Infrequently updated blog of thoughts and feelings whenever I have time to sit down and write. It seems as though I have less and less time to sit down and write these days. That's why this page is static most of the time.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I guess it is pretty obvious I'm not a frequent blogger. Since I'm now exposing my blog to many other people, I thought it was about time I updated it. The following is a portion of yet another APA-50 zine from about a year ago (sans the mailing comments, which no one reading a blog would understand anyway, and the people to whom they are directed have already read them). For those unfamiliar with old fashioned paper APAs, mailing comments are similar to the comment threads on blogs, where members of the apa direct messages to other members, but are read by all.

Bailing Out of Bank of America

I started an old fashioned Depression era run on Bank of America last month, so I guess you can blame me if the rest of the economy continues down the road to chaos. Since I've already taken the first step, I encourage other principled Libertarians to do exactly the same thing. The banking system as it now exists will inevitably collapse without a foundation of trust between the holder of the assets and the owners of them. If one party betrays that trust, it has broken the contract and I am no longer obligated to maintain any kind of business relationship with a person or corporation who has swindled me.

Banks have been failing all over the United States, 60 in the last six months alone. But the biggest banks in the nation, the ones you'd expect wouldn't have this kind of problem, have been bailed out by the taxpayers, including Bank of America. Any institution that failed its customers so spectacularly that it ended up taking by force the money of the American taxpayer does not deserve to include me or anyone I know among its customers. Due to the investment we’ve all had to make—completely without our consent, and against our better judgment—we’ve inadvertently become not a customer, but one of the bank’s owners.

Well, the management of this institution has convinced me that holding any kind of account within their control is a very bad investment, and I want out of it.

The Libertarian Party of California's East Bay Region was formed in 1974, and the first treasurer of the organization opened an account at Bank of America that year to manage the organization's meager assets. When I was elected Treasurer of the East Bay Region in 2002, I became responsible for the account, and BofA never gave me any reason to distrust them. In 2005, due to a change in the bylaws of the LPC, we were required to split our Region into two county organizations, so I opened a second account at the bank for the Contra Costa County LP and maintained the original account for the Libertarian Party of Alameda County.

But when BofA found itself over-leveraged and in danger of failing last year (following the purchase of Countrywide Home Loans) and forced into a shotgun wedding by Hank Paulson to save Merrill-Lynch, it was clear that the bank's assets were seriously mis-managed. BofA changed their policies two months ago on accounts such as ours, which had not been assessed any kind of service fee as long as we maintained a minimum balance of $1,000. This has rarely been a problem in the past, but beginning in June 2009, they raised this threshhold to $2,000, and began charging us a $9.95 monthly fee (the previous fee had only been $8.00).

The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was passed by Congress last year to save banks like Bank of America that made very bad loans and lost billions of dollars of their customer’s assets. It was also used to bail out AIG Insurance, General Motors and Chrysler. The taxpayers themselves had no input into how their money was being wasted. According to Network World magazine, the email servers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington crashed under the onslaught of messages sent to congress last September by voters urging them NOT to pass the bailout bill, but they did so anyway, having been threatened by Hank Paulson that the entire economy would collapse if they allowed bad businessmen to suffer the consequences of their bad decisions.

Would the sky have fallen if congress had let Bank of America fail? Did the sun forget to rise the day after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt? No, the world did not end and I doubt it would have if the congress had listened to the voters and rejected Paulson’s hysterical ravings. And, of course, the executives of AIG, Merrill Lynch and CitiGroup were all rewarded for their trouble with multimillion dollar bonuses.

So now, the big bad banks have been saved, and the smaller banks that didn’t have enough money to lobby congress were allowed to die. This is not free market capitalism. This is why the officers of both counties that make up the East Bay Libertarian Parties voted to bail out of Bank of America and deposit our funds at any other bank in the area that did not accept TARP money.

As a taxpayer advocate, the LP must take a principled stand against any institution, public or private, that fails to honor a contract. That is why we stipulated that we would only do business with trustworthy banks, those that did NOT beg for a bailout from the taxpayers.

To compile a list of these institutions, I used http://Bailoutwatch.net, http://Bailout.ProPublica.org, and http://subsidyscope.com to identify every bank in the area that had taken any TARP funds at all. Excluding those, we ended up with a list of seven small but fiscally strong banks to evaluate. Most of the banks that have failed over the past two years have been small banks like these, and there would be no guarantee that the bank we selected to manage our funds wouldn't also fail, but there are ways to reduce your level of risk and evaluate how well you can trust your banker. Of course, the East Bay Libertarian Parties are in no danger of losing our money, even if a bank fails, because our meager treasury falls well below the maximum $250,000 deposit insured by the FDIC. But in August 2009, the FDIC revealed that it may also be running out of money, estimating that it will likely need to pay out $70 billion over the next year and a half not to bail out failing banks, but to pay back the money of the deposit holders of those banks. Last March, they only had $13 billion available for this purpose. Several more banks have failed since then.

To make sure we could trust our new bank, I checked the websites of each of the selected banks' services to find out which ones offered us the most value for the lowest fee, preferably charging no fee at all. At the suggestion of Contra Costa County LP Chair Cory Nott, I then checked each institution's “Texas Ratio,” a numerical grade used to assess a bank's level of risk by comparing deposits held in reserve vs. non-performing loans and outstanding debt that is far more likely to predict a bank's failure than the formula used on Wall Street to calculate the risk of leveraged securities. The lower the Texas Ratio of a bank, the healthier they are. Any bank with a Texas Ratio above 100 is in danger of failing. Any bank above 50 is “troubled.” All the banks on our list had Texas Ratios below 15.

But before I'd been able to rate all the banks, one of them, Fremont Bank, immediately dropped off the list, after they submitted an application to borrow $35 million from TARP last July to prop up their mortgage portfolio. The Hayward Daily Review reported that Fremont Bank held only 43 homes in foreclosure status at the time. "We don't really need the capital,” Fremont Bank Vice Chairman Mike Wallace said. “But we don't know what the future holds.” Fremont Bank has a Texas Ratio of 11, so it was in no danger of failing, but took taxpayer money anyway, just because it was there for the taking. This is NOT a bank we could trust.

I ended up with a list of six candidates and presented to the officers the account options offered by these institutions, and ranked them by their Texas Ratio. The officers of both county parties voted to trust Mechanics Bank of Richmond. Founded in Contra Costa County in 1905, Mechanics Bank has already proved it could survive one Great depression, and their policies suggest they know how to weather our current one as well.

Having lost faith in Bank of America's horrendous management of our money (and yours as well), banks that treat their depositors more as partners than as “customers” are the reason why Mechanics Bank never had to apply for bailout money. They can't afford to fuck around with your deposit, since they are not so big that they cannot fail, and just not quite big enough (or desperate enough) to turn to their customers or the American taxpayer for a hand-out.

As many Libertarians have long been aware (and the rest of the population is slowly learning), fractional reserve banking is a system of commerce based not on real wealth, but on imaginary numbers, increasing debt, and blind faith that a paper note issued by the U.S. Treasury Department represents hard assets. This is similar to the fantasy sequence in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan where the audience is urged to clap their hands to save the life of the beloved fairy Tinker Bell. If enough of us believe in fairies, just wishing she will recover from the poison will make it come true. Timothy Geithner thinks that if enough taxpayers truly believe that Federal Reserve Notes represent real money, then their belief in the fairy tale will likewise make it come true.

But we're grown ups now, and we no longer believe in fairy tales.

Let the Party of Principle demonstrate to the rest of the world that we practice what we preach. If your county party still maintains accounts with banks that cheated the taxpayers, urge them to vote with their feet and relocate their accounts to the banks that stood firm and refused to take TARP funds.

When banks that are too big to fail betray their customers and the taxpayers, it is time to take our money away from them and invest it in a bank that will work for you instead of against you. Free market capitalism thrives on competition, and smaller banks that make better business decisions for their clients should be able to lure business away from the large banks that cheated us. If you maintain any accounts at Chase Bank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, CitiBank or any other financial institution that took bailout money, you have an obligation to throw a little love out to the banks that didn't rob the taxpayers.


Monday, December 01, 2008

About three years ago, I went on my first whitewater rafting adventure with some folks from the East Bay Libertarians. Most of us had never done this before, so it was a new and challenging experience. We took on the Cache Canyon River in Yolo County, a Class III river that our organizer assured us was an ideal option for first time rafters. We had so much fun that this has now become an annual tradition, though we no longer schedule it over the Memorial Day weekend, as it is very difficult to reserve a campsite large enough for all of us, so for the past two years, we’ve done this on the weekend before Memorial Day.
Rivers are classified by the kind of water conditions they offer to recreational boaters. A class I is an easy flowing river with no rapids at all, though as always, people in watercraft should wear safety gear and floatation jackets. This is probably the kind of river you’d wade into with rubber trousers to go fly fishing, or one you’d just cast into from the bank and wait for the trout to find you. Class II rivers have mild whitewater rapids that won’t scare most people who have done this before and are perfect for beginners. Class III rivers have moderate whitewater that provide a good first experience for newcomers to the activity, as well as a good ride for experienced rafters. Class IV rivers have heavy water flow with many large obstacles and should probably not be attempted by first-time rafters. Most companies renting rafts require you to wear helmets on Class IV rivers. Class V rivers have big drops, dangerous obstacles and should only be attempted by experienced outdoor enthusiasts willing to risk life and limb for their thrills. Class VI rivers are listed in my brochure as suicidal, and should not be approached by anyone in their right mind.
Whitewater rafting is like going on a large wet rollercoaster ride such as you might find at any number of amusement parks all over the country…except that it lasts for four to six hours instead of mere minutes. And you can fall out of your boat at any time.
Cache Canyon was quite an experience. We had two-person inflatable rafts and had to be instructed in how to navigate the river this way. I was rafting with my son Nathan, who was 15 years old the first time we tried this. It was indeed a challenge, and we both took a few swims over the course of the day, body-surfing down the river until we could find our way to shore and locate the raft. A part of the river known as Taft’s Tumble was a particularly exciting experience. Our raft became lodged on top of a rock, and while trying to turn it over to bail out the accumulated water, Nathan lost his grip and went swimming feet first out of sight. A helpful couple behind us helped me get our boat off the rock and I continued down the river alone searching for Nathan. He was a good swimmer, so I was confident he would be fine, he really would, but after I paddled downriver for a good half mile without seeing him again, I became quite concerned. To my relief, I did catch up to him after a while. He was just waiting for me on the west bank of the river. He’d lost is favorite AC/DC cap, which really annoyed him, but I was overjoyed to find him safe after all that anxiety. It wasn’t much further downstream that I myself ended up bouncing out of the boat, and Nathan had to fish me out of the rapids.
Hours later, as we struggled through the heaviest whitewater on the river, a roaring passage affectionately known as “Mother,” a group of photographers standing on some rocks snapped a photo to sell us after we finished the trip (see below).
When we finally reached the takeout point, we were greeted with ice cold water and beer. After that kind of a ride, even Budweiser tasted pretty damned good. Once everyone had finally made it out, an old school bus arrived to drive us back to the main parking lot.
That trip was so successful that we repeated it again the next year, this time using it as a fundraising opportunity, asking all participants to pitch in an extra $20 to the Party. We had a larger group join us in 2006, but the river was even more challenging. Finding a campsite was much harder, as heavy winter rains had washed out some roads, and all campsites on the west side of the river were inaccessible, so we had to find a wilderness area to camp on the east shore. And all of these campsites were full as well, so we ended up in an empty clearing alongside highway 16. We were, of course, camping illegally on BLM land, but several park rangers and highway patrol cars ignored us as they passed our way. We had our giant LIBERTARIAN PARTY banner strung across an awning, so it wasn’t like we were trying to hide from them. I guess they had too many other things to keep them busy.
The rains also made Cache Creek a much more thrilling ride that year. Nathan and I joked about how many times each of us had to save the other’s life on this trip. We were both bounced out of the raft at least five times. Three of the other couples in our party didn’t even complete the six mile course of the river, and gave up at the halfway point. This is the place where you must pull your raft out of the water and carry it around a large bridge. Fortunately, the rafting company had people monitor us all through the day, ready to help out anyone having trouble, and they were there to handle just about any problem, including packing up rafters who decided they’d had enough.
Nathan and I completed the course once again, but had some serious problems at the takeout point. The current was flowing too strong in the wrong direction, and despite our frantic paddling, we were swept out past the takeout area and headed downstream. The crew tried to cast us a rope, but it couldn’t reach us, so they directed us to head toward the opposite shore and tie onto a tree. We did our best, but the raft became entangled in the branches and capsized, so we clung to the tree for what seemed like an hour, but was probably no more than 30 minutes. All I know is that my arms were very tired by the time the crew finally reached us and helped us swim to a calm area where we could get to the other side of the river and walk back to the takeout point. We watched them as they worked to free our boat from the tree, but they ended up having to cut the ropes off our raft and retrieve it somewhere downstream.
That was a little bit more adventure than I’d really planned to have, but it didn’t discourage me. The adrenaline rush was thrillingly addictive. I had such a great time that I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Last year, Peter Schoewe, our organizer, decided that we might do better and attract more participants if we rafted down a Class II river, so in 2007 we toured the Stanislaus River in San Joaquin County. Nathan didn’t join us this time, as he had a Senior Trip scheduled on that weekend, so he spent his time at Disneyland instead of camping. We camped out in Knight’s Ferry, a lovely old Gold Rush town on the river. The Stanislaus River was a much different experience than Cache Creek. The rafting company that operated here had larger rafts that could accommodate up to eight passengers. We had seven this time, so things worked out quite well.
The only whitewater we encountered was right around a bend at the beginning of the trip, and it was easy to navigate without even getting wet. From that point on, the water was so calm that we even passed folks in fishing boats. It would be hard to call this a whitewater “adventure,” but we did have fun enjoying a beautiful spring day. It was more of a relaxation exercise than anything else. The next day, we toured Columbia State Park, Moaning Caverns and Mercer Caverns in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Calaveras County.
This year, Peter arranged a trip on the South Fork of the American River, getting us back into some Class III excitement. The tour operator on this river was EarthTrek Expeditions, which has an elaborate compound in Lotus, California complete with hot showers, a full kitchen and a large dining area. This trip was a bit more expensive than our previous outings, but EarthTrek offered a lot for the money, including an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a remarkably good lunch served at the halfway point of the river journey in the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately, Peter fell ill the week before the trip, and was unable to join us, but we ended up with a crew of six enthusiastic adventurers. Nathan was still in school finishing up his Freshman year at Humboldt State University, so once again he couldn’t join us, but perhaps we’ll be able to go back later in the summer.
We were assigned large rafts again, which had plenty of room for the six of us as well as our guide, Jeannie.
A guided whitewater rafting tour was a far different experience from our earlier self-guided expeditions. Jeannie knew every rock along the eight miles of the Lower Gorge Run, and could tell us stories about most of them. She also encouraged us to jump out of the boat in calm passages so we could practice retrieving our friends in the event they bounced out in the whitewater areas, which helped the newbies overcome any lingering anxieties about getting wet. These boats also had special foot pockets where you could brace your feet to help you stay in the boat through even the most violent rapids. As we were told in the orientation lecture before we were assigned to our boats, if you fall out of the raft and find yourself alone in the water, you first take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This is the most fun I can ever have while whitewater rafting.” Then you use your paddle to reach toward your raft and have your friends pull you back in.
Jeannie takes this run at least four times a week, so she was an expert in navigating the river. She would coach us in how to paddle efficiently, calling “Left side forward, Right side backpaddle” when she wanted to turn us into the correct direction. Then she’d shout “All forward” to accelerate us toward the safest path, and “All stop” when it was time to relax and catch our breath. She pointed out an abandoned gold mine on a hillside and told stories of other rafting trips she’d taken on this river and many others. She said she wouldn’t want to have any other job because this one was so satisfying. EarthTrek Expeditions also has a Costa Rica whitewater rafting tour that apparently takes place every January, and Jeannie described how much fun that one was, so apparently she is able to do this even in the winter months when California’s rivers are waiting for the Sierra snowmelt to fill them up in the springtime.
Just as with Cache Canyon, a group of photographers were waiting for us as we entered Satan’s Cesspool to snap action shots of our team as we rolled through the rapids.

When we finally bounced through Hospital Bar at the end of the run, we joined the other six EarthTrek rafts and each of the guides tied the rafts together and then hooked all of them up to a JetSki, which towed us the rest of the way to Folsom Lake, where we pulled our boats ashore and carried them up the hillside to a truck waiting to return us to camp. It was a great way to end a fantastic river trip.
The next day, I packed up all my camping supplies and spent a leisurely morning touring the nearby Marshall Discovery State Park in Coloma, California, a short walk from the EarthTrek camp in Lotus. This is where James Marshall, the manager of Sutter’s Mill, discovered gold in the American River in January 1848, which set off the great 1849 California Gold Rush. The original mill is long since gone, but there remain extensive historical records from the time and in the 1970’s, a replica of the mill and some of the cabins that surrounded it were re-built along highway 49. The museum displays a great many photographs of Coloma during the boom years of the gold rush, confirming that this sleepy wilderness town of less than 800 souls was once a thriving metropolis that was home to some fabulously wealthy families, as well as thousands of hard luck immigrants and Native Americans hoping to strike it rich by searching the river for precious metals. But times have certainly changed and there are now many empty homes in this area seeking buyers, but most of the wealth that was once abundant here was relocated to the large cities at least a hundred years ago.
While the majority of the gold in the area was tapped out by the aggressive mining practices of the 19th Century, the geological activity of this rumbling earthquake country continues to bring more of the stuff to the surface, though in nowhere near the quantities of the old days. People still do find gold on occasion in the rivers and caves of the area, and with the economy on the skids these days, there are plenty of dreamers hoping to find even a few precious ounces still hidden away in the river.

Diorama of James Marshall's Gold discovery, along with the original tools he used as a millworker

For those who’d like to see all the photos from the 2008 American River Whitewater weekend, I’ve created a photostream on Flickr that you can see at http://www.flickr.com/photos/48152556@N00/sets/72157605131734802/

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Apahelion CXI
Terry Floyd tlfloyd@lmi.net
855 Emerald Avenue
San Leandro, CA 94577
Children grow up much too fast. All of you should be very careful out on the streets, because my youngest son, Nathan, now has a drivers license. Most of his other high school friends had to take their driving test two or three times to pass, but Nathan nailed it the first time, and we haven’t been able to keep him home at night since. Well, he did have a pretty good driving instructor (ahem, me).

Naturally, he now insists that he must have his own car, so we had to come up with some quick plans to keep ourselves mobile. I wanted very much to give him my Honda Civic so I would have an excuse to buy another motorcycle, but Pam would have none of it. She said he would have to have the Civic, but I would have to buy another car myself, something with a minimum of four wheels.

I’d actually been shopping around online through eBay and visited a couple of cycle shops before she insisted that I had to buy a car. I almost won a 1995 Harley Davidson Shovelhead in an on-line auction, and I also had my eyes on the 2006 Harley Davidson Sportster that was on sale at a dealership in Walnut Creek, but I wanted to maintain peace in the household, so I reluctantly abandoned my search for a motorcycle and returned to shopping for cars.

But not just any car. Since I had been denied my wish to purchase a gas-electric hybrid vehicle back in 2003 when we were last looking at cars, I decided that if I couldn’t have my motorcycle, I will at least try to get a hybrid.

I wanted to buy a hybrid back in 2003, when these cars were cutting edge technology, and I tested a Toyota Prius back then, but the salesman was a huge jerk, and I wasn’t at all happy with the dealership and their inflexible terms, so we next visited the local Honda dealer, only to experience more frustration. Demand for the new hybrid models was so high that they couldn’t keep any of the hybrid cars in stock, and they suggested we order one in advance and wait at least six months for delivery. That just wouldn’t do, so we ended up purchasing the conventional 4-cylinder gasoline-powered Civic.

Much has changed in the past four years, and new hybrids are all over the place and easy to find. Used hybrids, however, are not so easy to find, since the owners tend to like them a lot and don’t want to sell them until they’ve worn out. But I was lucky this time.

It took a while to find a used hybrid car that was in my price range, but thanks to CraigsList.com, I located a 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid in Hayward that was affordable. It was being offered through Honda Kars, a small shop in Hayward that specializes in Hondas. The mechanic who runs the place, Erick Ahmadzai, let me take it out for a test drive and then told me the history of the vehicle.

Late last year, the car had been stolen, and since it was not recovered for more than three weeks, the insurance company, Allstate, paid off the claim to the owner, who ended up just buying another car. Six weeks later, the car was found abandoned not far from the San Mateo Bridge and was towed to Erick’s shop. He paid a token fee for salvage rights on the vehicle and Allstate was only too happy to sign over the title to him. The car wasn’t damaged except for the back fender, which Erick replaced. He then posted the used car notice on Craigslist, where I found it by searching on the keywords Automobiles+San Francisco Area+East Bay+Hybrid. I wasn’t the first person to express interest in the car, but I was the first to show up and make an offer, so I put down a $200 cash deposit to make sure he wouldn’t sell it to anyone else. Once I had the funds to buy it outright, he gave me the keys and all the paperwork. I had to spend an afternoon at the Department of Motor Vehicles getting the title transferred, re-registering the vehicle, and paying the taxes on it, but it is now my new car.

I really like this car. It is a beautiful midnight blue, and clean as a whistle. It had 48,026 miles on the odometer, so the previous owner clearly enjoyed driving it. I haven’t had a car with a manual transmission since 1992, but it was very easy to drive. Once you’ve mastered the art of driving a standard transmission, you never forget, kind of like riding a bicycle.

The hybrid engine is pretty amazing. Toyota has patented their hybrid engines with the name “Hybrid Synergy Drive.” Honda uses a dramatically different technology that they call “Integrated Motor Assist” or “IMA.”

The Toyota Prius and Camry hybrid models have two motors, a 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric engine, and the drive train automatically switches from one motor to the other depending on speed and highway conditions. The first generation Honda IMA system, on the other hand, has one 4-cylinder gasoline engine and a smaller 20 hp electric motor integrated with the transmission that reduces the fuel consumption of the gasoline engine by giving it an electric boost whenever necessary, rather than having the carburetor increase the amount of gasoline pumped to the engine. The dashboard of the Honda Civic Hybrid shows when the engine is being assisted by the electric motor and when the battery is being charged by the regenerative braking action. The 5-speed standard transmission also reduces fuel consumption.

The battery pack is behind the rear seat, and consists of 120 D-Cell Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries. This is much smaller than the gigantic batteries in the Toyota hybrids.

Sometimes, when I stop at a red light, the engine will shut down completely, and the car will be absolutely quiet, but as soon as I release the clutch in first gear, the engine instantly comes back online and I move forward just as though I were driving a normal gasoline car. In the second generation IMA models (starting with the 2006 Civic and Accord), the electric motor is supposed to be able to take over completely even at highway speeds and shut the gasoline engine off to save fuel. Alternatively, the new V-6 Accord is reported to be able to sometimes fire only 3 of the six cylinders with the electric motor assisting it at highway speeds to further improve mileage.

The Toyota hybrids do get better gas mileage than the Hondas (62mpg in the city and 55mgp on the highway), but I am still pretty happy with the Civic, which is supposed to get 46mpg in the city and 51mpg on the highway. I only have to fill up the tank about twice a month now, so I definitely feel the improvement in my wallet. The dashboard has a constantly changing gauge that calculates the mileage while I’m driving, and it generally shows 39mpg at the lowest level and up to 48mpg at the highest. I was able to squeeze 36 mpg out of my 2003 conventional Civic under ideal conditions, so getting 45 mpg out of the hybrid may not seem all that dramatic, but with gas prices in California exceeding $3.40/gallon last spring, it gives me confidence that I made the right decision. I can easily drive over 525 miles on a single tank of gas in this car.

One of the unexpected delights of this wonderful new car is the Diamond Access OK sticker. Back when hybrids were first introduced, and fairly expensive, the Government, in its infinitely misguided wisdom, offered tax credits for consumers who purchased a hybrid car to encourage more people to buy super low emission vehicles. But this was, of course, the government and they really couldn’t afford it, so the $2000 tax credit was reduced to only $500 in 2005 and expired completely in 2006. To replace this program and keep the incentives going in California, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) offered Diamond Access OK stickers for hybrid cars, which permit these vehicles to drive in the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) carpool lanes on major California freeways without carrying the requisite minimum of 3 or more passengers. But this also proved to be too popular, and the DMV had to impose a cap on the number of Diamond Access OK stickers issued and in January 2007, they discontinued them altogether. But my Honda Hybrid has them, so even when I’m alone in the car, I can drive in the carpool lane without fear of the Highway Patrol slapping me down with a $275 fine.

I am also learning more about “hypermiling,” a method of increasing the mileage of hybrid cars to an incredible degree, far beyond what the EPA determines in their controlled tests. Some innovative Honda Insight owners maintain a website describing how they managed to hack their cars to get up to 99 miles per gallon (see http://www.99mpg.com) but they don’t indicate whether or not the same hack can be used on the Honda Civic Hybrid. Some Prius owners have managed to modify their vehicles to disable the gasoline engine altogether, and have made their cars completely all-electric plug-in machines. Of course, incorporating any of these hacks will void the vehicle warranty, but that’s just part of the fun of modifying your car. Teenage hot rod enthusiasts have been doing such things for decades. And since mine was a salvaged car anyway, I never had a dealer warranty to worry about.

Nathan is just happy to have his own car now, and is excited about graduating from High School, and finally moving up to Humboldt State University to start college. For his own reasons, he did not want to go to the same college as his brother, and he tells us that at least four of his high school buddies are going to Humboldt, so he decided to go where his friends would be and later transfer to another school in the Cal State system. Humboldt State is in Arcata, way up on the North Coast of California, not too far from Eureka. I guess he wants to get as far away from San Leandro as he can.

We sure will miss him. The house is so very quiet now that he’s gone. Our oldest son Alex and his fiancé Briana moved out of our house in 2006. They still come by to see us a few times each week, since they only live a few miles down the street, but now that Nathan is safely ensconced in the dorm at Humboldt, we probably won’t see him at all except for holidays, since Arcata is about a six hour drive away.

As we moved Nathan up to Arcata the other week, it occurred to me that it has been exactly 30 years since I moved out of my own home to begin college in Austin. I left Amarillo, Texas on the morning of August 16, 1977 in an old Ford Custom packed with most of my essential belongings. I was driving through Lubbock when I heard the news on the radio that Elvis had died. For the rest of the trip down to Austin, I couldn’t find a radio station anywhere in Texas that wasn’t playing Elvis Presley music.

I’m sure we will worry about him constantly. Even though I believe Nathan is arguably a better driver than his big brother Alex (who is already driving his second Saturn, having totaled his first one in 2005), I am still concerned when he’s out late at night and doesn’t come home on the weekends. Before he moved out, he always called us to let us know where he was when stayed overnight with friends, but when we know he’s coming home, neither of us can sleep until we hear him open the door and go to bed.

Pam calls him every day to see how he’s doing, and things seem to be going well. This is only his first week at school, so it will take a while for us to get used to this arrangement. But there are upsides to an empty nest. The whole house is much cleaner than it used to be when we often had gangs of teenagers over several nights each week playing videogames, watching DVDs or simply hanging out. We now have more room to park in the driveway and a lot more room in our refrigerator for beer (now that all the soft drinks are gone).

Mailing Comments:

Ken Gammage: As a martini lover, I was curious about the “dirty martini” you had in Florida, so I did a quick Google search to find out how one of these concoctions is made. Interesting. It’s just a regular martini with extra vermouth. The first recipe Google returned recommended adding 2 Tbsp of Olive Juice to the mixer in addition to the gin and vermouth, but if you purchase standard martini olives, they’re already packed in vermouth, so you’re just adding three times the normal amount of vermouth. My favorite martini recipe (a “classic martini” in the bar book I have), calls for only a very thin film of vermouth on top of the gin. I tried mixing a dirty martini according to that first Google recipe and found it extremely distasteful. I think I’ll stick with my classic.

Jim Bodie: I’m familiar with your description of Christmas at the Post Office. I send out our Libertarian Party newsletter every month at the Business Mail Entry Unit (Bulk Mail Office) at the Oakland Main Post Office, and the four weeks before any election are very busy there. We’re permitted to mail out our newsletters with the Political Mail red tags during the 30 days prior to the election, so our normally 3rd class mail gets delivered as if it were first class (along with all the other candidate junk mail). Political consultants always advise local candidates to use direct mail, since it is the cheapest way to communicate with voters. Only millionaires can afford television advertising, so local candidates running low-budget campaigns can use new data mining software that allows them to target only those voters who actually go to the polls, or only absentee voters, or only female voters, so they won’t waste their funds sending brochures to people who aren’t likely to vote for them or to those who register to vote, but never actually cast a ballot.

Alice Eaton: I loved reading your childhood memories about going to a rural school in the depression. Good luck finding another copy of “Little Black Sambo” though. While I, too, remember reading it in school in the sixties, it fell out of favor in the 1970s when the political correctness movement prompted a purge of many great books from the curricula of public education establishments. Even Huckleberry Finn was attacked as a racist portrayal of African Americans, even though Jim is the most noble character in the book. I also recall Sambo being an intelligent and resourceful young man who escaped from a dangerous situation and turned it to his advantage. As a young white boy about the same age when I read it, I remember that I greatly admired him. I also remember my family dining at Sambo’s Restaurants back then, but the franchise had to change its name when they were targeted by activists who claimed their use of the character as a marketing gimmick was offensive to the community. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I can understand how some could be offended, but every time we now have a meal at Baker’s Square (the restaurant chain formerly known as “Sambo’s”), I remember how things used to be when I was a kid.

Allan Beatty: It was good to see you again last month, and I’m pleased to know the difficult transition to the new environment has been relatively painless. Jobs make us do so many things that would not ordinarily be in our nature, but the security of a regular paycheck has a way of making our decisions for us. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, I would never have imagined I’d do some of the things I now have to do just to keep my job. Back then, I had no worries about finding a different job if one position didn’t work out, or I hated my boss, or a co-worker drove me nuts. I had no loyalty at all to whatever employer happened to be paying me from one week to the next. Fuck ‘em all. I wasn’t married to my employer. How different everything becomes when you have a family, children, a mortgage and all the other chains of adulthood!

Jim Bodie: I, too, feel that Johnny Cash did some of his best work in the last decade of his life. I love all of the American Recordings series. I hope your flood dreams are not premonitions, but the past few flood seasons in the South and Midwest have been pretty ominous. Time to look for higher ground?

Kennedy Gammage: It was weird to read about your return to Berkeley. Sorry we didn’t get a chance to hook up during the visit. Even though I work in Richmond now, I still have one office in Berkeley that I have to support several days each week, so I regularly see all those places you wax nostalgic about. You’ve been away from here a very long time, dude. The driftwood artworks in the Emeryville mudflats have been gone for over a decade. Berkeley is no longer much of a haven for artists. The Berkeley City Council evicted the shipyard artists colony earlier this summer, and their solar powered compound may be bulldozed into oblivion any day now (see http://theshipyard.org for details).
Nathan forgot to pack his Sirius receiver when he left for Humboldt, so now he is having to suffer from Howard Stern withdrawal. Frankly, I’m glad he no longer needs to be distracted by the foolishness. He needs more time to study. With the receiver in my control now, I can explore all the other options available with the service. I’ve been a fan of Artie Lange since the old MAD TV days, but he should have his own show, instead of being a sidekick for Stern.

Jennifer Dean: Yes, Second Life is really more about socializing than anything else. You describe it as a “glorified chatroom,” but I think it has the potential to be much more. It has been compared to the “metaverse” that plays such an integral part in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snowcrash, but isn’t quite there yet. I’m constantly amazed at how the SL community has managed to hack the environment in ways that the developers never intended (e.g., the virtual “bombing” of John Edwards’ SL Campaign Headquarters, the popularity of SL prostitution, etc.). I am curious to learn how things may develop with your SL buddy Surya. Keep us in the loop, okay?
SL has a lot of competition in the Web 2.0 world with other kinds of social networks like Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and others. I’ve gotten semi-addicted to digg.com, which has supplanted Slashdot for supremacy in my browser. Oh, yeah, I sent in my resume to Linden Labs since they’re right in San Francisco and apparently have lots of need for systems administrators. I may check to see when you’re online one of these days!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Economics for the Citizen

I had the privilege of hearing a presentation by Walter Williams at the Smith Center for Economic Studies on the Cal State East Bay Campus several years ago. That presentation was a great introduction to Dr. Williams' style as a communicator, but I never took a course under him. Thanks to the Future of Freedom Foundation, anyone with a computer can now take a very quick course in basic economics presented by one of the best teachers you'll ever meet. Dr. Williams, Professor of economics at George Mason University has put together a ten-part series of lectures he uses for his microeconomics theory course and retitled it "Economics for the Citizen." Williams uses plain language, common-sense examples and his special brand of humor to make the whole thing easy to understand.  It's too bad this kind of information isn't taught to high school students, whose grasp of economic principles is often limited or non-existent. Click on the link below to take the course. There will be a test when you finish, as there is every day when you have to make decisions about how to spend your time and your money.

Economics for the Citizen

Monday, September 04, 2006

Your Government on Drugs

�This is drugs.
These are your liberties.
And this is the government.
Any questions?� - Penn Jillette

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Six Myths About Libertarianism

Conservatives and everyone else should politely be put on notice that libertarians do not believe that everyone is good, nor that everyone is an all-wise expert on his own interest, nor that every individual is an isolated and hermetically sealed atom. Libertarians are not necessarily libertines or hedonists, nor are they necessarily atheists.

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Friday, June 30, 2006

Some of the films I've seen at the festival have been amazing. Kabul Transit was the first standout documentary I saw (outside of the Future Filmmakers Showcase, which had a couple of very good documentaries produced by high school students). The filmmakers took an unusual approach to document their time in Afghanistan, which conveys the fragmented lives of the people they met, but it works on a deep emotional level. You come away with the idea that the residents of Kabul are amazingly inventive, resilient people who will get through their struggle in spite of the "help" provided by the U.S. military and NATO.

Brothers of the Head is an adaptation of the 1977 Brian Aldiss novella that is presented in the style of a documentary, which is entirely appropriate, as it was directed by Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton who have previously made documentaries about Terry Gilliam films, e.g. Lost in La Mancha. The approach works quite well, especially in that they coached their cast individually to create the characters, helping to generate the spontenaiety of the performances. I can't predict the commercial potential of this film, since it will be very difficult to market to American audiences, but folks like me who feel nostalgic for the British punk rock invasion of the 1970's should find it terrific.

I saw two documentaries back-to-back the other day, Under the Rollercoaster, about Mae Timpano, a woman who, until 1988, lived in the house beneath the Coney Island Thunderbolt ride. I thought the idea of a family living in a house like this was made up by Woody Allen for Annie Hall, but he apparently was inspired by Mae.

The Creek Runs Red is a documentary about the toxic mining town of Picher, Oklahoma, one of the Environmental Protection Agency's first Superfund cleanup sites. After decades of cleanup work, the project has done little or nothing to reduce the levels of lead in the town's drinking water and the EPA finally decided earlier this year to simply buy out all the residents with chidren under 6 years of age. Your tax dollars at work.

Last night, we saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a wonderful mystery/detective story/expose about the Motion Picture Association of America, the secretive board that assigns ratings to movies. The film reveals that the ratings board is not at all what Jack Valenti has claimed it was for the past 34 years. Valenti has always insisted that the board consists of average parents of small children, but refused to ever identify them. What director Kirby Dick decided to do was to hire a private investigator to find out who these people were. What he discovered is that while the members of the board are indeed parents, only one of them has any children under the age of 20, and that single board member's youngest child is 17 years old. He even found out the names and occupations of the members of the MPAA's appeals board (the body to whom a filmmaker can appeal if they feel his/her film has been unfairly rated). These folks are all men, and with two exceptions, are all presidents and CEOs of theater chains, distribution companies and other major players in the film industry. The two exceptions turn out to be members of the clergy, an episcopal bishop and a representative of the Catholic church. It is both a hilarious comedy and a frightening glimpse into how censorship is practiced in the free world.

During the Question and Answer period following the film, a woman stood up and mentioned that she had actually been on the MPAA board from 1973 to 1977, and described how 20th Century Fox had pressured them to give Star Wars a PG rating instead of a G rating, because at that time, the stigma of a family-friendly G rating might have hurt the film. The studio felt that a G would have discouraged teenagers from going to see it because the lucrative demographic of teenage boys generally tend to avoid seeing movies targeted to smaller children. Valenti's whole argument for keeping the members of board anonymous was to prevent the studios from putting pressure on the board and influence them to make specific ratings decisions.