I got phone polled on politics!
A couple weeks ago (the weekend when I was sick and moving house, actually) I got a call froma strange number and it was the voice of a little old lady from some research firm doing a telephone poll on a potential California ballot proposition.
My first instinct was to hang up, but then I thought, "Let's stick around and find out what this process is actually like. Who knows, maybe this poll will end up on FiveThirtyEight or something." So I answered her stupid questions politely.
She started with a bunch of generic questions to determine my political affiliation; they were all multiple choice and I kept wanting to answer "None of the above!". Like, who am I going to support for CA governor in 2010? How should I know? We don't even know who's going to be on the ballot in the primaries, let alone the general. Stupid question. (I didn't blame her for the stupid questions; she didn't write the script, she just had a crappy job.)
She also asked how many hours a week I watch local TV news. I said "Zero". She thought I didn't understand the question and started asking it again. I had to interrupt and say "No, I really did mean zero. I have never watched the local TV news at all." I guess for her generation, getting all your news from the Internet is still pretty weird.
Then we got to the real questions, about the potential ballot initiative. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of the really boring ones; it was something about not being able to tax hospitals unless the money was then earmarked for handicapped kids or something.
One of those things which sounds great at first glance, until I started thinking: aren't most hospitals tax-exempt already? And even if they weren't, wouldn't they be taxed like corporations - on profits, not income? And isn't CA in the middle of a horrible budget crisis that will pretty much leave us with no choice but to raise taxes in all sorts of places that we'd rather not? What's really going on here? Is this going to be part of a wave of special interests trying to preemptively protect themselves from shouldering any part of the inevitable tax burden?
That's the point where I realize that I don't know enough to make any kind of intelligent decision about this proposition; to be perfectly honest if I read it on a real ballot, I would probably skim the Pro and Con arguments, get confused, and leave it blank.
I tried to tell the pollster lady that, but she had a script to follow. She went over the wording of the proposition, and the pro and con arguments, clause by frickin' clause, and asking me to rate my reaction to each clause. Seriously! I guess that's the kind of nonsensical focus-group analysis that these advocacy groups use to decide the wording of things they put on ballots. Stupid.
I kept trying to tell her that my opinion could not be traced to any particular clause, that each was literally meaningless without the others, and that I wouldn't vote on this thing at all without doing more research. She was sympathetic but still she had a job to do and couldn't end the call until I had given an answer to each question. By the end I had gone from neutrality to having a strong desire to vote against the stupid proposition because the process was so braindead.
Anyway, the whole experience made me doubt how much any poll you read reflects the actual views of the people in question, as opposed to reflecting how questions were worded and what sort of people are masochistic enough to not just instantly hang up on pollsters.
This lizard showed up in our apartment one day. It was I guess around 8-10 cm long, and flat enough that it probably strolled right through the crack under our front door without a problem.
I tried to catch it, but it was too fast for me, and kept darting between corners of the bathroom until I gave up. This isn't a very good photo but its the best I could get.
I never saw the lizard after that, so I don't know what happened to it. I hope it eventually got back outside.
Yosemite (with massive pictures!)
Although I was coming down with a cold, we decided to go ahead with the Yosemite trip anyway. I'm so glad we did!
Yosemite is the closest national park to us, only about 4 hours drive away. It's doable to drive there, camp, and drive back on a regular 2-day weekend. We ought to take advantage of this! I hope we will visit frequently, since there's so much to do there (and many of the coolest trails are closed in March, beyond my ability to hike when I'm sniffly, or both).
Pictures are thumbnails, click for large versions. Some of them are VERY large.
As we drove up into the Sierra Nevada, we saw more and more snow patches that had lasted into late March.
Of course Sushu had to get out and poke them.
Later we would go hiking on trails that were still covered in many feet of snow, even though the air was warm.
Large regions of recently-burned forest have a kind of desolate beauty of their own.
The California mountains are a tinder box in the dry season. Park rangers used to try to put out naturally-ocurring fires in the Yosemite region, until they found out that the giant sequoia depends on forest fires for its reproductive cycle; like some sci-fi creature with Bizzare Alien Biology, its pine cones can't sprout unless they've been burned first. So in trying to conserve them, we were actually driving them to extinction.
Now they pretty much let forest fires burn unless they're getting too close to somebody's house.
No, this isn't Yosemite Valley yet. I'm building up to it. This is pretty but it's nothing compared to Yosemite Valley.
Jeremy goofing around on a log.
He was excited to discover that the bag of potato chips from the Safeway in Mountain View, near sea level, had puffed up like a baloon as we gained altitude and the outside air pressure dropped.
Since I didn't want to chance camping out when I was already sick, we stayed in this here hotel in the tiny town of El Portal. Not a bad view from the balcony, eh? It was relatively cheap since few tourists go to Yosemite in March, and it's a good thing we stayed inside because it was something like 35 degrees farenheit at night that weekend.
Welcome to Yosemite
At the southwestern gate to the park, you drive through this natural rock tunnel. Pretty cool.
And then you get into Yosemite Valley proper and you start seeing things...
The famed El Capitan. (Remember in Star Trek V when Kirk was climbing it and fell and Spock had to catch him with the rocket boots? Man that movie was so dumb.)
Half Dome, maybe the most famous hunk of rock in the whole Sierra Nevada. Gamers who know their dead adventure game companies may know it from the Sierra logo.
OK, enough teasers. You ready for the real "HOLY SHIT NATURE!" pictures? Here we go. Here comes the view which has earned Yosemite the reputation as being one of the most beautiful spots on the entire planet:
BAM! This is called the "Tunnel View" since you see it right as you exit the tunnel on the west end of Yosemite Valley.
That's El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the back, and Bridal Veil falls underneath Cathedral Rock on the right. The Tunnel View is the only place you'll see all three of them lined up like this.
This is what I imagined Middle-Earth looking like.
I think this might be my new desktop background.
Some people (like John Muir) take one look at this view and fall in love with Yosemite so hard that they never want to leave, and devote the rest of their lives to exploring and protecting it.
This is a large scale model from more or less the same viewpoint as above. Can you match up the landmarks?
Yosemite Valley happened because, in the Ice Age, glaciers scoured their way down the valley of the Merced River, leaving it with steep walls of bare rock. After the glaciers melted, the debris left behind blocked the river's way out, so the whole valley floor became a lake. Eventually the lake filled with sediment and then dried up as the river found its current course. This left the valley with the distinctive vertical sides and flat bottom that give us such dramatic vistas.
Bridal Veil Falls
Not to be confused with Bridal Falls City, for you Dogs out there.
Bridal Veil Falls, visible from the tunnel as a trickle of water, looks like this from close up.
The sun was setting behind us, making this perfect rainbow in the spray and mist from the bottom of the falls.
On second thought, maybe this should be my new desktop background.
Seen Around the Park
Well then. I guess it must be risky to be here during the season when the snow melts.
...Wait a minute, isn't that the season we're in? Uh-oh.
Cower before the MIGHTY MONARCH!!!
Ravens always look like they're up to something sinister.
The last rays of the sun linger on the tops of the cliffs while the valley below is already darkening. The ever-changing quality of the light in Yosemite Valley is one of the reasons so many photographers and painters love this place to death.
Bridal Veil falls isn't the only humongous waterfall in Yosemite. It's not even the biggest.
At well over 4,000 feet from top to bottom, Yosemite Falls is the tallest waterfall in North America and 5th tallest in the world.
To give you a better idea of scale, the whole waterfall in this photo is just the lowest segment of the waterfall in the first photo.
There's a trail you can hike to get all the way to the top of the upper waterfall, but it's a difficult all-day hike. Next time, when I'm feeling better, I would love to attempt it.
We did take a couple of shorter, but still intersting, hikes on the second day...
Up one the tributary valleys, following the Merced river upstream, you come to a lovely spot called Mirror Lake.
I'm trying something new here: I stitched together a bunch of pictures of Mirror Lake into a panorama, to try to give you a better idea of what it's like being there. The pictures didn't line up perfectly but it still came out better than I expected.
(The full picture is 35 megabytes, so don't click unless you've got some bandwidth to kill.)
This is a close-up of part of the rapids upstream from Mirror Lake. I love how smooth that chunk of water looks, even though it's in constant motion.
We took another hike that afternoon, up a different tributary valley, to get to Vernal Falls (yes, more waterfalls!). If we had kept going up, we would have eventually gotten to Nevada Falls. This chain of waterfalls is called the Grand Staircase.
Here's us on the bridge over the river just below Vernal Falls.
And now for some more giant panoramas...
From one side of the bridge.
From the other side of the bridge.
Think about what they must have had to do to build this bridge! Can you imagine hauling all the materials up here into the mountains, and then climbing across that raging torrent and pouring concrete? The mind boggles.
Anybody know what kind of bird this is? This was a hard picture to take -- the bird kept flying around and I kept missing, but I finally got it.
Beyond the valley...
The Yosemite Valley, big as it is, is just a tiny fraction of the whole park. The park encompasses a huge chunk of the Sierra Nevada mountains, including several giant sequoia groves and a whole separate river system further north.
On the third day, after checking out of our hotel, we went on a hike through the snow to see the Tuolumne giant sequoia grove.
To give you an idea of how deep the snow was, we found some boards on the ground at our feet, mostly covered with snow... and brushing them off, discovered that they were the tops of picnic tables.
Unfortunately my camera had run out of batteries by this point, but you can see some pictures of the sequoia grove in Sushu's photo set.
Why I support marijuana legalization, and why you should vote Yes on Proposition 19
California has a proposition on the ballot this year, Proposition 19, to legalize marijuana.
I voted Yes. Hell, yes!
Not because I smoke the stuff, understand, or have ever had or ever will have any desire to smoke it. In fact, if it is legalized, as I hope it will be, I will be the first to encourage people not to smoke it. It's no worse for you than tobacco or alcohol, but those are still bad for you and so is marijuana. Don't toke up, kids.
So let me explain. I support legalization because I don't think everything that's bad for you needs to be illegal.
Alcohol is bad for you. Back in the 1920s, we tried a "noble experiment" of prohibiting it. What happened? People kept drinking it, of course, but it went underground. This led to consumption of unsafe bathtub gin containing poisonous wood alcohol; the domination of entire cities by gangsters funded by illicit alcohol sales; violent shootouts between said gangs; corruption of the police; mistrust between the police and the people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens but just wanted a drink now and then; etc. Prohibition was such a clear failure as policy that we passed a constitutional amendment to repeal it. The parallels to current drug policy are pretty clear.
Some people want to do drugs; they'll do drugs even if they're illegal; treating this consensual, if unhealthy, activity as a "crime" means empowering the police to be ever more invasive into our lives in order to search for the dreaded plants. The absurdity of the government, in a free country, telling adults what chemicals they are and are not allowed to put in their own bodies, and then throwing them in jail for consuming the wrong chemicals (as opposed to, say, sending them to a hospital to get treatment for addiction, that might actually help them) has led to a disturbingly high incidence of armed SWAT teams bursting in on people without search warrants. Whenever the USA declares war on an abstract concept - drugs, terrorism, DVD piracy -- our civil liberties lose out.
Aside from the civil liberties argument, there's the budget argument. California is broke; enforcing prohibition and keeping all those pot-smokers in jail is expensive. We'll save a ton of money, and go a long way to fixing prison overcrowding, by simply ending prohibition. If we manage to start taxing a newly above-ground marijuana industry, that's even better.
But even if we don't make any tax money off of it, it would still be a good idea to end prohibition. We'd free up police resources to go after real crimes - violent crimes, crimes with victims, rather than "crimes" that are merely voluntary vices.
Another good reason is to make it harder for teenagers to buy marijuana. Yes, that's right, harder. Sounds paradoxical? The thing is, it's already really really easy for teenagers to buy marijuana. Studies like this teen survey from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have shown that it's easier for teenagers to buy marijuana than beer!
Nearly one-quarter of teens (5.7 million) say they can get marijuana in an hour; four out of ten teens (10 million) can get marijuana within a day.
Legalization could actually make it harder for these teenagers to get drugs. Think of it this way - sellers of alcohol and tobacco card hard, i.e. they require photo ID with proof of age, because they can get into all sorts of serious legal trouble for selling to minors. Drug dealers are already in serious legal trouble for selling drugs at all, so what incentive do they have for carding people? They'll sell to anybody with money. But if marijuana was sold at legitimate, legal businesses, with reputations and operating licenses to protect, then those businesses would operate similar to how alcohol and tobacco sellers do today. Teenagers will still find ways to sneak it, of course; but if you think the current laws are preventing teenagers from sneaking it, you're in denial.
When teenagers can buy marijuana more easily than beer, it's time to admit that prohibition has failed. We fought the drug war; we lost. It's time to bring our laws into alignment with reality. Prop. 19 is the best chance I've seen so far in my lifetime to start doing that.
I should address that there's this weird thing going on with the Obama administration. Apparently Attorney General Eric Holder has said that he will "vigorously enforce" federal marijuana laws even if Prop. 19 passes. People are trying to figure out what he means by this. Is he saying that Californians do not have the right to decide what their own laws should be? Is he saying that he will send federal agents into California to round up pot smokers and try them - where, exactly? Under what constitutional authority? Alcohol prohibition required a national constitutional amendment; why does anyone think the feds could override California's state laws without a similar amendment?
Yes, there's the commerce clause - Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce... among the several States. Which by any sane reading should not apply to somebody growing herbs in California and selling them to other people in California. But apparently the Supreme Court has been interpreting that clause to mean whatever the hell it feels like, lately.
So who knows what will happen between CA and the feds if 19 passes. I think the administration's position on this is wrong, counterproductive, and nonsensical, but will they act on it? Somehow I suspect they're just posturing, and they'll have way more important things to focus on after Nov. 2 than provoking a big ugly showdown with California. The LA Times considered the possibility of said big ugly showdown a reason to vote against Prop 19, but personally I would kind of welcome it if we could actually have this argument and hash out these issues publically.
Aside from the whole Attorney General thing, the counterarguments to prop 19 keep shifting. Shifting the way they do when people are invested in the idea of the status quo and are flailing about looking for logical reasons to keep supporting it. The latest one I've heard is "Oh no, people will be driving stoned and cause traffic accidents". (You may have seen this as a banner ad on the web.) I'm glad to see that they are turning to more somewhat more reality-based arguments instead of "Reefer madness!" type arguments, which seem to have lost their power to scare. However, the "Oh no stoned drivers' argument, like most arguments for continuing the drug war, it ignores two very obvious facts:
- Pretty much anybody who wants to smoke weed is already smoking it. It's not like we're suddenly introducing a new intoxicant out of nowhere.
- Legalization doesn't mean "legalizing in every imaginable context". We have eminently reasonable laws against driving drunk, and against selling alcohol to kids; the common-sense thing to do is apply those same laws to marijuana: it should still be illegal to drive stoned and it should still be illegal to sell to minors.
Notably, the language of Prop. 19 allows for both of these exceptions, as it should.
Maintains existing laws against selling drugs to a minor and driving under the influence.
Maintains an employer's right to address consumption of cannabis that affects an employee's job performance.
So arguing that Prop. 19 is going to lead to a rash of stoned drivers is just disingenuous. So is the argument that it's going to lead to people being stoned on the street -- the proposition specifically allows use of "cannabis in a non-public place such as a residence or a public establishment licensed for on site marijuana consumption".
There are also strict penalties for selling marijuana to anyone under 21. And the proposition allows individual counties to opt in or opt out of allowing commercial sale within their borders, the same way that there are "dry" (i.e. no-alcohol) counties in various states.
In other words, Prop. 19 treats marijuana the same way we already treat alcohol, which is the only reasonable thing to do because the effects of marijuana are very similar to those of alcohol. Except that stoned people start fewer fistfights than drunk people.
Support Prop. 19 not just because it's a legalization measure, but because it's a really well thought-out and written legalization measure.
How I voted on all the California propositions and why
I voted by mail yesterday.
I basically didn't like any of the candidates for statewide races. They are lame and I don't even want to talk about them. I considered voting third party but since a lot of the polling has been pretty close I ended up reverting to "lesser of two evils" mode.
But enough about that. Let's talk about the half of the ballot I was actually excited to fill in. There are nine statewide propositions on the California ballot this year and some of them are issues I care about quite a lot.
- Prop 19: Marijuana legalization
- Prop 20: Anti-gerrymandering
- Prop 21: Charge car owners, use money to keep state parks open
- Prop 22: State can't appropriate local money
- Prop 23: Neuters air pollution control law
- Prop 24: Closes tax loopholes
- Prop 25: Pass laws with simple majority instead of 2/3 majority
- Prop 26: Require 2/3 majority for environmental fees/regulations
- Prop 27: Anti-anti-gerrymandering
The rest of this post explains how I voted and the reasoning behind my choices. If you can vote in California, please read this, and please don't forget to vote on Tuesday!
California, the ungovernable state, the state of perpetual budget crisis, the state of the ever-changing constitution. The state where it takes a 2/3 majority of the legislature to pass a budget, but only a simple majority of voters to modify the state constitution, overriding anything the legislature could do anyway. The predictable result is that we never have a functional budget, and we have a legal regime that lurches drunkenly about at the whims of an electorate asked to vote on an endless series of arcane and poorly-worded technical changes that it barely understands.
Well, at least this year there's a proposition for changing one of those things! (facepalm).
Yes on Prop 19 - Marijuana Legalization, for reasons I've already explained in great detail.
Yes on 20 and No on 27 - the redistricting propositions
These two propositions are so closely related - both have to do with redistricting - that it doesn't make sense to discuss them separately.
Redistricting is a hot topic right now because the 2010 census results are going to be used to redraw all the voting districts in California.
California is one of the most badly gerrymandered states, both for USA congressional districts and for state legislature districts. (I live in a district that doesn't include the next town over but does include random neighborhoods on the opposite side of a mountain range from us.) We have very few competitive elections; incumbents pick their voters to ensure their own safety. This is a big part of why nobody feels Sacramento is accountable.
In the last election we passed a ballot measure that established an independent body of 14 people to draw the district lines around areas of equal population, based on a set of criteria like compactness and preservation of community boundaries, for all the state legislative districts.
Prop 20 would expand the powers of this group to also draw the lines for USA congressional districts as well as state legislature districts. Prop 27, nearly the opposite, would undo the previous measure, disband the group, and give the line-drawing authority to the state legislature.
The Democratic campaign propaganda I got, if it took any position on propositions, was uniformly for 27 and against 20. This was where I had my biggest differences with them. California Democrats benefit a lot from uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts. So of course Democrats want preserve the status quo. The Republican campaign propaganda I got was also for 27 and against 20. Both parties benefit from having safe districts they don't have to compete for. But why should we let them?
I'm pretty sure Prop 27 is a bad idea. It would undo a reform before we have a chance to see whether the reform works or not. Maybe the independent body won't do a great job of creating competitive districts with non-joke boundaries, but it could hardly do a worse job, and I think it's worth giving it a shot. Besides, letting the legislature draw the boundaries for their own districts, as prop 27 would allow, is a pretty clear conflict of interest and a great way to let incumbents protect themselves from voters.
All of the "Yes on 27" arguments that I've gotten (they show up in my mailbox constantly) are very, very disingenuous. They don't spell out what the proposition actually does, because they know it would be a hard sell if they said "We want to let politicians keep drawing their own districts so they can be the ones deciding who will get to vote for them!" Instead the propoganda usually say "Stop wating our money on nonsense!". If you read further, the Prop. 27 supporters refer to the redistricting body as an "unelected bureaucracy", which sure sounds bad, and warns about the cost. But let's be clear: this is a bureaucracy of 14 people who would meet to do a single job once every 10 years. It's not a huge expansion of state government by any means. It's also funny how the yes on 27 website says the voters "grudgingly passed X by a bare 51-49 margin", as if to say "You voted for redistricting commission last time but you didn't really mean to, right?"
So I was very much opposed to 27, but somewhat undecided on 20. Maybe we should just try out the redistricting panel on the state legislature districts before we apply it to U.S. congress districts. I wiffled and waffled and eventually voted for it.
But after reading this article I kind of wished I hadn't. That article points out that buried in the language of prop 20 is a clause that requires a district to include areas with "similar living standards" and "similar work opportunities" which could be interpreted to actually force segregation by income level. That's a pretty bad idea.
Hm. Maybe I should have voted "no" on both 20 and 27. It's too late for me but it's not too late for you!
Yes on Prop 21: Increase car registration fee by $18, use the money to pay for keeping state parks open.
I voted yes for entirely selfish reasons: I love state parks and nature preserves, and I don't own a car. But if I did, I'd be happy to pay $18 to keep protecting awesome California nature spots like Muir Woods and the Big Sur. I think our state parks do important work for species conservation, for allowing scientists to study what unspoiled west-coast ecosystems were like, etc. And I don't see how we're going to keep them open without this funding.
On the other hand I do feel pretty selfish for voting in favor of a tax I'm not likely to have to pay myself. Hmm.
No on Prop. 22: Make it so the state can't raid money raised at the local level
I was waffling on this one, since I can see both sides, but Boriss gave me a link to this San Francisco Chronicle article, arguing for a No vote, which I found convincing enough. It's much the same logic as Yes on 25 - we're in a state budget crisis, we want our legislature to be able to pass balanced budgets on time, so we shouldn't be putting arbitrary restrictions on them, certainly not at a constitutional level, anyway.
No on Prop. 23: Suspends enforcement of air pollution law until unemployment decreases to a certain target
Specifically, Prop. 23 would suspend AB 32 (passed in 2006, set to take effect in 2012) until unemployment is down to 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.
OK, so I understand what supporters of prop 23 are trying to say -- "let's get jobs back before passing any environmental laws that might prevent factories from opening" -- but I don't agree with it and I don't like the implementation.
Tying it to a specific unemployment number is really arbitrary. (If we go down this road, what else are we going to make laws contingent on? Dow Jones? Sunspots? Superbowl scores?) And the target they chose is wildly optimistic. There have only been 3 times since 1976 that unemployment was down to 5.5% for an entire year. So it's not like prop 23's trigger is some kind of return-to-the-baseline-condition. It's an "only when the stars align" kind of condition.
Laws against air pollution are important. Air pollution kills! More people - over 3,800 - died from respiratory illness caused by particulate pollution in southern California in 2006 than died from car crashes.
I don't see pollution controls as some kind of odious governmental overreach nor do I see them as a "bonus law" that we should get to have only when "all the basics are taken care of". Pollution controls are an essential part of having a civilized society. We wouldn't be a civilized society if random people were allowed to steal my property, kick me in the face, or put poison in my breakfast cereal with impunity. Why should they be allowed to degrade the air I'm breathing?
In other words, I'm saying that unlike adult marijuana prohibition, I believe the state does in fact have a legitimate interest in preventing people from polluting each others' air. Let me say it again: Air pollution kills!
To let polluters go free essentially means that society is subsidizing the dirtiest possible business models, by letting the business reap all the benefits while spreading the cost across all the people who breathe air. I see it as a more level playing field for competition if the polluter has to pay for the effects of their pollution - with the pollution properly priced into the cost of running any industrial process, less polluting business models have a chance to compete and the market can determine the optimal balance.
Yes on Prop. 24: Close tax loopholes
Specifically, prop 24 closes a loophole that allows companies to use a loss in one year to write down their profits in a following year or a preceding year in order to pay less taxes. That's right, companies in California are allowed to retroactively reduce their taxes by making past years less profitable on paper than they really were.
That sounded really, really fishy to me. So I voted Yes on 24.
I'm starting to vaguely regret this vote, because it's another example of ballot-box budgeting, which I'm generally against. And because I don't have a lot of confidence in my own ability to evaluate corporate tax policy at more than a knee-jerk level. I keep imagining that some fairy accountant will appear and explain to me the reasons why retroactively writing down your profits is actually a completely legit and necessary part of doing business and that I've screwed us out of job creation for no reason.
Argh, too late, I voted Yes already.
Yes on 25 and No on 26 - the legislative majority propositions
The California legislature currently requires a 2/3 majority to pass a budget or to raise taxes. (The only state in the country to require such a large supermajority for both of these things.)
California may be a "blue" state, but it has enough conservative rural areas that neither party is realistically able to achieve a 2/3 majority in the legislature.
That explains why, since 1980, the Legislature has met its June 15 constitutional deadline for sending a budget to the Governor five times. Five times out of 30, did you know that? The other 25 times it's been late because of gridlock.
Prop. 25 would make it a simple majority requirement, instead of a 2/3 supermajority, to pass a budget (but still a 2/3 supermajority to raise taxes).
Prop. 26, a near opposite, would impose a 2/3 supermajority requirement for the legislature to do even more things, namely to impose environmental regulations and fees.
I'm for 25 and against 26 because I think the 2/3 requirement for CA to pass a budget is a pretty silly state of affairs. I mean, why 2/3? A simple majority is the default way of doing things in democratic systems. As far as I'm concerned, the burden of proof is on supporters of the 2/3 majority requirement to explain why it's a good thing. And the last 30 years of budget deadlock pretty clearly refutes the idea that it's working.
CA's budget situation is a huge mess, and we're asking our elected representatives to fix it with one hand tied behind their backs.
Basically I just don't think the supermajority requirement leads to better legislation in the US Senate and I especially don't think it leads to better budgets in California. It just leads to gridlock and forces the state to operate without a legally approved budget for months at a time. It means that the budget we end up with has a wider base of support in some sense, but in practice that probably means more counterproductive compromises and special interest giveaways had to be made to get those last few votes that were needed for 2/3. I mean, it's not like we're talking about votes to go to war here, or to take rights away from people, or other drastic decisions that I could see putting a higher threshold on. We're talking about budgets that have to be passed every year, one way or another. So it's hard to see the 2/3 requirement helps anybody.
I understand the purpose, of course - they're trying to force the legislature to cut spending instead of raising taxes. How's that worked out for us so far? Not very well, I think.
The typical arguments against going to simple majority voting, as made by the piles of propaganda pamphlets that have been showing up in my mailbox, are that it would make it easier to raise taxes and spending.
But, um, wouldn't simple majority voting also make it easier to lower taxes and spending? It would make it easier to do anything, good or bad. If you want lower taxes and spending, shouldn't you, um, elect politicians who are for lower taxes and spending, rather than hobbling the legislature or holding the budget process hostage or trying to run the budget from the ballot box?
I mean we all love to hate on politicians but we live in a system where we elect people (and pay them) to do a certain job, in this case passing budgets. Why not let them do their job? (And then vote them out if we don't like how they do it?)
Heck, imagine if prop 25 passed AND the redistricting thing turns out to be effective. A simple majority voting requirement combined with competitive districts? That would be almost like representative democracy or something.
2 years with Sushu
Last Sunday was the two-year anniversary of our wedding.
Now if TV commercials and sitcoms have taught me anything it's that men are thoughtless slobs who forget anniversaries, and women are matrimony-obsessed harpies who crush mens' balls for forgetting anniversaries.
My actual real-life marriage once again fails to live down to pop-culturally mandated expectations. I was like "Hey our anniversary is coming up" and Sushu was like "Yeah I guess, why, do you want to do something special?"
It was also the second weekend in a row of attending wedding receptions and getting seated at the "miscellaneous people the couple barely know" table. It's like June is some kind of wedding season or something, right?
The first one was the wedding reception for my Moz Labs coworker Ed and his new wife Sue-ting; the second was for Sushu's high-school friend Mary and her new husband John. The former was OK since I knew a few people there, but the second was three hours of nearly unbearable social awkwardness that made me want to crawl under the table and hide.
Amusingly, both receptions were at Chinese seafood restaurants and the banquet menus were nearly identical. First the plate of seaweed/jellyfish/baby octopus/roast pork appetizers, then the plate of deep-fried shrimp paste balls with crab claws inside, then the egg-drop soup, the mushroom and bok choy stir-fry, the fried rice, the steamed fish, and finally the lobster at the end. It's like both restaurants were following the exact same master plan.
So anyway I was really glad to be done with the boring wedding party and I wanted to spend a nice Sunday with Sushu.
For breakfast I made some crepes and we filled them with some of this amazing peach jam that Sushu's mom made from the peach tree in her backyard.
I played a little Minecraft with Aleksa as I usually do on Sunday mornings. When I logged on, here's what I found in front of my house:
We got some sandwiches from Safeway and had a picnic on a sunny park bench in a public flower garden in Palo Alto, talking about what we want to do with the next few years of our lives.
I proposed going to the beach. It's pretty awful that I've lived in coastal California for three years now and I've barely ever been to the beach. It's because we live on the marshy south end of the bay; to get to anything like a real beach you have to drive across the mountains. We briefly considered Half-Moon Bay but then decided to call up Jeremy in Santa Cruz and see if he wanted to hang out with us. (He did!)
Jeremy's roommate advised me to jump straight into the ocean. I knew it was a trap -- the current coming down from Alaska keeps the Pacific quite chilly off the central California coast, much to the surprise of many tourists -- but I didn't care; it's about the same as the north Atlantic waters of my youth, cold but refreshingly cold, not unbearably cold. Sushu and Jeremy kind of gingerly tested the waters while I rode some breakers and got completely draped in floating mats of kelp. Sushu got suplexed by a big wave and was still picking sand out of her hair hours later.
I want to learn to surf!
We had some yummy seafood burritos for dinner and gossiped about grad students, interns, old friends, etc.
Jeremy is learning to play guitar! He's still at the phase of strumming basic chords but it's pretty cool that he's decided to learn. He played "Burn the land/ boil the sea/ you can't take the sky from me" as well as some girly pop-country songs. It sounded good! His singing skills are coming along too. I hope we can jam out together sometime soon!
We played a game of Agricola which came out to a tie between Jeremy and me with Sushu close behind. (Note to self - building a 4th room in the hopes of using the regular Family Growth space on the last round doesn't work when you already have more people than rooms thanks to "Family Growth even without room".)
It was pretty much a perfect day. We said "screw it" to the many niggling responsibilities that usually occupy us and spent the whole day rejoicing in each other's company.
The next day, Monday, was when Sushu left for her European vacation. As a teacher, she gets the whole summer off, so she can travel for several weeks whereas I have to ration my twenty days off each year. So she flew to Rome with plans to make her way through Croatia and Slovenia with her friend Joanne, and rendezvous with me a week later in Istanbul.
Her flight left at 6am so we got up at 3:30 am and I drove her to the airport. (She was going to take a taxi but I volunteered since it would be the last time I'd get to see her for a week.) I was in a weird headspace from waking up in the middle of the night, kind of manic and giggly. I got back and tried to sleep more, with little success.
I started this post by touching on the dismal stereotypes about married life in our culture (stereotypes that manage simultaneously to be sexist against men and against women, and no, two wrongs don't make a right). I want to deconstruct those a little more.
I keep seeing dudes here and there with the shirt that's got the silhouette of the married couple and it says "GAME OVER". (There are a lot of variants.) I just can't understand that mindset. I'm like: "Game Over, you... won?" What, you want to pursue relationships with women... but oh no, you might succeed with one of them, and that would be bad because it precludes... further pursuing relationships with women? Make up your mind sir: do you want a serious exclusive long-term relationship or not? If you do, be happy when you achieve one! If not, then find women who have a compatible attitude and are open to a casual fling or a poly relationship; those women exist and there's nothing wrong with such an arrangement if it makes you both happy. Just, don't be in such a rush to marry someone you don't get along with, only to immediately start complaining about it. Geez.
I feel I've only gained, not given anything up, by getting married. I always found flirting and dating entirely stressful and unpleasant and I'm happy to be done with them. It's not like bachelorhood was some kind of glorious Bacchanalia. In my experience it consisted mainly of working late, reheating something for dinner, reading a lot of web pages, and then masturbating myself to sleep. (I can admit that on the internet, right?) The dudebro conception of monogamy -- as some kind of unjust, boner-killing imprisonment of the male's inherent bonobo-like promiscuity -- is in its way just as unrealistic as the happily-ever-after Disney Princess version.
What's being married really like, in real life? I can describe only the experience of being married to Sushu (I highly recommend it to anyone ;-P )
Lao Zi said that the most virtuous people are simple. (I think? I can't find the quote right now. Or maybe it was Confucius? Sounds more like Lao Zi's style though.) Anyway I feel the same applies to relationships. What I've got with Sushu is delightfully uncomplicated. She's my best friend. There are no hidden meanings or mind games. We say what we want and then we negotiate from there, like adults, from a place of respect, openness, and trust.
Being able to share everything with her has added an incredible depth and richness to the fabric of my existence. Every experience of these past few years, large and small, has been far more satisfying because Sushu has been a part of it. They've been the best two years of my life by far, despite the fact that I dislike the area I'm living in.
When we're apart for more than a day I start missing her terribly.
The rest of our lives is far too short a time to spend with someone as compassionate, creative, adventurous, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, fun-loving, and sexy as Sushu. I hope for many, many more years.
California ballot 2012 - how I voted and why
I filled out my mail-in ballot on Friday. Too late to mail it, so I'll drop it off in person on Tuesday. It's a big ballot: Three national offices, 2 state, 4 local, 10 state propositions and three local propositions - so I'm glad I had time to do my homework.
I'll be working at the neighborhood polling precinct on Tuesday (crossing off peoples' names and addresses, giving out "I voted" stickers, etc.) It will at least give me something to do all day besides obsessively check early poll results over and over again.
There is some big stuff on the California ballot this year. We have the chance to end the death penalty, for one.
Here's how I voted and why:
Not real happy with how Obama turned out on civil liberties. But I'll support him over Romney as the lesser of two evils, easily.
My internal debate ran along the lines of the dueling Atlantic articles Why I Refuse To Vote For Obama and Why I Refuse To Refuse To Vote For Obama, which comes down to categorical imperative versus utilitarianism. I found the latter more convincing.
I'm not in a swing state so I was tempted to vote third-party. But then I look at how the polls are basically tied right now, and how there's a significant chance Obama could win the electoral college but lose the popular vote, and I don't want that. We'd never hear the end of it.
Not happy with Feinstein either, as she supported SOPA and NDAA and other attacks on civil liberties. I voted against her in the primaries.
But I can't justify anything that would increase the Republicans' chances of controlling both houses. There's not even a third-party running. So I guess I'll hold my nose, vote for Feinstein, continue writing her letters begging her to change her positions, and support any Democrat who wants to challenge her.
In the abstract I would love to be one of those "swing voters". But doing so would require Republicans to be substantially less insane.
I actually like Anna Eshoo a lot, so this is an easy one.
State Senator, district 13:
Thanks to the "jungle primary" rule that California passed as a ballot proposition in 2008 (The two candidates with the most primary votes, regardless of party, go on to the general election), we now have two Democrats running against each other for state senator of district 13.
Jerry Hill (incumbent) and Sally Lieber (challenger) are almost identical policy-wise. I voted for Sally Lieber as she is trying to campaign with less money, she has some pretty decent legislative accomplishments and she didn't bury our house under a non-stop flood of obnoxious mail advertisements like Jerry Hill did.
State Assembly, district 24:
Voted for Richard Gordon, the incumbent. He's actually gotten a rather impressive amount of stuff done in just 2 years in office.
Chengzhi "George" Yang seems like one of those increasingly rare non-crazy Republicans, but he also seems like kind of a single-issue guy (his single issue being reform of the state employee pension system).
Oh, and I didn't even realize until now that I had an openly-gay assemblyman. Can I tell you how glad I am this isn't even remotely being raised as an issue by either side? That's how it should be.
(Santa Clara County Board of Education, Foothill-De Anza Community College District, Palo Alto Unified School District)
I've never been enrolled in any of these schools and don't have children enrolled in any of these schools so I feel like these races have nothing to do with me. I literally have zero stake in them so I think I'm going to abstain and leave the decision up to the people who will be affected by the choice.
Palo Alto City Council:
This is one of those "choose four" votes, and there are only 6 people running. So it's the same as choosing 2 not to vote for. I feel like I should vote for this one because I live here, even though I've never really thought of Palo Alto as home or considered what the local issues might be. (Palo Alto to me is generally just "the place I have to get out of when I want to go somewhere fun".)
I voted against the guy who wants to stop new train lines from going through Palo Alto and against the guy who wants to stop low-income housing from being built in Palo Alto. Snobs!
Measure 30: 1/4 cent sales tax hike plus increase on income over $250,000 for seven years, to prevent cuts in public schools.
The fact that this is on the ballot at all is a sign of California's dysfunctional state legislature -- it takes a 2/3 vote to change the budget, which isn't happening, so the only way to get stuff done is to do an end-run around the legislature and go straight to voters with budget questions like this. The governor is practically going door-to-door begging voters to approve this so he doesn't have to
Anyway, sounds good to me. If and when I am ever making $250,000 a year I'll be happy to pay more for schools.
Measure 31: Large package of random changes to state government
Includes a new "pay as you go" two-year budget cycle for state and local governments: anything they pass with new expenditures would also have to include means of paying for those expenditures. Also has 72-hour print rule so that law can't be changed at the last minute without leaving time for people to read it. Allows local governments to override state laws in many cases and allows the governor to unilaterally enact certain budget cuts if there's a budget crisis the legislature refuses to deal with.
OK wow. This proposition is some advanced wonkery. It was the thing I had the most trouble deciding on. So potentially important, and yet so boring and hard to understand! I listened to lots of arguments for and against but still didn't know where I stood on it.
If it was broken into smaller pieces there would be some parts of it I would vote for. But I finally decided to vote no just because I didn't feel like I understood the potential effects well enough. Giant changes to the functioning of state government that I can't understand? I'm gonna default to "no".
Measure 32: Prohibits unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political campaigning.
I don't like this one bit. It's an attempt at campaign finance reform, which I'm generally in favor of, but it's entirely one-sided: it reduces the ability of unions, but not of corporations, to influence campaigns. I feel like campaign finance reform needs to be a mutual disarmament situation. I would support this if it also applied to corporations but as is it seems nakedly partisan.
Measure 33: Allows auto insurance companies to set prices based on driver's history of continuous coverage
The fact that premiums go up if you have a gap in your coverage is one of the worst things about the health insurance system - why would we want to apply it to auto insurance to? No.
Measure 34: Ends the death penalty in California, replaces it with life imprisonment.
I support this one because I'm generally against the death penalty. Unlike some people I don't consider it morally unacceptable; my objection is more based on the practical matter that sometimes we get the wrong guy. Jury trials are not infallible. They make mistakes. Sometimes we find evidence later that exonerates a convict. With life imprisonment, mistakes are reversible; if we execute the guy, it's too late.
Also, the death penalty has often been applied in a racist way: people who kill whites are more likely to get it than people who kill blacks.
The one argument that might get me to support the death penalty in some cases is that life imprisonment is expensive for taxpayers. But even the price argument falls apart when you find out that it costs California an average of $300 million to execute one prisoner, due to the years-long legal wrangling and special facilities involved. We can actually save money -- an estimated $100 million a year, according to the legislative analyst quoted in the voter info guide -- by not executing people.
The argument submitted against Measure 34 for the voter guide is quite horrible. It's a naked appeal irrational feelings of vengeance. They list off horrible crimes while saying "come on, doesn't this person DESERVE to DIE?!?".
I don't really think public policy should be set by whether somebody deserves to die in some cosmic moral sense. We should look at the deterrence effect, the cost of various penalties, the value of removing a repeat offender from society, and the risk of punishing an innocent person, and try to do the thing that makes most sense for society.
I'm a quote Gandalf: "Many who live deserve death, just as many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? No? Then be not so hasty to deal out death in judgement."
Measure 35: Increases criminal penalties for human trafficking
Sounds good at first, but it's written in a really weird way with a very vague definition of human trafficking and a bunch of sex offender stuff tacked on. Human trafficking is already illegal and I haven't heard a good argument for why the current punishments are insufficient -- or why the voters should go over the heads of the legislature to set a harsher penalty. No.
Measure 36: Amends "three strikes law" so that third crime = automatic life imprisonment only if the third crime is serious or violent.
Makes sense to me. The prisons are already overcrowded; I don't think somebody should get life just for taking drugs or shoplifting.
Currently in California a third conviction of any crime gets you automatic life imprisonment. This amendment to the three strikes law returns the power to judges and juries to set the punishment as fits the facts of the individual case. They can still consider the convict's previous criminal record when sentencing, but they're no longer forced into the maximum penalty in the case of misdemeanors.
Measure 37: Requires labeling of genetically modified foods
I see a lot of support for this measure on the lawn signs around my neighborhood. Personally I think the fear of GMOs is somewhat overblown. Isn't basically everything we eat genetically engineered? The wild ancestor of corn was a grass called teosinte with tiny inedible 1-inch ears. It's just that it was genetically engineered by Mesoamerican Indians 5000 years ago.
Sure I think people have the right to know what they're eating, but I'm not convinced a state constitutional amendment is required to give them that information. I already see a lot of food packaging that says things like "No GMO" or "No growth hormones". So if people would prefer to eat non-GMO foods, can't they already do that? Companies are already seeing "no GMO" as a competitive advantage and putting it on their label, without a law forcing them to do so, so I feel like the market is already doing its job sorting this out.
Measure 38: A different tax to fund schools, alternative to 30. If both pass than only the one with more votes goes into effect.
I like measure 30 better (The tax structure in 38 is more regressive) so I voted no on 38.
Measure 39: Multistate businesses pay income tax based on percentage of their sales in California; revenues go to clean energy projects.
Paying California income tax based on the percentage of your sales in California sure sounds fair to me! I was surprised to learn that this isn't already the case; currently companies can choose between tax based on percentage of sales or tax based on percentage of employees in California. Which gives them a perverse incentive to choose the latter and then have as few employees in California as possible.
The fact that the extra revenue from closing the loophole will go to clean energy projects is just a bonus.
Measure 40: Approves the citizens' redistricting commission's redrawing of state senate districts.
In 2008 we voted to have an independent commission of regular citizens redraw all the districts to reduce gerrymandering. I supported this idea. This interactive map shows what the commission came up with.
I read an article about how the Democrats found various sneaky ways to influence the supposedly independent commission and as a result will probably wind up with more safe seats than before, even though the districts are much more geographically reasonable-looking than they used to be.
This vote is to approve their work. If it fails we spend another million dollars on a do-over which will probably have very similar results. The group opposing approval has withdrawn their campaign so no argument against Measure 40 was submitted. Well, if nobody cares enough to argue against it, I'll take it.
County Measure A: 1/8 cent county-wide sales tax hike
No; unlike with proposition 30, the proponents of measure A don't make a good case for the budgetary need for this tax hike. And sales tax is a regressive tax.
County Measure B: Renews a parcel tax that would otherwise expire in order to pay for cleaning up and preserving the local streams and wetlands
Sounds good to me. Confusingly, the counterargument is that the proposed program doesn't do *enough* for the local environment, and they want to send it back and write a stricter one. I ended up voting yes anyway.
Palo Alto Measure C: Allows three marijuana dispensaries to operate in Palo Alto.
Hell yeah! maybe that will make this town less boring.
Seriously though, I support state and local efforts to resist the federal government's illogical marijuana prohibition policy.
Election day 2012 in Santa Clara county
Election Day starts at 6am for poll workers, and doesn't end until we're done counting down all the ballots, packing away all the booths, and marking off all the checklists; we finished at 10pm.
Monday night I didn't hardly sleep at all; a combination of election nervousness and "gotta wake up before dawn" nervousness (the same thing I get when I have to wake up early for a flight) meant I couldn't relax. Got up at 5:30, took a shower, biked to the Eichler Swim & Tennis Club, met up with the three other poll workers (two Chinese-American folks and one nice old white lady) and tried not to think about Romney winning.
Yeah, I know Nate Silver had Obama at 90% chance to win, and I trusted he was getting the polls right, but that only matters if the polls are accurate and turnout is as predicted. All day long I was mentally preparing myself to hear the news: that voter suppression tactics had held down turnout enough to turn Obama's poll lead into a tie, that it had all come down to a recount in some wretched Ohio suburb where everybody was arguing over the validity of last-minute voting tabulator software revisions, and that Romney would be named the winner via politicized courtroom shenanigans.
I guess Florida 2000 just scarred me for life?
Anyway. No news media or political discussion is allowed in a polling place -- nothing that might influence voters -- so I was in a news blackout all day. Didn't know what states were being called or anything.
We had one voter complain about the news networks calling Eastern states before the polls are closed in the West, which might make people in Western states decide not to bother showing up. I agree with her, it would be nice if they quit doing that, but the news networks have a prisoner's dilemma - nobody wants to be the last one to report results.
Several people were voting for the very first time, with proud parents taking pictures of them. It's illegal to take a picture that shows how someone is voting -- that could lead to vote-selling -- so I kind of hovered around making sure they were only taking pictures from a distance. One 18-year-old girl had literally wrapped herself in an American flag, like a cape. If I remember Boy Scouts I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to do that with a flag, but whatever, I'm a godless heathen, I don't care.
I have no idea who my fellow poll workers supported. You just don't ask. You're not supposed to say or do or display anything that might influence any voters, which means no talking politics inside the polling place. Besides, you don't really want to find out that your fellow poll worker is rooting for the other team; it would make it seriously awkward to work closely with them for the next several hours. You'd rather just not know.
(One of the Chinese folks had brought a bunch of copies of "While America Sleeps" by Russ Feingold to gift to the rest of us, though, so that's a pretty big clue.)
California ballots use this system where you connect the two ends of a broken arrow with a line of ink to mark your choice. The arrow ends are fat but you're supposed to use just one thin line to connect them, as i explained over and over again. When counting ballots at the end of the night I saw that at least half of the voters had ignored instructions and scribbled in the whole arrow. This is a classic UI failure called a misleading affordance - whatever the instructions say, the shape of that arrow somehow makes you really wanna fill it in all th way. Connecting it with just one thin line looks wrong.
The ballot box itself, which used to be a cardboard box with a slot in it, was replaced this year by this orange duffel bag thing with a zipper slot. It's really hard to push ballots through a zipper. It was frustrating for everybody.
We had one electronic voting machine, but we hoped nobody would use it. Not because we think it's untrustworthy, so much, but just because it makes a ton of extra work for us. If there's zero votes on the electronic machine we can just turn it off and pack it up, but if there's one or more votes we have to do this whole song&dance where we print out copies of the records three times on three different printers that go into three different sealed bags so there's a verifiable paper trail. But the machine's audio mode is the only good way for a blind person to vote. So we need to have it. But we stick it in the back corner and don't encourage any non-blind voters to use it.
Also, if there's just one vote on the machine, then that vote is no longer secret -- we saw who used the machine so we now know how that person voted. To preserve anonymity, if one person uses the machine, we want at least five people to use it. So in that case we'd pull it from the back corner and put it up front. But it didn't happen.
Besides crossing names off the main roster, we also cross them off a duplicate roster that is periodically hung outside the polling place for public reference. It's used by the campaigns' get-out-the-vote efforts; their volunteers can drop by to check which of their supporters hasn't voted yet and go call them.
The duplicate roster has party registration info, which showed me that besides the Rs and Ds and NPs we had a couple of AIs.
AI is the "American Independent" party, a remnant of George Wallace's white-supremacist party. So it's a little odd to see, like, Asians registered as AI members.
I assume they joined by mistake. Lots of people want to register as independents, and it's an easy mistake when filling out the CA voter registration form to think checking "American Independent" means "independent" and not, you know, "Segregation Forever!" (The box you want is "Non-partisan / Decline to State").
We don't require photo ID in california, but lots of people presented their drivers licenses without asking. Some of us told them it wasn't needed (but it is handy to have the address in writing.)
If you're not on our registered voter list, you're probably in the wrong precinct, so we try to find the right one and direct you there. By far the most common irregularity that would prevent people from voting was showing up in person when you're registered as a permanent vote-by-mail. That means that a ballot was already mailed to their house, so if we give them another ballot at the polling place, that's 2 ballots. Gotta make sure nobody votes twice, so we ask them to go home and find the ballot they were mailed. Then they can either cast that one, or they can surrender it to us, we mark it destroyed, and give them a new one. If we mailed you a ballot and you show up without it asking to vote, we make you cast a "provisional ballot" in a pink envelope that you sign; in theory it gets counted, but only if your mail-in ballot doesn't also show up at county HQ. We had about ten people fall into this category.
Our precinct was L-shaped, and the polling place was at one end, so lots of people who lived in the long leg of the L were closer to another precinct's polling place than their own. Some people arrived confused, annoyed, and tired after going to the closer polling place and being turned away.
Most people were patient, though. Only 2 voters got mad. One was mad because she saw a Russian woman get her husband's help with reading the ballot. She confronted me angrily, claiming the husband shouldn't be allowed to be in the voting booth with her. I felt my face get hot as I wondered if I had seriously screwed up. I said that people are allowed to request a helper if they need one; the angry woman said that's what the foreign-language ballots are for; I pointed out that we don't have Russian ballots. She escalated the issue to the Field Inspector, who thankfully backed me up. Thought I was in real trouble for a minute there.
The other one was mad that we asked her daughter her address 3 times. (I don't know what she read into that, but we asked lots of people their address more than twice just to make sure we heard it correctly and marked it right on all the forms.)
One sad old man told me "I forgot to vote by mail. I was too busy burying my wife." :-(
I mumbled some condolences while wondering if that will be my future. Good thing me and Sushu plan to die at the exact same time. Holding hands. (flute solo)
Most people voted early in the day; a few stragglers showed up after 7pm, expecting to have to wait in line, and were surprised to be the only ones there. We had about 1,000 registered voters in the precinct, but 3/4 of them were registered vote-by-mail. We had 201 in-person votes plus about 160 drop-off mail ballots, so (assming the others mailed them in) it was a pretty solid turnout.
Didn't find out Obama won until after we were done closing the polls down at 10pm Pacific time. Sushu texted me "yay, Obama won" and I was actually surprised that it was such a clear win and not an excruciating near-tie.
What I did when I didn't go to Chicago for Christmas
Two years ago Mom hosted an ugly sweater party. She bought horrible sweaters for everybody to wear ironically. When I showed up at the door, she handed me this one.
"I'll show you!" I said. "I'm gonna enjoy this sweater un-ironically! I'm gonna wear it with total sincerity, every single Christmas from now on!" And so I have done.
I didn't have the money this year to fly home to Chicago for every holiday, so I told Mom she could pick either Thanksgiving or Christmas. She picked Thanksgiving. So for Christmas I didn't go anywhere, and just video-chatted with my family on Skype. (Some weird bug between my webcam and Skype makes my video stream appear upside-down to people on the other end.)
Here's what I did instead.
Christmas Eve, Sushu's family took me to a light show at Six Flags. Partly sponsored by China, it had a bunch of corny light-up and/or animatronic versions of Chinese mythological figures, international landmarks, random Christmasy stuff, etc.
Plastic, bright-blue christmas tree with gaudy lights, flanked by palm trees? Yup, this image sums up Christmas in California.
This dragon made of hundreds of porcelain spoons and bowls was legitimately cool though.
Sushu's bro John and I shared a humongous funnel cake, with strawberries and whipped cream. I scoffed at the offer to use a fork. My hands were disgusting afterwards. I regret nothing!
On Christmas morning we went to see the new Les Miserables movie, about which I have already shared my opinions.
The morning of the 26th I got up early and made sandwiches before we began our road trip to Seattle. We swung through Oakland to pick up Chris and then got onto I-5 north.
It's about a 14-15 hour drive, similar to the distance between Connecticut and Chicago, but with more interesting scenery. On the way we saw massive clouds of migrating birds. We took turns reading out loud from Journey to the West and singing songs from Les Mis.
In the very rural, very conservative northern Central Valley we saw Tea Party signs with ominous warnings ("Watch Out, Congress"; "The Second American Revolution is Coming!") and even a sign proclaiming "State of Jefferson".
Just before I-5 crossed into Oregon, we were rewarded with this lovely view of Mt. Shasta.
We lost time due to snowfall in the high mountain passes. It was well after dark when we arrived in Seattle.
We met Alexis in a grocery store parking lot. I volunteered to drive the next segment, and scared all the passengers half to death when I started to back out of the parking lot across two lanes of traffic. Some kind of brain malfunction had made me literally forget that going forward into a street was a thing that cars could do. I stopped before getting into the road, so everybody was fine, but it's going to take me a while to live that one down.
Then we picked Chris's longtime friend Les. With five people now in our party, the car was pretty well packed. We went to a fancy Chinese seafood restaurant for dinner; a fire alarm went off while we were eating because the upstairs neighbor had dropped a lit cigarette in a trash can and the firefighters had to show up to deal with it.
The next morning, we went here: the EMP (Experience Music Project), a museum of rock music and science fiction, funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.
Rock AND sci-fi? It's like it was made just for me! I'm not going to pass that up, even if it IS housed inside what may be the single ugliest building on the face of the planet, a clashing-color, crumpled-shell monstrosity designed by Frank Geary.
It's basically Paul Allen's geeky souvenir collection on display. You can see the whole thing in a couple hours. Fun, but not much reason to go back. The room where you can jam out on real instruments is the best part, but we had to fight a lot of kids for the privilege.
The monorail runs right through the middle of the EMP building.
I heard from the Seattlites that the monorail is just one of many useless public works projects that Seattle's corrupt city government has used to embezzle citizens' money. It could have been cool except that the tracks only cover six blocks of downtown.
It was apparently the real-life inspiration for the Monorail Episode of the Simpsons.
Later, I totally failed to parallel-park on a steep hill. Something about Seattle made me suck at driving.
We poked around a local anime model-kit shop, hung out at a tea shop run by Alexis' friends, and then went to Les' house where he showed off his Minecraft world full of extremely impressive redstone constructions. (The high frame-rate made Sushu motion sick.) Les is a video game programmer and has worked freelance on many high-profile games. He's a really cool guy and I wish I got a chance to hang out with him more.
The Seattleites took us on a whirlwind tour of all their favorite restaurants. I think I gained about ten pounds. Thursday lunch was a Cambodian noodle place tht made an amazing durian shake, and dinner was an underground Tibetan curry shop. Friday lunch was at a tiny ramen shop, supposedly the best in Seattle -- they make a fresh batch of noodles for lunch, but only enough for like 20 or 30 people, so if you're not one of the first 20 people you don't get any, so we were lined up on the sidewalk 30 minutes before the shop opened.
While in line there, I met Amy, a really cool friend of Ben and Alexis, who is also a programmer. She and I and Les bored everybody else with our programmer shop talk while hanging around a bubble-tea cafe.
I was happy I got to meet such cool people on this trip. But after a few days I was starting to get burnt out on socialization. I'm an introvert by nature; even when I'm enjoying a conversation with a new acquaintance, it still sucks energy out of my invisible socialization-energy meter. When that meter runs out I really need to go crash in my cave of solitude with my books or my computer.
Anyway, we didn't get much more time to hang out because Friday afternoon it was already time to start heading for home. We got to Portland on Friday evening, where we had Hawaiian food with Chris' sister Bianca, and went book-browsing at Powell's. (My haul: How Music Works by David Byrne; Ready, Player One; Vol 1 of Saga; and Level 2 of Integrated Chinese.)
We spent the night at Ben's house in Portland, so that we'd have a shorter drive home on Saturday. Ben himself wasn't there, but his housemate Barry welcomed us. (I've enjoyed reading Barry's blog without ever knowing I had a connection to the author.) He wanted to talk about comic-drawing, which normally I would have loved, but by that point my socialization meter was completely empty, so I'm afraid I rather rudely sat in a corner reading an old copy of Rogue Trader for most of the evening.
Alexis rode back down to California with us, and stayed at our house for a few days more.
A beautiful view driving down out of the mountains, back into California.
Sushu sneaks a picture of the fancy birthday dinner her parents prepared.
At the birthday party, I had a long conversation with Sushu's childhood friend Yipeng. He talks like a sports jock / dudebro, but he's got a really geeky side too, which Alexis and I exposed by engaging him in reminiscience about old Magic: The Gathering cards. We ended with an agreement to play a sealed deck match next time we meet.
On the 31st, Alexis unleashed her Italian food-snob side and made fantastic pesto and tiramisu for all of us, using ingredients we plundered from a bargain-basement Italian food import store in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Sushu and I rehearsed for our New Year's Day taiko performance. It was our first time to join in playing the group's newest song, Kouki Tenmei. Kouki, which the senior students brought back from a song exchange with a taiko group in Brazil last January, is an extremely fast, rhythmically complex song that I've had great trouble learning. There are three distinct parts which, lined up perfectly, have awesome-sounding polyrhythmic interplay. But if one part is just a tiny bit off, it sounds like a chaotic mess.
Since we were in China for three months in the summer, we were three months behind the rest of the class on Kouki, and I was quite nervous about it. So the day before, we set up the world's jankiest practice drums (cardboard boxes attached to stools with bandages) and ran through our parts repeatedly.
New Year's Eve midnight karaoke with Alexis has become quite a tradition. This is what, the fourth year we've done it? Fifth year? We picked up Ben, who had come down to San Francisco to visit his mother in the hospital, and headed to Gamba karaoke in Cupertino. Ben claims he can't sing, but he does a respectable Bob Dylan (some would say that not being able to sing is an advantage for doing Bob Dylan) and he joined me for a very manly duet on "Princes of the Universe". Gamba is amazing because if you pick an anime song -- Rose of Versailles, Utena, Evangelion, Mazinger Z -- chances are they have the actual opening animation to go with it. Sang some Earth, Wind, and Fire with Alexis and of course everybody joined in on "Pengyou" which has sort of become our less-lame replacement for Auld Lang Syne.
Emeryville Taiko keeps the Japanese New Year tradition of Mochi-pounding. Here, Etsuko-san keeps the glutinous rice mass wet while instructing volunteers how to wield their mighty rice-pounding hammers. Sensei and Matt (background) try to keep everyone in rhythm with a festival pattern on shime drums.
Just to increase my nervousness, a film crew from a local TV station showed up during our rehearsal to interview people for a human-interest piece they're doing on Emeryville Taiko's continuing problem with finding a permanent home. (We've had to move between four different practice locations in the past two years -- the noise complaints make it hard to find a lease, go figure.) They wanted to interview me, but I've had bad experiences with being quoted out of context by the media, so I tried to stay off-camera.
The performance went well! I had made all my Kouki Tenmei mistakes during rehearsal, so the real one went pretty well. I even started the song off, which was not exactly how we planned it, but it worked out. Miya, playing the flute solo on Kacho Fugetsu for the first time, was as nervous as I was, but she did great.
Lots of our friends, and even Sushu's family, came to watch the concert and eat mochi. The mochi was made into some really good o-zoni, which I hadn't tasted for almost ten years.
Happy 2013, everybody!
Hideous Public Sculptures of Palo Alto
I call it "the car on chubby baby legs"
Eh, I guess let's just pile some cubes on top of each other and call it art?
"I've got a great idea! Let's make a rag doll with a disturbing human face in its belly."
A close-up on that expression of terror.
Egg covered in circuit boards. Because the egg is, like, the SYMBOL of CREATION... or something.
According to the plaque, the text on this random-looking collection of signs was generated by asking people "What will be on this spot 100 years from now?"
Some kind of... slanty... maze-like... trident-thing... look, I can't even make a joke about this one, it's too boring.
These rings are mounted on swively-things so sometimes they move up and down. Wheee.