Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Amen

This is right on.

Pretty much the only freedoms you lose are the ones you give away.

Watch your back.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Voting with a Spork

If you can ignore all the typos, this article is pretty good. I particularly like this line:
Now we are trying to eat the soup of democracy with the spork of voting, known as electronic ballots.
Remember: we have an important election coming up. Make sure you vote, and make sure your vote counts.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nature Photography

This is awesome. Pelicans are wonderful. My lovely family bought me a print of this picture for Father's Day last year. My luck: we were in Australia the first weekend in September, which is Father's Day there. So I had two such holidays in 2005.

I'm a lucky dad.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

27 Years of Beer


One of the things I like about Jimmy Buffett is that fairly often, for no reason I can fathom, one of his lyrics or tunes pops into my head. I was just shutting down the computer for the night when I realized I was humming one of his old, clever tunes:
And across from the bar is a pile of beer cans,
Been there twenty-seven years.
Imagine all the heartaches and tears
In twenty-seven years of beer.
That's from "Ringling, Ringling," and I still have no idea how it got in my head this evening. Doesn't seem to have much to do with debugging browser compatibility issues in my Ajax code.

I suppose it could be somehow related to me picking up my framed poster from last year's concert at the Fillmore Auditorium (by local mosaic portrait artist Jason Mecier) today. It looks very nice, and I can't wait to hang it in my office. Let's see if I can convince Blogger to show you what it looks like...

Of course, he didn't sing that song at that show. And I don't recall drinking 27 years of beer, either. Go figure.

About that Rum Punch


What you see above is the cause of me drinking all that rum punch. That rotten wood is the base of a post that supports the middle of two decks, one above the other (plus a trellis above the upper deck). There is now a distinct dip in the middle of the decks (duh).

But no one was hurt, and we now get to redesign the decks and the backyard.

And drink rum punch now and then.

Good Grief!

It's not all about how/whether they count the votes. It's also about whether they actually show your name. This just grates on me. It's about basic competence. Any beginning programmer knows you have to deal with this stuff.

And anyone who buys products that are this lame deserves to be fired. It shouldn't matter how long your name is when you run for office. And for that matter, Jim Webb's name isn't that long!

Oy. Two weeks to a major election, and we find out some of our election officials have some kind of learning disability or something. Or gross incompetence. Or they just don't care.

More discussion at Daily Kos.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Twenty-five Years

Hard to imagine, but my dad's been gone for 25 years today. My sister writes most eloquently about dad. I don't have anything to add at the moment. Or maybe I just have too much to say, and can't pin it down. Same thing, I guess.

Take care of yourselves.

Friday, October 20, 2006

May Need More Rum Punch

Yipes!

I had an inspector come today to check out the deck (and other stuff...the house itself is in good shape, thankfully). In addition to the one really obviously bad post, there are two others showing signs of rot, as well as some joists and some of the railing and some of the decking.

*sigh*

Looks like we'll be in the market for some new decks. Did I mention how many large decks we have on this house?

I Knew This Man was Brilliant

Thirty years before it was in vogue, Tom Stoppard wrote about one of my pet issues:
It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting.
That's from his play Jumpers, which I have yet to read. I guess I have some homework to do.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Blast From My Past

Someone just pointed me to this post. It hits home on a couple of grounds.

One is that the subject of the article, Vic Fazio, is someone I used to work for. Vic was my first employer after I graduated from college. Although I was always a lot more liberal than Vic, I respected his political savvy and ability to get things done. Since I didn't have to stand for election in a changing district, I could afford to take somewhat more extreme stands than he could. I learned an amazing amount about politics and government in the two years I worked on his staff.

And then it turns out that Sherry Greenberg, who wrote that piece, used to be the Executive Director of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, which is the organization I interned for one summer, and where I was volunteering when I got my job with Fazio. [Update for clarity: I worked there before, possibly long before, she did.]

Small world, this.

Wow

This is intense.

I must admit I've had some of the same feelings, of detachment, of knowing I should do more to stop the madness.

We all have a lot to answer for.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maybe It Was The Rum Punch

I'm still recovering from the party we threw last night. Might take a while.

For the last decade or so, my wife and I have been throwing Big Parties about once a year. It started as kind of a reunion of our high school speech team (which is where we met, originally), and has since grown and morphed into sort of an invite-everyone-we-know event. It's great fun, and usually produces a diverse and fun crowd.

In years past, we would hold the party between Christmas and New Year's, which originally facilitated attendance by out-of-town friends who came to the area to visit their families for the holidays. As the years have passed, fewer of them are coming home for that, and as everyone seems to have conflicts at that time of year, we decided to try something different this time.

So we've moved it out of the holiday season, which should mean fewer conflicts, and also moved it to a season that should provide better weather, allowing us to move some of the party outdoors onto the decks.

Great idea! So we set up kids' activities downstairs, using the big TV room and the lower deck, while most of the food and drink was upstairs in the kitchen, dining room, living room, and upper deck. The weather was reasonably cooperative, though we expected things to cool off as the evening advanced. But with the party starting at 4 pm, we figured on getting some goo use of the outdoors.

And it started off that way.

But just as dusk was approaching, I was standing inside chatting with some guests, when several of the adults came to get me, telling me I needed to check out the deck, because something bad was happening: the deck was moving. Moving?

So, I'm thinking there's a loose board, or maybe one has rotted a bit and is squishy to the step. Um, no. The middle of the deck appears to have dropped several inches. My mind immediately flashes to news stories from a few years back about an overloaded deck collapsing at a party, with several people killed. Luckily, my friends are very calm about things, despite their spouses and children being on (or under) the decks. We quickly get everyone on both levels indoors, and several of us go to check out what's happened.

From the ground outside, it is quite apparent what has gone wrong. One of the posts supporting the middle of the decks has rotted at the bottom, and is collapsing. That post has dropped about 4-6 inches, and the decks have dropped a bit there, too. It doesn't seem like things are in imminent danger of collapse, but it seems clear that we need to keep everyone off the decks for the rest of the evening.

Fortunately, the house is large enough to handle the entire crowd (nearly 140 people total, including about 40 kids). We had planned to have all the drinks in coolers outside, so my clever guests move the coolers right outside the doors, blocking exit, but enabling people to get their drinks. And my wise friend Todd sits me down and hands me a cup of rum punch (and another, and another...).

So, no harm, no foul. The guest list included two architects and an engineer, who all agreed that yes, there is significant damage, but it should be relatively easy to fix. So aside from the fact that I have to spend much of the rest of the night recounting why there are signs taped over all the deck doors that say "keep off the deck," all goes smoothly.

Now I'm looking forward to my Monday morning calling people to fix my deck. But at least I have some leftover rum punch to help me through it all.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Perspective

I live in Oakland, CA. It's a pretty nice place; at least, parts of it. I get e-mails from the neighborhood watch group, just because I think it's a good idea to know what my neighbors are thinking, seeing, etc.

Now, parts of Oakland are rough, riddled with gang violence, drug trafficking, drive-by shootings, and the sorts of things you find in the bad parts of just about any major city. This is not true of the area where I live. There is some crime here. You would expect that in an area where relatively affluent people live not too far from those in greater need: some burglaries, purse-snatchings, car thefts, etc. But to hear some of the neighbors talking, you'd think we lived in Baghdad or something. We don't. Even the worst parts of Oakland are nothing compared to a war zone.

And it strikes me that most people have no idea. No perspective. In part, I suppose that's because of the lack of actual news coverage of the current war. I am old enough to remember tuning in to the evening news, hearing Walter Cronkite intoning the day's death tool in Vietnam, accompanied by pictures of fighting and pictures of flag-draped coffins.

Here's Cronkite, in a 2002 interview, talking about the differences:
Since the Vietnam War, Cronkite said, the media has not been allowed to take its cameras, pencils and notepads into the field with the soldiers to give an accurate account of what is happening.

During World War II, reporters were in fox holes, and during the Vietnam War they were on the battlefields.

In many cases during WWII, the reports would have to go through intelligence officers all the way up the ladder to London, where top military censors decided if the information could be released. If security reasons prevented its release, the news was held until the threat passed. But information was not kept from the American public.

Cronkite said Americans may have thought they got the full story during Operation Desert Storm, but the media was denied much of the type of access it had been granted in the past.

"[In past conflicts], you wrote it to be the history," he said. "We have no history now of the Persian Gulf War. We have only what the military reporters wrote and thatÂ’s what their bosses told them. ThatÂ’s not good enough."
Of course, the U.S. government won't allow pictures of the coffins of today's returning dead. We get pictures of the aftermaths of car bombings: people combing through rubble or a shot of a burned-out vehicle, and it doesn't look that different from a domestic natural disaster, an industrial accident, or the remains of the .

But there is a difference, and it's real. This is manmade, done in the name of a government. And those who claim otherwise do a disservice to both those who serve and those for whom they fight. This column puts that in perspective:
Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

I don't know a single family here that hasn't had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there's been all-out fighting going on, I've interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.

Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.

War is hell. A much more hellish hell than the everyday life of even the worst-off among us here at home. Or maybe the Secretary of State has these problems wherever she travels in the U.S., too:
In a reflection of the deteriorating security situation here, Rice's plane was forced to circle Baghdad for almost an hour before landing because of a mortar attack near the airport.
This came after she had to leave her regular plane for something more secure:

Traveling from Israel on Thursday morning, Ms. Rice had to abandon her comfortable official jet at an American air base in Turkey and to board a C-17A cargo plane equipped with antimissile technology for the final, 90-minute leg into Baghdad; that procedure has become routine for all high-ranking Bush administration officials visiting Iraq.

From the airport in Baghdad, Ms. Rice flew by military helicopter to the heavily fortified American-controlled Green Zone, bypassing the dangerous, explosives-strewn airport highway into the city.

Things are great! Just like being at home. Oh, maybe she doesn't have to wear the flak jacket at home.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Had MORE THAN Enough, Thanks...

Simple and brilliant. I like this idea.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Baseball: Closing Day

*sigh*

Just spent the last weekend of the baseball (regular) season at the ballpark. Watching my team go down to ignominious defeat to their arch rivals. Three days in a row. Watching the other team celebrate making it to the playoffs, on our home turf. Watching my guys play with little or no enthusiasm, going through the motions, acting like they just want to go home for the winter.

There will be BIG changes on this team over the winter. Nearly half the team is eligible to be free agents, and my guess is that no more than three or four of those eleven guys will be coming back.

Mixed feelings. Despite being "in contention" until the last couple of weeks, this was NOT a good baseball team most of the year. It was pretty painful to watch at times, most especially the last few weeks as they fell out of contention for the postseason and just seemed to lose interest.

Much grumbling from the neighbors who sit near me. What the team does to reshape itself will likely determine whether some of them come back.

On the other hand, a couple that shares the seats to the right of mine came today with their two young daughters, decked out in full team colors. The older girl sat rapt much of the time (although a lot of that was looking for the mascot). The baby sat contentedly on laps, reminding me of how much I used to love bringing my baby daughter to the ballpark.

And there it was: It's not about the team on the field (although a fun, competitive team is certainly more fun to watch). It's about the family coming out to the park together, sharing the game, sharing the stories, remembering the good (and bad) times, eating the food, taking a break from reality, running around the bases after the game.

Is that worth buying season tickets? Maybe not. But it was nice to get that reminder that there is much more at work here than just winning an losing, and who's going to get paid how much next year.

For the next six months, I will miss the sunshine, the hotdogs, the little kids getting excited to see the weird guy in the big, fuzzy mascot suit, and the men running around playing a kids' game for a living.

Can't do much better than to quote Bart Giamatti on the subject:
It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.
April 3rd can't arrive too soon.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yet Another Political Scandal, with Ickiness

I really don't want to talk about the current scandal on Capitol Hill. It's gross and nasty, in ways that the everyday corruption and stupidity can't touch. But I actually have been a little closer to that scene than most people, and I haven't seen some of these issues raised.

Now, in case you've been living in a convent or simply being smart and not reading the news, there's trouble brewing because a Florida Congressman had some inappropriate contact with at least a couple of different Congressional pages. Many people are drawing analogies to the earlier scandal involving the previous president of the United States and a former White House intern, but those cases are quite different for a number of reasons.

Background on me, first:

I was an intern for two summers in D.C., on Capitol Hill. One of those summers I worked in an office in the building where the pages live. I later worked as a Congressional staffer, including two years working for a member of the House Ethics Committee who was also on the page board. I wasn't directly involved in those matters, but was aware of some of what it entailed.

So, now the point.

A number of sources I'm reading online contend that this is a partisan political issue, specifically that members of the leadership of the majority party may have tried to cover up this scandal to protect the interests of their party. Given that they had knowledge of the matter, withheld that from the one page board member from the minority party, and held onto the information for nearly a year, the notion of coverup is a fairly obvious conclusion. It seems apparent that these actions were politically motivated.

From my perspective that is not only perverted, but also an enormous change in how the House deals with issues regarding its pages.

Pages vs. Interns

A lot of people learned a little bit about interns a few years back during a couple of other scandals, one involving the White House and the other the Congress. People have this notion that young people run off to Washington to work or play or entertain the elected officials or something, but they don't have much clue as to what really goes on.

Interns are generally college students, sometimes recent college graduates. They generally work for free or a small stipend, but for most purposes, they are volunteers. Thousands of these folks descend on Washington throughout the year, but mostly in the summer. As the most junior (and generally very temporary) members of staffs, they are usually assigned to entry-level work, such as opening and answering mail, doing research, and so on. Some get school credit, either for the internship itself or for academic work done along with or in conjunction with their internship. And internships are often in private offices, such as lobbying groups, non-profits, think tanks, and law firms, as well as governmental offices of all sorts.

For purposes of this discussion, I will discuss only Congressional interns.

Pages are something else, altogether. Each house of Congress has a program for pages. Pages are high school students, in their junior years. They commit to spending an entire academic semester or two working as a page, during which time they also attend the page school full time. The job of a page is basically to be helpful to the operations of Congress in exchange for the opportunity to learn about the legislative process up close. In practice, that means messenger work, picking up letters or packages from one office and delivering them to another. A number of pages are generally assigned to the chambers when Congress is in session, to facilitate communication among Members and their offices and committees.

Pages are sponsored by the Members of Congress who represent their homes. Not every district has a page; I don't know that they can have more than one at a time. While participating in the page program, the pages live in a page dorm, which is a secure, chaperoned facility.

So, the short summary of the differences are 1) age: college vs. high school, 2) status: temporary staff vs. sponsored helpers.

The life of an intern is, as you might expect, the life of a college student away from both home and school for a prolonged period. The life of a page is more like that of a kid at boarding school, but with less free time.

In my experience, both interns and pages are very important to the running of Congress. Interns are basically free (or very cheap) labor. They do a lot of the same kinds of things that full-time staff do, but because of the short-term commitment, they have less expertise and less depth. But they are well-integrated parts of the Congressional staff. They report to the office every day, work with the same staffers a lot, and often socialize with the younger staff (who are often not far removed from being college students and/or interns themselves).

Pages, on the other hand, have very little substantive contact with Members or their staffs. They are mostly pretty anonymous; when you call for a page to deliver something, you never know which one will show up, and they are usually only present for a moment or two. The office that sponsors a page might have a little more contact, but nothing as extensive as with an intern.

Members of Congress take very seriously their duty to protect pages. When a Member sponsors a page, that Member takes a degree of personal responsibility for this child of one of their constituents. Many Members have children of their own (some of whom serve as summer pages, in fact). They are keenly aware that these are kids, that they are in the care of Congress in general and of their sponsor in particular. No one wants anything bad to happen to a page. I think it is worth noting that when the harassment originally started, it was the parents of the page who reported it to the sponsoring Congressman, and he took that complaint to the House leadership.

I'm not clear that the Congressman did the proper thing here. I can't see why he went to the political leadership, rather than to the board that oversees the page program or the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (Sadly, the "ethics committee" doesn't actually do anything much anymore, but an allegation of a Member harassing a page would certainly fall under their jurisdiction.), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So back in the early 1980s, there was an enormous scandal involving two male Members of the House (one from each party), each with a different page (one male, the other female). Both Members were censured by the House in the summer of 1983 (when I was working as an intern!); one was defeated for re-election the following year; the other served at least five more terms before retiring.

As a result of this tumult, the House put a bit more structure into its long-standing page program. The two most important bits were the creation of a Page Board to oversee the program, and the establishment of the page dorm.

As it turns out, the Congressman I worked for (after my internships) was a member of (and if I recall correctly, chairman of) the Page Board. The board consists of three Members of Congress, the Clerk of the House (basically the administrative head of the House) and the House Sergeant at Arms (the head of security). Its purpose was to make sure there was institutional control over the page program, coordinating the sponsoring Members with the officers of the House.

The page dorm was created to have a single, nearby, secure facility where all the pages would live, providing them with safe surroundings and also removing the need for them to leave the Capitol area. Their home was across the street from the House office buildings.

As it turns out, I worked an internship in the building that contained the page dorm in the summer of 1984, so I know what it was like. It was a converted old hotel. A couple of floors had been dedicated to the page dorm, and the rest was turned into offices. To enter the building at all, one had to pass through a metal detector and show identification to a member of the Capitol Police. After working hours, the building was locked, and one had to be admitted by the Capitol Police. Pages may have had keys, but I rather doubt it.

Access to the page dorm floors was by special card keys. I passed those floors on the way up the stairs to my office. The doors were closed and secured; their access system was different from the rest of the building (my office's floor had an unlocked door to the stairwell, and the office had a regular key lock).

What I'm trying to get across is that even twenty years ago, the House had taken substantial measures to protect pages from outside influences. However, the job of a page requires some contact with Members of Congress. There are areas of the House chamber where pages are designated to stand and wait for requests from Members to take messages or letters. It makes sense that there will be some friendly chats. (I don't know if you've ever been around a Member of Congress, but it is virtually impossible for them to pass by someone without saying hello and shaking hands. It's just the way they work.) They are gregarious people, for the most part, and I believe they sincerely want to make the pages feel welcome. As noted earlier, many of them have children of their own, and realize that these kids who are away from home for a semester or two might need a little friendly contact.

But it appears that now and then, some of these adults violate the trust placed in them, and turn from friendly hosts to harassers or exploiters. And based on my experience back then, no Member felt it was acceptable for another Member to have relations with a page (with the notable exception of one of those censured in 1983, who claimed it was a consensual, adult relationship that had broken no laws). The sponsorship of the student/page, the custodial duties, the trust placed by the parents, the unequal stature of the participants all dictate that such a relationship is inappropriate and unacceptable.

I listened to the censure debate in 1983. It wasn't really a debate. It was more of an affirmation by the House of its custodial responsibilities and a repudiation of the actions of the Members who had transgressed those duties. I cannot recall a single person standing up to defend the actions of the accused Members, but at the same time, I cannot recall any aspect of partisanship or politics entering into it. No one thought to exploit the issue for partisan gain (although it probably helped that there was someone from each party accused).

For members today to have acted as it appears they have, to have stymied investigation into allegations, to have enabled the accused Member to not only stay in office, but to continue to have contact with pages, is inexcusable. To have sacrificed the interests of children placed in their care for political gain is reprehensible.

Maybe my views on this have hardened now that I have a child of my own. A week ago, had someone asked me whether I thought it was OK or "safe" to have their child serve as a page, I would have unhesitatingly said yes, believing that the program was designed to protect those in it. I hope Congress can do something to restore that trust. The page program is a great way for kids to learn, firsthand, what our legislative branch is about. Unfortunately, I fear the current batch of interns is learning all too well whose interests are being looked out for on Capitol Hill.

Attitude is Everything

Sorry for disappearing. Business, you know?

Anyway, I started to write a post from the road last week, when some website in another window just demolished Firefox, and I lost it all. So I decided to go to sleep instead.

Last week's business adventure took me to New York City. This is notable because it was, remarkably, my first actual visit to The Big Apple. And much to my surprise, I liked it!

To be completely fair, I had been in NYC once before, long ago. One summer during college, I drove from San Francisco to Washington, DC, for an internship, and one of the guys who drove with me lived in New York City, so we went through there and dropped him off. He was kind enough to let us shower in his apartment (which we badly needed, after three days of driving across country in June with no air conditioning). We parked the car across from his Greenwich Village apartment next to a huge pile of garbage (there was a garbage strike going on...it was hot...I leave the details to your imagination). Had a quick bite to eat in a cafe, then headed off into the teeth of rush hour to try to find our way to D.C.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, "What the hell were you thinking, DRIVING in New York City, at rush hour, without a clue as to where you are or where you are going?" Chalk it up to youthful naivete or something. Needless to say, the experience was not a pleasant one. I got honked at. A lot. A lot of people pointed me in various directions with other than their index fingers. I heard some colorful language. And eventually, I found a tunnel off the island, back onto the highway, and south toward D.C. (via the New Jersey Turnpike).

So for years I've had this notion that I don't like NYC, don't want to go there, etc. And along comes this assignment to go to a meeting in New York last week. OK, I'm a big boy now; I can handle this. I hedged my bets by booking the same flight with my boss so we could share a cab into the city. Then of course, his schedule changed, and I was on my own, arriving at JFK airport after midnight, knowing only the name and address of my hotel.

And it turned out just fine. Had a pleasant ride, chatted with the cabbie. Arrived at the hotel without incident. Met a coworker the next morning who knows the town, and he led me around midtown for several hours before our meeting. And it was really fun. It helps that the weather was gorgeous: sunny and warm, but neither muggy nor hot. Just great. Saw all kinds of stuff, like Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Deli, Grand Central Terminal, the public library, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, lots of theaters.

So I guess one lesson I can take from all this is that your attitude is very important in how you perceive things. If you expect to hate something, you probably won't like it. [Why do I feel like I've had this discussion with my daughter about foods?] So even though I have said these words often, I found that by keeping my mind open, I had a great time. Good to put that into practice.

I won't go so far as to say I love New York, but I am actually eager to go back and see some shows and try some things out. Another place to explore: yay!