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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Freezin' Seniors: Never one to miss a photo op or press conference, Chaz Schumer was in town today to talk heating oil, specifically the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He gave his pitch at the home of seniors Steven and Bernice Rudzinski, who had this to say:
If we don't fully fund the LIHEAP we could run out of money before Christmas. What kind of Christmas present would that be on Christmas Eve to have senior citizens have to turn down their heat to 50 degrees? To have senior citizens not have any money to visit their grandchildren or give their grandkids a nice little Christmas present. That is not the American way.
That's not good. I can't even get SJC to turn our heat below 68, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet. She'd pull together a bonus army and march on Washington before I could even think of heading into the 50's with that thing. And I'm also somone's grandson - wouldn't want Grandma to freeze, and I certainly don't want her crying poor come Christmas morning. Schumer added this:
an average home in the Capital Region can expect to pay $441 more than last year.
Wow. I could definitely use that $441 dollars, and so could Grandma. That's a lot of Christmas presents. Vote Schumer if you want Christmas gifts from Grandma! Of course, doesn't Schumer want to repeal the 2001 tax cuts, which would cost many average people triple that amount? Just askin'! Uh, vote Republican if you want Christmas gifts from Grandma!

Oh well, guess I can't win.*** Grandma always said you could just put on a sweater...thanks for taking time out for another trip into the wild visit upstate, Senator.

***Alert, public policy discussion ahead: Of course, I recognize that my position here is somewhat silly, as is mentioned in the comments. I don't think it's ridiculous to oppose tax cuts and simultaneously support entitlement programs. In fact, it's perfectly logical since Schumer is talking about the distribution of tax rates and entitlement benefits in each instance, not their absolute amounts. If he just wanted to raise taxes by $50 on everyone, collect the money, and then send everyone $50, well that would be ridiculous. But that's not what he's talking aobut. He wants to raise taxes in a progressive manner (i.e. collect more from the rich) and increase entitlements in a regressive manner (i.e. give more to the poor). That's a perfectly consistent and reasonable approach to progressive government. In fact, that is the progressive apporach to government.

I was trying to do three things in the post. First, poke fun of the way in which the heating debate was couched. Wouldn't it make more sense to say that if seniors had to pay high heating bills, they woudn't have money for some necessities? Christmas presents are, after all, luxury items for the most part. Why not talk about seniors not being able to afford food, or having to forgo their medication? Seemed silly.

Second, I was gently reminding people that a lot of working and middle class folks get squeezed in the progressive world Schumer is talking about. Since the progressive tax rate is not all that progressive, many people in the working and middle class would end up paying higher taxes under a repeal of the 2001 cuts, but aren't poor enough to qualify for many programs, such as the heating oil program. Such is life. And such is why tax cuts are so popular. Now, if we could find a way to soak the uber-rich for like a 90% tax rate, then we wouldn't have to tax the working and middle class so hard to generate revenue, and support for these programs would skyrocket, since the working and middle class would have nothing to lose. Unfortunately, no one in America wants to tax the rich at 90%, because everyone believes in the American dream - that they themselves might someday be one of the rich.

Finally, I was trying to make fun of Schumer. He's a great advocate for New York State and he always brings home the bacon, but he's a little goofy when it comes to upstate living. I'm not sure he really gets it. So I always like to needle him a bit.

Even more in-depth: From a political theory point of view, there are two governmental solutions to help people pay higher heating bills. One is to collect tax money, set up a program, and redistribute the tax money. The other is to not collect the tax money in the first place! Obviously, the second method fails when you get to people who don't pay any income taxes - the very poor and the fixed-income elderly. They would benefit from a prgram but not from a tax cut. And that's who Schumer is talking about, and LIHEAP is actually a program I support, for that reason. But for everyone else - the vast majority - the program Schumer is talking about does nothing to help offset the cost of heating this winter, whereas the 2001 tax cuts do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Street fighting man: After a short pause, DA Soares is back on the public relations warpath. Yesterday he pulled double duty: unveiling a new plan to fight drugs and then continuing his dance of seduction with Joan Porco. We'll be able to talk Porco for weeks, so I'll take up the drug plan today. First, the plan itself:

A landlord training program will teach property owners how to avoid renting to tenants with known criminal records for selling narcotics. It will also help create leases that reflect community standards.

A narcotics eviction program will give landlords a leg up in booting out those who conduct illegal activities on the premises.

And a trespass affidavit program will let landlords and tenants fight crimes committed in the public spaces between private buildings by vigorously enforcing "no trespass" laws.

Ok, those are all reasonable objectives. No one will argue with that. But I'm not sure they do all that much to stop drug dealing, do they? The first plank looks pretty flimsy to me - even if it worked perfectly it would only stop convicted narcotics dealers from signing leases. That's probably a pretty small portion of the population involved with narcotics. And who knows what "leases that reflect community standards" means. I certainly don't. The second plank only helps after someone is convicted of a crime. That's fine, but it doesn't really get at the source of the problem. And if I'm reading the third plank correctly, it just means they are going to get tough on trespassing. Doesn't this all amount to - in the best case scenario - a shift in where drug transactions occur? Now, that may be better than nothing, but it can't be that much better.

And look, I'm reasonably sympathetic to a "get tough" method of combatting drug dealers. But this "get tough" plan doesn't seem to have much in the way of teeth, at least as its presented. Maybe this will really help out the landlords. But I doubt it. In fact, it strikes me as a plan ripe for both abuse and complaints. Isn't it the worst of both worlds - a "get tough" apporach that isn't actaully tough enough to do anything? And strangely enough, Soares is promoting it as a money-saving plan:

As he unveiled the Safe Homes -- Safe Streets program in front of 12 Dana Ave., District Attorney David Soares waved a 6-inch stack of police printouts detailing more than 500 calls for assistance to that boarded-up building -- and to its neighbors at 14 and 16 Dana Ave. -- over the past five years. During that time, tenants of the three buildings -- and the people who visit them -- have been charged with a range of felonies, including selling drugs.

"Each of these calls costs more than $100 in direct costs and as many as several thousands in follow-ups," Soares said. "When we clean up these crack houses, this money can be better spent on street lighting, remedial reading classes or better sports programs for our teens."

I'm not so sure. For one, as mentioned above I don't see this program as anything close to strong enough to "clean up these crack houses." That means it will almost certainly be a perpetual program. And it looks like the plan has some costs of its own: at the very least the "landlord training program" is going to cost a bit. In the short run, this doesn't look like a money saver. And unless it works perfectly, it's probably a long-term negative cost, financially. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done - it might be worth the money. But i don't think it's going to be reaping a windfall for the teen sports program anytime soon.

Second issue, the politics. I thought this was a very interesting program for Soares to be backing. A few point here:

point #1 - By standing there with the mayor and police chief, this move is basically insulated politically for all involved. Obviously, this is basically a "motherhood issue." Whether you think it's a good idea or not, if you're the mayor, chief, or DA, you back it if it's going to happen. The last thing you want to be seen doing is not supporting something like this. So once it's definitely going to happen, you get behind it even if you think it's absurd. Of course, that doesn't mean you actually start believing in the plan. Good politics and good policy don't always go hand in hand. I don't know who has their heart in this and who doesn't, but if I had to bet I'd say that Soares doesn't, because...

point #2 - Isn't this somewhat different than the approach you thought Soares might take if you followed his campaign last year? I'm no expert, but didn't Soares call the "war on drugs" a complete failure. Sure, he was talking about the Rockefellar laws, but this new plan strikes me as the same old song - set up a tighter net that will catch a few more dealers and a lot more users. It's basically an empowerment of landlords to harrass people in the lower class, no? I honestly never thought I'd see this from Soares:

One of Soares' staff members will be the contact person for confronting drug dealing, prostitution, trespassing, the sale of stolen property, gambling and other illegal activities in private buildings.

"This is not a matter of the system breaking down," Soares said. "It's making sure we get the problem at the root. This is a new administration. And we are taking a more proactive approach."

Gosh, that sounds like Guilliani in the 90's. Does Soares now believe in the "broken window" theory? Because that involves getting tough on petty crime and small time illegal vice activity. Now that was definitely not the Soares approach last fall. Does this mean that...

point #3 - Soares might be feeling the institutional pressures of the office a bit. DA's can campaign on whatever they want, but when they get into office and want to be re-elected, they need to show that 1) they are proactive and tough on crime and 2) that they are getting results. It looks to me like Soares might be shifting toward that attitude. And that's fine. It's just surprising.

I don't want to kill the DA here. I'm not trying to lay blame. I just thought the program was strange, and an interesting plan for Soares to get behind. I'm actually quite sympathetic to David right now. He's facing a difficult set of circumstances. His high profile cases haven't been friendly to him, in the sense that the public has been divided on them. Crime - or at least violent crime - seems to be increasing recently from the perspective of the average observer. And he's obviously tangling with a police force and mayor who aren't particularly friendly or fun to work with. That's a tough situation.

I dunno. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

For techno-types: A listing of several dozen places around Albany where you can get free wireless internet access, plus some links to other local resources on the matter. I'd add that the Colonie Town Library is also a free hotspot.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A new contributor: Continuing with my call for new contributors to Oh, SmAlbany!, the first person who is going to have a test-run around here is Donald. He's a freelance writer and business consultant. He grew up in western New York, moved to the Albany area quite some time ago, and has worked on a number of political campaigns.

Donald will be contributing occasional material beginning later this week. His posts will be recognizable by the green coloring of the post headline, just like this post (and his name will appear at the bottom of them.) My posts will continue to have royal blue headlines. Blog-related messages will continue to have red titles.

If you would like to contribute to Oh, SmAlbany!, please read through this post and then contact me.

No love for 'the Joe': I had no idea that minor league baseball parks had begun selling off the rights to the name of their stadium, but apparently they have. Except in the capital district. Turns out that Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy is having trouble selling the rights to the stadium's name, and it's costing them a lot of potentional revenue. As reported today in the Times Union:
Several minor league stadium operators, in big and small markets, have enjoyed substantial revenues by selling naming rights to their parks. Not so the operators of Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, who don't think they can find anybody in the private sector to help them cut their bills as their peers in baseball are doing.

For instance, KeySpan is paying an undisclosed sum -- about $200,000 annually, according to one KeySpan executive -- for having its name on the Brooklyn Cyclones' publicly owned park. The Clinton Lumberkings, in Clinton, Iowa, recently secured $450,000 over 10 years from a regional company. The Independent League Brockton Rox received $1 million four years ago from a local businessman in eastern Massachusetts. And the Greenville (S.C.) Drive, planning a new 5,000-seat stadium, is negotiating to sell rights to a corporation, officials there say.

Officials at Hudson Valley Community College, whose campus contains "The Joe," home of the Valley Cats, say the publicly funded school's consultant explored naming rights in 2001 but struck out. There was no demand, they say.

Perhaps the more surprising thing is that Bruno claims he never even wanted it named after him:
Bruno said he never asked to have his name put on the place and the naming matter is up to HVCC.
I find that hard to believe. I'm pretty sure Bruno loves having his name on that stadium. Getting your name on a building after you die is a lasting honor. Getting your name on a stadium while you're living is ego-fuelilng raw power. And it's just one more thing he can needle Shelly about. Hey Silver- want to go over to my ballpark and catch a game after our meeting with Pataki. You really should visit. We used your constituents' money to build it. Man, that must burn Silver up. God bless powerful upstate pols. Can you imagine if a downstate Republican ever wrests control of the state Senate leadership? We'll be eating cow feed.

Actually, I'm surprised that no liberal interest group has ponied up yet for the naming rights to the Joe. Can't you see it, the Suspicious Family Loan Stadiuim? Or Nepotism Field? Or how about What's Joe Smokin' Ballpark? Readers are free to suggest their own names. I always thought "G-block" would be a nice tribute to The Grove. But only if the stadium opened at 8am and had dime beers.

Last week's garbage: Two quick followup stories worth mentioning:

(1) Continuing a report from two weeks ago, Section 2 high school running put on one the greatest shows in the history of high school running at Saturday's New York State championship. On the boy's side, team titles in Class AA, A, and C, including Saratoga defeating the supposed #1 team in the nation. The three fastest times of the day were turned in by Section 2 boys, and six of the top 12. The finish of the AA race looked more like the Suburban Council championship than the state meet, with suburban councilers going 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, 9th. On the girls side, team titles in Class A and AA. It's not impossible that Section 2 teams could win the both the boys and girls national team title this year and that section 2 could qualify 6 individuals into the 64-person Foot Locker national individual championship race.

(2) If you'd like to hear my appearance on WAMC's Weekly Rundown, it's available here in .mp3 format. The segment I'm on starts at about the 16 minute mark and runs for maybe 15 minutes.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Help Wanted: For a few months now, I've been considering different ways to expand content on Oh, SmAlbany!. I'm now strongly considering having multiple people contribute to the site on a regular basis, instead of just myself. My goal right now would be for Oh, SmAlbany! to be publishing 7-10 quality posts each day. Right now, I'm lucky if I can get two or three. Now, I'm not looking to downgrade my own participation. But if we had a stable of 5 contributors, I think that would greatly improve the blog and also take some pressure off individual writers (read: me). Everyone has bad weeks. Sometimes my posts just suck. For weeks.

Now, obviously this is a risky endeavor. I'd be losing control of the content of the blog. But honestly, I think it'd be worth it. It'd be a great improvement to have a variety of voices around here. I'm knowledgeable about SmAlbany, but not that knowledgable. And my writing style - not to mention my thinking style - can get pretty monotonous. Some days I just don't have enough interesting things to write about.

A good example of a multi-contributor blog is the libertarian blog The Volokh Conspiracy. That's the kind of arrangement I have in mind. It wouldn't be a situation in which contributors respond to each others' posts; I don't enjoy blogs that turn into internal arguments. Instead, we'd simply have a greater variety and quantity of independent contributions that stand on their own, not connected to other posts except incidentally.

I'd be looking for people interested in either niche writing (for example, local food) or just general Albany contributions (like me). Heck, I'd love to have a contributor who specialized in Albany history and could write about it without boring us to death. I'd want you to committ to 2 posts/week at a minimum and 10 posts/week at a maximum. While I'd definitely set some rough guidelines for posting, I wouldn't touch your content. Your free expression would only be constrained by the fact that you would have to put your name on whatever you write, like I do. And, of course, I could give you the boot if you did something utterly unacceptable. But generally, it would be a free environment. Obviously, we'd want to maintain civility among the contributors, but I'd certainly be open to having various opposing views - on everthing from politics to local music - represented.

If you might be interested, send me an email discussing what you'd want to write about and telling me a little bit about yourself. If it seems like a good fit, I'll have you take a one-week trial run.

If you have thoughts about this idea in general, put that in the comments.

Just another day: Probably the main downside of being a graduate student - besides the lack of cash and the boring books - is that weekends don't feel like weekends and holidays don't feel like holidays. Since I never report to work per se, I never really feel like it's a day off. Sigh. Anyhow, I didn't feel like in-depth writing today, so quick thoughts on a variety of topics:

Happy Veteran's Day: Talk to anyone over the age of 65, and they'll tell you that Veterans Day just isn't what it used to be. Fewer parades, fewer observances, and fewer people pausing at 11am. I guess fewer people today know a veteran personally than they did a generation ago. And that's probably a good thing. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to see today go by with little public fanfare. For instance, why is the Colonie Town Library open today? Or better yet, why am I sitting at the Colonie Town Library trying to do work? So take the time, and do something to honor those who defend your country.

School's out: It's probably a good thing that the local schools are closed today. I think we definitely needed a "cooling off" period in Schenectday and Renssellaer. Things like this make you wish the big school issues were streakers, dress codes, and teenage sleep patterns.

Tech Valley: The governor signed the tech-valley high school bill yesterday. As I've written previously, I'm a fan of the idea. And right now, the Times Union is too. But I'll bet they'll turn against it as soon as they see it out-performing the public schools. P.S. It's just killing me that the Times Union hasn't figured out how permalinks work. Sometimes you can access old TU stories through the SmAlbany archives, and sometimes you can't!

The cyber-party's over: Local cops have figured out "Craig's List."

Spring break: Forget Cancun or Panama City, you can now go to Storytown The Great Escape in February. To ride some indoor waterrides. And you can get a hotel there. For $189. God, I feel old. Remember when the feature attraction up there was the Desparado Plunge? There's at least a 10% chance this place has "racino-style" slot machines in 10 years.

Mike Brown: Always classy, in victory or defeat. From the TU:
In a news release, Brown tagged supporters of winner Corey Ellis as "an elitist freak show led by lily-white hypocrites who rented a few black people." He referred to unnamed "thugs" who assaulted an election inspector who is a grandmother, poll watchers who blocked people from voting, and "wrecking crews" who destroyed his campaign signs. "It was so bad, even Ray Charles could see it," he said.
Well, that's got to be a record. The race card (twice), the populist card, the hypocrite card, the thug card, the election-fraud card (twice), and the grandmother-card, all in under 70 words. This is particularly funny because you know Brown is pulling every string he has in order to manipulate the 83 uncounted absentee ballots that could sway the election (which was 507-445) if Brown gets 75% of them.

Don't forget: I'm a guest panelist tonight on WAMC's Weekly Rundown, which airs at 9pm. Have a great weekend. See you on Monday.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Jingle Bell Rock: Well, if it's the holiday season in SmAlbany, that can only mean one thing - endless radio commericals for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra! I've always been puzzled by the TSO, for a few reasons:

#1) I still don't know if they are more a Christmas band or more a rock band: it's absolutely amazing how ambiguous this fact is kept. Let's see: they always come here at Christmas. But they don't play a ton of famous Christmas songs. But all their albums and songs are named after Christmas themes. But their bio never mentions the holidays. But their concert schedule is restricted to the holiday season. But the radio ad sounds like a promotion for a Zeppelin show. Honestly, I'm stumped. The radio spots make it seem like The Who's Tommy meets the Melodies of Christmas. Not that that sounds bad. And I'm not against rock stars singing Christmas carols. Heck, I love this album.

#2) How on earth do they require two shows at the Pepsi Arena: That's just startling. Especially since I've never met anyone who's gone to the concert. I mean, when you think of people who can command two shows at the Pepsi, it's like Springsteen, Phish, Billy Joel, and maybe U2. Oh, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. How come they're not uber-famous in pop-culture? It's like the Beatles coming to America, selling out Shea stadium, and no one talking about it. Ten years in a row. Wierd. Or is Albany just strange? Maybe the TSO plays in front of like 40 people in other cities. Tickets available here.

#3) If they are more a Christmas band, how does SmAlbany land them every year right at Christmas: this year they are coming for two shows on December 26th. Shouldn't those show be at like Madison Square Garden, or maybe the Carrier Dome, given TSO's apparent popularity. And doesn't the fact that they come here on December 26th make it even more unbelievable that they do two shows? I don't know about you, but I'm pretty busy with my family the day after Christmas. Just unreal.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the TSO. In fact, I'd like to go check out a concert. I almost certainly won't (see #3 above), but I get more curious each passing year. If anyone has seen them, please fill us in with a comment. I'd love to know the real deal on the TSO - who's at the concerts, what's the music like, is it more rock, is it more opera, is it more christmas carols?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The voice of SmAlbany: Inexplicably, I was solicited yesterday to appear as a guest panelist on WAMC's Weekly Rundown show, hosted by Mary Darcy and Greg Dahlmann. I'm not sure I have either the pipes or the nerve for radio, but what the heck. I've never listened to the show, but it was decribed to me as "smart, but witty." Well, that's what we aim for here at Oh, SmAlbany!, so I guess I'm suitable, in theory. Maybe they'll let me rant about Geisel, or the bars downtown.

Actually, who am I kidding? This is really right in my wheelhouse:

Pontificating about semi-important local topics? Check.
Using a production medium that artificially increases your legitimacy? Check.
Keeping it short so you seem smarter than you actually are? Check.

Ok, I'm excited.

The show will air Friday night at 9pm. Yeah, not exactly your "afternoon drive" slot, but I'll take it. I'll put up a link to the podcast after it's available.

Am I really becoming a C-list D-list Albany celebrity?

Election notes: Various thoughts on different races and election-day happenings:

Albany: I was happy to see that Corey Ellis defeated Mike Brown. That was probably the highlight of the day for me. I thought it was a reasonable result that the mayor didn't get his whole slate on the school board. It will force the TanMan to compromise, in theory. One thing that is really funny is the distorted sense of political reality you can get if you spend a lot of time reading blogs. For instance, given how much he posts over at Democracy in Albany, it never dawned on me that Ford McClain would only get 86 votes in the Ward 7 race for city council. Amazing!

Saratoga: I was disappointed to see the Democratic landslide in Saratoga. The assessment issue was certainly going to be problematic for the incumbents this year, but it was a mandated assessment, so it was a hammer that was simply going to fall on whoever was in office in 2004-2005. Overall, the Saratoga Republicans strike me as a better group to lead the city. Of course, to paraphrase the famous saying, Saratoga politics is so contentious precisely because the stakes are so small. As I've mentioned before, politics is truly a game of leisure when you have the wealth, culture, and lack of crime that Saratoga has.

Colonie: No surprises here, at least in terms of winners. But that itself is no surprise. I guess it is interesting how the GOP margins have shrunk significantly in Colonie in the last few decades. That really has had an effect on the fortunes of Democrats in county politics (think Soares) and in state politics (think Dan Lynch and then Bob Reilly). I suppose the day will come when the Democrats capture town hall. Amazing. All of sudden the Republican streets will be last ones plowed in the winter. As I said above about Saratoga, charmed politics.

Also, somebody call the Justice Department. I think I was the victim of attempted voter disenfranchisement. Or at least it was a pain in the ass for me to vote yesterday. First, I went over to Shaker Junior High School, where I should be voting. But BOE didn't get my change of address. So I head over to Southgate Elementary school near my old place. After telling the greeter where I live(d), she sends me to the district 42 line. Of course, when I get to the top of the queue, it turns out i'm in district 43. Oh well, what's another 10 minute wait to vote in a series of blowouts when I've already burned up an hour.

Actually, that's a bit harsh. I really like voting. Especially when I can vote for major party candidates without ever touching the GOP or Democratic levers. That was nice. And I like the people who volunteer for BOE. That's a thankless, but very important, job. And apparently a boring one too. All I know is that the free doughnuts and coffee were long gone at Southgate when I got there at noon yesterday.

Rensselaer: Who wouldn't be happy that DeAngelis lost? Fred LeBrun publishes a column today that practical wrote itself in everyone's head last night.

Propositions: I voted against #1, and I was pleased to see it fail. I voted in favor of #2, but I was basically ambivalent about it. It passed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

RESTUARANT REVIEW: Took SJC to the Glen Sanders Mansion ($$$$$, 4, 91, Scotia, just over the bridge from downtown Schenectady) for her birthday on Monday. Easily one of the better meals I've ever had in the greater SmAlbany area, although you definitely pay for it. Luckily, there is a great ($18.00) discount in the Entertainmnet book. Including a bottle of wine, our total bill was about $70 after the coupon and before the tip. We started off with an appetizer of steam littleneck clams in a white wine sauce, which was absolutely wonderful, the highlight of the meal. We also had a tasty balsamic salad. For dinner, I had a filet mignon and SJC went with a grilled snapper. Both were excellent. The atmosphere in the dining room is elegent and the service is very good. A pricey treat, but worth your while once a year on that special occasion. Most recently ate here: November, 2005.

Vote for Pedro: Wait, that was last year's bad pun. Anyway, 3 things I'd suggest you keep in mind on election day 2005:

#1 - Local government has far more impact on your life than any other level of goverment: So take it seriously. And that means vote. If you don't know alot about the candidates, head over to the Times Union voter guide or search the web a bit for information. Or just vote based on your major party affiliation - I know that sounds lazy and establishment-cozy, but it correctly matches your preferences to the right candidate 8 times out of 10. And that's what party cues are for, especially in the lesser races where information is particular hard to find.** But in any case, make sure you vote. And promise yourself you'll spend a little more time on local politics next year.

UPDATE: A commenter reminded me that Metroland has candidate interviews for most of the races that are in the city of Albany and a few races outside of Albany.

#2 - If you are going to vote for a major party candidate, do it on a minor party line: This is a habit that is worth cultivating if you care about procedural democracy. New York State has very stringent requirements for parties to get on the ballot. They need to keep getting votes in elections in order to stay on the ballot. It's not a problem for the major parties, but it often can be the life and death of the minor parties. It makes absolutely no difference in the election if you vote for Jennings on the Democratic line or the Conservative line. But it means the world to the conservative party, which is constantly fighting to stay on the ballot. I see no reason for New York to have such high ballot restrictions, so I think it's important to do what you can to help the minor parties stick around. It's good for democracy.***

#3 - Don't "not vote" because the races are already deicded: As I've written previously, democratic elections, for better or worse, do more than simply pick winners. They send signals to politicians and voters about the power and support of winners. Winning with 51% is very different than winning with 78%. So if you feel strongly about a candidate one way or another, you can affect politics with your vote even if the election is not close.

**I know that sounds harsh and very un-progressive, but I'm being a realist. Election day is not the day to fix democracy. I wish everyone was informed and cared about politics, but that's not reality.

***Two points here. First, it may not be the case that the minor parties have to worry about this in the current election. It might only be the quadrennial election years that count toward whether or not you stay on the ballot as a party. I don't know. But get in the habit of voting on the minor party lines, because it certainly does matter at some point, and its costless to you.

Second, I encourage this because it is basically the two major parties in collusion that keeps the ballot standards so high. No sensible system of democracy would make it as hard as New York does to get on the ballot, and as easy as New York does to get kicked off the ballot for the next election. More political parties is almost always a good thing, and third parties are great at keeping the major parties in line.

Turn around, bright eyes: Wow, does David Soares ever do a 180 in today's Times Unoin:
Soares said he had an appointment to meet with Joan Porco and her family today they needed to reschedule. "I'm hoping it will be soon, maybe later this week."

"Mom, I'm sure, has a lot of questions and one of the reasons for us wanting to visit with her is to answer those questions to the extent we can," Soares said. "We owe her that."

"We're also treading lightly with her, as to what we can share, because we know she is in contact with her son," he said. "Despite that, there is an issue of courtesy with her, as a crime victim."

"We owe her that."? "Mom, I'm sure, has a lot of questions."? It almost sounds like the new approach down on Eagle street is to be compassionate towards victims of attempted ax-murder! That's a far cry from last August, when Soares basically told Joan Porco she was a either a liar or a lunatic:
In an uncharacteristic public statement, Soares disputed Joan Porco's denials in a Times Union story that her 21-year-old son, Christopher, is a murderer.

It was the first time Porco had spoken out about the horrific Nov. 15 attack in which popular Appellate Division law clerk Peter Porco, 52, was bludgeoned to death with a fireman's ax and she was left near death in their Bethlehem bedroom with debilitating head and eye injuries.

"Based upon the information we have and everything we've looked at, she's wrong," Soares said Wednesday. "She doesn't have what we have. If she did? Maybe she'd think differently."

Looks like somebody got a quick lesson is how you treat your only eye-witness to a murder. On the other hand, this isn't exactly a bridge you are going to un-burn, assuming that was ever possible.

P.S. My wife didn't get picked for a trial at jury duty yesterday. But she has to go back on Thursday - there's hope yet!

Monday, November 07, 2005

A drive down main street: After dropping SJC off down at the county courthouse this morning for jury duty, I needed to stop and pick something up at Colonie Center. So I took the opportunity to drive Central Ave. all the way from downtown out into Colonie. A selection of my streaming thoughts, in order, as I drove:

#1(beginning of central) - So that's where Gandhi is located. I'll have to return soon. I don't get off of Lark street enough when I'm downtown for dinner. I wonder where Shalimar is located?

#2(30 yards later) - Even in Albany, Mike Brown stands out as a hack politician. It makes me sad to look at his campaign posters. I don't know if it's disturbing or reassuring (probably the former) that those who represent the least well-off in society are as hackish as those who represent the middle class. God, I hope he loses tomorrow. I wonder if Ellis can beat him...

#3(corner, central and quail) - I can't believe that once upon a time - about 7 or 8 years ago - I frequented Pauly's hotel and thought it was a trendy bar. I can't believe that once upon a time - about 2 or 3 years ago - I frequented Ichiban and thought it had good sushi. Did Pauly's really have a "$2 all you can drink" deal back in the late 90's? Were the rolls at Ichiban always that bad? At least that new sushi place on Lark is good, from what I hear.

#4(corner, central and everett) - It really is great to see hummer after hummer sitting unsold on the central auto super mile. Almost as enjoyable as a Geoffrey Holder commerical.

Heritage tourism alert: I don't know how many visitors this place will draw - probably not more than a couple dozen a week, give or take a few busloads of bored 5th graders. Not too many people are all that interested in Susan B. Anthony or the 19th cenutry sufferage movement. But more importantly, this strikes me as a perfect example of faux history: Anthony only lived in the house for 7 years, and she did so as a teenager. It's not like important meetings took place there. It's a childhood home.

Now, don't get me wrong, if a private group wants to turn the place into a museum, I'm all for it. I like history and you might even catch me taking the 40 minute drive up to Battenville to check it out. But I don't think I could/can justify spending public money on this type of thing - there's just too much real history and too few tax dollars for it already. We don't need to underwrite faux history. Now, that's not the case here - this is a private project - but I can only assume that this is the type of project that supporters of heritage tourism in Albany would like to infuse with public money. It's not worth it.

This is partially because some good historical structures already exist. If you're interested in SBA or the sufferage movement more generally, there's a great public women's rights national historic park dedicated to SBA, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. It's located in Seneca Falls, about 40 minutes past Syracuse. Also, there is already a house in Rochester dedicated to the life and work of SBA. And she lived there during the most politically active period of her life.

P.S.: Another interesting museum that is set to open. Partially funded with public money, but predicted to gross $1.5 million / year in admission fees...

P.P.S: Apparently, New York State is now ranked fourth in percentage of workforce employed in tourism-related jobs. No word on what percentage of those jobs are SmAlbany heritage tourism...

Does this get you excused?: Today is SJC's birthday. The big 2-7. The good news is that she has the day off from work. The downside is that it's because she has jury duty. I was really hoping in the last few weeks that she'd somehow land on the Porco jury. Too bad.

I think we're going to go out to dinner tonight. Restaurant review tomorrow.

Friday, November 04, 2005

No bail, no quote from Soares: After almost a year, an indictment in the Porco case. I'll have more to say next week.

SmAlbany, cross-country heaven: Abduction attempts of team members notwithstanding, one thing the greater SmAlbany area is nationally famous for is high school running. The Suburban Council has continually been considered one of the most competitive high school running leagues in the country over the past two decades. The Saratoga High School girl's team is undisputedly the all-time best high school running program in the nation. Section 2 has consistently had both boys and girls qualify to the Foot Locker cross-country national championship and teams to the Nike Team Nationals. Local teams almost always either win or come close to winning the state title in a variety of classes each November. And one of the best cross-country courses you'll ever see is at Saratoga State Park.

This year is no exception. On national website like DyeStat and Armory Track, section 2 is literally plastered all over the place. Both the boy's and girl's teams from Saratoga are ranked among the best in the nation, despite the gir's team losing it best runner, Nicole Blood, to private training. A number of other local schools are contending to be among the 20 teams invited to the Nike Team Nationals in Demcember. And if you look at the New York State rankings, all of the following teams are ranked in the top 20 in the state in either class AA or class A: Saratoga boys (#2, class AA), Shen boys (#5, AA), Guilderland boys (#7, AA), Shaker boys (#12, AA), Niskayuna boys (#15, AA), Queensbury boys (#1, A), Burnt Hills boys (#2, A), Scotia boys (#7, A), Averill Park boys (#10, A), Saratoga girls (#1, AA), Shen girls (#7, AA), Columbia girls(#10, AA), Shaker girls (#11, AA), Bethlehem girls(#13, AA), Colonie girls (#15, AA), Holy Names girls (#1, A), Burnt Hills girls (#2, A), Queensbury girls (#7, A), Amsterdam girls(#13, A).

That's simply astounding. The sad part of it is, however, that the New York State Cross country championships only allow the single best team from each section in each class to race for the state title (individuals can qualify also). So despite having so many teams in the top 10 in all divisions, most of them will miss the state championships. I ran for Shaker back in the 90's, and we always missed the state meet because of this system.

I say all this because today is the section 2 championship race. It is usually held at Saratoga Park, but today it is at Queensbury because the state championsihp is going to be held there next week. Good luck to all the teams, and best of luck at states and nationals.

If you'd like more information on section 2 running, there is a tremendous website about it, with up-to-date statistics, discussions, and history: section2harrier.

Oh, that ax-murder: A good reivew of the Porco case in the Times Union. I had almost forgotten about it - it happened a year ago this month. There has been a strange dynamic to the story the whole time: I feel like there a lot of people who are strangely obsessed with it. Exhibit A and B would be my sister and aunt. On the other hand, I feel like it's the type of story that often would have exploded into a "national coverage" type event, but it never did.

As it turns out, the grand jury is finally meeting again. There may be an indictment before the close of business today. What I'm wondering right now, though, is how a grand jury operates in a case like this. Is it the same grand jury from a year ago? It must be. And they must be simply working with the transcripts from the old witnesses? There's got to be a strain on a group trying to remember testimony from that long ago. Sure - they have the witness records, but there are plenty of things - like character evaluations - that you can't get from a transcript. I might be wrong, but I suspect all of this helps the prosecution when it seeks an indictment. I predict the DA finally gets one today.

More important, Soares did not ridicule the only witness he has or otherwise stick his foot in his mouth for today's story, which is a sure sign that he's learning.

Looking for advice: Some old friends of mine, Paul and Katrina, are stopping in town tonight for dinner before taking the train down to NYC. I'm looking for a restaurant that fits the following description:

1) In the general vicinity of the Rensselaer train station - time is tight between when they are arriving and when their train leaves, so something in downtownish Albany or across the river would work best.

2) Reasonably fast service - see reason #1.

3) Is acceptable to vegetarians - both Paul and Katrina eat no meat, not even fish. We don't need a vegetarian place, but it's got to have some veggie-friendly options.

4) Reasonable prices - even if we had the money, we wouldn't try to rush through a dinner at La Serre. So something moderate.

My first instinct was something like El Mariachi or maybe that new Sushi place on Lark, which is reputed to have lots of veggie rolls. Is there a good Indian restaurant downtown that I don't know about? Definitely looking for some suggestions here...

UPDATE [11:10 AM]: Thank you to all who emailed in advice. One emailer directed me to VegAlbany, a website dedicated to living as a vegetarian locally. It's not a great site, but it's definitely worth checking out - the restuarant reviews detail the vegetarian and vegan options for quite a few places. And it's perfect for my purposes today.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A few days off: I'm headed out of town for job interviews. Back on Thursday or Friday. But for god's sake, I have to mention this "breaking news." Didn't I report on this like three weeks ago?

See you in a few days.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Why Jennings won't debate: Everyone and their left wing brother is up in arms that Mayor Jennings is refusing to debate his opponents - Alice Green and Joe Sullivan- before the general election November 8th. Even the TU cartoonist got in the act over the weekend, illustrating Sullivan and Green debating on TV while Jennings sits home and laughs. All this means is that it's a good time for Oh, SmAlbany! to return to Political Science 101. Why exactly is the mayor refusing to debate?

Ultimately, it has a lot more to do with his position and resources in the election than anything about him personally. Although his opponents would have you believe the mayor is "scared" to debate the issues or "doesn't believe in the democratic process," this is hardly the case. Debates are certainly nice forums for citizens to learn about candidates and issues, but they are also key political moments for campaigns. If a debate is more helpful than hurtful for your campaign, you want it. If it isn't, you don't. Very simple, very machiavelian. Five points:

Point #1 - Frontrunners hate debates / chasers love debates - If you watched The West Wing last night, this was abundently clear. Congressman Santos, trailing by 9 points in the polls, was begging for a debate, but his political handlers knew that Senator Vinnick had no interest in debating, since he was already ahead. As Vinnick's handler says, "They need to debate 10 times more than we do." The bottom line is that if you are ahead in a campaign, you want to minimize "big moments," where you can either squander your lead with a dumb mistake or your opponent can gain ground with a brilliant manuever. Debates are inherently "big moments." Therefore, people in the lead hate them and people who are behind beg for them. Jennings is in the lead. His opponents are far behind.

Point #2 - Well-funded campaigns hate debates / poor campaings love debates - Debates are the best advertising at the cheapest cost - you get the full attention of interested voters at absolutely no cost, and you get to say whatever you want. This means your message will be up to date. Jennings has plenty of money and can run all the paid ads he wants. His opponents are cash-poor and would love some free airtime. Therefore, Jennings doesn't want to debate and his opponents do.

Point #3 - Mainstream candidates hate debates / marginal candidates love debates - a debate has a strange leveling power in the minds of low-information voters. If a low-information voter sees three candidates in a debate, he/she accepts that these are the "legitimate" candidates in the election. This is why the major parties try so hard to keep third party candidates - like Perot in '92 and Nader in '00 - out of the debates. It denies them the legitimacy that comes with being a "big boy" in the debate. If you can't keep your marginal opponents out of the debate, you simply try not to debate them. Like it or not, Alice Green and Joe Sullivan are marginal candidates. Thus, Jennings doesn't want to debate them.

Point #4 - Incumbents hate debates / Challengers love debates - When there is an incumbent running for office, debates generally center around his/her policies. Since challengers are not managing policy themselves, they often have little record to critique. This usually means that debates end up being asymetric affairs, with challengers able to attack the incumbents record and the incumbent left to either defend his record or attack the challengers experience. Except in the best of situations, this works to the advantage of the challenger. Challengers also tend to be less "legitimate" than incumbents, and thus gain ground under point #3. Thus, Jennings doesn't want to debate and his opponents do.

Point #5 - Not debating can hurt you, but only in high visibility, close campaings - Ducking debates against serious opponents, for instance if you were running for president of the United States, would seriously hurt your polling numbers. But voters tend to not be well aware of the day-to-day news of mayoral campaigns, so they don't usually punish debate duckers. Ducking a debate against a marginal candidate is often less problematic than against a serious candidate in a close race, because voters expect debates in close races. Thus, Jennings doesn't mind missing the debate.

As you can see, Jennings has no reason to debate. His opponents have every reason to demand one. They will, and he won't. Case closed. Jennings is a hack, but right now he's just being a smart politician. His opponents will try to goad him into a debate using every rhetorical device in the book, but they know he won't fall for it. They need the debate, he doesn't.

Debates are wonderful traditions in democratic communities. They inform voters, allowing for the airing of issues, and let voters see politicians interact with each other. But for campaigns, they are either vital chances to gain ground or briar patches to be avoided at all costs. And they are treated as such by the candidates, through pure political calculations about the benefits and drawbacks that attending the debate has for their chances in the race. No more, no less. It has nothing to do with anything personal about the candidates. Joe Sullivan and Alice Green would be stonewalling just the same if they were in Jennings position. They might come up with better excuses - Jennings is laughably claiming he's "too busy" - but they would decline just the same. But that's the sad reality of debates. To understand them through the lens of the democratic ideal is just that - idealist. Enough already.

P.S. - It can be the case that everyone wants a debate. This happens often in wide-open races when no one is really sure what is going to happen, like the Soares/Clyne/Cusick race for county DA last fall (the general election, not the primary). Soares was the frontrunner, but needed the debate to silence his doubters. Clyne and Cusick both needed to make up ground. It can't produce a positive-sum result, but it can be percieved as a positive opportunity by everyone heading into the event.

P.P.S - I wish I could put the TU cartoon up, but it's not available on the website! I guess I'll just have to buy the print edition demand they put the whole paper online.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Liq-our-Treat: Statistically, Halloween is a drunk-driving debacle in the category of New Year's, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. Bet you dind't know that. How about this: Three times as many alcohol-related car crash fatalities happen on Halloween as on St. Patrick's Day. That's not good. And it sure as heck is surprisng, given the common perception of the two holidays.

Some people seem to think this is a new and growing trend:
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the council joined to spotlight the growing linkage between Halloween and alcohol on Thursday."There's so much more awareness around other holidays," noted Donna Kopek, executive director of New York State MADD. "Halloween is becoming more of an adult holiday, and with that comes alcohol consumption."
I certainly agree that Halloween is increasingly being marketed these days as a booze-fest for adults rather than a children's tradition. A quick look through today's Metroland reveals the following ads: costume party at the Alcove Pub, Halloween Party at the Bayou Cafe, Halloween Party at Valentine's, "Monster Bash" at Sneaky Pete's, Halloween Party at the Elbo Room, Halloween Party at Cafe Hollywood, Costume contest at the Waterworks Pub, 4th annual Halloween Bash at Big G's, an a "Halloween weekend at Jyllian's." That's more than I remember seeing 5 or 10 years ago. Throw on the beer commericals - like that Coors Light "sexy ghots" ad - and it sure seems like there is an aggressive campaign to promote drinking on Halloween.

On the other hand, this isn't a trend that has come out of nowhere. It just can't be the case that Halloween 30 years ago was no different than any other regular day in terms of DWI. College kids don't need much of an excuse for a party, and I assure you that they didn't just discover Halloween in the last decade. And I definitely remember there being some drunks at the school-sponsored Halloween Party when I was at Shaker in the early 90's. I also recall going to a Halloween party at Bogie's circa 1997 that was held in conjunction with their legendary "$5 all you can drink Thursday." So it's not like this is a trend that has been whipped up in the last few years. But it certainly does seem to have accelerated in the recent past, that's pretty clear to me.

One thing that magnifies the danger on Halloween is the ghosts and goblins that no one really thinks of Halloween as a big DWI day. Thus the public-safety messages, blanket police patrols, and generally wariness of people isn't there to deter would-be drunk drivers like it is on New Year's or St. Patrick's Day. Luckily, that seems to be changing:
The evolution of Halloween parties as drinking events also is one reason that the Albany County Sheriff's Department has scheduled an overnight Stop-DWI blanket patrol tonight and early Saturday, said Sheriff James Campbell. Albany County's special patrol is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. and continue until 4 a.m. Saturday. State Police, the Sheriff's Department and 11 municipal police agencies will participate.
Maybe soon you'll be able to add Halloween to the list of nights you can score one of those "free cabs" back from the downtown bars.

P.S. On a semi-related topic, I have always wondered if the "college girls/women dressing up in the sluttiet costumes they can justify on Halloween" trend was a rather ancient tradition or just a modern treat that I happened to catch the wave of during my teen/college/young adult years. Whatever the case, the new emphasis on Halloween drinking must only be accelerating it, right?

RESTUARANT REVIEW: I've got a new favorite SmAlbany Indian place: Sitar ($$$, 2, 92, Central Ave., a few miles west of the northway). Some of the best Indian food I've had in a good while. We had pretty standard fare: chicken tikka masala and chana masala, and both were superb. The service was excellent. The only way to knock this place is the price: it's a bit more expensive than other Indian options around the Capital District, but I thought it was worth it. Plus, the Entertainment Book has a good coupon that can save you some money. The atmosphere is slightly more upscale than most Indian places, but definitely only slightly. Definitely a good location for a date. Most recently ate here: October, 2005.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Back in the saddle: It didn't take local sports anchor Dan Murhpy long to get back on the air after being dumped by WTEN back in August. As reported late yesterday:
Murphy will return to the airwaves next month with a daily afternoon sports talk show on WOFX (980 AM). Murphy will host a 3 to 5 p.m. show on the Clear Channel sports station starting Monday, Nov. 7. The show will be called ``Murphy's Law'' -- the same title the sportscaster's nightly commentary segments were on WTEN. Murphy will also do regular sports commentary segments on ``Don Weeks & The 810 WGY Morning News'' on sister station WGY (810 AM).
That's welcome news. I always liked Murphy on WTEN. I don't have a clear recollection of him when he was doing radio on WPTR, but I'm definitely eager to see what he can do with 2 hours a day of local sports talk.

Murphy's move will adds to the already nice set of options for sports talk radio listeners in the SmAlbany area. AM 980 now has Wyland, Jim Rome (syndicated), and Murphy going straight from 10am to 5pm, while WROW has Mike and the Mad Dog (syndicated) from 2pm to 6:30. And although I usually only listen to it for yankee games, WTMM 1300 has round the clock sports that features the Dan Patrick Show in the afternoon, Mike and Mike in the morning, and The Herd midday. All together, that's a local radio menu with a lot of variety and talent.

And gosh, it sure beats the old days. Seems like just yesterday I was trying to pull in WFAN 660 from New York in order to get any decent sportstalk during the afternoon drive.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Goodbye Fixins' Bar: Thank God the Thurway Authority finally decided to upgrade the food at the rest stops. Having gone to college in central New York and having taken numerous trips to Yankee Stadium every summer for most of my life, I'm definitely no stranger to the issue of what the hell kind of time warp has the Thruway food services been stuck in? Once upon a time, I simply thougth that all rest stops in the whole world were stocked with terrible food. Then I took I drive to Florida one year and it dawned on me that New York's are simply among the worst.

Here's the understatement of the week:
"The improvements we were looking for were updated offerings -- things that our customers have been asking for," said Bill Rinaldi, acting director of operations for the state Thruway Authority.
Indeed. My dad has been hot about this topic since the Carter administration. I mean, did you ever go to the old Pattersonville stop, prior to the remodeling? I can remember stopping at a truck stop in the middle of the night in Alabama in college, surveying the place, and thinking to myself, "Well, it's definitely nicer than the old Pattersonville stop on the Thruway."

It must have been about 10 years ago that they upgraded the physical infastructure - the bathrooms, the exterior, etc. - at most of the rest stops, and that was great. Before that, you didn't even want to walk in those places. So it's not like we're talking about the old, decrepid rest stops. It's just that they never did a similar upgrade to the food vendors at a lot of the stops. The article mentions some of the new food choices that are coming in but it fails to mention the current choices, which are clearly the crux of the contemporary complaints, best put by reader B. Wolf in an email I received this morning:
You mean I don't have to eat at the Roy Roger's "Fixin's Bar" next time I drive out to Rochester? Or a Bob's Big Boy that looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the 70's?"
So true. Everyone eats at Bob's exactly once in their life. Then they're done with it. Two other points relating to rest stops:

1) There is one diamond in the rough on the Thruway - the Sloatsburg/Ramapo stop down between exit 15 and 16 on I-87 N/S. That place is simply amazing, at least in comparison to the other stops. It's like a mall. And there's covered parking. Plus, when you're coming home from a yankee game, it's the point on the trip when you know you are no longer in danger of downstate traffic, which is nice.

2) No matter what they do, the eastern part of the Mass pike is still king - not only are they the cleanest rest stops I've ever seen, but the food selection is great: Boston Market, Fresh City, Auntie Ann's, and Ben and Jerry's - all under one roof.

The Dumpling House: The seemingly endless road construction on Everett Road between the I-90 exit and Albany-Shaker Road has caused lots of headaches for the local businesses that reside there. In one case - the Dumpling House Chinese restaurant - it seems to have actually driven the restaurant out of business:

"We don't make money anymore," said Kenny Chang, 58, who owns the business with his brother, John Chang. "Business is down quite a bit since the springtime." At that point, the paving project reached the area where Dumpling House is located, just south of Albany Shaker Road. A combination of dust, slowed traffic and gravel -- Chang says a few customers got flat tires -- has kept customers away, he said.

Here's the thing: I've been to the Dumpling House dozens of times in my life. It's one of my in-laws favorite Chinese places. The service is good - the Changs are great - but the place is always empty. It's set to close October 30th, but I have always been amazed that it managed to last. I always figured it as a high-volume take-out joint since I couldn't imagine it did enough eat-in business to survive. That or it was a front for something.

So you can imagine my surprise last night when I went there with my in-laws and the place was absolutely packed. I'd never seen it even half as full. It seems that the construction slowed business, but actually announcing and preparing to go out of business revived the flow of customers. What a coup it would be if they managed to stay open because of the recent surge. I mean, that's why we were there - my in-laws wanted to go "one last time" - and that's why I assume other people were there. I have my doubts, though. I know a lot of people love it, but for me the food there has always been wonderfully mediocre, and it's clearly overpriced. My best guess is that the construction was just the nail in the coffin of what was a slowly sinking business to begin with. I mean, it's not like Beff's is exactly suffering these days. But I could be wrong.

Google and Blogs: Most people don't have a clue about the advanced features of Google, like Google Maps, Google Print , and Google Earth (which i discussed several weeks ago). My gosh, a lot of people don't even have the Google Toolbar yet. But perhaps the best Google software for anyone who reads blogs is the new Google Blog Search. It's by far the easiest way to search multiple blogs for a post on a given topic. And it updates virtually immediately, since it is based on atom feeds. Honestly, it blows Technorati away if you're just trying to search and don't care about links, etc.

Of course, I'm pretty sure Google doesn't offer a way to embed the search on individual blogs, so for now Oh, SmAlbany! will have to rely on FreeFind, whose search box I have placed below the archives on the right hand side of the blog. This is a long overdue way to search SmAlbany with ease. Happy back-post hunting!

Brave new SmAlbany: As long as we're on a tech kick, it's worth noting that Fox23 now has podcasts avaiable daily for both news and weather, as well as a weekly podcast of the high school sports show. Not bad, but not great - it's basically an .mp3 of the TV show, which means it's not adjusted for things like not seeing the weather graphics. I also found Radio Free Upstate (also a podcast), which offers conservative and libertarian commentary with an upstate slant. Haven't listened to it yet, so I can't offer an opinion.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Muffin Tops at Crossgates: Today's Times Union has a feature story on the "muffin-top" - the sultry combination of a female wearing low-rise, hip-hugging jeans and a little bit too much mid-section flab. That combination results in the look sported in the picture at right, which was formerly simply called "ugly." The article interviews researchers at various universities for their take on the matter, and that disappointed me. I got all the research I needed during my visit to Crossgates yesterday. The TU could have done some field research and landed a dozen interviews in 5 minutes. A few other highlights from my trek out to Guilderland:

1) Given the recent focus on teen-related problems at Crossgates, I can't imagine the mall is thrilled with the way Spencer Gifts has decorated the outside of their new space. The exterior of the store is faux brick with graffitti sprayed on it. And it extends around the bend of the store (out of sight of the storefront) to the point where some shoppers must be thinking that someone just tagged the mall. Very amusing.

2) I was asked to do one of those "quick test" surveys, where they pay you $5 to watch some commericals and report what you think. As a social science student, I was simply aghast at their research methodology. I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say that there's no way they are getting results with any external validity. I didn't say anything, though. I enjoyed the commericals and I bought a pretzel with the money.

P.S. Alert reader J.M. writes in to note that the TU basically ripped this story off from a Daily News story from this past summer. It's always fun when the local papers run features based on three-month old "Daily Dish" columns. Yeah, TU!

The Great voter-eligibility Debate: Up in Saratoga, it's once again time for the annual fight over whether and how the Skidmore students should be voting in the town elections. In a small town like Saratoga, 600 or 1000 votes from the college can turn the outcome of the election. At Ohio Statse - where there are 50,000 students, the college can be a major player in city politics. And that means that lots of people get really heated about whether or not they should be voting and also about little trivial detals, like whether they should have to walk to town in order to vote instead of a voting machine being placed on campus. All of this means it's again time for political science 101 here at Oh, SmAlbany! Itsn't it great what 6 years in graduate school will do for you?

As always, the first thing to throw out the window is the partisan rhetoric. It's important to remember that the rules of a democracy are often shaped by political preferences instead of philosophical values. This leads to lots of hypocrisy. It's why politicians so often flip-flop on fundamental issues and why partisan bloggers are so often caught making hypocritical statements. For almost any democratic rule worth debating, there are reasonable philosophical positions to support either outcome. People interested solely in the outcome simply pick the philosophical position that suits them as a justificaiton. So, of course, in Saratoga this means that the Republicans oppose Skidmore voting and the Democrats favor it, for the most part. In towns where the college is more conservative than the town (think Colorado Springs or South Bend), the opposite situation ensues.

Of course, beyond all the partisan rhetoric there is a serious philosophical debate about the voting rights of transient people. Let's first examine some reasons why it might be a bad idea for college students to be allowed to vote locally:

1) College students are barely residents of the town: At a school like Skidmore, the vast majority of college students go home to their families on every break from school. That means that they actually live in Saratoga about 26 weeks of the year, or half-time. So they are short-term, part-time residents at best. (Now, in some locales the laws have been drawn that you have to actually sign up for residency in your college town if you want to vote there. In other places (like New Haven, CT) you can vote ion the local elections regardless of your residency status. But that's simply a sub-question to the main question, and not particularly part of the philosophical issue.)

2) College students aren't part of the tax base: The vast majority of students live on campus, so they don't pay rent in town. Similarly, most of them get the vast majority of their meals on campus. In effect, they are only very slightly part of the local tax base, since Skidmore operates under the non-profit tax laws. They consume the services of the town without really paying for the services of the town.

3) College students don't have any long-term interest in the community: This is perhaps the fundamental objection to college town voting. While college students are a mainstay of any college town, the individual students aren't there very long. Thus they don't worry about the future of the town. For instance, college students would never support a public works project - like a library - that was going to take more than 5 years to complete (assuming they had to share the tax burden). They'd be gone. So if the trade off is higher taxes now for a library then, or some short-term project now vs. some better project long term, they are always going to side with the short-term. Democratic entities have enough trouble producing long-term benefiical results without the added complication of fundamentally short-term voters.

4) College students don't have any fundamental interests in the community: This is similar to the last item, but a different effect - college students don't have much interest in the long-term vitality of existing public life. This gives them all sorts of incentives to support policies that have short-term benefits but drastic long-term costs. For instance, college students would probably not support the improvement of the public school system (again assuming they had to share the tax burden), since they will be long gone before they have school-aged children. In effect, they are a permanent proportion of the town that really doesn't care about the town. And that's important, espeically in a town like Saratoga, where less than 100 votes can often determine the outcome of the elections, bonds, and school budget votes.

5) College students are rich and different - this is not a real objection, per se. But it's the way that the above objections are often articulated in college towns. Unlike Saratoga, most college towns feature populations of locals who are not wealthy. Saratoga is an exception in that the students at the college are probably not from families that are particularly more wealthy than the average citizen of the town. That's not true in most college towns. Furthermore, most college towns feature liberal campuses and conservative town populations, relatively speaking. Thus the complaint from the town is usually as follows: a bunch of rich kids who don't pay taxes and led a charmed upbringing are coming to the town and trying to pass liberal policies against the wishes of the simple folk on main street. In effect, college students are seen as the limosine liberals - rich kids in SUVs pretending to be working-class revolutionaries.

Ok. That's the basis of the philosophical objection. Now let's discuss some reasons why they should be voting:

1) Where else are they going to vote?: It's clear that college students should be allowed to vote somewhere. The ony real alternative to voting at the college is to have them all vote absentee back in their hometowns. But they don't really live there, either. In fact, the hometowns could argue just as easily as the college-towns that students shouldn't be voting there for all the reasons listed above! Sure, they have roots in those towns, but they are by and large not going to be heading back to the old towns. They don't pay taxes in the old towns. It's a weaker argument, but only by degree, not by kind.

2) Allowing them to vote in the college-towns increases their turnout: It has been shown they college students are far more likely to vote in the college-towns than they are in the hometowns. This is for a number of reasons: 1) being able to vote in person rather than by absentee ballot generates an easiness to the process that raises turnout. 2) Students tend to be more aware of local issues in the college-towns than they do in their hometowns, so they tend to be more interested in politics in the college-towsn. 3) Students in the college towns tend to have aggregate interest - i.e. the interests of college-students - while students who vote in the hometowns tend to not be affiliated with any particular local interests.

3) Voting in the college-towns builds better democratic citizens: The lowering of the voting age in 1971 had one nasty side-effect: People gained the right to vote just as they were generally being uprooted from the political community where they initially grew up - some were going off to college and others were moving as they found work in new communities. This placed people's intial entry into adult political life right at the moment they were least likely to have any knowledge or history in the community they currently resided. Several studies have shown that students who vote in college-towns are more likely than those voting in hometowns to continue to vote after they leave the college town and settle in a new area. The implication is clear: getting students to vote in the location they live can have an effect on their future voting habitis.

4) Voting in the college-towns improves the college-town relationship: Often, if the school is small compared to the town, allowing the students to vote has the effect of both softening the ability of the town to dump on the students with ridiculous rules while at the same time leaving the students unable to truly affect the other policy areas of the town that don't concern them. That's a happy outcome for both sides. This doesn't work well in places where the school overwhelms the town, but that's not most situations.

Personally, I'm very torn on this issue. There are bad results from either policy. If the college truly overwhelms the town, you have situations where the students, as voters, end up running the town to a certain degree. Sometimes students even run for mayor, hoping to bank on support from the other students. I don't think that's a good idea. On the other hand, when students don't vote in the small towns, the towns have a tendency to put in place policies that are sometimes quite anti-student. Throw in the beneficial effects of student voting and i'm probably in favor of college-town voting, but not by much.

At any rate, don't listen to the partisan on this one. They are simply worried about the effect of student voting on the political outcomes, not the philosophical question that underlies it.

P.S. I'm going to start collecting all of these PoliSci pieces into a new right-side tab, so they can easily browsed in the future. They seem to be some of my more popular posts, so I thought I'd make easy access available.

Online Newspaper Access: In the wake of the New York Times deciding to take some of its online content and make non-subscribers pay for it, it's worth remembering that the Schenectady Gazette does the same thing. That's right, you can't get any content in the Gazette online unless you sign up for a subscription. Predictably, the results of this policy have been the same at the NYT and the Gazette: few people subscribe and no one references the articles on the internet. Blog references to the pay-for content in the Times have dramatically fallen off since TimesSelect went live. And no one ever links to a story in the Gazette. It's a silly business model in the exploding age of Internet media, because so much of a paper's relevance is tied up in the degree to which the chattering class discusses it. The chattering class is now significantly online. The Times pundits, and the Gazette, for all intents and purposes, are not.

That's a shame, because the Gazette online has one thing going for it: it's a model of how online newspapers should be structured (you can peruse an example here). It looks like a regular newspaper. You can quickly browse it like a regular newspaper. You can search it rather intutively. It's not perfect, but it does offer a rather striking alternative to the Times Union site, which has the entire paper for free but is cumbersome to navigate.** Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the worst local newspaper website: The Troy Record, hands down. Seemingly designed to frustrate the reader.

**Two points here that warrant mentioning:

1) The Times Union site is not a bad website. It's a bad newspaper website. As it turns out, I don't think the natural way people read the newspaper is anything like the way they naturally read the internet. The TU site makes sense as an internet site - it's just that everyone wants to read it like a newspaper. Thus the headaches as you try to get to the part of the paper you normally head for with your print edition.

2) The Times Union does offer a pay-for service that rivals - or even exceeds - the Gazette structure. It's called the e-edtion, and it delivers the goods...but again you have to pay. You can get old issues, however, which trades $2 for a trip to the library if you need a back issue.

Update: A knowledgable reader writes to inform us that back issues of the TU can be had online:
Good analysis, but a correction to your last point: No need to spend $2 or make a trip to the library for back issues of the T-U. You can access them online for free with your library card number. Go to www.albanypubliclibrary.org and use the online databases. Full text of the T-U is available from 1995 to the present.
Beyond 1995, you're still heading to the library, though.

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