Saturday, March 29, 2008

From the Senate District Republican Convention

Here I sit in the upper balcony of the Delco Center, where the Senatorial District 14 Republican Convention is underway. I signed up to come as an alternate, mostly because I'm curious about the process, and it's the first time I've felt like my vote could make a difference. It turns out that all 9 precinct delegates showed up, so I won't be necessary, and I can leave at 11:00 without any guilt.
The first thing that struck me about this event was how many people are here. The line was actually out the door and around the corner. If people think that the Republican Party business is all wrapped up, they are wrong. There are a lot of people here with a lot of things to say, and there is not quite the unity of opinion that I had imagined.
A big part of the energy here is associated with vigor with which Ron Paul has mobilized people to affect the Republican party platform. He has rightly realized that he will not win the national nomination, but he has managed to put together a political platform and get a lot of people push his agenda through the proposal of resolutions. There may be a substantial attack on some of the traditional tenets of the Republican party.
Two things will happen today at this convention. Delegates will be chosen to represent our district at the state convention in Houston. Resolutions will be voted on. It's a much larger scale version of the cozy precinct level convention I blogged about earlier except at this event, 863 delegates showed up to this convention from 164 precincts. This is more than double the number present at the previous convention two years ago with most people raising hands when asked about first time attendance.
A big deal is the assignment of delegates, so the roll call and the sorting out of who is here determines the voting strength of each precinct. As there are anticipated to be some differences of opinion, they are actually very careful to get it all right. It seems a little ridiculous, but they deal with each little deviation and irregularity in front of everyone. A lot of other trivia (rules, etc.) gets voted on, and believe it or not, there is debate on this stuff.
I actually managed to miss the all of the voting on the resolutions due to another commitment, but I want to comment on a few things:
-I stood in the registration line for 45 minutes  next to Jim Hasik, who is running for State Representative for my district. I actually got to talk with him at length about several issues and found out that I agree with him on a lot of things. I think I'll vote for him.
-Also, Gov. Rick Perry spoke at the opening address to promote a resolution supporting the Boy Scouts of America. There was one heckler who was shushed by the crowd.
-There are a bunch of political groups associated with various issues here passing out fliers, stickers, donuts, etc. For example, from my vantage, I can see Texas Alliance for Life,, Ron Paul Revolution, "Stop Domain Subsidies", "Vote Zimmerman", and so forth. Lots to chew on, and a fairly wide variety of opinions. Unfortunately, it's time for me to go, so I'm going to miss the end of the debate on how to fairly assign 162 delegates among 164 precincts of unequal sizes, a debate I don't fully understand. With this level of debate and nitpicking, I think I'm pretty comfortable with the process. At the rate they're going now, it will be late afternoon by the time all this is done. Too bad I'll miss the fun.
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Book Review: Blind Man's Bluff

Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sonntag and Christopher Drew.
I was at the library the other day, and having just finished reading Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brian, I was in a little bit of a naval mindset and was looking for info on sailing ships, and there sat this book. The title and subject grabbed my attention, as they were clearly designed to do, and since there is no cost involved in a library check-out, I brought it home with me.
Halfway through the first chapter, it started to seem very familiar to me, and then it donned on me that exactly the same thing happened about five years ago on a trip to the library when we lived in South Carolina. It turns out I've read the book before! Weird, huh? Anyway, I've read enough of it now to offer an intelligent opinion, and anyway, I want to try out the Amazon associates link.
This is one of those books which uncovers a previously hidden part of American history, which is the submarine aspect of the cold war. The chapters in fact focus mostly on the disasters and near disasters in the U.S. submarine service, starting from the early dare-devil days of the diesel subs up through the modern nuclear boats. I don't think most people realize that there were a lot of lives lost in the cat-and-mouse game that we played with the Soviets during the Cold War. At various times, destroyers rammed subs and damaged or sank them, subs accidentally bumped into each other, and both American and Soviet subs popped their periscopes up in the middle of busy enemy naval bases. In one high-profile case, the Soviets discovered a "property of US Govt."-labeled wire-tap on one of their undersea communications cables. Oops!
There were also technological feats as impressive (and nearly as expensive) as the Apollo space program that had to remain shrouded in secrecy. In fact, mere days before the Apollo 11 moon landing, the U.S. Navy was operating a deep-sea recovery vehicle in and around a submarine wreck which was under two miles of water. And they weren't allowed to tell anyone about it. How's that for a fine use of tax dollars?
While the stories are interesting and the tales are compelling, I've found a few too many style errors to be able to give this a whole-hearted endorsement. Several times, the authors switch from present voice to past mid-paragraph. At times the authors' opinions about mistakes by the Navy and various departments come through a little too clearly, and the tone starts to sound whiney. If you happen to be in the Tom Clancy fan-camp, these issues will not bother you in the least, and I can heartily recommend this book to you, since this has the added benefit of all being true. For the rest of you (my wife for instance), if you care overmuch about style and good writing, be forewarned: this is by no means the worst I've ever read, but this will not contend for space on the shelves of great literature.
Thanks for reading!

Let's Go Fly a Kite!

Our friend Melissa invited us to join her down at Zilker Park last Friday to join her in a kite party in honor of her birthday. (She is one of those rare individuals who seems to be able to seamlessly integrate friends from work, school, home and church. I, on the other hand, feel as though I live in separate, disjointed worlds...) So I took that as an excuse to do what I haven't done since Jr. High but have thought of doing several times: I made kites for/with my kids.
It started with a trip to Hobby Lobby (my wife finds these 40% off coupons that make this possible) on the bikes with Uncle Allen to go pick out fabric. We returned home with dowels, nylon thread, and 3 yards of nylon rip-stop fabric.
Next I had the kids draw shapes on paper for patterns that they wanted to put onto their kites. Eliza, 4 yrs old and an aspiring princess, chose a heart and a star, which star was cut to shreds by the participation of of 2 yr old Caroline. Ian, 7 and a huge fan of Lego Exo-Force, drew impossibly detailed Squid-Ammo and Cordak Missiles. The end result was pretty much a rectangle with details drawn in by hand. =)
In any case, I had imagined that it would be pretty quick to throw together a couple of delta kites, and all things considered, it wasn't that bad, but I ended up putting in a couple of late nights with the sewing machine. (Who says sewing is for girls?! What an awesome mechanical gadget a sewing machine is. This is Man Stuff!) I tried out two different approaches for the kites, one using sleeves to hold the dowels in place and the other using pockets. The sleeve kite looks better, flies better, and was only slightly harder to make. I recommend that method to any other aspiring kite makers. (Here is an interesting link to a NASA program that aids in the design and trimming of kites of several different designs. Not necessary to get one to fly, but interesting nerd-fodder nonetheless.)
Our camera is currently on the blink, and I think I have about a 50% chance of a successful repair when I can make an hour or so for it at school. There is an ancient backup camera, but I'm not sure where the card reader for it is, so you're going to have to wait a few days for photos of the kites. I promise I'll post as soon as I can come by some photos, though. Then I'll be able to show how they were built, etc.
So now on to the touchy-feely part. I have to say it was one of my life's greater satisfactions to go fly kites that I built together with my kids. Once we had a little bit of a breeze under hers, Eliza went tearing off across the field with string in hand. Her concept of flying a kite requires running with it, and I suppose that's much more exciting than just standing still with your neck craned to the sky. Ian's kite took a little more work and a long tail to get and remain aloft, but once in the air it stayed there quite stably. His concept of flying a kite involves chasing after his sister so that he can cross the strings and bring both kites crashing to the ground. If I had been able to relax and laugh about this it would have actually been pretty funny, but after all the hard work of getting them in the air... Ah well, nothing like kite flying to shine light on my lack of perspective.
All in all, this was a great way to connect with the kids. The deal was totally sealed when Eliza asked me yesterday, "Daddy, when can we go fly my kite again, just you and me?" Who can turn down that request? I think we're going this afternoon, in fact.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Smog Dilemma (EPA acts, sort of)

I read an article in the New York Times today that prompted a good bit of thought. The essence of the article is that the U.S. EPA is lowering (tightening, that is) the Federal ground level ozone standards for air quality. This is, in fact, a good thing in general. I happen to work in a field that deals with air quality, and diesel engines (a central part of my research topic) are a prime source of NOX, which combines with unburned hydrocarbons (gas vapor, paint fumes, swamp gas, etc.) on hot sunny days to form ground level ozone. Wait a minute, you say, I thought we were tryingto protect the ozone layer, I thought ozone was good!? Well, it turns out that way up high, miles in the sky, ozone serves a very important function of blocking UV light, so we want to not emit chemicals that destroy the ozone up high. But ozone is actually a powerful oxidizer which irritates and inflames lung tissue. It sends tens thousands of people to the ER, causes missed work and school, corrodes plastic, darkens wood, etc.
So first comes the rant. According to the article, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, a Bush appointee, did a classic Bush move and ignored the advice of his top scientific advisers and lowered the allowable 8-hour average concentration half way to their recommended level (from the current 84 parts per billion to 75ppb instead of 60-70ppb). This may seem like fine parsing, but the impacts could be big. The bottom line is this: when a municipality consistently experiences air quality below the federal standard, they are required by law to form a plan to clean things up or they lose money for highway building projects. If there's no air quality trigger, then nothing happens. Lowering the standard will effectively cause more cities to start cleaning up their air, much to the benefit of city dwellers everywhere. What irks me about the decision is that it is yet another in a long train of snubs by the Bush Administration of scientific advice regarding the environment. Shall we add to the list decisions regarding forestry, greenhouse gases, Arctic drilling, CO2 emissions caps, etc.
So here's the dilemma: as a devoted biker, what's to do on an "ozone action day"? On such days, the conditions are right for forming lots of ground level ozone. Not driving can make a difference in air quality. Seems like a good time to hop on a bike, no? The trouble is, that commuting on a bike puts one right at the source of pollution: near automobile tailpipes. It also turns out that one tends to breathe deeply when riding a bike. Normally this is a benefit, but not when the air is full of ozone. If everyone got out of their cars and onto bikes, then we might make a difference, but if only I and a few other crazies did so, then we'd be punishing ourselves for a good deed, and I'm not so into environmental martyrdom. Maybe the trick is to ride early in the day before the smog forms. Or maybe we should all write letters to our congressmen...
Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Feeling that Civic Pride..

It's time for my biannual rant against Daylight Saving Time. Whoever proposed that we switch our clocks twice a year certainly did not have to deal with the schedules of young children. Rather than feel completely powerless about this matter, I have, in the past several years, taken advantage of the convenience of writing my congresspeople online (here, here, and here). Feel free to join me in my crusade. Here's this year's rant, prompted by a well-thought-out opinion in the New York Times:

Dear ...
I and my family are strongly opposed to the practice of switching between Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time. Please, if this issue should come up for consideration, do not vote in favor of continuing the practice.
Recent studies have shown that switching to Daylight Saving Time in the summer does not result in a savings of electricity. It does, however, result in a measurable increase in the number of morning automobile accidents; it wreaks havoc on the schedules of parents of young children, whose bodies do not operate according to a clock but rather to daylight; and it causes considerable confusion to those who work with dates and time in computer programming. I am personally affected by all three of these consequences and would appreciate a repeal of the practice of switching to and from Daylight Saving Time as soon as possible. If there happen to be legitimate energy savings associated with use of Daylight Saving Time, perhaps we should consider a permanent institution of the summer schedule.
yours truly for the Diller Family (two adults and three young children),
Timothy Diller

In other news, I was inspired by the story of Master Sergeant Woodrow Wilson Keeble, who was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor in a correction of injustice that makes the heart glow with simultaneous pride and anger. President Bush made the presentation and told his story as only he can. If I were President, that would definitely be one of my favorite parts of the job.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Republican Convention

As Hannah mentioned, I found myself in the precinct-level Republican Party convention last night. I thought I was going to experience something similar to the caucuses Hannah attended and went with the intention of casting a vote and leaving. Civic duty discharged, time to go home.
What I found instead was in stark contrast to the line-out-the-door Democratic caucuses: a small room with 18 other souls, 6 of them children, and all eyes on me when I entered. To make matters more interesting, I know the family who constituted 2 of the adults (one of them the session chairman) and 4 of the children in the room, and I know that while we are close in our Christian faith and general life morals, we have a few differences when it comes to politics.
In any case, I decided not to turn around and walk out, and thus began one of the most interesting evenings I've had in a long time. After all of the business about election of officers, etc., the heart of the meeting was voting on several resolutions which the leader of the meeting, my acquaintance, brought forth. The first issue was my favorite why-is-this-a-hot-button, illegal immigration. The resolution was a motion to make part of the Republican Party platform the requirement that state and local law enforcement officials vigorous prosecute illegal immigration and condemn any sort of amnesty, etc. I'm sure you've heard the arguments. When he opened the floor for discussion, a lot of people were just looking around the room at each other, so I swallowed hard and raised my hand. When I do things like that, I become intensely aware of the sound of my own voice in my ears, and it makes me very self conscious and is not a comfortable feeling, but I had to know, "Can somebody explain to me why this is such a big deal? I've heard a lot of arguments about why we should focus on this, but so far, I'm unconvinced. I'm willing to change my mind, but convince me..." So I listened to the standard spiel about costs to hospitals and schools, the drain on the government budgets, the risks of terrorism, and so forth. Another man spoke up to point out that whatever the merits of prosecuting illegal immigration, strongly worded resolutions as had been proposed were not doing the Republican party any service among the unconvinced and that we should tone down the rhetoric. Amen. In the end, I remained unconvinced (I find myself feeling better about a more compassionate attitude, click here for a thought provoking example), and the measure passed with a 7-4 with one abstention. While I was not satisfied with the result, I felt a lot better about the process, and in the end I was glad that I went. I feel the GOP is getting a little extreme because the conventions are attended only by activists like my friend and there are relatively few moderate voices, like I discovered my own to be.
I'll spare you the complete details, but in the course of the evening, we voted on measures dealing with illegal immigration, English as a national language (why, again, is this important?), a photo ID requirement for voting, a voter verifiable paper trail for elections is Texas (I got to amend this one not to take us back 100 years to hand counted paper ballots), a limitation of government growth to inflation and population increase except by ballot measure, and protection and affirmation of parental rights and responsibilities. There were plenty of times when I felt very out of place in that crowd, voting on those issues. But rather than feel like the party is out of touch with me and my family, it was good to speak up and make my views known.
I have no delusions about the magnitude of what we accomplished; we were a small voice and one of many many precincts in the state that voted on similar measures. However, I found out a lot of things, I got to meet and have substantive discussion with a few of my neighbors, and by speaking out, I was able to influence others and have my own views refined and sharpened.
If you've never been to any kind of neighborhood or local government function, it's a neat experience, and I recommend it, whether it's the party convention or caucus, or a neighborhood association meeting. You may not change the world, but you'll be involved, engaged, a little more connected, and you might just make a difference.

Excuses, Excuses... and a new blog

I know excuses are lame, and I don't enjoy giving them, but there is an explanation to my lack of new posts, which was my first midterm in the Gas Dynamics class I'm taking. It took a bunch of studying and pretty much ruined one weekend for me, but I managed to pull things together enough to feel pretty good about how I did afterward.
Two things strike me as ironic about this class. It's the last class I'm taking in my academic career, and it's called "Introduction to Gas Dynamics," because we're really only getting the basics (hah!). I would have hoped to move on to some Advanced Blah Blah Blah classes by now, but apparently you can get a Ph.D. (presumption of finishing duly acknowledged) with Introductory classes. The second irony is that I finally get the hang of test taking (after 9-1/2 years of college courses) in my last two semesters. There's just no justice in the system. Or maybe that's the point of the system.

And now for an abrupt subject change, my friends at Dynamic Bicycles have started a new blog. Check it out here.