Friday, June 29, 2007

Water For Thought

Okay, we confess. In the Curmudgeon household, we consume a fair amount of bottled water. Seltzer water in quart bottles (the Curmudgeon's favorite) and plain old flat water in all kinds of shapes and sizes of bottles, sent off in school lunch boxes, camp daypacks, and soccer satchels, not to mention stashed into the cars for trips.

We do our best to recycle those plastic bottles the water comes in--probably better than most. But still, a few do end up in distant trash bins, from whence they likely end up in a landfill, where they will last for the next thousand years.

Perhaps its time for us to change. In this month's Fast Company, Charles Fishman writes in detail about the environmental costs of all that bottled water and suggests an alternative: your local tap. See "Message In A Bottle."

Noting that Americans spend $15 billion a year on bottled water, Fishman makes some good points:

Bottled water is the food phenomenon of our times. We--a generation raised on tap water and water fountains--drink a billion bottles of water a week, and we're raising a generation that views tap water with disdain and water fountains with suspicion. We've come to pay good money--two or three or four times the cost of gasoline--for a product we have always gotten, and can still get, for free, from taps in our homes.

The environmental costs don't just stop at the old landfill--there's the impact of moving all that water, which is quite large:

We're moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That's a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 81/3 pounds a gallon. It's so heavy you can't fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water--you have to leave empty space.)

Moreover, while we luxuriate in bottled water we hardly need, others lack access to basic, clean drinking water. Take, for example, the residents of the island nation of Fiji:

[I]n Fiji, a state-of-the-art factory spins out more than a million bottles a day of the hippest bottled water on the U.S. market today, while more than half the people in Fiji do not have safe, reliable drinking water. Which means it is easier for the typical American in Beverly Hills or Baltimore to get a drink of safe, pure, refreshing Fiji water than it is for most people in Fiji.

Fishman points out that if you paid the same amount for tap water as for even cheap bottled water, your monthly water bill would be around $9000. Fishman observes the oxymoron that something "as clean and pure as water" nonetheless "leaves a contrail." For example:

San Pellegrino's 1-liter glass bottles--so much a part of the mystique of the water itself--weigh five times what plastic bottles weigh, dramatically adding to freight costs and energy consumption. The bottles are washed and rinsed, with mineral water, before being filled with sparkling Pellegrino--it uses up 2 liters of water to prepare the bottle for the liter we buy. The bubbles in San Pellegrino come naturally from the ground, as the label says, but not at the San Pellegrino source. Pellegrino chooses its CO2 carefully--it is extracted from supercarbonated volcanic springwaters in Tuscany, then trucked north and bubbled into Pellegrino.

Fishman finishes with a great question: Once you understand the resources mustered to deliver the bottle of water, it's reasonable to ask as you reach for the next bottle, not just "Does the value to me equal the 99 cents I'm about to spend?" but "Does the value equal the impact I'm about to leave behind?"

Tomorrow, when we head out to the McSoccerfest with the kids, we might just fill a few empty water bottles from out tap and see how it works out.

Bush's Legacy: The Supreme Court

If there was any doubt before, the last few days have dispelled it, as the Supreme Court's final rulings of the term show a decided tilt to the right, courtesy of the addition of Justice Samuel Alito to the Court last year by President Bush.

Yes, Bush's domestic agenda--whatever it was--is in shambles and his foreign policy is a disaster. In a year and a half he'll be gone and we hope the country can start to get back on the right track. (Although the immigration debate shows just how messy our domestic politics are, regardless of "W").

But Bush has nonetheless left us a legacy that will linger on well past his exit from the White House, in the form of a much more conservative Supreme Court. We suspect this term was only a warm-up. As conservative interest groups see what's possible, they will start pushing a more aggressive Court agenda, with bigger, bolder initiatives.

We shudder to think about it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Day The Music Died

What do the Oscars, the Superbowl, American Idol, NASCAR, the recording industry, the NFL, Broadway, the PGA, the NFL, megachurches, the NBA, Major League Baseball and just about every live television show have in common?

They all use wireless microphones to deliver sound to their disparate audiences.

And, they've all been lobbying the FCC and Congress to prevent changes in the communications spectrum that could, so to speak, stop the music.

These days, wireless microphones are everywhere. They allow you to hear players on the field, or racers in their cars. They free singers to move around and dance. They allow reporters to go where the action is. They allow lavish productions of live shows. They allow ministers to preach to their flock. (They even allow lawyers to advocate to their juries.)

These microphones, of course, are transmitting radio signals to a receiver. Like all radio signals, they are subject to interference--someone else using the same frequency. It so happens that the frequency these microphones use is in the "white space" between television frequencies. But now, a coalition of consumer electronics manufacturers, such as Dell, Microsoft and HP, wants the FCC to let them use those white spaces--being made available as television goes all digital--to provide new wireless options for all those electronic gadgets in your pockets and on your belts.

Mrs. Curmudgeon is a telecommunications attorney and one of her clients just so happens to be a high end wireless microphone manufacturer. They, and their customers, are concerned about the potential for interference. Will some yahoo using his PDA to check his stocks wirelessly during the Superbowl shut down the sound system? Will some teeny bopper following the latest news on Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan white out American Idol?

These, of course, are all powerful interests, and this is why telecommunications law is so much "fun." Spectrum, which is owned by the government and licensed out to private enterprise in the "public interest," is big business. Really big.

Which is why, every few weeks, Mrs. Curmudgeon has chaperoned representatives of Hollywood, Broadway, Nashville, major league sports and other major entertainment players up to Capitol Hill and over to the FCC to lobby their cause. (Generally, she gets to deal with their technical people, not their stars. A kind of "brush with fame.")

Let's hope she succeeds. Otherwise, there won't be much content worth receiving on those fancy new wireless electronic gadgets.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lucky Case Lawsuit Targets "Deal Or No Deal" Rip-off

A reader alerted us to a lawsuit filed by four Georgia women against NBC for its "Lucky Case" promotion during the gameshow "Deal or No Deal." See articles here and here.

As we've noted in past posts, NBC has made a mint by charging viewers a premium $.99 text message fee to enter a lottery in which the viewer has an opportunity to win $10,000, sometimes more, in a drawing during the "Deal" show. Of course, since millions of viewers are entering the contest, sometimes multiple times (the commercial pitch encourages viewers to enter up to 10 times to increase their odds of winning), NBC is making a killing. (Advertising Age reports that NBC has had 57 million Lucky Case entries, with a payout of nearly $1 million--do the math and you see they're doing quite well, which is obvious by the fact that they spend several minutes of commercial time per show promoting the contest.)

We hope the lawsuit succeeds. (Evidently the suit also targets similar promotions during NBC's "Apprentice" and "1 vs 100" shows.)

Justice (?) In The Pants Suit

As widely reported in the media, a DC court has ruled against the DC administrative judge who sued a local dry cleaners for more than $50 million over a pair of lost slacks.

The silly lawsuit has generated worldwide coverage and extensive commentary, including, among others, editorials in today's Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Many commentators are calling the ruling proof that the US judicial system works. We couldn't disagree more. The lawsuit cost the couple who owns the cleaners more than $100,000 in legal fees, so far, and has brought on all kinds of emotional distress for them. It also cost taxpayers an inordinate amount for a dispute over a pair of pants.

We do have a good legal system, but sometimes it fails, and this is one such instance. A good judge in a case such as this would have quickly put limits on the plaintiff, including throwing out his ridiculous multi-million dollar claim and narrowing the issues down to their core, i.e., did the cleaners lose his pants, and if so, what were they worth. Instead, the judges who handled this one (the judge who tried the case and issued the opinion yesterday was not the same judge who dealt with most of the pretrial issues) let it dither on for a couple of years and get so out of hand as to create a media spectacle out of a routine small claim.

Also conspicuously absent, at least so far, has been the DC Bar, which can and should disclipline its members when they abuse the powers granted to them with a law license.

It looks like the man who brought the suit--not the first time he's been overly litigious--Roy Pearson, will lose his job as an administrative law judge for the District of Columbia, which at least is some small measure of justice.

Richardson On Move In Iowa

Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Richardson continues to show steady growth, with an Iowa poll putting him at 13 percent of likely caucus participants. When the poll was narrowed to the likeliest caucus voters (those who attended the 2004 caucus, voted in the 2006 primary and say they definitely will attend next year's caucus) Richardson went up to 18 percent, ahead of Barack Obama (at 16%).

There's still a long way to go--seven long months--but so far Richardson is the only candidate on the Democratic side to demonstrate any momentum, gradually moving up from the barely imperceptible 2-3% to now consistently in the double digits.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, cannot afford to come in fourth in Iowa under any circumstances, so look for his campaign to begin some television advertising before long.

Richardson recently went for his pilgrimmage before the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in the state, and garnered a nice write-up featuring his good natured sense of humor. See Richardson Packs Jokes, Thick Resume.

If Richardson can finagle himself into a solid third place position in polls in either Iowa or New Hampshire--and especially in both--he can really start to shake up the Democratic race and perhaps show movement in the national polls as well. He's got plenty of time, and there's no need to peak too early.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Fat People To The Rescue: Energy Crisis Solved

We love the moment in the movie "Soylent Green" when Charlton Heston makes the awful realization that the government is turning people into food: "Soylent green is people!" he wails as the film ends.

We thought of this today after reading a Wall Street Journal article with the subheadline: "Scientists Are Turning To Fat As Renewable Energy Source."

Could it be, we thrilled, that fat people are the solution to our impending energy crisis? Such sweet irony--the same folks who need monster SUV's to transport their bodies; who consume the world's food resources at an alarming rate; who demand that the air conditioning be set at 65 degrees so they won't be hot--those same people could be put to use as fuel?

Perhaps. Scientists are working to turn animal fat into a form of bio-diesel fuel for automobiles. In one project, Tysons Foods is working with Conoco Phillips to take fat from chicken processing plants and render it into bio-diesel, all with the hoped for help of a generous federal subsidy.

So why not people? Set up massive liposuction centers next to these bio-diesel refineries and kill two birds with one stone: wipe out obesity while ending the energy crisis.

Problem solved. Next.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Politicization At Justice? We're Shocked!

Democrats in Congress continue to dig into claims that the Bush administration has politicized staffing at the Justice Department, probably because it's a lot of fun and there is a treasure trove of information establishing the charge.

But anyone who's been around Washington for the past six years is not at all surprised. If you live here, you know people who work in the government, or who have applied for jobs. We're not talking about political appointments--the kind that require Senate confirmation. Rather, these are just plain old government jobs, trying to keep things functioning and putting good people to work doing the People's business.

Yet, what you hear time and time again is that for practically ANY job in this administration there is political commissar, directly connected to Karl Rove's operation in the White House, charged with vetting the purity of EVERY applicant. It's a bit like the old days of the Soviet Union, when anyone without a good record as a Communist Party apparatchik would have no chance of getting a government job.

So, if Karl Rove's goons can find evidence that, for example, you--god forbid--supported McCain in the 2000 Republican race, you're highly suspect. Of course, if there's evidence that you're a Democrat, then forget about it. This is not the way regular government jobs have been filled in Washington in the past, in either Democratic or Republican administrations, and it's not the way it should be done.

Of course, when you make political loyalty the number one qualification for a job, you'll fill those jobs with a bunch of hacks who don't happen to be particularly good at the job in question. And that's what has happened--not just at the Justice Department--but throughout the government, at all kinds of agencies that have real responsibilities to the People. The government is now filled with Monica Goodlings (the Justice Dept. lawyer with an undergrad degree from Messiah University and a J.D. from Pat Robertson's Regent University, whose job it was to screen Justice Dept. hires.)

It's one of the reasons this administration has been so incompetent.

More On Bloomberg

Here's a quick supplement to our post yesterday on the impact of a Bloomberg candidacy on the race. First, here's results of a SurveyUSA poll of a hypothetical three-way match-up between Giuliani, Clinton and Bloomberg (the "New York 3") in a number of key states. Bloomberg doesn't get any higher than 15 percent--in NY--but he does bring a few states closer.

The problem is, it's way too early to tell. First, Bloomberg hasn't spent a dime of his billions yet on a slick marketing campaign. Second, Democratic and Republican partisans haven't yet had their favorite candidates rejected in favor of someone else.

Finally, here's another analysis, from Michael Barone, in US News--he also suspects that Bloomberg somewhat hurts the Democrats more than the Republicans, with the caveat that its awfully early to tell.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bloomberg's Shadow

Can a Jewish, divorced billionaire former Democrat and former Republican be elected President?

Probably not. But the ever more likely independent run for President by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has everyone else scrambling to understand how it would affect the '08 race.

We'll start off by saying that our predictions for the race remain on track, to wit: Gingrich will also enter on the GOP side(although we don't rule out an independent run by him); the GOP will select its nominee at a contentious convention after no one racks up enough votes in the primaries; Bloomberg will run as an independent, along with another popular middle-roader, perhaps Hegel; Al Gore won't run (although he'll be sorely tempted); the Dems will probably nominate Hillary (but we won't rule out either Obama or Richardson). In addition, a "mainstream" right wing independent and a weaker left wing independent will also emerge as candidates capable of taking 2-3 percent of the vote. In other words, it's going to be a humdinger.

Now, let's go back to Bloomberg. We don't think he can win, although various other prognosticators come down on both sides. Today's WSJ has a report showing that in a hypothetical match-up of Bloomberg, Clinton and McCain, New York's mayor gets about 20 percent of the vote, taking votes away evenly from the Dems and Repubs. On the other hand, pollster John Zogby says in today's New York Daily News that Bloomberg could win, but his timing would have to be perfect.

We're with the WSJ on this one--he can't win--but we sure think his run will shake things up, including forcing the mainstream parties' nominees back to the middle and away from fringe politics. Here's one reason Bloomberg can't win: the electoral college. Remember, it's not the popular vote that wins in America, its the electoral college (or the Supreme Court, as in 2000).

Mayor Mike would not be able to come close to taking any Southern or border state. He would have a chance in the Northeast of taking a few states from Maryland to Maine if, say, he garnered 35-40 percent of the vote and the other candidates split down the middle (the only state we'd give him for sure, however, is independent-loving Connecticut). He might also take a couple Great Lakes states, such as Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois (if Obama is not the nominee). He'd have little chance in the Plains and Mountain West, but he could squeak out something on the Left Coast--California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. But even with an extremely unlikely sweep of all those states (we think he'd only get a handful) he wouldn't have a MAJORITY of electoral college votes, so all he could do is throw the election into the House of Representatives, where he would have no base.

In the process, however, Bloomberg could clearly shake things up in a major way

We think he hurts the Democratic nominee more than the Republican nominee, unless he causes the whole thing to go to the House of Representatives, where Democrats have control. And it could come to that, although we'd think it unlikely.

The problem for Democrats is that Bloomberg is more likely to pick off two or three Blue states (like Connecticut), but no Red states, in an environment where the electoral college vote remains very tight.

However, the analysis could change if Republicans nominate a "moderate" such as McCain or Giuliani, and then face a popular right-wing independent (Gingrich?). In that case, they could look at a siphoning off of as much as five percent of the vote, which would be greater (7-15 %) in the South, Border States and Mountain West, and could be enough to tip some of those states (especially Missouri, Florida, Arizona, Colorado) to a Democrat.

All of which is to say, "fasten your seatbelts" as it could be a wild ride.

Now, here's our dream line-up (which we don't see any chance of happening):

Dems: Al Gore

Republicans: John McCain

Independent: Michael Bloomberg

Right wing: Newt Gingrich

Left Wing: ????

What we would get would be a fantastic, intellectually oriented policy debate aimed at the center by candidates we believe do, for the most part, try to rise above partisanship. Like we said, it won't happen.

The race has a LONG way to go. Our last prediction is that something will happen that, as of now, NO ONE is predicting.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Don't Cry For Me, Detroit

Energy shenanigans galore.

We have to remember, of course, that energy is BIG money. REALLY big. So it comes as no surprise that lobbyists are working furiously on the massive energy bill being crafted in the Senate.

Yesterday, Senators soundly defeated the worst proposal out there: to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to turn coal into liquid fuel. Even the Republicans never came up with anything that awful.

Today, Senators are dickering madly over the arcane requirements of corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, as Detroit's "Big Three"--who really aren't all that big anymore--cry, moan, wail, gnash their teeth, scream and whine that they can't possibly meet a 35 mile per gallon requirement by 2020, much less a higher requirement after that.

Haven't we heard all that before? Air bags--they'll ruin us; catalytic converters--will bankrupt the industry; first round of fuel economy standards--can't be done.

Detroit's crybabies have no credibility; if the Senate wants to maintain the tiny modicum of its own credibility that still exists, it will pass a robust energy bill setting aggressive milestones for Detroit to reach. Whether Congress as a whole can pass a decent energy bill is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Flash: Guiliani's SC State Chair Indicted On Crack Cocaine Charge

Quick flash: Thomas Ravenel, South Carolina's Republican State Treasurer and son of former GOP Congressman Arthur Ravenel, has been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. (AP story here.)

This will be a blow to Rudy Giuliani's campaign in SC, an early primary state: Ravenel is Giuliani's state chairman.

Okay Rudy--time to give him the same treatment you gave minorities charged with drug crimes in New York!

Stupid Lenders

One really has to wonder about the mortgage industry.

A few months ago, we reported on the troubles our nanny is having in keeping her home. A couple years ago, when lenders were approving so-called "sub-prime" mortgages with barely a glance at the file, our nanny managed to get a first and a second mortgage on her home with relatively low "teaser" rates.

She could afford the initial payments and we guess everyone just thought real estate prices would climb 10% a year so she could refinance before the rates and her payments got too high.

Then her interest rate started to adjust upward and her payments skyrocketed. Right now, her mortgage payments are nearly $900/month higher than when they started, representing a 65% increase. Now she's behind in payments, with not much prospect of catching up.

However, if she could get her loans restructured, our nanny could keep her house. We're willing to help by co-signing and providing additional security, as well as bringing the loans current. You'd think that would be a terrific deal for the bank, which is Wachovia: they avoid a costly foreclosure with a loss of tens of thousands of dollars on the loan and they get a new loan that provides tremendous security.

But when the Curmudgeon contacted Wachovia to discuss a restructuring, he got the cold shoulder. Initially, we spoke to a Jennifer, at the Wachovia mortgage center in Philadelphia. She was helpful--we weren't surprised when she said she would need to refer us to someone higher up, and after a call to Wachovia's Charlotte HQ she soon transferred us to Wachovia's Wilmington service center, saying they could provide assistance. There, we spoke initially with a Kay, who also was helpful, saying she'd transfer us over to the right person.

We then got on the phone with a Monica Anthony in Wilmington and explained the situation. Ms. Anthony didn't seem at all interested in helping out. She said there were "brick walls" at every turn, but refused to elaborate so that we could see if there was a way to negotiate around the "brick walls." Her only offer, of which even she was skeptical, was to have us bring the delinquent payments current, then wait another 10-12 months--to "establish a good payment history"--and THEN talk about restructuring. Of course, that would require a year of making mortgage payments at the rather outrageous interest rate 10.125 percent in the vague hope of working something out. That's a nice fat profit for Wachovia, but not a flyer we're willing to take.

As for doing something now--mind you, to avoid a costly foreclosure for the bank--Ms. Anthony said "there's nothing we can do."

It's rather amazing that the same bank that two years ago could manage to do practically anything to give two loans to a lady with horrible credit and low income now says there's "nothing" it can do to restructure the loan under conditions that should be vastly more preferable to the bank than foreclosure (a foreclosure sale in the current market would undoubtedly net less than the outstanding value of the loans, and that's before the expenses of foreclosure.)

In the end, Wachovia deserves to take a bath on this one. The phrase "garbage in, garbage out" seems to apply to the mortgage industry these days.

We'll be helping our nanny out in some manner, but not to save Wachovia from itself.
UPDATE: Suspecting that the Wachovia person we got on the phone was simply lacking in imagination and initiative, we went over to our local Wachovia branch and tried again. This time, Wachovia's representative was much more helpful. After running through the pros and cons of a number of options, including going through the numbers with us, he came up with a successful strategy, under which we'll simply take a loan against our home for the amount of our nanny's loan--at an excellent interest rate--and then have her execute a note to us for the amount of the loan. This will, in effect, reduce her payments by nearly $900/month and leave us in about the same position as if we were a co-borrower.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Power of Cross-Examination--The Sippy Cup Caper

We've been a delinquent little blogger--too much golf and all that, we're afraid.

One item that caught our interest this weekend, however, was a Post story about a lady getting harassed by the TSA at National Airport (it'll always be "National" to us) because her child's sippy cup spilled.

It reminded us of the one thing that's really great about being a trial lawyer: cross-examination.

The story started out in the blogosphere. Monica Emmerson, a former Secret Service agent, posted a little account on a website for city parents, where she said she'd been harassed by TSA agents on a recent trip, causing her to miss her flight and generally riling up her family.

A blogger, Bill Adler, saw the note, then called Emmerson to get her story, which he posted on his blog, where it was soon picked up by other bloggers. It was a great story--Big Brother; David versus Goliath; police state versus helpless woman. In her account, Emmerson said that as she went through security with her young son, the TSA screener seized her boy's sippy cup and told her she'd have to empty it out of any liquids if she wanted to keep it for the trip. Then, while trying to comply, she accidentally spilled the cup when her son started crying, after which security was called and Emmerson was forced to clean up the spill in front of watchful police.

This is where cross-examination comes in. In court, everyone has a good story. But all stories have two sides, and sometimes one is decidedly better than the other.

In this instance, there was a video, which TSA decided to release.

Here's how it would go in court:

Curmudgeonly lawyer: Now, Ms. Emmerson, you testified a moment ago, under oath, that you accidentally spilled your son's sippy cup, is that right?

Emmerson: That's correct, it was an accident.

CL: And after you accidentally spilled the sippy cup, security officers moved in and detained you without any provocation, correct?

E: Correct.

CL: Now, Ms. Emmerson, were you aware that the security area at the airport was under video surveillance?

E: (Confidently smiling at jurors) No, but I'm not surprised.

CL: And if such video existed, it would support the story you just told to the jury under oath, is that right?

E: (Squirming slightly) Yes, that's right.

CL: Your honor, we request permission to show Defense Exhibit 1, a video excerpt. [After the inevitable objection is overruled by a Judge who's now awake and amused at what's likely to happen next, the video plays.]

CL: Now, Ms. Emmerson, isn't it a fact that the video just seen by the jury clearly shows you screwing off the top of the sippy cup and deliberately dumping the contents on the floor in the middle of the security screening area?

E: Well, I don't think that's what it shows.

CL: So, your idea of accidentally spilling from a sippy cup is to screw off the top and dump it on the floor, is that right? (This question is accompanied by exaggerated movements of opening a sippy cup and dumping its contents on the floor.)

At this point, it doesn't matter what she says. The jurors are all nodding, the judge is smiling--finally a moment of drama in the courtroom--and the few spectators are murmuring. A good lawyer then says "no further questions" and sits down.

But, for most lawyers cross examination is so much fun that they don't sit down now--having achieved the kill, they go for more. And that's where it all breaks down. Pretty soon they're on to something they haven't really thought through and the witness recovers and the jury starts to think the lawyer is just being mean and the lawyer's point gets lost. Only on television does it happen so crisply.

We applaud the TSA for giving us this cross-examination moment by releasing the video. We know it's a hassle, for all of us, to have to go through the screening; and we doubt that we're any more secure by virtue of regulations requiring sippy cups to be empty when going through the checkpoint. But, when Ms. Emmerson deliberately dumped her son's sippy cup on the floor, she deserved to be required to clean it up. We don't think she's worthy of being a blogosphere hero.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Energy Bill Mess

The House and Senate are taking up energy bills.

It's a mess.

We're not sure the Democrats are going to come up with anything better than the Republicans.

A group of Senate Democrats is pushing coal liquefication. We don't need cars running on coal!

"Democrat" Rich Boucher, of Virginia, is even pushing a measure to prevent states like California from leading the way on reduction of carbon emissions. Must make Bush proud.

Others are pushing to increase subsidies for corn-based ethanol. We don't need more corn ethanol, either. We're already spending billions and all it's doing is raising food prices.

What's wrong with these people!

We're beginning to think we'd be better off without Congress.

Pants Suit

A few weeks ago we posted on the story of an administrative law judge in D.C. who was suing his local dry cleaners for more than $50 million over a pair of misplaced pants.

Yesterday, the case sadly went to trial. It garnered international media coverage--one of those lawyers as laughing stocks/Washington as laughing stock stories.

Fortunately, the plaintiff in the case, Roy Pearson, dropped his damages demand before trial, reducing it from $65 million to a mere $54 million.

Here's what we hope the judge does: award Mr. Pearson about $100 in damages for his lost pants and require Mr. Pearson to pay the attorneys fees of the defendant dry cleaners. Pearson should also be stripped of his job as an administrative judge for an obvious lack of judgement, which is a prerequisite to being a judge. Imagine having this whacko decide your case! The D.C. Bar, which has now suffered a nice little black eye, should also take some form of action.

The judge handling the trial also bears some blame in all this. She could've avoided the media spectacle by wisely striking most of Pearson's claims before the trial--indeed long before the trial so as to avoid needless legal expense by the defendant--and entering an order setting a limit on his damages.

The whole thing reflects adversely on our legal system.

Quick Take On Virginia Primaries

Primaries are a dicey proposition when you have no federal or statewide races on the ballot. Voter turnout is tiny and those who do vote tend to be the most committed of party activists.

Yesterday's Virginia primaries illustrated this. Two moderate Republican state senate incumbents lost to more ideologically "pure" conservative challengers. That may create an opening for Democrats in those races--we'll see.

On the Democratic side, Del. Donald McEachin, an African-American who strongly supported Jim Webb's successful run for the Senate, ousted incumbent Senator Benjamin Lambert, an African-American who made the mistake of casting his lot with defeated Senator George Allen. It was a nice payback for Democrats who felt betrayed by Lambert.

In Arlington, incumbent Treasurer Frank O'Leary easily cruised to victory over a surprising challenger.

And, to show what little the Curmudgeon knows, Morris Meyer--who we recently endorsed in a Fairfax County race for Delegate, lost in the Democratic primary to Rex Simmons. No hard feelings here: we wish Simmons all the best in his race now to unseat the Republican incumbent.

Common Ground With . . . Bob Barr?!

Bob Barr is a hard-right wing former representative from Georgia. We doubt there's much we would agree on.

It's always pleasant, however, when someone from the other side surprises you with an unexpectedly enlightened position.

And so, today, we have Bob Barr writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, in "Don't Ask, Who Cares," to chastise the GOP Presidential wannabes who, in their anti-gay pandering, refused even to endorse lifting the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays.

Barr says "we can no longer afford to bar gays from the military" and even goes so far as state the proposition that "equal treatment of gay and lesbian service members is about as conservative a position as one cares to articulate." While we doubt many conservatives agree with him on the latter point--and indeed Barr's virulent brand of hard-core conservatism is in part responsible for the cowardly positions of the Republican Prez candidates--we're happy to see some realization on the right that discouraging qualified gays from military service is a self-defeating proposition.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hillary and Alcee

Hillary Clinton's campaign has announced that Florida Representative Alcee Hastings will be one of her national co-chairs.

Bad idea.

Hastings is the last federal judge to be impeached by Congress. His impeachment stemmed from serious corruption charges. Appointed to the bench as a federal district court judge by Jimmy Carter in 1979, Hastings was soon indicted after being caught up in an FBI bribery sting. He was acquitted in a jury trial, but then impeached for perjury in the trial, which involved a number of significant irregularities.

The issue was never really even close. The House--then controlled by Democrats--voted 413-3 to impeach Hastings. The Senate convicted Hastings on 8 out of 11 counts that were considered.

Significantly, the Hastings impeachment was assigned to the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, chaired by veteran African-American representative John Conyers. Initially, Conyers was skeptical, viewing the charges as racist. As he reviewed and heard the evidence, however, he became convinced that racism had played no part in the investigation, prosecution or recommendation to commence impeachment proceedings.

Conyers ultimately supported the impeachment resolution, neutralizing the race issue. "We did not wage that civil rights struggle merely to replace one form of judicial corruption for another," said Conyers. "We can no more close our eyes to acts that constitute high crimes and misdemeanors when practiced by judges whose views we approve than we could when practiced by judges whose views we detested. . . . It would be disloyal to the essential principles of the civil rights movement to my oath of office to attempt to set up a double standard."

It's a shame that Florida voters, most ignorant of the real facts, subsequently elected Hastings to Congress. That's their mistake, however.

At least when the Democrats re-took Congress last year, in part on an anti-corruption platform, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wisely removed Hastings from consideration as a Committee chairman.

So what is Hillary up to? Pandering for votes among Florida's African-American community, no doubt. Making Hastings a national campaign co-chairman, however, is a big mistake. Democrats should continue to marginalize--not martyrize--Hastings.

Now That's A Good One

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got off a good line in a speech to the Center for American Progress yesterday:

"The one fact I've learned--I can't get out of my mind--is that Rudy Guiliani's been married more times than Mitt Romney's been hunting."

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Sopranos Ending You Should Have Expected

We're sorry to see The Sopranos go.

Today, everyone is standing around the figurative water cooler discussing the "surprising" end to the show, where, basically, nothing happens.

Anyone familiar with Sopranos creator David Chase, and intimately familiar with the show from its roots, should've expected pretty much exactly what happened. (Not that we did, mind you.)

One of the reasons Sopranos has been so successful is its defiance of convention. It was never a mob drama. In a mob drama, the mobsters don't have families, at least not real families with mundane problems such as sewer back-ups, homework, getting into good schools and finding a decent therapist.

And David Chase has certainly never been one to go for the trite Hollywood ending--the big shoot-out; the dramatic series-ending assassination of Tony Soprano; or Tony's triumph over the New York mob families.

No, the series ended like it began, with Tony balancing the demands of his family life with the demands of his somewhat unusual business life. Chase played a nice practical joke on us all, building the tension at the end to the point it was hard to watch. Why was Meadow Soprano having trouble parking her car--would it give her the extra moment to survive an ambush of the rest of the family? What about that fellow going into the men's room--would he be the assassin?

While nothing happened, it mirrored the tension in Tony Soprano's life. No matter how serene the scene, he could never be sure, never quite feel safe. And no matter how high he made it in the mob, he could never get away from the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday things in life that drive us all mad.

Energy Tip: Don't Run The A/C All The Time

There's an urban myth that it's less expensive to simply run your air conditioning all the time during the summer as opposed to turning it on and off when the house is empty or the temperatures are mild.

The fact is, you'll save plenty by turning off the A/C--or turning up the thermostat--when your house is empty, or on nights like we've had of late when humidity is low and temps are mild.

For example, if your house or apartment is empty all day while you're at work, etc, turn off the A/C, or turn up the thermostat. When you get home, it will cool off pretty quickly and will not use nearly the energy it would if you left it on all day. (Better yet, install a timer so you can arrive home to a cooled environment.)

On nice nights, turn off the A/C and open a few windows. You'll be more comfortable, your home will air out and you'll save plenty on electricity.

Friday, June 08, 2007

White House Was Warned That Post-Saddam Chaos Would Create An Opening For Al Queda In Iraq

Quick, who said this, and when: "If Baghdad were unable to exert control over the Iraqi countryside, al-Q'aida or other terrorist groups could operate from remote areas."

Give up? It was contained in the "Key Judgments" section of a National Intelligence Council report prepared for the White House BEFORE the War in Iraq, entitled "Principal Challenges In A Post-Saddam Iraq."

Now that Bush is using the fact that Al Queda is operating in the Iraqi countryside as an excuse to continue the war, it's worth analyzing further what the White House really knew beforehand.

In the wake of the Iraqi disaster, it's been all too common for commentators and policy-makers on both sides of the aisle to blame the intelligence community, at least in part, for the debacle.

In politics, however, the truth is often hard to find, especially when it's in classified documents.

It turns out the intelligence community accurately forecast the disaster--as did some prescient public figures, most notably former Vice President Al Gore.

In The Other Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, Paul R. Pillar, who before the war served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, describes two recently declassified intelligence estimates prepared under his supervision BEFORE the war, which accurately forecast the chaos that would ensue following an invasion.

It's a terrific read, part of a longer article Pillar is preparing that no doubt should be mandatory reading for future historians of the war.

Pillar states that, in contrast to the much-pilloried intelligence estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (which was ordered up by Congress, not the White House):

"the other two assessments spoke directly to the instability, conflict, and black hole for blood and treasure that over the past four years we have come to know as Iraq. The assessments described the main contours of the mess that was to be, including Iraq’s unpromising and undemocratic political culture, the sharp conflicts and prospect for violence among Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups, the Marshall Plan-scale of effort needed for economic reconstruction, the major refugee problem, the hostility that would be directed at any occupying force that did not provide adequate security and public services, and the exploitation of the conflict by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists."

Pillar goes on to state that these assessments have relevance to the debate today over what to do now:

"The assessments support the proposition that the expedition in Iraq always was a fool’s errand rather than a good idea spoiled by poor execution, implying that the continued search for a winning strategy is likely to be fruitless. Some support for the poor execution hypothesis can be found in the assessments, such as the observation that Iraq’s regular army could make an important contribution in providing security (thus implicitly questioning in advance the wisdom of ever disbanding the army). But the analysts had no reason to assume poor execution, and their prognosis was dark nonetheless. Moreover, amid the stultifying policy environment that prevailed when the assessments were prepared—in which it was evident that the administration was going to war and that analysis supporting that decision was welcome and contrary analysis was not—it is all the more remarkable that the analysts would produce such a gloomy view."

You can find the two assessments--quietly released, albeit in heavily redacted form by the Senate Intelligence Committee right before the long Memorial Day weekend--as appendices to a Senate Report here.

History is not likely to be kind to George W. Bush.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Some Like It Hot

The Weather Service says tomorrow will be downright hot--around 97 degrees and sticky humid.

Think that's bad?

Take a look at this forecast from the UK Met Office Hadley Centre--a leading authority on global warming--for the average highest temperatures fifty years from now in the eight capitals of the G8 nations. (Hat tip to for this one.)

To put this is perspective, the average hottest day in Washington since 1987 has been 37 degrees C--or a toasty 99 degrees F. If global temperatures rise 2 degrees centigrade over the next 50 years, as forecast by the IPCC, then the average hottest day in DC will be 42 degrees C--or 108 degrees F.

(Why, you ask, would the temperature in DC rise more than 2 degrees C if worldwide temps rise an average of 2 degrees C? The answer is that warming is uneven--less at the equator, more in higher latitudes.)

Better hope the old folks home has some good A/C.

Or, maybe we'll all be living in Greenland by then. Today's Washington Post reports on how Greenlanders are rather happily adapting to the warmer temperatures. Turns out that like the rest of us, Greenlanders would just as soon have it be not quite so cold in the winter. With a longer growing season and the opportunity to fish nearly year round, the residents of the not-so-green land are finding better economic prospects up north.

So here's our suggestion to the enterprising Greenlanders: retirement homes. Could be the new Florida!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Go Ahead, Make Our Day

Here's a problem that will quickly resolve itself when a horde of vulturous trial lawyers descend and devour the offenders.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has cited a Chinese all-terrain vehicle (ATV) manufacturer for importing a dangerous model--the Kasuma Meerkat 50--aimed specifically at young kids. (See WSJ story here.)

When the Curmudgeon was practicing law, he represented Suzuki in an initiative to improve ATV warning labels (pictured below). One reason Suzuki wanted to beef up the labels--the government didn't ask them to--was to reduce accidents based on misuse.

ATV's serve a useful purpose, but they are dangerous, especially when used by kids. Major ATV manufacturers, spurred by lawsuits and regulation, have made some good strides in improving safety, although the toll of deaths and injuries is still unacceptable.

Along comes Kazuma with a cute, small ATV, with a cute name--the Meerkat--which reportedly has no front brakes, no parking brake and can be started in gear (thus risking shooting forward), among other hazards. The Chinese manufacturer and its American Distributor, Kazuma Pacific Inc. of Stafford Texas, evidently have refused to cooperate with the CPSC or initiate a recall.

The CPSC itself won't be able to do much about this because it is missing a chairperson and lacks a quorum to enact recalls or sue manufacturers for recalls.

Fortunately, our legal system will--sooner or later (but, unfortunately not before someone gets hurt) take care of this. For all the justifiable scorn heaped on trial lawyers, they will now descend on Kazuma and its American distributor--and hopefully their officers and directors, etc.--like a pack of hungry vultures. When they're done, we can only hope the carcass is stripped clean and that other similar predators are deterred. And, of course, that's what the CPSC intented in taking the unusual step of making the whole thing public.
If you are an ATV dealer and carry the Meerkat, be forewarned: each one you sell is an invitation to bankruptcy. Hardly worth it.

The China Excuse

Bush says we shouldn't have to do anything on global warming until China does.

So he's off to the G-8 summit, meeting with leaders of countries who ARE doing something about warming, and urging them that, gosh, we really need to get China going on this.

What a moron.

Yes, China needs to get going on global warming, but that's not an excuse for the largest, richest, most carbon polluting nation in the world to sit back and do nothing.

The U.S. could play a useful role by SHOWING China the way. Lead by example. Yes, we know that's a tough one for the W-meister, but he might try it once in awhile.

No doubt the Chinese, who are awakening to the issue, have a different view, to wit: why should WE, a country with per capita income less than one fifth that of the U.S., a country still far below Western standards of living, have to make sacrifices when those fat Americans are sitting on their air conditioned butts complaining about a little $3 gas.

(Air conditioning is so out of control in the U.S. that one commenter on a recent blog piece on saving energy asked how he could get employees in his office to stop running electric HEATERS under their desks during the summer because they were cold from too much air conditioning! The solution, of course, was not to ban the heaters, but to turn down the freakin' AC, which is often colder than anyone would be comfortable with when heating their house in the winter.)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Morris Meyer For Delegate

Last night, just before dinner, the Curmudgeon got one of those phone calls we dread--a political campaign soliciting a contribution. This time, however, it wasn't some hapless volunteer manning a phone bank, but rather the candidate himself. And despite our inclination to politely, but firmly, get off the phone and join the family for dinner, he managed to say a couple of things that kept us interested.

The candidate, Morris Meyer, is running for Delegate in Virginia House District 40, a suburban swatch of western Fairfax County between Manassas Park and Fairfax City. The seat is currently held by Republican Tim Hugo.

The first thing Morris told us was that this is a winnable swing seat--the district went for Governor Tim Kaine in '05 and for Sen. Jim Webb in the last election and like much of Fairfax County the demographics continue to slide toward the blue end of the spectrum. That's good--if the Curmudgeon is going to invest in a campaign, we want it to be in a contested race where we have a chance to unseat an incumbent Republican (or take an open seat). It will take a good campaign to win, however--our research shows many prognosticators putting this as a safe Republican or leaning Republican seat.

Then Morris told us that his big issue is energy and global warming, that he is one of Al Gore's trained presenters, and that if elected he would work hard to get Virginia on the path to widespread use of renewable energy. That certainly warmed our heart, so we said yes, we'll make a generous contribution.

We imagine that for a candidate in one of these races, making cold calls--albeit to folks who must be on a list of past contributors to Democratic campaigns--is one of the least desirable activities. Reeling in a decent contribution must help with the resolve to keep making calls. So, hopefully, we gave Morris a little morale boost.

After the call (and dinner with the family), we checked out Meyer's campaign website, at, and further liked what we saw. So we've added Meyer to our blogroll and we'll try to follow his campaign and report periodically on it.

Before Meyer can take on Tim Hugo, however, he'll have to win the Democratic nomination in a primary against Rex Simmons. This is a little like the race last year between Webb and Harris Miller in the sense that we have nothing against Simmons, we just like Meyer's chances a little better. We also like the fact that Meyer has been endorsed by Raising Kaine (although NLS weakly endorsed Simmons, claiming a pox on both candidates). The primary is in a week, on June 12, so we'll see how that turns out.

Meanwhile, the threat of serious competition has forced Hugo to a more moderate position, as has been the case with other Republicans in Fairfax County. This term he sponsored a pretty decent net metering bill that was endorsed by the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, two darn respectable groups on energy, environmental and global warming issues. The problem is that those moderate--or newly moderate--Republicans are still in league with their much more conservative colleagues who control the committees that control the legislation. So Hugo's got to go.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cheap Talk From Bush On Global Warming

Frankly, we'd rather see George W. Bush continue in his role as a global climate change denier rather than his weak embrace of the issue late last week.

This is a pretty typical conservative move--pretend to embrace an issue with rhetoric--one that shows why it is all the more important that Democrats in Congress move PROMPTLY to put a strong bill on the President's desk during this legislative term. He may well veto it, but at least it will separate rhetoric from action.

All Bush is doing now is stalling. The science of global climate change, not to mention the ongoing reality before our very eyes, has made it virtually impossible to simply deny warming anymore. Dick Cheney and Oklahoma's Sen. James Inhofe are about the only ones still clinging to the flat earth view of the climate change world--no doubt they also think it's still "unproven" that smoking causes cancer, too.

Most conservatives, however--including all the GOP presidential candidates--now accept global warming as a fact, but don't really want to do much about it. And that's where we are with Bush.

Bush now says--at the end of his incompetent presidency--that we should start to talk about what to do down the road so that maybe, by 2012, we can put in place some "aspirational" goals to reduce global warming later in this century.

Bush rejects out of hand a German proposal to limit the worldwide temperature rise this century to 3.6 degrees fahrenheit (which would translate to a much higher rise at the poles). He says it's "impractical."

Bush, and many other conservatives, have an odd way of looking at the economic costs of limiting global warming. In their calculus, any tax or cap and trade system is a "cost," but they ignore the costs--such as the $100 billion in Katrina damage--of doing nothing.

They also fail to factor in the economic benefits of new technologies--manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, electric batteries, fuel cells, etc.--that will accrue to those nations that take the lead on these issues. Already, the U.S. is falling behind in these critical technologies, ceding leadership to Europe, Japan and China, while we continue to invest in and protect old technologies--oil, coal, gasoline engines, etc.--that WILL decline as the century progresses.

The only thing Bush is right about is the need for China and India to join in action on global climate change. But while Bush uses the exclusion of China and India from the Kyoto accords as an excuse for us to do nothing, China, at least, is starting to realize on its own that the magnitude of the problem requires aggressive action. Indeed, China is embarking on a major campaign to build new, mostly carbon neutral, nuclear plants throughout the country. China's political system is capable of responding to the challenge much faster than ours (as opposed to India, which is likely to be paralyzed).

The bottom line is that Bush is proposing to do only one new thing: talk. Talk is cheap. Our children and grandchildren deserve better.

Dry, Sunny May Sets Stage For Great Solar Month

May turned out to be a terrific month for our solar panels and our overall electricity consumption, with dry, sunny but not too hot days throughout the month.

Our net electric consumption for the month was only 338 kilowatt hours--our lowest total yet, beating what had been an already terrific April when we used 406 kwh.

Our total electric consumption--before factoring in the contribution from solar panels--was 718 kwh, a significant reduction from 1026 a year ago, showing that our conservation measures also continue to pay off.

In May, our solar panels contributed 380 kwh--more than half our consumption and a big jump from April's 251 kwh.

Alas, the outlook for June is not so, er, sunny. With the advent of summer humidity and temps approaching 90, we've turned on the A/C (although trying to go without it at night), and June is likely to be hazier than May, making for a little less productivity out of our solar panels. May will surely be our low water mark, in terms of net electric consumption, for the next few months.

We, of course, like to pat ourselves on the back for our reduced electric consumption. But we'd be the first to say that being green goes well beyond electricity, and the first to admit that, on other fronts (heating, auto gas mileage, water conservation, food, clothing) our progress has been much slower. Gives us something to work on.