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31 October, 2008

Voting in this country

If you wanted to have a "fair election" and you were building your own large country from scratch, what might be a few of the things that you would aim to achieve in constructing such a system? Let's assume, first, that you do wish to have different regions, such as states, within this country, and that you do want to have each of the states hold some weight in making overall decisions for the country. So, for starters you choose to adopt the electoral college system that is used in the United States. But from there, what else might you do?
  • Instead of delivering electoral votes in an "all-or-none" fashion, you could allot the votes by district within the states. This would arguably be an even more "representative" system than our current one, because people who live in large states like Texas, California, or New York, would get to have their vote heard more clearly at the federal level. You've all heard the statement from someone in New York, claiming "my vote doesn't matter" because they know the state as a whole will always vote Democrat in national elections. Two states (Nebraska and Maine) already use this method of divvying up the vote, and there's no federal law prohibiting it.
  • Instead of holding elections on a Tuesday in November, when people are working, and the weather is often incredibly unpredictable, maybe you would hold elections on a weekend in the late Spring, when weather is not a factor, maybe even consider making a holiday - you could even call it "Election Day".
  • Instead of leaving it up to every state or district to decide what type of voting equipment to use, or to consider bids from various competing corporations who would like to sell voting equipment, maybe it would be a better idea to have a uniform method of casting votes in all parts of the country. Because we don't want to have a variable risk of trustworthy voting technology depending on region.

The reason I wrote this blog is because it baffles me that our voting technology has been farmed out to corporations. We have absolutely no reason to believe that we can or should trust privately owned corporations to offer a reliable and accurate vote. Especially in a capitalistic society where the corporations are directly in a position to benefit from the outcome of these elections. Yet our country is a complete hodgepodge of voting gear.

There's a great website that shows what equipment is used on a state-by-state basis. You can look at that site here: http://verifiedvoting.org/verifier/

In addition to the state-level data, you can also drill into each state and see district-by-district, which equipment is being used. One thing to note immediately are the states whose colors are red, orange, or magenta. Because these are states that use electronic voting with NO paper trail. Therefore, once you cast your vote, and leave the booth, there is no way of ever checking or contesting an outcome based on presumption of errors in the electronic vote. Those states/districts are implicitly trusting technology. And among those states who use that technology are Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida.

So when McCain says he's confident he can win Pennsylvania, in spite of the polls showing him to be at least 9% behind, doesn't that make you just a little bit concerned?

It is simply mindblowing to me that after the "butterfly ballot" scandal in Florida, in 2000, where thousands of people accidentally cast votes for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, that there would have been a national movement to improve the reliability of voting in this country. Well, there were changes, yes! But I believe they were the wrong changes. We went to more electronic voting, because of a few obvious things. First, one can argue that it is a more reliable system. Second, it obviously created a market for technology corporations to obtain huge contracts for providing such equipment. But the downside of this is that the validity of that decision is based entirely on the false premise that we can trust the faithfulness of these voting machines (to say nothing of repeated issues of reliability which have subsequently arisen).

Why can't voting be simple? Why can't we just have people fill in bubbles with pens, and then have a room full of "vote counters" who are from all represented parties, who count these ballots, and must agree on their tally? Forget about chads, and forget about touch screens. Voting is important enough to leave it to the eyes of a panel of human beings.

Something that bothers me about the bailout

Apparently if we didn't hand out billions - almost trillions of dollars, our economy would have imminently collapsed. But now that we've handed that money to the corporations, they are sort of free to do with it whatever they want. Ironically, the reason for this is because we are a capitalist society! If we absolutely forced them to do some things (start issuing credit), and not other things (continue issuing executive bonuses), then we would have some type of socialism. As if it is not already completely socialistic to be giving them the money in the first place. But the reality is that this bailout is going to help "Joe Corporation" first, and foremost. Second beneficiary will likely be "Joe Investor". Although one could argue that the savvy investor has probably been making an absolute killing in day-trading this volatility for the last month. The third beneficiary might eventually be the employees of these corporations, because they will actually have jobs. But the middle class... what do we get to do? Well, most of us are primarily impacted in terms of the ability to get loans, the ability to find jobs, and the health of our retirement plans, if we even have one. It's trickle down economics, to the maximum extent. And the poor people... as George Carlin put it "The poor people are around to scare the shit out of the middle class".

And now, tier two of the bailout has me even more worried. They're supposedly going to help people whose homes are being foreclosed. I wonder what that will mean, though. Is it for anyone? Or only for people who earn less than a certain amount? Because I really would hate to think that the person who had a dot.com income and bought a $900,000 house in the Bay Area, with zero down, will get their mortgage rescued. Why is it that fiscal responsibility is actually being inversely rewarded here? The people who borrowed within their means and have not foreclosed will receive nothing from the government. The companies that did not cook their books, or engage in extreme practices get nothing from the government. Only the dishonest are rewarded here. The people who diligently saved money in their 401k every month - those people have been fucked by this credit crisis. Why not tell the American people that the $700 billion will be used to replenish our retirement accounts from the money that the fleecers fleeced from us?

Would that be socialism? Or just a plain-old handout?

The deception and crime continues, and both parties are selling it. The beneficiary is corporate America, and the victims are the little people.

30 October, 2008

Addicted to Polls

It's true, I really cannot wait for this election to be over. I care very much about the outcome, but there's nothing new to be learned here. There is no information that needs to be related. The news networks are simply giving us hourly doses of nothing to keep their ratings high. And I keep watching. It feels hopeless, to tell you the truth. I can't stop thinking about it, so I watch. But when I watch, I just want to stop thinking about it. How does that work?

I haven't been a good blogger lately. Instead of coming here and relating my thoughts and observations, I have been browsing websites, scouring for something that stimulates my mind. I guess I am more "knowledgable" and "aware" of world events now than I was this summer. But what's it worth? I keep asking myself that question. What good is it to be informed?

Here are my primary haunts these days:

http://www.cnn.com/ for my basic "What's going on right now?"
http://www.foxnews.com/ for sick curiosity about what their depraved website is peddling
http://finance.yahoo.com/ to obsessively track the market and lament my observer status
http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/ so I can reassure myself that Obama's really gonna win
http://www.electoral-vote.com/ because I love looking at pictures of electoral maps
http://www.dailykos.com/ so I can become annoyed at the boring, self-congratulatory content
http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ to find some decent editorials about all that's happening

That's about the size of it. I live on those sites, and I guess I'd be better off living in here, and telling you my thoughts, since at least there's a creative product instead of just filling my mind with obsessive thoughts.

The weather and daylight change seems to have taken a toll on me. Ever since we got back from our "tour", I have not felt great. Sick, then sick again, then sick again, and constantly tired. Maybe it's depression, and maybe it happens every year around this time. I really don't remember. I haven't plotted my moods in any reliable way. It would be interesting to track all sorts of shit, if I were organized enough to do it.

I would track the following:
  • Morning mood, scale 1-10
  • Evening mood, scale 1-10
  • Dietary intake
  • Exercise
  • Body weight
  • Social activities
  • Sexual activities
  • Waking time
  • Sleeping time

There. That's a start. I think there could be some very interesting correlations to be drawn, with such a data collection. And that would provide me, perhaps, with useful clues for knowing what I need to do to be happy, and what I typically do that makes me unhappy. Of course, the presumption is that my happiness or unhappiness would not be impacted by the mere process of recording all this information.

Damn Schroedinger and his fucking cat. I am sure that cat probably pissed and puked everywhere, or else why would he have been going to the extreme of exposing it to radioactive isotopes?

Anyway, I am hoping that by writing this blog, I will officially be "back" into writing again.

10 October, 2008

Why the fascination with bewildered stockbrokers?

I am always amused when news sites are showing us photographs of stock traders who look like they just saw a moose explode in the middle of the forest. Why is this newsworthy? Why is this interesting? I guess the thinking is, "If THESE seasoned financial experts are panicking, YOU should DEFINITELY be panicking too! And reading more of our news pages!"

I especially enjoy the "hand over the mouth" motif. Maybe they are burping? We need more info. Maybe they just ate garlic and don't want to offend fellow brokers? Maybe they are talking to their agents and, like baseball coaches, they don't want others reading their lips and passing on the signs to buy and sell?

t1wide_wallstreet3_ap

t1wide_wallstreet4_afp_gi

g-cvr-081010-us-stocks-1030_grid-5x3

Bullshit poll from FOX News

Why does it surprise me that this is bullshit? Well it doesn't. But it is always interesting how the headlines match up with the content of the story.

Here is the story: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,436023,00.html

The headline was: Character Questions Dog Campaign

The subtitle was: FOX News poll shows Obama's Ayers, Wright friendships and McCain's attacks are shaping voter perceptions

But what does the article actually say? Well, not a whole lot. The data about Ayers suggests that about 1/3 of undecided voters are swayed in the negative about Obama as a result of this story. But one would EXPECT that 1/3 of "undecided" voters would probably be leaning McCain anyway, so I don't see this as remotely newsworthy.

The other big "point" they make in the story is that apparently the people they polled think that Obama is putting his campaign ahead of the country, and vice-versa about McCain. Who knows what that is all about.

Jumping into the Economic Fray

Okay. People obviously are paying a lot of attention to the market, and the economy, and I am starting to do so as well. Up until a few weeks ago, I had zero, or almost zero comprehension of what was going on. I only knew that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, mortgage banks, were in trouble, and that it had something to do with giving out bad loans. Then I heard that many banks were failing, and I didn't quite understand why that was happening. And then I heard that insurance companines like AIG were in trouble, and that there was somehow corruption involved.

And the market dropped.

After a couple of weeks of this, it got kind of frustrating having no idea WHY any of this is occurring, so I decided to at least START reading about it, and paying closer attention.

The easiest thing for me to do here is just link you to a few articles that fairly well describe different aspects of the situation. Here are some links:

http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2008/09/economic_disasters_and_stupid.php

http://finance.yahoo.com/expert/article/yourlife/109609

http://socialistworld.net/eng/2008/09/26worlda.html

To summarize, here is a nutshell of what is going on:

  • Historically, mortgages and many loans are very safe money for banks because people usually pay back their loans.
  • As a result, banks figured out that a good way to make even more money, with even lower risk, is to bundle loans into investsments, and SELL that risk to investors (e.g. as bonds). If the loans are paid back (which they almost always have been), then everyone makes money.
  • This became such a desirable investment option, that there were not enough loans out there to satisfy the demand for the investments that they comprise
  • Result: Banks started giving more and more loans, essentially lowering the bar of what it takes to QUALIFY for a loan. These loans become progressively RISKIER investments
  • Consumers did not know (at least not transparently) that these were bad loans they were investing in, because they were not rated as bad - the ratings agencies called them good - partly due to corruption, and partly due to the fact that they were supposedly insured (by companies like AIG!)
  • At the same time that all this is happening, the housing market is imploding, and people's homes are losing equity
  • End game is that the loans were bad, people could not repay, the insurance companies cannot cover the losses, and banks are in trouble.
  • Making matters worse is the fact that there were large investment pools that were actually betting AGAINST those loans being repaid (i.e. "shorting"), and that has the power to drive the market down even further
  • Making matters even worse is the fact that so many investors are now people like you and me, who react to changing market conditions with emotions such as, PANIC, and pull their money out, causing further market instability
  • Making matters even worse than that is the fact that among the panicking masses, there are surely savvy professional investors who are continuing to play the Wheel of Misfortune, and make money via other people's panic! Every time you and I sell on panic, there can be someone else making money betting on the stock price going down.

One interesting thing that was shown to me by a colleague is an index called the Volatility Index (^VIX). This measures the volatility, or instability of the stock market. The measure has been tracked for about 18 years. Presently, the VIX is at an ALL TIME HIGH. See the chart below.

VIX

And as if that's not shocking enough, it continues, at this very minute, to climb higher, with today's trading sessions taking it to even higher (steeply) all time highs! This is not good because, among other things, it means that the market is becoming highly reactive - not to the actual conditions of the companies being traded, but to the market itself. During the time I have been typing this blog, it has climbed yet another 2 points. This is absolutely serious shit.

VIXTODAY

So, what do you do now? Well, that's the hard call. All of the "experts" will always tell you - especially about retirement plans - you need to think about the long haul, and that these are just blips in time. And that we cannot be reactive to market volatility, etc. And all that jazz. But all of that is on the presumption that we do not KNOW what is happening. For instance, if someone told you in August of 1929 that the stock market is about to undergo a 90% slide, would it be "thinking long-term" to leave your money in there? Of course not! While this is NOT the same thing as 1929, there are certainly (or I should say, there WERE certainly) enough indicators that things were about to become bad.

But if you didn't pull your money out, what do you do now? Risk holding it further and watching the market decline further? Would people have predicted 2 weeks ago, that after dropping precipitously, the market would then... continue to drop precipitously? Maybe. Because nothing in the crisis has been resolved... yet.

Below is an article in today's internet, talking about the "What now?" question. It focuses on the point that right now, if you ARE holding your investments, you should at least check to see that you are not doing considerably WORSE than the market as a whole.

http://biz.yahoo.com/etfguide/081010/53_id.html

One thing to consider, is the idea of "dollar-cost averaging". This is the idea of (typically) buying a little bit at a time, to average what is happening in market conditions. So if you buy, say, $1000 a month into the market, then even if the market continues dropping, you are continuing to buy at a lower and lower price. This is a safer plan than going "all in" but it obviously has risks associated with it as well. I was contemplating the idea of dollar-cost averaging in the opposite direction - i.e. SELLING a certain amount each month until the market hits what "looks like bottom". That way, as the market drops, I could at least be pulling a little bit out at a time, rather than seeing it all lose the maximal value. Again, there are risks with this.

One thing I think is NOT worth doing, is adhering rigidly to the so-called wisdom of staying in it for the long run. This is YOUR money, and you need to do what's best for YOU. And more importantly, I think that the principle of "long run" is if the market is primarily being driven by the economic conditions of the companies in which you are investing. Right now the market is subject to a variety of greater forces, and we are not put our money just in the hands of those companies we've invested, but also in the hands of THE MARKET itself.

If you are curious about what I am doing/did:

After the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac news came out, I sold EVERY SINGLE stock and mutual fund holding that I had in my retirement plans, and moved the money to either CASH or BOND funds. I did this because I didn't want to get screwed again like I did back in 2000, when I stuck to conventional "wisdom" and watched my portfolio drop almost 40% during a 2 year period. Given the market news, and the pending election, it felt like the right thing to do.

It was PARTLY right. I made a slightly false assumption thinking the bond funds were a safe place, because they have dropped too. But not as much as the market on the whole. Yet.

And I have not done ANY risky gambling on the volatile market. True, I have kicked myself when I see stocks like AIG bouncing up and down 30% in a day, but I am too afraid right now to bet that the upswing is coming, only to be hit with the downswing. Not worth it.

09 October, 2008

KDKA Talk Radio

I just heard the most hysterical thing in the world! Listening to web radio at the gym, just passing time. Tried to find a talk radio station. The first one I come across is taking a caller.

The caller says to the host: "do you support Bob Barr?"

Host says "yes, I am a libertarian and he is the libertarian candidate"

The caller says "are libertarians more aligned with the right or the left?"

Host says "you can't think of it as being along a linear axis where conservative is right and liberal is left. What you need to do is think of it like a triangle, where conservative is on the lower right corner, liberal is the lower left corner, and libertarian is at the top of the triangle, at the pinochle"

Um... I think he meant the pinnacle?!


-- Post From My iPhone

Front Page - Top Stories

I am becoming interested once again in what the media tells us, depending on our news sources. I thought about this four years ago, and then became very discouraged and gave up. But I guess I am energized once again. Looking only at the stories given LARGE print (not including the "latest news" feed). Let the topics speak for themselves...

Today, 4pm PDT, Fox News site:

1. Day Ends in Near Free Fall (stock market)
2. Obama-Ayers Timeline in Question
3. And the Emmy Goes to... Obama? (about prime-time special he will air before election)
4. (with Photo) Plastic Preacher - Outraged Parents Claim Doll Says "Islam is the Light"


Today, 4pm PDT, CNN site:

1. Dow Closes Below 9000


Today, 4pm PDT, MSNBC site:

1. Dow Closes Below 8600
2. McCain, Obama Wrangle over Economic Crisis
3. US Plan for Banks Carries Risks
4. Court Refuses to Shut Down Palin Probe
5. Manny's Impact on the Dodgers
6. Beware of Debit Scam at the Pump


Today, 4pm PDT, CBSNEWS site:

1. No End in Sight (market drop)


Today, 4pm PDT, ABCNEWS site:

1. Dow Ja Vu: Another Triple-Digit Drop Leaves 9000 a Distant Memory


Today, 4pm PDT, NYTimes site:

1. Stocks Plunge Again; Dow under 8600
2. US Assurances Offer Little Comfort to Traders
3. US Considers Cash Injections into Banks
4. Citi Concedes Wachovia to Wells Fargo

02 October, 2008

Dubuque, IA

We couldn't possibly be disappointed by our night in Dubuque. There are a few reasons for this. First, who would expect that playing in a small town in Dubuque would be anything less than miserable. Iowa is, what some might call, "The Middle of Nowhere". Also, this show was the last one we booked - coming on our schedule just days before leaving town, in a "Hail Mary" effort by Jason to connect the dots between Friday in Cincinnati and Sunday in Saint Paul. If we had not booked this Iowa show, we would most likely have canceled Minnesota, so that we could save our vacation time, cut the losses of a self-funded trip to the Midwest.

But Dubuque came through. And it did not disappoint.

We arrived at the club on the early side. It was called "180 Main" and accordingly, was located at 180 Main Street. Dubuque is a small enough town that Main Street actually is the main street in town. That's kind of quaint when you think about it. And the club, which could have been anything - could have been a dive, a pit, or a colliseum - turned out to be quite a nice venue. The upstairs was an upscalish restaurant, with a variety of cuisine, of an American and slightly Italian variety. The downstairs was a stone and brick encrusted basement, with two bars, a respectably deep stage, and cool, almost castle dungeon like decor. Being the first guests in the downstairs, we had the full attention of the young bartender, who immediately handed us his iPod and asked us to go ahead and pick whatever music we wanted to hear. He also comp'd us several drinks, because the business of the upstairs restaurant caused our food delivery to be a little slow. We were not upset by this, and the food proved excellent. I had potato soup, and one of the best Caesar salads I have ever had.

After that, we were setting up, and met the members of the other band, J.C. Brooks and the Something Or Others (?) from Chicago. They were a soul-rock band, dressed sharply in either suits, or vests or ties, all black and white outfits - looking retro.

The show itself saw a pretty good-sized crowd. We had a lot of people who kept poking their heads in from the bar on the other side of the stone wall - pool players who liked what they were hearing, and leaned in to watch between shots, plus a handful of people either dancing or watching attentively up front. We felt well-received, and had a great time playing.

This was the night that I think I probably drank the most of any night, and it wasn't even that much... a couple of beers, and maybe 3 tequilas, but I was feeling it enough that I took active part in the post-show socialization outside.

The club was a couple of blocks away from the Mississippi River, which made the air feel warm, damp, and breezy. It felt nice. And out back there were dozens and dozens of people hanging. I started talking to one guy, of whom I initially had no, or low expectations. He was probably 24 or so, with a baseball cap (always makes me biased), but we got to talking about Seattle, and then about coffee, and then about beer, and then about politics. Turns out, he is a trainer for a local espresso company and he was quite the expert on both coffee and beer. He had passion, and he was fiercely liberal. He spoke of dreams to someday move to Portland. We talked about the state of Iowa, and I learned that Iowa City and Dubuque are liberal, whereas Cedar Rapids is conservative. But almost everyone we met there that night seemed liberal, and the bar sported a portrait of JFK on the wall. It was strange to be in the Midwest and to be in "Blue Country", but we had to know it was out there. Right? Those states are often swing states, and it would stand to reason that there would be cities that swing either way. But it felt good to be in a small town, and to be surprised. The conversation with that guy, and a few other people, really made the night for me, and in some ways, the entire trip. Because it forced me to see things differently.

The same was somewhat true in Cincinnati, meeting Jim's friends, who were as liberal as me. A lot of elitists on the coasts want to see the entire middle of this country as a heartless or soulless wasteland - "the problem" - but the reality is that people are just people, everywhere you go. How profound?! It is not so simple as the coast, or the interior. And it is even less simple than red state versus blue state. Because even the reddest states have spots of blue, and vice-versa. It is a giant country of patchwork ideologies. That's what we are stuck with, for better or for worse.

That night was a bit of a wild and crazy night, in the end. We ended up at a rather sleazy hotel called "The Canfield", which had the Dubious (or Dubuquious) distinction of being both the nastiest, as well as the most "character-filled" of the places we stayed on this trip. From the Native American mannequin couple in the lobby, to the thin walls, loud TVs, and rather seedy room decorations - it almost felt southern more than Midwestern. I barely slept at all, amidst the noises from adjoining rooms, plus the "chainsaw twins" snoring in the room with me. But I survived, and rose early to experience digestive distress (undoubtedly from the drinking).

Then I checked out a local diner that felt extremely small town (by myself, could not find Jim, and the others were soundly sleeping). Then I hooked up with Jim and he took me to the hip cafe a few blocks away that he found (Jim is a master of exploration - he is the one who will discover the cool place, or as the case may be, end up partying with Vince Gill!).

Finally, Jason and Craig awoke, and we ended up back at diner #1 again, where we were approached by the "hottest girl in the bar" from the night before, who told us she liked our show, and even squeezed Jim's arm. We are the rock stars from Seattle!

Yahoo!

Forward or Backward?

I still have promised a tour log from the last two shows... Dubuque... Saint Paul... what I really want to do is tell you about being back. But I think I need to keep the promise to myself, and write the archive of those two nights, lest I forget what happened.

So here goes.