Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yes, the election matters...

...and Sarah Vowell, frequent contributor to This American Life, author of the wonderful Assassination Vacation and voice of Violet in The Incredibles, has an explanation of why in this Sunday's New York Times. This excerpt captures, I think, the spirit of her piece:

I have spent the last eight years so disgusted with the incompetent yahoos of the executive branch that I had forgotten that I believe in one of the core principles of the Democratic Party — that government can be a useful, meaningful and worthwhile force for good in this republic instead of just an embarrassing, torturing, Book of Revelation starter kit.

If you're not already familiar with Sarah, here's a fun little video clip to help you out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A map from Owen

Owen's in Budapest for fall semester; today he sent me this map, with a few key places marked. Yea!

View Larger Map

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Economic Plans: What are the candidates really proposing?

This week's New York Times Sunday Magazine contains an excellent article on Barack Obama's economic philosophy and plans, by David Leonhardt. It refers to a study of the Obama and McCain tax proposals by the Tax Policy Center (TPC), a non-partisan joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. The Times article is a great read, and I recommend it; the Tax Policy Center's study provides more detail (in particular, breakdowns of tax impact by quintiles, which I find far more useful than the usually-stated means).

Some interesting factoids:

The tax rates for individuals earning $5m/year (in current, inflation-adjusted dollars) have been:

  • 1980: %60
  • 1988 (end of the Reagan presidency): %35
  • 1990s (Clinton era): %40
  • current (GW Bush): %34
Both Obama and McCain would cut taxes for bottom 80% of population (those earning $118,000 or less). McCain's cuts would average $200/year for this group; Obama's would average $900. But the quintiles for Obama's plan are far more interesting than the single number:

QuintileTop Income for Quintile$ Change in Federal Tax PaidAverage Federal Tax Rate

The detail for the top 20% is interesting, too.

PercentileTop Income for Quintile$ Change in Federal Tax PaidAverage Federal Tax Rate
Top 1 Percent$2,832,449+114,23834.1%
Top 0.1 PercentTop+650,93837.5%

Obama's plan is clearly targeted at cutting taxes for middle-income Americans, while fairly dramatically raising taxes on the very wealthiest Americans (but not back to even the top rates of the Clinton administration).

McCain's plan cuts taxes for everyone, including the wealthiest. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in projected increases in the national debt, as described in the TPC's summary:
Compared to current law, TPC estimates the Obama plan would cut taxes by $2.9 trillion from 2009-2018. McCain would reduce taxes by nearly $4.2 trillion. These projections assume the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts expire in 2010 and that the Alternative Minimum Tax is fully effective.

So who's the fiscal conservative here?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Journey Home

I'm riding the Acela Express, returning to Boston from a week in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania with my mother. She had surgery on Tuesday to repair her rotator cuff, damaged in the first of the two bad falls she suffered last winter. Katy and I arrived Sunday night; Katy will still be there for at least another week. The surgery seems to have gone very well, and Mom is recovering much more quickly than I expected her to.

My sister Jeannie also lives in Elizabethtown, and on Saturday we seized the opportunity to visit my home town, Windber. Except for one very short visit in 1969 (for Jeannie's wedding), I haven't been back to Windber since we moved to Florida in 1968.

I have a very mixed bag of memories from Windber, and I haven't been especially eager to reopen that chapter of my life. On the one hand, my family was very close when we lived there. We had some wonderful family vacations, and I had a lot of freedom growing up there. I used to spend my summer days riding my bike all over town, or playing in the woods at the top of the hill we lived on. On the other, I was always an outsider: bookish, unathletic, unattractive. Perhaps everyone's childhood is similarly mixed. In any case, I felt a bit of anxiety as we entered a familiar stretch of road on the way into town.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's a long drive from E-town to Windber, and Jeannie and I had a rare opportunity to let our hair down with each other. Jeannie is about 6 years older than me, and our lives separated before we really got to know each other very well. It was a treat to be able to talk with each other as adult friends. We traveled well together, and I look forward to spending similar time with her again.

The first leg of the trip was a long stretch on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We exited at Bedford and drove northwest towards Hooversville, the town where my father was born. On the way we also passed my mother's mother's childhood home. I don't know how Jeannie found it; it's well off the road and overgrown with brush. Here it is.

We also spotted a set of wind turbines; this turned out to be the Green Mountain Wind Farm in Garrett, PA.

Hooversville is not a place I remember well at all, but Jeannie does. There is a small suspension bridge in the center of town that evidently terrified us as kids. It's down the street from the house where my father was born. Here are the bridge and the house.

We headed north from Hooversville and arrived a short time later in Windber. Our first stop was my father's parents' house on Stockholm Avenue, next to the Bestform factory and across the street from what was, back then, a very active train switchyard. The trains are gone now.

From there we went past the old playground (now a church parking lot), up over the 17th street bridge and on to Baumgardner Avenue, and my childhood home.

The house is almost exactly as I remembered it. There are a few obvious changes; the huge pussy willow bush in the back yard is gone, as are the two pine trees that used to flank the front walk. We had a nice chat with the man now living in the house. His parents bought it from my family in 1968 and lived there until their deaths. It's hard to imagine a house in America with only two owners in over 50 years.

From there we went "downtown" - a much smaller area than I recalled. Visiting the building that once held the Callen Baking Company was hard. It's boarded up and unoccupied, and through the windows we could see that the roof in the back is gone, evidently to a fire. I don't expect the building to be there the next time I visit.

Some of the other buildings, though, are pretty much as I remember them, such as the Arcadia Theater...

...the fire station...

...and the building that held the town library.

We came across this amusing juxtaposition as we walked up Graham Avenue.

We then visited the section of town that held many of the town's churches, including First Lutheran, where I was baptised.

It looks like the congregation no longer occupies the church; the sign out front mentioned a "closing service" in December, and the building was locked. We were able to peek in through some side windows at the sanctuary; it remains as I remembered it, a beautiful, peaceful place. I wonder what will become of it?

We drove around and visited a few more places - the town pool, the hospital, the schools - and then began winding our way over the mountains to Roaring Spring, where my mother's parents lived. We passed this funny road sign on the way.

Roaring Spring is aptly named. My grandparents lived right beside the spring itself, in an apartment over the Chrysler/Plymouth dealership ("L & L Motors") that my Grandpa Lauer owned. Sadly, the garage and apartment are no more; in their place is a parking lot. I used to spend several weeks each summer there, and I have very pleasant memories of feeding the fish and ducks (Grandpa kept a bin of feed corn in the garage for this purpose), watching the fountain, and playing at the edge of the water.

A short walk from the spring is St. Luke's Lutheran Church, where my parents were married. Like the Lutheran Church in Winder, St. Luke's appears to have stopped functioning as a church.

Down the street from the church is the paper mill, whose smell I will always associate with visiting my grandparents.

Roaring Spring also has a beautiful, though inactive, train station, a block away from the spring. It's a reminder of the days when trains connected most of the northeast with the rest of the country.

By this time the sun was setting and we turned south toward Bedford and the turnpike back to Elizabethtown. The trip back was a little quieter; I don't know about Jeannie, but I had a lot on my mind. I find it remarkable that we can retain so many memories for so long, and that they can be triggered so vividly by the right conditions. I'm glad I went back to Windber, and I hope to return again soon for a longer visit.

There are many more pictures from this trip in this album:

The Journey Home

Friday, August 1, 2008

As cool as Gene Krantz

Nothing profound here, just a quote from Jim Lovell's book "Lost Moon". Gene Krantz was the mission control flight director for Apollo 13. Shortly after the explosion in the service module, Krantz told the mission control team:

O.K., let's everybody keep cool. Let's make sure we don't do anything that's going to blow our electrical power or cause us to lose fuel cell number two. Let's solve the problem, but let's not make it any worse by guessing."

That's what I have to keep telling myself when debugging: don't guess. Hunches are one thing; wild speculation is another.