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Pandu Nayak

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In case you haven't already submitted your ballot and you were wondering about the 17 California propositions, here are my recommendations on each one of them. Hope you find it helpful as you wade through them!
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My daughter will be running a programming camp this week for her Girl Scout Gold Award project!  Check out the details on this site and get daily updates from the blog on the site.
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This is so completely awesome (or, in the spirit of the video, so f*ing awesome)!  Specially considering that I'm one of those who has only read all the Game of Thrones books (and have just started rereading them), but have not watched any of the HBO series! 
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Larry Lessig writes powerfully about the Aaron Swartz tragedy.  

In case you haven't yet heard, Aaron Swartz was a " programmer, writer, archivist, political organizer, and Internet activist" (from Wikipedia).  He was key to the development of RSS, and was significantly involved in the campaign to prevent the passing of the SOPA bill.  Swartz's activism led him to download 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR.  And while JSTOR chose not to pursue civil litigation against him, a Federal prosecutor chose to pursue criminal charges against him (with some help from MIT, where the downloading took place; MIT has now set up an internal investigation into their role in this sorry affair, headed up by Hal Abelson).  The prosecution threatened him with 35 years in jail and a million dollar fine---grossly out of proportion to the "crime".  The stress led Aaron to take his own life two days ago.
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The Obama administration has rejected the petition to build a Death Star.  They cite three reasons for not undertaking this endeavor:

- The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
- The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
- Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

Apparently the petition to build a Death Star garnered the requisite 25k votes, which required the administration to provide an official response.  

They go on to add:

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
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I haven't been writing about the 49ers this season.  Oh, but what a game that was!
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There's been a lot of negative talk by political pundits recently about people like Nate Silver who cleverly average election polls to predict the probabilities of the outcomes in Tuesday's election.  I think part of the difficulty is that it is hard to understand what exactly one of these probabilities mean (there are other reasons, of course).  For example, Silver's current prediction is that the chance that Obama will win is 79%.  But what does 79% actually mean?  Does it mean its a slam dunk for Obama or does it mean the election is very close?  Here's what Silver says about that:

_[Obama's] chances of holding onto his Electoral College lead and converting it into another term are equivalent to the chances of an N.F.L. team winning when it leads by a field goal with three minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. _

Now that's something that us sports fans can understand!  If your team is leading by a field goal with 3 minutes left, you're happy that you're leading but you're really concerned that the other team could very easily win with one nice drive.  In other words, its still a very close game.  And that's exactly the situation that Obama is in right now.  Which is why the last few days could prove to be really critical for both Obama and Romney.
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The elections are now less than 2 weeks away and you have no doubt (long ago) decided who'll get your vote for President!  But perhaps you're not so sure about the 11 California Propositions on the ballot.  If so, I'm here to help :-)  I spent some time reading up on the Propositions, and I have some recommendations and summaries that you can use to guide your choices.  In coming up with my recommendations, I used the following editorial sources:

LA Times (LAT):
Mercury News (SJMN):
Sacramento Bee (Bee):

I was generally convinced by the LAT editorials and my recommendations are the same as theirs.  So you  should read the LAT editorials for a more full account.

First, to simplify matters, here's the summary of my recommendations.  The details follow.

Prop. 30: Yes  (Gov. Brown's proposal to raise taxes to address the budget deficit)
Prop. 31: No (Budget and government reform measure)
Prop. 32: No (Stop political contributions by payroll deduction---targets unions)
Prop. 33: No (Auto insurance based on coverage history)
Prop. 34: Yes (Repeal death penalty)
Prop. 35: No (Stiffer penalties for human trafficking)
Prop. 36: Yes (Change to three strikes law)
Prop. 37: No (Labeling of genetically engineered foods)
Prop. 38: No (Tax to fund education and early childhood programs)
Prop. 39: Yes (Tax treatment of multistate businesses)
Prop. 40: Yes (Redistricting---the No campaign has been suspended)

Here are the details on each proposition.

Prop. 30: Yes  (LAT,SJMN,Bee: Yes)
Prop. 38: No (LAT,SJMN,Bee: No)

These two propositions are closely linked.  Prop. 30 is Gov. Brown's measure to raise almost $6 billion by increasing tax rates on high income tax payers by 1-3 percentage points for seven years and by raising raising the state sales tax by quarter percent for four years.  As LAT says: 

"[Gov. Brown and the Democratic legislature have] made painful cuts with damaging long-term consequences, effectively putting the lie to the argument that the state can solve its fiscal problems just by spending less. ... Two years of belt-tightening have left parts of the state safety net in tatters and pushed college costs out of the reach of many families.  ... If Proposition 30 is defeated ... state law calls for $4.8 billion in automatic "trigger cuts" to public schools, more than $1 billion in cuts to higher education budgets and $100 million in assorted other reductions."

Given all this, I think we have to vote Yes on 30. 

Prop. 38 also raises income taxes, but the money would be spent only on schools and early childhood programs.  The money would go directly to schools (bypassing the legislature), and could be used only in certain ways, e.g., no salary increases, which deters reforms like more school days or more online instruction.  So that doesn't seem to be that great.  And the LAT ends with:

"...the singular focus of Proposition 38 on education is misplaced, particularly in light of the deep and damaging cuts the state has been making in programs that aren't already guaranteed half the state's general fund. As much as the schools need help, they aren't the only ones in need of rescue. And walling off another chunk of the state's revenues would only make it harder for lawmakers to address the breadth of the state's needs."

Note that if 30 and 38 both pass, then the one with more votes goes into effect (for the most part).  So vote Yes on 30 and No on 38.

Prop. 31: No (LAT, Bee: No; SJMN: Yes)

This is a budget and government reform measure put forth by a bipartisan group called California Forward.  There are many good ideas, but there are a lot of problems including:
  - One good idea is that lawmakers can spend only what they have.  But Prop. 31 doesn't cover bond measures and voter initiatives, and that's where the legislature will turn to for funding.  Which isn't good at all.
  - Another good idea is to return power to cities and counties.  But this measure is misguided in that allows cities and counties to selectively ignore state regulations.  This could lead to a regulatory patchwork throughout the state---a complete mess.
  - Shifts the balance of power in favor of the governor.

And worst of all, the LAT notes:

" exemplifies one of California's enduring problems — the ballot proposition that engrafts layers of inflexible detail into the state Constitution."

Such complex changes are just inappropriate as Propositions.

Prop. 32: No (LAT, SJMN, Bee: No)

This measure seeks to decrease special interest money in politics---which is great.  But what it really does is to decrease the power of some special interests, thus increasing the power of other special interests.  This imbalance would be much worse than the bad situation we have now.  Specifically, the main item in this proposition is to ban unions and corporations from using payroll deductions for political spending.  This would disproportionately hurt unions, thus making corporate voices that much stronger.  While I'd love to see less money in politics, I think this imbalance would be terrible for us.

Prop. 33: No (LAT, SJMN, Bee: No)

This is a measure funded primarily by the Mercury Insurance founder.  It purports to allow insurance companies to use your prior history of continuous insurance coverage with other insurance companies to give you a discount.  What it actually does is to raise rates on people who may have dropped insurance coverage for any reason (e.g., they are first time drivers, they were laid off, or they decided they got rid of their car and took public transport).  This would likely lead to more uninsured motorists on the road.

Prop. 34: Yes (LAT, SJMN: Yes)

This proposition would repeal the death penalty.  Not only is that the right thing to do, it would save the state money (to the tune of $184 million a year) and it would end the legal tangle over execution methods that have stalled executions since 2006.  This measure does require $30 million be set aside per year for three years to help law enforcement speed up homicide and rape investigations.  But this cost is small compared to the savings.

Prop. 35: No (LAT, Bee: No; SJMN: Yes)

This proposition increases penalties for human trafficking, expands the sex offenders registry, and blocks defendants from using a victim's sexual history as evidence in court.  On the surface, all of these things sound very good and it is very hard to vote against them.  But addressing these issues through the proposition process is wrong---it is inflexible and changes can only be made through more such initiatives.  The right way to do this is through the legislature---and this is an area where Sacramento is not deadlocked.  I was compelled by the LAT and Bee editorials on this issue.

Prop. 36: Yes (LAT, Bee, SJMN: Yes)

This proposition makes an important change to the Three Strikes law.  The three strikes law provides for 25 years to life in prison for three felony convictions.  Unfortunately, the third conviction can be something as trivial as shoplifting $20 worth of merchandise from Home Depot.  Since the law came into effect, thousands of repeat offenders have been given draconian sentences for felonies that are non-violent and non-serious.  This proposition would require the third strike to be violent or serious before the draconian penalties could be applied.  Furthermore, if the first two strikes involved sex-, drug-, or gun-related crimes, then the third strike does not have to be serious or violent to get the draconian penalties.  This proposition rationalizes the original three strikes law, and brings penalties more in alignment with the crime.

Prop 37: No (LAT, Bee, SJMN: No)

This measure has a rather compelling thesis---wouldn't it be great if genetically modified foods came labeled as being genetically modified.  After all, more information is better, and I'd certainly like to know what food is or is not genetically modified (without necessarily having to take a stand on whether genetically modified food is good or bad).   But, as the Bee says, this proposition is:

" overreach, is ambiguous, and would open the way for countless lawsuits against retailers who sell food that might lack the proper labeling."

It appears that the onus is on retailers to get paperwork from suppliers.  This could make it very hard for smaller, mom-and-pop grocery stores.  And enforcement is through members of the public bringing lawsuits against retailers.  This is not what we want.  Futhermore, the LAT notes:

"Meanwhile, the marketplace already provides ways to inform consumers about their food. ... The Trader Joe's grocery chain has helped market itself to concerned consumers by announcing that its private-label foods do not contain genetically engineered ingredients. Organic foods are never genetically engineered. There are no genetically engineered versions of most fruits sold in markets."

This seems like a much better way to go.

Prop 39: Yes (LAT, Bee, SJMN: Yes)

Currently, multistate businesses can choose to pay taxes either based on sales in the state or a three-factor approach involving sales, employment, and property.  Businesses could choose whichever had a smaller tax liability---an effective tax break of $1 billion.  This proposition closes that loop hole by requiring that taxes be based on sales (which seems eminently reasonable).  Furthermore, it removes the perverse incentive that companies have today to move employment out of the state to decrease taxes.  One downside of this measure is that it funnels $550 million annually for 5 years into a Clean Energy Job Creation fund.  And while I generally don't like such ballot-box budgeting, I'm willing to accept it in this case.

Prop. 40: Yes (LAT, Bee, SJMN: Yes)

This proposition is in quite an odd situation.  A Yes vote upholds the newly drawn state Senate district boundaries (drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission, rather than the legislature).  The people who put this proposition on the ballot were hoping for a "no" vote, but have since decided not to support the "no" vote.  So there's no opposition to this proposition.  But a Yes vote is still important to uphold the newly drawn districts.
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Earlier this year, my buddies and I had a wonderful trip to the Grand Canyon.  We hiked down to the bottom, spent couple of nights at the Phantom Ranch, and then huffed and puffed our way back up.  But it sounds like we could have saved ourselves the trouble and simply waited for Street View to take us there!  NOT!  (But this is pretty cool too!)
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Here's a nice article on the current situation with electronic voting machines.  The punchline:

A decade ago, the trauma of a too-close-to-call presidential election convinced elected officials to invest in better voting machines. Unfortunately, the resulting gusher of money was largely spent on electronic machines that made our elections less, not more, secure and reliable.

It's now widely recognized that old-fashioned paper ballots are a more affordable, reliable, and secure way to conduct elections. Computerized voting is increasingly seen as a fad that has worn out its welcome. But it might take another election debacle to generate the political will to retire these flawed machines nationwide.
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