are looking for the driver of the pick-up (Mrs. Curmudgeon said she heard on the radio that someone had been arrested, but we can't find any confirmation to that effect on the internet).

It's truly alarming when you go out driving just about anywhere, at how many just awful, rude, aggressive drivers there are (and not always men, but certainly disproportionately so). Frankly, if living in the outer suburbs, we'd be much more concerned about the menace from these road jerks--given all the extra driving required in suburban living--than from the occasional miscreant teen.

We hope the police find the pick-up driver and take him off the streets. These people are as a big a threat to society as random killers.

[The Curmudgeon had an interesting run-in with road rage a decade or so ago, on I-95 south, near Ikea, while stuck in slow-moving Christmas holiday exodus traffic. Deciding it made sense to grab a burger while traffic was stalled, we moved into the exit lane, which put us in front of a grizzly fellow illegally barreling down the shoulder. He honked, flipped us the finger and jerked his car around us before we both got stuck in the traffic on the exit ramp. When we honked back at him, he flashed a pistol out the window. It's times like that when you ask "where's a cop when you need 'em?" But this time, the cop was there, right behind us! An off-duty D.C. police officer, sitting in his civilian car, saw the gun. Without hesitation, he jumped out of his car and sprinted up to old grizzly guy, and that was that. We would've liked to stick around and see more, and wish we knew whether the guy ever did jail time (probably not), but we had many miles to go, and were waved around so as not to further tie up traffic while local police were summoned. We sure were glad to see this jerk get his come-uppance.]

Speaking of Global Warming . . .

. . . it'd sure be nice to get some local warming!

April looks to be a cold, wet bust--again. We haven't even come close to the average high temp of around 65 degrees since the first couple days of the month, and we're not expected to get there for the next 10 days either.

Despite the glowing images of April in Washington with cherry blossoms blooming in the warm spring sun, the reality, year-in and year-out, is that April is the most disappointing month of the year. (Give us its fall cousin, October, anytime!)

If we could just get back to that nice January weather we had!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Time For Cap and Trade

It's time for the U.S. to adopt a cap and trade system on carbon emissions.

Some of our green colleagues argue that we'd be better off with a carbon tax. In a vacuum, we'd agree--a carbon tax is economically more efficient and avoids some of the pitfalls of administering a cap and trade system.

But we don't live in a vacuum, especially politically. For Democrats to take the lead in enacting a massive new tax would be political folly and would lose significant moderate Republican support for a cap and trade system. Besides, a carbon tax would also be difficult to administer and is susceptible to many of the same problems--or different ones--as cap and trade. One particular pitfall is the notable tendency of Congress to enact exceptions to taxes. You can bet we'd never actually get a "flat" carbon tax. (Cap and trade is, of course, a hidden tax.)

The time to act is NOW (i.e., this legislative session of Congress). A broad consensus has finally formed in the U.S. that we need to take aggressive steps to combat global climate change. Many business entities, anticipating regulation and fearing a patchwork of state laws, now favor a national cap and trade system. Few Republicans are "climate deniers" anymore: in what was to have been a "debate" between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich on global warming recently, Gingrich surprised Kerry and a lot of other folks by freely conceding warming and agreeing we need to do something about it. Most moderate Republicans--feeling heat from their constituents--also support legislation.

It would be a grave mistake for congressional Democrats to stall legislation in the hopes of making it an issue in the '08 presidential contest. It is likely that the GOP nominee--whoever it is--will be far greener than W. Bush. We'd expect to see Guiliani, McCain, Romney, Gingrich or Thomspson push some kind of green legislative package if Congress hasn't already acted. The issue among Republicans today is not whether warming is happening, but rather what to do about it, and they're generally open to moderate looking solutions, especially ones supported by business.

The issue is also sufficiently complicated that most Americans won't be able to parse subtle differences between say a weak Guiliani cap and trade system with loopholes for coal and oil, versus a strong cap and trade system proposed by Clinton or Obama. If anything, Democrats could get outflanked--their biggest ally now is that Bush stands for nothing. The next GOP candidate won't make that mistake.

Indeed, if congressional Democrats haven't passed a bill by '08, their presidential nominee may find herself or himself under attack from the GOP nominee for their failure of action. If Democrats pass legislation and Bush vetoes it (which we doubt will happen), or if Senate Republicans filibuster a vote, then that's a different story. But voters now expect Congress to act, so it is imperative for Democrats to agree on a bill--a cap and trade bill--and bring it to a vote. Doing so will help convince voters that putting Dems back in power was a good idea, and should help increase Democratic majorities in the next election.

Goodbye Don

With the withdrawal of sponsors, and the likely disappearance of a lot of his more prominent guests, it looks like Don Imus is toast.

What we can't figure out is why a national radio host would be talking about the Rutgers womens basketball team to begin with.

Good riddance, Don.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Springfield Interchange?

Now here's an idea for the Springfield interchange (this is from Beijing, where they're seriously getting ready for the Olympics!):

Remarkable Housing Fraud

It always interesting how much good reporting and disclosure occurs AFTER some scandalous meltdown of an economic sector.

Today's Washington Post has an amazing story detailing a type of mortgage fraud that evidently was pandemic during the recent housing boom, and which, of course, is now contributing to the inevitable housing bust.

[We can't help but notice that the online version of the story appears under a banner ad from "," headlined "Mortgage Rates Fall Again" and promoting what appears to be an a teaser mortgage with an unrealistically low payment. Perhaps the Post will do a different story on its own role in the housing debacle.]

This past weekend we visited with an old friend who left the urban environs of Arlington a couple years ago to become CFO of a bank in suburban Michigan. His bank makes more traditional mortgage loans, and we got to discussing how deep the housing crisis really is, and how long it will last. We were in agreement that it's worse than many analysts think, and that it will probably take about five years--maybe more--to recover to anything like its recent boom levels. (Think 2001 stock market meltdown and how long it took to recover.)

The Post story reinforces our view, as it exposes widespread outright--and fairly obvious and open--fraud schemes that apparently operated across the country.

In the scheme elaborated upon by the Post, an Atlanta con artist obtained short term loans from wealthy individuals, such as sports stars, promising large returns. He used the money to purchase luxury homes in upscale neighborhoods. He then enlisted straw buyers--often students--to purchase the homes a couple months later. (He invited the straw buyers to lavish parties at his mansion and offered them $10,000 to get in on the deal.) The straw buyers would then pay double or more what the con artist initially paid, based on a fraudulent appraisal from a sleazy appraiser in on the scheme. The straw buyer would obtain a large mortgage--through a broker also in on the deal--and then ultimately default on the loan, the proceeds of which went to our con artist, who made a large profit on the quick flip of the property. (The con artist, who insists he didn't know this was all illegal, has been convicted of fraud an faces, we hope, a lifetime of jail.)

Evidently, these schemes existed throughout the country and involved hordes of greedy appraisers, brokers and real estate attorneys, all taking advantage of lax lending rules and practices that spread risks so diffusely that no one was minding the store.

Mortgage fraud scams like this caused injury to some innocent homebuyers by driving up prices in certain neighborhoods, followed by a collapse as the schemes unfolded, leaving new homeowners in those neighborhoods with properties unworthy of their inflated purchase prices.

(We use the term innocent loosely--a lot of folks were buying and selling properties on rampant speculation, hoping to make a quick buck (albeit not fraudulently). To the extent that such speculators lost money, we think they fall into the same category as folks who lost money in the '80's on junk bonds with outrageous interest rates--they were victims of their own greed.)

So what we're increasingly finding out is that the whole residential property market was a house of cards. The only reason it kept going the way it did is that so many people--mortgage brokers, real estate agents, closing attorneys, title companies, appraisers, packagers of mortgage loans as securities, new home builders--had such a huge stake in keeping it going that they all looked the other way even as they knew the lending practices fueling the boom were insane.

And, unfortunately, we think a lot of local government officials also looked the other way as income from all the housing deals flowed into their coffers as well.

Congress needs to look carefully at what happened and consider new regulations. We think the group that most needs scrutiny and oversight is the mortgage brokers, who have every incentive to push through as many loans as possible, without any regard whatsoever as to risk, and most of whom wittingly aided massive fraud by pushing "undocumented" loans that they knew, or certainly should have known, were going to unqualified purchasers. (The Post story notes that one survey of borrowers who obtained "stated income" loans--widely known in the industry as "liar loans"--found that 60% inflated their income by more than half.)

So, housing prices got you down? Check out hedge funds and private equity. You'll be reading about them in the Post in a couple of years.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Mind At A Time

While we were on Spring Break, we read an excellent book on youth learning and development, Dr. Mel Levine's "A Mind At A Time."

Dr. Levine, a child development specialist who has worked with thousands of kids suffering from learning problems, notes that for most people the school years present a tremendous challenge because they force students to use their minds in ways they may never have to again once they become adults.

Not surprisingly, most kids have some clear strengths and some clear weaknesses in the ways they process and retain information. Thus, a child with great visual ability--a budding artist or movie director--may have correspondingly weak verbal skills and struggle with aspects of school that require those skills.

Likewise, a naturally gifted creative thinker may have limited graphomotor skills (essentially, the motor skills for writing) such that putting those ideas on paper becomes an unbearable chore.

Of course, schools academically reward, with good grades, those children whose skill sets tend toward rich written expression and rapid regurgitation of factoids, while penalizing many others. (The fact that these skill sets become far less important in the everyday lives of most adults explains why so many formerly good students fare so poorly on a show such as Fox's "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader."

Dr. Levine has a tremendous gift himself, for breaking down into many little subcategories the way a mind works, and for pinpointing weaknesses that may contribute to a more general breakdown in learning. Once those weaknesses are identified, he can help children--and their beleagured parents--learn strategies to cope, usually by utilizing their strengths. For example, a child with a poor short-term memory can be encouraged to write down more, while a child with strong visual abilities may be encouraged to make diagrams for studying.

One of the things we like about Levine's book is that he avoids stigmatizing terms, such as "attention deficit disorder" or "learning disability." He also discourages use of pharmaceuticals as a last resort, particularly for weaknesses of attention. Indeed, Dr. Levine points out that kids with attention issues are all too often lumped together when what they really have are different types of attentional weaknesses that require different approaches. Drugs simply mask those distinctions--a little like chronically using caffeine to get through the day instead of getting enough sleep to begin with.

Levine and his colleagues help children, many of whom have been scarred by years of poor academic performance, to realize they are not "stupid", but rather have particular challenges to overcome. In other words, he helps kids learn the unique ways in which their minds work.

Most importantly, Levine helps kids, especially adolescents, recognize that there are plenty of ways, as adults, to focus on their strong suits to succeed in jobs that require their skills. Even in college, most students are finally allowed to follow their strengths--science and medicine for students who never could comprehend literature; or writing and analysis of history for those with difficulty doing simple algebra--and eventually find a career that suits the student's skill set.

In addition to working directly with kids and their parents, Levine's "All Kinds of Minds Institute" has a "Schools Attuned" program that works with teachers to help them recognize the various types of problems children may be having with learning, and then help them overcome those problems. Educators trained in the program are better able to help those children who are struggling in their classes.

Every kid has strengths. We have a nephew who's long struggled with school as he tries to overcome attentional issues and weaknesses of memory and some types of information processing. But anyone who knows him finds him to be one of the friendliest, most outgoing kids, with an amazing amount of energy and resourcefulness. It was no surprise when he won a district-wide award for good citizenship that included recognition at a school board meeting. He is also fearless and practically indestructible when it comes to physical challenges. We expect he'll find his way to a rewarding career using his tremendous assets.

Our own children are struggling with some aspects of school in ways we never would've anticipated based on our childhood academic performances. Yet, they also demonstrate skills that clearly weren't inherited from the Curmudgeon, and at which we can only marvel. The teaching of A Mind At A Time helps keep it all in perspective.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Our Shrinking Electric Bill

As we've been reporting since installing solar panels and instituting some conservation measures (notably replacing most of our lights with fluorescents and completely turning off all our electronics each night), our electric bill has declined dramatically.

March continued the trend, with our lowest monthly power bill ever, just 520 kilowatt hours (about $50 at Dominion's rates). That was 45% less than last March, and a mere one third of March 2005.

In March, the solar panels finally kicked in a significant share, knocking 202 kwh's off our bill (thus contributing about 30 percent of our electric needs for March), while conservation measures accounted for the rest.

We think we can do even better in April, with the solar panels contributing a bit more, and lighting needs being lower (last April was our lowest month before the latest round of savings' measures). We'll let you know.

Check out our archived posts for more info on the solar panels and the conservation measures we've instituted.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Curmudgeon TV

We haven't said much this season about some of our favorite television shows, so Good Friday seemed like a nice slow news day to do so.

American Idol: despite the angst over whether Sanjaya will hijack the show with his mediocre singing, we'll put our money on Melinda, Jordan, LaKisha and Blake as the final four. Let's hope it works out that way because Sanjaya, Haley and Phil clearly have gone further than they should have. (That leaves Justin Timberlake look-a-like Chris as our fifth contender, but he really can't keep up with our top four.)

24: For a show created by a self-avowed right winger (Joel Surnow), 24 sure manages to portray right wingers as nut jobs. (We reckon it takes one to know one.) This season's best new character is Cheney-esque Vice President Noah Daniels, perfectly played by veteran actor Powers Boothe. Daniels is determined to loose a nuke on the Middle East, regardless of who's actually responsible for terrorizing the U.S. And when he doesn't get his way, he tries to boot the President out of office, using the 25th Amendment to force a cabinet vote. And when the cabinet vote is tied, he tries to disqualify the National Security Adviser (because she resigned and then unresigned) from the vote, going so far as to submit a perjured affidavit to the Supreme Court in order to do so ("the end justifies the means" says his Ann Coulter-esque assistant). But his plotting gets caught on tape, so the President stays in office, only to go ahead and unleash the nuke anyway--fearful of what the right wingers (who tried to assassinate him) will say if he "looks weak."

All of which is to say that Surnow, who hangs out with the right-wing crowd, must know some pretty scary stuff.

Sopranos: They're baaaccckkk! It's about time. Now, where were we when the show last left off? Oh yes, Tony was depressed and whacking people to get his dopamine going. We love the Sopranos, but we don't like all the long waits for the next few installments. Still, the early reviews of this final season are good, so we'll sit back and savor it.

Entourage: Great news--HBO is actually bringing back a true full-season of Entourage, an unheard of (for HBO) 22 episodes. We can't wait to see the new adventures of Vince, Ari and the gang.

Big Love: Another great HBO series, about polygamy and Mormon gangsters. We're not sure whether it's a comedy or a drama, but we do love it, and it will soon be back for a second season.

Heroes: After a hiatus of several weeks, NBC's freshman hit about mutants with special powers that both threaten to destroy and save the world, will soon return for the season's finale. After a terrific and stylishly refreshing build-up, we hope the ending doesn't disappoint.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

While We Were Out

A lot happened while we out on Spring Break. A few highlights:

The Hoyas lost (boo). But they had a great season and should be back for more next year. (The Curmudgeon missed the end of the game--the pilot had it piped into the plane, but lost the signal with about 14 minutes left to go.)

John McCain, launching the Doubletalk Express, created terrific fodder for an opponent's campaign ad by going to Baghdad, appearing at Baghdad's Shorja market (above, after a recent attack) with 100 soldiers in armored humvees while attack helicopters hovered overhead and sharpshooters covered the rooftops, pronouncing, while wearing body armor, that it was just as safe and normal as a shopping center in the midwest. We sure don't want to visit such shopping center!

(The Wall Street Journal and a handful of other right-wing publications continue to insist that things are "getting better" in Iraq through awfully selective reporting of facts. Things may well be a bit "better" in Baghdad, but that's a bit like saying things were "better" in Atlanta a couple of weeks after Sherman burned it to the ground.)

The presidential posse reported their first quarter fundraising totals. Obama and Romney beat expectations, Hillary did fine, McCain disappointed, and our man Richardson made a credible showing.

And the Supreme Court handed a tremendous victory to environmentalists and conservationists who want the EPA and other executive agencies to get off their hands when it comes to regulating carbon emissions. Bush, in his typical double-speak, declared that he will fight global warming, but not at the expense of "economic growth." He then invoked that great conservative bogeyman of climate change--the China/India argument, i.e., what's the point of America doing anything when China and India aren't. The problem, of course, is that Americans--not America--cause anywhere from 10-1000 times the emissions of Chinese and Indians (not China and India), and you can hardly expect the developing world to take action if the U.S. doesn't. It's up to us--like developed Europe and Japan--to take the lead and stop makng lame excuses.

Ah, it's good to be back.

San Diego Sunshine

We're back from our brief Spring Break jaunt to lovely San Diego. After several days of nonstop stimulation, the kids are now bored and the weather stinks--more like early March than early April.

San Diego was great--it's nice not to have to worry about whether it will rain. It's still a bit chilly this time of year--that "in-between" temperature of 60-65 degrees that with a breeze is a bit too cool for a short sleeve shirt, but a bit hot in the sun with a sweatshirt on. (We quickly learned that every morning near the beach starts out grey, but soon turns sunny.)

Of course we went to the Zoo and Sea World--what a great place to see animals! (Go to the Zoo first--it's hard to compete with the lively shows at Sea World.) Even our hotel had a wide assortment of waterfowl and exotic birds living on the grounds. We also enjoyed the variety of outdoor activities available, although we barely had time to sample many of them.

We also spent a morning down at Coronado, where the Curmudgeon's brother was born in 1959 when we lived there for a year or so while dad finished out his Navy service. The Curmudgeon had his first "brush with fame" there, at the ripe old age of 1, hanging out on the beach while Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis filmed Some Like It Hot at the Hotel Del Coronado. The kids tolerated our trip down memory lane at Coronado, but something tells us they would've rebelled had we stayed into the afternoon.

While we have no basis for comparison with other San Diego hotels and resorts, we'd certainly recommend our hotel--the Catamaran Resort & Spa--to anyone wanting a kid-friendly place to sleep with a terrific location. The Catamaran has its own sandy beach and pier on Mission Bay, with all kinds of boat and bicycle rentals available. The kids liked the heated outdoor pool, but an even bigger hit was the adjacent arcade with plenty of free games. Mrs. Curmudgeon liked the spa, while X enjoyed the fitness room looking out over the Bay.

A half-block walk across the street brought us to Pacific Beach (pictured above), a popular surfer destination with plenty of beach bars and musty little hotel/motels for the younger set. Spring Break--the college kind--was clearly in evidence along the beach, but we were able to find plenty of kid-friendly eating establishments within walking distance of our hotel.

Getting to San Diego's various attractions was a cinch--Sea World was at the other end of Mission Bay, less than a 10 minute drive, while the Zoo, Coronado and other attractions were a short ride down I-5 (just don't try to go before 9:00 am).

Our only regret: that we didn't stay longer.