Thursday, April 30, 2009


The citizens of California often complain that their elected representatives do a poor job of managing the state budget. Hell, I complain about this all the time. A new Field Poll reported in today's San Francisco Chronicle makes the situation perfectly clear:

The citizens of California are nuts.

The poll reports that:
  • 67% of voters want to fix the budget through spending cuts, not tax increases.
  • 70% of voters want to keep the two-thirds majority requirement to increase taxes.
On the other hand:
  • By a roughly 3-to-2 ratio, Californians are NOT willing to raise taxes to balance the budget. Except on millionaires. Certainly no sales, gasoline or business tax increases.
I'm relieved to see that 53% of Democrats would favor paying higher taxes to fix the state budget; but that ain't enough to pass it. Eighty-one percent of Republicans oppose paying higher taxes.

The general consensus seems to favor sin taxes (booze, tobacco, and porn), and - get this - legalizing and taxing marijuana. 56% backed legal weed. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that legalizing and taxing pot won't save the day, because - marijuana is a weed. It's extremely easy to grow in the back yard, and requires very little processing to make into your own tea, or even your own smokes - unlike tobacco. Once it's legal, there will be some market, but the main buyers will be people who either don't want to bother growing their own, or want the high quality weed produced by specialty growers. That isn't gonna cut it, folks.

Maybe it's my depression background, but it seems clear to me that if we want the services - and this poll makes it clear that we do want the services, especially public schools, public health, and higher education - We Have To Raise Taxes, including the income tax.

We pay the highest taxes in the country, you complain. Actually, I think New York is worse; but not by much. But - citizens of this country pay some of the lowest taxes in the world - particularly the gasoline tax. Europeans currently pay between $5.75 and $6 per gallon for gasoline - except the Netherlands, where it's $6.41.

You want to discuss taxes, talk to a Swede. Or a Frenchman. They pay the taxes, and they get the services.

So maybe the citizens of California are getting exactly the legislators they want. Sigh. I wonder how long it'll take all of them to grow up and realize that the money isn't going to fall out of the sky to fix this - even with what we're getting from the Obama stimulus package.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where Are The Locusts?

Every time a new strain of influenza appears, everyone thinks, "1918!" and goes into overdrive. But from what I can see, even in Mexico where things seem worst, this isn't all that bad. Yet. According to the AP today, there are fewer than 3,000 cases worldwide, and fewer than 160 deaths. The U.S. kills more people than that in traffic every week, and we don't even twitch. And we even have a drug that cures the stuff (so far); in 1918 they didn't know what a virus was.

The world situation is getting so bad you wonder - is someone trying to send us a message? Global warming is changing the climate; the global economy has tanked; millions of people are out of jobs; international trade is in the sewer; and now we have the swine flu.

We need to start worrying when we see the plague of locusts. Or the rain of frogs.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Live Beethoven

I don't usually write reviews of concerts I attend; I'm not a music critic. But I attended a concert of the Oakland East Bay Symphony tonight, and I have to talk about this.

The concert ended with the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15, with Sara Buechner at the piano. It had been a good concert - a rousing Russian Easter Overture, a lively Petrouchka, a new piece from a young composer. But the Beethoven was - amazing. Sara Buechner played the piano like no one I've ever heard - her playing was crystalline, and yet strong. The piano sounded so light that at first I thought it was a
fortepiano, and then I remembered two things:

One, Beethoven didn't use the
fortepiano; in fact, Beethoven is largely responsible for the modern concert grand.

Two, I've never heard a Beethoven piano concerto performed live before (really!). I've only heard recordings. And on recordings, they over-mike the piano to make it sound more "muscular." This is what the real thing sounds like - I just didn't realize it.

Frankly, I thought the performance was pretty close to perfect, although Maestro Morgan took the first movement a little slower than the recording I'm used to; but once he got into it, the first movement sounded wonderful, and the precision of the piano took over.
And the third movement just ripped - I thought it would take the roof off the hall! That's why you go to live performances, in fact; you go to hear events like this - and it'll never be available on CD. The OEBS doesn't usually cut CDs. But it got a five-curtain-call standing ovation, from an audience that hadn't come to its feet all evening; and I ran into one of the French horn players after the concert, and he thought it was brilliant too.

Brava, Ms. Buechner! Brava!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Current Research on Addiction

Last week I indulged in one of those extended side conversations bloggers get into, in the comments on an original post about some other subject. In this case, Curtis Faville, the blogger at Compass Rose Books, expressed his personal pleasure in drinking Cadenhead's Classic Green Label Rum, and in the course of the comments expressed an opinion on the subject of alcoholics and their fate with which I chose to disagree. Then followed a long discussion on what does and doesn't characterize an alcoholic, during which another poster, who signed himself Georgie, expressed a wish for links to some current research on the subject.

I personally am not an expert - I just live with a recovering alcoholic, which only classifies me as an interested party - but my resident alcoholic is a very studious sort and he does keep up with the literature, so I asked him if he could give me some useful links to pass on to Georgie. He gave me the following email, which is such a comprehensive review of good current sources that I'm reproducing it here in full, in hopes that Georgie and anyone else may find it useful:

Here are all sorts of links. Read through them and decide what to send along to Curtis and company.

As I think I mentioned, the best popular introduction to the physiology of addiction I've seen is in the book that went along with the HBO Addiction Series. Much of that information is on the HBO addiction website: Follow the button on top labeled "Understanding Addiction". It's been a while since I read the book and I don't think I ever did more than skim the web site but I think the basics are there.

I remember being fascinated by this 45 minute video presentation:

The common thread in both of the above is Dr. Nora Volkow, who is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and did a great deal of pioneering brain imaging work on addiction while at Brookhaven National Lab.

This article in SF Gate was pretty good too: The picture is great. It's complex but it captures all the basics. This came out right after Gavin Newsom sought help with alcohol.

To understand what the addiction feedback loop is working on, it is helpful to know how the brain operates. I found this article on "normal" brain function really interesting: There is nothing on addiction here, but this article clearly lays out that the brain operates by having a bunch of default habits and an interrupt system to cut them off where they are not appropriate. It this seems very natural for addiction to work by the any mix of mechanisms that builds drug-reinforced habits and/or weakens the interrupt mechanism.

The single biological factor that's been most linked with addiction has been an allele associated with the brain chemical dopamine and in particular the D2 dopamine receptor. These are highly involved in the brain's pleasure and reward system that plays a role in those drug-reinforced habits. Dopamine shows up in that SF gate picture. A 1990 paper all but said there was an alcoholism gene (well, allele). This article ( is part of the follow-on discussion, and a far as I can tell, this is not too far from the view today: it's part of the explanation but not the whole explanation. As you can imagine, there has been lots of back and forth since in the research community. Do a search on "D2 dopamine receptor alcoholism" and you'll find a very mixed story. And having done that search, I like the discussion that starts at the bottom of the page here: I'm going to order the book.

At a slightly more complex level is this Scientific American Article:

And if anyone believes there is one type of alcoholic, I think this puts that simple notion to rest. I've got the whole article, not just this press release.

Monday, April 13, 2009

California Budget - Proposition 1C

Of all the weird ballot propositions that came out of the California Lege's late budget standoff, I have the most trouble with this one. Data on the proposition in this post came from the San Francisco Chronicle's article on Proposition 1C today.

To begin with, I have serious reservations - and had at the time, I voted against the state lottery - about using gambling money to fund our education system. Our education system is a major and mission-critical investment for the future of this state, we should be funding it out of normal revenues. We as a state should not be profiting off gambling, which at its worst destroys lives.

The sad fact is that our state government regards the school system as a drag on it, and never misses an opportunity to cut education funding - as they've done in the current crisis. This is why, in case you wondered, California has so many ballot initiatives locking in education spending. It's because we can't trust the Lege (as Molly Ivins used to call it in Texas) to fund it properly.

Now they want to do two
colossally stupid things:
  1. They want to borrow $5 billion (that's with a B, folks) against future lottery revenues, and put the entire amount into this year's operating budget.
  2. They want to remove the requirement that lottery money go directly to the schools. If this passes, schools will be funded from the general fund. They'll get "approximately" the $1 billion a year they get now, adjusted in future for inflation and student population.
What's wrong with this picture?

First, as far as I'm concerned, the lottery's only moral justification is to fund the education system. If we aren't using the money for education - and if this passes we won't be - then we should not be in the lottery business.

Second, they want to borrow money for operating expenses. This means the state will be paying down that $5 billion that we use to run the state this year, for the next thirty years, out of the lottery profits. The two objections to this are:
  1. Borrowing money for operating expenses is colossally stupid (ask anybody who did a cash-out refi to finance a vacation, or a flat-screen TV), and
  2. What happens if the lottery doesn't produce enough revenue to pay down the bonds? Nobody discusses this, but the proposal commits the state to pay $400 million a year for 30 years out of lottery revenues. But lottery sales have been "anemic," according to the article. Only addicted gamblers will buy lottery tickets if they're out of work; everybody else cuts back. And a lot of people are out of work. If the lottery doesn't produce that $400 million a year, who does? We do, folks. Us taxpayers.
Third, this is going to cut education funding. Again. The schools currently get about $1.1 billion a year from the lottery (that's all that's left out of $3 billion in lottery sales, after payouts and administrative expenses); so Prop. 1C will already remove $ .1 billion from the school allocation - that's $100 million, folks. And in future, the lottery profits will go into the general fund, and education funding will come out of the general fund. Yeah, sure it will. And increased as inflation and school population go up, too. Right. Just the way they always do.

There's an old military joke about the general who turns to his aide and says, "Bring me a rock." So the aide goes out, looks around, picks up a rock and comes back. And the general says, "Wrong rock." The legislature's carefully hammered solution to the budget crisis is the wrong rock. If we defeat these propositions, they'll have to have another emergency session to do it again; and I'm sorry, but I think they should. I can't support Prop. 1C.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The New Car

I wasn't planning to get a new car for another 4 or 5 years; I like to buy new cars, with the features I want, drive them for 10 years or more (doing all the services), and then sell them to someone and buy another new one. I find this reasonable, and not wasteful; and ten years gives you time to save up the price of the next one. The last car I bought was a loaded 2002 Passat, a wonderful, comfortable, easy-riding road car with a huge trunk.

Now that I've retired, I don't need a commute car any more. And my Passat, while still enjoyable, eats more gasoline when I'm tooling around town than it did when I was commuting 17 miles each way on the freeway. Still, I wouldn't have chosen to replace it; and in fact, we didn't replace it. We replaced my husband's 2002 Mercedes C-230.

In 2002 my husband needed to replace his commute car, even though he hates shopping for cars. (I'm actually the car buff.) He test drove several cars, including a Passat, and didn't really like any of them; and then he drove the Mercedes. It was love at first sight; it was small, nimble, tight handling, and he could get it with a 6-CD changer in the glove compartment, so he could listen to Haydn symphonies on the way to work. The trunk was smallish; but he forgave that.

About 6 months ago, the Mercedes started breaking down; commuting to Livermore (90 miles a day) has put 140,000 miles on it. Mercedes repairs are really expensive, and over the last 6 months we actually paid out more than half the bluebook value in repairs. A couple of weeks ago the water pump went out, for another four-figure bill; and he said, that's it. We're getting a new car.

Our long term car plan was that, in retirement, instead of having "his car" and "her car", we'd have "the town car" (small, nimble, high mileage) and "the road car" (lots of storage space for backpacking equipment, and able to take rough back roads). His backpacking car has been the Passat because of its huge trunk, but he can't take it on the really bad roads; it's just a sedan. Once we decided to buy, we agreed it was time to get "the town car," and he would take the Passat for his commute car; it only has 65,000 miles on it, and should last several more years. I went to Consumer Reports and got a list of the top-mileage cars. This boiled down to two major choices: some kind of hybrid, or a MINI Cooper.

MINI Cooper, I thought. That's a cool little car, and it gets amazing mileage. I decided I had to test drive a MINI; and I fell in love. That car is just fun to drive, even more than the Passat. I dutifully test drove a Prius, and a Camry hybrid; but I'm sorry to say that Toyota has changed since they made the 1981 Tercel that I drove happily until 1992. The seat position in the Prius had my back aching before the test drive was over; I have to be able to sit straighter than that when I drive. And the Camry - well, the seat was comfortable, but it was like driving a big marshmallow. You can wiggle the steering wheel almost a quarter of the way around, and the car's nose barely budges. I'm used to German cars; I can't stand loose steering. So I dragged Jim out to the MINI dealer, and he liked it too; and we bought one. I think I'm twenty years past having a "mid-life crisis" - but I sure enjoy driving that car!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Standing in Line

As part of my volunteer efforts at the local food bank, I'm doing interviews for the National Hunger Survey, organized by Feeding America (you probably remember it as America's Second Harvest, they recently changed the name). They do these every 5 years, to assess what's going on at America's food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, in getting food to people who can't afford to buy all the food they need.

So every few days, a small team of us, wearing our Food Bank T-shirts, shows up by appointment at a church, or a volunteer center, or somewhere similar (usually a church); and we use statistical techniques to randomly choose a small number of people from the group standing in line; and then we ask them questions. Some of the questions are standard census data: how old are you? Who else lives with you? Do you own or rent? Do you have a job? Then there are the questions that break your heart: How often in the last month have you gone hungry so the kids could eat full meals? How often have the kids gone hungry? Can you afford to eat balanced meals? Have you had to choose between buying food and paying rent? Buying food and paying for medicine? Buying food and paying for heat?

I've asked these questions in a tent on a sunny day, in a cold church in the rain (with buckets on the stairs to catch the drips from the leaking roof), in offices walled with unpainted pressboard, and standing with people in line, out of doors
on a cold rainy morning. I don't know what mental image you have of the people who get free groceries; but I'm talking to Everyman. The landscaper with four kids, whose salary isn't quite enough to cover the groceries. The couple in their 70's, retired working man, own their house free and clear; their pensions and Social Security just aren't enough any more. The women with children in tow. Everyman's complexion tends to be darker than the American "norm", and he doesn't always speak English; but there are white people in those lines too, and only one of the people I've interviewed wasn't a citizen. (Sure, they tell us; we aren't ICE, we're the food bank.)

What are we doing to ourselves? To each other? We are the richest country on earth and we let people starve? We let children starve?

I don't have an answer for this, but when I was growing up, a family could live on one man's wages. How did we blow that away? How do we get it back?