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General Election, Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Each election I research and analyze the propositions on the California ballot to create this voting guide, and they represent nothing other than my own personal view of these measures. I do this analysis on a non-partisan basis, but that doesn't mean I have no opinion. I do, but I believe it's transparent (note that "transparency" means only that I claim no hidden agenda, not that I'm trying to be unbiased).

I generally have no connection with any group supporting or opposing any of these propositions.

My main intent is to get to the bottom of these issues, knowing that the real purpose is not always evident. Once uncovered, I apply a mainly libertarian eye to them.

I'm more interested in examining the issues thoughtfully than I am in getting you to vote the way I do, so I hope these pages help you understand the issues in front of us.

Educated votes are better votes.

I hope my thoughts are helpful.

Other resources:

Summary of positions

Click each link for the rationale for each position.

Proposition My Position Description / Title
California icon Prop 30 No Tax increase
California icon Prop 31 No Two-year State Budget
California icon Prop 32 Yes Political Contributions
California icon Prop 33 No Auto Insurance
California icon Prop 34 Yes Death Penalty
California icon Prop 35 No Penalties for human trafficking
California icon Prop 36 Yes Three Strikes
California icon Prop 37 No Labelling of genetically-modified food
California icon Prop 38 No Tax for early childhood education
California icon Prop 39 No Tax treatment for multi-state businesses
California icon Prop 40 Yes Redistricting

California icon Prop 30: Temporary Tax Increase

This measure would increase the state's sales tax by another 1/4% for 4 years, as well as increase personal income tax for wealthy Californians for 7 years, mainly earmarked for education. It's been heavily promoted by Gov. Brown, with dire predictions of automatic cuts in the budget if it fails.

Even putting aside the obvious concerns about just how temporary any tax is, this is terribly easy to vote no on. The State simply has to stop spending money it doesn't have, and when the legislature continues to fund the nonsense bullet train to nowhere, it's clear they are not serious about fiscal responsibility.

The proponents claim that the money will go into a special fund earmarked for education, not to be used for anything else, and the fact that it's true in fact masks that it's just not true in practice.

Sure, money from that fund can only go to education, but it just means that they don't have to take as much from the General fund for education, instead siphoning it off to some other random boondoggle. It's disingenuous even if there are "strict audits".

If this measure fails, they're talking about shortening the school year by maybe even three weeks, and this certainly seems drastic.

But during the runup in spending (and the deficit), did the school year increase by three weeks? I sure don't remember that. This suggests that during the boom, they spent the additional money on stuff they now don't want to cut, instead holding highly visible attributes like the school year hostage instead.

And what happens when these temporary taxes expire? Won't we be in the same place we're in now, or do we assume that this time the legislature will get its fiscal house in order? More likely is that we will be so grateful to the 1% for what they do for us that we'll vote to make it permanent. Thanks!

Budget problems are resolved by fixing spending, because anything else avoids making real choices.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 31: Two-year budget cycle

This measure is not easy to describe well because it has so many provisions, but I'll try to summarize the high points.

It would set a two year budget for the state, instead of the current one-year cycle, hopefully helping smooth out the terrible roller-coaster ride of boom and bust. History has shown that when there's an "up" year, we tend to spend/commit the money because we assume it will be up again next year, but when the economy tanks we're stuck with high expenses and no revenue, followed by wailing and gnashing of teeth at the terrible cuts in our future.

Since less time would be spent budgeting, the legislature would be required to spend time reviewing every state program (each being reviewed at least every 5 years), hopefully striking down those that are deemed to be ineffective.

There will be requirements to publish all bills (except those related to a natural disaster or terrorism) for three days prior to voting, which ought to help cut down on the back-room deals, and it gives the governor a fairly limited quasi-line-item veto in the event the legislature fails to pass a budget even after the fiscal emergency was declared.

There are pay-as-you-go provisions that require that spending increases or tax reductions be offset in a way that makes them budget neutral, but only for a limited kind of spending, which means that in practice a lot of things are going to be excluded.

It shifts part of the state sales tax to local governments for them to spend rather than be decided by the state, and this part - local control - is appealing.

But we get to the part that worries me: Community Strategic Action Plans.

Prop 31 would allow local/regional entities - counties, cities, school districts, etc. - to join together and divvy up their portion of this newly-diverted sales tax money toward some common goal to deliver services, presumably in a better way than they could otherwise.

They would be required to be fairly specific in determining their goals, as well as describing how their own success should be measured. I like this part, because it at least pretends to put an end to the gelatinous-cube-esque local agency that's unable to define why it's around in anything other than high-sounded fuzzy nonsense talk.

These super-agencies would be able to petition Sacramento for what amounts to an exemption from some law or rule or regulation that's somehow impeding their goals, and the State would have to reply within 60 days saying yes/no, or the override takes effect. This exemption expires after 4 years and has to be re-applied for.

The problem here is that it's creating yet another layer of government along with a nontrivial money stream, and that's going to attract the worst elements in politics, and the potential for shenanigans is very high.

I'm not sure why this is necessary, as California has long had the notion of Joint Powers Authority where multiple agencies can collectively operate across their boundaries for some particular (but limited) purpose. These are very common and mostly entirely innocuous. I consult for a JPA in Orange County that is utterly uncontroversial, and they appear to be responsible stewards of the money they get from the agencies they serve.

Back to these Community Strategic Action Plans: local agencies that wanted to opt out will lose out on their share of the sales-tax money, and this presents a very large incentive to play ball. This means that there will be a lot of unwilling participants here, and many anti-31 opinions I've read are clear that this will be used for income redistribution on a regional level, sucking some wealthy agency into the larger group.

Part of my reluctance here is that I've not been able to find a single example of how one of these could do a job better than existing mechanisms, or what kind of exemptions to impeding laws or regulations, so all I can do is imagine the worst case.

Many of the provisions in this measure are very positive, and I'd love to see them tried, but this CSAP part looks like it's going to be a magnet for abuse and cronyism.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 32: Political Contributions

This measure would end payroll deductions for political purposes, as well as limit political contributions by unions and corporations, and it appears to be the big-money issue in this election (at least as measured by radio airtime).

Both sides know exactly what this issue is about, but have danced around it instead. The proponents are focusing on limiting political contributions across the board ("taking out special-interest money"), while opponents focus on the exemptions to the limits ("The Special Exemptions Act"). Neither of these (nor transparency) is what this is all about.

Prop 32 is the "Kick Unions in the Money" measure. Period.

The main (and only interesting) provision prohibits payroll deductions for political purposes, and it applies to everybody, unions and corporations alike.

Unions have almost all their income from payroll deductions from their members, both regular union dues that support collective bargaining and administrative operations, plus additional amounts for political activities (such as radio ads opposing Prop 32). All are processed (laundered?) through the employer's payroll system who presumably cuts a check to the union every week along with an accounting of all the details. It's been done this way for decades.

This is unheard of for corporations. If you're not a union shop, you've never seen a line item deduction for the corporation's political activities. Never.

So far the proponents have managed to say with a straight face that the provisions "apply equally to everybody", which is just beyond comedic.

This would be like a law prohibiting left-hand batting in all professional sports, and when the quarterback asked: "Um, we don't use bats in football", responding with "Great! But if you do, make sure you don't do it left handed". Yah right.

This measure is totally disingenuous, and in spite of the fact that I totally hate disingenuity, I support this measure because of one word: pensions. We must rein in the power of the public-employee unions in this state.

Unlike private unions, who negotiate with those who at least nominally have skin in the game (stock options, company performance bonuses, or investors paying attention to how they do their jobs), in the public sector, managers are not nearly as held accountable for performance and are often not looking past the next election. They are certainly not looking past the current generation who will be paying for all this.

Every anti-Prop32 commercial I've heard for months has been paid for by a union (with dues collected through the paycheck). Every one.

Those who don't dig into this issue much would be shocked by the brazen arm-twisting by these unions. A quote from this article reflects a certain sentiment:

The camera focuses on an official of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California's largest public-employee union, sitting in a legislative chamber and speaking into a microphone. "We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory," she says matter-of-factly to the elected officials outside the shot. "Come November, if you don't back our program, we'll get you out of office."

I've seen this sentiment reported so many times in so many different contexts that I assume that this is just how it works. If you're running for office, you have to have balls the size of Navy SEALs to resist it.

With thousands (or millions) of captive contributors funding their activities through the paycheck, public-sector unions are the poster children for the corrosive and corrupting influence of money on politics. The unions essentially back the election the people who will negotiate their pay and benefit packages.

I realize that the corporate world has the same thing, with lobbyists arm-twisting (and electing) legislators who can do favors for industry, and that's wrong too. This weighs into not the power of campaign contributions, but to the overall scope and power of goverment that attracts all this attention. But the dangers of industry specific legislation are spread out across all aspects of our enormous economy, but the public-sector unions are all focuses on these pay/benefit packages that are going to bankrupt this state.

My vote: Yes

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California icon Prop 33: Auto Insurance

This measure, which is by far the shortest of the measures on this ballot, would essentially turn your auto-insurance loyalty discount (which is offered by your carrier) into a portable continuous-coverage discount that you could take with you to another carrier. Current law does not permit an insurance carrier to offer a discount for persistancy, so if you want to change carriers, you start over at full fare and have to build up your loyalty over time.

This has some superficial appeal, but the more I look at it the more it's clear I'm voting no.

First, the loyalty discount you get now isn't something you've earned because you followed the law, it's offered by your carrier for the explicit purpose of making it harder for you to shop around. Duh. It's not your discount to take.

Second, this doesn't mean you can take your discount with you, only that you can take your persistancy with you: the new carrier doesn't have to offer a persistancy discount, but if it does, it can consider you as having been covered continuously.

But the kicker is that it allows carriers to increase rates for those without continuous coverage, such as new drivers or those who took time off from driving for whatever reason. Perhaps you were laid off and took the bus for a few years, maybe you studied abroad, maybe you were chronically sick, or maybe you kept driving but just dropped your insurance. Whatever. You'd now face higher costs for insurance until you built up your persistancy. I've seen reports that these increases may well be substantial.

This has the perverse effect of increasing costs for those we most want to have insurance: those who don't have insurance.

But the main reason I'm opposed to this is that it's backed almost entirely by the fellow from Mercury Insurance, who is making his second try at this after Prop 17 failed two years ago. There have been some minor tuneups to make exceptions for lapses due to military service or being laid off, but this is just trying to polish the turd.

This measure is also backed by insurance brokers, who would love to get a piece of the churn that would be caused by all that shopping around. They are not looking out for me.

Yah, I would personally benefit from this by being able to shop around for insurance (though I wouldn't leave GEICO even if the new insurance were free), but there is no chance that George Joseph is looking out for me either.

As I was finishing this section, I found this wonderful piece by KGO-TV's Michael Finney of an interview of George Joseph, who notes that Mercury Insurance offers essentially no persistancy discount of its own. Wow!

I would presume that they don't feel like persistancy is actuarily useful in setting rates, instead using other factors such as age, driving record, type of car, and the like. So he's told me more about the insurance industry than he thinks.

Sorry, George, nice try. Again.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 34: Death Penalty

This measure would essentially end the death penalty in California, once and for all, and though I am sympathetic with those who support the death penalty, I'm completely opposed to it (and therefore support this measure).

There are good arguments supporting the death penalty, along with some bad ones, and I'll touch on them here.


My main reason for opposing the death penalty is that mistakes can't be fixed, and even though they are rare, that's just too much power in the hands of the State. I guess this is the libertarian talking, but the injustice of killing one innocent man overwhelms the benefit of putting to death 100 guilty men.


There are cost considerations both ways here.

I do believe that it's cheaper to put somebody away for life than to carry on legal drama for 25 or 30 years, all the while housing the prisoner in special (and more expensive) facilities.

If you figure $50k/year to house and feed a prisoner, that's $2.5M for a 50-year lifetime. It's very easy for me to imagine spending that on just the initial trial, not to mention the interminable appeals, plus the marginal extra costs of the special facilities on death row.

It's true that this could also argue for streamlining the appeals process, which may well reduce costs too, but I'm not sure that making it easier for the state to kill somebody is the answer.

There are legitimate countervaling factors: currently, some prisoners plead out and avoid a trial altogether if the death penalty is threatened to be put on the table, and I suspect this is nontrivial.

Prison Safety

Some argue that those who will be in prison forever have nothing to lose, so won't hesitate to take out a guard or another prisoner, and the removing of the death penalty as an incentive makes the prisons less safe.

I am very sympathetic to this argument.

But in the end, I believe the corrections system will be able to deal with it because they know how to categorize prisoners on a scale of risk or aggressiveness, and can make increasingly harsh living conditions for those who don't get with the program. I like Bill O'Reilly's idea of a gulag in Alaska where the worst of the worst can be sent.


I am terribly weary of arguments about "justice", especially those that more or less ignore the injustice of putting to death an innocent person.

First, I reject out of hand any notion of "justice" for the victims.

The courts should not spend their time on settled questions, such as whether the victim suffered, whether the victim's family has suffered, or (usually) whether the victim is in fact a victim. I think we can all stipulate to that.

Instead, the court ought only focus its limited resources on unsettled questions, such as whether the guy did it and what were the particular circumstances of the crime. In some cases where the impact on the victims was particularly harsh, it may weigh into a heavier sentence, but this should be of very limited use.

I'm sure this sounds like I'm being terribly cold and that I don't have sympathy to victims, but that's just not true. Nobody can fail to be moved by victims who have had their lives shattered by somebody who doesn't deserve to be walking the Earth, but the courts are just not the right venue for victim sentiments to be resolved.

Many claim that a criminal who avoids the death penalty as "escaping justice", as if life in prison is somehow less "just", but this all sounds like angry vengeance to me. This is not a sentiment I want in play when deciding to take a man's life.

In the end, I am so thoroughly confident that God is keeping score, so sure that an accounting will be made, that ultimately justice of the right kind will be carried out, and I refuse to get all exercised that a horrible human being is still among the living (such as OJ).

My vote: Yes

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California icon Prop 35: Human Trafficking

This measure means to increase penalties for human trafficking, both for forced-labor and for forced-sex, expands the definition of trafficking itself, and levies fines for those convicted of it as well as requiring them to register as sex offenders. It would require training of law-enforcement officers on how to handle this kind of case, and would limit how evidence collected could be used in court against victims.

It also requires that all sex offenders (trafficking or otherwise) to regularly register their internet identities (emails/usernames) with the police in the same way they register their physical addresses.

All these activities are against the law now, so this measure doesn't do much beyond jack up penalties. The individual provisions all seem fine, but the way the law is written makes so many references to other parts of the penal code that with just your ballot booklet you can't ever really know what it does. This makes me nervous.

There is not really much organized opposition, but those who wrote the ballot arguments against this measure (mostly those in the sex-worker industry) have written a calm, well-researched, and persuasive argument that avoided the use of ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. The proponents have pretended that the opponents do not exist, refusing to address their points. They did, however, USE PLENTY OF CAPITAL LETTERS in their arguments. Refusal to engage in actual debate also makes me nervous.

I can't figure out why this is on the ballot in the first place (as in: something that appears to be so uncontroversial ought to have sailed through the legislature).

When I'm not sure what the angle is or if there's some agenda hidden behind a well-meaning "for the children" campaign, it makes me nervous enough to vote no.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 36: Three Strikes

This measure would yet again fine-tune the three-strikes law to make the third strike a life term only if that strike were for a truly serious or violent crime, not just any felony. It's trying to make the punishment fit the crime, something an automatic 25-to-life sentence cannot possibly do.

Furthermore, those now in prison for a non-serious, non-violent third strike can petition to have their sentences reconsidered in light of this new view (unless their first two strikes were extra awful, such as murder or rape, in which case they are ineligible for reconsideration).

Opponents are the law-and-order types, who do correctly point out that judges already have some latitude in deciding whether a third strike for a non-serious, non-violent offense is really treated that way, but they again use ALL CAPS to talk about putting dangerous criminals back on the street. This is just histrionics.

People who have been convicted of a third strike have already finished their sentences for the first two and were already back on the street before committing their third strike. If this third strike is a non-violent, non-serious offense, I'm not sure it marks them as a menace to society such that they should be locked up forever. Instead, sentence them proportionally to the actual crime (of course subject to repeat-offender enhancements).

We've got terrible prison overcrowding, and by not locking away these non-violent, non-serious offenders for the rest of their lives, they'll make room for the truly dangerous people who will stay.

My vote: Yes

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California icon Prop 37: Labelling of Genetically-Modified Food

This measure would require that foods produced by genetic modification be labelled, that retailers would mostly be the ultimate parties responsible for seeing that it be done, with some exceptions, and with extensive provisions for enforcement.

I am generally positive on genetic engineering, having studied this in the kind of detail that you would expect a geek like me to do. Wanna talk proteins and messenger RNA? How about phosphorylation or ATP synthase?

Ok, sorry, I just had a moment there.

Anyway, ads for Prop 37 have referred to salmon with an eel gene as if this were a bad thing - maybe there's a fear that the salmon will slither rather than swim?

This particular example is about AquAdvantage salmon, which has an altered gene from a different kind of salmon, plus a promoter gene from an eel-like fish that energizes a growth hormone that allows it to grow throughout the whole year rather than just during certain seasons. If you're a salmon farmer (or salmon customer), it sounds like a win that your crop will grow twice as fast.

But I'm also a fan of disclosure. I'm totally OK buying GMO foods, as I believe it helps me, but everybody ought to have the right to make their own call, as the world is full of surprises regarding things thought to be harmless that ended up being not so much.

Opponents are Monsanto and retailers, both of which have a strong (but different) vested interest against this. Monsanto, because they're a heavy hitter in the GMO world, and retailers, because this is just an added administrative burden on them (I doubt that Ralph's grocery store cares about GMO one way or the other, but they'll be liable for labeling mistakes).

I very much want to support Prop 37, but I cannot, because of section 110890.4: Enforcement.

Whatever good this provision does in terms of allowing consumers to be fully informed about their diet, the fact that an error in labelling, whether intentional or inadvertent, can result in a cause of action by any consumer without regard to harm or even alleged harm, means that we're going to have a field day with lawyers scrutinizing cans of soup looking for a missing comma.

The language of the actual bill suggests that there are such Draconian penalties for mistakes that it's going to mean that nearly every product will be marked "This might have GMO stuff inside" whether it does or not, just to get the lawyers off their backs, and this will end up being like the nonsense Prop65 (1986) warnings we see everywhere that say that such-and-such might cause cancer. These are so pervasive in such silly situations that it no longer means anything to anybody.

This doesn't fall just on the company who printed the label, but also — as far as I can tell — to the grocery store selling the item, and this is going to be terrible for the poor bodega who has the misfortune of putting that "healthy" can of beans on his shelf.

I really do care about finding a way to get disclosure to consumers, even though I think the warnings will be misunderstood by essentially everybody (it matters which genetic modification has been performed, the details of which may not be available even for the asking), but this is more about the lawyers than it is about the food.

Sadly, I have to oppose this.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 38: Tax for Early-Childhood Education

This measure would increase taxes on pretty much everybody (not just the wealthy), to pay for education, mainly early childhood education, with all the funds and programs and audits you'd expect in a measure like this. As far as I can tell, it does exactly what it says it does, not finding any hidden agenda.

There are a number of requirements for public hearings where local school officials have to explain how they're using the money, or to defend certain other spending decisions, and to take public input. Though I'm always cynical about public hearings (which are mainly for show), the fact that these are local school officials subject to local election means they're more likely to be held accountable for their decisions. I very much like stuff that exposes elected officials to the bracing air of determined voters (aka "local control").

Schools would be required to publish their budgets for each school, showing revenue and spending broken down in a uniform way as determined by the Superintendent of Public Education, and all posted online. These would be public documents (including prior years), and I presume this also increases local accountability to the voters. I have no idea how much reporting like this is done now or whether this is a real increase in transparency.

Local officials would be prohibited from spending more than 1% of their budget to be spent on budgeting, reporting, and audits, but I would presume that these various new requirements would require the hiring of additional non-teaching administrative staff to deal with it all.

Prop 38 requires that at least 30% of the new revenue go to paying down bond debt, which means that this measure is already 30% not about "investing" in education, as that "investment" (aka spending) was done some time ago and we're just paying it back. I do appreciate that Prop38 is at least pretending to be fiscally responsible.

I'm purposely avoiding digging into the specific funding requirements, because anytime I see "Prop 98 minimum funding guarantees", my eyes glaze over.

All the ballot arguments are the kind you would expect. This measure unsurprisingly has the support of the teacher's union, but it's opposed by the law-enforcement unions. I suspect this is because the latter wasn't able to get its snout in the trough.

But in the end, this is still an across-the-board tax increase for everybody, and I'm not going to support a tax increase. California's budget is simply out of control, and you cannot tax your way out of something you spent your way into.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 39: Tax Treatment of Multi-State Companies

This measure would change the way that out-of-state companies calculate their taxes: right now they have two methods and can choose the one that leads to the best treatment, but this measure would allow only a single method that all had to use. For companies that operated entirely in California, this would have no impact, and it would not apply to individual taxpayers at all.

This took some reading to really figure out, but the clues were there pretty early on. This is a tax increase on multi-state businesses that's intended to support "clean energy job creation". Even without digging into the details I am sure I'm against this.

The particulars of the two methods of calculating taxes, which relates to determining a business presence in California, can be found in the excellent legislative summary, and for most of us we'd not really have a strong opinion about it one way or another. Individuals have multiple ways to calculate taxes (do you itemize, or take the standard deduction?), so it's no surprise that such a thing applies to corporations.

It does appear that the two-choice method was a recent invention during the 2009 budget deals, and that does make them suspect, but I'm just not sure how to make sense of it, or what's really "fair". It may well be plausible that having two ways to calculate your tax means that you may change the way your business is structured to optimize it, and it might be that optimization involves reducing your asset/workforce presence in California. I just don't know.

But it's clear that this is an effective tax increase on business to the tune of $1B/year, and raising taxes on companies that do business in this state doesn't seem all that business friendly to me.

The decider for me is the creation of a program funding "clean" energy projects, which will account for around half the revenue generated. I believe that energy of all types really ought to compete on their own merits without special help from the government, and funding this program from a tax that has nothing to do with the program just creates more of a fiscally tangled mess. If you want to raise taxes, just do it and call it that.

I'm also not sure what to make of the main backer of this, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who has apparently spent $20M of his own money on this campaign. What's in it for him?

I'm always cynical, but $20M is pocket change for him, and my cursory review suggests a history of being a true-believer with respect to environmental issues, and even though this is clearly in a political context, in my mind this falls in the category of legitimate philanthropy.

This is just a bad time to raise taxes for pet projects.

My vote: No

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California icon Prop 40: Redistricting

In 2010, California voters passed Prop 20, which created a Citizens Redistricting Commission that took the job of setting up new election district maps out of the hands of the Legislature. This was intended to reduce the effects of politics on the process, and I supported the measure.

This measure would stave off a sore-loser attack by Republicans, who didn't like how their districts were drawn, by affirming the ones from the Commission.

Even if you like the idea of Republicans getting better districts — I do, broadly speaking — you should like the idea of an independent commission even better without the loser going to court (or to the voters).

It's much more complicated than it looks, but thankfully the point is moot because of a court ruling that got all the parties involved to back it. There is no formal opposition to Prop 40, so we should just all vote yes no matter what you think.

Those who care about the nitty-gritty should pour themselves a stiff drink and consult Robert Greene's excellent article in the LA Times.

My vote: Yes

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Last updated: Sat Nov 3 20:46:49 PDT 2012