Starry Wisdom

Entropic Words from Neilathotep

Saturday, May 30, 2009

On Food and You

On Wednesday (May 27, 2009) I was lucky enough to be able to see a preview performance of the film Food, Inc. at the Metreon. It was actually a Yelp event, probably the best one I’ve been to. In addition to a preview of the movie, the filmmaker Robert Kenner, and Michael Pollan (well known for his food journalism as of late) were on hand for a Q and A after the screening.

Since I’ve been interested in the topic of this film for a long time (at least a decade if not more), and have read several major books on the subject (Pollan’s, as well as another contributor to the film, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation), and I just saw Pollan speak at at a Long Now seminar just a few weeks prior, I didn’t really learn anything new during the movie. However, it was interesting to see things I already knew reinforced by the motion picture medium. The movie is a wonderful survey of the issues related to food health and safety that are in large part a product of the colossal agribusiness system in the United States. There are many origins for the problems we have now, including the “Farm Bill”, particularly how it evolved over the last few decades of the twentieth century; the “fast food” lifestyle of the population of the United States; and, most disturbingly, the vast curtain that’s been drawn across the populations eye’s by agribusiness and their friends in the government.

Time is ripe for change in many areas, and we shouldn’t overlook our ‘food’ policy. There is a draft food safety bill currently in congress which addresses many issues of food safety that are cause for concern, but it is far from perfect. Of particular concern to me is that it seems to favor big business by the yearly fee structure, as well as the traceability requirements (particularly the interoperability clause in the bill. Now, paper or an excel spreadsheet should be interoperable, but…). $1000 a year per facility is nothing for big business, but for a small operation it’s a lot of money. True, there is an exemption for farms that sell directly to consumers and restaurants, but there are plenty of small producers who would be adversely affected. I don’t have the full picture of the economics, and I know that funding any changes is important, but this method is particularly regressive. Some sort of sliding scale based on revenue would be a better idea (or perhaps a corporate tax increase? there’s always hoping). There is also a call out to put in a requirement for facilities to self-test for pathogens and report positive results, which seems like a good idea, but not a panacea.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what this bill should do or how it should be changed to be most effective and fair. I did read this interesting blog post that argues that smaller is better, and in a lot of ways that makes sense at many levels (except the top, but frankly, feck them). Now, a small food producer is not necessarily safer than a large food producer, BUT any negative outcome of their production would be contained. And smaller generally means more local, which means savings in carbon output (but, well, this is a complex issue since the majority of carbon used in farming is in the growing of the crops, not in the transportation – and anyway, exploiting the various seasons across the country makes sense. Just because I live in CA and can get fresh produce year round from local farms doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t export our food to the rest of the country).

We’re used to some things in this country. Super cheap junk food, cheap meat, and expensive vegetables. This leads to a particularly awful, unhealthy, and ecologically unsound diet. A little bit of change in the way americans eat (and the way our food is provided), could have vast implications in our health, and environment. It’s a very tangled web, and I could probably talk or write about this for hours and still be making almost no sense to anyone who is new to the issues. But the important thing I want to do is get people thinking, because thinking about these issues brings up some inconvenient truths. And I can’t see a better way to get this into the mainstream than Kenner’s movie. I urge everyone to see it, and to suggest it to everyone they know. I also urge you to contact your congresspeople and urge them to give us a useful and sane food safety bill – something that’s been needed for a long time.

posted by neil at 1:56 pm
under food,politics,rambling  

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Outcome

So, I failed in my quest to babble about all six ballot props, but you can rest assured that 1E was as misguided as the rest of them. I guess the populace wasn’t really hearing it either, since the results of the election were pretty pathetic (source: Secretary of State’s Web Site):

outcome Proposition Title Yes Votes % No Votes %
N 1A “Rainy Day” Budget Stabilization Fund 1,334,724 34.1% 2,569,677 65.9%
N 1B Education Funding. Payment Plan. 1,460,630 37.4% 2,435,276 62.6%
N 1C Lottery Modernization Act 1,376,145 35.4% 2,507,236 64.6%
N 1D Children’s Services Funding 1,331,624 34.3% 2,550,562 65.7%
N 1E Mental Health Funding 1,299,638 33.6% 2,563,412 66.4%
Y 1F Elected Officials Salaries 2,874,524 73.9% 1,016,557 26.1%

The only thing that passed is the “useless anyway you look at it” Proposition 1F. But really as a whole, you can see this election as a referendum on the Legislature. They aren’t doing what we are electing them to do, and I hope that people remember this at the next general election and vote them out. In the meanwhile, maybe they’ll do their job. This goes double for the GOP members who have to learn that occasionally one must “disagree and commit”.

posted by neil at 10:46 am
under 2009 special election,politics  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Proposition 1F (aka the feel-good Amendment)

I’m going to go out of order here and post about 1F before doing 1D and 1E in the next day or two.

Here is the text of 1F from the ballot:

Proposition 1F. Elected Officials’ Salaries. Prevents Pay Increases During Budget Deficit Years — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Encourages balanced state budgets by preventing elected Members of the Legislature and statewide constitutional officers, including the Governor, from receiving pay raises in years when the state is running a deficit. Directs the Director of Finance to determine whether a given year is a deficit year. Prevents the Citizens Compensation Commission from increasing elected officials’ salaries in years when the state Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties is in the negative by an amount equal to or greater than one percent of the General Fund. Fiscal Impact: Minor state savings related to elected state officials’ salaries in some cases when the state is expected to end the year with a budget deficit.

I guess I can’t really argue with this in substance. There is nothing wrong with the Legislature not getting raises in deficit years, but this is also a brain dead amendment which we shouldn’t need. Putting this on the ballot is to let the electorate pat themselves son the back and make them feel like they did something good – although, as Chris Rock says, you don’t give people credit for not doing what their not supposed to do.

It seems that there is a pretty good chance that this is the only measure that will pass. And well, I don’t really care either way on it. It’s not going to really fix anything, but it won’t hurt either. So yea, let’s all feel-good!

posted by neil at 2:55 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Monday, May 11, 2009

Proposition 1C – The Lottery Fiasco

From what I can tell, the Lottery in California is considered to be a failure. It passed in 1984 (Prop 37) as a way to raise more money for education without raising taxes, but the general sentiment is that it hasn’t been particular effective. And because of this, the legislature now wants to bet that it will be successful in the future, and borrow against this future success. Oh, and and the same time, the limitation towards only spending the proceeds towards education is going to go away. Instead the legislature would need to appropriate general fund revenues equal to the 2009-2009 lottery year (adjusted for inflation, student counts, etc) per perpetuity. So, a bumper crop of lottery would mean nary for education.

The real purpose of this bill is to allow deficit spending (a violation of the current balanced budget amendment passed in Prop 58). Borrowing agains the future to pay the present is clearly the proper solution to any sort of budget. Never mind that future revenues are unpredictable. Never mind that the reason the lottery likely passed in the first place was that it was designed to fund ONLY education. It’s just “slight of math” to look impressive and do nothing of true value.

posted by neil at 10:09 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Propositions 1A and 1B

Warning – ranty post below.

Originally I planned to write an entry for each of the six ballot propositions, and explore them separately, but there is no separating 1B from 1A (for reasons tobeexplained below) so I am going to treat them as a package.

First of all, let’s look at the two measures as they appear on the ballot:

Proposition 1A. State Budget. Changes California Budget Process. Limits State Spending. Increases “Rainy Day” Budget Stabilization Fund — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Changes the budget process. Could limit future deficits and spending by increasing the size of the state “rainy day” fund and requiring above-average revenues to be deposited into it, for use during economic downturns and other purposes.

Proposition 1B. Education Funding. Payment Plan — State of California (Legislative Constitutional Amendment – Majority Approval Required)
Requires supplemental payments to local school districts and community colleges to address recent budget cuts.

Now, something important that does not come across from these is that 1B can only be enacted if 1A also passes. The relevant text in 1B, for the record:

Measure Linked to Proposition 1A. The funding mechanism for making the supplemental payments established in this measure is provided in Proposition 1A, also on this ballot. That measure establishes a Supplemental Education Payment Account and requires the state to annually deposit 1.5 percent of General Fund revenues into the account, beginning in 2011–12. These funds would be put into the account annually until the entire $9.3 billion in supplemental payments had been provided. If Proposition 1A is not approved by the voters, the provisions of this measure would not go into effect, and there would be no obligation to make $9.3 billion in supplemental payments. situation. Method of Paying Maintenance Factor Also Unclear. The second issue relates to how the maintenance factor (from previous years) is paid in a Test 1 year. One interpretation is that maintenance factor payments are to be made on top of the Test 1 level. A second interpretation is that maintenance factor payments are to be made on top of the Test 2 level. Because the Test 1 level is expected to be significantly higher than the Test 2 level in 2009–10, the first interpretation could result in a significantly higher minimum guarantee in 2009–10.

Basically, this is candy thrown at the teacher’s union to get them to support 1A, which is really not in the citizens’ true interest to support. As things are now, the budget is full of obscure formulas amended to the constitution by previous voter propositions (including 98, and 13). 1A uses a linear regression to determine the historic trends that would contribute to this new “rainy day fund”, which is not inherently bad, but it is math that is above what most people care to understand. It also is full of ifs and maybes, and new taxes (which I mentioned before – increased sales tax and personal income tax – while at the same time corporate income tax is being cut). I am not inherently against new taxes, of course, but the places where the taxes are added and where they are cut seem to be misguided, and are only there because the Republican minority only cares about Big Business, as opposed to the Democratic majority who care about Big Business and the common citizen (a small but important difference).

Anyway, here’s the thing – legislators are elected to do a job. The job description includes creating the state budget. They fail at their job, and they expect the people who elected them to come save them. That’s just ludicrous. They think that having the budget 100% codified in the state constitution will protect their interests – and maybe it would protect some GOP interests, but it’s not the way you run a state. You can’t codify any situation, and it seems like all this work is to prevent a problem that already happened, without dealing with the possibilities of other problems. It’s a so-called “band-aid’ solution – cover up the wound, pretend it has gone away, and meanwhile the state bleeds out.

In my work experience I’ve heard a phrase “disagree and commit” this is something one might do when they realize that the majority is against them in a situation, they want to make it known that they are against what is going on, but that they will commit to doing what the majority is for to the best of their ability. If the minority of the state legislature had a microgram of honor or respectability in them they would do this very thing in order to pass a budget – then they could say “I told you so” if and when it failed, and then get big gains in the next election. Of course they know that’s not going to happen because most of the state does not believe in their policies, but because of Prop 13, they can throw a childish hissy fit and shoehorn their way in.

I want to be clear, I’m all for giving money to education, and I respect the idea of prop 1B (if not the means that would get the end) but this is a case where I firmly believe the means do not justify the end. The only way to fix education and the budget over all is with real reform – probably repealing all the budget related amendments and amending the Constitution to make ballot prop amendments much harder to initiate and pass. I firmly believe the populists who created the California ballot initiative system had the best interest of the population in heart, but were rather shortsighted and did not see how easily it could be exploited.

Another argument against these overall is that the amendments that we already have aren’t even being properly followed. 1B is basically a “catch-up” proposition for the twenty year old Prop 98, which mandated K-14 spending which just didn’t happen. Why should we believe that anything else that is codified in the constitution will happen (well that’s not in Prop 13, which clearly does happen).

Basically, since I don’t believe in 1A at all, that also means that I am against 1B, although I am not strongly against it. It’s all shell games though, and the best way to win those is not to play.

posted by neil at 2:43 pm
under 2009 special election,politics  

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More About the Special Election

Ok, I promised to write more about this, so I will. The reason why we have to have this special election rather disgusts me. Basically, it is a kowtow to the minority Republicans in the state legislature, who really only have one goal – to lower taxes for corporations. This is clear because the budget that was provisionally passed (more on this in a bit) includes lots of cuts in services, while at the same time lowering corporate taxes permanently, but allowing for personal income tax to increase. This is simply amazing. And the reason why they were able to this is that the budget requires a two-thirds vote to pass, thanks to Prop 13, and of course the state needs a balanced budget because unlike the US government California cannot print money.

So the state needed to pass a budget because otherwise no one would get paid (including people getting tax refunds) and to pass a budget, the Governor and majority had to deal with the minority. And the way the deal worked out was “we will pass this budget, but we need a special election with the following constitutional amendments on it, and if they don’t pass, the budget is toast come February.” And what do they all contain? More constraints on how money is spent, and backdoors for lowering taxes when times are good (we’ll talk about this when I discuss 1A).

There is a second demon from Prop 13 that has lead to this path, of course. The property tax limitations limits income when times are rough – the state’s main and pretty much only way to generate revenue is via personal income tax, because corporate income tax gets axed by the Republican minority, and because corporate property is taxed at its value in the 1970s.

What to do? Start over. Raise the constitution and reconvene to make it new. Not going to happen, but I think that’s the only solution. Note this is basically a rant, and not really meant as anything else. Useful information in this series will begin in my next post on the subject, to discuss Prop 1A.

posted by neil at 8:56 pm
under 2009 special election,politics,rambling  

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Howard Jarvis’ Legacy

30 years ago Prop 13 passed in California, ballot measure that basically limited property tax, but also made almost anything to do with collecting or spending revenue in CA impossible. Now, partly because of the stipulations of this ammendment to the state constitution, we have a special election next month.

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to go over the 6 ballot initiatives. Now, I reckon that the majority of my dozen or so readers don’t care a bit about this, but that’s OK, because this is more an exercise for myself than anything else – I want to know what the effects of these ballot initiatives will really be, but I also intend to dig in to the strange situation that led to this election, which is basically fallout from the way budgets must be passed. More on this tonight.

posted by neil at 10:43 am
under 2009 special election,politics  

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

Well, the day is finally here, and our 44th president has been sworn in. Of course there is no immediate change, but I am hopeful that good things will happen under President Barack Hussein Obama. I watched the inauguration in a break area at work this morning. I have to admit that the views of the Mall made me think of Fallout 3, and I kept looking to see super mutants, which thankfully did not appear.

posted by neil at 2:01 pm
under politics  

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ballot Measures and Moral Corruption

People in California, as well as those aware of current politics might be familiar with Proposition 8 on California’s ballot this November:


Proponents of this measure, (funded in large part by the Mormons, but we don’t have to get in to this yet), have been relying on lies and FUD to encourage people to vote for it. The measure not passing will not endanger the tax-exempt status of any church that refuses to perform same-sex marriages and will not require kindergarteners to learn that same-sex marriage is anything special. The measure not passing will certianly not cause any damage to marriage, which already has a high divorce rate in the United States. The only excuse for voting for 8 is bigotry and closed-mindedness. This is not the point of this post however.

The point is that the Yes on 8 crowd has reached a new low:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Leaders of the campaign to outlaw same-sex marriage in California made an offer to businesses that have given money to the state’s largest gay-rights group: Give us money or we’ll publicly identify you as opponents of traditional unions.

I am not quite certain when extortion became a family value, and when it was considered righteous, but there we have it. It’s important to note that this is direct from ProtectMarriage, the organization behind the misguided ballot measure. There are plenty of shennanigans being perpetrated by No on 8 folk – even including publishing the names of Yes on 8 folk, but to my knowledge, never contigent on getting a matching donation to avoid the publication.

If you have the inclination, consider donating to the No on Prop 8 people. Maybe you too can be extortioned. And if you are in California please vote no on 8 – because equality is best.

posted by neil at 1:51 pm
under politics  

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The past weekend

My mom was in town from Thursday evening until Monday morning. I will go over some highlights of the weekend:

After picking her up from SFO and dropping her stuff off at the house, we went to eat at Liberty Cafe in Bernal. I had a pot pie and I burned my tongue a bit on it. This was unfortunate because the next day we went up to St Helena and Calistoga.

While “up north” we took a tour at Ehlers Estate Winery, which is an organic and not-for-profit winery – all their profits are invested in cardiovascular research.

We happened to be there on one of the last few pressing days of the year, so we got to see some sorting action, and sample the cabernet sauvignon grapes. They were actually remarkably delicious – quite sweet, but not cloying, and with a rich flavor. The put green globe and red flame grapes to shame!

After the tour we had a tasting of their merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon wines. They were all pretty good, but die to my tongue burn I think I might have missed some nuance. Regadless, I like the franc enough to buy a bottle of it.

After the winery we had a decent lunch in Calistoga, and then went up to the Petrified Forest. This was a rather interesitng, albeit overly touristy place. Still, giant fossilized trees are rather impressive.

I decided to take my mom to dinner at my favorite sushi restaurant, Sakae in Burlingame. I discovered it soon after she left the last time she was in the area, so I figured it would be nice to take her there. We both greatly enjoyed our meals (it was the first time I had really good (not from Mollie Stone’s) sushi in months. After dinner I took my mom to Lucky 13 where people I knew were meeting for happy hour. We hung around for an hour of so, and my mom got to meet some of my friends.

Saturday we visited the newly opened California Academy of Sciences. Parking was a bit of a mess, but we actually managed to find a street spot about half a mile away from the museum. While walking across the plaza between the De Young and CAS we came across a guy registering people to vote, and we each donated a dollar for an Obama button. And then we entered the zoo that is the CAS on Saturday two weeks after opening.

The first thing that we did was get tickets for the planetarium – it was 12:30 and there were tickets for the 3:30 show, which seemed reasonable enough. We spent the next 3 hours looking at most of the exhibits – the overall highlight was the living roof, for me, but there were some good tanks in the Aquarium. The one major exhibit we did not visit was the rain forest “dome”. The line was just too long. The planetarium show was indeed neat, and it should be something on everyone who visit the museum’s agenda.

After the museum we headed back to my place and got ready to go to dinner:

You might be asking yourself “Oh, why are they dressed so nicely?” The answer of course is that we were going to Gary Danko for dinner. I could bore you with details of the dinner, but I will just give you a capsule summary: exquisite. Seriously it was fantastic from the physical restaurant, to the food (well one dish was only REALLY REALLY good, but the rest were so good, I am willing to overlook that) to the staff. We had a great time and a fantastic meal. And we were very full.

Sunday was a chill day – mom had to grade some papers, so we hung around the house for the morning, then went down to Sunnyvale that afternoon to visit with my friend Erin and her two young cats (just a little old to be kittens now). We went to dinner at my favorite mexican place, Vive Sol, and that pretty much was the end of the weekend. I took mom to the airport Monday morning before going in to work.

posted by neil at 6:45 pm
under adventure,emo,politics,rambling  
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