Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Carnival Cruise: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In our previous two posts we summarized the pros and cons of cruising and commented on cruise life. Today, we finish our cruise series with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of our Carnival Cruise trip.

The trip was mostly good. The best of the good was the service we got from the ship's crew, most of whom appear well-trained, courteous and helpful. Our waiters in the main dining hall were friendly, efficient and fun, including doing some napkin tricks to entertain the kids. For dinners, we had two tables--one with adults and one with the kids. At one point, the Curmudgeon offered to cut his younger son's pizza, only to be told, "no dad, Paul [their waiter] will do it."

Comedian Alan Ball, who came aboard and did three shows, including a late night R-rated version, was excellent. Singer Marcus Anthony, who did a medley of mostly Mo-town hits, was also quite good. The rest of the shows were so-so.

The excursions at Cozumel (swimming with dolphins), Belize (reef-bottom fishing) and Honduras (kayaking/snorkeling) were all good. The bus tour of Grand Cayman was not so good.

The crew also did a good job getting everyone on and off the ship with a minimum of delay and fuss, while keeping us all on schedule. We came to appreciate this when we happily by-passed a long line in Grand Cayman--at least an hour long--of passengers awaiting the opportunity to board a different cruise ship. Then, in Honduras, we encountered quite a few very unhappy passengers of a Holland America ship who were standing in two-hour line to re-board their ship, while we had no wait at all.

The regulars at the poker table were good. The casino's cut from the table was bad.

The photographs taken around the ship each day were good. The cost for purchasing them was not so good.

The breakfast buffet was pretty good--we liked having grits every day, there was little wait for omelettes, and the coffee was strong. The pancakes, however, were cold and rubbery.

The lunch buffet was ok. The sandwich selections were pretty lame, but the burgers and hot dogs were good, apart from the long line. What seemed like a lot of variety at the beginning of the trip turned out to be pretty monotonous at the end--some variation in the buffets would have been nice.

The dinners were fine, with plenty of selections. Portions were a bit small--thankfully--but if you really didn't get enough they'd gladly bring you a second round. The chocolate melting cake dessert was divine, maybe too good.

Our dinner in the aptly named "Golden Fleece"--the steakhouse at the top of the ship--was quite good. Don't go there early in the cruise, or you may dislike the quality of the regular dinners after being fleeced.

Some other things on the "bad" side. The ship offered a couple of "free" lectures from the spa/health club staff, which turned out to be infomercials for some questionable "de-toxification" treatments that, of course, cost a lot of money. Also, the tacky "entertainment" at the end of each dinner was unnecessary.

So what was ugly? Two things: first, for some reason, even though all meals are included, you had to pay extra for standard soft-drinks. We understand paying for alcoholic drinks, but not for sodas. To make it worse, Carnival offered a soda-card option, where for about $40 you could purchase an unlimited soda card for the week. But the card was in the name of an individual passenger, so if you wanted soda for a family of four for the week, it would cost you $160. That's RIDICULOUS and a complete rip-off.

If you buy one of the cards for a child, then you're going to want to force the child to drink as much soda as possible to justify the purchase. On the other hand, they didn't have a family option, where you might buy a set amount of sodas that anyone could use. We don't know what other cruise lines do, but if another included soda as a regular "free" option in the meals, that alone would be enough to switch us from Carnival. (And if they all do what Carnival does, then they're all a rip-off.)

The other ugly aspect was the basketball court on the ship. Granted, this is a limited complaint, but with two active boys who are avid hoopsters, it was quite important to us. The ship had a small court on the top deck, with one hoop. No net. For some unfathomable reason, the ship rented the only two basketballs to a couple of older kids, so that when they weren't around, there was no basketball. There's no logic at all for doing that, other than limiting play on the basketball court.

While we were in Grand Cayman, we noted that the ship anchored next to us--we believe it was from the Royal Caribbean line--had a larger basketball court, with two hoops and nets. Call us petty, but next time we'll be on one of their cruises.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Cruising Life

As we reported yesterday, the Curmudgeon family has returned from a weeklong Caribbean cruise and we are doing a series of posts (in this period of little political news of note) summarizing our thoughts about the trip.

Today's post focuses on life on a cruise. Tomorrow, we'll have the good, the bad and the ugly of a Carnival cruise.

Cruising life was interesting to us. We generally like to fend for ourselves on vacation, with a loose itinerary, so being in such a structured environment was quite different.

Being in the Caribbean in the middle of winter is warm, but not hot. When the ship was moving, with the attendant breeze, it was a bit too chilly on the upper decks to hang out in just shorts (or swim trunks) and a t-shirt, but the kids seemed to manage okay. (We also saw some incredibly sunburned tourists who evidently thought sunscreen was unnecessary in the winter).

We had a group of 15 related people together on our cruise from four families, ranging in age from 9-70's, so it was good that the ship had a variety of activities. While there aren't that many decisions to make on a cruise, one does need to choose which activities to pursue each day.

Our cruise was of the western Carribean, with four stops: Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; Belize and Isla Roatan, Honduras. At each stop the ship had a choice of many shore excursions, all at a cost of somewhere between $50-$100 per person. (For a family of four, with four shore stops, this adds up pretty quickly.)

You can forgo the ship-arranged excursions and work something out for yourself once ashore, but we recommend against it. The amount of time available at each shore stop is limited and there is already quite a crowd at the docks at each stop awaiting their excursions. More importantly, if you're on a ship-sponsored excursion and you're running late getting back, the ship won't leave without you.

In any event, we felt sorry for those who didn't arrange or have shore excursions. Sure, you could just go ashore and shop, but most of the shopping was pretty lame, and the alleged "bargains" were hard to find. The shops right around the docks were pretty standard tourist fare, and one would need to get away from them to get any sense of the native environment. On shore days, little is going on aboard the ship, and in any event, what's the point of going on a cruise if you aren't going to explore the exotic shore stops?

Our first stop, Grand Cayman was a bit of a disappointment. There were at least six cruise ships anchored there (the photo here is of the cruise ship traffic jam there), so it was quite crowded. It was also very windy, causing cancellation of the snorkeling part of our excursion. That left us with, essentially, a bus tour of the island. The only part worth seeing was the turtle farm, where thousands of sea turtles are being raised. The lucky ones will be released to the sea, the next luckiest ones stay to breed, and then the unlucky ones will become someone's dinner. (Our guide went on at some length about how delicious turtles are.)

The rest of the tour was pretty boring. In particular, we'd urge anyone to avoid the tourist stop known as "Hell," which is an unusual rock formation and an excuse to sell a lot of predictable t-shirts. We can't imagine why anyone would want to go to Grand Cayman for more than a day, or why it seems to be on every cruise ship's list of stops.

Our next stop was Cozumel, which had the greatest variety of shore excursions. We chose one where you get to swim with dolphins at a nearby park. It proved the best of all our activities the whole week. In a group of 12, we spent about 45 minutes in the water with a guide and a dolphin who did various tricks with us, including pushing each of us at high speed on a boogie board. We all had quite a blast and felt we'd had some "quality time" with our dolphin. (We're sure that at night the dolphins get together at their underwater bar and debate whether humans are really intelligent or whether they can just be taught to do a few tricks.)

After our dolphin swim, we had the option to stay and explore the park, including doing some snorkeling on our own. We were able to enjoy the outing without feeling rushed, but still managed to get back to the cruiseship pier in time to let the tourist shops part us from some of our cash.

From Cozumel it was a short trip down the coast to Belize, where most of our group decided to go bottom fishing. This was fortuitous because it meant we could transfer directly from the ship to our fishing boat, rather than taking a "tender" to shore. We had a great time fishing, catching quite a few grouper and snapper in the course of a three hour trip. Afterwards, we made a quick trip to shore--so we could say we'd actually been to Belize. We wouldn't have missed much if we'd decided to skip the shore stop--the port town was very poor and the undistinguished group of tourist shops at the pier were fenced off and guarded by men with machine guns. Those who took trips inland described harrowing bus rides on narrow roads.

Our final stop was Isla Roatan in Honduras, where we went to a national park to go kayaking in clear bottom boats, and then snorkeling. The kayaking was a bit disappointing--we didn't go far and you couldn't see much through the bottom of the kayaks despite the clear water. The snorkeling was terrific, however--the reef there was home to a large variety of very colorful fish. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy, breezy day and the water wasn't too warm, so the youngsters got cold pretty quickly, and then it rained. Still, Honduras was the prettiest stop, and by the time we got back to the ship it was sunny and warm. Others we talked to at Honduras enjoyed their excursions as well.

Aboard the ship there were quite a number of activities every day. The Curmudgeon and his brother gravitated to the Texas Hold-em poker table in the casino, where we soon made a number of new friends, who also happened to be happy to take our money if they could. Most of the money, however, went to the ship, as the computerized poker table took a sizable "rake"--the casino's cut--from each pot.

There were shows each night, some ok, some not. The entertainers brought aboard the ship for one night tended to be decent--a comedian, a Motown singer, a fellow who balanced things on his head. We wondered about the life of an entertainer doing the cruise ship circuit. The shows put together from the crew were a bit of a mess--a lot of mediocre to bad singing, dancing and costume changes. Still, with time to kill, they were the best shows in town.

Others in our group did their thing. One went to the karaoke lounge a number of times, which had a lively crowd each night worthy of the very worst American Idol auditions. The younger set tended to roam the upper deck, eating the "free" ice cream, swimming, playing ping pong and basketball. For just hanging out, there were quite a variety of bars with the expected over-priced drinks.

On cruise days, we also tried out some of the trivia contests, bingo games, fitness seminars and other offerings, but found reading a good book on the sundeck to be quite fulfilling. Of course, it seemed not much time ever went by before the next meal loomed. And, feeling guilty about all the food, we all tried to get to the onboard gym, which put a tiny dent in our calorie counts. The women also made spa appointments for the obligatory vacation facials, wraps and other treatments offered.

There were golf options, but the Curmudgeon, enjoying a winter respite from golf, decided to forego them (and spend shore excursions with the rest of the family). The hard core golfer, however, will have some choices, including hitting balls into a net aboard the ship, and at least a couple onshore golf outings.

All in all, the range of activities was sufficient to suit most tastes, but few of them would blow anyone away. Reflecting on many vacations past, however, we can't say that many had as many choices and few have a true "wow" factor. By the same token, few of the onboard activities would appeal to us elsewhere, and we'd hope that eating would not become our central focus on any other vacation!

To Cruise or Not To Cruise

We spent our Christmas/Hannukah week on a Caribbean cruise with our extended family, courtesy of the Curmudgeon's mom (aka "Library Lady"). Since this was the Curmudgeon family's first luxury cruise, we thought we'd spend the next couple of days summarizing some thoughts for anyone contemplating a similar excursion.

Today's focus: to cruise or not to cruise.

We've long resisted going on a cruise and doubtless would have avoided one this season had it not been for mom. Having now gone on one, we can see why cruises have their fans; we can also see why some folks don't like them.

We don't think a week-long cruise necessarily costs much more than a week of similar activities at a decent resort or hotel, so cost, while an issue, shouldn't be a big one. (To be sure, a cruise costs more than an economy vacation--you could certainly spend a week at Myrtle Beach in a budget motel for less.)

The main advantage of a cruise is that virtually everything is already done for you. All the meals are taken care of, and in a fashion that should please even the pickiest child eater. A large range of activities is provided for, both onboard and in shore excursions; and your itinerary is set, but for you filling in a few hours here and there from a Chinese menu of excursions.

In the sense of having everything planned out, a cruise is similar to a luxury tour, but probably with more options in terms of activities you can do along the way. (On many tours, you spend an inordinate amount of time travelling around on a bus, during which time there's little to do; while you're traveling on a cruise, you get to take your hotel with you.)

On the other hand, a cruise is like being confined to a hotel--albeit a nice one--for a week, with a few hours of parole for shore excursions. On our Carnival cruise, we made four shore stops in seven days, allowing us off the ship for roughly 5-8 hours on each of those days. The rest of time was aboard the ship.

A cruise ship is like a good hotel that's been shrunk. It has everything you could find in the hotel--maybe even more--but it's all in smaller spaces. And if you go when we did--over the holidays--then the hotel is full. Not only is it full, but imagine being in a hotel that's at capacity, but where no one has left the hotel. In other words, you're going to have trouble getting away from the rest of the crowd.

So, if we take the hotel analogy a little further, here's some contrasts. A hotel does not travel. That means you can't unpack all your stuff and leave it in the same room for a week, and then wake up in a different locale every morning. Thus, if you go to a hotel (or resort) for a week, you need to be sure there's enough activities/sites nearby to keep you and your family occupied.

On the other hand the lack of movement of a hotel can be a good thing. It doesn't sway back and forth, or pitch and roll in the sea. A cruise ship does. For most people, most of the time, the movement of a cruise ship is not too bothersome. But you will definitely feel it rocking most of the time, and at times the movement can be disturbing. Out of the 15 members of our cruise group, none got "seasick" on the cruise, but a few of us got nauseous or had trouble sleeping at least twice as we went through particularly rough stretches of ocean (last a couple hours each time).

Cruise life is also fairly structured. Everyone goes to dinner at the same time. Everyone starts their shore excursions at roughly the same time, and must be back aboard the ship at the same time. Nighttime shows tend to be at the same time. If you like being on your own schedule, or shopping and exploring at your own pace, you may find cruising a bit frustrating.

Also, while all your meals are provided for (with the exception of lunch during excursions, which was sometimes a problem), there is a certain monotony to eating at the same table, in the same restaurant, with the same waiters, each night. After all, who would do that at a hotel? (If you say "I would," then by all means, go on a cruise.) The menu changes each night, but the basic style of food and service is the same.

Finally, cruising does limit one's physical activities. Sure, there's a decent gym aboard (although try doing the elliptical in rough seas!), but you can't just go off for a run or a bike ride or even a decent walk. (There's a "jogging track" but it's a joke--a very short, very windy circle on the upper deck.) Some shore excursions involve some physical activity, but they're generally planned for a lowest common denominator of exertion, so don't expect too much even if you are on a kayaking, hiking or bicycling tour for a day.

At bottom, if you and your family are adventurous, independent travelers, a cruise may not be for you. If, however, your family likes structure and you want to avoid the stress of vacation decisionmaking ("where should we go for dinner tonight?" "what should we do now?"), then a cruise to the right destinations may very well be a fun trip.

Tomorrow, we'll focus on life on a cruise.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


The Curmudgeon will be enjoying a week long Caribbean holiday cruise with his extended family, so don't expect to see much here for a few days!

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Franken Poised To Pass Coleman In Minnesota

According to the Associated Press, Sen. Norm Coleman's lead is down to just two votes over challenger Al Franken, with many more challenged ballots yet to be tallied.

We think Franken will pass Coleman tomorrow and stay in the lead thereafter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arlington County Funds New Church

Now, if the Arlington County Board were to give a $13 million low interest loan to a local church so it could rebuild it's facility, folks around here would be in quite an uproar.

Yet that's what the Board had done in a complicated deal where the money is dressed up as a loan for low income housing.

The First Baptist Church of Clarendon sits on an oddly shaped somewhat triangular block on the edge of Lyon Village (where the Curmudgeon resides). Faced with a declining congregation and an old, overly large and deteriorating facility, church elders came up with an ingenious idea to get taxpayers to subsidize a brand new church that the congregation could never have afforded on its own.

The church's proposal was to raze most of the existing building and replace it with a new church and an eight story apartment building, in which about two-thirds of the units would be designated for low and "moderate" income families.

The only problem was that the property, surrounded on two sides by single family homes, was--quite appropriately--not zoned for high rise apartments. So the church elders dressed their proposal up as an initiative to increase the stock of lower income housing and persuaded the County not only to rezone the parcel, but to kick in several million in low interest loans as well.

Local residents objected, for good reason. The proposed eight story apartment tower is too big to be that close to single family homes. If it had been sought by a private developer, the County Board would've turned it down in an instant. By the same token, if the property had previously been zoned for such high density development, then neighbors would have at least been on notice that a large building could eventually be in the offing. The local neighbors, however, had no reason to believe a church would be transformed into an eight story behemoth next to their homes.

Another indicator that the project is more about the church than low income housing is the cost/benefit analysis. For a $13.1 million loan, the County is going to get 70 housing units (out of 116 total in the building) designated for lower income residents. According to the church developers, the "affordable" units will be priced at roughly $1200-$1300 less than the market-rate apartments. [Our guess, however, is that they won't be the same as those units, so their market value is probably lower, meaning the rent subsidy is really smaller than that.]

The cost of the $13 million loan is about $186,000 per affordable unit. That money could be used NOW--not in a few years when the building is completed--to pay a $1200/month rent subsidy to 70 families for many, many years, especially if the $13 million were earning interest (even at today's low rates).

There's no demonstration that Arlington needs the new housing on the First Baptist site. Right now, there is a glut of condos and apartments in the Clarendon area, although the neighborhood, due to its popular location, is doing better than most. Housing is Clarendon isn't cheap, but it could be subsidized.

The County Board should never have entered this deal. It should have been evaluated as if the developer were a private one, offering some affordable housing in exchange for certain concessions. If it had been examined that way--even without a large County loan--it never would have been approved. Likewise, we'd feel differently if the church was taking the lead in a novel development on an independent parcel of land, suitable for high density development, that had nothing to do with rebuilding the church itself.

In an article about the development in today's Sun Gazette, the church's pastor said, "allow the religious community to be part of the solution" to affordable housing. We agree. But it shouldn't be the BENEFICIARY.

Thumbs Down To The Sun Gazette

We enjoy our lively Arlington weekly newspaper, the Sun Gazette, which keeps us up to date on local items ignored by the Washington Post and other local media.

The Gazette editorial page likes to give thumbs up and thumbs down to various people, projects, organizations--and especially the County Board. Nothing wrong with that. But somebody needs to give the Gazette a thumbs up--or down--on occasion.

Today, we give the Gazette a thumbs down for publishing a lengthy "letter to the editor" from none other than THE EDITOR. It'd be one thing if they had nothing else to publish, but right below the letter from Gazette Managing Editor Scott McCaffrey is a little statement saying the paper "receives more letters to the editor than it can print in each week's edition."

So why give the letter space to McCaffrey, who presumably could've ginned up a story, or a thumbs up editorial, to make his rather obvious point, which is that Arlingtonians can boost the local economy by shopping locally.

The Gazette should feel free to give us a thumbs down as well--we're sure (as some commenters have been quick to point out) that we've said some dumb things!

Greenland Is Melting

Ice Melting Across Globe At Accelerating Rate, NASA Says

The rate of melting is particularly alarming in Greenland.

This is serious business folks. Thank goodness we've got a new administration coming in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Academically Gifted

What's wrong with being academically gifted?

School officials in Montgomery County have announced they plan to drop the label "gifted" for high achieving school students.

"Officials say the approach slights the rest of the students who are not so labeled" and notes that white and Asian American students are more likely to be identified as gifted than blacks and Hispanics.

As a progressive liberal, we think it's time to get over this nonsense. When it comes to athletics, schools are able to achieve pure meritocracy based on athletic performance. Kids try out. The best kids make the team, the rest fail. They move on. Most accept it--they realize the kids who made it are just better at whatever sport (or theater play, singing group, band, etc.) than they are.

To be sure, the basketball teams in Montgomery County high schools tilt decidedly toward African-American players, and most sports teams, chorale groups, art classes, thespian clubs and band organizations have a makeup that doesn't exactly reflect that of the school or the district. You don't hear anyone saying that slights the white boys who didn't make the teams.

Yet, for some reason, liberals have this thing about academics, that somehow everyone should be equal and that but for some unfair factor of income, parental education, etc., they would be.

That's baloney. Some students, like some athletes, are simply more academically gifted than others. Just like a talented athlete, artist, singer or auto mechanic they SHOULD be singled out for special training and treatment.

Will Obama's Rail Ride Into D.C. Be Like Lincoln's?

Headline in today's Washington Post: "Like Lincoln, Obama Will Ride The Rails To D.C."

Let's hope it's not like Lincoln's inaugural trip to D.C. Warned of an assassination attempt by secessionists in Baltimore--Maryland, a slave state, was still considering joining eight southern states that had already seceded after Lincoln's election--Lincoln stole into D.C. in the middle of the night after skipping any speaking engagement in Baltimore.

The following day saw riots in Baltimore, and Lincoln was ridiculed by many newspapers for the escapade. [The Post finally gets around to some, but not all, of these details in the last paragraph of its story.]

The Post also ought to mention that in Lincoln's day the inauguration was in early March--a bit warmer time for massive outdoor speeches than in the middle of January.

Let's cut all the Lincoln crap and let Obama be Obama. Then, maybe 100 years from now, so new President can be accused of pulling an Obama.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Jewish?

We got this from our aunt in Philly--could be urban legend, but the claim is that Sarah Palin's really Jewish. You betcha!

"Based on Jewish tradition that makes one Jewish if born to a mother of Jewish ethnic decent, Sarah Palin is Jewish, though she touts a mask of evangelical Christianity.

"Sarah Palin's mother, Sally Sheigam, was of Lithuanian Jewish heritage and so were both of her mother's parents, Louise Sheigam and Shmuel Sheigam. Her father, Chuck Heath, also comes from Jewish blood because his mother, Beatrice Coleman, was of Jewish descent.

"Further information on Governor Palin's ancestors can be found in the vital records in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius ( ).The Archives holds birth, marriage, divorce, and death records for the Lithuanian Jewish community from 1851 until 1915 when the Jews were required to leave the country because of World War I. They are in 18th Century Cyrillic script and Yiddish. Many of these records include themother's maiden name and town of registration.

"Palin's maternal grandfather, Schmuel Sheigam, was a Lithuanian Jew, born in 1912 in Vilkaviskis, Lithuania, The Sheigams' grandmother was a Jewess named Gower. At the Ellis Island Immigration Center, the name was entered as Sheeran, instead of Sheigam, a standard practice when immigration officers were unable to understand the pronunciation of non-English speaking immigrants. They are buried in the Jewish cemetery at Budezeriai."

Ok, but do we really want her?

Bloggers for Miles

Tonight the Curmudgeon attended an Arlington fundraiser for Miles Grant (aka The Green Miles), who's running for Virginia delegate, that doubled as a farewell party for the bloggers behind RK (formerly Raising Kaine), who are shutting down at the end of the year.

It was a fun little get together. We chit-chatted with Lowell Feld, one of the forces behind RK, who told us that after four years it was time to move on to something new--or maybe old. Feld used to be with the Energy Information Agency before he got sucked into full time blogging a few years ago, not long before the Jim Webb campaign took off on the net. It was easy for him to leave then since it was the Bush administration, but now, with Obama in, he wants back in on energy policy. And doing nothing but blogging and campaign consulting can be a bit wearing.

We also talked to Ben Tribbett of Not Larry Sabato, who hosted the event. We were surprised to learn that Ben is now an Arlingtonian, after spending his entire life in Fairfax County.

Then, in one of those "small world" moments, we met a fellow from Santa Monica who, it turned out, had dated a woman Mrs. Curmudgeon went to elementary school with. It was certainly an OMG moment.

We also caught up with Jessica Barba, one of Tom Perriello's campaign staffers. Perriello, you may recall, had one of the grandest upsets of the campaign season when he narrowly unseated GOP incumbent Virgil Goode in Virginia's 5th congressional district (we'll know for sure tomorrow when the final recount is completed). We'd gotten many an email from Barba during the campaign season, so it was nice to put a face with the name. She'll be joining Tom's congressional staff come January, going from poorly paid campaign staff to poorly paid hill staffer.

At some point, we talked briefly with a guy, whose name we failed to note, who is working on Terry McAuliffe's Virginia gubernatorial campaign and exchanged some observations on strategy and tactics in what will clearly be an entertaining three-way race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Tim Kaine as governor of the Commonwealth.

Oh yes--we also chatted with Miles Grant, the candidate for whom this was all about. Miles is running for state delegate against Arlington incumbent Al Eisenberg (assuming Eisenberg runs for re-election). Miles is an environmental activist and fellow Arlington blogger and would make a terrific delegate to Richmond. We were quite astounded, however, when Tribbett told our assembled group that, based on his research, Miles's campaign against Eisenberg would be the first time since the 1970's that any Democrat in Northern Virginia had challenged an incumbent Democratic delegate in a primary race!

If Miles does nothing else, just breaking that long record of unchallenged incumbency will be a good thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Isn't Identity Theft A Serious Crime?

Evidently not.

Yesterday, federal Judge Emmet Sullivan, in D.C. sentenced two women to a mere 6 months in prison for a scam in which they stole the identities of 65 public school job applicants and went on a $40,000 shopping spree. ("Pair Charged In Identity Theft Scheme")

C'mon judge! Identity theft crime is spreading like an epidemic. You should've thrown the book at those ladies.

Granted, the biggest part of the problem is banks making it so easy to steal identities. Everytime we're asked to fill out our social security number and birthdate on some application, we realize than anyone handling that application at any point could easily open an account in our name, no questions asked. Banks could make it more difficult, but they don't.

Anyway, giving such thieves a slap on the wrist is hardly going to deter the crime.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama No Brainer: A National Net Metering Law

The new Obama administration has a lot on its plate, but here's one item, on the energy front, that's a no-brainer: a national net-metering law.

Net-metering laws require electric utiltities to allow individual homeowners and businesses to tie their own electric generation systems (usually solar or wind) into the existing grid and credit them for the electricity they generate.

Most states--more than 40--now have net-metering laws, but the particulars of them vary considerably, and a few backwards states still don't have any net-metering provisions.

What we need is a national net-metering law based on the most progressive state laws, which have been most successful in encouraging additional investment by individuals and businesses into clean electricity generation.

A progressive net-metering law would include provisions that:

--Prohibit a utility from imposing expensive, unnecessary or punitive conditions on interconnection,

--Standardize forms for applying for interconnection

--Allow power generators to be compensated if they generate more electricity than they use (some states only allow a credit up to the amount used)

--Require, under certain circumstances, premium payments to generators who help a utility meet "green-power" benchmarks and/or when the generator is offsetting peak power loads

By encouraging individuals to invest in alternative energy, especially wind and solar, net metering laws increase our national ability to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce our reliance on imported oil and natural gas.

In addition, net metering helps utilities offset the demand for new transmission lines by adding distributed on-site electricity generation in the middle of high demand areas. Utilities are planning to invest billions of dollars in new transmission lines, when instead that money could be invested in alternative energy generation (primarily solar) in the middle of dense urban areas. By generating additional electricity in the middle of the grid, utilities can forego wasteful construction of long transmission lines to new, remotely sited, central power plants.

For more information on net metering and variations in state policies, go to the Department of Energy's net metering information page, HERE.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Welcome Blue Commonwealth

With RK, aka Raising Kaine, about to shut down, we're happy to welcome Blue Commonwealth to the Virginia political blogosphere.

BC, you've got some big shoes to fill!

Blagojevich Arrested For Trying To Sell Obama's Senate Seat

What a sleezebag!

Moran Leads The '09 Virginia Gubernatorial Field

It's not even 2009 yet, and the first poll is out for the Virginia governor's race next November.

On the GOP side, Attorney General Bob McDonnell is the presumptive nominee. Democrats will have a knock-down, drag out primary to see who their nominee will be. At present, the candidates are Delegate Brian Moran (pictured) from Alexandria, Senator Creigh Deeds from Bath County (southwest Va.), and former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe from McLean.

The first poll, from Rasmussen, is good news for Democrats. It shows that in various two-way match-ups, Moran leads McDonnell by 41%-37%; Deeds and McDonnell are tied at 39% apiece, and McDonnell leads McAuliffe by 41%-36%.

The results are interesting. First, we're fascinated that Deeds and McDonnell are tied. Four years ago they faced off for Attorney General and essentially tied. McDonnell ended up winning by a few hundred votes, the closest statewide contest in modern Virginia history. Three years later, they're still tied!

McAuliffe is behind. No surprise there. He's new to the race and still viewed suspiciously by a lot of Virginians. We remain skeptical, but McAuliffe is a skilled political operative who can raise money. The first time Mark Warner ran for office, as a political unknown, folks were equally dismissive, and look where he is now.

The good news part, however, is that McDonnell, who is a bit better known statewide and who is the consensus candidate of the GOP, is not leading all three challengers and in fact trails Moran. We expect the race to be pretty close, but if Democrats again take the governorship, it will reaffirm Democratic dominance of a state that not that long ago was reliably red.

We're a bit disappointed with the Rasmussen people, however, for not polling on the Democratic primary. The implication of the head-to-head matchups is that Moran would lead in that race, but it would be nice to see some numbers. One possibility is that McAuliffe will siphon Northern Virginia votes from Moran, giving the nod to Deeds, even if Moran is the stronger general election candidate.

The poll results will certainly be a boost to Moran's camp as it tries to line up money and backers for the bruising primary ahead. (We're not worried that the primary will somehow divide Dems and give the election to McDonnell; in fact, history shows that a good primary battle builds interest and vets the winning candidate. See: Obama.)

In any event, there's plenty of time to cogitate on this one--we've got a long way to go.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Unethics Of Short-Selling Journalism

While we were surfing our favorite various news, gossip and blog sites today, we came across a lengthy piece in New York Magazine on our old Yale classmate Jim Chanos (we called him "Doc" in those days), who has made a killing managing a "hedge" fund that shorts stocks.

It was an interesting profile. We especially liked the claim that Chanos "disdains Wall Street's elite culture." Sheesh--Chanos reportedly made $300 million last year, has a huge house on the beach in the Hamptons, has sued his neighbor there over a dispute about a beach path, and recently closed on a "$20 million triplex on 75th Street near 5th Avenue." Yeah, he's the common man all right.

Anyway, we digress.

One of the points in the article is that Chanos cultivates financial journalists, who can help him by penning negative stories about the companies his fund has shorted. Those negative stories, in turn, help drive the stock price of those companies down, ensuring that Chanos and his investors make money.

Now, Chanos will say he's just feeding the truth to those journalists, exposing companies with weak, or even fraudulent, balance sheets.

That's fine--we have no problem with that. What we do have a problem with is the absence of disclosure by the journalists. (The magazine story points out that many of those journalists have also gone on to land lucrative publishing deals for "exposing" the troubled companies.)

Journalists are loathe to name their sources. First Amendment and all that. But truth be known, they're more reluctant to disclose their sources because us, the readers, would be shocked at how unreliable, despiccable, self-serving, and double-dealing most of these anonymous sources are.

Anyway, they don't need to say "according to Jim Chanos . . ." But what they SHOULD say is that "one of the sources for this story is an investment fund manager who has taken a significant short position on company X and thus stands to make a lot of money if company X's stock goes down." After all, when the journalist gives--as they always do--Company X's side of the story, they don't do it anonymously. Instead, they say, "a spokesperson for Company X disputed these [anonymous] claims . . ." The reader, of course, then figures, "well, of course they dispute it."

When we were practicing law, we frequently ran into the same kind of Bermuda triangle of anonymous allegations in product liability cases. Plaintiffs' attorneys going after this drug, or that chemical, would tip off reporters, selectively giving them snippets of documents and depositions in the hope of getting a story that would provide adverse publicity to the product. Such negative stories generate more claims, put public pressure on the product manufacturer to settle, and inflate the value of such settlements.

Again, we're not against such stories--First Amendment, yada, yada. But, the reader ought to know that the story is based on information from an attorney who has a personal stake in the outcome and who, of course, is quite biased. (In many product liability suits, the plaintiff's attorney ends up with more than half the award--40% as a "contingency fee," plus all the trial costs.)

[And yes, it can work both ways. The Curmudgeon was not against using a friendly journalist to plant a favorable story.]

Let's face it, readers would be a tad more skeptical if they read a story like this: "Today, a group of lawyers who hope to make at least $10 million off pending litigation, alleged that X Pharmaceutical's new anti-nose hair drug causes depression, headaches, grouchiness, PMS and bloating in women under age 45 who've been treated with the drug."

An amazing amount of what we read in the papers these days comes from either someone with an axe to grind, or someone who expects to make money off the publicity. Real journalistic ethics--something that doesn't exist--would disclose these conflicts of interest, even if names were not named. (Note how quick the press is to jump on anyone else who fails to disclose a conflict.)

Don't expect things to change. Anyone who makes $300 million shorting the market is no more a hero than the folks who made that kind of obscene money leading investors into the financial mess we're in today.

Now, if only we could figure out how to make money with this darn blog!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jefferson Defeated

Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, under indictment on various corruption charges, lost his bid for election yesterday. In the overwhelmingly Democratic and African-American district, a Vietnamese-American Republican won.

Good. That's how democracy should work.

More HERE.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Justice Served

Do you think it's a good idea to let an 8-year-old shoot an Uzi submachine gun? And if so, should he be supervised by a 15-year-old?

No. In fact, it's not a good idea to let either one touch the weapon. Sure enough, an 8-year-old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts accidentally fatally shot himself in the head at a "Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo" sponsored by a local sportsman's club.

The boy's father was standing 10 feet behind him, getting ready to take a photo, while the 15-year-old handed the weapon to the younger boy. When the younger boy fired--he was trying to hit a pumpkin--the weapon recoiled (duh) and he shot himself in the head.

We can only say that it's too bad he didn't accidentally shoot the organizers of the event.

The organizers, however, will have to answer for their criminal negligence. Three men have been indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges: the Pelham, Mass. chief of police, whose company, COP Firearms and Training, sponsored the gun fair, and the two men who brought the Uzi to the show. They face up to 20 years in prison.

We imagine the NRA will soon have a campaign going to free them from such a gross injustice.

One wonders about the father, but he's lost his son, which will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Problem With Government Money

Giving away government money to jump start the economy, help victims of the housing crisis, bail-out employers, etc. may be necessary. But, as with all government money, it doesn't always get spent wisely.

We were struck by this in a Wall Street Journal page one article on how the limited grant funds available from the $4 billion Neighborhood Stabilization Program, authorized by Congress in July, is forcing cities to make tough choices.

The lead to the article focuses on Avondale, Arizona, one of those unfortunate booming exurbs that went bust in the housing meltdown. Avondale, which has about 2600 homes in--or about to be in--foreclosure, has received $2.5 million in fed funds to ease the crisis. (That's about $1000 per foreclosed home.)

So what is the town doing with it? The Director of Neighborhood and Family services wants to spend a quarter of the money refurbishing two abandoned townhomes , filling up an empty, graffiti covered swimming pool, and "build[ing] two additional rental units for low-income families."

Whoa! The swimming pool is pretty iffy--people are losing their houses--but the part about building NEW housing with the money made us see red. The town has more than 2000 properties that are either abandoned or close to it. They hardly need NEW housing. You'd think if they need low income housing, they could easily RENT some of the foreclosed units, thereby helping stabilize the neighborhoods the way the program is supposed to work.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Time For The Sierra Club And Nature Conservancy To Green Their 'Zines

As an avid supporter of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, we periodically receive their highly produced glossy magazines, filled with lovely photos of endangered species and threatened ecosystems.

As we were finishing lunch today, we flipped through the Nature Conservancy mag that had just arrived in the mail. There were a number of tips on "going green," and some articles on endangered forests. When we finished, we dumped the magazine on our recycling pile, along with other detritus from today's mail. And then it hit us.

There's nothing green about that magazine. According to the magazine's circulation statement, more than 800,000 copies are printed up and distributed every year. The magazine is about 80 pages. So that's 64 MILLION pages of paper sent out by the Conservancy for its magazine. (We're not sure how many trees that equals--we saw one estimate on the web that an average tree could produce 100,000 pages of paper, in which case it would be 640 trees.)

The Sierra club is on a similar footing.

We like those magazines. But we'd feel a whole lot better if these and other "green" organizations found a way to deliver their content electronically--or at least give their patrons an electronic option.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

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Hawaii To Support Electric Car Network

Let's hear it for Hawaii and its Republican Governor, Linda Lingle.

Lingle announced yesterday that the Hawaiian government would support a plan to build a network of electric automobile charging stations throughout the state by 2012. ("Hawaii Endorses Plan For Electric Cars.")

This makes a lot of sense--Hawaii is heavily dependent on oil imports to fuel its economy, and thus is quite vulnerable to disruption.

To make the plan work, however, Hawaii needs to end its dependence on burning oil to make electricity. That shouldn't be too difficult: the cost of electricity in Hawaii is quite high, running between 30-38 cents per kilowatt hour, versus an average of less than 10 cents on the mainland.

At costs like that, wind energy is quite economical, and solar looks pretty good, especially in sunny Hawaii. We'd guess, too, that Hawaii, with its large, active volcanoes, has ample sources of geothermal energy. Indeed, one wonders: what has taken Hawaii so long to make big progress on the alternative energy front.

A Wall Street Journal article (not available online) on the new car electrification plan suggested that one problem is lack of transmission capacity between the islands. That's a lot of baloney. The problem is the monopoly given to Hawaiian Electric Co. and the perverse incentives it has under traditional utility regulation.

Like most electric utilities, Hawaiian Electric has every incentive to build large, central generating facilities with extensive transmission/distribution lines, and to utilize expensive sources of fuel, such as oil. Regulators give the company a set return on its investments.

If Hawaii can revise its regulations to incentivize the power company to invest in distributed solar--rather than more transmission lines--as well as wind and geothermal, it can quickly move forward as a leader in alternative energy.

The plan to electrify the state's auto fleet is a good first step forward. Combined with other steps to reform the way electricity is generated in the state, Hawaii can become a model for breaking the oil addiction, achieving energy independence and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Terror And Courage At The Taj Mahal Hotel

We've read a bunch of accounts of the terror atrocities in Mumbai, but this is one of the best we've seen, from an American who was trapped in the hotel for hours, along with his wife.

He recounts the terror, but also the extreme courage and bravery of many of the Indian staff members at the hotel.

It's a good read:

If Congress Bails Out The Big Three, It Needs To Help Them Sell The Right Cars

Detroit's automakers were back in front of Congress today seeking a $25 billion handout. We predict that's just a downpayment at the rate GM, Chrysler and Ford would burn through the money.

Previously, we said we're opposed to bailing out the domestic auto industry. We still are--Chapter 11 bankruptcy would help them go through the necessary restructuring faster and more efficiently.

Our guess, however, is that Congress will give the not so big three the "loan" they want. And before we bemoan the expenditure of $25 billion on the auto industry, we ought to look at the tens of billions of dollars Congress has been throwing at the ethanol industry over the past few years!

In any event, if Congress wants Detroit to build better, greener cars and wean itself from addiction to SUV's, then Congress needs to help out by enacting policies that will severely discourage consumers from wanting gas-guzzling SUV's. That includes enforcing stricter fuel economy requirements, taxes on gas guzzlers, subsidies for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, and other policy changes.

A carbon tax would also do wonders in this area, by raising gasoline prices. We doubt Congress has the political will to do most of this. Congress seems to think it can have everything--high wages and benefits for auto workers; guaranteed employment; low gas prices and green cars. Ain't gonna happen.

Instead, we'll probably get something that looks like the ethanol debacle.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Testing For "Sports Gene" In Children--A New Way To Part Foolish Parents From Their Money

Yesterday's New York Times had a fascinating front-page article on a rush by parents--especially in Boulder, Colorado--to get their toddlers tested for a so-called sports gene.

That's right, genetic testing now purports to be able to tell you whether your little tyke will be the next Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt. Well, not really--the gene has been identified in white Olympic athletes, so we guess you'll have to settle for Roger Federer, Tom Brady or David Beckham.

Anyway, we had a good time with some friends yesterday making fun of this genetic test (they've probably all secretly swabbed their children's mouths and sent in for the test by now). For $150, Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder will tell you whether your child has has the version of the ACTN3 gene that is supposedly beneficial for elite/power athletes, such as sprinters, as opposed to the version found more frequently in "endurance" athletes.

When you get the test results back, you also get a little pamphlet telling you how to develop your little super-athlete. And if you haven't parted with enough of your money on such silliness yet, then you can also go to Epic Athletic Performance, a company that will put children through a talent identification test.

The apparent idea behind the testing is to match your children with the types of sports they are most genetically compatible with. One overwrought parent quoted in the NYT article said she thought such testing would "prevent a lot of parental frustration" as she watched her 2 year old struggle through a toddler soccer class. (Note: 2 year olds do not need soccer classes--just let them run around and have fun!)

As a public service, the Curmudgeon is going to give all those parents contemplating these tests some completely FREE advice: (1) no matter what your child's genes say, he or she has an infinitessimally small chance of becoming an Olympian or professional athlete; (2) if your child is really talented, it won't be that difficult to tell; (3) if you want to know if your child is going to be fast, wait until he or she is 5 and have 'em race the kids at their school. And finally, this: for goodness sakes, encourage your kids to play sports for FUN(!!!) and as their parents, take a chill pill.

Now, if you're still hoping to part with your money to find out what your child's professional sports prospects are, leave us a comment with your email address and we'll get in touch with you about our program for a mere $200 that will help you decide whether he or she is going to be a 2024 Olympian.

Martin Leads Chambliss In Georgia Senate Run-off Early Voting

For what it's worth, Democratic challenger Jim Martin appears to be leading GOP incumbent Saxbe Chambliss in the early voting for tomorrow's run-off election for one of two remaining undecided U.S. Senate races.

In a Public Policy Polling canvass of Georgia voters (as of Nov. 23) 27% of respondents said they'd already voted (under Georgia's liberal early voting rules). Among those voters, Martin was leading by 52%-46%.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Martin trails among ALL likely voters in every poll taken in the Peach State, by between 2-8 points.

UPDATE: Today, PPP released its final poll of Georgia voters and the early voting numbers have flipped, with Chambliss now leading Martin by 58%-41% among the 35% of respondents who said they'd already voted. Did things really flip in just a few days of additional early voting? Not likely--more likely is a polling anomaly. In any event, Chambless appears to have a solid lead going into today's runoff.

While the early voting lead is nice, Martin had a similar lead (as did Obama) among early voters before general election day on Nov. 4, but ended up behind Chambliss (and Obama behind McCain) when the votes were fully tallied.

Our guess is that Martin will fall short by 4-5 points after running a good, hard-fought campaign.

In the other still open race, it appears that Dem challenger Al Franken will fall just shy of ousting GOP Senator Norm Coleman in Minnesota. With the statewide recound almost complete, Franken is a couple hundred votes short and it does not appear he'll be able to make up that ground.

We still think that with 58 senators in their caucus, Democrats will be able to defeat GOP filibusters on most issues.