Sunday, November 30, 2008

Photos from Around California

Last year, while I was unemployed, I took a few short driving trips around the state where I visited some small towns I hadn't been to before. On the first trip, I forgot to bring my real camera and thus just took a couple of camera-phone shots, and on my second trip, my camera broke about halfway through. What few pictures I have from the latter trip I just uploaded to my Picasa Web Albums site and added captions, so you can see the complete set here.

One shot I should include from that first trip, when I managed to visit all the remaining California counties I hadn't yet visited, is of this wrong-way duplex sign of state routes 49 South and 89 North in Sierraville.
In case you're curious, the road there is actually heading roughly west-by-northwest.

So anyway, the trip where I actually had my camera was one where I decided to see some of the Gold Country towns along Route 49 I hadn't been to before. Some trivia here: not only was Route 49 named after the 49er miners, but the shape of the California highway shield (seen above) was chosen so that the sign would look like a miner's spade.

First stop is Bakersfield, which is generally kind of a pit (I was employed there for a month in 1996), but which has some nice architecture downtown, including this art-deco Nile movie theater.In Sonora, which has a fairly bustling downtown for such a small place, I came across an old CSAA parking sign from back in the days when the Auto Club would post signs:A little ways up in Calaveras County is a favorite for connoisseurs of sophomoric humor, the Glory Hole Center:Nearby is Moaning Cavern, a deep hole in the ground full of limestone formations:In Amador County you can find the ruins of the Butte Store, which doesn't look like much from the outside, but on the inside (you have to peek through a fence) is a fascinating example of nature reclaiming a building:Farther up in Sutter Creek, the Sutter Creek Cream Emporium is a charming knickknack-filled ice cream shop with a player piano and a proprietor who came out from behind the counter to play a couple of piano rags himself:So then, up in Placerville, my camera seized up and I couldn't take any more pictures of my trip, which took me as far up as Nevada City. I used my wife's camera for about a year after that (I'll post narratives of my trips to Toronto and Alaska soon) and just yesterday bought a new camera of my own, which I haven't used yet.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Really Awful Music Videos

Yahoo has a little feature on really horrible music videos, with the requirement for inclusion that the video had to have been intended to be taken seriously. They start off with a Beyonce video that's merely subpar, but the truly awful ones are the videos attempting to be mini-movies. Michael Jackson's "You Rock My World" made me want to claw my eyes out, and MC Hammer's "2 Legit 2 Quit" made me want to shoot the screen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Saab Suite

You can watch 8 and a half minutes of Saab 9000 Turbos from 1987 performing "car ballet" here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Adam Villani 2, Ben Stein 0

Some of you may know that eight years ago I beat Ben Stein on his TV show Win Ben Stein's Money.

Here is a link to a ten-minute montage (I won't take up the space embedding it here) of TV appearances by investor (and Ron Paul advisor) Peter Schiff back in 2006 and 2007 expressing prescient warnings about economic collapse, and being subsequently mocked for his pessimism by various mainstream-conservative talking heads, including Ben Stein. Taste the juicy schadenfreude as they make predictions of ever-rising housing prices and an ever-rising stock market.

Now, I wasn't on TV or anything saying that I thought the housing bubble was going to burst (although a comment I made a year ago supports my assertion that I knew high housing prices were not a good thing), but let me assure you, if you had asked me about housing prices a couple years ago I would have told you that that the rate at which the growth of housing prices had outstripped the growth on incomes was unsustainable. If nothing else, I didn't do what Ben Stein did and give advice to the world that turned out to be blatantly wrong. So I will count this as yet another victory for me over Ben Stein.

Also, in case you're wondering, those Merril Lynch stocks that Stein was saying were a bargain at about 75 bucks a share closed yesterday at 11.35. Another guy there said that Goldman Sachs was low somewhere around 150; it closed at 67.54. And as for the guy who recommended Washington Mutual, the less said the better.

And remember, here was the conservative reaction to Paul Krugman warning of the housing bubble in 2005.

So anyway, just remember all that the next time somebody tries to insinuate that Republicans are the ones who are smart about the economy.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Two things about Minnesota:

1. Minnesota Public Radio has a feature where you can be the judge on various challenged ballots in the Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.
2. The American Planning Association's national conference next year (last week of April) will be in Minneapolis. I have never visited Minneapolis, or actually anywhere in the Upper Midwest. So this sounds like a prime opportunity to visit for the conference and then take a few days to drive around the area, seeing scenery and visiting states and counties I'd never been in before. I am thinking maybe of going up into the North Woods area and/or going along the Mississippi River.

So, does anybody have any tips on what to see around Minneapolis besides the Mall of America (which I do plan to visit)? I really don't have much of an idea about what there is there.

Also, any favorite places around Minnesota or nearby states? Tips on where to go driving, see scenery, and/or visit interesting small towns? Have any of you been to Voyageurs National Park?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Prediction

The election may be over, but we political junkies who were following the election news day and night don't have to go cold turkey now; there are things like recounts in Minnesota and speculation over cabinet posts to satisfy our cravings.

So I'd like to take this opportunity to make a prediction for an obscure cabinet post, said obscurity making me look smarter if I turn out to actually be right, and also insuring that nobody (including myself) will care if I am wrong. My prediction is that Tammy Duckworth will be selected for Secretary of Veterans' Affairs. Why?
  1. She is an Iraq War veteran whose criticism of the war is similar to Obama's,
  2. She is a double amputee due to war injuries,
  3. She is female,
  4. She is Asian-American (half Thai, half white),
  5. She narrowly lost a race for Congress as the Democratic nominee in 2006,
  6. She was appointed to head the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs after losing the election, and I have not seen any evidence of there being any major problems with her administration, and
  7. Illinois is Obama's home state, so he either knows her or knows people who do.
So there you go.

UPDATE: I was wrong. He is Asian, though.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar

Via BoingBoing, this is one of the few things I've ever seen called "Lynchian" that truly lives up to the concept:

The song, "Forever," is actually quite good. According to the comments and Wikipedia, Drake was a big session player in Nashville during the sixties (this track dates from 1964), and the talk box technology he's using dates as far back as 1939! Like a lot of TV appearances, it seems this was a lip-synch job. I don't know what the TV show is nor the identity of the emcee.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Election Maps

Of course, there are a ton of interesting maps showing the results of the election in different ways. Considering how many of my posts were on the election and how many are on maps, I'd be remiss without featuring some of them here. Sylvia Cabus (Hi, Sylvia!) pointed this one out for me:What this shows is the 2008 Presidential election results at the county level on a color scale ranging between blue (for the Democrat) and red (for the Republican), with the size scaled to the population of the county, and the shapes distorted to connect everything contiguously.What do we learn from this map? Well, at the most basic level, we learn that this notion of a "Blue America" and "Red America" is a vast simplification.

On the other hand, it's a little hard to tell what we're looking at here, because things are so distorted. One pattern you should be able to make out, though, is that there are a whole bunch of bluish discs (cities) surrounded by a matrix of thin red areas (rural counties). We can lose a lot of nuance but see this urban/rural split more clearly by looking at a non-distorted map with a straight red/blue split:Here those thin bands of red between the blue shapes look like a vast red sea peppered with little blue islands (cities and college towns), framed by some more solid masses of blue in the Northeast, West Coast, and Upper Midwest. Obama won the cities, but there are also some significant rural areas that he won, too. Besides those mentioned above, there's also the heavily-African-American counties in the South along the lower Mississippi and then in a wide band from central Alabama up to North Carolina. There are the heavily-Mexican-American counties along the border. There's also a lot of Indian reservations and other areas with a lot of Native Americans in the Southwest and places like the Dakotas.

Kind of hard to spot, and mostly unremarked-upon, is the fact that a number of rural mountain resort areas also voted for Obama --- check out sparsely-populated Alpine and Mono Counties in California; Summit County, Utah (home of Park City); and a lot of the mountainous counties of Colorado, which are contiguous with both the urban Colorado counties and areas with a lot of Indians and Latinos.

To put it another way, the Republican base is white, rural America, with some exceptions. The suburbs are a battleground, and the Democrats have everything else.

But the same thing using the graduated color scale seen in the first map helps us see things a bit differently:
Here the states from Indiana to Pennsylvania look very purple; these places are pretty evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters. The Great Plains below the Dakotas range from mostly-red in their east to bright red within a couple hundred miles of the 100th parallel or so.

I got all of these maps from this great page by Mark Newman at the University of Michigan, where he has more maps, more analysis, and similar information on the 2004 election, so you can see where the extra votes came from.

Here's an alternative way of scaling things, with a straight red/blue split, but with the brightness tied to population:I like the concept here, but it needs some tweaking. First off, it's mostly just too dark; he needs to tweak his scale to something a bit more legible (maybe a white background). Also, because large counties with more population are displayed both larger and brighter, in a sense we're double-counting them. A better method might be to scale to population density, which would eliminate this problem.

How about showing the size of the margin between the two candidates? The L.A. Times has a nice interactive site showing just that for California, as well as a bunch of other state election info here.

Remember that band of Democratic voters through the rural South? Strange Maps has a fascinating overlay showing the relationship between just that and a map showing cotton production in 1860. The correlation is very strong; this is where black people lived 150 years ago, and where they still live today:
And finally, not really related to the election, but an interesting test to see where the dividing line between the North and the South is, culturally, can be seen in this study of which McDonalds restaurants in Virginia have sweet tea available and which don't:Ouch! It turns out that tea map is a fake. Neat idea, though.

MORE (11/17/08): Wikipedia has a nice cartogram with the states sized according to their electoral votes and shaped in discrete blocks. I have no idea what their source was, but the map is pretty good:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Rock-afire Explosion is Back!

Back in June I blogged about a guy who had done a remarkable job of re-programming his Rock-afire Explosion audio-animatronic band before lamenting that the videos seemed to have disappeared from the Web. Well, they're back. They explain the bidding process to request new songs here. And here is "Pop, Lock, and Drop It."

Birthday Trifecta

Here's a fun fact for you: 1980s musical superstars Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince all turned 50 years old this past summer.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A New WPA?

New York Magazine proposes a 21st-century Works Progress Administration. Considering how much of FDR's WPA we still use, and how cool much of the design is, I'd be all for it.

Incidentally, if you're wondering who the Santiago Calatrava the article refers to is, he designed the Olympic Stadium for the 2004 Games in Athens. He's also done a lot of bridges, including the Sundial Bridge in Redding, which I visited last year.
MORE (11/15/08): The writer of the article does seem a bit obsessed with "starchitects." I think some of the beauty of the WPA and CCC work was that a sense of good design so permeated the program that even minor projects like an electrical substation or a guardrail on a mountain road would have a distinctive look, monumental yet in touch with its surroundings. It wasn't the work of a handful of superstars but an army of people who knew how to make civic buildings look and work right. I'd be interested in reading more about how they managed to do that, if anyone has any good pointers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Golly, thanks

Turkish villagers slaughtered 44 sheep for the election of Obama as the 44th U.S. President.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

San Diego Mayor on Gay Marriage

Wow... check out San Diego mayor (and Republican) Jerry Sanders discuss his change of heart on gay marriage:

Wikipedia dates this conference to September 19, 2007.

November 4, 2008

Good illustration here by Patrick Moberg, discovered through Andrew Sullivan's blog.

More Advice

Tips on remembering whether or not you've turned the stove off.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Pop Music Quiz

Wikipedia maintains a list of musical artists ranked by how many #1 singles they've had on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100 singles chart. Don't search for it right now, because that would spoil this quiz! The list counts group releases separately from solo/duet releases, so, for example, Beyonce would be counted separately from Destiny's Child, but if Beyonce did a duet with, say, Slim Thug, it would count under the Beyonce total (it's just an example; neither she nor her group made the list).

What I would like you to do for this quiz is to guess the artist based on four pieces of information: the number of #1 hits, the total number of weeks at #1, the year of the artist's first #1 hit, and the year of their most recent #1 hit. There are nine artists with ten or more #1 hits.

1. 20 songs, 59 total weeks, 1964 - 1970
2. 18 songs, 79 total weeks, 1990 - 2008
3. 17 songs, 79 total weeks, 1956 - 1969
4. 13 songs, 37 total weeks, 1972 - 1995
5. 12 songs, 32 total weeks, 1984 - 2000
6. 12 songs, 22 total weeks, 1964 - 1969
7. 11 songs, 31 total weeks, 1985 - 1995
8. 10 songs, 33 total weeks, 1986 - 2001
9. 10 songs, 25 total weeks, 1963 - 1986

Note that this is for singles, not albums. Some of these should be a lot more obvious than others. Also note that there was a lot more volatility in the chart in the old days... the average number of weeks at #1 per song gets a lot longer for the more recent artists. Oddly enough, if you study the album charts, you'll notice that the opposite holds true --- albums used to spend longer at the top of the charts but now often only spend a single week at the top.

Post your answers in the comments. Feel free to do research on artists, but for this question, avoid the page that shows this compiled information until after you've posted your guesses. Have fun!

SPOILER WARNING! - Two people have made very good guesses so far in the comments. Refrain from looking at the comments if you don't want a lot of the answers spoiled.

UPDATE (11/8/08) - We have a winner! Check the comments.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

How 'bout that?

So, as you may have heard, Barack Obama won the election. Pretty remarkable. I, and a lot of other people, never really thought I'd see a black President. But there he is. And it's not just that he's black --- he's young, relatively inexperienced, the son of a foreigner and a single mom, he's got a funny name, said funny name involves the word "Hussein," he was born in Hawai'i and lived in Indonesia, and he ran as a straight-up liberal, not a centrist. So he had a whole slew of electability negatives, and he was running against a well-known, well-liked long-term Senator and war hero with a reputation for independence and bipartisanship.

And yet, from about midway through the primary contest, I began to become fairly confident that Obama could actually win. Why? Because the more people saw of him, the more they liked him. The Clinton campaign tested him, and he didn't succumb to it. He got people excited, and that excitement translated into activism and, finally, votes.

Meanwhile, John McCain won his party's nomination mainly because of his opponents' negatives more than his own positives, and that party had the albatross around its neck of an extremely disliked incumbent President. But that's not to say the election was a foregone conclusion. Obama had to worry about whether his primary opponent's supporters would "come home" to him. And if McCain had run like he did in 2000, with a refreshing, independent spirit, he might have won. But while McCain tried to distance himself from George W. Bush the person, he tacked hard to the right to win the primaries and ran on George W. Bush's policies. As the campaign wore on, and especially during the debates, Obama seemed cool and confident while McCain seemed irritated and erratic.

The selection of Sarah Palin as his VP nominee briefly injected a lot of excitement into his campaign, and I was afraid that they might be able to carry that over into the election. But after a few weeks it became clear that Palin had a lot of problems and that picking her reflected poorly on McCain's judgement. My gut feeling was that it was a couple weeks after the Palin pick that the media's coverage changed, too. While they consistently reflected the excitement that Obama's campaign was generating, until September they were far too willing to run with any of the stories generated by the McCain campaign or his surrogates about Obama, no matter how irrelevant or sleazy.

But it soon became clear that Palin was entirely unfit for office and that McCain's weak response to the failing economy meant that his talk of the country needing a "steady hand on the tiller" was an argument for his opponent, not him. The public and the media stopped buying the cracked narrative being sold by the Republicans, whose bounce in the polls quickly subsided. Obama took a statistically significant lead early in October and ran down the clock the rest of the way, and on election day his ground game carried him to the win. Good job. ADDED (11/6/08): Giving credit where it's due, McCain's concession speech was quite moving.

As for the rest of the races... Democrats seem to have made strong gains in both houses of Congress, though not quite as many as they might have hoped. Al Franken is trailing slightly in a recount for a Senate seat in Minnesota... it would tickle me pink if he were elected. UPDATE (11/6/08): Watch Swing State Project for updates on undecided races.

Here in California, the passage of Proposition 8, banning gay marriage 52-48, is certainly a bummer, but considering that a similar measure passed eight years ago by a 61-39 margin gives hope that this particular fight isn't over.

But after Obama's victory, my most pleasant surprise was the passage of the two rail transportation propositions here in California, both of which I thought voters would be scared away from by their price tags. The statewide Prop 1A, to float a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail across the state, passed by a 52-48 margin. Even more surprising, considering that it needed a 2/3 majority to pass, L.A. County Measure R, authorizing a sales tax increase to build mass transit and other transportation improvements, won 67.4% of the vote. These are all long-term projects, but they'll both do a lot of good toward increasing transportation options.

ALSO (11/6/08): Message to Obama and Congress: Don't govern from the center. Or, more precisely, don't make governing from the center your strategy. Voters won't reject you in 2010 because you're left-of-center, they'll reject you if you fail. With solid control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, the Democrats have no excuses for note executing their plans. If those plans work, you'll win again. If they fail, you will be voted out of office --- and deservedly so.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

How I'm Voting

County Measure:
Measure R: YES!
This sales tax increase will fund a wide variety of desperately-needed transportation projects in the County. We're way behind on infrastructure and this will help us get back up to speed. Metro has a whole bunch of info on R here; it funds a lot of mass transit as well as things like grade separations, signal synchronization, etc.A lot of the opposition to this seems to be picayune crap by politicians whining that their part of the county is getting slighted. Well, guess what? This is a regional planning measure, and in regional planning, some areas are going to be favored over others based on need and effectiveness. The Westside is getting a lot of this money because lots of people live there, lots of people work there, and there's currently no rail there and horrible traffic.

Measure R needs a 2/3 majority to pass, so be sure to vote YES on R!

President and Vice President: Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Democrats

U.S. Representative, 32nd District:
Hilda Solis, Democrat
State Assembly, 49th District: Mike Eng, Democrat
A classmate of mine in grad school said that Eng "sounds like a Baptist preacher" when he speaks.

Judges of the Superior Court:
Office #72: Hilleri Grossman Merritt
Office #82: Thomas Rubinson
Office #84: Lori-Ann C. Jones
Office #94: Michael O'Gara
Office #154: Michael V. Jesic
On the judges I'm going off of the evaluations from the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal paper in L.A. Also, I believe I spoke with Mike O'Gara on the phone this week at work, unless the Mike O'Gara who's the president of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council is a different person. He seemed reasonable.

State Propositions:
1A: YES (High-speed rail. This bond measure would be a great infrastructure investment.)
2: UNDECIDED, PROBABLY NO (Makes chicken cages bigger. Would be a nice thing to do, but would result in a lot of eggs and chicken meat being trucked in from Arkansas instead. I spoke with an agricultural grad student about this, and she said that she didn't have a strong opinion pro or con on this, but she did note that this would probably result in more chickens living on the ground, where they're more susceptible to infections and parasites, and thus use twice as many antibiotics. The basic premise of treating the animals we eat better is sound, but I'd rather see less-drastic improvements or a consistent rating system, maybe at a national level.)
3: NO (Bond for children's hospitals. Sends public money into private hands; there's still money left over from a previous bond measure for the same thing; has annoying ads with kids singing "Imagine" to evoke pathos.)
4: YES (Family notification for teen abortion. This would probably prevent some abortions.)
5: YES (Rehab for nonviolent drug offenders.)
6: NO (More money for cops... how about more oversight for cops instead?)
7: NO (Poorly-written clean energy bill, would be counter-productive. Environmental groups and even the Green Party oppose this.)
8: NO (Eliminates right of gay couples to marry. Discrimination should not be written into the state constitution.)
9: NO ("Victims' rights" law; makes the law about vengeance rather than justice, rehabilitation, and the protection of society as a whole.)
10: NO (Another poorly-written alternative energy bill; basically just gives a big wad of cash to T. Boone Pickens; long-term bond for a short-term benefit; opposed by environmental groups.)
11. YES (Takes redistricting for state legislators out of their own hands. Won't affect our representation in Congress.)
12. YES (Low-interest loans for veterans. Pays for itself, is a nice thing to do.)

L.A. Community College District Measure:
Proposition J: YES
(Bond for classroom building; L.A. Times says it's well-written and the Community College District is good.)

San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District
Board of Directors, Division 3: John C. Reichenberger
(Reichenberger is an experienced civil engineer and professor; his opponent is just an administrator.)

So there you go.