Monday, June 30, 2008

How do we change the behavior of the speculative markets?

So it goes. Today, oil fever spiked again, to $143, and then dropped back to “only” $140, as its stepwise march continues. The Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland issues an Annual Report that suggests the global economy may be near a tipping point, where real slowdown in consumption brings prices down somewhat. The link is here.

Yesterday, I got into a discussion with some conservative men in dark "EDS-like" suits (at a personal event) about where all this is headed. There’s pretty much an under the table consensus about a few points:

(1) The oil price spike is a call for Congress to accept the necessity for greatly increased offshore drilling and Alaska drilling. By and large the drilling can be done safely, and modern technology can recover much more oil. (Much of the disputed Alaska area is flat and relatively easy to work safely.) But it must happen. If investors become convinced it will happen, there will be downward pressure on the price of oil.

There is some concern in land areas (like West Texas) that newer techniques push more carbon into the ground, increasing safety issues for people living near the wells (carbon monoxide incidents). The oil companies need to address these.

There are other areas, like off the coast of Brazil, which may be promising, and they must be explored. As sources, they are still preferable to the Middle East or Africa or even Russia.

Nevertheless, a commitment to increased drilling in the United States and Canada (the oil sands in the prairie provinces) and perhaps Brazil will change OPEC’s behavior, and will change speculator behavior, resulting in a leveling off of prices and eventually a substantial drop.

Barack Obama doesn’t get it, they tell me, and John McCain is somewhat underwhelming as to any real leadership in making the domestic economy more productive. (The whole Republican Party is underwhelming. Even The Washington Times admits it. This stagflation, as the BIS report indicates, points at Americans as living beyond their means. Quite bluntly.

(2) The domestic auto industry needs to get serious about making the plug-in hybrids, and they need to be made here. They need to make them affordable. That probably means offering cars for lease more than for sale. But that’s going to be a real challenge with so many people having blown their credit in the subprime mess. But, then again, there are plenty of people with good credit.

The infrastructure to support the plug-ins needs to be built. It will keep a lot of electricians employed.

Airlines need to start thinking about other sources of jet fuel. The military has done work on jet fuel from coal; why not commercial aviation? This seems like a case of transferring knowledge from space and military applications to commercial and consumer needs.

(3) Utility production of electricity should be more decentralized. There should be incentives to homeowners, condo developments and apartment buildings to invest in solar, with savings or excess electricity passed on to consumers or residents or homeowners. Communities exposed to fronts and thunderstorms (most of the country) should invest in wind farms.

Although Wall Street is driven by short-term thinking, a perception of sustainability really matters. Here, it is complicated. If world markets get the idea that Americans are willing to live within their means, the dollar strengthens and oil and commodity prices moderate. More drilling, and more renewable energy production will give the impression of sustainability.

Of course, what’s more complicated now is how the global warming concerns will play out. More oil production might mean more carbon emissions, or it might not. Biofuels don’t necessarily reduce carbon emissions (they may increase it) unless their production becomes efficient. Sugar cane (Brazil) is probably provides a more efficient paradigm, with sawgrass, requiring more research, still more efficient. The prospect of having to deal with escalating climate change or with the political and social consequences of a global “tipping point” in climate change does not yield a model in predicting the reaction of markets.

Then, we come down to what inevitably will come up as a moral discussion, sustainability as a “personal virtue,” already covered on some of the other blogs. Investors don’t respond to personal morals the way religion presents it, not even in the Middle East. They respond to what they can model with numbers, and lot of what is going on is not really numbers-driven.


USA Today, on p B1, the Money Section, on June 30, ran a story by Chris Woodyard explaining that the major manufacturers are working quickly to make hybrid cars cheaper (not necessarily plug-ins) and it could pay to wait to buy them. The link is here.

USA Today also ran opposing editorials on p 10A on whether speculators unfairly influence the market. The opposing view criticized the low margin requirements. The paper seemed to believe that this was a genuine market supply-and-demand problem (I agree). It criticized proposals to segment traders into "legitimate" and "non-legitimate," but accepted the idea that limiting trading to more regulated markets (mercantile exchanges) could be helpful.

Update: July 2

On July 2, Yahoo! ran an AP story about a sudden oil boom in western North Dakota (which should expand to Montana and Canada) from new drilling techniques, story by James MacPherson, here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Indiana English teacher suspended over choosing "Freedom Writers" book for class

CNN this evening reported the story of English teacher Connie Heermann at Perry Meridian High. She was suspended for over a year without pay for not getting permission from her school district to use the acclaimed “Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” compiled and edited by Erin Gruwell (from Broadway Books, published in 1999). This book was made into a motion picture by Paramount and MTV, directed and written by Richard La Gravenese, opening early 2007. I saw this film on opening night in a new AMC theater in Georgetown in Washington DC, to a sold out crowd.

The book is well known. A teacher in an inner city LA school inspired her students to write journals of ghetto life and edited them into book form. English teachers often encourage students to write in-class journals for a few minutes each class. A few enterprising teachers have even tried carefully supervised experiments with blogging. So it’s logical that a well-conceived set of inner city journals could make a book, and offer a revealing view of inner city life, and of how to express it to others.

The school district’s objection to the book seems to be related to incidental use of "bad words" within the book, as realistic depiction of daily ghetto speech. Now, literature has often depicted speech in other eras with naturalism, but in environments distant enough as not to be perceived as “inappropriate.” With lessons from much more contemporary literature, school district officials in a conservative Midwestern community (south of Indianapolis) questioned the personal “role model” that Mrs. Heermann provided in presenting speech and behavior like that depicted in the book, however realistically . To me, that sounds a bit off-base.

But the bigger problem may be that Ms. Heermann was perceived as insubordinate. She did have the principal’s OK, but not the school district’s. She found a sponsor for the book and obtained individual permission from 149 of 150 parents. The school district demanded that she ask the students to return the book.

The book is available in the Perry Meridian High School library, but more lenient standards are used to approve school library books (which often become controversial with certain subject matter, like LGBT). The book was not selected as a "text book" but as a supplementary source. It would not replace study of accepted and "well established" curricula for literature in high school English courses.

The teacher has taught for 27 years and is highly compensated for that geographical area. She felt that her offering the book in her lesson plans was a matter showing of passion and conscience as a teacher.

The school district does seem out of step with much of the country on his matter. Students told reporters that they got a lot out of the book and enjoyed the class when she taught it.

A typical story is in the Southside Times (Indianapolis), by Sarah True, “Teacher faces dismissal for not getting book OK,” Jan. 24, 2008, link here.

Indiana TV station WTHR has a story April 16, 2008, link here.

The CNN video story with Gary Tuckman is here.

Update June 30 (from New York):

The AP has a story by Frank Eltman, provided by USA Today online June 30, about the expense of firing tenured teachers in New York State when incompetent. It happens, but it is expensive. John Stossel has reported on this issue on "Give me a break" on BAC 20/20, about suspended teachers in "holding pens" in New York City. The link is here.

Picture: classroom at a historical one-room school in Boyds MD (from past days of segregation).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jeff Rubin of CIBC predicts $7 gasoline, $200 oil by 2010

Canadian economist Jeff Rubin predicts $7.00 a gallon gasoline in the US, based on a $200 price per barrel of oil by 2010. There will be 10 million fewer vehicles in America by 2012, he says.

The report PDF is here
and is available in a dynamic insert from CIBC World Markets, one of Canada’s largest underwriters, link here. The story spread rapidly this afternoon among news services and sites like AOL. Canada's currency has improved during the US dollar fall, and Canada might stand to gain from extensive development of oil tar sands in the prairies, now economically attractive.

But Rubin is pessimistic that Americans and Canadians can adjust to this without loss of standard of living, because the US does not have the public transportation infrastructure of European countries that makes car ownership unnecessary for many people.

Creative possibilities can be suggested: making many more hybrids quickly, and having automobile manufacturers lease them rather than try to sell them, to make them more affordable. Other ideas like Zip car may reduce car ownership in suburban areas.

Rubin doubts that meager Saudi promises to slightly increase production are meaningful. Oil markets have been distracted by negative comments from Libya and Nigeria. It seems like any rumor at all right now drives the price up. Maybe even a routine blogger can drive it up with a rumor, and then go trade (probably illegal).

Oil prices, and their economic consequences for standard of living, will stabilize only when markets have convincing evidence that demand can be met, with a variety of strategies: increased drilling (takes a long time), increased production of plug-in hybrids and the infrastructure to support them (may not be as difficult). Producing countries in the Middle East now have a lively debate about the future demand and what their real self-interest is going to be.

Math teachers in grade school: it's hard to find the needed "people skills" and "academic skills" in the same person

There are new concerns that elementary school teachers are not prepared to teach mathematics adequately. The general spin is that grade school teachers tend to enter elementary education because of their “people skills” and legitimate desire to work with children, especially the underprivileged. But some teachers do not have the deep understanding of why things in math work the way they do.

I can remember the way I learned the multiplication tables in second grade. I remember that it was a big deal to go from the 6’s to the 7’s. The behavior of the numbers and of their digits (the number theory) seemed to catch my attention, in a way that made it easy to learn, but not everyone reacts that way.

There remains a lot of controversy over memorization and drill, compared to the underlying concepts, that start to make more sense once the student starts algebra and can deal with abstraction.

Concern moves all the way up the chain to the demands of today’s employers.

One AP story “Study: teachers don’t learn enough about math: Report says education colleges not selective enough” appeared on many media sites such as MSNBC here, yesterday. The relates to a recent study release by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The study abstract is here (PDF). The file has a sample math test that includes a little bit of number theory (about odd numbers and remainders) that have clear relevance to helping children understand how arithmetic behaves. (Yes, the quiz reminds me of graduate school at Kansas University in the 1960s.)

The AP also has an important story today by Nancy Zuckerbrod and Trevor Tompson, “Poll: Math, yes; Standardized tests: maybe” which indicates that Americans know that their kids are often not getting adequate instruction in Math and believe that standardized tests (especially multiple choice) don’t adequately measure skills. The link is here.

The sort of people who are well trained in abstract mathematical concepts sometimes don’t have the inclination to work with children or become effective teachers for reasons of personality and, often, introversion. There seems to be divide between need and resource.

Update: August 19, 2008

The Washington Times has an editorial today, "Don't know much about math." The link is here. The editorial suggests streamlining teacher certification so that people with math skills will find it worthwhile to enter teaching. The editorial suggests that neither presidential candidate wants to take on the teaching establishment, and especially the licensure mills, that meet requirements for 180 clock hours or more (15 credit hours or more) in education course.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court rules against DC handgun law, 5-4; 2nd Amendment confers an individual right!

The Supreme Court has, on Thursday June 26, ruled that the District of Columbia’s law, passed in 1976, essentially banning handgun ownership at home by residents, is unconstitutional. The vote was 5-4. The case is called District of Columbia v. Heller.

The Court has ruled that the right to bear arms is indeed an individual right, for self-defense and hunting. The Court ruled that the right does not depend upon membership in a state militia.

Various novel arguments have been made before, including the fact that every adult male (sometimes every adult) in a certain age range is technically a militia member anyway by an arcane 18th century law.

Proponents of 2nd Amendment rights (including the libertarian party) believe that self-defense is a good practical deterrent to crime, because the police cannot be everywhere. Some see it as a “duty.” Others question whether personal home (or office or campus) gun ownership and use would prevent a determined criminal (as in the Virginia Tech incident). Some believe that a determined "commons" effort to control weapons overrides individual property interests and could be implemented successfully. The Supreme Court, however, says that the proper reading of the 2nd Amendment prevents certain collective policy choices in the public safety area.

Recently 2nd Amendment proponents held a demonstration in Richmond, carrying weapons in open and visibly, which is often legal.

States often have laws preventing weapons possession in specific places, such as where alcohol as served (as in Texas).

Washington DC does allow the possession of rifles and shotguns at home, but they must be disassembled and locked up.

The CNN story (“High court strikes down gun ban”) is here. CNN's Breaking News story did not appear until 10:14 AM because it was busy reporting a simultaneous breaking story about North Korea's "giving in" on its nuclear program.

Mark Sherman has a detailed story at the Associated Press, here.

The decision is said to be the first major ruling on the scope of the 2nd Amendment in US History. Later details say that that (according to the Opinion) government still may impose reasonable limitations on personal use of weapons for public safety (in certain places or by unfit persons), but it may not ban entire classes of weapons or "disable" their use. The District is moving to revise its laws and regulations quickly.

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Scalia. Justice Stevens dissented, refusing to find this form of self-defense as a fundamental right.

The ruling goes into effect in about 21 days. Mayor Adrian Fenty is directing the DC Metropolitan Police Department to develop an ("amnesty") procedure for registering handguns (that would have been illegal under the DC law) in accordance with the Supreme Court Ruling. The Mayor held a press conference at noon today.

It is not completely clear yet if the "incorporation doctrine" from the 14th Amendment will cause this ruling to apply to state laws, which will be challenged. The Court may have to decide that later, and there are tricky historical arguments to navigate regarding state militia.

The link for slip opinions is here. I expect the PDF document for the opinion to appear today (keep checking).

Update: (11 AM). The link for the Heller opinion is present now. It is as follows.

Update: July 7

Page 2 of the Monday 7/7/2008 Washington Post has a "Department of Human Behavior" column by Shankar Vedantam (link here , with an associated gray sidebar link at the bottom of the column (right side of the page in the printed newspaper) that makes a critical point: 2nd Amendment framers did not anticipate that owners of weapons could use them against themselves or for other illegal domestic purposes at home, and that this incidence (in the District of Columbia, at least) went down when the 1976 law went into effect. This is something to think about.

Picture (above): "I am the reporter" at the Newseum (earlier this year).

Picture (below): National Rifle Museum (NRA) placard on the Second Amendment, Fairfax VA

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Maryland school system offers merit pay in accordance with NCLB, with union's blessing

Prince Georges County, Maryland, east of Washington DC, has agreed to implement a "pay for performance" system for teachers that will take into account both teaching hard-to-fill subjects and improving standard test scores. The system was approved by teacher’s unions despite fears that it could undermine teacher union “solidarity.” Some of the program is voluntary and involves various components, submitting to evaluation and performance improvement programs. There are reasonable concerns that any performance pay system linked to standardized test scores encourages teaching schemes involving a lot of drill and focus on multiple choice test taking techniques and on very basic curricula.

Around the nation, school systems face budget cuts and in some areas layoff because of the subprime crisis. At the same time, fewer people may go into teaching or be willing to invest in “career switcher” programs at mid-career or early retirement. As a result, many school districts around the country will have more difficulty in maintaining properly certified staff, as required by the “No Child Left Behind” law. This point was well illustrated in the recent HBO film “Hard Times at Douglas High” (reviewed on my movies blog June 23 2008 – check my Profile).

The Washington Post story appeared on the Front Page this morning and is by Nelson Hernandez, and is called “Teacher Bonuses Get Unions’ Blessing: Pr. Georges offers rewards up to $10000 linked to test scores, evaluations”, link here.

Update: July 2:

The Washington Post ran a major editorial on the eagerness of Prince Georges County teachers and administrators and unions to accept new pay-for-performance models, on p A14, here.

Update: July 8

The Post today ran a similar editorial about a merit pay plan in the District of Columbia, where older teachers would have the option of surrendering tenure for more merit pay based on student performance, while the plan would be mandatory for new teachers. The editorial is called "Reform With Rewards: The District proposes a bold new way to pay teachers" on p A14, link here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Justice Department suspected of "ideology" screening of job applicants

The Washington Post this morning (June 24) ran a most disturbing story about alleged Justice Department “screening” of applicants for ideology and belief, based at least on keywords found in employment applications, and also based on previous publication history, even in professional journals.

The story is by Carrie Johnson, appears on p A11, and is titled “Ideology-based hiring at Justice broke laws, investigation finds,” with link here.

One applicant was apparently screened out because she had published a piece about gender discrimination in the U.S. military. The article does not mention “don’t ask don’t tell” but clearly that issue would have raised even a bigger flag in “ideology screening”.

It does not require too much imagination to wonder if DOJ scanned social networking sites and personal blogs for “ideological fitness”.

The newspaper story indicates a trend toward political appointments in the Bush administration, starting in 2002.

I applied for a DOJ IT job through the USAjobs site in 2004, and actually got a consideration and rejection letter about six months later. Generally, I think, to get a job you have to know the right people. It’s always like that, even for the many jobs in my IT career that I did have.

I have a distantly related post in May 2008 on my GLBT blog and whether federal policies on sexual orientation discrimination in civil service are followed, here.

High oil prices brings some manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Tonight, ABC World News Tonight (June 24) featured a report on the flip side of high oil prices combined with globalization. That is, some manufacturing jobs are coming home to the United States.

For example a company named DESA brings furniture carpentry and manufacturing jobs back to North Carolina from China. The cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to New York has increased from $3000 to $8000.

Crown Battery moves some work from Mexico back to Ohio. I know a process control software company in central Ohio (that’s “Days of our Lives” country, along highway 13, sort of) that has done well since the mid 1970s. This trend can only be good for it.

Farouk Systems (hair care products) comes to Houston from China later this year.

The lead story on ABC is by Sharon Alfonsi, titled “Oil Price Fallout: Jobs Coming Home? As shipping costs rise, businesses jump ship,” link here.

And NBC Nightly News tonight discussed the booking business in export of waster to China. It is more efficient (and “greener”) to make plastics and other products from waste than crude oil.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Obama on public financing: there is an underbelly to this

Okay, Barack Obama has changed his position on public financing and said that he would negotiate an agreement with John McCain. He has been accused of hypocrisy, because allegedly he had said in the past that he supports public financing.

Journalist Michael Dobbs has a “fact checker” piece in Washington Post online this evening that nitpicks over whether Obama really did “pseudo-promise” to use public financing. There was some quibbling over the idea that negotiations needed to be completed. The link is here and includes a YouTube video debate excerpt from Cleveland in Feb. 2008.

Public financing relates to that little box you check off on your income tax refund; fewer people check it off. But the significance of it is the spin on our style of democracy.

When campaign money is lavishly privately financed, conventional wisdom goes, there is a tendency for candidates to pander to special interests. However, during the primaries, Obama, compared to Hillary Clinton, raised money with beaucoup small donations, who would often repeat. Obama hired extensive professional fund raising help. Since there are more small donors, the process seems more democratic and less susceptible to corruption. However, a race to raise huge amounts of money tends to create a mindset with voters that political activism is largely about throwing money at candidates who are more likely to represent their own individual needs. I prefer a system where the advocacy is about the ideas and policies themselves rather than candidates. I am more concerned with winning arguments than winning converts. I’ve had dinner debates with people about this (particularly at an Embers in Minneapolis that went out of business right afterwards; I remember the occasion well).

That's why public financing makes some sense. Remember the controversy about three years ago as to whether blogger "endorsements" or links amounted to "contributions". The FEC has said that, within certain parameters, they don't' but it's easy to imagine how publicly financed candidates could try to leverage the media and bloggers. So, stick to the issues.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

US and Canadian oil, possibly much more plentiful at today's prices, is much "dirtier" than Mideast oil; problem for "conservatives"?

Already, there is confusion on how to balance two critical needs in our energy and oil price mess: how to produce more oil and gas and get the price to something “reasonable” (maybe less than $100 a barrel) and how to implement the maze of cap and trade standards being proposed for carbon emissions, especially in California and the Midwest.

Oil companies are practically “blackmailing” us into allowing a lot more offshore drilling, which they now say can yield a lot of oil at today’s prices, using new sonar and detection technology, and which they say can be done cleanly. And they want to use huge oil sands deposits in the Canadian prairies, especially quite far north. All of this seems to yield oil which may burn less cleanly and be harder to refine.

This has put John McCain “between a rock and a hard place.” The Washington Times Fri-Sat June 20-21 issue has the headline “McCain oil plan fosters reliance on the Middle East” because Middle Eastern oil is usually “cleaner” and can be more easily fit into new carbon emission standards. US and Canadian oil is said to be relatively “dirty.” The link is here.

The notion of a boon for off-shore drilling and Canadian tar sands digs (or American oil shale) does also call into question the idea of oil production "tapping out" as in the film "A Crude Awakening."

The oil price volatility at the end of this past week was excited by news that China would increase the price of oil to its own consumers, but also bad news about a Nigerian pipeline attack and about Israeli threats against nuclear facilities in Iran.

NBC Today (June 22) reports that now is the first time in history that US demand for oil has dropped but oil prices have not. Despite the growth of China, US demand outstrips Chinese demand by a ratio of 25 to 2.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Paid parental leave for federal employees?

On September 28, 2007 I discussed Senator Dodd’s paid family leave proposal for private companies on this blog. Today, The Washington Post ran a story by Simone Birabeau on p A7, “Paid Parental Leave Act Passes House, Faces Veto Threat”. The news story link is here. The bill would provide federal and congressional employees of up to four weeks paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, or even in the taking of a foster child.

There was a bill H.R. 3799 on Govtrack, “Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act of 2007,” link here. Apparently Re. Carolyn Maloney (NY) replaced this in April 2008 with H.T. 5781, link here. The details after the notion “Passed House” give the breakdown of the June 19, 2008 vote (277-146). There was one amendment that would delay implementation of the Act. There seems to be some confusion as to whether four or eight weeks of leave could be paid.

The bill would also make it easier to use sick leave to care for a child. Reportedly, President Bush would veto the bill.

When private employers offer paid parental leave, people without children or “family responsibility” (whether chosen by having children or not) often work more hours without pay (when salaried) to cover the duties of those with kids (married or not). It may be less of an issue with union jobs or hourly work, where the employee is on the clock and must be paid (including overtime), but it is an issue for exempt.

In the government, it may not be an issue as employees are entitled to compensatory leave when working overtime. In practice, it may be an issue in emergency services or in the military, of course.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

NOAA: Government admits that man-made climate change is causing extreme weather events and hardships

The United States Climate Change Science Program (of the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has released a detailed report that strongly suggests that extreme weather events, in the United States and elsewhere, are indeed related to global climate change, some of which is likely to result from burning of fossil fuels. The link is here (PDF file, about 10 meg, 164 pages).

The report discusses many observations that ordinary people could make. These include longer growing seasons, fewer and shorter bitterly cold spells, longer spells of extreme heat, and more violent and protracted storms, especially in areas that usually have fewer of them (like the East Coast), as well as Midwest flooding (in 1993 and now 2008) and, of course, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and several other huge hurricanes). For example, extreme downpours happen when weather systems “train” along stationary fronts, and these have become more common in recent years.

The report is filled with many colorful charts (enough to please Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie “Rendition”) and photographs. The writing style incorporates a lot of self-annotation, and the tone of the report resembles that of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

There is a tendency to have less snow in North America in the winters in increasingly warm years, but that trend is not always consistent; the 1990s were a warm decade, but the East Coast had several huge snowstorms (such as in March 1993 and January and February 1996). But the huge snow events probably relate to the size and intensity of low pressure systems tracking far enough east to bring in unusually cold air compared to the general trend for warming; the intensity of the storms may be related to warming.

Sudden, prolonged and extreme droughts in some areas, such as the Southeast in 2007, may cause increasing hardships.

The official description of the report is as follows: “Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.3: CCSP, 2008: Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate. Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S.; Pacific Islands. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, edited by and contributions by the following:. Thomas R. Karl, Gerald A. Meehl, Christopher D. Miller, Susan J. Hassol, Anne M. Waple, and William L. Murray, ]. Department of Commerce, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, Washington, D.C., USA.”

Picture: Strong but brief thunderstorm with rainbow on a day with low humidity; strong sun causes convection into pool of cold air aloft associated with an upper level low to the north.

Update: July 8

Global leaders (in the Group of Eight) today pledged with an unbinding resolution to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Oil futures and speculators; oil companies push to use R3M technology for exploration

Today, there may have been some indication that speculation is a more important factor in oil prices than many “market fundamentalists” admit.

According to Patrice Hill in a story on p A10 (Business) in The Washington Times today, there is a report from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to the effect that over 70% of the futures contracts in oil take advantage of a particular loophole for “swap dealers.” Furthermore Wall Street firms are able to pose as “commercial” rather than “financial” participants in the futures markets. The story is called “Speculators accused of dictating oil prices: Investors defy demand with control of futures contracts,” link here.

Nevertheless, the pressure on politicians to allow the expansion of domestic drilling, offshore and on the North Slope in previously restricted areas, is quite compelling. John McCain particularly is starting to call for this. Would oil markets back down if more drilling permits off shore were issued? Is this price spike a ploy to force more drilling? I wonder.

Consider, for example, that ExxonMobil now discusses R3M technology and “ears to the ground” which it says enables it to find productive deposits with less drilling and potentially less environmental impact. But the company insists that it must be allowed to deploy the technology in new areas. The link is here.

In addition to the USA Today reports on the cutbacks in the airline industry, a report on ABC “World News Tonight” last night (Tuesday) seemed to suggest that the days of discount flying for middle class people may soon come to an end, and that we could return to an environment that we had until the middle or later part of the 1960s where only the most well off could afford to fly, and usually on business.

ABC News has a story about oil prices and Congress today by Bill Mayerowitz, link here.

Update: June 25, 2008
Alaska Exxon Valdex oil spill liability case

The Supreme Court reduced ExxonMobil's liability for the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. The Washington Post story (online June 25) is by William Branigin, and is here. The award was reduced from $2.5 billion to about $500 million. XOM shares rose slightly today as a result. The case is called Exxon Shipping Co. et al. v. Baker et al., and the slip opinion at the Supreme Court website is here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Single Sex Classrooms in Public Schools: debate, and maybe a challenge for teachers

Recently, there has been more talk about the benefits of single-sex classrooms in public schools. They are thought to be particularly beneficial for lower income boys. This would correspond to the reality that boys create most of the “obvious” discipline problems, and that boys are behind girls for a good part of childhood (particularly in certain verbal skills), catching up at around age 13 or 14. At certain ranges, girls are thought to develop more confidence in math and science when in single-sex classrooms.

If the trend toward separating students were to continue into high school (beyond the current practice for "health and physical education"), it would place more emphasis on teacher “role model” skills than is necessary in many kinds of classes now.

Another comparable trend, discussed recently, could be to combine middle school and elementary school and keep the K-8 grades under one roof, slowing down the “autonomy” of students as they learn to go to separate classes.

There are many reports, however, that ninth grade has the highest failure rate, especially in low income areas.

Here is a reference to a paper by Jean Sather under “Parent Resource” on MSN Encarta, “Same Sex Classrooms: Can They Fix Our Public Schools, link here. .

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Hybrid Technologies" promotes simple electric car

Today, The Washington Post ran a paid advertisement on p A14 in print for Hybrid Technologies (“Hbyr.Ob”). The item apparently is available only in the print version. The item shows a picture of a tiny car (like the “scareb” around 1980, during the Iran gasoline crisis). It does list all the benefits: zero emissions, no need for a carburetor, distributor, tail pipe, engine, gaskets, transmission, clutch. (It’s hard to imagine how the car would not need a transmission and gears of some kind.) The battery technology is based on lithium technology, which is very effective in packing stored energy. We know from experience with laptop computer batteries that there are conceivably some fire safety issues if manufacturing is not carefully controlled.

The car would be rechargeable at home with a plug in. If the homeowner (or renter) had solar or wind turbine energy, it would run on entirely renewable resources. The housing and utility industry would need to provide the infrastructure to support such a mechanism. Ownership of the car involves a lifestyle of short commutes around an urban area, with renting more conventional gasoline or hybrid vehicles from major car rental companies for cross country trips.

The website gives various links, including mention of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and Sony Pictures “Who Killed the Electric Car?

The company was organized in Nevada and appears to be publicly traded ((OTCBB: HYBR). The research report appears to be available here (at “Pinkinvesting”).

Today The Post also continues the debate on “green energy” with a couple of editorial pieces. An op-ed by Vinod Khasla on p A19 June 19 is titled “The right kind of energy: All biofuels are not the same” and argues for cellulosic fuels, but also for careful monitoring of deforestation in countries (like Brazil and Malaysia) that are or that may become major biofuel producers. The link is here.

A leading Post editorial today discusses a call from the Council for Foreign Relations for “aggressive action” at home that could affect lifestyles. The editorial is subtitled “Another call for U.S. leadership on climate change” and is available here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

More debate on energy prices, global warming

The Washington Times, on June 15, in the “Sunday Read” magazine, has an “opposing viewpoints” style presentation in its “Solutions: Two Views” column, on p 12, on “How to Lower Energy Prices”.

Ed Feulner, from the Heritage Foundation, simply emphasizes more production and more drilling, as well as re-investing in nuclear power, and “letting the market work.” This strategy did seem to work in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when oil prices dropped during the middle of the decade as the Saudis felt impelled to increase production to lowball future competition. It is true, that at a sufficient price, oil can be safely extracted (without environmental damage) from new areas in the Alaska North Slope or offshore, and, as a recent Nightline segment demonstrated, from older fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, emphasizes the development of renewable resources and development of the infrastructure to support plug-in hybrids and the use of sawgrass or biowaste generated biofuels (which requires more processing innovation as well as more innovations in automobile engines). He suggests an “oilbate” to help lower income families, especially those caught in the sudden oil price runup. Even John McCain has been sympathetic to some tax relief to those who must drive large vehicles in rural areas, whereas Obama believes gas tax relief is a “gimmick.” Some Democrats want a “windfall profits tax” when the crude oil price goes and stays over $80 per barrel.

One problem with extra fossil fuel production can, of course, be increased carbon emissions.

A quick Internet search shows that some people consider storing energy from lightning strikes in rural areas (like mountaintops or in the ocean) a promising potential energy source.

The AP has a major story today “Saudi oil chief to address reports of oil increase,” regarding reports that Saudi Arabia will increase oil production now and call a meeting of oil producers in about a week. The link is here.

On CNN today, economist Bjorn Lomborg (author of “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warning” due in August) was critical of the conventional wisdom on global warming, and that we would do better to invest in strategies to adjust to it than just in reducing carbon emissions. He argues that we can do better if we make better economic investments and “get richer” as a planet first. Lomborg believes the sea level rise in the next half century will be about one foot.

Picture: Solar Decathalon in Washinton DC 2007

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guaranteed Healthcare Access Plan would take employers out of the loop

This morning (June 12), Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel appeared on the Today show on NBC to explain his Guaranteed Healthcare Access Plan concept, which is also outlined in a book that he authored and that is published by Public Affairs. The book is widely available by e-commerce.

The website is this.

The federal government issues each citizen a certificate, a bit like a social security card. The certificate allows each person to purchase health insurance under guaranteed issue (no pre-existing condition exclusion) from one of a set of competing plans (which might be like Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans). To fund this, the federal government starts charging a value added tax on many items. It was not mentioned in the interview if pre-tax dollars would be used.

The idea of a VAT could be controversial in an ear of rising prices. But Emmanuel argues that wages will rise because employers will no longer be in the health insurance business, which will help them compete overseas. Furthermore, the plan will take care of Medicaid also, and eliminate the need for Medicaid as it is today.

It was not clear from the interview if the plan would address nursing home care or custodial care at end of life, or how if could affect obligations on other family members.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Arlington County (VA) schools issue new Internet use policy, with some attention to off-campus speech

The Arlington County Public Schools (Virginia) has announced an Internet acceptable use policy for students and employees. It is noteworthy because it is fairly typical of the careful, measured, and sometimes hesitating approach that public school districts, particularly in pluralistic and politically moderate areas like Arlington, must take in handling a potentially dangerous and unsettling issue. There were specific procedures and requirements, spelled out by the Virginia General Assembly in legislation, that had to be followed in developing this policy and documents.

The strike page for the policy is this. The first paragraph deserves quoting in entirety: “Today's students will be the first generation to use the Internet for their entire lives. This unprecedented access to resources will enhance learning, research, communications, exploration of new ideas and expressions of creativity. Unfortunately, this remarkable resource has become susceptible to abuse that often targets young people.” The page offers the tagline, “Check before you click!” There is a conspicuous link to a PDF document “Acceptable Use of Electronic Networked Resources.”

Most of the guidelines for dealing with unacceptable content on campus are familiar with all employers. The school district does filter unacceptable material, in accordance with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Mechanisms exist for administrators or teachers to request blocking of specific material I didn’t see any specific mention of blocking social networking sites per se, but many school districts block them on campus, as well as “amateur” blogs (like this), sometimes using curriculum approval as justification.

Probably the most relevant item for outside or off-campus electronic speech is under “Areas of Responsibility,” item 12. “APS is not responsible for student or staff use of electronic technology resources outside of school. However, staff or students may be disciplined for any technology use that negatively affects APS or that negatively affects the fitness or ability of any staff person to effectively serve the school division.”

Some of what this refers to will be “common sense.” One merely thinks about tragic events in the nation the past ten years. Other items seem more ambiguous. Should a school discipline a student if a Myspace page shows underage drinking? It seems that such discipline should come from parents, not schools. Sometimes parents fail.

For teachers, the issue is particularly troubling. The “between the lines” inference seems to be that teachers must serve as personal role models for students. But to some extent “role model” is a concept that will vary among parents. The ambiguity of this concept has already appeared with previous news reports (discussed on this blog) from Virginia, Florida and South Carolina. School districts should give some specific examples of what kinds of content would be construed as conveying unsuitability. Like it or not, this whole area reminds me of the contortions that the Pentagon went through in 1994 in trying (actually in good faith at the time) to craft policies to implement the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, and trying to decide what statements constituted (in the military frame of reference) “homosexual conduct.”

There is also an issue with substitutes, especially short term subs, who are paid less, work less steadily, generally do not have much authority, and may not perceive themselves as “role models” in the sense that is expected by some parents. This has cropped up around the country as a problem with subs, as with a case in New Jersey with a sub who appeared on the Dr. Phil show.

In early 2005, while I was subbing, I raised, in an essay on my site, the possibility that, because Congress codified certain language into federal law with the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” statute for the military, teachers who had “self-outed” might be in a legally compromising situation if they had to give custodial care to disabled students (in certain limited special education environments). I refused all assignments that could place me in that position. I believe that one middle school principal in Arlington found this, as my assignments at that one school got repeatedly cancelled. I can understand her concern if I raised such a speculative legal question in public with respect to myself, but I felt it was necessary to do so to demonstrate the potential “malignancy” of the DADT law in areas even outside the military. Later, I received apparently unrelated complaints from two other middle schools about the inability to maintain classroom discipline (this is discussed on my main blog July 26, 2007 – please see the Profile and archive links). I eventually resigned in the fall of 2005, and subbed in another district (with an interruption explained on the July 27 entry on that blog) intermittently until 2007. In that district, I encountered an issue when a principal discovered a piece of “fiction” on my site which she construed as “real” or as evidence of or “admission” of unsuitability. The legal term for this kind of problem is “implicit content” and it is a very gray and unexplored area in Internet law. The basic problem is that others (such as minors or parents) may misconstrue content that they find randomly with search engines because they do not understand the full context with which the speaker intended a particular item to be understood, as one would in reading books or magazine articles in the print world.

All of this, indeed, begs the question of “reputation defense” or “online reputation management,” which employers are starting to address; some employers may expect or require key associates to accept professional management of their “online reputations.” Should the same be expected of teachers?

School administrators have some autonomy, and may be permitted (especially with substitutes, in many school districts) to apply their own personal interpretation of teacher “implicit content” or “reputation” without formal guidance from the legal department of a school district.

That’s why school districts need to be more specific as to how certain kinds of content will be construed when found randomly (even outside of campus) on public Internet spaces.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Republican Senators nix oil company windfall profits tax for now; consumers show concern about possible rationing

A measure to tax “windfall profits” of oil companies failed in the Senate today by a vote of 51-43. 60 votes were needed to pass the measure. As a general matter, Republicans claimed that the measure did nothing to encourage production of more crude oil or other fuels or, for that matter, alternative clean renewable energy.

The bill would have placed a 25% tax on some oil company profits.

Also, CNN is reporting that consumers are becoming concerned about the possibility of long gasoline station lines and rationing. In 1973-1974, gasoline stations were closed on Sundays by President Nixon’s order for about four months until the Arab oil embargo was lifted. In many areas, motorists were forced to accept “even-odd” rationing by license plates last digits. So far the administration and Congress have said little about this prospect this time, but the idea would come up if there were a major Al Qaeda attack on mid-Eastern oil fields. Rebels in Nigeria and political turmoil in Venezuela also seriously affect supply and crude oil futures price.

Democrats and some Republicans are suggesting greater regulation of oil futures trading, perhaps with more margin requirements or more connection to actual oil delivery.

The CNN story is “GOP senators spike windfall profits tax on big oil,” link here.

Barack Obama has suggested that a gax tax holiday for consumers is largely a gimmick of very little financial value to consumers, but seems interested in proposing another tax rebate later this year. Hillary Clinton had wanted oil companies to pay consumers' gasoline taxes out of profits.

There were major media reports today that Saudi Arabia made a small increase in oil production, and is calling a meeting to discuss supplies and prices.

Monday, June 09, 2008

South Florida schools have major issues with teacher personal social networking profiles

The major news media sources are becoming more aware particularly of the ease with which controversy can arise from material that teachers post about themselves online, whether in personal blogs or particularly on social networking sites.

On June 3, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran an editorial “Teachers foolish enough to post racy material online deserve punishment,” under the issue “Educators post racy photos,” with the link here. “They will be viewed. They will get around” the editorial reads. Apparently this holds whether or not the material is nominally marked “private” or left open to the general public and especially to search engines.

The original story appeared in this paper June 1 and was reported by Stephanie Sorvath, titled “Area teachers post questionable content on Facebook,” link here. Apparently, according to the news story, several of the postings in question were sexually explicit or in obvious bad taste according to typical social norms expected in a school environment. The story reports Boca Raton PTA president saying that children will believe that teachers are setting an example of what is acceptable behavior when they post such material online. There were supposedly over 80000 people in Broward and Palm Beach counties who would have been able to see the material. Some authorities are saying that switching a page to private would provide acceptable control of access – but others say some material will get around anyway.

The story also indicates that an attorney with the National Education Association has noted a serious problem with younger teachers who have entered teaching jobs after living their college years in cyberspace on the web.

One person (maybe a teacher) posted a letter to the newspaper on June 3 “Story on teachers’ Facebook profiles didn’t need to include names,” link here. Okay, I didn't repeat the names in this blog posting, but I very well could have.

Some teachers don’t seem to realize how public postings on the Internet really are (sometimes even when “private”). Some don’t seem to realize that the “right to privacy” does not encompass material one has voluntarily made public (“published” in the legal meaning of the term) to anyone.

I didn’t see in these stories indications of teachers getting into trouble for controversial but less explicit material (like the “fiction” item that got me in trouble, as discussed in the July 2007 archive on my main blog – see archives).

Curiously, I found this entry on blogspot that appeared to be written by and “Independent School Educator’s List” which seems to suggest that teachers not have non-professional social networking profiles at all in the current climate.

Stories and editorials like these need to be reviewed in the context of short-term subs, who may make much less and have much less responsibility in practice.

I was “tipped off” about this development in Florida with a short byline on page A14 of today’s (June 9) Washington Times in print.

South Carolina has a law called the "Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act" (link here) which (in section 59-25-430) authorizes dismissal of teachers for disregard of administrative conduct regulations. A Law firm (Duff, White & Turner LLC) has interpreted this provision as justifying dismissal even for off-campus Internet activity that "results in a school disruption, or otherwise negatively impacts on the employee’s credibility," as in the Education Law Publication from June 2006, "THE INTERNET AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS: and Similar Websites Pose New Challenges for School Officials," link here. The law firm encourages school districts (in South Carolina and presumably any state) to specify personnel policies that, while recognizing personal is generally not the concern of the district, allow discipline and termination for off-campus activities that could reasonably affect the ability of the teacher to function as a role model in front of teachers and parents.

I had commented on a major Washington Post story (“wild on the web”) on this blog on April 28. It is disturbing how quickly “online reputation defense” is becoming an issue for teachers (even subs), many of whom really don’t understand the dynamics of the issue themselves (nor do administrators) even though some of them will have to teach this concept to middle and high school students themselves. The major media outlets still don’t have a clear grasp of this problem, even though they are finally reporting it more often.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Employee Benefits group proposed setting up several large but "private" health insurance brokers

The Employee Benefits Research Institute in Washington DC, researches public policy positions on employee benefits. They have expressed concerns about the future viability of an employer-based health system, as in this paper, “The Future of Employment-Based Health Benefits? Have Employers Reached a Tipping Point?”, by Paul Fronstin, link here, which challenges the idea that employers want to throw in the towel in providing health insurance. In what is apparently a supplementary and somewhat more forward-looking effort organized by many major private employers who actually give the benefits, an (employer-associated) committee called the ERISA Industry Committee, or "ERIC" has floated a "New Benefit Platform for Life Security", link here. The Committee represents the interests of private employers. A list of other ERIC policy statements is here. The acronym ERISA refers to the federal law regulating employee benefits, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, text here on Find US Law.

The Business Section of The Washington Post today (June 8, page F1) has a story by Jane Byrant Quinn, “Business Leaders Envision a New RX,” link here, , describing the proposal.

The "Lifetime Security Plan" ("LSP") strategy would be to establish several large and private third party benefits administrators, in addition to the whole of the private owned health insurance industry today (including the supposedly “not for profit” Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans). These new entities would focus particularly on pooling “risks” and underwriting benefits for small employers and perhaps even individuals and self-employed people. The plans would also provide portability for those who change jobs, whether by choice or forced to do so by layoffs. The concept accepts the idea that federal law might strictly limit the exclusion of people for various pre-existing conditions, like genetic diseases, HIV status, or diabetes. Both EBRI and ERIC would admit that it is not healthful that private insurers (or particularly their employees and management) perceive an incentive to deny claims in order to build the bottom line. There would be a good question as to how such entities should be capitalized, in order to counter the normal fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to maximize the bottom line at subscribers’ expense. From a political point of view, this sounds to me like an incentive to consolidate Blue Plans, which tried to consolidate their information technology for Medicare intermediary processing with a failed project in Dallas in 1979-1981 which employed me as a systems analyst (the Combined Medicare Project or CABCO) . This could be perceived as a call to set up a “CABCO II” for all health care information processing, with the aim of lowering costs. (I wonder where this would happen. In Dallas again, with the Texas Plan as sponsor? Read it and weep!)

The general idea of this (LSP) plan is that is effective offers almost universal coverage while retaining more patient control and choice (and probably greater medical procedure availability and shorter waiting lines) than in the collectivized British and even the Canadian health insurance systems. It is probably helpful, in most reform proposals, to make employee (and retiree) health premiums be treated as pre-tax, just as employer-paid premiums are now (generally a point made by conservatives).

EBRI (the first paper) admits concerns that fewer employees offer health insurance to retirees, especially those not retired yet. And the insurance that is available is expensive (as is COBRA) and often has large deductibles and copays. Employers may believe that have a bottom-line incentive to protect those actually still working for them. But strategies like LSP would include developing a competitively priced and flexible health insurance program for retirees not yet eligible for Medicare.

Lewin's HBSM (compare)

Visitors may want to compare all of this to the January 2007 writeup of the Health Benefits Simulation Model (HBSM) of the Lewin Group (where I actually worked in 1988-1989). The model predicts the results of various universal and partial coverage models, including single payer models as well as employer-related models ("take-up" situations).

Another useful comparison would come from "New America Foundation" which does argue for shifting the management to the individual with tax policy and efficiencies. This group argues that employer benefits drive down wages, effectively making American workers pay anyway. This idea can be challenged. The proposal, by Len Nichols and Sarah Axeen, is titled, "Increasing Employer Health Costs, Lowering U.S. Competitiveness," link here. This proposal was published in the DC Examiner June 4, and attracted reader letters June 9 on p 14.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Oil and commodity prices: speculators may cause a bubble, but basic demand push remains

Okay, here we go again. For the first time, I actually paid over $4 per gallon Monday. We’ve ranted about supply and demand and tapping out. But today (June 6), David Cho offers a front page story in the Washington Post “Investors’ Growing Appetite for Oil Evades Market Limits; trading loophole for Wall Street speculators is driving up prices, critics say,” link here. Hedge funds and investment banks are purchasing huge commodities contracts, not to take delivery (the ultimate pig pork belly problem) but simply to flip. George Soros (often a Democratic Party economic strategist and advocate of an “open society” in his books, such as “The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered” (1999)), now tells Congress that commodities may be hitting a bubble, just like real estate.

One problem seems to be that the Commodities Futures Trading Corporation (CFTC) has relaxed rules for some investors that ordinarily prevent speculative buying. It’s been accepted that airlines and trucking companies buy futures to lock in fuel price, but they take delivery.

Soros could be right, there could be a bubble that could temporarily deflate oil prices by 20% or so later this year (and probably XOM shares) if the boil gets lanced. But the demand push for petroleum is so strong from developing and highly populated countries like China and India that the tapping out problem seems inevitable, let alone global warming. That's why we need innovations like the mass-produced plug-in hybrid, fuel from sawgrass (not "King Corn") and airline fuel mass produced from coal.

Another major reason for the runnup in commodity and oil prices is the lower value of the dollar. A major speech in Europe this week drove the dollar down further and drove up oil prices suddenly this morning. This idea was echoed by a Market Watch headline by Myra P. Seafong today, "Crude futures hit fresh record atop $135 in electronic trade," link here.

The other thing that strikes me, when seeing this story, is that investment banking is reportedly one of the areas where employers have become sensitive about the personal web activity of traders, because of the possibility of leaks of secret information, as I mentioned in a review on my books blog yesterday.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Algebra I sometimes starts as early as sixth grade: new challenges for math teachers

Schools are accelerating math education, sometimes introducing Algebra I as early as sixth grade. It has become almost standard for eighth grade, and is somewhat common in seventh. I found this to be the case when I was subbing a couple years ago.

I took Algebra I in Ninth Grade, the last year of what was then Junior High School, in 1957-1958. In the beginning it seemed easy, but became more difficult as the school year progressed. It was demanding not to make careless errors on tests and classworks. In fact, the teacher was notorious for her “classworks” which were often 10-problem quizzes, but she would discount the lowest grades on these. I didn’t find word problems (“story problems”) difficult, but what did take a lot of practice and maturity as factoring and polynomial long division. I don’t know why this was hard at first. But math in “senior high school” was a breeze: Plane Geometry in 10th grade, Algebra II in 11th, Solid geometry and trigonometry in 12th. Now, this can be bumped up a couple years, and an enterprising kid can have two years of calculus (including differential equations) before starting college, with plenty of “tuition free” AP credits.

There seems to be something in math education that relates to the biological growth of the brain. It sounds like a good subject for research. There is a certain level of maturity required in learning to think in abstraction. Perhaps other subjects help develop this capability more quickly, especially foreign languages and music. Stronger abstract thinking should lead to better critical thinking about social situations and relationships, and greater prudence in other modern-world activities like Internet use and driving motor vehicles (better grasp of possible consequences).

All of this means something more. Education students preparing to teach Algebra I may need to be prepared to handle younger students than in the past, and may need a deeper set of classroom management and child relationship skills than in the days that I went to secondary and high school.

The Washington Post story June 4 is “Accelerated Math Adds Up to a Division Over Merits,” p A1, story by Daniel De Vise, link here.

Major airlines cut back service and seat capacity, causing sharp fare increases

USA Today this morning (June 4) runs a major story about huge service reductions planned by many domestic airlines as a result of the sharp escalation in oil prices this year. Particularly affected are smaller cities, smaller airports near large cities (like Oakland and Midway), and some vacation destinations, particularly Orlando and Las Vegas, which typically more low fares. Some cuts will be imposed in the fall. With less competition and fewer seats, airlines will be able to demand higher fares. Many red-eye night flights will be eliminated. The "purification" of air travel convenience and affordability will continue through the summer of 2009, the story maintains.

Vacation or personal travelers have often paid only a third or a fourth of what business travelers pay as they used excess capacity. The difference in business and personal fares could get much smaller.

Airlines are restoring Saturday night stayover requirements and increasing advance purchase requirements for lower fares, as well as adding fees for baggage and other sundries. Business travelers in the 90s used to buy back-to-back tickets to get around much higher mid week fares. Then Saturday night stayovers were cut out to eliminate the practice. Network news reports said that leisure travelers might pay 3 or 4 times as much as in the past. I checked DC and Baltimore to LAX in July and found the best fare about $470 a month in advance round trip for a week (USAIR). Southwest from Baltimore was similar (but the one way anytime fares are much higher than they were), a bit better still for seniors over 65.

The front page story Wednesday June 4 is by Marilyn Adams, Barbara De Lollis and Barbara Hansen. It is called “Fliers in for pain as airlines pack it in” and the link is here. The long story gives detailed analysis city by city. 100 communities will lose their air service by the end of 2008. The story was mentioned on the NBC Today show this morning.

NBC Today also reported that United Airlines today announced a reduction in capacity of 17%.

Peter Greenberg has a story on the Today Show section of MSNBC giving airfare and bus or train comparisons, which will work for people with destinations of less than 300 miles. The story is called "Can't fly? Have no fear, trains and buses are here!: TODAY Travel editor Peter Greenberg examines great alternatives to flying," link here.

Some news stories have recently suggested that a single coast-coast round trip by air would use about 10% of a person's annual "carbon footprint."

Science media stories say that airline fuel could be made from coal (for which domestic supply is ample), because the Air Force already has a well-developed program to develop jet fuel from coal. If we knew something like this, why did we wait for this and let it happen? A good high school student could write a science term paper on something like this and argue for it, but airline executives don't seem to get the job done. Science Daily has a good starting point on this from an article in March 2004, here, story title "Coal Source Of Jet Fuel For Next Generation Aircraft".

Personally, I found, in a day car trip yesterday in the Virginia Piedmont, that traffic seemed as heavy as ever. (I still make some of these "feline explorations.") Gasoline prices varied by as much as 20 cents even in small areas.

Second picture: simulated air traffic control monitor, Dulles Airport, Udvar-Hazy Smithsonian Center.

Update: June 11

Southwest Airlines entered into a fuel price insurance contract two years ago, and still gets jet fuel based on a $51 a barrel price. Therefore Southwest hasn't had to drive away cheaper passengers. It was not clear how long this contract lasts.

Of a $670 one way ticket from New York to LA, about $480 is set to be accounted for by the cost of jet fuel.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Obama to clinch nomination "win" today "on the road"; Will Hillary be American Idol #2?

Barack Obama will speak in St. Paul MN tonight (near my home from 1997-2003, in a sense my good old days) as Obama is very close to meeting the number of pledged delegates (including superdelegates). The Donkey exercise Saturday on Michigan and Florida seems like distant history. And Hillary Clinton is due to speak tonight. She has already hinted at taking the “consolation prize”. You know, you can finish #2 in American Idol and get tremendous recording contracts. Clay Aiken and now David Archuleta have proven that.

There was a “sneak preview” on ABC’s “The View” this morning that Hillary was going to “concede” tonight, but then the “preview” was withdrawn. Is that like calling Dewey early in 1948? (Or Gore in Florida early in 2000? The Newseum has a short film on getting the news -- especially election returns -- wrong.)

The no-brainer is that Hillary should be on the ticket. But whether the unfortunate attacks and lapses in taste occasionally precludes making her the “automatic” VP candidate remains to be seen.

Obama is very likely to win the election and be the first African American president. I am optimistic that he will be able to get the right Congress to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Analysts say that Obama won by being able to raise money from so many individual donors, for whom he could return again. Obama manufactured a lot of runs with singles and live drives between the outfielders and seemed to have a couple of six run innings in the middle of the game; Clinton depended on solo home runs. She may have had “home team advantage” but her last at bat in the bottom of the ninth inning wasn’t enough to get into extra innings. She lost a one-run game, sort of like a Yankees 12-11 loss at home.

Did Oprah’s coming on so early for Obama make a big difference? Maybe.

One can imagine other running mates: John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Joe Lieberman. OK, imagine Oprah on the ticket, or even her “Big Give” co-host Nate Berkus, who personally survive the 2004 tsunami.

History will be made, but it always will be, somehow.

Update: June 9

A transcript of Hillary Clinton's official concession speech at the National Building Museum in Washington DC June 7 is here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Grass roots conversations: many substitute teachers encounter discipline problems

I wanted to report that I’ve had some more underground and informal discussions about substitute teaching. Based on what people tell me, it is common for short term substitute teachers to experience classroom management problems and for administrators to have to handle increased discipline problems when subs work in some schools and some kinds of classes. It isn’t unusual for subs to have to leave after some time, according to the “three strike” rules that have been discussed earlier.

Administrators face a lot of pressure from parents, and a substitute basically has no due process rights the way may substitute systems are set up with unlicensed substitutes. It is easier to “fix” the problem by banning the substitute from the particular location (with a “do not send” or “do not use”) request, than to investigate carefully. Substitutes often do not get much performance feedback, although individual teachers who like the work of particular subs often call them again rather than using automated job assignment systems (like SIMS).

In the short term, however, substituting works for many people, especially more assertive people who have practical experience with children.

As I’ve noted before, this is a topic that the major news outlets should take up seriously before the next school year starts.