Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Can you balance the federal budget?

My roommate pointed out today that the New York Times Freakonomics blog has a link to a really cool online game called Budget Hero. The premise is simple: you get to choose how the federal budget is divvied up. You play cards that send a little money to your favorite program, cut the ones you don't like, and raise or lower taxes in specific ways. If you haven't seen it, you should definitely check it out. It's not only entertaining, but it's also really informative.

How did I do? Glad you asked.
  • I reduced the debt from 37% ($8.4T) of GDP today to 13.5% of GDP ($3.0T) in 2018.
  • I delayed the time when the government will run out of money to fund programs from 2033 until sometime after 2070.
  • I shrank the size of the government from 20.0% of GDP today to 18.4% of GDP in 2018.
  • I improved the budget from a several-trillion-dollar deficit today to a surplus of more than $6T in 2018.
How did I do it? My biggest changes were:
  • Cap and limit carbon emissions.
  • Limit the Bush tax cuts to only the needy.
  • Cut military spending by 10%.
  • Eliminate pork barrel projects.
Climate change is a serious problem, and the U.S. contributes to it largely because carbon emissions are currently a negative externality. For those of you who slept through economics, that means that it's a bad effect that you don't have to pay for. Capping carbon emissions would solve two problems: it would limit the amount that goes into the atmosphere, and it would force people who are polluting to pay for it.

I'm all for tax cuts, but not when the government is $37T in debt. I think that paying down the debt is more important than keeping a few more dollars in the rich's pockets. We've been playing a dishonest game of spending more than we make for a long time, and it's time to bite the bullet and own up.

If you haven't played, give it a whirl. You might learn a thing or two. I sure did.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Maybe California's not too bad

I grew up in Oregon—Portland, to be specific. Anyone who also grew up in Oregon would realize that this means that I was encouraged to shun California and its residents, like so:
  • "Californians? Those are the people who move up here and clog up our freeways."
  • "Californians? They're the reason that we can't afford to live in our own city anymore."
  • "Californians? They want to move up here, cut down all of our trees, and turn them in into sprawling subdivisions like they had down there. (Too bad they don't know about the urban growth boundary. Hah!)"
Well, I figured I'd try to push the California-Oregon flux closer to equilibrium by moving down here for the summer, and guess what? It's not so bad, and neither are the people.

This past week has been a lot of fun. Among other things, I:
  • Played Ultimate with some (new) friends from church.
  • Went to a "bonfire" on the beach at night*.
  • Went on a 20-mile bike ride around Palo Alto and Stanford campus.
  • Went to a Giants baseball game in San Francisco (for free!).
Maybe this California place isn't so bad after all.

* Apparently in California, "bonfire" means "three of those Duraflame™ logs". Utah definitely has the upper hand in the pyro department.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

First week at Apple

My first week in California has been a good one. I've been getting up to speed at work, and I've settled into my apartment a little more. My roommate arrived last night, so I'll have some company for the rest of the summer.

My first week at Apple has gone well. The first couple of days were filled with the typical boring new job drill: new employee orientation, getting a badge, installing software on my computer, and setting up various accounts. After that, I started doing my actual work, and things got a lot more interesting. I'm developing software (firmware, really) for a next-generation iPod. I like my team, and I like the work I'm doing. About my only complaint is that my cube is pretty small, and I have to share it. Despite that, I think it's going to be a good internship.

I've been to the store a few times this week to buy things to make my apartment a little more of a home. Chief among my purchases was the meager beginnings of a cereal collection:

I discovered this week that a box lasts me about three days, so I have a little over a month's worth of breakfast stashed above the cabinet. Maybe I should buy stock in General Mills.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I'm in California

My Apple internship starts at 8:15 a.m. tomorrow morning. I was in Utah yesterday morning, and my internship is in California. To fix the disparity, I drove from Utah to California through northern Nevada yesterday. As I drove on I-80, I saw:
  • Salt flats in the Utah desert (which are cool!)
  • A whole lot of nothing in Nevada
  • Winnemucca
  • Reno (which, surprisingly, isn't as ugly and barren as the rest of Nevada)
  • Lake Tahoe (which is beautiful)
I pulled off the road for a minute and drove around on the Bonneville Salt Flats. They're hard and flat areas of salt-crusted dirt. In fact, they're so hard and flat that they have been the site of many land speed records.

Three summers ago, I drove from Utah to California through southern Nevada on US 6 on the way to climb Mt. Whitney. Northern Nevada is pretty desolate, but it doesn't have anything on southern Nevada. If you want to see a whole lot of nothing, stick with US 6.

On the way I listened to a pretty good chunck of A Thousand Splendid Suns (by the same author as The Kite Runner) in audiobook format. The book follows the lives of two Afghan women whose lives intertwine. It kept me from getting super bored on the drive, and it also opened my eyes to the horror of being a woman in a country under fundamentalist Islamic sharia law. I knew it was bad, but not that bad. I haven't done any research to compare the book's fictional account with reality, but if it's anything close to the truth, the truth is horrible.

I filled up my gas tank only once during the trip, in Winnemucca. That's actually not quite true, though. I overestimated my gas mileage (thanks to some unexpected mountains I had to cross), and the gas light turned on a while before I got to Winnemucca. As the needle on the gas gauge plummeted, so did my stomache. The middle of the barren, desolate, and relatively uninhabited Nevada desert didn't strike me as a particularly great place to run out of gas.

As the needle sunk lower and lower, I kept my eyes peeled for somewhere—anywhere—that had a gas station. Over the course of half an hour, the only exit I passed was a rest area. I finally reached a town that had one of those blue signs that said "FOOD GAS LODGING"—except that the GAS part was blanked out, like they used to have a gas station but didn't anymore. Just my luck.

The situation was dire enough that I decided to pull off the freeway anyway. I found myself in the podunk mining town of Golconda, which looked like it had definitely seen better days. I slowly got off the freeway and started looking for somewhere or someone that looked like it might have some gas. A quick scan of the skyline (which means I looked above the roofs of the houses) didn't turn up any signs for gas stations. In fact, it didn't turn up any signs at all.

I slowly drove down the road, wondering what to do, when I spotted a couple of people moving at a house not too far away. I pulled into their yard and got out of my car. A man and his wife were unloading their pickup from a trip to town. I explained my predicament and asked if there was anywhere in town to get gas. "There was a gas station here in 1935", the man said. I was apparently 75 years too late. "We just barely got back from town, though, and we got some gas while we were there", he said.

I asked if I could give him some money for a gallon or so of gas, and he grabbed a big gas can from the back of his truck and started walking to my car. While he was pouring, he told me that he helps a lot of bikers who get stranded in the area without enough gas. When he was done, I tried to give him $10, but he wouldn't take it. I feel blessed that this man whose name I don't even know was in my path. He's an example of what's right with the world.

I'm living in Palo Alto for the summer, and working in Cupertino, about 15 miles away. Housing here costs several time what my apartment in Provo did, but I guess that you have to pay for the nice weather. :) I'll be living with my old roommate Hyrum for the summer, who also has an internship at a tech company in the area.

I live about a mile down the road from Stanford, and I actually go to church right across the street from the university at the Stanford LDS Institute building. I have some old friends here, and I'm excited to meet some new ones.

San Rafael Swell and Buckley Mountain

I've had a couple recent outdoor adventures. I went camping with my family in the San Rafael Swell a couple of weeks ago and I had a blast. We hiked through some really cool canyons and had a fun time camping. If you're ever near Goblin Valley, definitely check out Crack Canyon. It's not as popular as Ding and Dang or Little Wildhorse, but the crack that it gets its name from is definitely worth hiking to. Crack Canyon can also be done in less time than the others I mentioned--a couple of hours should be enough. My sister's husband Evan wrote a blog post about our trip that goes into more detail.

Last Monday I made it to the top of Buckley Mountain with my friend John. We had both tried multiple times before to summit it without success, but we finally made it last week. The route we took was really cool: we went up Little Rock Canyon (near north Springville) and then followed a drainage up to the summits (Buckley has two). If you're ever looking for a great scenic hike to go on, think about Little Rock Canyon. It has huge towering cliffs, fun (but easy) rock scrambles, and a surprisingly decent trail for a canyon that supposedly doesn't have a trail. It's beautiful.