Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One of the Best Days of the Year!

Cold (again!), cloudy, gets dark early--so what's so great about today? With yesterday's winter solstice, today is the first time in six months that we're adding a little daylight! It's a start; Spring is on its way!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Time To Enforce Arlington's New Snow Removal Ordinance?

After the serial blizzards of last winter, Arlington finally adopted a snow removal ordinance that requires businesses and homeowners to clear the walks abutting their property within 24 hours of a storm.

It seems that many Arlingtonians need a reminder of this requirement. Hey folks, just because it's "only an inch" of snow doesn't mean you can ignore it. Walking around Lyon Village and Clarendon today, we saw quite a few very icy sidewalks that had never been cleared (although we saw mostly clear sidewalks--thanks to the majority who did their duty).

The photo here is of our neighbor's sidewalk at the corner of Edgewood and Franklin streets. Our neighbor caddy-corner from them did no better (no surprise--neither cleared their walks last winter).

Business owners should remember to clear ALL the walks around their property, not just that in front of their entrance. We noticed that the back of the Comcast property on Franklin was quite icy today, and some other Clarendon businesses ignored some of their side and back walks as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hooray for Repeal of DADT

Finally, the U.S. Congress has done the right thing and will allow gays to serve openly in the military. It's sad that it took this long, but it's another sign of progress, ever so slowly. We're happy that both Virginia senators voted for the repeal--they did the right thing, and it will help them, not hurt them, politically in the Commonwealth (they aren't going to get the right wing homo-phobe vote anyway, and shouldn't want to).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Should Government Be Subsidizing TV and Radio Media?

In Virginia, Governor McDonnell is proposing deep cuts in state support for public broadcasting, and we can expect similar efforts from new members of Congress at the federal level.

Some of our friends on the left will be disappointed at this, but we tend to agree with the governor on this one.

When television first came along, the idea of promoting public broadcasting was a good one. In many markets there were just three or four commercial broadcast stations, and only three national networks. Public television carried programming--largely educational and cultural--that would never see the light of day in the limited broadcast environment that existed at the time.

That has all changed, of course. Today, we have hundreds of television stations on cable and satellite. Some are built on the traditional commercial television models, others (such as HBO) on a subscription model. These stations cater to many specialty audiences.

Of course, public television (and radio) have many fine offerings. The question, however, is why can't those fine offerings simply compete in the regular television market. It's hard to imagine that one of Ken Burns' fine documentaries wouldn't find an audience on, say, Bravo or A&E.

As it is, public television and radio these days operate on a quasi-subcription model--but instead of subscribing, they have interminable telethon like fundraising campaigns that, frankly, are worse than commercials.

Most of the programming on public television and radio could easily survive in a commercial or subscription environment, and that which couldn't--well, maybe it shouldn't be on at all. In fact, freed of the strictures of public funding, the programming on "public" television and radio might get even better.

There may be an exception where public funding is justified--some of the state programming on public television is for educational programs used in schools. But the funding for that could easily be moved into the Education budget to avoid any public confusion on its purpose.

We don't see a strong continuing rationale for using taxpayer dollars to subsidize "public" television and radio. Most of that programming appeals to a very narrow audience, not the public in general. And while our lefty friends generally enjoy public television and radio, we can see why more conservative taxpayers would not. If NPR were to suddenly adopt a Fox-like slant, you'd see the end to Democratic support for such subsidies.

We need to make some hard decisions about what government should and should not be doing. This is a fairly easy one.

[Now, having said that, Governor McDonnell ought to take a hard look at some of the programs he likes that subsidize the business community. These are often disguised as "jobs" programs, but they almost always benefit a narrow segment of the private sector.]

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are Tea Partiers Libertarians?

Generalizing anything about Tea Partiers can be difficult, but the same can be said about Democrats and Republicans.

Today, we ask the question, are Tea Partiers libertarians?

The answer: not really. Let's start with gay rights. Tea Partiers are more likely than Republicans in general to oppose gay rights. You certainly don't see any of them leading the charge (or even following) on repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."

In fact, the Tea Partiers appear to be descended from the same people who opposed extension of civil rights to blacks; who opposed women's suffrage and later opposed the women's rights movement. Sarah Palin seems oblivious to the fact that she'd be nowhere if it weren't for the women who fought for equality for women in the political and economic spheres.

Some of the tea partiers also seem to question the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause for religion, arguing that the founders only intended to prohibit a national establishment of religion, but not state establishments of such. This is a popular line of argument from Utah's new senator, who comes from a state that would love to impose Mormonism on all its citizens (and ultimately, all of us).

Indeed, when it comes to religion, Tea Partiers seem to become much more of government activists. There seems little doubt that if they COULD, the WOULD impose a whole raft of right wing Christian moral strictures on the rest of us--their Taliban. They're certainly not shy about asking that public schools teach things the way they see it.

They do like to rant and rave about government regulation of businesses. God forbid that a gun dealer should have to adhere to some rationale standard of care in selling a dangerous product to the public. Or that an industry that pollutes the environment should have to include in the costs of its product the price of cleaning up.

The fact is that many industries in the U.S. have learned to welcome regulation (to a reasonable point) because it protects them from fly-by-night operators charging low prices for inferior products. You think GM has it bad now--suppose any Indian or Chinese auto manufacturer could bring some $2000 piece of crap dangerous as hell car into the U.S. market? Where would GM be then? The point is, many businesses benefit from a well-regulated market, and they have plenty of lobbyists and lawyers poring over every new regulation to make sure their voices are heard.

Would you really want to live somewhere with no zoning laws? And have someone open up a hog farm in your neighborhood, or put an auto repair shop next to your house without a question being asked?

Tea Partiers, then, are not true libertarians.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The "Tax Deal"--Vintage Congress

If you thought the mid-term elections with all their colorful Tea Party candidates were going to change the way things are done here in the Nation's Capital, think again.

The "tax deal" brokered by Pres. Obama and the Republicans in Congress is vintage pork politics. After all that talk about the deficit and getting real about bringing the budget under control, we got a "deal" that INCREASES the tax breaks for everyone, including hyper-millionaires, and that EXTENDS unemployment benefits for people who haven't managed to "find" a job for two years.

Result: bigger deficit. Screw the American people. But everyone in Congress gave out a holiday goodie to their constituency. Unfortunately, that's the way our system works.

In our next post, we'll discuss why those new Tea Party congresspeople won't be any different. [Hint: they're not for less government, or less spending--they just want the government to tell you and I how to live our lives, and to give tax breaks to their cronies, the classic Republican way of spending.]

We're Back!

Just a note to say that after an unplanned break due to various causes, the Curmudgeon is back, ready to make some Curmudgeonly posts on those issues near and dear to our hearts!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Maybe Obama Really Doesn't Get It

Today's depressing reports include that Pres. Obama is considering extending the Bush tax cuts for EVERYONE, including the top 1-2 percent of earners, for another couple of years.

WTF! Come on, Obama, get a backbone. One reason we're losing out to the tea-baggers is we're not putting up a fight. If you go down that road, you may well have an intra-party challenge in 2012.

Why not show that you, at least, are SERIOUS about deficit reduction. The stock market is now up nearly 100% since its bottom in March 2009. The rich are doing fine. The Bush cuts were supposed to be "temporary."

Don't be another Republican.

10 Dumbest

Back in the early 1970's, New Times magazine published a list of the "10 dumbest congressmen". With the election of so many new tea party Republicans to Congress, it may be time for an update. What about the "10 Dumbest Freshman Representatives"?

Nominations are open!
Did you know that the words "race car" spelled backwards still spells "race car"?

"Eat" is the only word that, if you take the 1st letter and move it to the last, spells its past tense, "ate"?

And, if you rearrange the letters in "so-called tea party Republicans" and add just a few more letters, it spells:

"Shut the f**k up you free-loading, progress-blocking, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, violent, hypocritical, douche bags, and deal with the fact that you nearly wrecked the country under Bush and that our President is black."

Hat tip to JB for this one.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Perriello Race To Be Close (Or Maybe Not)

Update: While things looked good for awhile, the later results were not so good and it looks like Tom Perriello will go down in the GOP wave. Too bad--he was a good man!!

We've been closely watching the congressional race in Virginia's 5th District between incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello and GOP challenger Robert Hurt, and this one promises to be close. In 2008, Perriello had the narrowest win of any Democrat, and he was considered toast this time by many, but he's run a good campaign and still may pull it out thanks to independent candidate Jeff Clark, who is getting just over 2% of the vote.

We compared those counties with complete returns so far tonight to those same counties two years ago. In four of them--Prince Edward, Buckingham, Halifax, and Martinsville City--Perriello had a higher percentage differential than in '08 (we have to factor out Clark to get to this), whereas in five--Campbell, Charlotte, Henry, Nelson and Bedford City--his percentage differential was worse.

The biggest county, Albemarle, is still mostly out.

We think this will go down to the wire again, with Perriello gradually closing the gap thru the night.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Our Predictions For Tuesday

Yes, readers, we've been awfully quiet of late as the election season has progressed to it's climax tomorrow. Why? Just too depressing.

A significant portion of the electorate seems to think we can have a federal government that provides the services they want, with lower taxes and a balanced budget. And they seem to believe that candidates who espouse a balanced budget without specifying how they'll do it are inherently credible, as long as they are "against Washington."

Do these same people also think they can get paid a high wage without actually doing any work, or that they can get unlimited health care without it costing anything?

Our voters also have a very short memory. Two years ago we were teetering on a true economic Depression. Reluctantly, Democrats--of all people--voted to shore up the economy by bailing out the same banks and Wall St. firms that caused the crisis. The worst of it was avoided, but now voters, unsatisfied that the economy is not roaring again, want to return to office the folks who caused the problem in the first place.

This is a little like suing the doctor who saved your wife from certain death with an emergency tracheotomy because now she has a scar on her neck.

Anyway, we went through this in 1992, and it turned out ok. After the Republicans returned to power then, we soon saw what incompetent fools they were, and things balanced out.

Enough whining Mr. Curmudgeon. Here's our fearless predictions for tomorrow:

Senate: Dems 50, GOP 48, Independent 2

House: Dems 204, GOP 231

In individual contests, we'll do the same ones as the Washington Post Crystal Ball contest:

Nevada Senate: Reid 44, Angle 47 (Nevada has a "none of these candidates" option)

Colorado Senate: Bennet 50, Buck 49

California Governor: Brown 52, Whitman 47

Maryland Governor: O'Malley 53, Ehrlich 47

Tie-breaker--% of vote for Christine O'Donnell in Delaware: 42%

Wild Card--Tom Perriello retains his seat in Virginia's 5th Congressional district

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Cooch Commits More Fraud, Waste and Abuse

Hey Tea Partiers! Want to cut out fraud, waste and abuse in Virginia's government? Then ask Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to drop his politically motivated civil investigative demand against his own client, the University of Virginia, for documents related to research done by climate scientist Michael Mann.

U.Va. has already spent $400,000 SUCCESSFULLY fighting the AG's lawsuit, and only the Cooch knows how much his office has also spent on it. And now he's back for more!

Here's what's happened so far: using a law designed to catch people who commit fraud against the state, the Cooch, within weeks of taking office, issued a subpoena to U.Va. for all records related to research funded by a series of grants Mann had while teaching there (he's now at Penn State). Cooch claimed that Mann defrauded the Commonwealth while performing research that underlies claims of man-made global warming.

A state court then THREW OUT the lawsuit. It ruled that the Cooch could only go after research projects funded by the state of Virginia, which was only one of the five grants that the subpoena was aimed at. As to that one state grant, it said that Cooch's subpoena failed to allege just how it was that Mann had committed fraud.

Now, having wasted a lot of taxpayer money with his legal malpractice the first time around (it would not have taken a legal genius to realize that the state of Virginia has no basis to sue over federal grant funds), the Cooch is back with a new subpoena aimed at the one state grant. The only problem? The state grant has nothing to do with climate research!!

Furthermore, the supposedly beefed up allegations of fraud in the new subpoena shouldn't pass muster either. The Cooch claims that Mann's papers (albeit not the papers that were the subject of his state grant) "demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect."

Huh? That's fraud? If "lack of rigor" regarding statistical analyses is now a crime, there are thousands of scientists--including quite a few on Cooch's side of the climate "debate"--who are headed to jail. All the Cooch is really saying is that he disagrees with Mann's interpretation of his data. This is a valid area for scientific debate, but not a valid use of state funds for LITIGATION.

On top of all this, the Cooch is also appealing parts of the initial court ruling against him. That's great for U.Va's lawyers, but not for us taxpayers.

Surely the Cooch can find some legitimate targets for claims of fraud against the Commonwealth. He might start by looking in a mirror.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Nathalie for Senate

For Nathalie Dupree's campaign website (, click HERE.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nathalie Dupree For Senate

The Curmudgeon's stepmom, Nathalie Dupree, is announcing a write-in bid for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina today.

Nathalie will be challenging incumbent Senator Jim Demint, the overwhelming favorite after Democrats nominated Alvin Greene, an unemployed novice who has been charged with showing pornographic pictures to a college student.

Nathalie, who is a renowned chef, with many cookbooks and television cooking shows to her credit, also happens to be quite politically active and astute. We're pretty sure Nathalie doesn't expect to be moving to Washington after the November election (although we've told her she's welcome in the Curmudgeon guest quarters), but she did feel that Greene's flagging campaign was failing to raise certain issues about Demint that ought to be aired.

Demint, for his part, is so confident of victory that he's barnstorming around the country trying to help various highly unqualified Tea Party candidates elected to they can wreck our government.

We'll try to get a link for Nathalie's campaign website in here soon--not sure it's gone live yet.

Arlington Goes Crosswalk Happy

Maybe Remy (of "Arlington Rap" fame) should do a rap on Arlington's penchant for putting crosswalks every 10 feet.

Really, the County has gone crazy with crosswalks. We're all in favor of well-marked pedestrian crossings, especially at intersections controlled by traffic lights or stop signs. In those cases, the walks discourage drivers from creeping into the pedestrian crossing, while the traffic signals let everyone know when they can walk--or not.

But Arlington has added quite a few crosswalks in fairly busy roads where these is no intersection. The County is also fond of signs reminding drivers that "state law" requires yielding the right of way to a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk.

We sometimes wonder about that state law. If Arlington marks a crosswalk on I-395, does everyone have to stop? Could be a less expensive way to derail HOT lanes than the County's silly lawsuit.

In any event, some of the crosswalks the County has laid out are downright dangerous, and could get a pedestrian killed. The worst is one on Wilson Blvd., at the Gold's Gym in Ballston. This crosswalk is not at an intersection; it's across a four lane road; it's at a curve in the road; and it's in a part of the road that demands extreme concentration from drivers on the other cars--there are parking lanes and a lot of people turning here with no turn lane. Some places were not meant for pedestrians to cross, and this is one of them.

Then there's the silly crosswalks. At the Powhatan skateboard park on upper Wilson Blvd., there are three crosswalks controlled by traffic signals, including one traffic signal solely for pedestrians. Yet, that didn't stop the County from adding a fourth crosswalk between these, with no traffic signal. As if skateboarders are going to use a crosswalk!!
Another problem is road markings that look like crosswalks, but aren't. Arlington loves "traffic calming" speed humps, but paints them with white markings to alert drivers. Some of those markings look a little like crosswalks, but they aren't. We have seen pedestrians standing at these, scratching their heads, wondering if they should blandly walk out into traffic with that "state law" protecting them like some kind of fake force field.
Pedestrian safety is important, but giving pedestrians a false sense of security with badly placed crosswalks, or faux crosswalks, only increases the danger. Fortunately for pedestrians, Arlington has engineered most of its roads so you can't really get over 25-30 mph, even if you wanted to.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tropical Storm Nicole Takes Dead Aim At Curmudgeon

Does Mother Nature have a sense of humor--or irony--or maybe just revenge? A year ago, the Curmudgeon released Landstrike, his book in which fictional Hurricane Nicole slams into New York City as a major, category four, storm, wreaking havoc and spreading devastation far and wide.

Now we have Tropical Storm Nicole about to cross Florida. It has little chance of becoming a hurricane, or devastating New York, but it does appear to have the Curmudgeon in it's cross-hairs. Nicole is forecast to race directly across D.C. tomorrow, bringing torrential rain and the prospect of postponing the first round of the golf tournament the Curmudgeon is playing in this weekend.

We know that you all share our pain!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Do We Need Refrigerators That Tell Us When We're Out of Milk?

Yesterday's Post, reporting on an impending FCC decision to free up some unused TV broadcast spectrum for new wireless applications, speculated that as a result we could see "internet connected refrigerators that monitor when it's time to get more milk and eggs."

Huh? Is this something people are dying to get? The Curmudgeon gets enough junk emails without having his refrigerator nag him for more milk.

Or worse yet, asking to be cleaned; or wondering if anyone's really going to eat those Noodles & Co. leftovers that have been sitting in the back for a week; or questioning the need for five different kinds of mustard; or suggesting something healthier than Stouffer's frozen lasagna.

If this is all we're going to get from a "new generation" of wireless, why bother?

Let us know when you come out with a refrigerator that will go to the store and get the milk. Then we'll take interest!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Random Thoughts on Rosh Hoshanah

Sitting in temple for two and a half hours of Rosh Hoshanah services gives one's mind plenty of time to wander, especially when the cantor's belting out several minutes of some incomprehensible Hebrew tune.

So here's some of those thoughts:

--Why is the service so long? Hasn't anyone ever heard of editing? Wouldn't it be great if the college of rabbis, or whatever they're called, used some modern techniques to determine ideal human attention span and designed a service that people would enjoy?

--Why is so much of the service in Hebrew? The Jews who started these services spoke Hebrew, so it made sense to them. But as a reform Jew, who like most reform Jews learned how to read Hebrew for bar mitzvah purposes, but certainly never learned to understand it, why stick with the old language?

--Why is so much of the service meaningless. Most of the blessings are about the greatness of God, or some event that took place 5000 years ago. Why not craft blessings that would make modern Jews think about their role in the modern world? And why not incorporate more recent events? Yes, the exodus was great. But so was the 6-day war.

--One prayer repeated throughout the high holy days talks about how it is written on Rosh Hoshonah, then sealed on Yom Kippur, who shall die by various means--fire, water, sword, etc. Again, that made sense when the Hebrews wrote the prayer--that's what killed them then. Why not update it: who shall die by heart attack, who by stroke; who by diabetes and who by cancer; who by auto accident and who by gunshot.

--The weird thing about religions is that the people who start them don't glom on to the past to create them, but the people who perpetuate them feel a need to stick with the past after it no longer makes sense. Orthodox Jews wont' drive on the sabbath because that would be "work". The only reason for this is that before cars, people used horses. For a horse, it is work. Cars are inanimate. Anyway, religion ought to try to stay relevant.

--Is there really a point to having someone sing a long song in a language no one understands? This is when the mind really starts to wander. I like a little music in the service, but we could cut out a lot of the mind-wandering time.

--The story of Abraham and Isaac. What's up with that? What if the Bible told the story from Isaac's perspective? "Ok dad, first, you lied to me. You said god would provide a sacrifice when, in fact, you crazy coot, you were planning on sacrificing me!" We'd especially like to know what Isaac thought when Abraham tied him up and put in on the altar. Did Isaac go on any more trips with his dad after that?

--Why aren't there very many young people at the service? Oh yeah--see above.

P.S.--I remembered one more after posting this: why is Rosh Hoshonah called the "new year"? The Bible says that it is to occur on the 1st day of the seventh month--hardly the beginning of the year!

McDonnell's Liquor Privatization Plan

Guv McDonnell has finally unveiled his plan to privatize Virginia's liquor stores, a centerpiece of his campaign platform.

The plan illustrates the problem. On the one hand, there is no particularly good reason for Virginia to have socialized liquor. The state's ownership of all liquor stores is an artifact of post-prohibition era efforts to control hard liquor sales. Certainly, the private sector can handle liquor sales with appropriate regulation, while improving service to customers (there are too few liquor stores and their hours are not always convenient).

On the other hand, state ownership of ABC stores brings in more than $250 million a year in revenue. We can't just sell off the stores for a one-time short-term windfall while losing that revenue stream.

So, to keep the revenue while getting the one time benefit--estimated at about $500 million--from privatizing the stores, McDonnell has proposed a series of new taxes. He says they aren't taxes, but they are. That said, they are pretty reasonable taxes--they're basically designed so that liquor sales in Virginia bring in revenue at about the same rate as in other states.

On balance, we like the idea--get the money without losing the revenue stream. But we think that McDonnell's Republican colleagues in the legislature will kill the idea. Anything that reeks of "tax" is anathema to them, no matter how much sense it makes. After all, this isn't a bunch that's really interested in making government work better.

Democrats in the legislature may also make trouble, for political and other reasons. And if the GOP isn't going to support the Governor, why let them label Dems as "tax and spend" even if the plan does make sense.

So most likely another good idea will go down the drain, sacrificed to the gods of politics.

A couple other points on McDonnell's plan. He says he'll use most of the $500 million windfall from privatization to pay for transportation improvements. That's nice--the money is really needed. But it's a drop in the bucket--the Commonwealth needs billions of dollars for transportation, and it needs a dedicated funding source, not a one time benefit, to secure those improvements. Having motorists pay a modestly higher gas tax would do the trick. As a proportion of the price of gas, the tax is less than half what it once was. But those "no tax" Republicans would rather have you sit in traffic than work out a reasonable financing plan. If they ran businesses the same way, they'd be bankrupt.

Also, some Dems are saying that McDonnell's plan to sell about 1000 new liquor licenses may bring liquor close to schools and into low income neighborhoods. We don't think so--most of those licenses are intended to go to outlets that already sell beer and wine. Virginia has too few liquor stores to serve it's growing population now. While 1000 sounds like a lot, it's really not.

Will the plan succeed? Probably not--seems voters don't want "change" after all.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Could Earl Surprise The East Coast With The Landstrike Scenario?

In Landstrike (the Curmudgeon's hurricane novel), fictional hurricane Nicole forms out of a tropical wave as it passes the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and eventually strikes New York City as a major hurricane, devastating a region with 25 million people in it.

Could Earl follow the Landstrike scenario? The answer is yes, but it probably will be a near miss instead.

Earl's path has been similar to that of fictional Nicole, but just a little further to the east. In Landstrike, Nicole's powerful eye just brushes by Cape Hatteras, N.C., then, carried by the jet stream, races up the coast and turns right up the Hudson River, delivering a catastrophic storm surge into New York City.

Earl, too, is expected to brush by N.C.'s outer banks, but curve away from New York before turning back to the west and slamming northern New England or Nova Scotia.

But forecasting the track of these storms is tricky. In Landstrike, officials at the National Hurricane Center furiosly debate whether to issue a hurricane warning to New York. One faction believes the storm will curve out to sea, as they usually do. The other believes the weather system that's supposed to push Nicole out to sea will arrive too late.

That very debate may be going on now at the NHC. Weather models forecast that a powerful low pressure system will arrive just in time to bounce Earl away from the coast, but not enough to keep it out of Maine or Nova Scotia. Timing is everything, however. If that low pressure system slows down just a little bit, New York--or maybe more likely, Boston--could get a direct hit.
In fact, one widely used computer model (NGFDL) has Earl striking right around Providence/Boston, while others have it moving a further to the east. Trying to make sense of these conflicting computer models is one of the main challenges for human hurricane forecasters.

One of the main points of Landstrike was that forecasting the landfall of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coastline is far more difficult than on the Gulf Coast. The angle at which storms approach the East Coast, and their typically greater speed, give residents of Atlantic communities much less time to prepare. (Forecasters were able to predict Hurricane Katrina's landfall near New Orleans nearly four days in advance--not that New Orleanians took advantage of the notice.)

If Earl does take a slightly more westerly turn, it's likely that the communities most directly affected will have, at most, 36 hours notice, and even then the likely target area will be huge, containing many millions of people. Evacuation, other than from literally beachfront communities, is not a viable option (imagine trying to evacuate New York or Boston on 36 hours notice).

Keep an eye on Earl. Hurricanes like this have a habit of surprising us in real life, not just in entertaining fiction!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

So Long Lisbeth Salander

So sad. We just finished reading "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest," the final installment in Stieg Larsson's trilogy of wildly best-selling novels from Sweden. Having spent most of the summer enjoying the exploits of spunky Lisbeth Salander, we now have a big empty spot in our reading schedule.

Even sadder is that with Larsson having died shortly after finishing the trilogy, we probably won't be hearing anything new from Salander, other than wild speculation and debate over who should play her in the upcoming American version of movies based on the books. (Our vote: Nathalie Portman.) (Larsson did complete most of a fourth manuscript, so maybe we'll one day have a further visit from Lisbeth.)

So, what can we do with the rest of our summer?

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Restrepo"--Tough To Follow

We recently saw "Restrepo," a documentary film produced by Sebastian Junger (of Perfect Storm fame), which follows a company of American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

We'd have a hard time recommending the documentary unless you've also read Junger's recent companion book, "War," which in turn expanded on a series of Vanity Fair dispatches from 2008-09. Even then, it's tough to sit through.

The book is good, capturing the day-to-day life of American foot soldiers fighting, and sometimes dying--on an almost daily basis--at the furthest extension of western military power into that remote region of the world. It certainly makes you wonder what, exactly, we're trying to do in Afghanistan and whether the mission is worth it.

An important part of the book is probing the lingering social/emotional damage done to these young soldiers by their service.

Unfortunately, the movie, which has a limited release in theaters, is hard to watch. It's very raw footage, with almost no narration, and no other props of a good documentary--no maps, no context, nothing. For those who've read the book, it does put faces on the soldiers you meet while reading, but that's about it. For those who haven't read the book, like our friend, it was very confusing.

It's also difficult to watch because much of the action takes place with a handheld camera during combat operations, resulting in a lot of jerking and bouncing around. By the end, we were getting pretty queasy, like with motion sickness.

Another problem is that in combat, a camera person needs to keep his or head down. So we see lots of scenes of American soldiers firing loud, heavy-caliber weapons, but we never see who, or what, they're shooting at. The sense you get, however, is that they're firing large quantities of ammunition and ordnance at a very small number of enemy fighters, many of whom are local young men paid a few dollars by the Taliban to take potshots at the Americans.

It is a dangerous game, however, as we do see wounded, and killed, American soldiers. And occasionally some Afghans as well.

Raw film alone does not a good movie make, however. The footage shown in Restrepo* would best be used as the heart of a good television documentary, with a narrator, some maps, and some other visual and verbal aids to telling a story.

We can't imagine that Junger would have a very good book if he just transcribed a bunch of interviews with soldiers and stitched them together as separate chapters. Yet, that's the feel of the movie--it feels unfinished, lazy even.

So, read the book. And hope the film footage shows up later in a better edited, more finished format that tells a real story.

*The film is called Restrepo in honor of Army medic, Juan Restrepo, who was killed during one of the frequent firefights in the Korengal Valley, and for whom one of the forward operating posts manned by the Americans was later named.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Storms of my Grandchildren

Weatherunderground's Jeff Masters has a nice review today of climatologist James Hansen's new book, "Storms Of My Grandchildren" HERE.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Palin, Tea-Partiers To Exempt Pentagon Fraud, Waste and Abuse?

According to today's WSJ, Queen Sarah Palin and her Tea-Bagging allies are under pressure to exempt defense spending from their attacks on the federal government's spending ways.

If they do so, they won't be Tea Partiers. Instead, they'll be Republicans, who traditionally have turned a blind eye to defense spending.

What, you don't think the Pentagon, which spends about a quarter of the U.S. budget, is subject to fraud, waste and abuse? You don't think defense spending contains pork? You don't think there's purely politically motivated spending going on there? You don't think there are corporations making a mint off Pentagon projects?

Think again!!

It's Official: We're In A Drought

Although the big weather focus of late has been on the HEAT, it's also been quite dry.

So dry, in fact, that much of Northern Virginia has now been officially classified into a drought by the denizens of the US Drought Monitor.

Doesn't look like there's much in the way of drought relief on the horizon either. After a fall and winter punctuated by serial coastal storms driven by El Nino conditions, it's now been several months since we've had any true rainy couple of days. We'll get some thunderstorms, but they provide spotty coverage, and the water runs off quickly. Ok for streams, but not great for plants.

Just a couple years ago, many parts of the Southeast endured lengthy severe drought conditions. We fear we're headed back that way. By fall, we may be hoping for the drought-busting remnants of a tropical storm or hurricane to head our way!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Committee For A Worse Arlington

Actions speak louder than words.

The so-called "Committee For A Better Arlington" is pushing for a change in the structure of Arlington's County government. We've already explained why the change is unnecessary and would only make things worse.

The Committee's actions, however, bespeak much. To get a referendum on the issue on the November ballot, the Committee needs to submit just over 14,000 petition signatures by July 14. Arlington election officials would then have to scramble to verify the signatures.

Nothing prevents proponents of the referendum from submitting petitions on a rolling basis. So far, however, they haven't presented a single signature, so officials are waiting, bracing to be dumped on at the last second. Of course, that will require bringing in extra personnel. It will cost taxpayers more, and potentially interfere with other work.

Is this really the type of people you want pushing for a "better" government?

Their approach to the petitions is simply further evidence that this is a small group promoting their own very selfish interests--not those of Arlington's general public.

[We think the Committee is delaying the petitions as part of a deliberate strategy. If election officials can't verify the petitions in time, the measure will have to be decided in a special election, rather than in November. Proponents may figure that the small turnout in a special election favors them. Of course, a special election will mean even MORE taxpayer dollars for this ridiculous measure.]

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Wone Case: Judge Leibovitz Got It Right

Yesterday, Judge Lynn Leibovitz issued her ruling in the fascinating obstruction of justice case arising out of the murder of D.C. attorney Robert Wone.

We happen to know Judge L. from way back--she was a student (a good one!) in a legal writing class the Curmudgeon taught to first year law students when he was a third year student at Georgetown.

For those who haven't been following the case, here's a synopsis. Wone was working late one night, and had an early meeting the next morning. Instead of trekking back to his suburban home, he stayed overnight with a college friend and fellow attorney, Robert Price, at Price's townhome in D.C.'s Dupont Circle.

Within an hour of arriving, Wone was dead, stabbed in the chest while in the guest bedroom of Price's home. Price and his two roommates--all three of whom were in a committed homosexual relationship--told police they believed an intruder stabbed Wone. Police never bought that story. Instead, they believe one of the housemates did it, with the others covering; or, perhaps, Price's brother did it and they were covering for him.

Police never had sufficient evidence to charge anyone with murder. But prosecutors eventually cobbled together a conspiracy obstruction of evidence and tampering case against the three housemates. Price and his co-defendants waived a jury trial, leaving it to Judge Leibovitz--a former prosecutor herself--to decide their fate.

Yesterday, Judge L. acquitted the three defendants, while at the same time saying she didn't necessarily believe their story. Based on what we read in the Washington Post, which covered the case intensely, she made the right decision (not that reading about it in the newspaper is the same as being there).

While we absolutely believe the three defendants are covering up a murder, the prosecution's evidence was weak. The prosecution argued that the defendants delayed calling police while they cleaned up the scene, removed a lot of blood, and switched the real murder weapon with another knife.

Problem is, there was never a good explanation for why the defendants did all this, i.e., what benefit it was to them.

The prosecution also suggested that the roommates might be covering for Price's brother, who had had trouble with the law before, and who a few months later did break into Price's home to steal items in support of an apparent drug habit. Here again, however, there was no explanation of why Price's brother would've attacked and murdered Wone, who was in a second floor guest room at the time.

There are all kinds of things that don't add up in the case. The first is why Wone was there in the first place. At the time of night when he arrived, he could have gotten to his own home in about a half hour. By all accounts, Wone and Price knew each other in college, but weren't particularly good friends.

Then, there's the issue of whether Wone was sexually attacked. The Post repeatedly hinted at this, from its police sources, but there was no such evidence at trial as far as we could tell.

The person who's actions seemed the most suspicious based on the evidence at trial was Price's roommate Dylan Ward. His bedroom was next to the guest room, whereas the other two defendants--Price and Victor Zaborsky--were on the third floor. According to testimony and 911 tapes, it was Price and Zaborsky who heard something going on in Wone's room and came running down to find out what. Zaborsky placed the 911 call. Meanwhile, Ward--right next door--apparently did nothing, at least according to their stories to the police. We find that awfully suspicious. He should have been the first on the scene.

In any event, Price and Zaborsky had somewhat different recollections of the events--not too far off, but enough to sound like they agreed on a story, but didn't work out every detail before being interviewed by detectives.

It's certainly not clear why any of the roommates, or Price's brother, would've wanted to kill Wone.

Unfortunately, the evidence was just too weak to meet the prosecution's burden of proving guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

That doesn't quite mean the defendants are off scot-free. Wone's family has filed a $20 million civil suit against the three. The burden of proof will be lower, and some additional evidence may be admitted. We can only hope that justice is someday done in this bizarre case.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

South Carolinians Have A Real Choice For Governor

For the past year, South Carolina has been the butt of many jokes on late night TV. SC is comedian Jon Stewart's "favorite state" because it's politics are so messed up that one can only make fun of the state.

The problem is that for ordinary South Carolinians, it is no laughing matter. Unemployment is high. The state's economy has been floundering. And the state government, firmly in the control of Republican politicos for many years now, is a dysfunctional mess.

The current governor, Mark Sanford, is--thankfully--term limited. Not only was Sanford a national disgrace for his affair with an Argentine dancer, but in eight years as governor he accomplished little. In Sanford's view, the government is not there to help people.

The Lt. Governor, Andre Bauer, was so bad that he came in FOURTH place in a four person primary for the Republican nomination to succeed Sanford (and he was generally acknowledged as the reason Sanford wasn't forced from office).

Instead, the Republicans nominated a heretofore little known state senator, Nikki Haley, who's claim to fame is that she is a Tea Partier fancied by Sarah Palin. She may end up just as embarassing to the state as Sanford, as two male political operatives in the state have claimed to have had affairs with the married Haley.

[Haley denies it and claims there's no "evidence" to support the claims. Where we come from, testimony is evidence. Plus, one of her suitors has phone records showing hundreds of hours of contacts. That's evidence, and usually these things turn out to be true.]

Putting aside Haley's bedroom exploits--which Republicans seem ready to overlook when it's one of their own--she represents nothing new for the Palmetto State. Yes, she's a woman, and yes, she's Indian-American; but she's really just more of the same. As a state Senator, Haley refused to disclose outside income from "consulting" activities, claiming it was exempt from ethical disclosure requirements. Yet, nothing could be more important to disclose than who she's "consulting" for.

In the "Tea Party" mode--something she seems to have adopted as the current fad--she espouses low taxes and limited government. In other words, she won't do anything, other than favors for her consultee friends.

Now, there is an alternative for voters in the Palmetto State. Democrats have nominated Vincent Sheheen, a state senator from Camden. Sheheen's three boys attend the same public school he attended.

Sheheen would be a breath of fresh air. Every indication is that he is a true family man, with a long record of dedicated service to his church and his community. As a state senator he has vigourously pursued reformation of state government to make it more open and efficient.

We hope SC voters get to know Vincent over the next few months. Many white voters in the state have a knee-jerk aversion to anyone running as a Democrat, but those voters ought to look at the laughing stock that the Republican Party has made of their state. It's time to take a fresh look. Haley's "Tea Party" is no change at all; if voters want something new--a government that serves the people, then they should look closely at Sheheen.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Suppose They Had A Primary And No One Came?

It looks that way today in Arlington for the Republican primary to challenge Jim Moran in November. We haven't seen more than one car today in the nearly 20 parking spaces wastefully set aside at our local precinct.

Why couldn't the five Republicans here in the County have just had a convention, in a phone booth?

Monday, June 07, 2010

SC GOP Campaigns Are ALWAYS Nasty

Over the past few days, both the New York Times and Washington Post have run stories on the nastiness of the Republican primary campaign for governor in South Carolina. The Post's story had as it's theme that in a state "accustomed to two-fisted politics" this year's race "stands out."


South Carolina politics are mean and nasty, and never rougher than when the Republicans are battling it out with each other. Just ask John McCain from when he ran against W Bush in the Palmetto State primary in 2000.

Or, for that matter, ask just about any candidate in a seriously contested race in the state. Dirty politics were invented in South Carolina, then packaged for export to the rest of the nation by the late Lee Atwater and his political acolytes.

[This is a stark contrast to Virginia, where the moderate middle of independent voters really hate dirty campaigns and will often penalize a candidate viewed as taking the low road. But then, that's long been a distinction between the two states.]

This year, the spotlight has fallen on GOP candidate Nikki Haley, a state senator running for the Republican nomination for governor. It's a classic case. For awhile, Haley was ignored. An Indian-American who'd never run for statewide office, Haley was trailing along in fourth place.

But then she started bashing her male colleagues as an "old boys club" (which they are), and began moving up in polls. Suddenly, two long-time political operatives associated with other campaigns claimed they'd had sexual liaisons with her (she's married), and another state senator made inappropriate remarks about her ethnic background.

This is par for the course in S.C. Maybe even tame. Politics in SC has a long tradition of "whispering campaigns"--usually word of mouth libels, sometimes backed up by cheap flyers placed on windshields in church parking lots and at campaign rallies.

The whispering is almost always about race, sex, illegitimate children--and homosexuality. What's particularly strange about all this is that the people actually elected often really do have these skeletons in their closet.

Beloved Sen. Strom Thurmond had an illegitimate black child, rumored for years, but finally proven only after he died. Thurmond's successor in the Senate--bachelor Lindsey Graham--has long been rumored to be gay. As are a couple other powerful state GOP figures.

Sometimes, SC voters will overlook these factors, despite the whispering, if they like the way a candidate handles the controversy (and if the other candidates are have competency issues). Nikki Haley may be benefitting from that. She's standing up to the accusations, while current Lt. Governor Andre Bauer is viewed by many as embarassingly erratic and incompetent (so much so that almost everyone preferred that the embarassing Gov. Mark Sanford stay in office rather than elevate Bauer).

SC Republicans are also completely willing to overlook in their candidates what they would never tolerate in a Democratic candidate. But then, the initial qualification for many GOP office holders in the Palmetto State is simply that they "aren't Democrats."

No matter how flawed the GOP's nominee for governor, she or he will still be the overwhelming favorite to win election in November. And you can bet that the campaign will be a dirty one!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Patti Prius, MPG Champ

Patti Prius, i.e., the Curmudgeon's 2009 Toyota Prius, has really come into her own recently. The Curmudgeon, like many Prius owners, obsessively follows his car's gas mileage because, hey, what else is there to brag about with the ugly little cars?

During warm months we usually get better than 50 mpg, but this last tank of gas set our personal record: 57.8 mpg. We went an incredible 609 miles between fill-ups, which is darn good for gas tank that holds about 11.5 gallons and usually costs less than $30 to fill.

Ok, you can now make fun of us!
UPDATE: On our next tank of gas, we got 58.3 mpg and 625 miles. That'll probably stand as our record for quite some time!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Capital Weather Gang on Landstrike

We greatly appreciate the generous plug for Landstrike today on's Capital Weather Gang blog (our go-to source of authoritative information for the local weather scene).

See: Landstrike: New York's Horrible Hurricane Scenario

Monday, May 24, 2010

Would A Change In Government Favor Arlingtonians?

Some political activists in Arlington are out collecting signatures in the hope of putting an initiative on the November ballot to change the form of Arlington's government. Is this a good idea?

Currently, Arlington has the "County Manager" form of government. Under this form, an appointed (i.e., unelected) county manager is basically in charge of running the day-to-day business of the County. The manager is appointed by the County Board and is accountable to the County Board. As a practical matter, the County Board can override just about any decision of the manager.

Under the County Manager form, Arlington's five County Board members are all elected countywide on an "at-large" basis.

Proponents of a change in government form want to switch to the "County Board" form. Under this form (at least as being proposed in Arlington), there would be five County supervisers, four of whom would be elected in separate districts, and one at-large. The County Manager would be eliminated, but there would be a county administrator.

In considering whether this change in government form is good for Arlington, it's important to ask who is favoring the change and why. The initiative started with Arlington's public service employees unions, who have expressed frustration at having to deal with the County Manager, rather than directly with individual elected supervisors.

Well, that's strike one against a change--the unions are in this for their own selfish reasons, not for the good of the rest of us Arlingtonians. What the unions want to do is politicize personnel decisions in the County. Want to know what that's like. Just drive over to D.C.

After the unions got the ball rolling, two other significant groups jumped on the bandwagon: the Republican party and the Green party. Why? Both are hoping that with separate individual districts, instead of at-large elections, they can crack the complete Democratic stranglehold on the current County Board.

We've been looking to see if any of these proponents--unions, GOP, Greens (an unlikely alliance if ever there was one) can articulate strong reasons in favor of the change that have to do with the good governance of Arlington, as opposed to their selfish interests. So far, we've found none.

(Mind you, it's not like the Republicans or Greens are strong in certain parts of the County, but still shut out of office. In the past few election cycles, NO candidate from either party has as much as carried a precinct in Arlington.)

While we haven't yet heard a good argument in favor of the change, we can definitely think of some downsides.

First, the County Board form of government is more likely to pit different parts of the County against each other, and result in "pet" projects for Supervisors in their individual districts. Again, want to see this in action, cross the river to D.C.

Second, the County Board form means that the Supervisors are involved in day-to-day executive affairs. This is a bad formula anywhere. Corporations don't let their Boards perform executive functions; nor do non-profit organizations. Nor does the federal government. Not the state, either. Almost any organization functions better with a chief executive in place, so that routine decisions do not get lost in some form of gridlock or decision-making vacuum.

Having served on the Board of a non-profit during periods of executive transition, the Curmudgeon can say that boards are poorly organized to make executive decisions. It's very inefficient.

At least in D.C. there's a mayor to exercise executive authority. But in the County Board form, no one is in charge. Or, more precisely, every department head is in charge of his or her own fiefdom. In the County Manager form, department heads are hired by the Manager for their expertise; in the County Board form, many such department heads are political hacks, hired for patronage.

Indeed, it is precisely because of these inefficiencies in running a county government that the County Manager form was invented.

Finally, what's wrong with Arlington's government as it is? Sure, there are some problems, but Arlington has one of the best managed governments around. We have an AAA/aaa bond rating that saves taxpayers millions of dollars in interest on capital projects. We have had decades of smart, planned growth. By and large, we have a government that works and provides reasonable services to residents at a reasonable price.

It is true that the Democratic stranglehold on the County Board results in probably less diversity of views than would otherwise be the case. But, as we pointed out above, it's not like the GOP and Greens are winning some parts of the County. Democrats have fielded strong, conscientious candidates and have generally taken a moderate approach consistent with the vast majority of voters' views in Arlington.

As for the employee unions, thank goodness they're held in check!

So, we're always open to persuasion, but we'd need someone to tell us why a change in government form would be good for us--not good for their political interests.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Cheap Computing Power Promises To Change The World

A few months ago we posted a series of pieces on the future after reading Raymond Kurzweil's "Singularity" book. One of the trends that Kurzweil, a self-appointed "futurist," has pointed to as having a major impact on accelerating technological change in the coming years is the continued decline in the price of computing power.

While we raised some questions about some of Kurzweil's projections (and others have raised bigger ones), we saw recent evidence that he's on point with respect to computing power.

In our most recent edition of Popular Science--the annual "Inventions of the Year" edition--two former invention award winners singled out the low cost of computing as driving ever more sophisticated inventions by garage and backyard tinkerers. One, Taber MacCullum (there's a good first name to appropriate for your next kid), in discussing the need for a better computer-human interface than the keyboard, said he was sure it would be invented soon: "[W]hat we're calling garage stuff now is what we were calling Bechtel Labs 10 years ago. Think of what can be done now--it's staggering."

The other inventor, Mike Howe, in predicting a practical vehicle that gets 200 mpg, said, "[r]ight now, there is the capability as a one- or two-man team to do the kind of innovation that has never been seen before. Five to 10 years ago, if you wanted computing power to do what the big boys did, you had to work for them, which meant you were constrained by inside-the-box thinking. Now we have the computing power, for a thousand or two thousand bucks, that they have."

Now, if one of these guys can just figure out how to cap a gushing oil pipe at 12,000 feet under the sea!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

McDonnell Streamlines Restoration of Right Procedure

We'll join NLS in saluting Gov. McDonnell for streamlining the restoration of rights procedures in Virginia, whereby convicted felons can restore their voting rights. Here's scoop from NLS.

The contrast between McDonnell--who gets things done in a fairly low-key way, even if you don't always agree with him, and AG Ken Cuccinelli, who is a bloviating blast of hot political air, wasting taxpayer money on his personal political jihads, illustrates the difference between a "good government" conservative and a divisive conservative a-hole.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Everything But The Right Thing On Childhood Obesity

A lot of people, most notably First Lady Michelle Obama, are out there "doing something" about childhood obesity.

Or at least trying.

Most of it won't work, because it doesn't get at the root of our obesity epidemic. The First Lady's plan, called "Let's Move," has all kinds of ideas, many focused on getting kids off their butts and into healthy physical activity.

There's nothing wrong with getting kids to be physically active, as it will make them healthier. But it won't do much on the obesity front.

Obesity is a food problem, not an exercise problem. Some studies have even shown that more exercise simply makes people hungrier (but still healthier) and causes them to eat more.

As for the food problem, a lot of the suggestions you hear, including from Ms. Obama, are focused on "less sugar," or "more vegetables," or "less processed food," and "more natural food."

Those won't necessarily do the trick either.
For example, replacing those "bad" "sugary" sodas with "healthy" "natural" juice and milk may be counterproductive. Here's a quick quiz: which has more calories, an 8 ounce Coke Classic, glass of whole milk or glass of orange juice? Surprise! The milk has the most, with 150 calories, followed by the OJ at 110. The Coke: 97 calories.
The key to fighting obesity is LESS FOOD (or most accurately, fewer calories)! Today's portions--of EVERYTHING--are far too large for most people, especially children. Portions of practically every food--including "healthy" foods like salads (many of which are killers because they're so large) and even fruits (which have gotten bigger over the years thanks to selective breeding)--have grown over the past 40 years. Yet, there's no engineering change to the human body over that span that would allow humans to ingest considerably more calories without getting fat.

So, if you want to do something about obesity in children, you need to give them, and their parents, and educators in schools, some very clear guidance about how MUCH food they should be eating in any given meal or day. The advice has to be practical. The federal food pyramid suggests so many servings of fruits, veggies, grains and dairy, but you'd be hard pressed to figure out what is an appropriate SERVING SIZE for all those servings.
So, telling a kid to lay off the soda and drink milk or juice instead is probably only going to hurt. It would be much better to tell the child "you can have soda, but only this much [8 oz.--not a freaking Big Gulp!].

There's nothing wrong with a single patty hamburger accompanied by a small bag of fries and an 8 ounce drink for lunch or dinner for many kids. The problem is that you can't get that size meal at most of the places where you might reasonably go. The "small" "value" meal at Wendy's has a drink size and box of fries that would have been UNHEARD of at a fast food restaurant when the Curmudgeon was a kid. The large portion in the 1960's was smaller than today's "small" portion.

In contrast, get your child a salad at most sandwich shops and you'll get a lot more calories than the burger, fries and drink outlined above.

So, what about some programs aimed at portion control? Some commercials showing what a complete meal should be for kids of various ages; some governmental guidelines on what would constitute an appropriate portion of various popular kid's foods (french fries, drinks, hamburgers, pizza, chips, chicken nuggets, etc.); and some clear definitions of a serving size for all those servings on the government's pyramid (our bet, for example, is that most of today's giganto oranges in the supermarket are two serving sizes on the pyramid).

Virginia's Dumbass Government

During the past legislative term, Virginia's general assembly nearly unanimously passed legislation, sponsored by a Democrat, to exempt veterans charitable organizations from registration and disclosure requirements that apply to all other charities doing work in the Commonwealth. The Governor duly signed the bill and it became law.

Now, it turns out, the bill was proposed by lobbyists for a group called the U.S Navy Veterans Association, which is under investigation in several states, and whose mysterious director gave thousands of dollars to various Virginia candidates, including a whopping $55,000 to now Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Today's Washington Post has a story critical of the Cooch for keeping the money, while other candidates have given their contributions to legit vet charities.

But the Democrats critical of the Cooch ought to be criticizing themselves too. It was Democratic state senator Patsy Ticer who sponsored the bill, and apparently NO ONE thought this bill was a bad idea.

The fact is that the bill--now law--was a terrible idea, regardless of the bona fides of the lobbyists who proposed it. Why would anyone assume that just because someone is a veteran--or purports to represent the interests of veterans--they are more honest than the purveyors of other charities?

History is replete with charitable scams operated by and aimed at Vets. Yes, MOST veteran charities are legitimate and do great work. That's the whole point of requiring registration and disclosure--legit charities don't mind; the law deters scammers, and the public has a chance at separating out the good from the bad.

Meanwhile, the Cooch--who is busy persecuting climate scientists--has a huge conflict of interest. He ought to be investigating this U.S. Navy Veterans Association. But he's sitting on $55 Grand in campaign cash from the head of the group, and the Cooch's spokesperson says the Cooch would only give the money back (or give it away) if the guy who made the contribution "committed a crime."

Who's going to determine if he committed a crime? The Cooch!!

So, we're going to give a DUMBASS award to everyone in Virginia's government--the House, the Senate, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Governor and especially the Cooch.

We hope the general assembly will unanimously repeal this bad law next term.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

McDonnell's Really Bad Toll Booth Idea

Bob McDonnell's latest idea for raising revenue while pretending not to "raise" "taxes": a toll plaza on I-95 just above the North Carolina border.

McDonnell has asked the federal government for permission to erect toll booths as far north as Fredericksburg on I-95, but for now Virginia's transportation secretary says "we're just contemplating one toll facility at the North Carolina border."

The state estimates it could raise $30-$60 million annually for roads--which really isn't that much--with a $2-$4 toll at the border. The obvious appeal is that many of the vehicles crossing the border are non-Virginians, so it's a way to tax out of staters.

We remember when I-95 had toll booths from Richmond (where there used to be four of them) to Boston. They are an enormous nuisance, costing drivers tens of thousands of lost hours sitting in toll lines. Today, between Richmond and New York (and maybe all the way up to Boston--we haven't been in awhile) there's only one toll--at the Delaware border. It causes huge traffic delays. There isn't a regular driver between Washington and NYC who hasn't wanted to blow the darn thing up many a time.

(Delaware could do a lot to make it's toll plaza more efficient, but they evidently don't give a damn.)

If Virginia gets permission to put a toll at the border, you can bet that NC, SC and GA will all want to follow suit. And you can bet that once one toll plaza goes up on I-95 in Virginia, the temptation to add more--all the way up to Fredericksburg--will grow. The federal government should just say no.

Tolls are an inefficient way to collect road taxes. (Make no mistake about it, tolls are taxes.) Not only do tolls booths interfere with traffic, especially on peak holiday weekends, but it costs money to build, maintain and staff them. So, a significant portion of toll revenue is wasted in the collection effort.

We already have an efficient system in place to collect taxes dedicated to road construction and maintenance: the gas tax. Raising that tax would impose minimal additional costs of collection because the system is already in place.

Of course, McDonnell and all the other Republicans have pledged not to raise "taxes," so they don't dare propose a hike that would simply keep that tax in line, as a proportion of gas prices, with where it started.

We have an easy solution to that problem, however, Mr. Governor: simply impose a gas toll.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Could Britain Inspire Our Congress?

The Brits have a hung Parliament. With European debt woes threatening a new round of economic chaos, the English left and right are seeing if they can find some common ground to form a governing coalition. It won't be easy, but at least they're talking about it.

Maybe we could do the same here. Recently, the Washington Post noted a rare outbreak of working bipartisanship in the Senate to get something done on financial regulatory reform.

Perhaps we could extend that spirit to true work on the deficit. In the U.S., both sides bear plenty of blame for the bulging, and ultimately unsustainable flood of red ink.

During the Clinton administration--with a Republican Congress--we made real progress on the deficit. By the time Clinton left office, we had had three consecutive years of balanced or surplus budgets. When W. Bush took office, the ten-year projected surplus was $5 trillion.

It didn't take Bush--and a mostly Republican Congress--long to squander those gains. By the time Bush left office, the cumulative deficit had instead ballooned by $5 trillion--a swing of $10 trillion from the surplus he inherited.

Faced with a potential economic catastrophe, Pres. Obama further expanded the deficit to unheard of record amounts.

Now, it's up to BOTH parties to show that they can govern the nation, not just snipe at each other about who is worse.

The ONLY WAY to seriously tackle the deficit the is to engage in true reform of the major entitlement programs--particularly social security and medicare. Pentagon spending needs to be reigned in as well, and the tax system needs a major overhaul. All these things could get done if the men and women in Congress would show a little maturity, put aside their bickering and figure out how to ignore the lobbyists and spread the pain around.

On the entitlements side, we need consensus that unrealistic retirement ages need to be raised, and some benefits trimmed.

On the tax side, if we erased most of the inequitable tax goodies won by business lobbyists over the years, we could actually lower overall tax rates and increase productivity. We would also, inadvertently, address the climate change issue--if we simply eliminated all the government subsidies for oil, gas and coal we would make a huge stride in having these fuels reflect their true costs.

Many other parts of the economy--notably housing and agriculture--are distorted by tax subsidies as well. Cleaning up the tax code would generate billions in new revenue, while actually lowering taxes for most Americans.

Sadly, we're not counting on any such breakout of maturity. It's much easier to point fingers than to take leadership on tough choices.

Kagan Pick For Supreme Court

Pres. Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court was pretty much expected.

Kagan is highly qualified, having served as Harvard Law School dean before becoming Solicitor General. She is undeniably whip smart, and politically keen.

The right will no doubt attack her as being too liberal (or just "liberal"). Yet, Kagan is no more liberal than Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito are conservative.

Rest assured, there's no one Pres. Obama could reasonably appoint who wouldn't draw the right's scorn. They will attack the fact that she hasn't previously served as a judge, but if she had, they'd find some other reason to go after her. Some of our greatest Justices never served as judges, and many a judge has been a mediocre justice.

In any event, the highly politicized (on both sides) battle over confirmation will now begin, largely focused on everything but her true qualifications.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Cooch's Political Jihad

Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is at it again, using his office to further a right wing political jihad reminiscent of McCarthyism. His target now: former U. Va. professor Michael Mann, now at Penn State, long a nemesis to global warming deniers.

The Cooch is disgusting. His many politically motivated actions since taking office just months ago make him an embarrassment to the Commonwealth. Contrast his activity to that of former AG Bob McDonnell--we thought McDonnell was pretty right wing, but as AG his office was largely (not entirely, but largely) apolitical and professional.

Not so with the Cooch. He ought to be investigating himself under the same law he's using to go after Mann--the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. The Cooch surely misled the state's voters when he ran for office, although to those in the know the course he's taken has been entirely predictable.

So what's next for the Cooch? Will he sue other professors for teaching evolution? Will he try to get the National Weather Service to alter records showing it's getting warmer? Will he bring a lawsuit to prove that the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is really God's wrath for homosexuality? And what about bringing the Birthers' claims to court, while we're at it.

McDonnell had--and has--the good sense to recognize that Virginia voters don't like extremists. The Cooch is the darling of the right wing for now, well positioned to kick Lt. Gov. Bolling's butt in any contest within the GOP for the nomination to succeed McDonnell, but he won't get any further than that, as Virginia's independent voters don't like the Cooch's sleazebag brand of playing politics with their state offices.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Corporate Welfare for Northrop

It's nothing new, and both Republicans and Democrats do it, but it's still corporate welfare.

The latest, trumpeted as a feather in Bob McDonnell's cap (covering that lustrous hair of his), is the announcement that Northrop Grumman will be moving it's corporate headquarters to Northern Virginia.

The cost to the Commonwealth's taxpayers: $14 million.

Is it worth it? Let's see. The move only includes about 300 jobs, mostly of highly pampered executives who have been rumored to be seeking country club memberships in the incentives being offered for the move. These won't be new jobs for out-of-work Virginians--these will be executives moving here from California.

Northrop already employs tens of thousands of Virginians where the real jobs action is: in its manufacturing plants. Those jobs were not at stake.

So, $14 million for 300 people--hey, that's a nifty $50,000 apiece. What business in the Commonwealth wouldn't want a benefit like that? Heck, Governor McDonnell, why not devote the entire state budget to getting businesses here for $50 grand per employee--we bet it would work!

Of course, Northrop Grumman will generate some tax revenues of it's own. The estimate--from the people spending $14 mil to get them here--is that we'll get $30 million in tax revenue OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS.

Now, the first thing you need to know is that such estimates are always rosy. We'd love to see Guv'nor Bob's numbers. We bet it includes things like the gas taxes those 300 executives will ring up over the next 10 years.

Lest we limit our criticism to the GOP governor, however, it appears that the liberal Democratic bastions of Arlington and Fairfax are also falling all over themselves to get Northrop to put its corporate offices in their jurisdictions. A fine use for the kiddie sports tax the Arlington Board just approved.

Louisiana Oil Slick--It Could Happen Here

Now that the drill baby drill folks have succeeded in getting Virginia's offshore areas on the fast track for approval to prospect for oil, it's worth looking at the disaster unfolding off Louisana's coast in the wake of the huge oil rig explosion last week.

A massive oil slick is spreading off the Gulf Coast, growing daily as thousands of barrels of new oil pour forth from the devastated rig. Efforts to contain the slick have failed so far, putting Louisiana's (and other Gulf Coast states') fragile coastline at risk.

The amount of oil estimated to be off Virginia's coast is equal to a few weeks of total U.S. consumption.

Could a disaster like that lurking off the Louisiana coast strike Virginia. Of course it could. And it would only take one to negate the entire value and benefits to Virginians of any oil drilling off our coast.

Of course, by the time that happens, Bob McDonnell and his cronies will be long gone. It will be a future generation of Virginians whose beaches are at risk of being spoiled, whose livelihoods in the tourism, fishing, seafood and other businesses could be destroyed, and whose property values could be brought crashing down.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

From Wallowa To Arlington

We had occasion this past weekend to meet our soccer counterpart from Wallowa County, Oregon. It was interesting to compare notes.

Wallowa is on the northeastern corner of Oregon--the dry, open part of the state. It's a bit larger than Arlington (but aren't they all?):

Arlington = 26 sq. mi.

Wallowa = 3153 sq. mi.

So Wallowa has an area more than 100 times that of little ol' Arlington. Plenty of space for soccer fields!

When it comes to population, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Arlington, with roughly 210,000 residents, has 30 times the population of Wallowa, at about 7200.

Yet, Wallowa is soccer crazy. They have about 225 kids playing soccer there, compared to our 4500. Proportionately, they'd have about 7000 if they had Arlington's population!

It's all a matter of perspective. Ask elementary school soccer kids in Arlington to practice a mile from their school and we'll get a bunch of emails objecting. Of course, the way traffic is in Arlington, 1 mile could be 20 minutes.

In Wallowa, the teams often have to travel several Arlingtons away just to play each other in the regular County recreation league--ALL soccer in Wallowa is "travel" soccer! The Wallowa Valley Soccer Association has a nice website, however--one can't help but notice the barns and mountains in the background of the soccer fields.

Soccer in Wallowa is also a bargain: only $25 per player, less than half what we charge.

The great thing is that we put one of our third grade teams up against one of Wallowa's, the kids wouldn't miss a beat, quickly booting the ball around, having a good time--and wondering what the after game snack would be!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Arlington County's Misguided Kiddie Tax

One of the many hats the Curmudgeon wears these days is that of President of the Arlington Soccer Association. ASA serves more than 5000 kids in Arlington and Falls Church with various soccer programs and activities all year round, and is celebrating its 40th year of service to the community this year.

As President of ASA, the Curmudgeon has been spending quite a bit of time lately fighting against a youth sports player fee that is under consideration by the Arlington County Board. Bear with us here as we explain why this fee is unfair and bad policy. The County Board will decide the fate of the fee this Saturday. (If you want to reach them with your views, it's easy--you can email all five members at: )

The fee under consideration would be $8 per player per season starting with Fall 2010 sports. The fee was put forward by the Parks Dept. as part of its budget for the 2011 fiscal year. The Acting County Manager, however, did not include the fee in her proposed budget; instead, it was included as an optional "tier II" revenue item that the Board could adopt to add more money to the budget.

The rationale of the Parks Dept. for the fee was that it is necessary to implement a "cost-recovery" policy adopted last year by the County Board. That policy was adopted without the County Board ever having a public hearing on it, which is pretty unusual in Arlington.

The cost recovery policy itself, however, is pretty reasonable on its face. It says that the Parks Dept. should recover 65% of the direct costs of youth sports programs in the County. In other words, as a matter of policy, Arlington thinks youth sports are of sufficient importance to the community to merit up to a 35% taxpayer subsidy. So far, so good.

The problem is with how the Parks Dept. has interpreted the policy. Some youth sports programs, such as basketball, are run "in-house" by the Parks Dept. For those problems, the policy is pretty simple--figure out the cost of the program and then set fees so they will recover roughly 65% of the costs. (In fact, the Parks Dept. has set fees at a level where they recover nearly 100% of the costs of basketball; they now say they'll just let the fee stay the same for a few years until it gets closer to the 65% target.)

Other youth sports programs, such as soccer and baseball, are run by private, non-profit groups who are "affiliated" with the Parks Dept. through formal agreements. In those sports, the non-profit organization pays most of the direct costs of the program--referees, equipment, uniforms, administrative personnel, etc.--while the Parks Dept. provides facilities (fields, mainly) and pays the costs of maintaining those facilities and administering them.

In determining the cost recovery target for those affiliate programs, however, the Parks Dept, has completely ignored the direct costs paid by those programs, treating them as if they don't exist. Instead, the Parks Dept. has demanded that the affiliate programs cover 65% of the portion of their costs that are covered by the Parks Dept., using that as an excuse to propose the new player fee--assessed only against players in affiliate programs.

The Parks Dept. interpretation turns the cost recovery policy on its head. If all the costs of ASA's youth soccer program are added together, then the fees parents already pay--to ASA--for their children to participate cover roughly 80% of those costs, well above the 65% cost recovery target. But the Parks Dept. claims it gets 0% cost recovery for these programs because parents don't pay a separate fee to the Parks Dept.

Thus, a policy that was supposed to embody a strong community commitment to youth sports is used to REDUCE support for such programs and serve as the basis for a new tax on soccer and baseball parents.

The County Board could easily put a stop to this charade by stepping in and telling the Parks Dept. that is has misinterpreted the County's policy. But, hungry for revenue, at least some Board members have seemed to signal support for the new fee.

Mind you, if the fee is adopted, the money won't be used to enhance youth sports programs. To the contrary, it will go to restore budget reductions in other areas, such as tennis court lighting. This is a sore subject, because adults who play tennis in Arlington really do pay 0% of their costs--and that's the County's policy. (Likewise, users of the County's 8 dog parks--or "community canine areas"--pay no fees to use them either.)

In fact, the Parks Dept. has been reducing its support for affiliated youth sports over the past two years. First, it shifted field lining responsibilities to soccer and baseball. ASA didn't object to this given budget realities, but it did result in an additional $25,000/year expense for us--that's $5 per player. Then, in the current budget cycle, the Parks Dept. eliminated a stipend that had been used to cover insurance and other costs. Eliminating the stipend will cost ASA another $22,000/year--almost another $5 per player. Again, we did not object to this reduction, which amounted to 14% of the Parks Dept's costs associated with the youth soccer program. That's a big cut on top of the similar cut a year before--clearly ASA is feeling it's share of the budget pain.

At the same time, field maintenance has been reduced; new fees imposed for use of lights in the winter; higher fees extracted for summer camps we run. We understand this--times are tight and we have to do our share.

But adding a new fee just for players in affiliated youth sports is not fair. That's just a tax on those parents, with the money being used to fund other programs. We're not against the other programs, but the money for them should come from the County's general taxes, not a perverse tax on children's sports.

Some people in the Parks Dept., and in groups grubbing for the money, have argued that "it's only $8" as if it couldn't be that big a deal. But it's not "only $8." If you have three children, and they play the fall and spring seasons of soccer, and maybe a couple also play baseball or softball, it's more than $60. That's more than the average homeowner's tax increase based on the proposed new property tax rate.

And while some soccer parents--such as the Curmudgeon--could easily afford it, there's a lot of working class families that will find it quite a burden. Those are the families we don't want to lose. (The Parks Dept. says it won't impose the fee on families that qualify for financial aid, but our data show that many who would qualify don't apply, and there's concern about the paperwork burden.)

We hope sanity will prevail in the County Board this coming Saturday when it votes on the fee. A couple of Board members have indicated their opposition to it. We hope the rest will pay attention to the couple hundred emails they have received from soccer parents on this issue--just the tip of the iceberg. Surely Arlington County can achieve its budget goals without disproportionately penalizing children who play organized soccer on the County's fields.