Archive for category Maine

Snowe for President?

Senator Olympia Snowe shocked the political world by announcing her retirement at the end of her term.    She expressed confidence she could have won in November, but said she didn’t want to spend another six years in the toxic partisan atmosphere that has overtaken DC.

I have always had a profound respect for Senator Snowe, and have voted for her the two times I had the chance to while living in Maine.   I probably would have voted for her again.    It’s not that I necessarily agreed with her more than with her opponents, only that I trusted that she would try to work to create pragmatic compromises on difficult issues, focusing on problem solving rather than ideology.    I find it both sad and a bit frightening that the atmosphere in the nation’s capital has gotten so vile that she decided to forego a fourth term.

Last year she visited campus, campaigning for State Senator Tom Saviello, who does adjunct teaching for us in the Poli-Sci department, and State Rep Lance Harvell, who also has close ties to the university.    I told Senator Snowe how much I admired her efforts at pragmatic problem solving over partisan battles.   We chatted briefly about the atmosphere in Washington and her body language expressed physical pain as she talked about it.   It was clear to me in that brief conversation that she was deeply troubled by what was happening.

Snowe while serving as a young Maine State Senator

Snowe celebrated her 65th birthday last week.    She was born Olympia Bouchles in Augusta and lost both her parents to illness — her mother to breast cancer when she was 9, her father to heart disease the next year.    She was of Greek heritage on both sides of her family, with her father an immigrant from Sparta.    She earned a political science degree at the University of Maine at Orono in 1969 and married her first husband Peter Snowe that same year.   He would die in a car accident just four years later.

Her husband had been a Maine state legislator, and she ran for his seat and won it, getting into Maine state politics while only in her mid-twenties.   In 1978 she was elected the House of Representatives at age 31, representing the 2nd district, and served there until she ran for the Senate in 1994 to replace outgoing Democratic Senator George Mitchell.    While in the House she served three years with John McKernan who represented district 1 from 1983 to 1986.   She would marry him in 1989, the same year McKernan became Governor.  She served a dual role as a Congresswoman and Maine’s First Lady during McKernan’s stint as Maine Governor from 1989 to 1995.

Through all of this, no one doubted or questioned her Republican credentials.    She was independent and pragmatic, following the tradition of Maine politicians going back to Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican Senator who in the 1950s was one of the first in her party to stand up to Joseph McCarthy during his witch hunts.    Another Republican, William Cohen, later served as Secretary of Defense to Democratic President Bill Clinton.   Snowe’s colleague in the Senate, Susan Collins, is also known as a pragmatic moderate Republican.

Margaret Chase Smith, GOP Senator from 1949-1973, her political career ending the same year Snowe's begun.

I started my political life as a Republican.  At the age of 12 I was canvassing for President Nixon in my home state of South Dakota — also the state of Nixon’s opponent George McGovern that year.   At age 16 I drove people to the polls with my ’63 Chevy Bel Aire for President Ford.   At 20 I was in Detroit at the national Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan, one of the “Reagan youth” allowed on the floor of the convention during Reagan’s acceptance speech.    One thing I remember about that is meeting two really attractive female Maine students and trading a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a little Maine lobster decal that I still have on an old camera case.   Little did I know I’d sometime live in Maine!

From 1983 to 1985 I worked for Republican Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota in Washington DC.  As I studied European politics for my Ph.D. and learned more about how the political system works, I drifted away from the GOP, though never felt completely at home with the Democrats.    I supported and still support President Obama, and on most major issues my views are liberal – though with a dose of fiscal conservatism.

But while I drifted to the “left,” the Republican party has changed dramatically.   In 1980 you had the Jerry Falwells and “moral majority” types denying evolution and condemning pro-choice Republicans (both Snowe and Collins are pro-choice).   But the party was more pragmatic, less ideological than the Democrats seemed to be at the time.

Senators Snowe and Collins

So when I look at Olympia Snowe I see someone representing a kind of politics I too rarely see from either side of the aisle – the kind of Republican I remember from my youth.    Consider the Republican party rhetoric during the primary campaign, the demonizing of Barack Obama, the extremist tones taken by Gingrich and Santorum (and Romney sometimes too – though I don’t think he has his heart into it), I have to shudder.   I want to choose between two sets of plausible rational perspectives, knowing that the US system demands compromise and negotiation.   Instead it’s too easy to fall into ideological jihad.   When Republicans dismiss someone with such solid Republican credentials as Snowe as a “Rino” (Republican in name only) because she doesn’t toe an extremist ideological line, it’s a sign that many in the party have gone to a very dark place.

I don’t think most Republicans want to go that route.   The candidates Snowe was on campus to campaign for are pragmatic problem solvers like her.   Most Democratic and Republican students on campus get along with each other well and have good spirited discussions and debates.    The Republican party in 2008 nominated John McCain despite him being eviscerated by the far right.    Mitt Romney would not be trouble if not for caucuses that bring out the activists more than rank and file.

So if the GOP goes and nominates a Rick Santorum or a Newt Gingrich, I would urge Senator Snowe to consider an independent Presidential bid.   Americans Elect is on the ballot in all states, I believe, and searching for a candidate.  Snowe could represent an alternative to kind of politics we’ve grown used to from both parties.    To be sure, I’m not dissatisfied with President Obama.   But I want a real choice – a Gingrich or a Santorum gives me no alternative but to vote for Obama.  Snowe would force me and many others to consider her – and could send a message to the GOP that as a far right party they risk becoming a permanent minority.


Second Wind

Thursday was a snow day and as I did laundry, peeled carrots and potatoes for the roast I’d cook in the slow cooker, and did the dishes I felt proud of the kind of role model I was for my two sons.   Dad does the housework while mom’s out working!   I think at least once I muttered, “what would mom say about this” as I reached down to get an apple core Ryan carelessly let fall.

Unfortunately I’m often much better at “women’s work” than “men’s work.”   When I fix something around the house it arouses incredulous amazement from my wife.     An average 8th grader in shop class handles tools better than I do.   Now, when it comes to hooking up computers, stereo systems and things like that I’m good.   I do handle the lawn mower and take pride in my shovel/snow blower abilities.   When we go somewhere, I’m usually the one behind the wheel.   But beyond there the stereotypes end.  I tend to take care of the children more (my wife’s job has far more stress), get up at night when they’re sick, drive them places, and I’m the one active in the PTA — a predominately women’s world.

My inability to handle the more manly chores is obvious to everyone.   I know that because a few years ago I reluctantly bought a chain saw because of the need to clear some small trees in our back yard.   I mentioned this in class and a student looked at me with shock, “don’t do it yourself, let me come and help, it’s dangerous!”   If you’re imaging a rugged woodsman like student you’re off base.   Her name was Addie and her concern was real.

“Don’t say that,” another student started, apparently worried about my masculine pride.   I however was suddenly nervous.   “Why,” I asked, “what can happen?”

“Well,” she began, “the big problem is kick back.   You have to know what you’re doing and how to hold it…”   I got home and read the safety manual carefully and then took a hatchet and got rid of the offending trees.   I’m no Ronald Reagan with a hatchet but at least it’s not a motor driven chain threatening to rip open my head.

Of course, everyone here has chain saws and uses them.   I’ve seen people with no goggles or head gear cutting down small trees as if they were simply wiping a table.    But I took Addie’s warning to heart.   My father in law and brother in law have gotten good use out of that chain saw when they’ve visited, but all I’ve used are the goggles that came with it.

It’s not like I’m lazy.   I’ve actually kept myself in pretty good shape and exercise.    I used to run seven miles a day, in fact — but when I turned 37 I hit a barrier where my knees and feet said, “OK, we’ve let you abuse us for half your life, we need a bit less stress.”   Since then most of my exercise has been on machines…step machine, bowflex, nordic track, etc.     Now my legs are starting to rebel against the step machine, I can no longer use it in ski season!

Growing up I worked in restaurants.  I was a hard worker.  I bussed tables, did dishes, made pizzas, prepped food, stocked salad bars, and did books for years.  I also worked for a law firm running errands — an experience that pushed me away from law school.   My talents are in the kitchen, cleaning, figuring out books and research.   I’ve also always been a teacher — even at age 17 I was in charge of training at Village Inn Pizza in Sioux Falls.

My dad was handy with tools and had been a carpenter before he became a businessman.   He also was a damn tough football player who despite being small might have had a decent college career if he hadn’t flunked out of Augsburg College his first year and joined the Navy.   He renovated the house and I’d help some.    Mostly I avoided it, and he didn’t push me.   He seemed to realize I really didn’t want to learn how to do all the stuff he was doing and I’d only slow him down anyway.     No question from a child gives a parent such mixed emotions as “can I help?”    It’s so great you want to, but it’ll double the time the task takes!   So beyond  steaming off wall paper and a few small projects, I didn’t learn what I should have.    I wasn’t into playing team sports, had no interest in the navy, and when I became a ‘professional student’ he tolerated it with grace.   As the son of a German Luthern Minister, he didn’t want to put me under the pressure to conform that he grew up with.

In cities you hire people to fix your car, renovate your house, repair a leaky toilet, cut down rouge trees, landscape the yard, install flooring, and do just about everything beyond what requires a screw driver and hammer.   That made sense to me — that’s capitalism right?   You specialize in something, earn money and hire people to do the things you’re not good at!    Here in Maine, though, that sticks out.   Doing it yourself is something people take pride in.   And, I grudgingly admit, it seems to produce well rounded pragmatic people who understand life a bit better because they do more of the every day work.

I also neither hunt nor fish.   I wouldn’t mind killing the animals, mind you.   A former girlfriend told me she imagined that ground beef came packaged in plastic that you could pluck from some kind of tree — she didn’t want to think about the slaughterhouses.   I don’t harbor such illusions.  But to take a dead animal carcass, cut it up, deal with the blood, the internal organs…no way.   Same way with fish.  I wouldn’t mind pulling them out of the river, but actually handling them?   Yuck.   I’ll just get my fish wrapped up at the store, eyes, bones and internal organs long since removed.

It’s not like I couldn’t do these things.  If I were with a group of hunters and one told me, “cut into that deer,” I’d be able to handle it.  I’d probably feel proud of myself and say “that’s not so bad.”   My wife’s told me how easy it is to gut a fish.    But I set up barriers to getting to the point where I actually do such things — why leave my comfort zone?

And that’s the problem: I’m stuck in my comfort zone.    I work on my classes, read blogs and books, follow the news, play with the kids, struggle with my research and do housework.   When looked at that way, I come to the awful conclusion that I’ve become a boring person.   I do participate in travel courses almost yearly to Germany or Italy — nice, comfortable destinations that I know well.  Even my global travel is solidly in my comfort zone!    When the semester is not in session I’m teaching overload classes and my hobby is this blog.   It’s not that the comfort zone is bad, but it’s become too, well, comfortable!

So this year one resolution is going to be do force myself to engage in new activities.   I may not skin a bear, but perhaps I’ll go out and fish, build something or even use my chain saw.   I need to get back in the mood I was in graduate school, exploring new ideas and ways of doing things; I need to find my second wind.

When I was younger spending some time in my comfort zone was a luxurious break from building a life.   Now that I’m over 50 it’s a dangerous addiction that could cause me to miss out on the things I’ve not yet done.   That has to change!


Ski Magic

I’ve skied every day this year.   Granted, the year is two days old (probably three by the time I post this), so that’s not saying much.    Moreover, I did so despite the fact that we still have no snow on the ground and outside temperatures have been warm.   That’s because our local mountain, Mt. Titcomb, invested in massively upgrading their snow making equipment this year — and it was worth it.

The Farmington Ski Club formed in 1939 and continues to run the mountain to this day.   It is one of the few “club” owned ski centers, and as such is not a ‘for profit’ business.   It’s dedicated to serving skiers and families in the community.   People volunteer to run the snack bar, attend the lifts and otherwise help out, thereby keeping costs down.   This means a family can buy a pass for both Alpine and cross country skiing (when there is snow they have excellent trails) for less than $200 a person.  It’s actually not buying a pass but joining the club.

If you go up to Sugarloaf it’s nearly $100 for one day!   To be sure, the mountain is small, there is no chair lift but only a toe rope and two T-bars, but it has a number of excellent runs (most aren’t yet open due to lack of snow), some extremely challenging and you can have a lot of fun skiing there.   I certainly don’t get bored!

Once you get used to the T-bars, they're not so bad

The ski club also sponsors a ski swap sale early in the season.  I volunteered to help with clean up after the sale this year and it enjoyable.   Another couple had volunteered and we found we had mutual friends (we’d each been to their piano concert in Waterville the night before) and joked around the whole time.     The conversations I overheard were interesting:   People out of work struggling to find anything (it’s a bad economy when you can’t even get a job as a Walmart greeter!),  talk of church related events, who the kids have as teachers this year (‘really, she’s so old! I had her back when I was in 2nd grade’ said a mom who looked just out of high school), etc.

Paper records are kept of every item to be sold and every sale.  The workers (volunteers) physically match these up and then when the sale is over you come in and find out if your item has been sold.   If so you join a long line waiting for one man to write a check in the amount of the purchase.   If not you have to pick up your rejected equipment.   I’m sure someday at the time of purchase money will transfer to the seller’s account with an alert sent to a smartphone.  But now there’s still the man writing checks one by one.    And nobody’s complaining about the wait.

When you have growing children it’s a necessity to have something like this; they need new boots every year and new skis every two or three years.  Mt. Titcomb and the Farmington Ski Club are very special; families with modest means can spend a winter skiing and socializing.  It’s not about profit and commercialization, it’s about community (collectivism rocks!)

For kids it’s a great place to go after school to meet up with friends.    People know each other, watch out for each others’ kids, and as a parent I felt no qualms about letting my eldest simply take off and ski when he was only five years old and I stayed in the warming house with his then 3 year old brother.    They also have events, programs for racing, youth programs to learn to ski, etc.   The snack bar is what a snack bar should be — greasy and delicious.    None of this fast food efficiency or sterile blandness.   My pizza slice today was probably about 45 minutes old and warmed a few seconds in the microwave.  Yet it was ten times better than Pizza Hut!   The kids like the red hot dogs.

I can't find a photo to do justice to how beautiful this place is, nestled in the foothills with a comfortable old fashioned warming lodge.

Now our eldest is 8 and the youngest just turned six — and both can ski down the hill as fast if not faster than me.   Last year the eldest mastered trails I avoided.   That amazes me.   In much of the country skiing is for rich folk.   I didn’t ski until I was 19, and my friends that did ski when I was growing up were my rich friends.  Skiing meant going to a ressort or traveling long distances when you lived in South Dakota.   The local ski area where I grew up, a kind of ‘bump on the prairie’ wasn’t cheap either.   To think my kindergartner can zoom down the slopes with confidence gives me a kind of a rush!

It’s also a nice foil to the video game world we live in.   I have to admit, I do not see the appeal of video games.   It’s not a technology thing either.  I don’t understand why people like puzzles, crossword puzzles, or rubics cubes.   All that work and effort for what, to get a cube with all the colors the same on each side?   Words written in blocks up, down and across on a paper?   What value is that?  If I’m going spend time on effort on something, there has to be some kind of pay off – ‘leveling up’ in a game just doesn’t do it for me.   I’d need cash.

To be sure, blogging fulfills a similar function for me, I gain nothing from games but like to be creative.   Yet my kids love games.   My just turned six year old will regale me detailed information about Pokemon battles (including the moves, names, and types), talk about his spell and pets on Wizard 101, or go into a Gamestop store and get on an XBox and quickly master whatever game is being displayed.   The fact that we don’t have an XBox slows him only a tad.    He also doesn’t seem to comprehend that I’m not at all interested in the fact his Pokemon just evolved, or that his wizard has a new pet piggle.  I’ve learned from his detailed descriptions that these games slightly more complicated than particle physics.

The boys can play for hours, calling each other over to see when some new event or special battle takes place.  That’s convenient when I have lots of work to do, but I’ve heard that letting your kids play videos sunrise to sunset is frowned upon.   ‘You got your son a DSi for his sixth birthday?’ asked a friend in horror crunching her nose in contempt.   Well, she actually said “oh, I’m sure he likes that,” but I knew what she was thinking!

And as I’m learning with Wizard 101, the games are designed to make money.   They start free, but soon kids ask to buy crowns in order to do special things.   2500 crowns for $5?  Sure, it’ll make the kids happy.   Now they’re wanting to wipe out their bank accounts to buy more crowns to furnish their mansions (which they bought because their original dorms were too small).   I mean, huh?

Yet compare the time they spend on this with the time they spend with often much more expensive toys that just sit around (hey, what about this air hockey table we got for Christmas – why has nobody played it since December 26th?), and I can’t say it’s a waste of money.   Having an real object opposed to a virtual one is meaningless if the real one just sits  there – at least the virtual stuff gets attention.

Then there’s skiing.   Both boys love it, they’re in the sun, having fun, exercising and learning that Maine tradition of wanting snow — and not just for a school day.   Even on the few runs open due to the limits of snowmaking the views are awesome and skiing remains the closest physical approximation of a religious experience (well, maybe the second closest) – speed, beauty, movement and serenity wrapped together.

And if after a day of skiing they want to play a video game or watch Futurama (yes, my six year old watches Futurama – stop crunching your noses in contempt!) that’s OK.  Skiing is magic, and here in Farmington, Maine, it’s the way life should be.


Geothermal Update

The heat exchange unit, which sends warm or cold air to the attic where a fan then sends it through the house

Last June I blogged about our installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in our house.  (The link is to one of the final blogs, go earlier in the week to see the process).   Now seven months later it’s time for an update.

It is winter.   You can’t tell by looking out the window because we are barren of snow.  That is exceedingly rare for December 30th and has destroyed my plans to spend the week skiing with the boys here in town.    We did get a two inch snowfall on December 23rd that melted on December 26th.   Maine without a white Christmas would have been an abomination!

So far the geothermal system gets a mixed review.  It does a quick, reasonably silent and comfortable job heating and cooling.   It’s nice that air doesn’t blast out of the ducts; it’s even hard to tell when the system is running.    As expected, there isn’t a lot of heat being pushed to the basement, so while we keep the upstairs at a comfortable 68 when we’re around, the basement is usually a good five or six degrees cooler.   We do have a space heater we use sparingly (and we could turn on the oil heat if we really wanted the basement toasty).

We don’t seem to be saving as much money as we hoped to.   We haven’t seen any help from our desuperheater, designed to provide hot water.    I expected better from something called a ‘desuperheater.’   It is supposed to augment our boiler, which now is used only for hot water and back up heat.   The goal was to burn 15% of the oil we used to, but it’s more like 30% –  which is pretty much what hot water costs anyway!   The boiler acts as if the desuperheater isn’t there.

To install it we not only had to deepen our well from 360 feet to 840, but dig up the front lawn to connect a second pipe for returning the water. The well provides both domestic water and geothermal.

I plan to increase the temperature of the water sent from the geothermal unit to the hot water supply.   I originally set it to 125 instead of 150 out of fear that water too hot would burn the kids.   I think the water sent would mix with cooler water so I’ll experiment with that.  If the kids start suffering 2nd degree burns I’ll turn the temperature back down.

The other issue is electricity.   Unfortunately our electric bills haven’t been consistent.   Despite the new use of ‘smart meters,’ a device which sends information on usage to the company so CMP can lay off meter readers, we seem to be getting a lot of estimated bills or wild fluctuations from month to month.

The total cost of the system was nearly $40,000, though we do get a third of it back in tax credits (thanks, Uncle Sam!), making the final cost about $28,000.   To pay it back in 10 years we’d need a savings of $2800 a year (I didn’t even need a calculator for that one!).    Last year we paid $4500 for heating oil.   This year we’re likely going to pay about $1200.    That puts us at a savings of $3300 before the electric bill.   The electric bill used to be about $120 a month.   For people outside Maine that sounds like a lot, but we have expensive electricity in Maine — even the Governor complains about that!

In summer the cooling didn’t increase the cost much, but last month’s bill spiked.   If that continues (one month is hard to go by with electric bills, you have to average them out), we could be looking at $500 more for the three  coldest months, and  probably about $700 more for the rest of the year.   Even that is suspect because we had two dehumidifiers pumping water out of the year non-stop this summer since my wife got concerned that there is too much mold in the basement air.   I thought it added character to the atmosphere but her sinuses disagreed.

If those figures are accurate that would mean the additional electricity would cost about $1200, or $100 a month on average.   That would make our savings $2100 for the year.   If we can’t improve on that it will take the system as much as 15 years to pay for itself.

So far the system has only malfunctioned once, and Jeff Gagnon Heating and Plumbing was there early the next day to fix what was a minor problem (free of charge, of course, as it is under warranty).   I gotta love Maine — we weren’t able to be home when they could stop by, so we just left the house unlocked.   That’s typical here.   During that time it was nice to have oil heat back up.   We also had a 13 hour power outage in mid-autumn which also required us to use oil.   We have a generator, but it’s not powerful enough to start the geothermal system.   The electrician who worked on the installation just laughed heartily when I pointed to my generator and asked if it would be enough to keep the geothermal going.

Despite that, I still do not regret installing the system.   My wife – a CPA much more in tune with money issues than a dreamy academic like me – isn’t so sure.    But if oil prices sky rocket, the payback time could decrease quickly.  Looking at headlines from Iran, Syria, and the Mideast I find it a bit comforting not to be relying completely on oil.

We have heat going down to the basement through three upstairs closets; so far it's providing minimal but valuable help

I also really like having air conditioning in the summer.   You don’t need it in Maine, but if you’re going to entertain guests, cook indoors, or be comfortable on those hot weeks (and we seem to be getting more of them), it is very pleasant.   We couldn’t have had central air without duct work being done anyway, and that was a chunk of the cost.    We would never have gotten central air for that reason and a few window units would have been a pain.   There is real value to having a cooling system!

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about the cost.   I need more data about the cost of electricity over a full year, and I hope to get the desuperheater to provide more relief heating water.

So the unit works well, we get good heat, and I’m happy with it.   We don’t seem to be saving as much as we hoped for, and the basement stays chillier than the upstairs.   Nonetheless seven months in I’m still glad we did this!   My wife tells me that even if I get a major midlife crisis I’d better be happy with my Ford Fusion for at least another decade — this was my expensive toy of choice.   I can live with that!


Dirty Politics

UPDATE:  Yes on 1 is winning handily, at about 60% to 40% with half the returns in, and the race has been called.  Same day registration stays in Maine, and the dishonest and misleading ad campaign was a failure!

Watch this ad and try to guess what it’s about.    You might think that some nefarious outside force is trying to weaken Maine’s ethics laws, and that it’s important to vote “no” on question one to protect them.

In actuality the ad is funded by an out of state group, we’re not sure who, and it’s about an effort to bring back Maine’s same day voter registration.   40 years ago in a bi-partisan effort Maine approved same day voter registration which has helped Maine consistently have some of the highest voter turn out rates in the country.   There has never been any proof that this has caused fraud or led to harm in the system.

Republicans have often scapegoated same day registration as an excuse for not winning more in Maine.   There is no reason to believe that the case — same day registration is usually very modest in number, and not enough to turn around elections.  Moreover, it does not appear that any party benefits more from the practice.   Yet it’s been used as a kind of boogey man by the right for awhile.

This year state GOP chair Charlie Webster claimed that there was massive fraud, pointing to 200 out of state students at UMF who voted in 2008.   Yet these were mostly students who registered weeks before the election, there was no evidence of wrong doing, and a large chunk of these were Republican.   It was simply a fishing trip.   The Republican Secretary of State, however, sent letters to these students saying that unless they made sure their cars were registered in Maine they should drop their voter registration — including a card to help them do so.   This was raw voter intimidation, with no basis in Maine law.

The Republicans, who came to power in 2010 in both the Maine legislature and Governorship overturned same day registration, bowing to unproven (and very dubious) claims that it enhanced fraud.   This was somewhat of an anomaly.   In other issues such as right to work laws, public labor unions, redistricting and the like the GOP backed off the most extreme measures.   Maine Republicans are not extremists and have for the most part chosen a pragmatic path.   They also know that the 2010 election was itself outside the norm — to be re-elected they’ll need to show that they didn’t do anything too rash and ideologically extreme.

But same day voting registration became the big symbolic issue reflecting GOP power.   And, unsurprisingly though with haste few expected, signatures were gathered for a “people’s veto” of the law — a referendum by the people to overturn the law.   Conservatives narrowly won a similar referendum on gay marriage a few years ago after the Maine legislature (then in Democratic hands) approved gay marriage.

The people’s veto is another reason politicians tend towards pragmatism.  Not only might they be hurt if they take an extreme position, but even if their vote passes whatever measure is up, it can be overturned by the public.   Almost any extremely controversial issue will generate efforts to launch a peoples’ veto.

In this case, early polls showed support for question 1 — the measure to overturn the legislature’s act and bring back same day registration.   51% indicated they’d vote “yes,” only 41% said “no.”    The backers are motivated and well organized, leading most pundits to predict that question one will pass.

That is the context within which this late ad appeared.  I learned about it first in Amy Fried’s blog Pollways.   Last night while watching Pan Am on ABC it aired twice within the same commercial break, with one commercial in between each showing (I’m not sure if that was intentional to try to quickly reinforce the message or just how the station filled its commercial time slots).

Maine traditionally does not like dirty politics or outside interests interfering in Maine’s elections.   Knowing that, the ad tells Mainers not to let “outsiders” get ride of Maine’s ” election ethics law.”   Yet the ad is from outsiders and is dishonest — no “ethics law” is up for a vote; the question is whether same day registration will be brought back or not.

I doubt this will work, but the fact such tactics are used, allowed and potentially effective is disturbing.  Yes, it’s a side effect of having the most libertarian free speech laws in the world, and overall that’s a good thing.   But this requires the public to educate itself before voting or getting swayed by such ads.  If somehow “no” wins, nobody will know for sure if this deceptive ad was the cause.   The pre-vote polling is weeks old and there was only one poll.   However, to those who put the ad up it would seem to validate their decision to ignore truth and simply try to emotionally manipulate the voters.

For that reason I hope not only that “yes” wins on question one, but that it wins big — and people draw the conclusion that the dishonest ad hurt rather than helped the cause.


Cherish Life

At 9:30 Wednesday morning Farmington was the scene of a horrific accident.   It took place near the busiest intersection in town, where routes 2/27 connect with route 4, near the university and the local McDonalds.   A number of people were injured and one person killed, a 12 year old girl named Tess Meisel.   Early on the only news available was that the van was associated with a YMCA camp.   The picture in the news story showed the back part completely crushed, and the girl was sitting in the back seat.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a statistic.   Another highway fatality, one of about 35,000 we’re likely to have in the US this year.   Many will be children, far too many will be teens, and it’s easy to simply chalk it up to life’s risks.    Yet like so many of us in Farmington who never knew the girl and communicated and shared links on facebook to discuss the day’s big accident, I found it devastating.    Sometimes you have to think about the faces and emotions behind a statistic.

My son Ryan is 8, and he participated in the UMF Summer Daze camp this year.   They often took vans to various field trips, some as far away as the coast.   It did cross my mind that there’s always the risk of an accident, but the vans always returned safe and sound, if not always on time.   I immediately thought of what the parents of this young girl must be experiencing.   They send their daughter to camp in Maine for amazing experiences, not expecting fate to launch such a vicious blow.

They might think they did the wrong thing sending her to camp — if only she’d stayed home in Connecticut she’d be fine.  But the thing about this kind of accident is that it is literally out of the blue.   There is nothing the van driver could have done to avoid it, you don’t expect a truck to roll over on a busy street!   Such events can happen anywhere, any time.    There’s no way to know in advance what the right move would be.

The story linked above about the girl shows that she was an intelligent and impressive young woman.   She had won an award for environmental innovation by inventing a reusable pizza box and tray.   Given what my last blog entry was about, the pizza connection made me feel a bit closer to this stranger.   I know very little about her or her family, but can imagine how horrible life has suddenly become for them as they try to adjust to a world that will always have an empty spot.    It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it; they have to live it.

Yet, that is life.  Every day is full of risk.  In the Spring Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I will teach our ‘Children and War’ class, with stories of child soldiers forced to fight, often being drugged up with cocaine.   We’ll talk about lives and families torn apart by conflict, realizing that children suffer and die in much of the world.   As horrible as this one accident is, things like this happen.   Every day brings risk.

That isn’t what I bring away from this, though.    Instead I look over into the other room where my five year old son is watching “Ben 10,” or upstairs where my eight year old is working with legos.   It’s easy to take them for granted and to think of childhood as primarily preparation for the future, giving children the tools to succeed.   That is part of it.   What they experience now will hopefully give them the strength to say no to drugs, to treat women with respect and have a strong sense of values.   Now is when they develop their work ethic and core beliefs about reality.   But that’s only a part of childhood; success and accomplishments are only a part of living.   We plan, compete, measure our accomplishments and seek to improve.    Each success is quickly past and a new challenge arises.

Live life focused on seeking success and when it’s over it can seem pointless.   Our accomplishments are transient and likely to be forgotten within a generation.  To see life purely in terms of what one accomplishes would be to see the loss of a 12 year old girl as a waste; the accident denied her potential for success and eliminated all that she might have achieved.   Perhaps her pizza box will catch on, otherwise, so much potential was obliterated.

No.  That’s not the way to look at life.   None of us are here for an eternity.    For even the famous less than one tenth of 1 % of ones’ dance on this planet gets remembered or recorded.    To measure life in that way is to deny the true essence of living.   Whether you live to 12 or 120, each moment is at any given point in time all that exists.   Now lasts forever.   What matters are connections with others, interactions with family and friends.   Laughter matters, a sense of joy matters, the light she brought into the lives of family, friends and acquaintances matters.   Those things are just as consequential if one’s life lasts 12 years or100.

Those moments are true reality, they are where the human soul resides.   They can’t be measured in days or money because time and wealth are transient and ultimately dissipate.   No one gets out of here alive.  You can’t take it with you.  The joy one brings into the world simply by being has power and meaning on its own.   Her 12 years could well have been more consequential and powerful than many peoples’ entire lives.   Not a wasted life, just shorter one.

For me this also means vowing not to let a day go by without thinking about my children not in terms of who they might become or what they might do, but for the spark of light and life they bring to each day: for the way in which their laughter and sense of play brings joy, contentment and exuberance to all of us.   To cherish the moments today, NOW, when we are connecting is the meaning of life, not plans or accomplishments.   Cherish life in the present.   If the future brings tragedy, those moments and memories will be the essence of what that life meant, and it can be powerful, good and change who we are.     That is as real for a 12 year lifespan as for a 95 year life.    That is as real for widow who loses her life partner as it is for the parent who lose their little girl.

And maybe as we connect to that part of life, those moments and memories can transcend time.   Time with my five year old is unique; he will never be five again, these moments are valuable in and of themselves.    To cherish life is to realize no matter what the future brings, now has meaning.

Tonight a family in Connecticut is likely grasping for meaning, staring into a void that feels like it will never go away.  Life goes on; time doesn’t heel all wounds but it can hide them.   Yet ultimately it does disservice to the life of anyone if their death brings long term pain and saddness to others.  It may take awhile, but hopefully the family of Tess Meisel will see that remembering the moments of living and how they enriched their experience not only dignifies her life but overshadows the fact she left early.  For now, many of us in Farmington are sending prayers, positive energy and shedding tears for a family whose little girl we did not know, but whose life ended tragically in our town.


Same Day Registration in Maine

For 38 years Maine has been one of only a handful of states that allows people to register to vote on the same day as the election.  Nine states allow some form of same day registration, though North Dakota probably has the most logical policy — there is no voter registration at all.

Earlier this year Maine rescinded both same day registration and absentee voting in the two business days before an election.   On Monday 68,000 signatures were handed to the Maine Secretary of State’s office to put a “people’s veto” on the ballot in November to rescind this change.   The result of that vote will determine whether Maine will allow same day registration in the 2012 election. The fact that this would come up for a referendum vote is not surprising; it’s clearly an emotional and consequential issue.  However, most people did not think it would come up in 2011 because there simply wasn’t enough time to collect the necessary signatures.   No grass roots effort had collected signatures so fast (a matter of weeks).    Given that in an off year election enthusiasm and organization are primary factors, the wind is at the back of those wanting to rescind.

Yet is it a good idea?    Proponents say yes.  On average states with same day registration have 12% higher voter turn out.  Since high voter turnout indicates participation in the political system and thus supports civil society, it is thus seen as a collective good no matter who might benefit. That’s probably true, though the benefit may be over-stated.   Since 1986 I’ve lived only in states with same day registration — Minnesota and Maine.   Those two states constantly vie to see who is number one in voter turnout.  Yet I do not think the reason they are at the top is because of same day registration; there is a strong culture of participation and political action in each state.    It could well be that states with same day registration have higher voter turnout because states that have a culture of valuing voting and voter turnout are the one who choose to pass such laws.

Is there a downside to same day registration?   Opponents say yes — that there is a risk that people will vote in two different states, non-citizens might vote, or that “uninformed” people are more likely to vote.   The latter argument is weakest, most voters are not well informed in any event, but those who aren’t registered are generally no less knowledgeable about politics than others.

The idea that non-citizens might vote requires people commit felonies.   One day back in Minnesota I joined some colleagues in grad school to convince a German student studying in the US to vote in the 1992 election.   He refused but finally said he’d do it.  We then told him we were joking — there was no way we were going risk voter fraud and vouch for him just to allow him to vote!    The odds of any one person changing an election are slight, how many people or organizations in this day of investigations and Youtube would really risk prison, fines, and perhaps their career just to add a few votes to an election total?     One can imagine it being able to happen, but the likelihood is slight.  Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest non-citizens come out to vote due to same day registration.

Maine Republican Party Chair Charlie Webster claimed that the Democrats were using same day registration to “steal” elections, busing people in to vote.   He had no evidence and is prone to hyperbole — he also said that Democrats are not a party but a special interest group, while Republicans are a legitimate party made up of real Americans who work and drive pick ups!  Uh…Ok…   When pressed he got a list of 200 students at the University of Maine at Farmington who were from out of state, yet voted.   He said that was a ‘study into voter fraud’ and demanded an investigation.

Yet it was just a list, not a study.   Out of state students usually are qualified to vote in Maine elections.  There was no evidence any of the students had voted in two states, and most registered well before the election.   Many who have come to condemn Webster’s antics are Republican students — college Republicans on campus make a concerted effort to register and convince out of state students to vote in Maine.   Webster did probably help the petitioners in their drive to put the issue on the ballot though — that’s the kind of thing that motivates the other side. The real issue, of course, is that Democrats think same day registration helps them while Republicans are convinced it hurts their chances.   The logic is simple: Democrats do well among youth and minorities, two populations that vote below the national average and are less likely to be registered.   By extension these are the ones most likely to be persuaded to utilize same day registration.

New Hampshire’s Republican House Speaker William O’Brien showed a moment of honesty when he called to tighten up rules on who can vote in a New Hampshire election because “college kids are voting liberal, voting on their feelings with no life experience.”   In other words, his goal is to try to decrease the chance that the youth might sway elections because they are liberal.   First, if more life experience should be required to vote then repeal the 26th amendment reducing the voting age from 21 to 18.   Republican President Dwight Eisenhower first suggested allowing 18 year olds to vote; if 18 year olds can die in war, they should be able to vote! (They should be allowed to buy beer too, but that’s another issue).

As for voting with their feelings — well, I suspect that describes most of the population!   The bottom line is that on this issue the Democrats have the moral high ground.    They may benefit from greater turnout, but arguing to suppress voting goes against American values.    Republican efforts to eliminate same day voting (or require photo ID and other things proven to suppress turnout) are efforts to improve their chances of winning.   Still, most states do not allow same day registration, and it’s not clear that it has ever swayed elections.  Perhaps it is a convenient excuse when one loses; rather than admit the public didn’t support you, cry foul!

At this point the issue is not just about the merits of the policy, but it has become symbolic.   For many Mainers the administration of tea party favorite Paul Le Page, who won with just 39% of the vote in a three way race that split liberal votes between the other two candidates, has aroused anger.   This is a way for them to symbolically get back at him.    It should be an interesting campaign; for now we wait until November to see if same day registration will be back in Maine for the 2012 election.


The House as a Construction Zone

The party was only starting here -- by 8:30 the trucks were arriving and work getting underway

At one point this morning the electrician’s truck, two Goodwin Well trucks, two Jeff Gagnon heating and AC trucks, a pick up truck from the excavators and a large truck hauling the excavation equipment were all in front of our house.   I had taken the kids to school and had to park up the road a bit — today the construction was in earnest.   Today our yard got torn up, today the house smelled like a construction site, today we got back on well water and are very close to being complete.  Ironically, for the first evening in a week, there are no trucks parked outside the house overnight.

These started popping from the attic at breakfast, which definitely caught Ryan's attention!

Inside the house duct work was all but completed today — maybe one or two vents still need to be hooked up.  The return vents were set (which apparently meant having to work around some tricky wiring).    The electrician also had to be creative — there wasn’t a lot of space, so they had to work around some obstacles.

Connecting the wellhead to the house -- and the drainage pipe is spared!

Outside the excavation work had one important obstacle — the trench we built in 2009!   The path from the well head to the house goes through the trench (which has a pipe going around 3/4 of the house).  It’s not in an important part — it’s near the end on the front side of the house, which had fewer drainage problems.  Still, we wanted to make sure that stayed in tact.  I talked to the excavators, and they found the pipe and dug around it.

The new set up - here the water enters, some going for domestic usage, some to the heat exchange pump

Our old tank - still in great condtion -- anyone want to buy it?

The purpose of the excavation, of course, was to connect the well (and new well pump) to the house.   That took most of the day, but by 5:00 the Goodwin folks had us back on well water, and had connected a brand new pump to a new tank and the heat exchange pump (which is not yet functional).   That means we have a five year old Gould’s pump and a large tank that are still in good shape but not being used.   Maybe we can sell them on E-Bay.

After the excavation - now to reseed our lawn!

The house is a mess.  Construction workers don’t take off shoes, of course, and go in and out of the house often.   Add some mud because water was involved with the well, and then add some smoke from cutting pipe.   It was a busy, hectic day.   Yet the project is on schedule and maybe tomorrow I’ll report that we’re up and running!   Stay tuned!


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Going Geothermal

Over the next few months I’ll reserve some blog entries for a project we’re planning to undertake this June – to switch our heating source from fuel oil to geothermal.   When the installation takes place I’ll describe it, and then later blog about the efficacy and savings from the switch.   Today I’ll describe our plans.

The work will be done in early June, and have two stages.  First the well drillers will come and increase the depth of our current well.   If the water flow doesn’t increase then the depth of the well, currently 360 feet, will have to be expanded to 800 feet.  If water flow increases or they figure out a way to bleed the flow (in the coldest temperatures this would be about 10% of the water) the price and depth of the well might be a bit less.   This kind of system works well in Maine, though in most of the country water tables are too deep for a standing column well to make sense (a slightly more expensive to operate loop system is used in those cases).   The water will be pumped in to the heat exchange pump and then returned to the well.   We will continue to receive our domestic water supply from the well.

Once the well drillers get their work done, the heating people come to install the unit.  The heat pump will be in the basement near the current oil tank and well water entry point.    The heat will be transferred up to the attic where all the fans and the ductwork will be located, ready to send heat to the house.   The heat pump will be a five ton unit.   Apparently unlike most forced air systems geothermal heat is low air flow, meaning that the temperature remains constant, but doesn’t rapidly decrease or increase on demand.

The total cost will be near $40,000, though after tax credits that should be just under $30,000.   At today’s fuel prices that could pay for itself in less than ten years.   Even if oil goes back down it will eventually save more than its cost — and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last oil price spike!   Moreover, it will significantly cut down on our green house gas emissions.

The cost would have been less if the house had been designed with geothermal (it was completed in 2006).   Currently it is a baseboard heating system and will require a retrofit to a forced air system.   Our house has about 3400 square feet of heated space.  It’s a ranch with a finished basement.  The basement creates a problem for a retrofit because there isn’t room in the ceiling for duct work.   Instead they’ll creatively work through closests to get a number of ducts sending heat to the basement in winter.  It likely won’t do the whole job so on the coldest days we may burn some oil.   Moreover, while it will help heat water (especially in summer) much of our domestic hot water will also come from our oil burner.  Still, the cost savings should be significant.   Moreover, it will give us air conditioning in the summer — we have no air conditioning system at this time (not even window units), so that’ll be nice.   Maine doesn’t get too hot in summer, but there are always weeks where it gets intense, and it’s often too hot to cook indoors.  It’ll be nice to have AC!

The decision to do this isn’t taken lightly.  It is a major up front cost.   Its a no brainer given tax credits to do this on new construction — but a retrofit is much more expensive (not to mention that in buying the houses we paid for the current system, now destined for back up duty).    Moreover, we made this decision last November, when oil prices were low.   My thinking was that oil prices were not going to stay low, and once they rose again when the world economy picked up, changing our system would be more expensive and there would be a longer wait (as it was our wait was simply to avoid having to have the well work done in the winter).

You see, I’ve had this knack of being right about trends.   I argued back around 2000 that the dollar would end up significantly lower in value vis-a-vis the Euro, and wished I could buy a large chunk of Euros as an investment.   I was right — but had no excess money to buy Euros.  I was warning my classes about al qaeda in the 90s, and talking about the coming housing bubble recession by 2005.   During the 1998 dot com boom I told classes “there hasn’t been so much optimism since 1998.”  Yet I did nothing to personally profit from my predictive ability, except to shift my retirement account to safer investments.

Lately I’ve become convinced that large oil price increases are on the horizon.   All that can prevent it is a mix of increased domestic oil drilling, a shift towards oil sands, and a large increase in alternative energy use.  All of this will happen — reality and markets force change whether people like it or not — but it appears likely to be a very difficult transition which could see a sustained period of very expensive oil.   While I doubt the absolute gloom and doom of the peak oil folk is right — I have a bit more faith in our ability to innovate, adapt and react — I also am skeptical of the ‘it’ll be a slow easy transition’ folk.   So rather than risk being right again but having done nothing to prepare myself, I pushed hard for us to make the decision to take the economic plunge.  I’m teaching overload courses to help pay for this, and unless something unexpected comes up, we’re going to do it.

It will feel good too to think I’m doing something about both foreign oil dependence and global warming.   So if all goes according to plan, I’ll blog about this topic again in early June when the work is underway!



A short blog entry tonight, reflecting on life in general.

Yesterday morning my two sons (8 and 5) were bored and we decided to get on our mud boots and take a hike.  It was glorious!   Our backyard opens right into the woods and trails leading to a river (which by mid-summer becomes more like a creek).   Most of the trails are still covered with snow, but the melting streams of water heading down to the river, the animal tracks, and my sons’ joy in exploring nature was exhilarating.   We were out nearly two hours before trekking back home.

I’ve also been reading Brian Greene’s new book The Hidden Reality.  You can find a good review by clicking here. The book is about the possibility of multiple universes (or a “multiverse,”) which is a very active field in theoretical physics.   It further removes humans from the center of reality, but also poses some paradoxes and quandries that I find thoroughly enjoyable.  It also puts life in context — the political and personal dramas of the day are real, but ultimately part of something far greater.

My own favorite is the idea of the holographic multiverse.   To be honest, I like it because it fits my own philosophy on the nature of reality almost like a glove.  It has parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave, and empiricist philosophers like Bishop Berkeley (who had a Star Trek character named after him).   Given the apparent ‘nothingness’ of reality once you dig down deep into subatomic particles, and the paradoxes and apparent contradictions of quantum physics, this kind of theory has the potential to clear that up.   Reality’s paradoxes and contradictions come from the fact we take the experience of reality, which is an illusion interpreted by our senses, as being the nature of reality.

I could speculate more on what this might mean (and will likely do so in future blog entries), but at base it convinces me that it is too easy to get caught up in the “stuff” of the world or the “common sense” of the culture we are born into.  We can get hypnotized to follow a myriad of suggestions thrown our way about what the world is, what we ought to do, what is normal, and what life is all about.   Maybe the key in life is to look for what has meaning beyond the external stuff of the world.   Connections with people, concern for the emotional state of others, putting spirit and soul ahead of power and goals.

And somehow, on a warm spring day as the snow melts, kids laugh and we witness nature shifting to a new season, I can’t help but think that despite all the insanity, pain and hatred in the world, we can enjoy a very beautiful and meaningful existence.