Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bush pushes telecommunications FISA-related immunity as part of "Protect America Act" renewal

In a news conference this morning (still in progress as I write this entry), President Bush is urging the House of Representatives to adopt a new Senate bill, the “Foreign Intelligence Substitution Act”. S. 2402, which would shield telecommunications companies from downstream liability (for privacy invasion claims, for example) when they cooperate with the federal government in investigations of foreign terrorist activities with possible domestic contacts and consequences.

Bush, at the news conference, has been pointing out repeatedly that telecommunications companies are, in large measure, publicly traded companies with fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders (often including employees). Therefore they will not cooperate with the government if they believe they are exposing themselves to large potential legal liabilities.

The discussion refers to the Protect America Act of 2007, which expired on February 17 because of a “sunset provision,” but which has been re-introduced in the House and Senate in several bills. Arlen Specter’s bill would appear to supplement the somewhat “sensible” protections in the other bills with downstream liability immunity protections.

The White House has a position paper from the Press Secretary on FISA, Feb. 25, 2008, in support of protecting cooperating telecommunications carriers, here.

I have more details at my Wordpress blog, here.

The controversy reminds me a bit of the Section 230 issue of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (ironically that included the now struck down “Communications Decency Act”), which protects individual blog hosts from responsibility for what visitors say (usually). Some ISP’s are owned and run by individuals (although fewer than in the past) and “very small businesses”, as was the case with my ISP from 1997 to 2001 (separate individuals owned the web hosting service and rackspace service). So the Specter act would seem to protect such individuals.

The CNN "Breaking News" story is "FISA expired, but threat did not," link here.

Most of "Martha Stewart Living" on ABC was preempted this morning in Eastern and Central time zones.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

High School teens have poor grasp of history and current events, according to AEI study

Greg Toppo has a story in the Tuesday Feb. 26, 2008 USA Today, “Teens losing touch with common cultural and historical references,” link here, on the front page of the print edition. The report refers to an American Enterprise Institute study. There is also mention (on a supplementary story on p D5) of Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" and Mark Bauerlein 's upcoming "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)," due in May 2008.

The paper included a multiple-choice history quiz (probably even easier than the Virginia SOL’s) with the byline, “Are you smarter than a 17-year-old?” (The quiz is a take-off on the Fox show "Are You As Smart as a Fifth Grade," review here, June 21, 2008). Less than half of the kids answered the question on when the Civil War (the War Between the States) took place? 70% could identify John Kennedy as the President who said, “Ask not what you can do for yourself…” I remember that well because he said that in 1961, during my senior year of high school.

The article offers some hypotheses. One is that schools are pushing “critical thinking” without enough content mastery to support the thinking. I tend to discount that, based on what happened when I subbed. Good students are appropriately concerned about their academic performance and their futures, but have to remain focused on classroom and course content. Poorer students tended to be concerned about their short-term gratification, their popularity, and often their immediate family circumstances, which often were not good.

There is also a concern that the “wiring” of teens’ lives online with social networking sites and the proliferation of “gossip girls” interferes with their attentiveness in class. That’s probably true, but popularity and socializing were important when I went to school in the 50s, and “too much television” had teachers worried.

On one assignment in a history class, students were supposed to write in-class current events reports based on that day’s Washington Post and Washington Times. (Most public schools in northern Va get large numbers of daily newspapers to hand out in classes.) That day, the Post had a big story on security problems in Saudi Arabia and the threat that this situation could pose to oil supplies. Now, a few of the kids took that particular page and made paper airplanes out of it. They hadn’t a clue as to what the point of this exercise was, that, among other things, by the time they were young adults, they could have $10 a gallon gasoline or gasoline rationing.

It’s true, you have to “know a lot” and to have lived in this society for a while to “get” what is going on. Parents expect their kids to obey and become socialized by the family because they don’t have enough experience from living to judge where their actions could take them. They also expect the socialization out of “moral” concerns, as I’ve noted on other blogs. My own coming of age forced me to become aware in a more personal way of the controversy over how burdens are shared.

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have social studies teachers who drummed into us the reality that major social changes were coming. We were taught about “Brown v. Board of Education” but not yet seeing the visible changes in northern Virginia. Yet, we were forced to get in touch with what was going on. In a few years, the Civil Rights movement would erupt, but so would the Vietnam war.

The fact that only 70% of teens recognized the Kennedy speech seems significant. Some of the items that high school students need a better understanding of would include, by my account:

. The Cold War, the “domino theory,” and the forces that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc.

. The past use of conscription (or draft), the controversies over student and family deferments, the “back door draft” in Iraq today, and the arguments for and against mandatory or semi-compulsory national service

. The scientific theories around global warming, and the connected concerns about oil and fossil fuel supply and production

. How pandemics or epidemics start, and why HIV behaves very differently from influenza; the connections between world health issues (such as HIV and TB).

. Political and social asymmetry, and why radical Islam resents the West.

Demonstration of understanding of these sorts of issues comes from papers and essays, not from multiple choice tests, that can’t easily get at the significance of events (oh, well, you can think of questions and distractors if your job is to make up a multiple choice test; I’ve written tests before).

Teachers, this posting has some hints as to what you should ask on tests.

Kids, some of you don’t have a clue. And in ten years, it will be your world go manage. That’s a scary thought. Thank goodness, I am already 64, as in Garp.

USA Today also has a correlated story ““Teens Keep Abandoning CDs for Downloads (legal or otherwise)” here.

(See earlier posting on this blog Feb. 18, 2008 about "critical thinking".)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Whistleblower issues; do employers fear that bloggers can hire on as spies?

First, on paper, there are supposed to be a lot of protections to protect whistleblowers in federal law. OSHA at the Department of Labor has a link that enumerates numerous laws and protections, here.

However Brian Ross has maintained a blotter on the case of federal air marshall Spencer Pickard at ABC News. The original story about his suspension with pay on June 30, 2006 is by Rhonda Schwartz and Avni Patel and appears now on Brian Ross 's blog here. The reactions from the comments that follow, all the way to a few days ago in Feb. 2008, are mixed, but many people speak of a culture in federal agencies of retaliation against whistleblowers, despite legal protections. Dismissal and loss of retirement can happen. In this case, the complaints sound legitimate: it was hard for federal air marshalls to keep their cover and keep their public profile low enough.

Then on July 16, 2007 WJLA in Washington reported that the Capitol tunnel workers had settled a whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Architect of the Capitol, here.

Then on September 12, WJLA reported on whistleblowering against payday loan practices at Check 'N Go, link here.

Major news organizations have sometimes planted reporters as "stings" to expose companies, such as in the 1990s in a sting against Food Lion. This case started in 1992 when undercover ABC journalists obtained "grunt" jobs at a Food Lion and secretly taped food handling practices for a "Prime Time Live" broadcast. Food Lion won a large judgment against ABC for, among other things, "breach of loyalty," although the award was eventually greatly reduced by an appeals court in Richmond. The First Amendment Center has a commentary on this case here. Admittedly, a case like this raises deeper issues: deliberately taking a low-level job to spy on an employer.

But it is a case like this that may seem relevant today in the controversy over employers' looking at job applicants' blogs and social networking profiles. They say they are looking for untrustworthiness (underage drinking, for example, or bragging about drug use). But today, they may feel especially wary when "overqualified" people (especially pseudo-retirees) apply for jobs. Of course, if they aren't doing anything wrong, they have nothing to "fear."

Employers do have a right to protect confidentiality and trade secrets. Employers certainly can ban cameras unauthorized photography on their premises (although cell phones can present an issue). Microsoft fired an employee a few years ago for photographing a server on the premises and posting the photograph on his own website; look here.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Colleges don't give as much credit for IB as AP

When I substitute taught, I noticed that there were at least three tracks for more advanced students: Honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate. Some schools in northern Virginia would have one of AP or IB but not both.

Today, Jay Matthews has an interesting story on p B1 Metro of The Washington Post, "Despite IB Growth, College Credit Is Elusive." There is a complaint that IB course, while rewarding as to content, often do not least to as much college credit. The link is here.

A number of area colleges and universities were contacted, and some could not explain why they give less or no credit for IB course work compared to AP.

College credit is an important financial issue for students. If they are able to get college credit in public school, that offers the opportunity for lower student loan debt in the future.

Update: Feb 27

On a distantly related topic, with AFS Intercultural Programs, there was a shocking AP report of an exchange student who was starved by a family of Coptic Christians while in Egypt. The story by Jerry Harkavy is here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Do young healthy people freeload on the health care system (when they remain voluntarily uninsured)?

Kevin Sack has an important story on the health care debate going on between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (and to some extent, even the Republicans), "2 Plans and Many Questions Unanswered," on the front page A1 of the Saturday Feb. 23 2008 print version of The New York Times, in the Politics section online, link here.

The story starts out with an example of a young healthy woman in NYC who does not want to pay high premiums for her own health insurance, and prefers to have more spending money for her health club membership (OK, I have Bally's myself and don't use it enough) and for her amateur photography. She says the economics just don't work.

Of course, the uninsured wind up getting "free care," which raises rates for everyone else. Those who could get insurance but don't become the "freeloaders", a constant issue of personal ethics that I remember well the debates on back in left-wing groups in the early 1970s.

Hillary wants to make the mandatory insurance affordable, and eliminate exclusion for pre-existing conditions, or discrimination for any possible factors. One feature that both candidates could talk more about is getting in-network discounts to all people, including those on individual plans as well as those from big companies. Perhaps that is included in the fact that both Democratic candidates say they want average Americans to have coverage as good as that enjoyed by members of Congress.

Obama repeatedly reminds voters that Hillary would seriously penalize middle class individuals who do not purchase health insurance and who do not get it from work.

For one, I think it's about time to scrap the idea of expecting employers to provide health insurance. That makes American employers less competitive. So you have one extreme or the other: single payer (government), or pre-tax health spending accounts and somewhat subsidized mandatory catastrophic health insurance coverage.

Here is a "" pros and cons on the Massachusetts mandatory health insurance law, link.

Here is a discussion of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan for mandatory health insurance in California, link.

Update: Feb. 28, 2008

Maggie Gallagher (conservative columnist) has an "Other voices" letter on p 14 of the DC Examiner in which she points out that the problem is not that the young uninsured bankrupt the system, but that the young pay in for their care now when they will need it themselves in a few decades. (No link found.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A celibate Catholic priesthood; a new film about "Demographic Winter"

Most mainline religious denominations (outside of Catholicism) expect their pastors to marry and have relatively large families. Many churches buy parsonages with ample yards and living space, expecting lots of kids.

On the other hand, there is the well-known Roman Catholic priesthood, and the debate over whether the Church ought to allow priests to marry. Of course, in our constitutional system in the U.S., “private” religious groups may regulate their clergy as they like, and there is no legal debate, but there is a practical, religious, moral and cultural one.

The Vatican insists that the majority of its priests are heterosexuals who are responding to a spiritual calling to remain abstinent. (The same would apply to nuns.) They give elaborate theological justification for clergy celibacy and abstinence, starting with the example set by Jesus (despite the theories of novelist Dan Brown and others).

The practical reality is that in a psychologically diverse world, some men will be less emotionally interested in the prospect of biological lineage and may perceive themselves as less “competitive” in forming families. Obviously, this brings up the question of gay priests, the various scandals and litigation against many dioceses in the Church in the past few years, and the recent efforts of the Church to effectively ban male homosexuals from enrolling in seminaries. For those who want to look at the Church's official position on the seminaries, there is a link in Italian.

The December 2006 issue of Mother Jones contained a commentary by JoAnn Wypijewski, "Roman Inquisition: For a thousand years the Catholic Church has been a refuge for gay men. Now Pope Benedict hopes to "purify" his priesthood," link here. A summarizing quote from the article: "Body and blood, a heady mixture of rapture and camp, at once repressive and sensual, dependent, like the army, on structures of submission and domination, only here dedicated to a spiritual doctrine of love—that culture is now exposed and under attack."

Abstinence is supposed to be total, even to the extent of covering fantasies and masturbation. The abstinent priest is, from the viewpoint of external individualism, placing himself in the subordinate position of serving the interest of marital sexual intercourse among the parishoners. That would make him a second-class citizen if it were not for a special religious calling, and an institutionalized prestige and religious authority.

It’s this double-take on the social position of the priest that has come under scrutiny. Yes, there have been programs questioning Catholic policy. And there have been jokes. “The military doesn’t gays, the Catholic priesthood doesn’t want straights.” The Ban in reverse. Well, not exactly. Not by a long shot. I remember in 1993, while the debate on Clinton’s proposal to lift the military gay ban went on, that the Marine Corps said it didn’t want to recruit already married men. All rather perplexing. And probably misguided.

The Right Weighs in on Population Demographics, and the Left takes the Right to Task:

I had planned this post as is today, and this evening saw (actually, received at my business box unsolicited) the current (March 3, 2008) of the “left-wing” “The Nation” with a rather startling article by Kathryn Joyce, called “Missing: The ‘Right’ Babies.” I knew what that would be about. And I was right. On p. 11, the subtitle reads “Pandering to fears about Muslim immigration, US Christian conservatives declare that Europe will face a ‘demographic winter’ unless white couples do their biblical duty and multiply.” The link for the article is here.

The article mentions a new film by Rick Stout: “Demographic Winter: The Decline of the American Family,” from the Family First Foundation, website here, where a long trailer is available free online viewing. The article quotes Stout and Barry McLerran: “Only if the political correctness of talking about the natural family within policy circles is overcome will solutions begin to be found. These solutions will necessarily result in policy changes that will support and protect the natural, intact family.” Joyce's online article also has a YouTube video related to the film.

The United States is said to be a lot better off in this regard, since the birthrate is now higher than in any time since 1960. But the birthrate is lower among well-to-do people and especially Caucasians, still, so the idea does seem like a bit of voodoo. Right-wing proponents of the “demographic winter” are right in that some, often non-western populations, accept family solidarity as prominent moral value and that may indeed produce political and demographic contents in the west, and they also point out that for some decades we have been hearing that the world would become over-populated as a whole. In fact, with the global warming and fuel issue, there is a question about the “carrying capacity” of the planet that is legitimate and that does have political consequences.

The article quotes a number of “pro-family” conservative leaders in quite a bit of accumulated volume. For example Philip Longman is paraphrased as characterizing secular humanists as “a sterile ‘elite’ … too self-absorbed to reproduce” and as among “certain kinds of human beings” who “are on their way to extinction.” (My review of Longman's "The Empty Cradle" (2004) is here.) Later Mormon Paul Mero is quoted as declaring “bachelors over 30 ‘a menace to society.’” Then, as the article progrsses, Catholic conservatives get into this: "Catholic activist de Vollmer talks about the intergenerational collapse family planning will bring: an echo of her charge that contraception, by splitting sexuality from procreation and rejecting potential offspring, leads to generations of damaged, alienated children ... who will later refuse care to their own aged parents." Hence, we come back to the idea, that the Catholic church has tended to regard certain kinds of men as needing a crafted place, or else they can at least become a big distraction, if not a danger. (Mussolini, remember, severely taxed bachelors.) To an individualist, this all sounds like “victimization.” But collective public morality gets around that.

The Nation article online has a two-minute YouTube video (called again "Missing: The 'Right' Babies") where Joyce explains that this is an "old argument" that is being recycled as propaganda, in a veiled attempt to restore the "national family" or patriarchal family. The image of "rejected potential offspring" sounds like an echo of moral arguments over abortion, as if there were a moral obligation to reproduce to ratify the value of your own blood and family as "human."

Some other entities mentioned in the article include Steve Mosher 's "Population Research Institute" in Front Royal, VA, The Family First Foundation in Erie, PA, and the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society, and the World Congress of Families.

Earlier articles by Joyce on the pro-natalist movement include "Arrows for the War" from the Nov. 27, 2006 issue (of The Nation), here (there is religious talk of making oneself a "sacrifice" for more babies), and the video link for "Wanted: More White Babies," here in "Videonation".

Suzanne Fields has a commentary in the Feb. 28 Washington Times, "Looking for Mr. Good Enough: Child-man in the promised land," p. A17 print, link , with more numbers that support the concerns over the fact that both men and women are putting off marriage and babies. She also mentions the work of Kay Hymowitz ("republican marriage"), which I discussed in my books blog here (2 reviews).

I have a couple of earlier posts about this problem: Russia's "Conception Day" (Aug 2007 post here); loyalty of immigrants to blood family back home, Sept. post, here.

Also, check this post, discussing an ABC news story about a woman who delays having her own children because of eldercare resposibilities, for grandparents!

Update: May 1, 2008

The US Census Bureau is now reporting that 20% of all children in the United States under 5 are Hispanic. In New Mexico and California, the percentage is 50%, but overall state populations are 44% and 36% respectively. In Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado one third of these kids are classified Hispanic.

The numbers probably have to be taken in some context. Some people with largely European ancestry (as from Spain itself) might have been counted, as this is common in areas like Texas. Still, there is a tendency for lower income people of minority origins to have more children.

The biggest impact may be on school systems, that will have to spend more resources on English as a second language (ESOL). But there may eventually be political implications as more affluent people have fewer children. A lead story in the Washington Post is by N.C. Aizenman, p A2, May 1, 2008, link here.

Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal on May 1 ran a story on p A3 print by Connor Douugherty and Mirian Jordan, "Surge in U.S. Hispanic Population Driven by Births, Not Immigration; Dynamic Differs From '90s Growth, Census Data Show" link here.

A story on p A4 of the May 1 Wall Street Journal is related more to immigration than just birthrates. It is also by Miriam Jordan, and is titled "Fewer Latino Migrants Send Money Home, Poll Says," and appears on p A4, with link here. That is somewhat driven by the economy. Nevertheless, in Europe Muslim immigrants apparently regularly send money home, in comparison.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Critical thinking" is hard to teach in public schools

When I was substitute teaching, I would notice occasionally that some textbooks would have special “critical thinking” inserts, sometimes in the Teacher’s editions only.

It’s not too surprising in mathematics. After all, in math, you eventually learn to prove things (new theorems, that is), from accepted definitions, postulates and previously proved theorems. That’s the infamous “given / to prove” and “statements and reasons” charts of plane geometry. That’s critical thinking, or where it begins. Certain facts, when put together, lead inevitably to certain conclusions. Call it “connecting the dots.” In social studies texts, one would find some exercises to dig a bit deeper into the possible consequences of social or political policies for the people living in the societies being studied, to get beyond the facts that first must be learned. History texts had to approach this carefully because of the cultural and religious sensitivities. But, for example, most high school history courses get students thinking about the changing roles of women at various times (even ancient), and why cultures find this so difficult. It’s easy to imagine the critical thinking extensions in biology and genetics, and then in chemistry and nuclear physics. The film “Copenhagen” is sometimes shown in chemistry and physics classes to get students thinking about the responsibilities that go with science, and with publishing what one has discovered.

There’s an article on page B2 of The Washington Post, “Schools & Learning,” by Valerie Strauss, “Critical Thinking Skills: Relentless Questioning Paves a Deeper Path,” in The Washington Post, Monday Feb. 8, link here.

There is a chart for the question “Which category would you fit in? For example, someone with strong critical thinking skills will try to see the merit in someone else’s position, even if rejecting it later. A person with weak critical thinking skills believes that “selling an idea is like selling cars. You say whatever works.” That is, you manipulate people. That’s the “we give you the words” paradigm well known in sales culture. Lobbyists and special interests use it all the time.

However, critical thinking cannot occur until there are enough known facts to work with. But teachers have become so concerned with mastery of facts for standardized tests under “No Child Left Behind” that they may feel that they have to short-circuit critical thinking. I had a history teacher in 11th Grade who was very strong on this; look at this posting:

There is another Post story by Strauss today, “Myth Buster: Playing to Kids’ Learning Mode Can Be a Flop,” link here. There is a lot here about learning meaning in an abstract sense, away from visual or audio images.

The political importance of individual critical thinking is to lessen the significance of special interests (with their money for lobbyists) and to enable people to receive and evaluate important information regardless of their position in a family or other social heirachy.

The effort that it takes, such as with weekend and summer classes, to improve inner city performance in Washington DC is shown in this Post story by V. Dion Haynes, “Rhee Weighs Ideas to Fix 27 Schools,” link here.

Update: Feb. 19, 2008

Ian Shapira has a story in the Tuesday Feb. 19 Washington Post, "Parents Rise Up Against A New Approach to Math," link here.
There is a concern over "fuzzy math" or teaching methods that get away from memorization (both the arithmetic "facts" and multiplication tables, and cookie-cutter drill methods for doing arithmetic problems) to a more analytic approach, which is represented by "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space," a Pearson text (the link appears to be this.)

(See followup posting Feb. 27, 2008 on this blog.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

NIU tragedy occurs during 2nd Amendment debate

Right after a flurry of briefs and op-eds on the DC Second Amendment case, the tragedy at Northern Illinois University took place. In principle, no one objects to the idea of careful background checks for gun purchasers, and it appears that the same dealer sold weapons to Steven Kazmierczak and had to Sueng-Hui Cho at VPI. The difficulties will be with privacy laws and defining what raises concern about risk.

The natural knee-jerk reflex then, is to call for a return to a position of banning practically all gun ownership by private individuals, on the theory that this avoids having to make uncertain judgments about the risk various unpredictably unstable private individuals could pose at some unspecified time in the future.. The Supreme Court could well decide that such a law would violate the Second Amendment as it should be interpreted. However, banning private gun ownership has not prevented guns from winding up in the hands of criminals, and it merely makes ordinary citizens targets for burglaries and home attacks.

Andrew Sullivan has used the term “prohibitionism” to characterize this kind of public policy in reaction to something that poses risks in the wrong hands. There is a place for it. Private citizens may not normally possess radiological agents, for example. But when one comes to drug laws, we again reach the ideological debate known in libertarianism. Imagine this sort of mechanism if it governed law on the Internet.

Media stories have focused on a failure of Kazmierczak to continue taking psychotropic medications for unspecified mental illness. There were media stories Friday night that Kazmierczak had been discharged from the Army in early 2002 before finishing Basic Combat Training (after enlisting some time around 9/11), for undisclosed reasons. CNN has a story tonight about his girl friend, saying there was no sign of anything, but others say he had become disoriented, and he had bought the weapons about a week before.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Substitute teachers as "authority figures"

When I started substitute teaching in 2004, I noticed an interesting instruction in the Arlington, VA school system manual for subs. It read something like “Greet your students as they come into the classroom.” One particular middle school put that on the instructions for subs and underlined it. That kind of gratuitous manipulation was seen as part of "classroom management."

I've noticed, when leaving certain theaters (AMC) that porters will sometimes greet me. It seems superfluous, and management has probably told them to do it. Churches have greeters all the time. It's interesting that many people have a sense of social bearing that requires verbal acknowledgment, even when there is little content. Schools see this as a tool for establishing that one is in command of the students.

I took this with the proverbial grain of salt. Some middle schools had only three minutes passing time between classes, so there was no time for this. Subs need bathroom breaks, too. I thought it was mostly for elementary school (which I wouldn’t do), until I saw the instruction repeated at the middle school.

After having some serious discipline problems at a couple of middle school assignments (and at one high school where the particular class comprised all low income, low performing students) I got the feedback that I did not quickly establish myself as an “authority figure” whose orders were to be respected. “Middle school kids …” the guidance counselor would say, just naturally take advantage of things.

Of course, at the high end, with AP and Honors, it works the other way around. Students in those classes like to be left alone, prefer to be free of gratuitous attention, and love to have a quiet period to catch up on the work, if they don’t have a test instead.

I have wondered about the whole concept of “authority.” Many school systems hire unlicensed short term subs who fill in at a school for one day at a time. “Oh, he’s just a sub,” the kids say. Yes, they do. Nevertheless, school systems are counting on a responsible “adult” to be trusted to make potentially life-and-death decisions (should there be an unexpected emergency). I certainly understand that they want the “responsible adult” to instantiate himself as the person to give orders, to act like a drill sergeant if necessary. It’s a bit of a con game.

As I’ve noted before, I thinks school systems need to hire subs more carefully, and bring them on with the intention of becoming permanent licensed teachers. An “authority” figure needs to have experience with kids, possibly as a parent, perhaps as an older sibling, perhaps in some other structured situation (often faith-based). Many adults who have lived outside of the normal family structure in urban settings and then try teaching at “early retirement” may be shocked at the level of socialization expected.

The most convincing authority figures for minority students may be young adults from the same minorities. Young adult African American males are needed in teaching ,desperately. That’s a practical reality. (I have to say this about Barack Obama: he looks young, and he acts like a role model.)

As for GLBT people, especially older men, the government itself has created a problem. Unofficially, school systems seem to have a gentle “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, but kids pick up on things, asking “are you married? Do you have kids.” The official “don’t ask don’t tell” policy (as codified into Federal law in 1993 and then misinterpreted by commanders), which is supposed to apply only to the Armed Forces, says to some youth (and perhaps their parents), that gay men need not be respected as authority figures (especially older, non-contemporaneous men). What can one expect?

I do remember, back in my boyhood, resenting the idea of my father or adults doing things "just for authority." I spent most of my working life in information technology, a culture where the social concept is somewhat unwelcome culturally. Yet, since then, I've found the rest of the world a bit different. Even at an interview for a collection job in 2003, I was asked about when I had ever wielded authority. I didn't get that job, but got another one with a different agency right afterwards. The real world is much more about social hierarchy than I had ever expected. I led a sheltered adult life.

Note: The Feb. 25 issue of Time has an article by Claudia Wallis on p. 28, "How to Make Great Teachers," link here. On p 31, the article says "It takes at least two years to master the basics of classroom management and six to seven years to become a thoroughly proficient teacher."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Alternative fuels could increase greenhouse gases

Today the DC Examiner published a short editorial, "Surprise! Biofuels mean more greenhouse gases", link here. It takes considerable energy (and sometimes deforestation to clear land) to grow biofuels, and the editorial quotes studies that show an increase in carbon debt from 167 years to over 400 years.

The obvious issue is that some plants are much more efficient than others in their potential as auto fuel. "King corn" gasohol is not terribly efficient. Brazil, with its warmer client, uses sugar cane (as well documented on CNN); it's not clear how much forest has been cleared, but Brazil is much better prepared to deal with an oil supply issue than the US. Sawgrass is said to have the greatest potential, but more research is needed to convert sawgrass to fuel in an efficient manner.

Another issue is the cars themselves. Over time, mechanics say, alcohol in fuels can cause gaskets to leak, leading to expensive repairs.

So there is a long way to go to get an answer on this problem.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tax and social policies: Singles v. married, families v. childless

Socially conservative literature has long been filled with implorations that marriage is to be preferred to singleness, that married men live longer, are better insurance risks, etc. They’ve long hinted that having kids and raising them is a moral requirement of civilization, although they won’t usually come out and say it. Actually, this kind of talk would appear sporadically throughout the 80s and 90s.

So, one of the big conservative gripes was the marriage penalty. That was instituted in 1969, supposedly to make the taxes paid by married and singles about equal. What happened is that when two married people with approximately equal incomes filed jointly, they tended to pay higher taxes in some income ranges. The penalty is supposed to have been eliminated through 2010, although the whole issue is still rather complicated.

Another criticism of the tax code, well founded, is the Alternative Minimum Tax. Because of conceptual problems with its structure and the lack of indexing for inflation, it is catching many “families with children” whose income and resources today would be considered middle class.

Of course, the next big issue now is which couples get to be treated as “married” for the purposes of tax treatment and federal benefits (like social security benefits for spouses on one account). We all know the gay marriage debate now, and have come to view the conservative arguments against it as “existential.” Another potential political issue is how much tax support to give for the raising of children, and whether to give income to those raising kids when they pay no taxes. The issue came up in the 2008 economic stimulus package. Some social conservatives have wanted to radically increase the per child benefit.

In my 1997 book, I suggested accepting gay marriage, but with two provisos: (1) a person gets to be “married” for benefits purposes only once in a lifetime (the “one per customer” idea to promote monogamy) and (2) the benefits kick in only when there is a bona fide dependent – like a child (biological or adopted), or a dependent elderly parent. That doesn’t ratify the ‘sanctity of marriage” enough for some people.

A modern civilization offers rewarding lives and cultural alternatives to some people who do not form and raise families and children. I fall into that category. To some people, this is a moral issue with religious or existential aspects. To others, it is a natural consequence of individualism, and simply demands that people answer for their own choices.

In practice, however, there is real tension between families with children, and the childless. Generally, people with families use employee benefits more, although they may pay much more for them in terms of copays and premiums. They may be more likely to use time-off benefits, and the childless are likely to work longer hours for the same pay (or their pay). This includes coverage of on-call support in salaried situations where the job requires carrying a pager, and it may require working less desirable shifts or doing more business travel. Business and HR magazines have covered this problem, but erratically and with some degree of embarrassment. In my case, I have paid dearly, in various ways, for not making the conventional commitment to get married and have kids, because, of course, of my sexual orientation. I talked about this before (with discussion of Elinor Burkett’s book) in January 23, 2008, the “Married with Kids Boon”, on my main blog, here.

Update: Feb. 14, Valentines Day

James Capretta has a commentary in The Washington Times, p A21, "The population gap: Low birth rates augur poorer futures," link here. He acknowledges that the US has a higher birth rate than much of Europe. Low birth rates sometimes produce short term gains from the entry of women into the workforce, but longer term loss as the population ages and there are fewer workers to support it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Most oil stocks are owned by individuals or pension funds

Today, The Washington Post, on p A14, featured a full-page paid ad from “The People of America’s Oil and Natural Gas Industry,” at this link. The byline read “Do you own an oil company?” The breakdown in the pie chart (remember in Rendition -- Jake Gyllenhaal loves pie charts) for oil stock ownership is
23% individuals
14% IRA’s
27% Pension funds
29.5% Mutual funds and other firms
just 1.5% corporate management
5% other institutions

So, according to the group, windfall profits taxes on oil and gas could hurt many retirees and ordinary savers.

ExxonMobil is a significant part of my own retirement portfolio. I bought it in the mid 1970s after the first oil shock and Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974. I’ve left it alone for thirty years and let it grow as oil prices rose. I guess that makes me part of the decadent bourgeoisie.

Something to ponder.

Picture: Punta Gorda, FL in Nov. 2004, after a hurricane, one year before Katrina.

Monday, February 11, 2008

DC Second Amendment case: "friend of court" brief from GLIL

There is a new (as amici curiae) brief from Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty and Pink Pistols in the District of Columbia’s Second Amendment case “District of Columbia and Adrian M. Fenty, Mayor of the District of Columbia” v. Dick Anthony Heller” in the DC’s challenge to the DC Ciruit’s ruling that the DC handgun law is unconstitutional. The link (a pdf file) is here. I last took up this case on July 17, 2007 on this blog (see archive links).

The argument stresses the notion that it is contradictory to the meaning of the 1791 Bill of Rights (now 216 years old!) to predicate an individual right (self defense with a weapon) to a government controlled service (in this case, military service or service in a militia). The argument goes on to discuss the particular needs of GLBT people to be able to defend themselves in their homes, as they have been victims of hate crimes. The brief gives many examples of hate crimes, such as the Matthew Shepard case in Wyoming (Oct. 1998). In the District, home invasions and robberies occur in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Logan Circle (particularly a problem area), Adams Morgan, and sometimes Dupont Circle. The brief mentions that police are often unable to respond quickly, and a belief that a homeowner or resident may be armed is an effective deterrent. I would add, had Washington Redskins’ safety Sean Taylor in Florida been properly armed at home, he might be alive today and playing pro football.

Oral arguments for this case will take place at the Supreme Court Tuesday, March 18, 2008 (NBC4 story). The lines (including the "three minute line") will surely be very long.

The Visitors Guide for hearing oral arguments is here (pdf). The main link for visiting the court is here. I personally heard substantial portions of the oral arguments regarding the Communications Decency Act (arguments heard March 19, 1997) and Child Online Protection Act (March 2, 2004).

Update: Feb. 14

The Washington Times has a commentary by Robert A. Levy, p. A21, "Promises breached: Bush administration sells out the 2nd Amendment," link here. For purely political reasons, the Bush DOJ apparently reversed an earlier position that self-defense is a "fundamental right" not connected to militia (or military) service, but that an "elastic standard" could determine "whether a handgun ban is reasonable."

Also, Sunday Feb. 17 The Washington Times carried a commentary by Oliver North, "Second Amendment's Day in Court," link here.

There is some little known arcane 18th Century law that claims that all American males in a certain age range are members of an unorganized militia (a fact that The Citadel in Charleston SC uses in categorizing its academic staff).

GLIL and The Washington Times taking the same position! Modern politics makes strange bedfellows.

Update: Feb. 28, 2008

USA Today on Feb. 27 had an analysis by John Biskupic, "Do you have a legal right to own a gun?", link here. 73% of Americans believe that competent adults should be able to defend themselves with firearms.

Picture (unrelated): grounds of the Washington Cathedral, Mr. St. Albans.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Avian Influenza vaccine trials at NIH seek volunteers, seem to make progress

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD (Metro) is running a number of studies to test the safety and efficacy of vaccines for H5N1 avian influenza (“bird flu”), both as a preventative and as a source of antibody treatment.

Page 33 of The City Paper, Feb. 8, 2008 has a print ad. The web reference is here. Some studies are recruiting, and some are complete.

It is not clear yet how successful completed studies were and how quickly vaccines and antibody treatments could be manufactured were H5N1 to start spreading quickly from human to human. In 1976 there were emergency vaccinations for "Swine flu" (biologically much more conventional) with a small number of possibly related cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome from a possible vaccine reacion.

The ad says that participants will be compensated, must be 18-59. HIV negative (and negative for Hepatitis B and C) and must be willing to donate plasma by plasmapheresis, This is essentially like an extended “blood donation” and used to be common in blood banks when some people sold “plasma.” In fact, before AIDS and HIV appeared in the early 1980s, gay men were sought to volunteer for this procedure for the Hepatitis B vaccine, at the time a novelty.

It is not clear whether HIV negative men who have been sexually active with other men at various periods in the past would be accepted, since they are still apparently not accepted for blood donations. See this posting from Aug. 30 on my GLBT blog:

I was screened for a trial for a GP160 vaccine for HIV in 1988. I went through the medical screening at NIH, enough to find antibodies to histoplasmosis and a calcified lymph node in the lung from it. I would have been accepted, but declined because they needed too much repeated time during the workday when I had a regular job. The vaccine was ultimately found to be ineffective.

I was a patient at NIH after my 1961 William and Mary expulsion, which I describe here, look for Nov. 28 2006

There was an earlier posting on influenza Feb. 2 on this blog.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Hillary Clinton comes to my own high school

Hillary Clinton appeared at Washington-Lee High School at Quincy St. and Washington Blvd. in Arlington VA today, Feb. 7, about 4 PM. Students stayed around in order to be able to see her.

I graduated from W-L in June 1961. When I attended, most of the school was a three-story brick building behind the athletic field that ran parallel to Washington Blvd. It had been built in 1928. I had homeroom in Room 307, but many classes on the first floor on the field. Sciences were in a "newer" wing on Quincy St, with the gymnasium in between. When I graduated, W-L was one of the top ten public high schools in the nation as for academic excellence.

In the 1970s, the 1928 building was torn down and replaced with a cramped structure near the gymnasium. Over time, there were other changes, such as a swimming pool in the 1970s. In 2007, the previous 1928 portion (it had become a parking lot) was replaced with a modern four story structure that opened to students on Jan. 3, 2008. The old portions will be torn down with new gymnasium (and I believe theater).

She spoke in the gymnasium. I was not present (I saw it on NBC4 -- you had to be on a guest list), but I believe this would have been the old section.

Hillary Clinton vowed to replace "No Child Left Behind" and that drew cheers from students, who hate the drills for SOL's. Barack Obama, at Tulane, also criticized the "unfunded mandate" that goes with NCLB (which has become a political "bad word" in the same league as "don't ask don't tell"). W-L offers the IB (International Baccalaureate) program.

Visitors may want to check out my piece "The Best Teacher I Ever Had" about my 11th Grade Va and US History Teacher during the 1959-1960 school year at W-L, here. Students today ought to be able to discuss the Fall Line, trace the representation of and right to vote for African Americans and then women, and discuss economic cycles. They should understand the science and geography of pandemics, global climate, and oil supplies. They ought to know what the Supreme Court means by a "fundamental right," and describe the current constitutional controversy over the Second Amendment in the District of Columbia. They should know how free speech and the First Amendment works in the United States even in comparison to Britain and European countries. They ought to be able to compare Democracy, Communism, Fascism, and now Radical Islam. They should be able to explain what "asymmetry" means in political science. And now they ought to be able to discuss "reputation" on the Internet. (Social studies teachers, here are some ideas for test questions!) I don't know, perhaps I sound "conservative." But I am proud that Senator Clinton came to my high school today!

I "subbed" at W-L from 2004-2005, making my "return" on Friday, June 11, 2004. I do remember those English pop "reading quizzes" chapter-by-chapter and this "English teacher" concept is very helpful to me in reviewing my own manuscript for a novel. (That is, if the novel were read in an English class, what would the teacher ask on a reading quiz? Screenplays lead themselves to similar analysis.) Remember when Nick Carrawy claims to be the only honest person he knows? (The Great Gatsby). I'll add, because of the influence of SOL's and time pressures in grading, teachers depend way too much on multiple choice tests -- there needs to be more free response, essay, and problem solving (like in physics). Maybe the kind of multiple choice test where you explain the answer (common in Chemistry) works all right.

NBC4's story on Senator Clinton's visit is here.

Update: Feb. 10

Hillary Clinton appeared in Manassas, Va. today (30 miles from DC) and suggested a moratorium on foreclosures for subprime problems, as well as attacking the unfunded mandate of NCLB drawing cheers.

Barack Obama appears at T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria. That high school was the subject of the 2000 Walt Disney movie "Remember the Titans," about racial integration on the football team in 1970.

Mike Huckabee said that government has to get involved in people's lives when they don't accept personal responsibility for "right and wrong" as laid out in the Ten Commandments. There are several "issues" that he could have been alluding to, but I wonder if one of them could even have been filial responsibility (the Fifth Commandment). Huckabee also said "I wasn't a math major" (I was!) "but I major in miracles." Imagine how that comes across!

Winter southern tornadoes: this has happened before; global warming?

The ferocity of tornadoes that roared across several southern states and killed at least 55 people om Super Tuesday certainly brings back the global warming debate. Some authorities are attributing this to La Nina. But the outbreak of so many tornadoes, along several SW-NE lines, so early in the season, well before really hot temperatures develop even in the South, has people wondering. The center of low pressure seemed to be to the north, and the outbreak did not follow that of hurricanes, where most tornadoes are on the NE side.

When I had started living in Minneapolis, I went up north on Sunday March 30, 1998 with a friend (to the wineries as I remember), celebrating getting off crutches from my accidental fracture. On the way back, we suddenly encountered hail and sleet at around Anoka, with incredibly black clouds overhead. We stopped to eat at something like an Applebees, when the cloudburst occurred. Afterward we heard about the sensational "March tornadoes", unheard of that far north, on the car radio. I lived in a downtown highrise (the Churchill) for six years, and even with the most violent storms we never had any concerns about power outages, with all the utilities underground, or even wind damage. People believe that downtowns of cities break up tornadoes, but Nashville and St. Lake City have been struck, and the Weather Channel has a fictitious account of what could happen to downtown Dallas.

When I was living in Dallas, a December (1987) tornado struck (probably F2 or F3) less than a mile east of my condo on Lake June Road "in the Grove". I had no damage at all.

On April 11, 1965, the Ohio Valley states had a huge outbreak of the "Palm Sunday" tornadoes, where the town of Pittsfield (near Wellington, OH) was wiped out. My family visited Oberlin that spring for some reason, and I recall in-person accounts from the victims, of dirt and debris being ground into their skin by the winds. Here is a picture of that event.

So is an outbreak like that on Super Tuesday of so many "super" thunderstorm cells trailing an Ohio Valley "land hurricane" low pressure system (the kind that brings record warmth to the southeast, on the "warm side" of the storm, unlike the case with Noreasters) a symptom of global warming? At this point it's hard to say. But the spells of midwinter mild weather in the East seem to be lengthening and increasing.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Teachers (especially subs) and the Internet: a need for careful personnel procedures

Occasionally there are news stories about teachers being dismissed for objectively lawful but otherwise objectionable conduct off of school premises. This can come up today in conjunction with the Internet, and particularly search engines. In the past, it occasionally happened by word of mouth or circulation of print. In 2006, Dr. Phil aired a show in which a teacher was not rehired when it was learned she had acted in pornography ten years before starting teaching.

Practically all public school systems hire short term substitutes, and in many states (including Virginia) they need not be licensed. (This was covered on this blog in Dec. 2006). Typically, a school district will have a policy that allows a principal of a school to bar a substitute from working at that location without explanation or cause, with a “do not send” or “do not use” notice. A substitute will be fired if a certain number of these notices (usually three) have accumulated since the start of employment, extending forever. In the past three or four years, there has been the increased possibility of a substitute’s exclusion from a school because of information discovered about him or her on the Internet. (Dr. Phil covered one of these cases recently, here, Jan. 15). One of the most serious problems with this kind of situation is that a principal may not be sure that the teacher or substitute has been properly identified, or that the unfavorable material has been posted by third parties and may be false. A problem will typically occur when a parent finds it from a home computer and brings the web material to the principal’s attention. It might occur with a substitute teacher who has worked multiple assignments at a particular location and has become known to many students.

What kind of material is objectionable? That’s a rub, because, like beauty, dirt (or a sense of being offended) is in the eye of the beholder. The Fairfax County Public Schools says (in its substitute manual), ““Conduct that is detrimental to the reputation of the school system, is not in the interest of the educational program, or poses harm to students or school employees will be cause for discontinuation of service as a substitute with Fairfax County Public Schools.” That’s pretty nebulous (it reminds me of the old Civil Service rules!). The second phrase is interesting, because it suggests that the introduction of material that would not be in the curriculum (even if discovered accidentally on the web) could be cause for dismissal. The third phrase obviously relates to school security. The material might be viewed “accidentally” in class, even if not mentioned by the teacher, or be found at home doing homework. Obviously, GLBT materials and their acceptability within a particular school system can pose an issue with many parents.

There are several specific measures that school systems should take. First, if a principal finds material, even generated “off duty” that he or she believes could make the sub’s presence disruptive, the principal still should go through some due diligence, even though in theory the sub can be excluded without cause. If the principal believes that the content is objectively illegal, the principal should check with the school system attorney, and if the attorney concurs, notify police or the district attorney, according to the criminal law enforcement procedures of a particular state. More commonly, the material will not be illegal, just potentially disruptive. In this case, the principal must try to verify that his or her understanding of the circumstances is accurate. The school system’s information technology department could check that the teacher really did make the posting (by looking at WHOIS for starters). If there is any reasonable doubt at all, the substitute teacher should be called, either during a planning period during the assignment, or at home. If the substitute admits to having placed the material, the principal could insist that the particular piece be removed from the Internet (along with search engine caches) before the sub takes another assignment at that location. Another correlated measure would be to block all of the teacher’s personal websites or blogs from school system computers. This may already happen to some extent, as many school systems block social networking sites, although usually not blogs and independent sites. This will not prevent students or parents from finding the material at home, however. If the unfavorable or defamatory material were placed by a third party, the teacher could be required to have the material moved, perhaps by contacting one of the new companies set up to deal with this kind of problem, like “Reputation Defender,” or else by taking direct legal action if appropriate. To some extent, teachers can be held accountable for what others say about them, because they always have been.

Substitute teachers may have a legitimate expectation of having more freedom to establish their own “right of publicity” than regular teachers when they are paid less, do not have benefits or steady work, or do not have the authority to give students grades.

Also, administrators should not enter "defamatory" searches on the names of teachers from school system computers, when these can be traced easily by IP addresses on ISP server logs.

It doesn’t take too much to imagine this sort of issue in many other employment situations, especially those where one goes from one client to another. Of course, it applies to the military. All of this involves the sensitivities around disclosing “personal stuff” and the preferences that society gives for people in conventional marriage.

As indicated on some of my other blogs, it’s important for human resources departments to buckle down and come up with even-handed “blogging policies.”

Monday, February 04, 2008

The "living wage", the "family wage": recurring ideas that don't keep much traction

These days, practically everyone recognizes that government’s forcibly raising the minimum wage will not guarantee a “living wage” to every person or family. But, at times, however sporadically, the idea of a “family wage” gets mentioned, especially in socially conservative circles. The idea has never really gained much traction.

I ran into this occasionally in the mid 1990s while working on my first book. In 1994, Illinois representative Henry Hyde proposed it in a conservative periodical (Henry Hyde, “A Mom and Pop Manifesto,” Policy Review, The Heritage Foundation, Spring, 1994, p. 29.) defining it in bald-faced fashion as “paying more to a family breadwinner, in recognition that he or she has responsibilities a single worker is less likely to have.” Then a couple years later, William Tucker proposed that it could be made mandatory, in conjunction with maternity and paternity leave (only unpaid leave is mandated, and even then not always, by the 1993 FMLA), in William Tucker, “A Return to the Family Wage,” The Weekly Standard, May 13, 1996, pp 27-31.

In conservative books up to the early 1990s, one could find the idea discussed. In “Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis” (Transaction Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1990), Allan C. Carlson wrote that the American family wage had been established with “great difficulty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” and that “this structure, which had rested on a complex sexual division of labor, served to protect the family unit from the logical consequences of radical individualism.” I don’t think radical individualism was prospering in those centuries that much, but he is right in saying that technological change has helped with the “collapse” of this arrangement since the 1950s. Technological change itself could be undermined by external catastrophes, whether from nature or (religiously or politically motivated) enemies within man.

George Gilder had argued, in “Sexual Suicide” (1973) and “Men and Marriage” (1986) that our society needs to honor its “sexual constitution” which admits some “non rationality” in that men will let themselves become fungible and maintain sexual interest and loyalty to females who depend on them with complementarity. This is an idea that the Vatican likes to promote, even using bishops and priests who themselves don’t function as husbands and fathers (yes, because of theology). Most men need this, Gilder argued, to stop drifting and remain focused, responsible citizens.

Search engines show a lot of references to the term “family wage” but most of them don’t have a lot of substance. Focus on the Family has an obscure (and expensive, and brief) book that the visitor can look up on Amazon (link). An article from Utah (perhaps LDS associated) by Paul J. Mero talks about Henry Ford’s concept of family wage early in the history of automobile mass production, in “State Imposed ‘Living Wage’ is Neither Living nor a Wage,” from the American Independent Party, here.

In my own discussions with people in the 90s while working on the book, I found that employers tended to laugh at the idea then. No wonder. The opposite of this notion is, indeed, "equal pay for equal work," important in women's rights and in gay rights, too, since gay men, especially, are less likely to have dependents -- although that could be changing. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund has railed against the notion of getting single or gay people "at a discount," and Elinor Burkett took up the problem with her book "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless" in 2000.

It isn’t hard to see that concepts like “family wage” would raise questions about the place in society of people whose personal direction doesn’t lead to marriage and procreation. It tends to turn the way we debate morality upside down and lead back to a more “communal” style of thinking about family responsibility, and the notion that filial responsibility doesn’t wait just for baby making. The emergence of eldercare as an issue could lead to new questions about the way the elderly fit into the legal family unit, and the legal (and moral) responsibilities of adult children, and then the pressure on employers to recognize these responsibilities. It sounds like it would be a long haul.

Related posting on paternity leave, here.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Checking up on U.S. plans for any pandemic flu outbreak

The Washington Post this morning has a story by Christopher Lee, "U.S. Flu Outbreak Plan Criticized; It Does Not Anticipate Strain on Hospitals, Local Health Officials Say", p A3, link here. Conspicuous in his criticism was professor Michael T. Osterholm at The University of Minnesota. There are concerns that U.S. business practices of "just in time" inventory stocking, while maximizing short term profits, will jeopardize any kind of orderly response to a massive pandemic.

I had written about Osterholm's warnings earlier, here.

I had written about a possible vaccine for H5N1 avian influenza here.

CNN reports, in a Time Magazine story by Laura Blue, "Drug-Resistant Flu Virus on the Rise," link here. This is about the rise of conventional influenza (H1N1, not H5N1), with new strains that have surfaced in Europe that don't respond well to antiviral medications like Tamiflu. There are also reports on NBC today of a new strain of regular flu in the United States that was not included in this year's vaccine.

Major novel viruses (whether H5N1, or something else as in the recent film "Pandemic") can change the way we think about public health. Generally, most people benefit by repeated exposure to common respiratory and intestinal viruses and become resistant to them as adults. The viruses adapt and do not cause serious disease in most cases. Novel viruses, however, are different. They can necessitate quarantines and business closings, jeopardizing entire industries. They can certainly undermine old workplace policies of "presenteeism." They could even pressure recovered victims to "volunteer" to care for other sick once they have become immune, since there would be such a shortage of nurses. They can certainly cause society to reformulate ideas about "interdependence."

Note: There is a newer story on avian influenza Feb. 9 on this blog.

Update: Feb. 15

The CDC says that this years Flu vaccine matches only 40% of the viruses. CNN story here.
The CDC transcript is here.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A new trend in public education: "Online academies" or "virtual education"

The New York Times has a front page story by Sam Dillon, "Online Schooling Grows, Setting Off a Debate," Feb. 1, 2008, here. The story focuses on online publicly funded classes in some states, especially Florida and Wisconsin. There is a map on p A13 showing 18 states where "virtual education" takes place. Pennsylvania and Ohio are on the list; Maryland, VA and DC are not.

There is a lot of controversy over a number of issues, one including the demand of time it places on parents. Some parents, inclined toward home schooling, may actually like this. But the claim is made that parents are teaching "without a license" at public expense. Teachers unions have sometimes objected to this development.

The use of virtual classrooms can help alleviate classroom space shortage and teacher shortages. In many cases, virtual schools do not give diplomas themselves, but can offer courses for credit. Examinations are likely to emphasize multiple choice, like Virginia SOL's (and comparable exams in all states under NCLB) do already.

One prospect is the creation of new kinds of teaching jobs: online instructors, who work only in a virtual classroom, physically away from students. Such jobs would probably emphasize expertise in subject matter more than in connecting to less mature students, and classroom discipline would not be an issue (except with respect to computer misuse). Preparation or licensing courses for such teachers might require fewer clock hours or emphasize academic subject matter excellence more, relative to customary teacher licensure.

Update: Feb. 11

Jay Mathews has a story on p B02 of The Washington Post today, "FINISHING HIGH SCHOOL: Online Courses Aim to Prevent Dropouts," link here.
The article discusses Arlington Mill, an alternative high school on Columbia in Arlington, VA (I have subbed there). Other alternative high schools in the area are Langford (Arlington), and Byrant, Pimmit Hills, and Mountain Lakes (Fairfax). It would seem that, again, the instructor's job would emphasize a more technical skill set. (Sometimes these schools offer adult only high school courses in the evening, too. Sometimes they also offer programs from those from correctional facilities.) The story mentioned the disturbing reality that many times, in lower income or immigrant families, teens drop out of school to take jobs to support other needy blood family members.