Friday, October 22, 2010

Full Disclosure 2010

I absolutely love voting in California elections.  They're just so fascinating!

Having recently moved, I've been getting up to speed on local politics. San Mateo County isn't nearly as, um, colorful as San Francisco when it comes to local races and initiatives, but there's still plenty going on.

Without further ado, here's how I cast my secret ballot.
  • Governor: Jerry Brown. Brown's awesome. He's intelligent, thoughtful, curious, engaging... I have no idea whether we'll get the 1970's Brown or the one who's running today, but I think we'll get the right man for the job.
  • Lt. Governor: I held my nose and voted for Newsom. I was actually planning on voting for Maldonado up until a few weeks ago; I really admire his courage in breaking with his party, I tend to prefer moderates, and Newsom just rubs me the wrong way. In the debates, though, Newsom shows much better temperament and, more importantly, a stronger grasp of California's problems than Maldonado. So it goes. I kinda hope that Newsom goes back into business after this term.
  • Secretary of State: Debra Bowen. A good technocrat who's fulfilled her role well and should continue to do the same.
  • Controller: John Chiang. He's one of the few grown-ups in Sacramento.
  • Treasurer: Bill Lockyer. Yikes, I really didn't mean to vote a straight Democratic ticket, but that's how it came out. Anyways, like Chiang, Lockyer has performed admirable well with a Legislature that seems physically incapable of passing a reasonable budget, or doing anything in a decent span of time.
  • Attorney General: Kamala Harris. Harris is the only candidate who I donated to during this cycle, and she both deserves and needs it. She's in a tough race, I hope she pulls through... Attorney General is too important of an office to lose, especially in California.
  • Insurance Commissioner: Pass.
  • State Board of Equalization: Pass.
  • U. S. Senator: Boxer. Boxer's good, but Fiorina is just awful. As much as I love Brown, I won't get too upset if Whitman beats him - she'd do a decent, not spectacular job as Governor - but if Fiorina becomes my Senator, I'll throw a fit.
  • U. S. Representative: Jackie Speier. I'm a bit sad that I never got to vote for Tom Lantos. Speier seems to be doing a good job.
  • State Senator: Leland Yee. I'm actually pretty irritated at Yee - voting against getting a budget done is immature. Still, that isn't a firing offense, and I've liked him otherwise.
  • Assembly: Jerry Hill. I actually really like Hill; even before I moved, I was impressed at his level of engagement with his constituents, and he seems to be quite active in the Legislature. 
  • Judicial: Pass on all. 
  • Board of Supervisors: Don Horsley. He was the only high-speed rail supporter in the primary, and he has my full support now.
  • Treasurer/Tax Collector: Sandie Arnott. The Lehman thing totally wasn't her fault, and she seems to be doing a good job. I'm not super invested in this race, and won't be upset if she loses, but would be happy to have that stability in the office.
  • County Harbor District: Pass.
  • Prop 19: Yes. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!)
  • Prop 20: No. I would totally get behind this if it were done at the national level, but doing it just within California would significantly weaken us at the federal level. I'm a big fan of redistricting reform in general, but nationally, Congress is in much better shape than Sacramento.
  • Prop 21: Yes. Sure, it's fiscally irresponsible, but hey: I love my parks! And they really are hurting quite badly these days. I like the idea of carving them out of the budget.
  • Prop 22: Yes! California's tax system is the most Byzantine thing ever, and what's even worse is that when Sacramento can't pass a budget (which is ALWAYS), then NO city anywhere in the entire state can budget either. We just have no idea how much the state is giving or taking that year. Sacramento's fiscal irresponsibility shouldn't penalize well-run cities. 
  • Prop 23: No! AB32 is a national model, we need to keep those incentives in place to transform our economy.
  • Prop 24: I voted "Yes," but it's kind of a wash for me... it's undoing something that got a budget passed before, and if this becomes a habit, I can see it becoming even MORE difficult to pass budgets. If that's possible.
  • Prop 25: YES YES YES. The two-thirds requirement is insane. This should have happened ages ago.
  • Prop 26: Heck no! 
  • Prop 27: Nope! Like I said, I dig redistricting reform. I'm growing more skeptical that it will be the panacea we hope for, but we need to give it a chance.
  • Measure O: I was actually planning on voting Yes, but I ended up following the Daily Journal's recommendation and voting No instead. I'm really not plugged into the school system here, so I'll take their word for it this time around.
  • Measure M: Uh, sure, why not?
  • Measure U: Yeah. Not a big deal either way, but I can see why that would be better.

And that's it! Remember, election day is November 2nd, a week from Tuesday. Do like I do and research, then mail your ballot in now (have I mentioned how much I love voting in California?) so you can kick back and ignore all the political stuff for the rest of the season. Happy voting!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Watering Can

Another year, another Blog Action Day!  And hey, this time it isn't about climate change.  Yay variety!  Instead, it is a slightly related topic: Water.

I never used to think about water much before I moved to California.  It was just something that came out of a tap.  We would sometimes talk about Lake Michigan water, as opposed to other kinds of water, but that was simply a matter of taste.

I'm now living in a part of the country where it simply doesn't rain for about six months out of the year, and most of our rain occurs during a stretch from December-February.  This is a land that has rationed water use in the past, and may need to do so in the future.  It's a place where all the grass turns brown during the summer.  Water is a major political topic, and an incredibly complex one at that, pitching farmers, environmentalists, suburban homeowners, fishermen, power companies, and residents in the Central Valley all against one another.

The root problem is scarcity.  We don't get much rain, we don't have large sources of freshwater, and so we need to manage what we have.  During the rainy season, this isn't as big of a problem: local communities can collect rainwater in reservoirs and use that.  To keep hydrated throughout the year, though, we rely on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the eastern edge of the state.  When spring comes, the snow melts, and flows in giant rivers into the Central Valley.  From there... well, that's just the question.  Local farmers want to use it to water their crops.  Residents in Southern California want to use it to water their lawns.  Fishermen want to make sure enough water remains in the river so salmon can swim back upstream to respawn.  Environmentalists want to make sure that, while diverting water to other uses, the dams don't kill off endangered species like the delta smelt.  San Francisco wants to make sure they get enough water to drink.  And on and on.

It's pretty amazing that we can even have this argument.  For almost all of human history, water was local.  People would move around to follow water: nomads would move on to another oasis when their present one dried up; tribes would move their camps during the wet and dry seasons.  With the invention of irrigation (thanks, Civilization!), we could move around water to suit our own needs.  Now, a city could be built away from rivers with dangerous flooding, and long rows of ditches would carry water where it needed to go to water crops.

The industrialization of our society made this change even more dramatic.  We can use millions of tons of concrete to build gigantic dams, with the ability to completely reverse the flow of a river.  We can use locks and canals to bring ships far inland.  Gigantic public works projects can create impossible cities, like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which could not exist without carrying in hundreds of billions of gallons of water each year.

It's tempting to say that we need to stop what we're doing.  California is straining at the limits of what it can achieve by shuffling around the limited water it has.  Population has boomed, we've already squeezed out almost all the efficiency we can through technology changes like low-flow toilets and showers, and with the specter of climate change looming, it seems likely that we'll have less and less water to work with.  People talk about California needing to downsize, to stop messing with nature, to clear out of the places that require engineering to be livable.

I understand the impulse, but I have to disagree.  Probably the best example is the Central Valley itself.  Without the elaborate system of canals and irrigation created by the Army Corp of Engineers, this would just be a desert.  With that infrastructure, though, it's arguably the best agricultural region in the entire world, and provides the lion's share of our nations's vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  It's a calculation we have to make: is the investment of water worth the result we get?  I think the answer is "Yes".

We need to start getting better at asking that question, and better at picking our answers.  We no longer have enough water to meet all of our needs, so we need to prioritize those needs.  Is a green lawn nice?  Yes.  Are salmon nice?  Yes.  Well, suppose we can't have both.  Which should we choose?

There are no easy answers.  We can keep working towards future technological solutions like desalination plants and wastewater recycling, but those are incredibly expensive and may not provide a panacea.  We need to have honest political discussions about what to do with the water we have.  Inevitably, those discussions will become arguments, and politicians will make enemies no matter what they decide.  We, as citizens, should hold our leaders accountable: they should act like adults, be truthful about the situation we face, and clearly present the tradeoffs we can make.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Made Men

Let me get this off my chest first: No, I have no idea whether Cory Doctorow and E. L. Doctorow are related.  As I'm writing this, I have no Internet connection, and won't remember to look it up before I post.


I've been vaguely aware of Cory Doctorow for years now, while not being totally sure of exactly what he does.  Turns out that's because he does a bit of everything: he's a rather famous blogger, and also a novelist, and all-around tech muse.  I know him best from an awesome cameo he made on XKCD a while back.

I stumbled across "Makers" in the library one day and grabbed it.  I don't think it's his best-known book, though I don't know what is.  I don't think he does series, so it's probably fine to tackle them in any order.

That said, I get the feeling that his books are probably most enjoyable early on.  Makers is a little bit like Halting State in that it's a sci-fi book that's set only a few years in the future.  It was written in... 2008, I think? - and starts sometime during this decade.  The whole course of the book spans several decades, and it's pretty self-consciously proud that nearly all of the raw technology in the book exists today.  The Makers aren't creating new substances; they're arranging existing substances in ways that people haven't thought of before.


Makers starts out as a huge love letter to the Maker movement, as exemplified in Make Magazine and the Maker Faire.  I think they're most popular here in the Bay Area, but have a national presence.  Makers construct physical, tech-savvy do-it-yourself projects, which tend to be fun or quirky, occasionally filling a useful niche.  The physical products of makers look like something from a science fair, Jerry Lewis movie, or mad scientist's lab.  The ethos and spirit of the movement, though, draws pretty directly from the open source software movement.  Makers aren't proprietary or out to make a buck; they build on what others have done, inspire one another, publish all their designs, and continually improve on them.

The Makers in this book are Perry and Lester, a classical geek duo.  Perry is more charismatic and social; Lester is brilliant, huge, and more shy.  Or at least they start that way.  This is a big book, that spans many years and events, and their personalities also shift as they grow older.

Although Perry and Lester are the main characters, we don't meet them for a while.  The book starts out with Suzanne, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.  Let me stop here and say that I'm just amazed at how well Doctorow captures everything about the Bay Area: he totally nails everything, from our media to our geography to the culture to the companies to the food to the people.  He doesn't really flog it, but his easy mastery of the topic is impressive: he'll casually describe Suzanne's drive up 280, and I'll think, "I KNOW that spot he's talking about!", and he'll describe her house, and I'll think, "I've SEEN houses like hers!," and he'll talk about how she got the house, and I'll think, "Wow, everyone I know who has a house got theirs the same way!"

It's all so good that I got a little sad when the action shifted to Florida, where Lester and Perry are based.  Doctorow is probably just as accurate with that region as he is with the Bay Area, but I don't know it as well, so I can't appreciate it as much; plus, strip malls and shantytowns don't do much for me, whether they're accurately rendered or not.

Like I said before, the book is huge.  It's divided into three sections, but the second and third are rather contiguous.  The first part is the most fun: it's a straight-out, full-on optimistic geek-fest, all about excited people building cool stuff.  Doctorow has some amazing stuff in here, as he trots out nifty inventions that are totally possible today.  Some of these are incredibly useful; one of the best ideas is a two-compartment dishwasher, so you can load dirty dishes in one side before unloading the clean dishes in the other.  (At my office, this would save me all kinds of distress.)  There's also the universal organizer: tag everything with RFID, and place everything in receptacles.  Then, whenever you need ANYTHING, just say its name, and the receptacle glows.

Other inventions are useless and fun.  The most vivid is the Boogie Woogie Elmo Mobile.  This takes a collection of cast-off animatronic Elmo dolls, and then networks them: not via wifi or bluetooth, but via voice.  The Elmo dolls call out to each other, watch what they are doing, and then work together to drive a golf cart around.  Doctorow describes this so well that you can hardly keep from laughing.  Other awesome inventions include analog computers, such as one that accepts barbie doll heads, performs mathematical operations, and then dispenses the answer as a quantity of brown M&Ms.

Ooh, speaking of M&Ms... one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is how confidently Doctorow uses trademarks and company names.  Very few authors have the guts to do this.  Part of it may be out of a fear of litigation, but it's also considered very bad form: when I took a fiction writing class back in college, my professor only had two rules for us: don't use weather to establish a mood, and don't include any brand names.  Well, here, it totally works.  This starts out as a book about making stuff, but it's largely about companies and products and competition, and especially since it's set in the near-future, it wouldn't be at all believable if it skimped out on the brands.

And so we have them.  Not just named, but also judged.  In the first few pages, we learn that Kodak and Duracell have been hostilely taken over, due to their slumping stock price and inability to innovate.  Yahoo! is dismissed near the end of the book as a forgotten company.  And, starting in the second section of the book, Disney emerges as the primary villain.  This is delicious - Disney is infamous among copyright-reform folks for their single-handed chokehold on intellectual property laws in the United States.  Disney is a bit different here - the company has been taken over and then split apart into independent corporations, including Disney Products and Disney Parks. 

The second section of the book opens after the Maker movement (described here as New Work, which I kept mis-reading as New York) falls apart.  I never totally got the reason why - the money dries up, which is fine, but people were making stuff before they got any money, and it seems weird that they would stop.  I get the impression that people got fed up with the stuff people were creating, which, again, seems weird... it reminds me of the old saw about the Patent Office head declaring that all useful inventions had already been created.

The second and third sections of the book follow a more conventional narrative drive.  There wasn't really a villain in the first part, although there was some conflict and some unpleasant personalities.  The latter part of the book starts in a state of subdued depression: the economy's in a funk, people aren't inventing stuff, etc.   It largely chronicles Lester and Perry's resurgence, building on the ashes of the New Work movement, and in the process creating The Ride, a sort of physical wiki.  The Ride becomes a cultural phenomenon, which drives certain elements at Disney crazy, and hence is the conflict born.

This part of the book also widens the scope of characters a lot.  The first section was almost all Suzanne; when we see Lester and Perry, it's usually through her eyes.  Here, we get more people in their own voices: Lester and Perry, and also Sammy (a ladder-climbing Disney executive), Death Waits (a goth kid who is fired from Disney Parks and becomes a fervent believer in The Ride), Suzanne again (now remade as a European sophisticate), and more.  I think my favorite here was Kettlewell, the Silicon Valley millionaire who got New Work rolling in the first part of the book.  Kettlewell was always a fun, exuberant presence, but you never really got a feel for what made him tick.  Now, you can follow things from his perspective, and his character really deepens as a result.

It's harder to like the second part of the book, but I think that's part of the point.  There are very strong analogies with the dot-com boom and bust here: the huge sense of optimism and exuberance, followed by the crushing defeat and malaise, followed by tentative steps at rebuilding and, eventually, surpassing what came before.  I don't think that Makers is an analogy of the dot-com boom; rather, Doctorow sees it as part of the natural order of business and society.  We shoot for the stars, we get shot down, we rebuild and try something else, something better.


So, now that that's done, all I need to do is find myself an E. L. Doctorow book and start reading that.  Somehow I doubt I'll find as many robots and 3D Printers in there, but it should still be a good time.