Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Indefensible Spending, Defense Contractors and Political Suicide

June 29th, 2010

With many politicians distancing themselves from ‘Washington’ and pointing to big government, I think it is time to look at a sometimes taboo subject. Military spending.

According to the fantastic annual budget visualization, Death and Taxes, military spending accounted for approximately 63% (or $895 billion) of the 2011 federal discretionary budget. Now I won’t argue that this spending is wholly unjustified, I enjoy a reasonable amount of deterrence as much as the next guy and I do enjoy some sweet programs like missile defense (star wars!), but some of this stuff is manic. Here’s a stat I dug up with a few minutes of poking around. According to the Department of Defense’s own 2009 Budget Request Summary Justification [pdf link], if you completely cut only the F-35 program (instead of just re-negotiating) you could double the entire budget of the National Science Foundation [pdf link of budget proposal].

Aside from silly programs that have no practical battlefield applications, there is the outsourcing of materiel production to contractors that is troubling. Northrop Grumman, the third largest supplier of military equipment, recently had to pay $12.5 million in a settlement to the government because it didn’t properly test items for navigation systems in warplanes, submarines and space equipment. How did this get exposed? An internal whistleblower who was probably enticed by the provisions of the False Claims Act that got him almost $2.4 million. Money talks. This is just the most recent example of contractors who get too much money for shoddy work and get virtually no oversight. In my opinion, the more spending you have the more transparency you need. Is 63% of accountability and oversight dedicated to defense spending? Hell no.

The largest roadblock to this uniquely American epidemic is that cutting back on defense spending is a very sensitive political subject. People want to feel safe. The American answer to fear is spending. Big guns make you feel safe. Big guns are expensive.  Bottom line: Be very cautious to take away big guns from scared people who somehow still have a blank check.

But there is hope! And not Obama’s style of hope, but a historians style of hope! Look back and notice: it has been done before! After the cold war, defense spending fell over 25 percent between 1985 and 1993. And guess who was defense secretary? Dick Cheney!

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Statutory Cap

April 11th, 2010

I read an article in yesterday’s Post that revealed the measly $16.4 million fine against Toyota for its unintended acceleration issues was only a fraction of the full $13.4 billion that was issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Turns out, the government is unable to issue fines above $16.4 million against any manufacturer, no matter how dangerous the safety issue or the scope of its damage.

From the Washington Post article:

Under the law, the penalty for failing to notify regulators of a safety defect is $6,000 a car. Toyota had to recall 2.3 million for the sticky pedal.

If not for the cap, that could have subjected the automaker to the $13.8 billion in fines. Among the reforms being proposed as a result of the Toyota controversy is a proposal to lift that limit.

I tracked down the law limiting fines (not named in the article) and found the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  According to a summary of major provisions (pdf link), the law “increases civil penalty caps from $5,000 to $100,000 per individual violation, and from $1,250,000 to $15,000,000 for aggregate violations.”  (Also see the law itself) I wish I had time to do more research, but I would be curious to find the rationalization by lawmakers for having a ceiling for violations.  Smaller government?  Let the leaden toys and endlessly accelerating cars flow freely into our economy?

Of course, remember that there wasn’t even a fine in the 70s from the Ford Pinto going up in flames after getting in rear-end collisions. So I guess this is…progress?

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Truth in Advertising

March 8th, 2010


[image taken last weekend on the DC Metro – Red Line]
[graph via Good Medicine – Autumn 2007 – Vol. XVI, No. 4]

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Another Fun Day of Telecommuting

February 10th, 2010

Thanks to Aaron for thinking of me and connecting me with Stephanie Armour of the USA Today.  After a very friendly ten minute conversation, here’s the quote she selected for the article, published today:

The ability to work from anywhere also means snow days no longer offer a break from work. Many are like Nicko Margolies, a communications assistant at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit.

With the federal government shut down, his office closed. Margolies worked at home.

“No snowstorm, no matter how big, will keep me from working. I lost heat, but I had my space heater and network access, so I kept on trucking. It’s actually a seamless transition from home to work,” he says. “The only difference is I’m in my pajamas.”

The full article is on USA TODAY. My quote was also picked up on Time Magazine’s ‘It’s Your Money’ blog and reposted on the Battle Creek Enquirer in Michigan. The image credits on this post go to NASA for this beautiful photograph taken by the Terra satellite (which I cropped).

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The Adventures of the Irreverent Squirrel

January 26th, 2010

There is a surprisingly long story behind this simple coffee tumbler.  On June 25th, 2007 I took a trip down to the National Mall with my friend Sam.  I borrowed another friend’s Digital Rebel XTi and was eager to play around with it.  Fortunately, we stumbled on a perfect subject, a common grey eastern squirrel that endured close human proximity in hopes of getting some edible loot from the passing tourists.  I held my camera out at arms length and snapped as many pictures as I could.  I eventually added one of the images to wikipedia, sharing the rather comical fellow with the world.  The photo took on a life of its own (some of which I’ve touched on in a previous post).

Skip ahead to June of 2009.  Regina F. Silva, a graphic designer/illustrator in the Philippines, sends me an email asking to use the original squirrel photo as inspiration for a drawing.  Flattered and intrigued, I accept.

The shared appreciation for this entertaining creature and the tone of the Regina’s emails gave me confidence in the possibilities of this proposition.  Months later, after more friendly exchanges and a sneak peek at a draft, she launched the first item in a line of squirrel-related items.  She promised to send me the entire line of products and yesterday, I received the wonderful bounty.

I could not be more pleased with the results and I’d like to thank Miss Silva for her devotion to her beautiful designs and for letting me know about this project.  While we’re on opposite sides of the planet, it’s nice to know that there is someone else out there who wants to share humorous squirrel antics with the world.

When I excitedly opened the package from the Philippines I was touched by the note that Regina included with all the fruits of her labor (reproduced to the right).  Best of luck to you and may the squirrel products prosper!

Please check out her Etsy shop and website, both are filled with whimsical original work. I would also recommend checking out her recent blog post about how she took a leap of faith to follow her dream of becoming a graphic designer.





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How to Write With Style – Kurt Vonnegut

January 13th, 2010

I recently stumbled on an old and brief article written by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut.  Ever since I read Welcome to the Monkey House (1968), I’ve counted him among the most enjoyable authors to read.  He is also quite insightful, such as a statement that has stuck with me about smoking from the into of Monkey House:

The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.

Anyways, earlier today I found a piece called How to Write with Style, which I eagerly sped through.  Certainly worth the five minutes it takes to read.  The version I found was published in 1980 and starts with this advice:

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.  These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful — ? And on and on.  Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.

Here are the headers for the piece that give an even shorter overview of his advice:

1. Find a subject you care about
2. Do not ramble
3. Keep it simple
4. Have guts to cut
5. Sound like yourself
6. Say what you mean
7. Pity the readers

Full article (PDF link)

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Why Traditional Journalism isn’t Dead

January 11th, 2010

From a Washington Post article this morning:

The Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 53 outlets that regularly cover Baltimore over the course of one week last July. In looking at six major news stories, the group found that 83 percent of them — in print, television, radio, blogs and Web sites — were essentially repetitive. “Much of the ‘news’ people receive contains no original reporting,” the study says. “Fully eight out of 10 stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.”

Among the remaining stories that advanced the ball, 61 percent came from newspapers — from the Baltimore Sun to specialty publications — followed by 28 percent from local TV stations and 7 percent from radio. Twitter and local Web sites “played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.”

The full study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is quite an interesting read as well (and yes, I recognize the irony of posting this to a blog).

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