Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A better way to elect a President

The current way of electing the President of the United States is limiting and unfair.

It is limiting in that our choices are self-selected candidates from two tired old parties. This further limits our choices in that they must appeal to the "base" of either party, even if the rest of the country sees different problems and solutions than either "base".

It is unfair in that people who have no affiliation with either party get to vote to select a party's candidates. It is also unfair that people who have leanings toward one party or are even affiliated with that party get to vote for a candidate in the other party. It is also unfair that party members are now supposed to rally behind a candidate that was not of their choosing.

If we're going to have such "grass roots" selection, let's really make the start of the process "grass roots". In the spring before the presidential election, all voters can submit the names of an eligible pair to run for a president. How wide open this part should be is open to discussion. It could be by online voting, by petition with a certain number of signatures, or by a mail-in ballot.

Order the candidates by nominations and select the candidates whose nomination totals add up to some threshold. Or take the top so many candidates. Now the entire voting population can select one candidate.

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, we repeat the process until one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Depending on how many candidates we start with, it could take four to six cycles.

Will Americans turn out so many times to vote? Maybe, maybe not. But all the candidates, and all civic-minded citizens should stress the importance of voting. Supporters of this system should also stress the alternative of absentee voting.

This idea will meet much resistance, but if we keep doing things as we have, we are going to be stuck with more of the same old, same old.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How to end the "war on drugs" in one fell swoop

A friend wrote that her brother had a fire in his apartment. When the fire marshal investigated, he found marijuana residue. As a result the brother lost his teaching job. Would a teacher have lost his job if the fire marshal had found alcohol?

Isn't it time we end the war on drugs? It certainly hasn't succeeded, it costs lots of money for enforcement, it leads to violent crime, and it doesn't make us friends in foreign countries when we aid unpopular governments in the eradication of the plants.

Isn't it time we treat drugs the same as we do alcohol? People get in trouble when they pose a public risk: driving under the influence or being a public nuisance. Shouldn't we only concern ourselves with the use of drugs when the use directly impinges on us? We don't worry about people getting drunk in their own homes; should we worry about people getting high in their own homes?

A lot of money and law enforcement personnel were wasted during Prohibition. Not only was time and money wasted looking for alcohol, but even more was wasted fighting the dealers. Didn't we learn anything from this?

Now instead of wasting these resources on enforcing the unenforceable, we regulate the sale and use of alcohol at a much lower cost and also gain tax revenue from its sale. Isn't time we did the same with drugs?

We would save money in enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. We would gain money in taxation. We could use the gain to provide many more productive public services.

How to reduce the price of gas

The quickest way to reduce the price of gasoline is to stop driving. Unfortunately, too many people would rather drive than take the bus. The next quickest way is to price gas in liters. Just think, the current $3.459/gal. in Duluth could become $0.909/liter.

This has the added benefit of making comparison with other countries easier. One would only have to convert euros or yen or whatever to dollars instead of first converting liters to gallons and then currency to dollars.

A third benefit, probably short-lived, is that gas would once again be below $1.00 per unit.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I may never fly again

Where have the friendly skies gone? Well, skies are still friendly, at least staff-wise. Counter personnel and cabin attendants do their best to be friendly to all. Even the security inspectors do their best to be friendly and helpful, even when you forget that liquid in your carry-on luggage.

But the security inspection is the middle of the hassle that flying has become. The parking and drop-off areas are more and more crowded. The lines are long at check-in. Then you have to stand in a long line at security, empty your pockets of keys, change, and other paraphernalia (you did leave your pocket knife at home, didn't you?), take off your shoes and belt, and put your cell phone, PDA, camera, and laptop in the box. Because of the long lines, you feel rushed doing all of this.

You've successfully gotten through security without forgetting anything or without having anything confiscated, and now you can relax, sort of. You still have to find a seat in the lounge, hopefully enough together for all in your group. Thank goodness that airports are now smoke-free.

Finally your plane is ready to board. There's no hurry because they won't leave the gate until everybody is buckled in. Still, it is a pain to wait for somebody with their butt in the aisle while they put their stuff in the overhead bin. Then of course you have a middle or window seat and the person in the aisle seat is already in place, You finally manage to sidle into your seat, find the seat belt ends, and buckle up. If you're lucky the plane takes off in the next fifteen minutes.

The plane finally gets to cruising altitude and you open a book to read. But suddenly the seat in front of you comes practically in your face. The person in front wants to nap and doesn't even consider how close the seat top comes to you. It's even worse if you were hoping to work on your laptop.

If the flight is more than a couple of hours of long, you start to get tense in your legs because you can't move them much. It is almost too much effort to get out, even if you have an aisle seat. If you are on a transoceanic flight, the airline will run a video about exercise. The trim young lady is shown doing all of her stretches without a seat in front of her or any other passengers by her side. If you try any of these exercises, you bump your shin against the seat in front of you or put your elbow in your neighbor's eye.

Finally, after much fidgeting and catnapping, you land at your destination airport. As soon as the plane stops, half the passengers pop up and start getting their belongings from the overhead bins. If you have other luggage it doesn't matter how fast you get off the plane. Even if you're the last person off and walk very slowly to baggage claim, your baggage won't be ready.

When you get to baggage claim, half the passengers are jammed right up the the carousel, even if their bag is nowhere in sight. You have to watch carefully between heads or arms for yours. If it comes, you bowl three or four people over as you try to right your moving bag, get a good grip on it, and heave it over the lip of the carousel. On the other hand, in some ridiculously high percentage of the time, one or more of your bags may not arrive at all. This is especially true if you had connecting flights, even on the same airline.

Matters are more complicated if your flight crosses some man-made line, referred to as an international border. You have to stand in one or two more lines, one to prove who you are and where you live, and another to prove you aren't smuggling in any prohibited material. Generally the second is perfunctory; you just walk on by. Again, the people who staff these barriers are generally friendly, or at least courteous. But the system is a great nuisance. If you live in the United States, aren't you glad each state isn't a separate country?

After our trip to Japan last year I said I never wanted to fly again. The U.S-Japan leg was bad enough, but we made it a three-day, three leg trip each way. We were accompanying my 92-year-old mother-in-law who lived outside Toronto. Our trip was Minneapolis-Toronto, Toronto-Chicago, Chicago-Tokyo and the reverse. If I couldn't drive to a place, I wouldn't travel again.

So, for Christmas, our daughter and son-in-law gave us a trip to Heavenly Valley. How could we say no? It was only a three-hour plane trip to Las Vegas and an eight-hour drive to Lake Tahoe, but still that three hours felt like eight. I renewed my vow to never fly again. And I so want to visit Europe, Iceland, and Japan again, but...

Friday, April 11, 2008

A blizzard in the internet age

A blizzard started in Duluth last night. All during the night the wind howled, the house creaked, and wet snow smacked against the windows. Every so often a snow plow would go by; its yellow light flashing through the blinds. I just snuggled under the covers more.

My wife was scheduled to be at a conference in Omaha today and planned to drive down with two others. They had originally planned to drive to the Twin Cities late in the afternoon and continue on to Omaha today.

Given the prediction of a blizzard in Duluth and a storm warning in Omaha, they weren't sure if they should leave earlier on Thursday or even go at all. We checked the National Weather Service for both cities and determined that Omaha would have rain but not snow yesterday. They opted to leave at 11 yesterday and arrived in Omaha about 9 or so. They did encounter a lot of wind and rain, but otherwise made good time.

However, just about everything has been canceled in Duluth, including the buses.

When I finally roused myself this morning, I couldn't see out a single window. See the photo "What blizzard?". I couldn't open either the front or back door very far; I had to push against 2-4 inches of wet snow. Before it got worse, I retrieved a snow shovel from the back porch. Without stepping outside, I could just barely reach the blade and bring it inside. I put it in the laundry tub where it will probably get too warm and ice up when I take it outside again. At least I'll be able to push a small path outside the front door and step outside to continue shoveling.

But not today! As of 11:10 this morning, the Duluth News Tribune reported the blizzard warning is in effect until Saturday morning. There is no point in even shoveling until tomorrow, not even to make the mail carrier's job easier or to get the newspapers at the corner.

Again, here's where the internet is such a help. I got my local news online plus I got a later update than I would with the paper addition. I know, I know, I could turn on the radio or TV, but on the internet, I can get the news when I want to, not when the stations broadcast it.

Of course, with a blizzard one can lose power or phone service. Several neighborhoods in Duluth have lost power. As soon as crews restore one area, another is knocked out.

So, with all this time on my hands because I can't go anywhere, I should be getting a lot done, right? Ha! What do I start first? Nah, I don't want to work on taxes just now. I'll practice singing later. Filing all those loose papers on the desk seems like such a chore. I could read a book, but it seems so much easier to play su do ku online then anything else, especially since I couldn't do the newspaper puzzles today. Just one more game. Oh, my time wasn't so good, I'll do another to see if I can do better. Oh, I almost got to my record time, I'll do another now that I'm on a roll. You don't believe me about the addiction, see http://www.jigsawdoku.com.

It is amazing that I even wrote this blog. Maybe now I can file some papers, but first...