Sunday, November 02, 2014

First REAL Vote

On one hand, the two-party system has made electing representatives boring, compared to my first primary. The resulting two candidates were exclusively the pair of vetted Republican and Democrat candidates. In most cases, the GOP candidates that made it through are so far off the rails of sanity (FairTax, anti-net-neutrality, anti-healthcare) that there's not a lot to talk about. However, that is offset by the initiative process, where Washington residents can throw up for a vote just about any idea for which they can collect a few petition signatures. Lots to engage with there!

Initiative 1351
Mandate reduced class sizes in K-12 though hiring 25k employees, at a price tag of $5B in the first four years, and $2B a year after that. No specific guidance where to come up with the money, though this would authorize the school districts to raise property taxes to collect a subset of this (roughly half?).

My biggest question here was: how big (in context) is $4.7B? For this, we can refer to the FY13 Operating Budget, which operates on a two-year cycle. The total pie is ~$60B, though the "Near General Fund-State" (NGFS) portion is only half that at ~$31B. K-12 education is by far the biggest piece of this historically at about $13.6B. The impact in the first four years would be $2.35B per budget, or a 17% increase to K-12 spending, or a 7.6% overall increase in NGFS spending.

Assuming Democrats will never cut anything ever, call it a 7.6% tax increase spent in education. That's a lot of money, but if it dramatically improves school quality in Washington (which has a poor reputation), the money might be worth it. If nothing else, the increased tax bill would be far less than sending my two kids to private schools.

So the real question is, will this dramatically improve school quality?

Well, the real telling factoid I saw was this: of 25,000 new employees, only 7,400 will be teachers.

Clearly something other than class size is driving this proposal, given that most of the employees are not teachers, and that non-employee issues of class size (notably physical space) are largely ignored.

Initiative 591
Why even describe it? It's a one-page proposal, and only a few lines worth of meaningful directive.
  • It is unlawful for any government agency to confiscate guns or other firearms from citizens without due process. 
  • It is unlawful for any government agency to require background checks on the recipient of a firearm unless a uniform national standard is required.
Libertarians against States' rights. Fun. Also completely insane.

Initiative 594
A much longer bill, which prevents the sale or transfer of guns between non-dealers without a background check; the proposed mechanism being that a licensed dealer acts as an intermediary between private parties.

Yes, this law would be illegal under Initiative 591. If both pass, hilarity ensues.

The crux is that there are currently several (legal) means by which you can buy a gun privately without being vetted, and this law intends to close them all. Opponents are concerned that this criminalizes (what they consider) normal behavior, such as lending their guns to friends.

Most of this concern is around "temporary transfers" (ie. lending a gun). The proposal includes exceptions for this category including: spouses, parent-child, anything at a licensed gun range, anything at a shooting event, and hunting.

Advisory: Senate Bill 6505
Advisory = the law already passed, and they ask if you want to maintain or repeal it. The results are completely ignored either way, but they make interesting reading at least.

This prevented the marijuana industry from being counted as agriculture, which apparently gets significant tax breaks. The argument against this is that the end result of being taxed at every stage brings a roughly 44% government tax on marijuana products by the time it reaches the consumer.

Welcome to Washington. We have no income tax. So we sales tax ALL OF THE THINGS!

Advisory: House Bill 1287
Shifts some tax burden away from off-reservation tribal holdings (a notable example often given was Salish Lodge), similar to the benefits that would be given for a local government. Presumably, this tax burden shifts onto the non-tribal land owners in the community, though there isn't an explicit requirement for this.

Tribes are for this because they avoid taxes, though it's phrased as avoiding discrimination compared to a city government. Impacted cities are against this because they lose a significant revenue stream.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My First US Vote!

... okay, so it's just a primary... for midterm elections... and neither senator is up... but still, DEMOCRACY IS HAPPENING! Don't spoil this for me.

Washington is all vote-by-mail, which takes away a bit of the excitement of going to a polling station. Still, can't argue with the convenience. It is also a top-two open primary state - the process chooses two candidates to go into the general election without any regard for party affiliation.
So far, I have on my plate: Federal Representative, State Representative x 2, State Senator, County Executive, and County Prosecuting Attorney.
From what I can tell, US elections are both more fun and less fun than their Canadian counterparts. The US is a two-party system, while some Canadian federal elections have had as many as five meaningfully represented parties. However, despite the polarization of US politics, I'd argue it's actually less partisan. The legislative process is much more complex here, so legislation can initiate from many sources, and legislators can and do vote against party lines - so one party member is not the equivalent of another.
For now, I'm still building my list of resources. Also, learning about Washington State - my studying for the naturalization test (and TV) helped build my knowledge of Federal civics, but left me clueless when it comes to non-partisan primaries, multi-seat legislative districts, and all the other fun quirks of Washington state government.
My best resource so far has been Project Vote Smart. What differentiated it from others (notably and was the details on non-incumbents, and the details at all level of government including State level. Other sites do very well at tracking current Federal congressmen, but it's hard to judge an incumbent when the challengers are unknowns.
So, I'm taking a lot of notes, and hopefully figure out some sane decisions before the baby comes. In two years, I should have plenty of practice and be ready for the serious elections for President and others.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Journey to America

Today, I am an American citizen. It's been a long road to get there.

01/2006 - TN visa.
10/2006 - H-1B visa.
04/2007 - Priority Date - EB3 ROW.
07/2007 - Applied for Employment-based green card. I-140 / I-485, per the July 2007 visa bulletin fiasco.
08/2009 - H-1B visa extension.
10/2009 - Forced switch to EAD/AP.
09/2010 - Switched to Family-based green card application. I-130 / I-485, IR.
12/2010 - Green card, CR6.
09/2012 - Applied to remove conditions. I-751.
06/2013 - Green card, IR6.
10/2013 - Applied N-400.
02/2014 - Naturalization interview.
02/2014 - Naturalization oath.

It's hard to express to someone who's not been through this process how nerve-wracking it can be. Even while fully within the bounds of the law, my status at times has been backed by nothing more than a payment receipt from USCIS and copies of internal memos describing their significance. No matter how well-documented, I was still at the mercy of border guards to interpret my fate (per 10/2009, they can make some pretty serious mistakes). My status could process in weeks or decades, based on dates that moved largely at random both forwards and backwards. All the while, filing dozens of pages of paperwork and spending thousands of dollars (okay... maybe it was Microsoft spending the money) every single year to keep a myriad of documents and redundant statuses in sync. Waiting in countless beige USCIS waiting rooms for hours for processing. And in the end, the knowledge that even if I survived all this, that a single misstep could undo and see me deported back to the wilds of Canada.

... though what I think scares me even more, is that I had it better by far than most other immigrants.

Today, that ends. I'm an American now. It's exciting: I finally have a fundamental right to live in the place where my family, my home, and my job reside. I will soon have personal representation for all those US taxes I've been paying for the past twelve years.

I'm very excited for the ability to vote, and the implied rights of political engagement this permits (eg. signing petitions). Politics in the US are always exciting, and my background makes for some interesting perspectives - for example on immigration... and of course health care.

Some interesting FAQs:
  • This makes me a triple citizen: Canada, UK, USA. Yes, this is permitted by all three countries.
  • I will be able to vote in US Elections at all levels, and intend to do so at every opportunity.
  • I cannot currently vote in Canadian or UK elections. The former would appear to directly contradict the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • I'll still be cheering for Team Canada for hockey. Sorry, I can't help it, I was born this way.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

US Naturalization interview

I was scared of the naturalization interview. Not because of the civics test, but because of what other random things they could want to know about my life and habits. The long list of documents (originals AND copies, of course) they say are required can't help but drive a little paranoia.

But, for me, it was quick and painless. I will describe my own experience, so that others will have a better idea what to expect. Keep in mind, each case is different, and your experience may vary significantly. I generally have an easy time with USCIS, so maybe I just got off easy.

First off the documents. What they DID need to see:
  • Green card (for naturalization eligibility).
  • Washington State photo ID (to establish residence/jurisdiction).
  • Passports from all my claimed nationalities.
What they notably DIDN'T want to see:
  • Originals of any documents I submitted copies of with my N-400. This includes documentation on spouse's status, children, evidence of bona-fide marriage, of current address, etc.
  • Tax returns or transcript.
  • Photos. In fact, they had my originals on-hand (which I had to sign), plus digital copies.
  • ANY copies of anything. I did not leave a single piece of paper with them.
I shredded several HUNDRED pages of copied documents after the interview.

The first step was a review of my application (the N-400). This part is no joke! They will go through every page, testing your knowledge, the accuracy, and filling in details. The hardest part was when I was expected to recite my anniversary, my wife's birthday, and my daughter's birthday in short succession (they're close together and easy to mix up).

One specific step that worries some people are the list of trips outside the country. They certainly did ask me about these, but my perception was that they weren't looking to trip me up on technicalities at the interview stage. They asked me to briefly talk about a couple of my trips (notably the ones not to Canada), but didn't really have any clarifying questions. Notably, they never asked me about specific date ranges or to account for my totals for number of days outside the country.

English was trivial. Read "Who can vote?". Told to write the answer "Citizens can vote." Six words. I was disappointed that they do not automatically make every Canadian write a sentence with the word 'color' in it.

Civics and History test - well it's exactly what they tell you it is. You already know the possible questions and answers. Study and it will be fine. 6/6 for me.

After the interview is finished, they give you a form N-652, documenting whether you passed/failed and the disposition of your application. For me, they recommended approval on the spot, which from looking around the lobby crowd seemed to be a common outcome. What I didn't expect is that they handed me my notice for the naturalization ceremony right there at the interview. The bigger surprise - they scheduled my naturalization ceremony for THE SAME DAY! My interview was at 8:20am, my ceremony at 11:40am. This did not seem to be a coincidence, as I recognized several people at the oath ceremony (total ceremony was about 60 people) who had been in the testing waiting area that morning.

So yes, I left to Tukwika expecting a morning at the central bureaucracy, and left a citizen.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Baseboard covers for child safety

[Revised: 3/8/2014, revised in response to some feedback about overall child safety, and to post manufacturer's response]

We own a fifty year old house. It has electric baseboard heaters. Like these.

As a heat source, they're impressive. Quiet, fast, and powerful, with room-by-room control of your heat.

The problem is that kids can get at this.

Sharp scalding-hot metal fins, exposed by a gap that is the ideal size to trap child toys or even hands and feet. This can result in severe burns, requiring emergency room treatment*. Even if the child makes it out unscathed, a toy shoved in that gap could easily catch fire** (and by extension, your home).

[* This is not a theoretical problem. A (defective) electric baseboard heater sent a friend's child to the emergency room with severe burns last Christmas. ]
[** Also not theoretical; at least one mother I spoke with had an issue with a toy catching fire inside the heater. Thankfully caught before significant house damage resulted. ]

But the truly scary part: it's a completely unsolved problem. From child safety websites, to handymen we've worked with, and even the websites of companies that make protective covers for baseboards, the recommendation is the same: the only real solution is to rip out your baseboards and install something else. Unfortunately, it seems in most families that having thousands of dollars in spare cash is mutually exclusive with having children, so there needs to be a better way.

We installed Baseboarders, paying about $1000 for five covers. They are steel covers which can, among other things, be mounted over top of an existing baseboard heater. Most importantly, they entirely cover that front opening, preventing anything from getting inside the heater itself. They are installed by screwing mounting brackets above the heater, which leave a small gap to slide the cover down on top of. Endcaps simply slide onto each end. And then you get this.

On the plus side, it looks much better! But does it work?

... kinda.

The important thing is that the heating element is not directly accessible; in that regard the cover is brilliant. This brilliantly mitigates the risks around the exposed heating element. However that doesn't mean a child will not get burned. The cover is solid steel, and it conducts heat extremely well. Most of it stays cool, but that top surface gets VERY HOT, VERY FAST. While warming up, it's uncomfortable to touch, and at the hottest I've seen, I can't hold my hand to the metal. On the plus side, it also cools down very quickly once the heat is off.

The wall mount is at the very top back edge, and there are no additional mounts on the endcaps. This means only gravity and 1.5cm of steel prevents the cover from being torqued from below. I don't think a toddler could effectively lift the cover enough to get at the heater, but with a bit of motivation might damage the drywall. The endcaps don't actually have anything securing them to the cover except tension from a clip, so with enough wiggling, they could be pulled off entirely.

There were a few other metal covers out there, but most were twice the price for a manufacturer with half the reputation, and the same heat problems. The only alternative material was wood, which almost exclusively meant custom fabrication, at prices that would actually make a full heating system replacement look competitive. At which point, I'd just indulge myself.

Elora verifies my work.
Update 2/1/2014:
I picked up a fun new toy: a Ryobi laser thermometer. On my latest Baseboarder install, I checked the temperature. So far, the hottest I have measured is 200°F. Is that too hot? Definitely. WAY too hot.
Measuring the safety of a hot surface is a complex scientific process. However, the generally accepted standard seems to be that surfaces hotter than 140°F (60°C) need to be insulated to prevent accidental burns. Above 160°F, you start to risk immediate injuries on contact.
We're investigating a few new options now. We are hoping to find some sort of silicone mat which will serve as a protective cover. Will update if we do any new experiments.
Update 3/8/2014:
The company that produces Baseboarders saw my post!
Their official response below:
Baseboarders have never been marketed as a product that can bring down the touch temperature of baseboard heaters. They will get just as hot as the original covers. However, Baseboarders feature a clean one piece design, and this produces child safety benefits. These benefits are strictly limited to the absence of exposed sharp metal edges and a restriction of access to the heating element by way of the hot air out gap that runs the length of the heater. This gap is often used as an opening to push toys into the enclosure and on to the heating element; creating a potential fire hazard.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Great game. Buy it. Buy it now. Looks absolutely gorgeous on the Xbox One, but I'm sure it's nice on other platforms too.

They've addressed my primary complaint of the previous games using a startlingly simple strategy: by NOT adding a bunch of random crap, and instead dumping all that effort into primary gameplay. Sure, there's the modern world stuff with a few silly hacking games (though kudos to whomever snuck in prime factorization), but it's at best a brief distraction. There's days and days worth of looting, brawling, pirating, and assassinations to be had throughout the game. There are still side activities in game (eg. whaling, diving), but they are sufficiently tied to the core game mechanics that it doesn't break immersion (eg. spinner puzzles).

When they say that ship-to-ship combat is a core mechanic, they are not kidding. Sailing is very much an equal partner to the classic assassin gameplay, and there many sea missions in the core storyline. It's not quite as polished as the Assassin play, but satisfyingly fun.

The game is LONG! 22 hours in and it feels like I have quite a ways to go. It's hard to compare the main storylines because Black Flag draws you in so deeply into side activities. To some extent, it's required - ship missions will start getting unreasonably hard unless you upgrade your ship. Upgrades means materials and money and blueprints, which means going pirating on the high seas. But also, because there are so many small islands to visit, you can reasonably "complete" many zones in a short period of time, and thus are more motivated to do so. It was harder to get excited about finding animus fragment 112 of 250 in Rome.

The difficulty curve seems well-settled now. Particularly in open combat, you can't just counterstrike your way through fifty guards anymore, with riflemen sniping and brutes decking you with axes, and soldiers not lining up single file to die. Guns are powerful but fair. Ship combat is actually a bit hard sometimes, but this is more a symptom of the lack of a quick way to look around.

Finally, ways to die..