Sunday, August 31, 2008
Elizabeth Becker has a provocative editorial in The Washington Post today (Aug. 31, 2008) about “global tourism” which she calls a “planet-threatening plague.” The article, on page B01, Outlook, is called “Don’t Go There: The whole world has the travel bug. And It’s Ravaging the Planet,” link.
Cruise ships – floating hotels – are a particular culprit and tourism accounts for 5% of the planet’s pollution. I’ve never taken a cruise, because I don’t like to stay in the same “space” – I remember Roger Ebert used to sponsor movie cruises in February every year.
She talks about the ease with which luxury hotels got to build right after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and about the damage done to historical structures and towns in Cambodia after the Vietnam war wound down.
It’s odd that she says that travel and tourism are cheap – when you consider the run-up on oil prices this year, and all the airline fees and the end of many discount fares (although they could come back).
It’s true, that when I came of age, the possibility of going on a “self-date” hundreds of miles away for just a weekend gave me a sense of independence – that I needed as a social bargaining chip.
It’s also said that for the three nights after September 11, 2001, when air traffic was grounded, the nighttime temperatures, without airliner contrails, were 2 degrees F lower.
We heard talk of curtailing personal travel before, during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, and after the second oil crisis (Iran) in 1979.
This time, it sounds like a sustainability issue. Apart from cyberspace, lfe could get much more local for the next generation.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Merrill Lynch this morning has a letter to its own account holders called “Smart Solutions” discussing the viability of “green-based” investing, probably of the kind that would please Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio and Oprah Winfrey! The https link is here but may be available only to Merrill Lynch account holders. However, Merrill Lynch has a public PDF report “Environmental Sustainability Framework” link here.
The report quotes Colbert Narcisse, Merrill Lynch's Chief Operating Officer, Americas Investment Banking, as saying that the investment bank has made strategic investments in a number of companies that will benefit from sharply increased demand for renewable resources. Peter Stamos (Sterling Stamos Capital Management) compares this to the computer “gold rush” in the early days of personal computers --- like the early 80’s – when PC’s and minis would gradually move into mainstream commercial information technology, while consumers would experience the revolution starting with dial-up user groups, leading to email, then the full World Wide Web, and Peer-to-Peer. A similar progression will occur with renewable energy. Possibly T. Boone Pickens could be right, and that natural gas would provide a bridge step.
States like California are passing “renewable portfolio standards” meaning that utilities must meet specified targets of percentages of electricity from renewable sources by given dates.
The naming of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice-president running mate suggests a focused attention on energy, since Alaska is “the” big oil producing state now. Palin favors opening the wildlife refugee to exploration, and her husband works in the oil industry. The overall trend in the investment community and more “responsible” conservative circles is to predicate favorable treatment of oil companies on their interest in new drilling in investment rather than just in buying back stock or paying big dividends. Palin’s selection could send that signal. This may be a good place to mention the political oracle Adam Brickley and his blog that promoted Paley (“We Did It!), here. Note that Barack Obama backed off attacking the tax breaks for oil companies in his acceptance speech (wise), but his television ads still do so.
As I said repeatedly, we need to do everything. Develop renewable sources, build efficient cars on alternate sources, and we need to drill for hard-to-reach oil.
We’ll have to watch the effect of Hurricane Gustav on the oil platforms in the Gulf carefully in the next few days.
Friday, August 29, 2008
When I lived in Dallas in the 1980s, I drove northwest up US 287, past Wichita Falls, Texas, all the way past Vernon a few times, and I probably passed through the town of Harrold. In fact, Thalia (“The Last Picture Show”, a period movie based on the novel by Larry McMurty) is not too far away. I even remember visiting a county fair and carnival in Vernon once, and there was even a “freak show” (with performers who could challenge you). That’s the mood of the area as I recall it.
Today, Aug. 29, The New York Times, in a front page story by James C. McKinley, notes that in this small town teachers can carry concealed weapons if properly licensed and trained. The idea is, frankly, a subtle and indirect form of deterrence. ““Our people just don’t want their children to be fish in a bowl,” the school superintendent (Wilbarger County) David Thweatt was quoted as saying. Texas allows an exception to its weapons-free zone law for schools (found generally in all states) for persons who are properly licensed. The program is voluntary, but it would seem to put teachers in a further position of enforcing discipline and defending minors from the possibility of deadly threats.
The story link is here.
In Virginia, where I have subbed, there is no exception. On one day in May, 2005 a regular teacher was arrested at Westfield High School in Fairfax County for having a weapon locked in the trunk of his car when it was parked on school property. This happened on a day that I subbed there, and there was an emergency meeting at the end of the school day that I attended. Some kind of unusual tip had led to his arrest. Virginia’s specific statute for this issue is here.
That raised, in my mind, the another question. Could a teacher or sub be charged with anything for possessing “adult” (although otherwise legal) printed matter in his car, if locked up? It would be illegal to distribute such materials, but what about their mere presence in a locked automobile for later personal use? I couldn’t find anything in Virginia statutes that say anything like that, but the thought is scary. Other states could have such laws. Study the link for more of Virginia’s statutes here.
Picture: "Mars soil" prairie country north of Abilene, TX
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Last night, the Democrats (or is it “Democats”) had a speech-fest in Denver, aired on PBS, climaxing with Hillary Clinton’s address. Her oration (only about 20 minutes) was crisp and to the point: she supports Barack Obama, and we must elect Barack Obama, etc. The Huffington Post carries a copy of the text and video that the visitor can enjoy now, here.
I’ve generally perceived of Hillary Clinton as a bit more “conservative” than Obama, even if her health care plans were perhaps comprehensive. Perhaps that like saying that Walter Mondale is more conservative than Sen. Paul Wellstone, whom he had to replace after the 2002 tragedy. Her husband, “My Boy Bill” (“Carousel”), became a bit of a “Republicrat” and left office with a budget surplus. Look where we are now (as in the new film “I.O.U.S.A.” from Roadside Attractions).
But, there was a repeated tone in the convention or playing the “I’m a victim” card, or “I’m dependent and that had better be OK” ace. One woman from North Carolina, laid off after years with Pillowtex, talked about offshoring, cheap labor, and the loss of a wayt of life here. One thing she said rang true. She said she had to put family first. That didn’t necessarily mean the children she bore. That meant obligations (to parents and siblings) that she had no opportunity to choose. We see that same problem in the film “October Sky” where Homer Hickum’s brother has to go to work in the coal mines (and give up any personal dreams) when his father gets black lung disease (so the upper middle class can live better without getting its hands dirty).
So perhaps you can say that Bush and Cheney played “Robin Hood” in reverse: robbed the poor and gave to the rich. McCain has his work cut out for himself, to figure out how to answer this. I don’t know if he can.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Occasionally we hear stories that school systems need to recruit more men, especially young men, into teaching, particularly in lower grades, in order to have more role models for economically or otherwise disadvantaged boys. Men have sometimes resisted this call, partly because of higher pay of other careers, and partly because of sensational media reports of occasional teacher misconduct, which may be quite small as a percentage of teachers, but which nevertheless gets attention.
The Washington Post has a front page story this morning of a new 26 year old fifth grade teacher at Park-McCormack Elementary School in Prince Georges County, MD. The teacher, along with a wife and fifteen-month-old child, had moved from Utah. The story is by Nelson Hernandez, has the title “First-Day Jitters Aren’t Just for Students: New Pr. Georges Teacher Already Learning Lessons,” link here.
The students wear uniforms at this school. This has been a trend in some lower income areas to reduce rivalry, gangs, and resentment, and maintain better discipline. The teacher was learning that “classroom management” (a bit of a euphemism in education circles) was a big deal, despite intense training after a political science major in the “Teach for America” program. The classroom has a private bathroom whose access must be rationed; some grade school classrooms have these, especially if disabled students attend.
At the particular school, 90% of the kids qualify for meal subsidies. 85% are Hispanic, and over 50% speak poor English. It seems to me that English, with its many irregular spellings (although simplified grammar), homonyms, and derivative words, could be a difficult language to learn later in life for people raised on Spanish, which is a very straightforward language. I add from my own subbing experience a Spanish word that English should assimilate: “la tarea” for “task” or, specifically, homework (“les devoirs” in French).
In PG County, 25% of high school students fail to graduate in four years, with many failing ninth grade.
The Washington Post today also has an instructive editorial on p A12, “More Pay for Good Teachers: Why do unions oppose it?” here. The editorial discusses the resistance to pay-for-results plans in both Denver and Washington DC, where Michelle Rhee has created controversy, although the Post says experienced and tenured teachers may not perceive much incentive to “risk it.”
There was an interesting article by Kenneth Chang in the New York Times April 25 suggesting that word problems may not be the best way to teach how to solve algebra problems. The article, referring to research at Ohio State, is titled “Study suggests math teachers scrap balls and slices” here. The study seems to suggest that kids tend to remember the superficial aspects of the problem and not how to translate it into algebraic equations. This is a surprise. Most physics problems are solved by translating into equations. And one would think that sports word problems would, out of simple self-interest, inspire students to formulate algebraic (how fast do you have to swim to win a race) or geometric and trigonometric (how far does a batted baseball have to go to be a home run over Boston’s “Green Monster”) relationships.
Update: September 1, 2008
The Washington Post Metro, p B02, has a long perspective "Add It Up: Math Matters" about mathematics education in DC area schools. The link is here. Many schools are trying to force as many students as possible to take Algebra by eighth grade, resulting in watered-down algebra, and a lot of work for personal tutors.
Update: September 22, 2008
The Washington Post continues the stories on the "controversies" of starting Algebra earlier, of preparing grade school students for it, and of the "abstract thinking" required as algebra progresses, here in a story by Mary Alison Chandler teaching at Fairfax High, link. The story gives links to successive stories by Jay Matthews.
I took Algebra II in 11th Grade in 1959-1960 and found it much easier than Algebra I, which in those days started in the Ninth Grade. It simply took practice to gain fluency with skills like factoring. (Think how you teach it: inspection for all possible term divisors, trial; on typical test problems, usually there are only a few possibilities.)
Sunday, August 24, 2008
David Leonhardt has an interesting, if wordy, overview of Barack Obama’s views of the economy in the Sunday Aug. 24 “New York Times Magazine” on p 24, link here. The online article is called simply “How Obama Reconciles Dueling Views on Economy”. How Clintonian! The print version is more outlandish. “A Free-Market-Loving, Big-Spending, Fiscally Conservative, Wealth Redistribtionist.” Early on, Leonhardt talks about Bill Clinton’s two sides, represented by Bob Reich, who wanted big infrastructure spending, and Robert Rubin, who wanted to reduce the deficit and calm the bond markets. Obama may well indeed follow the mantra of the “IOUSA” film warnings at “Roadside Attractions.”
Reaganism, after all, liked the idea that if you let the rich keep more, they will invest in more productive thinks and create more jobs. Sometimes they do, but a lot of these things tend to burst. (Remember H. Ross Perot's "Trickle down didn't trickle!" in 1992? We have come back in a full circle.) So Obama definitely wants a tax policy that helps middle class families preferentially, and makes their spending capacity more stable. One flaw is that Obama tends to target specific industries (like oil) for “undeserved” profits (objectively he seems off the mark), and tends to sneer at wealth earned passively from invested property. In fact, a number of observers are calling him "Robin Hood" specifically for singling out specific "enemies of the people" (oil companies, again), as in Peter Brown's Aug. 17 Wall Street Journal op-ed blog entry, "Obama Plays Robin Hood", here. That attitude does not bode well for seniors, who often have modest incomes from work but large potential sustenance incomes from assets (and who may need them for long term care, lest their adult kids wind up on the hook). Obama, by the way, has also proposed a variety of schemes to shore social security by taxing the "rich," possibly even on non-wage income, as a further tool of redistribution. The AARP et al need so make all of this clear to “liberal Democrats” who seem ready to expropriate wealth from those who have already lived once.
The other dichotomy comes with the issue of sustainability. Obama seems to be in a genuine quandary. Bill Clinton (and, I believe, Hillary) came to believe that technology really could deal with sustainability problems, but McCain sounds more confident of this than does Obama, who is tending to look at oil production peaks and global warming as moral issues that may well filter down to individual values.
I do think that if Obama winds, the movement to lift "don't ask don't tell" will gain real traction, and may fit in to his desire to invigorate national service. His moral vision could prove interesting.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Should public school kids be paid for good behavior and earning good grades in school? District of Columbia Schools Michelle A. Rhee is planning to reward up to 3000 middle school kids for attendance, good behavior, and grades at 14 schools with cash. The story appeared Friday, Aug. 22 on the front of the Washington Post, and is authored by V. Dion Haynes and Michael Birnbaum. The story is titled “D.C. Tries Cash as Motivator in School: Initiative Is Aimed at Middle Grades,” link here.
Paying students for what they should go anyway, when they get a public school education on a public dime?
I wonder what teachers think of this.
I did “earn” a chemistry scholarship in 1961 with a competitive examination at William and Mary, but the benefits of such would be lost by what followed, as documented on my other blogs.
Update: Aug. 27, 2008
The Washington Post today has an editorial on p A12, "Bribery or Motivation: Let's give cash incentives for D.C. middle school students a chance," link here. The Post, echoing arguments of Harvard Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., says that upper middle class kids already are "indirectly bribed" to see the benefits of good performance in school. Poorer kids might learn from the opportunity to handle a little money. Is this what Sunday School used to call "bribery bridge"?
Recently, the political candidates, especially Barack Obama, have talked a lot about volunteering and national service. Even so, The Washington Post reported Friday Aug. 22 that the Peace Corps has been cutting back on recruiting new volunteers as it has an $18 billion shortfall.
Bush had once promised to double the size of the Peace Corps. Despite criticisms of the administration’s “life as usual” mantra after 9/11, the administration did place more attention on opportunities like Americorps. However, in fiscally difficult times, the Peace Corps, like other priorities, has gotten whacked.
The Washington Post story is by Christopher Lee, is titled “Peace Corps to Pare Ranks of Volunteers: Despite Bush’s Goal of Doubling Program’s Size, Tight Budget Forces Cuts,” p A15, link here.
I requested a Peace Corps application in 2002 and attended some information briefings while still in Minneapolis. Despite the public call for volunteers (who range in age up to 82), the application is very long, seems to require a history of personal service and volunteering, and many recommendations. Spending one’s work life on call in a computer room does not set one up to be an ideal volunteer.
Friday, August 22, 2008
A federal appeals court (a three-judge panel in the District of Columbia) has upheld the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, particularly a controversial provision that appoints a non-profit “Public Company Accounting Oversight Board” (link) under the Securities and Exchange Commission. The act was controversial because of “separation of powers” concerns. The long name of the Act is the Public Company Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002, and the acronyms are “SOX” (like the Chicago White Sox uniforms!) and “Sarbox.” The text of the Act from the US Government Printing Office is here.
The Opinion from the DC Circuit is available at this URL. The formal name of the case is “Free Enterprise Fund and Beckstead and Watts, LLP v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, et al”
The Washington Post story on Aug. 22 is by David S. Hilzenrath, and has this URL.
The law was passed in large measure because of the "good old boy" schmoozy networks between companies and "big 8" auditors, that expressed ethical conflicts of interest, and that encouraged hiding of abusive accounting practices ("cooking the books") that led to the collapse of Enron and then WorldComm in 2001 and 2002.
In practice, SOX is controversial because it supposedly limits the ability of certain kinds of financial services professionals and agents to earn income outside of their jobs, especially when they receive “training bonuses” from their companies. I was told this by New York Life in 2005, and supposedly the company checked this provision with its compliance office. The concern seems to relate to the possibility that someone could try to function simultaneously both as an “agent” and a “broker”.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Relatively few entities may have a much larger influence on the oil market than had been previously thought. The Washington Post reports today, in a story by David Cho, “A Few Speculators Dominate Vast Market for Oil Trading.” The link is here.
There was particular attention to the futures contracts purchased by a Swiss energy company Vitol, which the Commodities Futures Trading Corporation found involved in inordinate activity buying futures contracts for profit rather than delivering oil. For example, look at this complaint (PDF) There are others that can be found by searching for Vitol there.
In 2007, the AP ran a story (now in the International Herald) that Vitol had paid a $17.5 million fine after pleading guilty in an oil-for-food case, link here.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
First of all, Jim Cramer (CNBC “Mad Money”) has a controversial video on “The Street” where he talks about short selling (link).
Does everybody understand it?
I could laugh at this. Back in 1998 or so, I had “buddies” at the office who actually sold short sometimes, as a kind of hobby. A dangerous hobby (during the Asian financial crisis).
Anyway, the rules to curb “naked short selling” abuses on 19 key stocks were set to expire Aug. 11 (24/7WallStreet link), and I like the analogy to baseball. Say, lets give the Nats 10 at-bats when they play the Yankees (let the Nationals, with 11 losses in a row, be both home and visitors at once). That’s what the rules were like.
Karey Wutkowski writes for Cox and Reuters that the SEC will propose broader rules to regulate short-selling within the next six weeks (Aug. 19), link here.
Then, today The New York Times weighs in with a doom-and-gloom editorial (“No End in Sight”) that a lot more banks, mortgage companies and mainstream businesses will fail. They want a “different” economic stimulus package to increase consumption (start with Food Stamps, the Times says), and jawborne mortgagers to accept the fact that homeowners will have their homes protected by court supervision. The link is here. And, oh yes, everybody is starting to re-accept the fact that Fannie and Freddie will have to be bailed out.
Can someone explain what all this short-selling fiasco really means?
Picture (above): Freddie Mac, in McLean VA (heat and humidity affected the camera resolution that day).
Below: Fannie Mae on Wisconsin Ave in Washington DC, about six blocks S of Tenleytown Metro stop.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
The United States Census Bureau has released a report “Fertility of American Women: 2006: Population Characteristics ,” with a link here (pdf). This study was collected by the American Community Survey. The percentage of women 40-44 who are childless (20%) is twice as high as it was in 1976, 30 years ago, at 10%. Women 40-44 end childbearing with a fertility rate of 1.9%, less than replacement rate, although for Hispanic women it is 2.3%. AOL released the AP report (link) ) with an additional survey in which 28% of adults answering say they have had no children.
As a whole, the United States seems to be just about at replacement rate on its population, compared to many European countries and Japan, which are sometimes well below. However, demographic trends suggest that in many populations fewer births may occur even within the United States.
Lower populations in some communities could mean fewer jobs for teachers and discouragement to enter teaching, even though overall the need is great. More childlessness could also mean more of certain health problems for women.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Daniel Gallington, himself (the column says) insured by Medicare, has a column on p A16 of The Washington Times today (Aug. 18), where he points out some inconsistencies in the way conservatives debate health care. He mentions the McCarren Act of 1945 (not the national security McCarran Act of 1950) but I couldn’t find a lot on it, other than on this blog. But let’s move on.
Our system leaves regulation of all insurance to the states, so what we are left with is system where, under some regulation, insurance companies make a profit by taking in more in premiums than they pay in claims, and that gives them every incentive to avoid anti-selection. So, to the extent that they can “get away with it,” insurance companies “discriminate” against the less insurable. In health insurance, he argues, that leaves government to pick up the tab (that is, the taxpayers). Insurance companies (especially the “not-for-profits” like Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans) will take the money for processing the claims that the government pays. With the poor, we have a similar consideration with Medicaid, which states pay for, but with considerable federal participation (and with nursing homes, considerable controversy).
We do this with other kinds of insurance, and considerable variation among states. With auto insurance, more regulation (to get everyone insured) tends to lead to higher premiums. Auto insurance companies can discriminate in some cases, as against young single men, who take more chances and as a group represent more risk, even if some individual men (say, military pilots) may be excellent risks.
“As the world turns” risk gets harder to assess. Insurance companies balk at insuring properties in coastal or fire- or earthquake-prone areas. States try to regulate. They offer umbrella policies, often as part of auto or homeowner’s coverage, and then suddenly wonder if they are taking on too much liability risk because of the exposure created by blogging and the Internet. It’s not so much that there have been many claims or losses (there haven’t) but that the risk is not calculable because the actuarial parameters and equations just don’t exist yet, and the practical anti-selection risk seems great. Writers have found out that media perils insurance for Internet activity can be difficult to arrange.
Getting back to health care. Gallington challenges the presidential candidates to ask hard questions on such questions as high risk pools (or elimination pre-existing conditions), preventive care, and child and newborn care. He has a challenging perspective, but no easy answers. There aren’t any.
Friday, August 15, 2008
I remember that a distant family member received some income from a gas well on her farm near Wellington, Ohio as far back as the 60s. Plenty of people have throughout the Midwest, and recently there is an new oil book in North Dakota. The deposit of Bakken Shale, with 4.3 billion barrels to recover from underneath the Badlands, is probably the largest single domestic deposit only. MSN top stocks had written about this on April 10, 2008, here. It’s interesting that this was reported while investors were driving up futures prices last spring, almost blind to the news. The International Herald Tribune had written about Stanley, ND on New Years Day, “as oil follows in North Dakota, a boom and burdens follow,” link here.
When I worked in Minneapolis, one of our branches was in Bismarck, ND, and workers from there had called it “God’s country.”
Now, the attention is moving further east, to the natural gas buried in Applachia, all the way to the “Ridge and Valley Province,” in a formation called the Marcellus Shale, some of it two miles down. The Washington Post story Aug. 15 by Joel Achenbach, “Traditional Energy’s Modern Boom: High prices are driving increased extraction of oil and other fossil fuels,” link here. It doesn’t seem from the report that the “eastern shale” will add to the massive stripmining for coal that is removing mountaintops and ridges on the western side of Appalachia. Shale is supposedly intrinsically dirty to mine, and experiments in Colorado in the early 80s did not go well.
This all comports well with the "Pickens Plan," doesn't it!
Second Picture: Oil Shale mining in Alberta
Thursday, August 14, 2008
National Service, Conscription, "don't ask don't tell": how would these issues mix? "Morality" has really changed!
As many visitors know, I grew up during the Cold War, when the way young men shared the apparent risks of protecting democracy was perceived as one of the central “moral” issues of the day.
Right after 9/11, some observers and politicians did call for a return of the draft. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said so just three days after the attacks. Charles Moskos, architect of “don’t ask don’t tell” regarding gays in the military, starting arguing for conscription, but more on social justice grounds than real need, in November 2001 in the Washington Post. Moskos even emailed me as follows that month: “Gays must come out for conscription. Then the ban would be lifted.” See “Now do you believe we need a draft: We’re in a new kind of war. Time for a new kind of draft,” written with Paul Glastris, link here (Washington Monthly), URL here. Part of his argument is that conscripts could serve in technologically advanced positions, but we were actually moving in that direction during Vietnam (as with my own experience, below). But the thrust of his concerns is that those who benefit from advanced society seem to be the most immune from the consequences of actions that lead to the need to defend it. One sentence from the piece is particularly telling: “One reason more young people don't serve now is the fear that while they're wearing the uniform, their peers will be out having fun and getting a leg up in their careers. If everyone were required to serve, no one would feel like a sucker.” In some cases since, Moskos seems to have favored national service, but possibly with more post-service benefits for those in the military. Other politicians, like Charles Rangell (D-NY) has articulated comparable sentiments, and on the conservative side, columnists like Jack Cafferty have raised the service and draft issue (in his book "It's Getting Ugly Out There"; see my books blog, Oct. 2007).
The arguments go in several directions from here. Most Americans apparently don’t want to see military conscription, but many would favor mandatory national service, or at least a strong carrot incentive for service. Barack Obama has said “you owe that to yourself.” Would it take place just once, at the end of adolescence, or could it be cyclical, throughout life? Would it result in tuition allowances, for college or even careerswitchers (like into teaching)? Would the service emphasize third world work in primitive conditions, or expanded social empathy skills (working with underprivileged children)? Right after 9/11, there were lots of papers around for “citizen corps” kinds of activities specifically related to imagined homeland security needs.
Then there is the question of the “backdoor draft,” which is how the current forced “Stop-Loss” extensions of military service work now (as in the recent movie of that name). The graphic nature of the casualties in the war in Iraq, and the obvious psychological burdens not only on the particular veterans but also their spouses and families This point comes across particularly in recent independent films like “Fighting for Life” and “Body of War”. Another question would be whether any kind of conscription (or mandatory service) would apply to females too. Most of the American public would probably think that it should, as it does in Israel now. In the 1981 case of Rostker v. Goldberg (orig. Rowland v. Tarr), as discussed in an old Heritage Foundation paper, by Thomas Ascik, “Draft Registration: Congress, the Supreme Court, the Separation of Powers” here. The 1981 case developed in a political climate where Carter had proposed resuming draft registration because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which now seems ironic. Cornell Law School has a copy of the Opinion here.
Many people do not know that the Selective Service System is still active and that men within a certain age range must still register. It is possible to register online was well as by USPS mail. Sometimes Selective Service actually recruits people from the community to "serve" on the local board. I would decline. Selective Service does say that if a draft were reenacted today by Congress, it would use a lottery (unless Congress changed it, which is very unlikely). It doesn't look like the President can do this alone by executive action. Visitors should peruse the site, especially the details (link on the left) as to what happens if a draft is re-authorized.
In the past, married men had some draft deferments, and then those with children (the so-called “Kennedy fathers”) could be deferred, until Johnson engineered that this policy be changed as Vietnam heated up in 1965. Until 1969 and Nixon’s “lottery”, student deferments became the moral issue “du jour,” a convenient target from the political Left which could attack the hereditary politics of privilege. In my mind, the whole deferment issue is a kind of moral mirror of the debate over “don’t ask don’t tell” in 1993. I can’t stress this enough: the deferment issue played on the idea that some men were more “worthy” to live on than others, whether by marital performance (to put it bluntly, however unpleasant that is to contemplate by today’s standards), or because of “book smarts.” I remember that the deferments were a sensitive issue when I was an assistant instructor in graduate school; students who failed undergraduate math could wind up in the rice paddies, literally. Two decades or so before, the World War that we had won had been fought to defeat that kind of national mentality. Times do change, don’t they.
It is noteworthy that both Prince William and Prince Harry (Windsor) serve in the British military. The exposure of Harry's service in Afghanistan as a lieutenant led to his removal for security reasons last spring.
After my college expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 (for admitting “latent homosexuality”) and subsequent “recovery” and obtaining an MA in Mathematics in 1966, I did “volunteer for the draft” and served two years, officially without incident. (In 1984, I was able to buy a home VA.) But there is more. To protect my “reputation” (in what seems to me an odd prequel to today’s notion of “online reputation defense”) I volunteered for the draft physical three times, in 1964, 1966 and 1967. The results of the physical were 4-F, 1-Y and finally 1-A. I may be the only “self-proclaimed homosexual” who went from 4-F to 1-A and finally was drafted. I remember talking to two Army recruiters, one in Kansas and one in Arlington. The Arlington one said that there was a 95% chance that anyone who drafted or who enlisted for only two years would get infantry as the MOS and go to Nam and really fight. As for OCS, “they needed leaders of men in combat.” That’s how it was put. Technically, I reported two weeks before my induction date and enlisted for two years, which many people did not know you could do,
But the sequel is even more telling. In early 1968, I took 14 weeks to finish Basic Training (I spent a few weeks in “Special Training” to pass the PCPT (Physical Combat Proficiency Test) with a final score of 357), but then was assigned to the Pentagon through Fort Myer. I lived at “home” part of the time, but was in the South Post barracks when news of the RFK assassination in Los Angeles became known. The song “Those were the days, my friend, I thought they would never end” was playing and interrupted with the news. It’s one of those moments one remembers.
Mysteriously, I would be “transferred” out of the Pentagon in September and I would spend the rest of my hitch in Fort Eustis (“Fort Useless”), ten miles from the William and Mary campus from which I had been expelled eight years earlier. But my MOS was “01E20”, Mathematician, and it kept me out of Vietnam. As for the two-year hitch, I was one of the fortunate 5%. I met other graduate school scientists in the Army, and some had done what I did and “taken their chances” with two years and won. Others had bought the lie and were in for three. The social climate in my own Army experience was much more tolerant toward homosexuality (often more so than in civilian life) because of the education level and because of general opposition to war. In fact, most people expected that the war would end sooner if Nixon was elected in 1968. It eventually ended, and with it, the draft.
I have written before that the draft could be compared to involuntary servitude, and freedom from the later is a fundamental right. But the simile is not complete. Our culture is running up another inconvenient truth, or “apparent truth”: some common responsibilities are much easier to carry out when everyone knows he or she has to share in them, no exceptions.
As I noted, the public as a whole does not want military conscription again, and wants to see us out of Iraq (Afghanistan is a different matter perhaps). But the public may favor the idea that some kind of service should become practically mandatory. It could be possible to structure it in a way to help most families pay for college or career education tuition and reduce the load of student loan debt. The issue of “don’t ask don’t tell” obviously must come up in such an environment. To push gays away from the military in a quasi-mandatory service environment, whatever the “unit cohesion” and “barracks privacy” arguments, will create its own secondary problems (remember that in the late 60s it was just beginning to be acceptable for some people to try to get out of the draft by feigning homosexuality, and the draft examination boards usually didn’t buy it (as in the 1996 film, "Stonewall"). It seems appropriate that Marty Meehan's bill (HR 1246) in Congress to end "don't ask don't tell" has the words "Military Readiness" in its name. Some of those arguments (justifying DADT) could be used in other areas (like fire departments and law enforcement, or intelligence) but increasingly we find that these arguments become red herrings. But even in other areas of service, personal traits can become significant, particularly for volunteers deployed to culturally or politically sensitive areas overseas.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
A tour with a hydrogen-powered car will visit 31 states and 18 cities, starting in Portland, Maine, perhaps in Stephen King country. There are only 62 service stations nation wide with hydrogen fuel so far. The car is the Honda FCX Clarity, which is leased (not sold), pretty much as “proof of concept.” 26 of the H-2 stations are in California, and ten more are planned. Therefore, the tour will require portable fueling stations, powered by ordinary gasoline or fossil fuels, to accompany the car. That’s always the catch-22 with bootstrapping an experiment like this.
The ABC News story is by Chuck Squatriglia, and is titled, “Hydrogen Cars Go Cross-Country, with Help From Fossil Fuels,” link here.
The California Fuel Cell Partnership is a significant player in the event.
Hydrogen is “merely” the most common element in the Universe. Jupiter has plenty of it in compressed liquid and even metallic form.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Once again, it’s time that the politicians, particularly the Democrats and Obama, stop confusing the public on energy. Gasoline prices have slipped, as has crude oil. Actually, today its back “up” to $115 because of the Georgian crisis, which in the grand scheme of things is probably a relatively trivial matter.
Some liberals want to expropriate the windfall profits of oil companies and give them to “working families.” ExxonMobil is a particularly attractive mark. We know how left-wing moralism gets going. In fact, XOM has been down recently, because its earnings, as large as they are in “absolute value” quantity, are not great relative to the size of the company. This sounds like your typical Algebra I problem, where the public doesn’t get the relative significance of “numbers.” (How many teachers know how to convey this?_ Another problem is that oil companies don’t own many of the reserves and take enormous business risks in drilling. I was just in a meeting this morning with some financial types at an investment bank, and this is they think it all comes to, particularly with oil stocks.
McCain, to his credit, has jumped on this and preached that we need to drill if we are not to lower our standard of living. He admits (here like Obama) that we also need to do everything else, including developing renewable energy, whether the Pickens Plan or something else. I’m going astray here perhaps, but what then happens with some of the Republicans is to take the “fairness” debate down to individual morality and family values in a way that keeps society polarized and that misses many of the main moral points. Who can be “social liberal” but innovative and fiscally conservative? Libertarians?
The Washington Post today (August 12) has an editorial on p A12, “Snake Oil: Debunking three ‘truths’ about offshore drilling.” The link is here.
The Post points out that we really don’t know what percentage of the World’s reserves we have. It’s likely to be a lot more than 3%. Look at the enormous field in North Dakota. Look at off-limits places in Alaska like Gull Island.
Another problem is that industry reporting doesn’t show how oil companies use the leases they already have. Accounting in the oil business is tremendously complicated (remember the show “Dallas”?) and does keep some IT people employed, even today.
Still another is that the public doesn’t have the proper perception of the environmental risks here relative to the fact that they are just as important in other parts of the world, including Africa. The Post maintains that spills became a volatile issue after a Santa Barbara blowback in 1971, followed, of course, by the Exxon-Valdez incident in Alaska in 1989.
At least some of the recent deflation of the oil price “bubble” must stem, not only from the talk of regulating speculation, but also from the perception that the public is accepting the idea of more drilling. It may take a few years for the drilling to become productive, but technology, such as magnetic signatures, has advanced rapidly, and already production is increasing in the Great Plains and Canada.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
I haven’t read Amtrak myself since 2006 when I went to Philadelphia for the COPA trial, but I notice with some interest the Friday Aug. 8 Wall Street Journal story on p A2 by Christopher Conkey, “All Aboard: Too Many for Amtrak: Surge in Ridership Leads to Crowding of Intercity Trains.” The link is here.
In fact, I have fond memories of the Amtrak trains. In August 1964 I took my first trip on my own for a weekend to New York, staying overnight in the old New Yorker on 34th St for $9 a night then, meeting college friends for off-off-broadway shows, and then going to see a movie called “The Mark” at the Roxy. In those days, what went on in Greenwich Village was a matter or rumors for the naive. (When they cleaned up the City for the Fair, it got so bad, they say, that everybody went to Boston). Oh, then, Sunday we trudged the New York World’s Fair in Flushing, which ten years later would look like a set for an end-of-world horror movie. But I do have memories of the old electric locomotives on the Pennsylvania Soon the Metroliner would come into being, and Union Station in Washington would get a facelift.
The WSJ article mentions that, in late June 2008, Amtrak suspended New York to Boston service to replace a drawbridge over the Thames River in Connecticut. I found a blog that says service resumed June 28, here.
I took that portion once, in 1975, when I lived in New York. I got the royal tour of the South Bronx, safely, and then followed the Coast.
I recall other little details. The Amtrak trains used to stop in North Philadelphia as well as 30th Street Station. I remember the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River (crossed by George Washington Christmas 1776), as well as the Trenton clock tower. Princeton had a nice, little used whistle stop. Metro Park seemed like a nuisance on thru trains. The article talks about the Baltimore tunnel. True, the trains slow down. One of my screenplays (“Baltimore Is Missing”) starts with the protagonists on a trains from Washington, and finding that they are in a parallel universe when they come out of the tunnel, to be manipulated by the “powers that be.”
WSJ points out the Amtrak does not have the passenger cars in stock to meet demand, and must spend billions to fix infrastructure problems with bridges, tunnels (the kind that kids like), and particularly the risk of power outages along the catenaries. And, oh yes, it would cost billions to get the travel time between New York and Washington to less than two hours. There can be similar areas of traffic in Texas, California, and a few routes in the Midwest, but it is hard to imagine regular cross country service here matching Europe’s. Maybe Russia could provide a good comparison.
As a boy, I lamented the disappearance of passenger trains. I remember once, perhaps Christmas 1949, taking a night B&O train (with a steam engine) from Washington to Cleveland. The B&O would drop passenger trains in the 50s.
My most recent trip to Europe took place in 2001, and riding the trains there is fun. France probably has the most high-speed trains. Britain’s trains look older, but it seems that they really move. I seem to remember going north from London to Liverpool and clipping at 120 mph, and on the return, riding from Birmingham back to London took very little time at something like 130 mph. I was surprised that Bilbao, Spain isn’t on the main rail line (San Sebastian/Donesta is the stop, and you have to take the Basque shuttle or else a tour bus), which is strange for a bizarre, spectacular and magical city of 2 million or so (with the Guggenheim). Taking a night train “East” from Berlin to Cracow, Poland to go see Auschwitz the next day is a sobering experience.
The investment that Europeans made in train transportation may account for some of the higher value of the Euro during hard times. When you also consider Europe’s investment in nuclear power, it just seems that Europe is not as vulnerable to oil price speculation as we are. Sometimes, it helps to have more people and higher population density to pay for infrastructure investment. It may not matter so much if it is publicly or privately owned (by shares) as that it simply works.
Friday, August 08, 2008
I can remember about the time I got my layoff-“forced retirement”-buyout package, people my age were thinking about new careers. In particular, technical people who had not quite kept up with the rapid changes (despite the earlier much touted “war for talent”) were think about becoming “people-persons” and moving into sales. There were various ideas, like becoming a financial planner, tax advisor, of life insurance agent. (I had worked for a life company.) And some people took up real estate. All of this blossomed into the "Always Be Closing" model (from the film "100 Mile Rule") of modern sales culture.
I can remember when I moved to Dallas (from New York) in 1979 that real estate was a “hot field” (literally), even in the era of Jimmy Carter’s high interest rates and inflation. It was hard work, much of it happening on weekends. A part-time realtor in my office got me a condo (a conversion, with aluminum wiring, I would find out later) at a guaranteed 10-1/2 percent (although the contract wouldn’t say that). Eventually I closed. I lived in a property with leaky roofs (although you don’t find out about that during a Dallas summer) and old air conditioner compressors that have to be replaced (I did find out about that). “There is no warranty on used housing.” Later, I would have another property, with a VA loan, from Pulte, and there was a 10 year HOW warranty. (I had a housewarming $39990 party”. Yes, in Pleasant Grove prices in were that low those days.) A compressor broke there, and I found out I still had to pay the labor for replacement ($165 then). Some of my best friends in the local GLBT community were in the Dallas real estate business, and had to weather the recession of the late 80s when oil prices dropped under Reagan’s policies.
I’m off track, a bit. USA Today has a story (Aug. 7) by Stephanie Armour, “Realtors live close to the edge: Some who sold homes fearing losing them.” The link is here. There is a statement that the typical income for a realtor is $40000-$50000 a year. Part of the problem is owner and Internet sales, but many realtors are fleeing the business.
You wonder, of course. The epidemic of foreclosures produces new business opportunities for fixer-upper personalities and those who are aggressive enough. Donald Trump’s companies, among others, have been parading in local hotels offering symposia on how to make money and, frankly, get rich in a foreclosure-infected environment. It sounds like a new kind of flipping that keeps some young adults away from wanting to go to college (as in one "Dr. Phil" episode, particularly, where a guy at age 23 owed millions for flips that hadn't flipped when the subprime crisis hit), but it requires a lot of hands-on hard work. The practice sounds distasteful and exploitative to some people, but that sort of thing is perhaps an inevitable part of healthy capitalism. The unfortunate part of it is the recklessness encouraged by the regulatory climate that shelter banks from the risks they took with other people’s money.
Visitors will want to check out the recent three part series in The Washington Post, "Anatomy of a Meltdown: The Credit Crisis,"and "Boom", "Bust", and "Aftermath", here. Furthermore, the front page A1 of the Post today has a followup by Dina ElBoghdady, "Foreclosure Crisis Catching Renters Off Guard," link here, affecting house and condo renters who don't know about the owner's problems and may lose security deposits and advance rents. The District of Columbia offers more protection than Maryland and Virginia, and some banks allow renters simply to keep on paying rent to them, or have "cash for keys" programs. All of that suggests more business opportunities for realtors, it would seem.
Picture: Turnberry Towers under construction in Arlington VA. Yes, I still think the units are overpriced. The real estate recession doesn't seem to affect the very high end buildings in large coastal cities, from what I see. Many of the buyers come from China and the Middle East. Somewhat hostile foreign rivals are buying up the good old USA.
Thursday, August 07, 2008
Rolling Stone, in the August 7, 2008 issue (the one with the Jonas Brothers on the cover) has an alarming article by Jeff Goodell, “Big Coal’s Campaign of Lies”, on p 65. The by line is “while its fuel cooks the planet, the coal industry uses its clout to dupe customers and delay change.” The online version has a different title: “Big Coal’s Dirty Move: as the world heats up, Big Coal is racing to build more than 150 new plants before Congress decides to crack down on global warming.” The link is here. Carbon dioxide is much harder to scrub than sulfur dioxide (like on Jupiter’s moon Io!).
The magazine print edition has a nice cartoon to explain the “four hurdles to cleaning up coal.” One is just the waster energy from necessarily inefficient scrubbers; a second is huge underground dumps (7 miles square underground), a third is the risk of a carbon dioxide leak from a dump that could suffocate people (this has actually happened in Africa with an unusual lake); a last is polluted water.
None of this addresses the other issue of strip mining and, especially in Appalachia and in the Alleghenies, “mountaintop removal” which is extending the American Midwest to the East, almost to the Ridge and Valley Province west of the Shenandoah Valley.
There is, of course, the argument to make gasoline and jet fuel (and natural gas) from coal, because of the tremendous reserves in the northern Great Plains and in Wyoming.
Picture: Mt Storm W Va power plant in 2004. I was almost arrested for trespassing on a nearby stripmine in July 1971.
Monday, August 04, 2008
There is an undercover “health credit report” being used by health and life insurance companies, according to a front page story by Ellen Nakashima in the Monday Aug. 4 Washington Post. The title is “Prescription data used to assess customers: Records aid insurers but prompt privacy concerns,” link here. Two of the major data brokers in the business are Ingenix (Minnesota) and Milliman. Both companies appear to be related in a number of insurance and employer-benefits related businesses. Insurance companies obviously want to use this information to avoid anti-selection in the individual health and life insurance markets.
There is some confusion as to what the 1996 HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) (text and its upgrades covers. HIPAA, while covering patients’ medical records, apparently does not apply to pharmacy records. As I argued on an entry on my “IT jobs” blog entry July 28, more systems integration of health insurance records could make it easier to protect privacy of associated patient records like pharmacy. You wonder how far this could go. What about over-the-counter decongestants that have to be signed for?
However, Congress is considering regulating downstream health services and their patient information. This bill appears to be S 1814, the Health Information Privacy and Security Act, 110th Congress, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), govtrack reference here.
As far as to other kinds of gumshoed reports on people with evaluation grades or "scores," imagination is limitless. One issue would be identifying people correctly (according to available markers well known in consumer credit reporting) and the ability of consumers to correct "mistakes." Imagine, if you will, an "online reputation score."
Sunday, August 03, 2008
The Washington Post Magazine for Sunday August 3 has an “Education Review” (link ) with three big stories.
The cover reads “Outsourcing our Schools” and refers to a story by Phuong Ly (“Lessons from Far Home”), about the program at Prince Georges County (MD) public schools to hire teachers, particularly for elementary school, ESOL (English as a Second Language), and special education from low income areas overseas, in this case, the Philippines. Teachers can make ten times here what they make in the Philippines but still have to spend thousands to get here. Typically, the female teachers live three or four to an apartment, may well not have cars, and often send money back home to support (or sometimes pay back) relatives. Even so, budget cuts can lead to elimination of positions at some schools, as badly as the immigrant teachers seem to be needed. The story also raises ethical questions about how the children of the immigrants, unless the entire families can move.
A story “Fast Learners” by Emily Messner covers the acceleration of mathematics education in middle and high schools in Silver Spring. There is concern that the use of calculators is undermining the development of the mental agility one needs for working with algebraic concepts. The ideas of Eric Walstein at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring are presented. Examples are giving with discussion of the problems many students have in learning factoring of polynomials in algebra.
I've always thought that students would learn math out of "self-interest". Sports problems will interest a lot of boys, as do computer problems. Some students simply need a lot of practice to be "good" at anything, whether factoring, or integration by partial fractions. Weekly pop quizzes help build confidence.
Susan Sharpe writes a story “Late Bloomer” about a retired community college English teacher starting a new career with a botany class, and exploring how humanities and science education differ.
Saturday, August 02, 2008
Today, in a replay of the weekend’s appearances for both candidates, Obama was repeated shown proposing windfall profit’s taxes on oil companies, particularly ExxonMobil, and giving the money to “working families.”
It’s dangerous when a candidate targets one specific party (the “enemy”) or one company, whose shareholders may include many retirees on incomes that would remain fixed without investment returns (hopefully rewarding farsighted investment decisions of the past – energy would always go up). It sounds like the old leftist morality play where you expropriate the wealth of one party and give it to someone more “deserving” – playing Robin Hood – in some kind of political exercise that aims toward moral “purification”. We heard this before with the supposed gas tax holiday, that fizzled.
There’s some debate about what ExxonMobil’s profits mean. The record earnings disappointed analysts, and XOM’s stock price fell below $80 Friday. There is legitimate criticism of stock buybacks, perhaps.
The morally proper policy response is not to play robin hood, but to expect XOM and other oil companies to invest in new drilling and in greener energy sources, and reinvent themselves. According to some media sources, Obama today (Saturday) reportedly began to sound more open to the possibility of some offshore drilling, under pressure from McCain (apparently with no teleprompter), who supports energetic efforts to produce more domestic oil and gas. McCain correctly points out that Gulf of Mexico rigs survived Katrina intact with no spills, and that new magnetic resonance technology makes offshore drilling safer and more productive. Remember, there is a complication in that domestically owned oil companies, however large, do not own more than a fraction of the earth’s oil reserves; potentially hostile governments overseas own far too much.
The fact is, we have to do everything. We need to produce more oil and other fuels, and we need to increase our use of renewable sources.
There is a lot of talk recently about cabals, about the pricing of oil in dollars, of the manipulation by “economic hit men”. Some of this does sift down to a call for changes in personal values, for more service, more interconnectedness, more cooperation, and less personal autonomy which we have come to see as synonymous with freedom. In the post earlier today, I summarized another call for national service, that heads in that direction.
If we are to maintain our way of life, we have to remain productive and innovative enough to do so.
Update: August 4
Sean Lengell of The Washington Times reports "GOP: Lift drilling ban or risk shutdown", referring to a possible government shutdown, link here.
Yesterday, I received a provocative email from the AJC (the American Jewish Center: A Century of Leadership) about an AJC plan called “Imagining America: Making National Service a National Priority”. The PDF document is here.
The press release reads “AJC-Sponsored Task Force Urges National Service as Common Rite of Passage”, link here.
The Press Release links to a website called “Service Nation” with this URL. The domain is called “Be the Change” which was the name of a book by teenager Zach Hunter describing a donation campaign to end domestic slavery (review here It offers a two minute YouTube video (largely in black-and-white) called “Get Inspired.” Service Nation offers a poll that asks whether the visitor would be willing to commit to a particular level of national service (one year, one hour a week, two hours a month, or one hour a month) (poll link here).
My take is that we have a growing cultural war about the meaning of individuality. Our modern technological culture creates a virtue out self-sufficiency, that can become deceptive and unsustainable. Introverted people benefit from this change. Yet, many people see ethics wholly in terms of making real connections to others, and see this “independence” (in a flat world of “globalization”) as achieved by the unseen sacrifices of others. Individualism can exacerbate the differences in ability of people within any one group or family. Newer ideas of ethics and morality, it seems, suddenly demand openness to some emotional intimacy from (and empathy for) others based on their needs, not just one’s own voluntary choices.
Friday, August 01, 2008
Media reports that swimming pools cannot defect against a common parasite: a problem for commercial spas with whilrpools?
Major media have reported that recreational swimming pools (particularly smaller pools at home) and theoretically water parks, could pose a difficult to manage health hazard. A parasite called Cryptosporidium parvum resists disinfection with standard chlorine procedures, which work against most bacteria. A few incidents of severe illness in young healthy people have been reported around the country.
Cryptosporidium has long been known as an opportunistic infection associated with HIV infection, when it becomes intractable and does not resolve. Among people without impaired immunity is normally resolves, although the symptoms can be severe.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta has published a study on the problem. The link is here. Chlorine dioxide is a more effective disinfectant than normal hypochlorite preparations.
The report has some practical significance. Public health authorities suggest that toddlers not yet potty-trained not be allowed into swimming pools accessed by others, and that persons having had diarrhea not enter them for two weeks. The risk, however, exists only if someone actually is infected by the specific protozoan.
There would seem to be a possible practical liability risk for operators of swimming areas and whirlpools, such as health spas. Generally clubs have warnings asking for voluntary compliance from customers but have no practical way to enforce them.
Some clubs no longer build whirlpool facilities, and (to the irritation of members who believe they have paid for them) some have a lot more downtime with them now than they did ten years ago, as county or city health departments have become much stricter in inspecting them.
I visited a local Ballys spa today and found everything normal as far as the pools and whirlpools. But on one occasion, about a year ago, an elderly patron complained when others did not shower in front of her in the whirlpool area (when there are ample showering facilities in the normal change rooms)