Sunday, May 30, 2010

This week in oil spills ...

I actually wrote a post last week about Jack Kelly’s column, but wanted to write more, so I ended up not posting anything (my bad). I am not going to revisit last week’s topic, but I would like to look at this week’s column. Kelly is trying to navigate a strange path, pretending that any problems in the government miraculously sprang into existence on January 20, 2009. It was the Bush administration that created and as far as anyone knows encouraged an atmosphere of “coziness” between the Minerals Management Service and private industry in resource extraction regulation. I will note that part of the MMS’s responsibility was to collect royalties from resource extraction on federal lands. There was a program started, in the Clinton administration, where the industry sold some fraction of oil on behalf of the government, and gave them the revenue. When the Bush administration came in, it kept the program going, but understaffed it and left it in the hands of amateurs. The GAO felt the government lost perhaps billions of dollars because the MMS simply wasn’t keeping track.

So what degree of responsibility for this mess should we hold Obama to? Well, I will get to his response in a moment, but first we should think about the MMS since January 20, 2009. Or perhaps since July 15, 2009, when Elizabeth Birnbaum became director of the (obviously troubled) MMS. The rig started drilling in September 2009, which I would assume means the permitting was being done essentially at the same time Ms. Birnbaum was starting working at the MMS. Perhaps her signature was on the final papers, as her subordinates assured her the rig met all the safety requirements. The rig started drilling September 2009, the same month Van Jones resigned from office because of a conservative witch hunt, the same month Tea Party types were planting ringers in Town Hall meetings to scream at Congress-persons.

Kelly notes that it is unreasonable to expect Obama to have checked on the MMS personally (or checked on whether any government agency had oil booms in stock). But Kelly does blame Obama for a tardy response. It is interesting to see conservatives on the one hand blame the Obama administration for practicing politics as usual, yet the same conservatives blame Obama for a tardy response and also too much deference to BP in the oil spill. Clearly Obama does bear some responsibility for the degree of his reaction. But I suspect that when Obama is tempted to say something like how the big corporations don’t care about the little guys and poor fishermen, or how they don’t care about the environment, he thinks it might be the surest way of proving that conservatives are correct about his having a radical agenda. I think there is a way to speak more harshly about BP than Obama has, but Obama’s recent words makes me suspect he has realized this too. Unfortunately tardiness in politics is almost as big a sin as not responding at all. And there in lies Obama’s problem.

So as in other situations, I agree to a point that Obama has either not done enough or done the wrong thing in this situation. But I think that Obama’s critics continue to fail to acknowledge the role the previous administration previously or other conservatives currently play in any given crisis. If Kelly’s intention is to help us understand the current situation he is not doing well. Of course, if the intention is to achieve a partisan objective, then Kelly is doing quite well.

One more point. Obama suggested increasing offshore drilling a few weeks before the current spill, I believe to garner support for the other parts of his energy proposals. Of course, the offshore drilling proposal has come back to haunt him. But suppose Obama had, say, halted off shore drilling two months ago, because he thought there might be a spill; Obama's critics would have started screaming. Obama has already halted new and I believe current deep water drilling. Right now gas prices are dropping slightly, and as long as that continues, Obama will dodge the bullet. But look for massive criticism if gas prices go up (and remembering the summer of '07, prices can rise simply because speculators think they should). Obama could also use this spill to call for people to drive more sensibly too, but I suspect the image of Carter in the sweater would be raised instantly by conservatives.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The blue people, and me gasping for breath ...

I had been curious about the movie Avatar, especially I read (and then heard on the Colbert Report) that people who had seen the movie were actually becoming depressed with how real life doesn’t have blue people. You know, it is supposed to have impressive effects and obviously very popular. So I rented it from the Redbox when it became available, and watched it using my Blu-Ray player (which up-converts standard def movies so they are full screen, but still standard def) on my moderate size 32” TV. So watching it, the effects were adequate, when the blue people showed up on screen it basically turned into a cartoon. But the point where the movie and I parted company was when Giovanni Ribisi names what it is that we earth people are supposed to be mining on this planet. Unobtainium. Unobtainium? Give me a f-ing break. Unobtainium? Call it lithium, use the name of a rare earth mineral, call it di-lithium, something. But unobtainium? Geez.

Like I said, that’s where my suspension of disbelief gave up the ghost. The rest of the movie was essentially a long and pretty silly cartoon, for the most part. The environmental message was clumsy, heavy handed and obvious, and not very convincing. I mean, worth watching, but didn’t bowl me over.

The other day I watched that movie Amelie on cable. Now that did bowl me over. I would not use the term “sweet” to describe any movie (or most anything normally), but that is the one word I would use for Amelie.

I have been riding an electric bike to work the last couple of days (including national Ride to Work day - today). It is a Currie Eco-Ride, their entry level lithium battery bike. It is actually kind of overkill for the relatively short commute I have (I go about three miles, it would work well for a ten to fifteen mile commute). The Eco-Ride has an automatic pedal assist system, which is to say when I pedal the motor kicks on, at a relatively good speed. Considering how out of shape I am, this is a good thing. On the other hand, it can be pretty alarming when riding on a sidewalk (which I do on Penn Ave, and also when I am at CMU). It has a throttle, which as far as I could tell, initially, did not work. Turns out it seems to work in the higher gears, when you are presumably going faster. At those speeds the regular speed of the electric motor I guess drags the bike back, so the throttle ratchets up the electric motor so it keeps up. I gather the motor will kick off at 20 mph, a speed that several states use at a dividing line between an electric bike (requiring no license) and an electric motorcycle (requiring a license). But that’s ok, I have no desire to go faster than 19 miles per hour (I guess I might go faster than that down some hills, but I would probably not be pedaling at that point anyway).

I have great access to buses, and when I do ride the bus, it is early enough that the bus is never so crowded that I could be said to be taking anyone’s place. But bike riding in the last couple of days has been difficult enough that I suspect that for a while bike commuting will contribute to my efforts to get in better shape. I suppose that is a decent reason to continue with it, when it is warm and not raining.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Primary day

Just a quick note. Today is the Primary election, to select who runs in the General in the fall. The great thing about the Primary is that no matter what happens, if at least one Democrat runs to be the candidate for any given office, then a Democrat will win, guaranteed, today in that race. So if in any given race a Democrat must win (if one is running), go ahead and vote your conscience. If you vote for Sestak and Specter wins, there will still be Specter the Democrat running in the fall, perhaps the lesser candidate, but still a Democrat. You have nothing to lose by voting your conscience, and the party will be given a sense of what its members believe.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kelly's comment worth commentting on ...

Jack Kelly likes to paint with a broad brush, useful for making a vivid point quickly, but not as good at adding a set of subtle assessments (love it when an analogy hangs together). In all seriousness, Kelly's column today makes for a reasonable "gothca" discussion, how the "librul" media sees the world through blue state glasses. I will say, there is something of point there. Journalists love to give us the benefit of their wisdom even as they relay news. And journalists are generally social liberals, even as they are often conservative on economic issues. But is Kelly actually helping us understand anything?

The media has not done a good job of identifying (in my opinion) what as I see as the actual differences in the behavior of the two parties. That difference is the behavior of the national party. The Republican National Committee did not try to keep Charlie Crist in the party, or aid Bob Bennett. It may have something to do with being the minority party, but my sense is that the RNC is more than wiling to kowtow to more conservative elements of party. By comparison, the Democrat National Committee seems to be more interested in keeping incumbents. If Obama really was such a radical liberal, surely he would support the somewhat more left leaning Joe Sestack than Arlen Specter? Of course, Kelly put the Specter situation in terms of the media's views of why Specter switched parties (that he was "forced" out), but I truly wonder if the national Republicans would have supported Specter had he stayed in the party. The DNC's currently increasingly tepid support of Specter may be a fairly useless substitute, but maybe Kelly has a point that Specter maybe should have just retired instead of running again.

Jack Kelly does a good job of advocating for the conservative cause, which means he is also an advocate for Republican causes. Since liberal pundits are often advocates for Democratic causes, I couldn't make an argument that Kelly isn't doing his job on those grounds. But when you look at a Glenn Greenwald, who is more liberal than the current (surprisingly but understandably) moderate administration, Greenwald is an ardent and arguably effective critic of the Obama administration. It might be nice if our newspaper could employ someone who tries harder to help us understand the more hidden truths, not just to reinforce our preconceived views.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Jack Kelly stretches his quotes

Today Jack Kelly wants you to believe that the Obama administration is more worried about not offending and in protecting the rights of Muslims than it is about preventing terrorism. The problem is that he has only the most indirect of support for that. He gives us one quote from Mayor Bloomberg in reference to the Times Square bomber, stating New Yorkers will not be allowed to conduct a backlash against Muslims. As long as that is the only thing Bloomberg has said after the event, then Kelly has one piece of support for his theory. Kelly also raises the case of Major Nidal Hasan, and quotes General George Casey hoping there won't be a backlash against Muslim soldiers. If that is the only thing the military and all the politicians ever said about Hasan, then Kelly has a point. Similarly Kelly takes a quote from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made a few hours after the discovery of the bomb in Times Square and stretches it well beyond any reasonable context. To paraphrase, right at that moment the government had no evidence that the bomb was anything but a one time thing. Which was probably exactly accurate at that moment, but apparently Kelly wants the government to tell everyone to be scared.

Kelly says that a small sliver of Muslims here are determined to attack us, although we realize the vast majority of Muslims living in the US are law abiding. Well duh. In fact, we also realize that there are Muslims outside the US who don't like us, partly but not entirely because we have been killing other Muslims for the last eight years. The American people are also in fact already being vigilant (Times Square and the underwear bomber). But Kelly wants more, he would like the government to be more aggressive (and presumably more successful) in anti-terror activities. Or (more likely) he wants the American people to realize that the government isn't doing enough, and will change the Congress in the fall, and the President in two years.

The thing is, you have to be predisposed to think that Democrats, who are currently controlling the Congress and the Executive Branch, are unable to adequately carry out the duties of governing the country to believe that Jack Kelly has made his case. Which means Kelly isn't really helping us understand the world we live in, he is just trying to help one side.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Oil n'at

So still thinking about some things, like that terrorist guy (Faisal?). Apparently part of the Pakistani Taliban. Would that even exist if we had negotiated with the Afghan Taliban for them to hand over Osama in October 2001? Meanwhile, apparently some Senators are violently opposed (so to speak) to restricting the ability of someone on the *no fly because you might be a terrorist* list to buy a gun. A handgun or a carbine (like Faisal had) if you like. Apparently even if the proposed law says the possible terrorist has the option to appeal this status and thus the prohibition on owning a gun, that is insufficient for some Senators. Why should someone who is spending money on a gun have to spend money on an appeal? Why should they have to wait for their Constitutionally permissible gun, especially since the government went to all that trouble to set up a computerized instant check system, that lets the gun dealer know if the buyer is a terr ... er, a felon who maybe ran someone over while driving drunk. No gun for you! But if you are really pissed at your wife (who never pressed charges for all the beatings because you bullied her into internalizing that it was all her fault for being inadequate), if you are really pissed at your wife, you can buy a gun and bullets this afternoon and shoot her in time for the six o'clock news, because the instant check system made the Brady Bill three day cooling off ... er, waiting period redundant and therefore unnecessary, according to the NRA ... I mean Congress.

Drifted a bit there, tangent wise.

So if we don't let the terrorists buy guns, then maybe none of us will be able to buy guns next, and we will be defenseless against the unarmed terrorists ... uh, I mean defenseless against the government (who has automatic weapons and cannons and tanks and helicopters ... but as long as I have my AK-47 semiautomatic rifle, I can pull a Poplawski). I am still waiting for a Senator to argue that they want to give the American people a chance to put them out of a job (violently). Well, if it meant getting rid of Inhofe, maybe ...

Another thought bouncing around like a happy puppy in my brain (don't need pets when I am crazy like that) is the oil spill. We all know what the country has to do, right? Make oil rigs safer? Actually, that doesn't go far enough, lets talk about banning new rigs in the Gulf, and certainly restoring the bans off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Unless you read Lisa Margonelli's essay in the NYTimes. Is this really a good time to increase our dependence on foreign oil, where the environmental restrictions might be a lot looser?

Hmm, drill here or import, if only there were a third maybe consume less oil. NO NO NO NO then the terrorists have won. Because right now having us bogged down in two occupations for nine and seven years, in countries where we have little hope of creating a stable, let alone democratic government, steadily draining our troops and making us look like contenders in the top five asshole countries of the world ... yeah, we're kickin' some terrorist ass.

Walk (with accompanying health benefits). Bus. Bike (with accompanying health benefits). Electric bike (for longer commutes). Even just not buying a god damn SUV, or maybe driving it at 60 miles per hour instead of 80 mph.

Today you can ease up on the gas pedal, drive like a stereotypical LOM or LOL (pre-internet meanings). Tomorrow you can get the bike out from behind the toilet in the basement, take it to the bike shop and have the rotted tires replaced, and ride it next week. Next year when you look to buy a car, you can look at a Versa or Insight or Prius (South Park calls 'em Pious) or TDI, and step up to a different plate ('kay, that analogy is now a bit strained).

Tom Friedman wants to tell us that now is the time for legislation (Kerry-Lieberman-Graham), and Obama is the man to take the reins and kick from the stirrups. I don't exactly disagree, except I do. If this were a normal year, say during the second Bush ... well maybe one of Clinton's terms ... well, in a better (forget perfect) world, Congress could probably tackle multiple issues. But cable news has proclaimed we can only concentrate (sort of) on one issue at a time, any random terrorist incident will derail our attention, and then it will be the Stanley cup series.

But in any event, I really must write a "magic negro" post. To just gloss over things, I think Obama is also calculating what will do the most harm to or benefit the Congressional Democrats running for office the most. Of the people who voted for him, some of those (white)people who did so because they genuinely thought he could/would solve problems have been getting steadily disenchanted since last June. Those (white people) who voted for him because he was not weird old man McCain (in the debates) are also becoming disenchanted with him. Believe or not (if you can't see it, I can't convince you) the health care bill was not aggressive, and Obama's role in it was fairly small. But a bill to cut oil consumption would be aggressive, it would give Obama's many, many enemies exactly the opening they have been waiting and praying for. Republicans would ride the supposedly proven "Socialist" accusation all the way the the fall.

Don't get me wrong. I am waiting and praying (it is national prayer day today, pray to the teapot of your choice) for European levels of gas taxation. Yes, protect the poor, bump up the EIC or something. Exempt bio diesel or even regular diesel, or at least tax it less. But I think Obama needs to wait for his second term, then go to town or school or whatever on our behinds.

Meanwhile, please drive a bit more conservatively. Be a real American, tell yourself you are sacrificing to support the troops. Because we wouldn't be there if we didn't want Middle East oil.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Primaries and n'at

I was reminded last night that the primaries are coming up soon. I think I have mentioned this in the past, perhaps concerning past primaries, but it is worth mentioning again.

We never get perfect candidates, we rarely get great candidates (Obama might fall into that category, there is the issue of how race affects his Presidency; a topic for a different post). Researching positions is always educational and thus worth it on some level. But an informed voter is only one vote, an informed voter who talks to his or her five closest friends is perhaps six votes (and an informed blogger is probably smug and annoying). So if you approach the touchscreen (which is already programmed to change your vote anyway) with a lot of knowledge or only a good working shorthand knowledge of who is in the race, either is OK.

My view (to get to the point) is that if you support specific causes, then I think we should use the primary to register one more small voice for those causes. Since I support liberal causes, I say vote Hoeffel for governor and Sestak for Senator. If Wagner or Onorato win the Democratic primary, as is likely, well, neither is a bad man. If Specter wins his primary, as is likely, yeah, he's old and should have taken his pension a while ago. But he is helping the Democrats basically. In the general I believe you have to grit your teeth and vote for a Specter over a Toomey or a Wagner/Onorato over a Corbett. But the primary can be for making a quixotic statement, a shot at a windmill.

One more thing, David Brooks had an interesting column yesterday in which he unintentionally neatly characterized the the problems of the economic class structure in the US today. What Brooks intended to tell us is that most policies designed to help the poor don't work very well, although he was careful to couch that in neutral language. He compared the success of ethnic groups such as the Swedes and Asians in America to, first, their success in the lands of their ancestors and then to other ethnic groups. What Brooks failed to mention is the role played by the deeply and these days subtly held racist views in the success or failure of any given ethnic group. Brooks also mentioned, toward the end of his column, a theory that if you doubled the income of the poorest in America, it doesn't seem to have a very positive effect. Well, preparing taxes for the poor, I can understand that point. When you double ten grand for a family of four, you do not create Rockefellers. Let me also point out this is someone's calculation, not an actual study. If you given parents a minimally decent job and give kids a decent education, you might just be creating the next group of Swedes in America, even if they have more color than the Swedes usually do.

Just another reason why I see David Brooks as a reasonable sounding snake in the grass.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

don't care about the F22, but a red light ...

Since I seem to be posting once a week, here we are. I have to say I usually would, but don't really care about Jack Kelly's whining about the F-22. He claims that Russia, China or Iran could stop our fighters from penetrating their air space, unless we build large numbers of the F-22. I am reminded that the US military long wanted to be able to fight two and a half wars, two major wars and one "brush fire" war, i.e. in a third world country. I think we now know that two "brush fire" wars are too much for our military. Advanced fighters haven't been much use in Iraq or Afghanistan, since they lack the absolute precision to avoid bad public relations. If we did invade Iran (God help us), would it be a major war or a quick victory (a la Iraq) followed by a horrible, endless occupation (a la Iraq)? If we invaded Russia or China, why wouldn't they just use their nukes (God help us all)? Yes, the military are the experts on comparing weapons, but maybe the civilians should make the predictions on who we might worry about facing in combat.

I stumbled upon an essay in the New York Times that really interested me. the question raised: as a bicyclist, to brake (and actually stop) or not at red lights. Now I hate it when someone says, you have to do a thing to understand what they are talking about. I mean, yeah, war, probably working in a hospital, probably lots of things. But if you explain things slowly (and probably loudly) to me, I might understand. Still, until and/or unless you commute by bicycle, you will have trouble understanding why you are more than sorely tempting to jump a red light when commuting. It's not only is it physically demanding and not only are you worried about about cars and frickin' SUV's. Actually at some traffic lights (such as Negley and Friendship) it makes more sense to get out ahead of the traffic so you can follow a different law and be in the left lane at Negley and Baum, the next light (instead of the right only right lane). You haven't experienced the joy of commuting until you experience worrying about cutting off a two ton SUV from making a (legal) right turn when you just want to go straight. Of course, slowing down a line of cars when you are in the left lane at that intersection as you pedal furiously to get through Negley and Centre (pretty much unlikely to get over twenty, which actually is OK with me, since much faster is kind of dangerous).

So now that you have a small idea of my view of bicycle commuting, you can imagine my delight at finding an essay about stopping at red lights while cycling in (arguably, I know, Portland) the most important city in bicycling in the US, NYC. The author talks about how other riders looked and look at him with scorn if he but tarries, let alone full on stops at intersection. I haven't bicycle commuted in a while (well, I did a bit last year), but from what I remember I don't see that many. There are a few, more in Oakland proper and other areas where students congregate (Bloomfield, Friendship, Shadyside, Highland Park, South Side flats, to some extent Squirrel Hill), and some others in unexpected places. But even though Pittsburgh is a compact city (not as compact as Manhattan), the rivers can make you detour (painfully) as an acoustic cyclist and the hills can prove daunting. I admire those who commute from and to places like the South Hills and North Hills.

Today's PG also has a cycling article about how (in part) to get more people out bicycling in Pittsburgh. The author, Bob Firth, is the president of a design firm concerned with (apparently) urban design. He talks about how inadequate bike "lanes" are, and couldn't we shut at least part of Fifth Avenue in Oakland and Shadyside to cars on Sundays, possibly leading to a permanent closure. My first reaction (unkindly) was, yeah, East End again getting preferential treatment. On the other hand, Firth points out this stretch of road is (relatively) flat (Ive run parts of the proposed section in the Marathon, relatively flat for experienced cyclists, certainly better than Negley between Fifth and Wilkins). Also, it has no pesky bridges, so yeah, this could be a good stretch of road to close. But we might need to import some bike mechanics or have Rosedale Tech (are they still around?) start a new program, rehabbing bikes that have been leaning against the Pittsburgh (basement) toilet.

Since I moved, my commute would be different than the past, but I could go a little out of my way to take considerable advantage of a Mellon Park to Bigelow bike lane. By the way, I will say here that I think Penn to no further than Bellefield would be better, given the existing bus lane. Maybe Penn to Dithridge. And of course right turns and left turns would present considerable challenges (which the article acknowledges). I guess we would have to wait at red lights, and be careful about turning cars at green lights (bummer). I guess this would be an improvement, kind of.

The articles also calls for bus schedules at bus kiosks. Fair enough, a damn good ideas. Except that PAT changes it schedules every other frickin' month in cost savings moves. After all, if you don't know when it will be there, why would you ride the bus? I think both the lane and the schedules are good ideas, of the nothing ventured, nothing gained type. But this is Pittsburgh, where inertia is the norm and few new ideas are viewed with much other than squinty-eyed suspicion.