Monday, January 31, 2011

Richmond Hypocrisy

One of the big complaints from Tea Partiers and other conservatives is what they see as "meddling," "interference," etc. from Washington in local affairs. Keep the feds off our backs, they say.

We hear the same thing from Virginia's TP'ers. But while they want Washington out of local affaris, they evidently have no problem with imposing RICHMOND into local affairs.

Put aside that under Virginia law local governments have to get permission from the General Assembly to do just about anything, including imposing new taxes. (In contrast, the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes clear that the states have the right to do anything not specifically reserved to the federal government.)

We also have Delegates who like to impose their mores on jurisdictions they don't represent. The latest is a bill from Delegate David Albo, a Republican of the Tea Party ilk from Fairfax County, that would prevent Virginia localities from restricting the "enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law." Albo doesn't like the fact that Arlington briefly discussed "opting out" of the federal government's "secure communities" initiative due to strict immigration enforcement issues.

Arlington has since concluded that it cannot opt out of the secure communities program. Furthermore, Arlington cannot "restrict" the enforcement of federal laws--the federal government can enforce those laws in Arlington to its heart's delight. So Albo's proposal is superfluous.

We have a suggestion, however: the General Assembly should simply pass a law that prohibits all Virginia localities--and the STATE (including the Attorney General)--from restricting the "enforcement of [ALL] federal laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law." Somehow, we don't think that would go down with the TP'ers.

Memo to Albo and cohorts: if you don't want the feds to meddle in Virginia, then don't have the Commonwealth meddle in localities.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Memo To NHTSA: To Make Safer Cars, Get Rid of Drivers

The nation's automotive safety agency--NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to those of you living outside the beltway)--held a press briefing yesterday to tout ways it intends to make cars safer in the future.

Among the ideas bandied about were cars that can tell if you're over the legal alcohol limit, talking cars to let you know if someone ahead is braking, and various proposals to prevent distracted driving while texting, tweeting and facebooking.

Here's a better idea: get rid of human drivers. The age of the driverless robo-car is nearly upon us. The technology already exists in affordable form--it's just a matter of testing it and tweaking it for the myriad circumstances a robo-car might encounter on the road (especially as long as there are still human drivers). Indeed, Google has been testing a pair of robo-cars in various big cities with great success.

There are a lot of advantages to robo-cars. One is that a person can go partying and still get home without endangering the rest of us. Another is that everyone in the car becomes a passenger, and they can do whatever they want--text, yap on the phone, tweet, update their Facebook profile, put on make-up. If ALL cars were computer driven, they could also get us where we want to go faster, as the variability of human drivers would be taken out of the question.

We also like the idea of universal valet service--have the car drop you at the front door of wherever you're going and then find it's own place to park.

This won't happen overnight, but we think that by 2020 fully automated robo-cars will be a routine part of the transportation landscape. The Curmudgeon son is about to get his learner's permit (egads!), but we think the grandchildren will never learn to drive their own vehicles.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Arlington's Palm Reading Crisis

Lately, we've noticed a horrifying trend in Arlington: our palm readers are disappearing at an alarming rate!

We had one in Lyon Village, over on Lee Highway, but that property is now up for sale. We wonder what the market is for houses used for psychic purposes--would you pay a premium for that?

Then we saw that another palm reader, on Wilson Blvd. just west of Clarendon, had shut down, the property being redeveloped (condos, we predict, but a psychic would know for sure).

We call on the County Board to take action! Arlingtonians will be at a distinct disadvantage if they don't have professional assistance in seeing the future. Let's use some of that housing money to create a cluster of palm reading homes!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Republican Illogic On Health Reform

We couldn't say it better than Paul Krugman in today's NYT:

The War On Logic

Thursday, January 13, 2011


There's not a lot we can say about the tragedy in Tucson. True, our level of political discourse is pretty appalling, but it's been worse--much worse--at many times in U.S. history.

There's no evidence that the killer was motivated by any particular ideology, commentator or political type, and trying to assign blame in that area is simply counterproductive.

There is, however, a stark contrast in leadership styles in terms of the response to the crisis. While President Obama gave a moving speech seeking to promote healing, Sarah Palin went on a petty rant, which is no surprise because that's the type of person she's always been.

While we don't blame anyone on the right, left or middle for Jared Loughner's deranged act, it's sad that we as a society make it so easy for an unbalanced individual to inflict such devastating harm. The hardcore position of a small minority that we cannot, under any circumstances, regulate firearms is ridiculous. No one needs a 30 round clip for a pistol.

The Blessing and Curse of Constant Contact

If you've never heard of Constant Contact, just look at the bottom of any of those periodic emails you get from your school(s), church, sports groups, charities and anyone else you've given your email address to--CC is the software package powering all those updates you regularly get.

In the nonprofit world, Constant Contact is king. At the Arlington Soccer Association, where the Curmudgeon serves as President, we use the software to keep in touch with nearly 6000 families on a wide range of programs and activities.

On the other hand, as the recipient of a burgeoning in-box of quasi-legitimate, but nonetheless spammy email from all kinds of groups we're affiliated with in some manner, Constant Contact is getting to be a burden.

Lately, we've taken to unsubscribing from a few that have abused the privilege. Email is a great way to keep everyone up to date on what's going on, but there is such a thing as too much information. Maybe it's time for a new software package: "Occasional, But High Quality, Contact."

What's Ailing The Hoyas?

We usually stay away from sports topics on this blog, but with our beloved Georgetown Hoyas in freefall, we need to get this off our chest.

The Hoyas started the basketball season in fine form, going 11-1 against the toughest pre-conference schedule in the nation, then promptly went into the toilet, going 1-5 so far in the Big East. What's the problem?

When a team this good gets into a funk, it's the coach's responsibility to get them out of it. This isn't the first time it's happened to G'town--a couple years ago the Hoyas had a great start to their season, culiminating in a dramatic drubbing of UConn on the road, before going into a swoon and missing the NCAA tournament. Coach John Thompson III was not able to get his team turned around.

Can he do it this time? We'll see. The big problem is the Hoyas' offense, modeled on the so-called "Princeton offense" of swift ball movement and backdoor cuts. The other Big East teams have now seen this offense for several years, and they've figured it out defensively.

An inherent trade-off in the offense is a lack of offensive rebounding; the offensive strategy compensates for this by getting easy "backdoor" baskets that don't require rebounding. But when the offense stalls, requiring a forced shot as the time clock expires, a miss is essentially a turnover. That's exactly what we've been seeing from a team suddenly shooting quite cold from three point land. Earlier in the season, the team was getting good threes--open looks--and making them; now, they're shooting in desperation and missing.

Thompson needs to show more flexibility. Using the same offense no matter who he has on the floor makes no sense. Last year, he had big man Greg Monroe, one of the best passers in college basketball, and a threat to go to the basket himself. It was perfect for the Princeton offense. This year is much different. The Hoyas have the best guard trio in the country, but rather than turning them loose on opponents, they are forced into a slow tempo offense.

During last weekend's loss against a decidedly ordinary West Virginia team, the Hoyas showed a couple of flashes of brilliance. In both instances, Thompson uncharacteristically put his team into a full court press, with instant results. The quick Hoya guards forced turnovers and easily converted them into points with lay-ups. But the press didn't last, and the Mountaineers recovered as soon as the pressure relented.

JTIII has a talented bunch on the court. He needs to turn them loose, instead of forcing them into an offense that their opponents have completely solved.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Limits of Energy Efficiency

Ever heard of the Jevons Paradox?

Neither had we until we happened across the Dec. 20 New Yorker (thanks to Mrs. Curmudgeon) and an article by David Owen, "The Efficiency Dilemma: If Our Machines Use Less Energy, Will We Just Use Them More?"

William Stanley Jevons, an English engineer of the 19th century, postulated that the more we conserve energy, the more energy we'll use.

Recently, some scientists have returned to Jevons', wondering whether we can solve our current energy problems through increases in energy efficiency, i.e., conservation. Perhaps not.

The problem, of course, is that as a technology becomes less expensive, it becomes more widely used. Contrary to Jevons' paradox, however, it's not just the cost of the energy input that matters. It's the total cost, particularly as a proportion of one's income.

Thus, as Owens points out, while the cost of the energy needed to provide lighting has declined over time, the overall cost of all the materials needed, especially in proportion to income, has gone down dramatically. Yale economist William Nordhaus has estimated that it would have taken an ancient Babylonian 41 hours of work to acquire enough lamp oil to provide 1000 lumens of light (the equivalent of a 75-watt bulb burning for one hour). By Thomas Jefferson's time, it would take about 5 hours of work to get the same amount of light (with a tallow candle).

Today? It would take the average American less than half a second to get 1000 lumens. Pretty incredible. But, of course, our per capita use of light has exploded since Babylonian and Jeffersonian times (as I write this, I'm bathed in energy efficient light from compact fluorescent bulbs; pretty much half the lights in our house are on right now).

Another example is refrigeration. Today's refrigerator uses just 25% of the energy of its smaller counterpart in the 1950's. That's great progress, but today, refrigeration is far more widespread than it was 50 years ago. Refrigerators, freezers and coolers are ubiquitous--just about every hotel room now has a small fridge; most houses have more than one; just about every retail store has a drink cooler and supermarkets sport many square feet of refrigerated and frozen food. Most likely, we're using more energy in total today for refrigeration than we were in the 1950's. That's not just because of energy efficiency gains--the relative cost of the appliances that refrigerate has also plummeted.

We could go on and on (and Owens does, to some degree).

The big growth in energy use today is in developing countries, like China and India. The first time we went to China, in the 1980's, air conditioning was almost non-existent and refrigerators were rare. On our last trip, four years ago, our Chinese relatives were rapidly catching up with us. And there's no stopping it. We can't tell the rest of the world that they can't have the benefits of air conditioning, refrigeration and a personal automobile--they deserve to get just as obese as we are!

That's not to say we shouldn't try to achieve energy efficiency; indeed, the market will probably do this regardless of what we want. But the potential result of that efficiency may not be to "save" energy--rather, it might instead just help someone else in the world catch up to our gluttonous standard of living.