Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Better by the dozen: Twelve sweet ideas for Maine in 2012

Published in the Portland Phoenix; what's below are my parts of a longer piece co-written with Deirdre Fulton and Nicholas Schroeder

Improving opinion polling
Pretty much as soon as the champagne glasses are empty, the state — and the nation — will return to Election Mode. With the presidency, one of Maine's US Senate seats, and the entire state legislature in the running, it'll be impossible to avoid the blitz of advertising, reporting, campaigning. At the core of much of that noise will be public-opinion polls, asking about issues, candidates, political parties, and anything else campaigns and pollsters can think up.
Polls obviously influence campaign efforts and media coverage, but they can also affect campaign contributions and support, particularly in multi-candidate races, as many of 2012's are shaping up to be. For all those reasons — and because polls can offer deeper insights into our collective psyche — it's important that opinion polling be done well.
But what, exactly, does that mean? The central piece is that the way the poll is conducted — from selection of the people who are polled, as well as how they are screened (to find likely voters, for example), and reporting of the results with complete statistical information (margin of error, confidence level) — is made public, so we can know how to respond to the results.
Of course, this takes a degree of public comfort and familiarity with the mechanics of polling — most especially, understanding the statistics behind why, and how, properly sampled groups of 400 to 700 people can, in fact, truly represent the opinions of much larger populations (like a 1.3-million person state, or a 300-million person nation).
The Maine People's Resource Center, a non-profit affiliated with the progressive Maine People's Alliance, has been working for the past couple years on establishing a poll-savvy culture here in Maine. By doing its own polls and releasing not only the results but the underlying data, and critiquing the available information about other polls conducted in Maine (by pollsters in-state and from away), MPRC is elevating the discourse around what Maine people actually think and want.
As the only group that conducted a poll for Portland's first-ever ranked-choice voting mayoral slate, by releasing all of its raw data as well as its methodology and analysis, and certainly as an organization willing to engage in discussions about polling, MPRC is bringing transparency and accountability to a challenging area of public debate. "When people make an argument based on public opinion, they are in a way speaking with the voice of all of us," says MPRC communications director Mike Tipping, explaining why his group is working to improve understanding of what public opinion actually is, and how various pollsters measure it — and is putting its own polls at the forefront of transparency, accountability, and open discussion. With MPRC's help, we'll all be better informed about the real state of Maine politics in 2012, no matter which polls we're looking at.

Wine by the tap
The Maine incarnation of an emergent global trend popped up at Havana South in Portland a couple years back, but is only now gaining momentum, and may really expand in 2012. It's wine in a keg. A boon to wineries, shippers, distributors, restaurants, and wine drinkers alike, wine that is "bottled" in sixth-barrel-sized kegs saves on materials, shipping, and storage, and keeps wine fresher longer. One such keg holds 220 glasses of wine, says Eric Agren, owner of Fuel, a Lewiston restaurant that joined the wine-keg movement a couple months ago. "That's equivalent to cases and cases and cases of wine," he says, marveling at the reduction in glass, cork, cardboard, and fuel needed to package and ship it all.
Kept under pressure with nitrogen, and with white wine run through a cold plate to chill it before dispensing, the kegs save Agren "about 30 percent on the cost of the wine," allowing him to charge $7 a glass for each of his two kegged wines, instead of the $9.50 he would charge if that same wine were poured from a bottle. With an investment of just a few hundred bucks for a tap and pressure system, it's a relatively easy way to save money for restaurants — and isn't out of reach for aficionados at home.
The major stumbling block, Agren says, is consumer perception. Keg wine is not box wine; rather, it comes from the high-end boutique wineries that are most concerned with green practices (like organic vineyards, carbon-neutral production, and so on), so the quality is not a concern. Best of all, like beer kegs, the wine kegs get reused, going back to the winery for cleaning and refilling over and over. It's almost like a neverending supply of eco-friendly, delicious wine!