Wednesday, April 30, 2008

McCain still wants market-based health care; Post offers new candidates' comparison chart


Sen. John McCain still calls for a “market-based” reform of health care, with the greatest emphasis in his policy being to offer individuals pre-tax payments of premiums as now “enjoyed” by employers. He also wants to expand the use of pre-tax contributions to health savings or maintenance accounts. Nevertheless, these measures mainly help those with stable middle class incomes or better. His philosophy still resembles that of President Bush.

The Front Page story in the Washington Post April 30 was by Martin Shear, “McCain Offers Market-Based Health Plan,” link here.

McCain has a web page called "Health Care Plan: Call to Action" and "Restoring Control to Patients" here, with an audio file that starts with "the problem in America is not the quality of care ..." He believes Americans are practically forced to accept extra tests and treatments that they might not need or might choose on their own to live without, but are coerced into by health care practice.

The latest chart comparing the three candidates’ health care proposals is here.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson has pointed out (to Bill Moyers on PBS May 2 2008) that Mrs. Edwards 's making a public point about pre-existing conditions with respect to both her own breast cancer treatments and Sen. McCain's melanoma, forced Sen. McCain to take pre-existing conditions into consideration and has changed the debate with respect to this. Link.


Barack Obama would expand Medicaid and SCHIP. But that could eventually encourage some states to go after some adult children under their filial responsibility laws for eldercare. Obama still requires all children to have health insurance, but Hillary Clinton wants to make health insurance mandatory for everyone, with a combination of measures somewhat similar to those enacted or proposed in many states (MA, CA).

The Post also provided an AP story by Kevin Freking, “Health savings accounts growing in popularity.” Now, more that six million people are enrolled in plans that allow them to participate in health savings accounts. Link is here.



Update: May 1 Is Hillary more likely to win in November?

Karl Rove, the former "Bush's Brain" has published analysis claiming that John McCain would be more likely to beat Barack Obama in the November general election that Hillary Clinton. It is as if super-delegates had better take heed. The story by Joseph Curl appeared on p A4 of The Washington Times and the link is here.

Update: May 4

Check Reed Abelson, Milt Freudenheim, "Even the Insured Feel Strain of Health Costs," The New York Times, front page, Sunday, link here. Because of high deductibles and copays, people put of doctors' visits, even for their kids.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A positive-sounding story: "Battery Brothers" make a 100 MPG hybrid car


CNN this morning (April 29) reported on the “Ewert Brothers” (or the “Battery Brothers”) (from Wheaton IL, named Chris and Andrew Ewert) who may become as famous as the Jonas Brothers (if slightly older), for inventing a 100 MPG plug-in hybrid prototype car (out of a Toyota Prius), which they use for family transportation.

Their website is PlugIn Project and a typical news story is on CBS2 in Chicago by Dana Kozlov, “Brothers team up to create 100 MPG car; motorists looking for fuel-efficient options as gas prices surge,” link here.

So far they haven’t tried to sell this to big auto, although I would think this would change. Right off the cuff, I am reminded of Cameron Johnson’s book “You Call the Shots” (review here) and a section late in the book where he talks about managing the sales force in his father’s dealership. Maybe there is synergy here; and maybe, like Cameron, the Ewerts will wind up on Oprah soon (Chicago is not too far away for them).

The DuPage County Forest Preserve says it can run its vehicles on natural gas for about $1 per gallon equivalent.

Related: Review of PBS Nova film "Car of the Future" here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Media reporting more problems with teachers' personal websites and profiles (and this includes subs), when parents or kids find them at home


I’ve written several times on these blogs about the thorny issues that can come up from teachers’ online speech off the job but easily accessible from search engines on the Web. My biggest article on this occurs July 2007 about an incident with my web site in the Fairfax County Public Schools in October 2005, where, for the record, I gave my side of it here. It’s ironic that four years ago this Wednesday (April 30, 2004) I started substitute teaching with a last minute unrequested change to a special education assignment (although my very first classroom assignment was in an AP English class, waiting for another sub to show.)

Today, Monday April 28, 2008, Ian Shapira of the Washington Post finally provides a front page story that discusses this with some candor. It’s “When young teachers go wild on the Web; public profiles raise questions about propriety and privacy,” link here.
First, it doesn’t have to be “young teachers”. I got into “trouble” at age 62. Furthermore, the problem is much bigger than pornography or sexually explicit materials, or even the use of epithets or contextually tasteless words (the article discusses misuse of the word “retard”). The article discusses the issue with respect to substitute teachers, too. One in Prince William County was eventually removed after a parent found suggestive but not “totally” explicit material on a sub’s MySpace page. A young female sub made the comment that her work and social life are separate and that her social pages shouldn’t be taken that seriously. (I take my own postings very seriously because I expect people to find them!) She had thought it could be seen only by “friends” (that depends on using the Myspace privacy features properly). Also, when discussing substitutes, there are different levels of visibility that subs have: short term subs that take one day assignments at many different schools are less exposed to this kind of problem and are long-term subs at the same school (who may participate in parent-teacher conferences and in giving students grades, even when not fully licensed in Virginia).

Dr. Phil has covered the problem of teachers’ Internet activity (including subs), as here ("Internet Mistakes"). That story concerned a young male musician who worked as a substitute teacher in New Jersey and whose music-career-related Myspace page raised objections (unreasonably, I think) although he had given the URL to a student.

Of course, this issue appears in conjunction with multiple media reports in the past three years of employers’ checking job applicants’ and associates’ social networking profiles and “search engine presence,” sometimes getting the wrong person, raising ethical concerns for the HR world. This also ties into the problem of “online reputation defense,” as with companies like Reputation Defender.

On July 17, 2006, The Washington Times, in a front page story by Jacqueline Palank, published a story "Face it: 'Book' No Secret to Employers: Social Sites used as Background check." The story no longer comes up online. But she mentioned that Fairfax County Public Schools sometimes does search engine checks on job applicants.

The Post story today reiterates the First Amendment rights of teachers, for which there is a long trail of case law including some Supreme Court rulings. In general, school systems may intervene (including firing teachers or at least forcing them to remove postings) when actual disruption of the learning environment has occurred (as with a “credible” complaint from parents) or would seem likely to occur. The prospective part of this idea is even more ambiguous. For school systems to enforce this concept is to deal with subjectivity known from the military’s guidelines for enforcing “don’t ask don’t tell” for partially “off duty” behavior. Military people are in a sense on duty “at all times and all places” and sometimes people expect the same of teachers.

Had I pursued full time teaching with all of the responsibilities (role-modeling and grading) I probably would have had to remove all of my web materials and become a totally private person again. I had already said that online before the October 2005 incident that I mention above. My concern is that the lines are so subjective and notions of “role models” and “implicit content” are so ambiguous is that I think that people with certain responsibilities should not enter the public space of search engines without supervision at all. My own take on this was posted in Feb. 2005 here.

The Newsweum in Washington DC has a major First Amendment exhibit on Level 5 and has detailed material about free speech problems for teachers and students, including the "fiction" problem that bit me, as well as the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case that went to the Supreme Court.

Please see also earlier discussion on this blog Feb 05 2008 about off duty problematic web activity of teachers (see Archive links to the left on this page).

A related story about school system policy regarding off-campus Internet bullying is here.

April 29:

A distantly related story occurs today on CNN: " Social networking applications pose risks," link here. Even though users may set up their Myspace and Facebook pages as private or restricted to keep employers or schools out, it seems that some applications that they download may expose them publicly in unintended ways anyway.

Update: May 2


NBC4 has a video about a Fort Luce, FL female high school biology teacher who says she was fired for wearing a bikini in public on a part time job on a fishing boat. The video link is here. The school district says she was fired for attendance problems but would not give her a reason.

There is a coordinated post about schools and protection of minors May 1 on my COPA blog, here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Institute for legal reform: calls to end lawsuit abuse


CNN has been running ads from the Institute of Legal Reform, link here (affiliated with the United States Department of Commerce.) The site bears careful study, with its ranking of the legal climates in various states (Delaware – “the Blue Hen State” -- is the best, West Virginia is the worst, and California is pretty far down), and its explanation of the factors that went into the rankings. The site has links to many examples of “give me a break” frivolous lawsuits. One link concerns removal of playgrounds and recess areas for children (and essential to provide physical fitness and counter the epidemic of childhood obesity) because of fear of litigation, here. A Seattle station (King5) reports about a bizarre story of a suit for leaving “neutral feedback” for a business transaction on Ebay, a complaint that makes no common sense (story by Jesse Jones, here). In another case, a business offering sports activities for kids was forced to close because it couldn’t afford to defend itself against a frivolous suit for not offering proper handicapped access for an event (story), when it claimed it complied with ADA laws. Of course, the Washington DC “drycleaners’” lawsuit fiasco is well known; despite the fact that the defendants won, the expense forced them to close much of their business.

There are many other websites advocating tort reform: “Power of Attorneys” has a “Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse” link, here.

There is also “Americans for Legal Reform” here.

Small Business Legal Reform: NFIB.

And HALT.

Lawsuit abuse.

I think John Stossel has done some "give me a break" segments on this. Tort reform would seem to be an essential part of fixing economic problems, especially for small business and small employers. Why can't we adopt the European "loser pays"? A trial lawyer practices one of the most adversarial professions in the world.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Arlington real estate taxes: no surprises; commercial property has moderate surcharge


The April 24, 2008 Sun Gazette reports, in a story by Scott McCaffrey, “Budget: Homeowners to Pay Average of $104 More this Year.” The story does not appear yet at the Gazette site.

The controversial Commercial property tax surcharge is to be 12.5 cents per $100, half of what it could have been. There are small utility increases for homeowners, but there were no changes that affect homeowners with normal and customary use, as some might have feared (and discussed in earlier entries on this blog). The total budget is $1.18 billion.

The real estate tax rate public hearing was held March 29, speaker list here.

The budget was adopted April 19. There are no minutes online yet. But the minutes for the March 27 public hearing appear in canonical format here.

Sometimes "no news" (or "little news") is "good news."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Family and Medical Leave Act: about to be weakened by Bush administration? What about paid family leave (some day)?


I discussed the issue of paid family leave on this blog March 4, 2008 with respect to some states (New Jersey), so I’m surprised (or maybe not surprised) to see the Bush Administration wanting to effectively weaken the 15-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. According the new rules under consideration at the Labor Department, employees wanting to use the FMLA will have to notify employers before absence, using normal call-in procedures, and submit to increase scrutiny of the health records (within HIPAA guidelines).

The detailed story is by Nancy Trejos in the Business section of the April 24 Washington Post, p D1, “Take Two on Time Off: Sweeping Changes Debated for Landmark Family and Medical Leave Act,” link here.

I did use short-term disability insurance when I had a convenience store accident in 1998, and the three weeks of full salary were most welcome. I never needed to take any more time off once I went back to work. That works in IT jobs, perhaps. But in 1999, I might have been in a delicate situation with respect to family leave, but I was able to avoid having to take much time off. But the scary incident showed how serious this issue could become. On another occasion, in 1993, I spent an uncompensated weekend with “on-call” for monthend support when co-worker gave birth.

Employers maintain that employees will misuse family leave, and that they must remain globally competitive. But I wonder then how European employers do it. (No, Chinese employers don’t.)

Still, some of this question comes down to (to be blunt): should those without children subsidize those with children with more labor for the same or less pay? Of course, eldercare could equalize the issue.

In the Post, Lori Montgomery reported recently that President Bush may veto a bill to make it easier for victims of unequal pay to sue for discrimination, story here.

Despite the complaints about the lack of corporate generosity with “workers,” Donna St. George reports on the front page of today’s Post, “For Children, a Better Beginning: Study finds progress on array of issues from birth to 10,” here.

Picture: Note the Embassy of Canada next to the Newseum. Canada does offer some paid paternal leave; look here.



Update: April 25

Tonight, ABC "World News Tonight" presented a story about employer "maternal profiling" in the hiring process. In 21 states (including Pennsylvania, as in the story) it is legal to ask marital status and about having children, but it is not legal to make hiring decisions based on them. PA is considering prohibiting asking. (That is, right now it is "do ask do tell"). The practice mainly hits female job applicants; for men, having children is seen as desirable, for women it sometimes is not. One female was told baldly that she was likely to cost her company health insurance plan too much.

The story by Gigi Stone is "Are You a Victim of Maternal Profiling?: In Some States, Women Say They're Not Getting Jobs Just Because They're Moms", link here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Army stop-loss seems to increase, amounts to a backdoor draft


USA Today reports that the Army has increased mandatory “stop-loss” extensions of enlistment contracts, despite a Secretary of Defense order to the contrary in early 2007. The story ("DOD data: More forced to stay in Army") is by Tom Vanden Brook on the front page of the national daily newspaper, link here. The original Gates memo was this (PDF).

The response from the Secretary of the Army was on this PDF in July 2007


The number of soldiers “stop-lossed” rose 43% between Jan 2007 and March 2008, with the average extension over six months.

I had reviewed the movie “Stop-Loss” on another blog in March, here.

The “stop loss” policy is often called the “backdoor draft” and is affecting Guards and Reserves. Some politicians have argued that the existence of stop-loss argues for the return of mandatory conscription as long as there is a war, including women. (The Supreme Court had ruled at one point that conscription of men only would be constitutional.)

I “volunteered for the draft” and enlisted for two years in 1968 after receiving my M.A. in Mathematics. (In the dorm room at the University of Kansas, students put a sign on my door that I would soon become "cannon fodder.") I stayed stateside in the Pentagon and at Fort Eustis. I had gone from 4-F to 1-A (discussed on other blogs) and had gotten an induction notice in early 1968. Perhaps by enlisting I was “better off.”

Monday, April 21, 2008

McCain-Feingold, Hatch Act, election "conflict of interest" in the news again


The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, which created such a flap with bloggers three years ago, is still in the news again. In fact, Tuesday (April 22), the Supreme Court will hear arguments about a provision that raises contribution limits for opponents of self-funded candidates who spend a lot of their own money. On the surface, this sounds a bit like the “ethical” questions involved in self-publishing and paying for reviews.

The story by Robert Barnes appears on p A03 of the April 21 Washington Post, “Justices to hear challenge of law that affects self-funded candidates,” link here. The case is Davis v. Federal Elections Commission. Jack Davis was a Democratic Congressman from New York State. Davis maintains that the law unconstitutionally favors incumbents, encumbers the First and Fifth Amendments, and causes challengers to disclose their campaign strategies.

On the same day (Monday), Stephen Barr in his “Federal Diary” column reports “Election E-Mails can end your term in the office,” p D1, Business, link here . Notice the word "the" in the article title. The Hatch Act is well known, and federal employees can get into serious trouble by even forwarding internally political emails that they receive (they cannot control what they receive beyond what spam filters accomplish). They can also get into trouble for blogging outside the workplace (at home) if the blogs include links to make political contributions. Apparently, many political pressure groups offer tools for bloggers to solicit contributions. It would seem, based on previous experience (and on FEC rules) that blog postings about issues that don’t solicit contributions may be OK.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Stripmining and mountaintop removal discussed; cap-and-trade discussed; personal ethics and going green


Today April 20, 2008 The Washington Post really hits environment issues, especially power generation, hard.

The front page in print features an article by David A. Fahrenhold, “Stripping Mountains to Power D,C.; In W. Va., Mining Companies Shear Off Peaks And Transform Landscape in Search for Coal”. The link is here. The link leads to a very graphic slide show. But there are pictures in the Post print edition not included in the show (so you have to buy the paper or look in the library to see it all). The online edition has another headline, “Coal does more than keep the lights on.”

The town discussed in the issue is Mud, WVa, south of Charleston. Most of the heaviest strip mining is 30-40 miles S and SE of Charleston, and much of it is hard to see well from major roads. It is easy to see from the air. You can go to Google Maps, click on Satellite, enter Charleston W VA and then migrate SE to see it.

I covered this issue on this blog Aug 23 and gave several important links. I visited that area in 1999. In 1971, I was almost arrested for trespassing when photographing the mines west of Mt. Storm, W Va, which now are in better shape. The heavy equipment (draglines and Big Muskies) amount to “body shaving” the mountains, mostly in the lower western ridges toward Ohio and Kentucky, extending the “Midwest”. (See the Post map of "affected areas" of the Appalachian Coalfield Region here.) As Isaiah says, the mountains will be brought down and valleys filled. In some areas, that is happening. See this Post graphic "Mowing down the mountains," here.

The Outlook section has two big articles. The first is this. The page headline is “Is this green enough? We can clean up our act, but it will cost us,” article by Steve Mufson. There is some detailed technical discussion of how cap-and-trade works, and how it could affect consumer prices. There is also a more moralistic article by Sandra Tsing Loh: “Mirror Mirror on my Roof: What’s the best for Earth? That would be me,” with a black and white photo of a very large array of solar reflectors on p B5, link here. She quotes an aphorism from Ed Begley Jr. ‘s “Living Like Ed”, “I believe we need to live simply so that others can live.”

This brings me back to the contemplation of individualism. When people make and accept social commits and live in tightly knit families and accept group ends, they may be more efficient, it would seem. That’s why socialization tracks as a “moral issue” when compared to “social justice.” Yet, singleton individuals often live in high density areas and use public transportation, and large families often have the SUV’s and long commutes. It’s not so simple.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sole survivors discharged are losing military benefits; important bill in Congress



It seems though military veterans discharged after losing siblings in combat now lose their benefits.

In the past, the military has supported “family integrity” by often protecting a sole surviving son or child in a family when all others have been killed or major casualties in war.

California Congressman Devin Nunes is leading an effort to restore military benefits to soldiers discharged from the Army when they are the sole surviving sibling. The AP story by Garance Burke “Sole surviving son denied health benefits post-Iraq,” here, about just such a soldier after the Army with drew his family health benefits, educational benefits, and even tried to recoup his signup bonus. (We’ve heard of “recoupment” before in connection with the military gay issue.) Only congressional intervention protected the soldier. The bill is H.R, 5825, and the govtrack reference is here. The story was also featured on AOL Thursday.

I wonder if John McCain will address this issue in the campaign.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict criticizes religious relativism and utilitarianism



Pope Benedict spoke to bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Michigan Ave in NE Washington DC Wednesday evening, April 16, one day before his mass at the new Nationals Park.

The main media story so far is by Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor for Reuters, “Pope say U.S. society can undermine Catholic faith,” link here.

The Pope indicated that Americans are less secularized than much of western Europe, but that American “relativism” tends to “reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.” That last term (from arithmetic) reminds me of arguments I used to have with my father as a tween, about "irrationality" and my "going to the root"! This comment also sounds like a criticism of “utilitarian” religion: an attempt to rationalize individual rights as much as possible, while skipping a genuine need to accept uncertainty and serve others in the context of grace and faith, without too much self-conciousness. This went on at the same time that Clinton and Obama, debating in Philadelphia, had to touch on religion in a general way (my tv blog).

The Pope seemed to indicate that the call for sacrifice sometimes is real and should be experienced as part of faith. He commented on the lack of Catholic marriages, the availability or pornography or self-serving or narcissistic entertainment, and the reluctance of people to make real emotional commitments.

He did comment on the priests’ scandal, characterizing it as a “deep shame” and “gravely immoral behavior” that had been inadequately addressed by the Church. ABC News has been reporting on a Cardinal George who did not remove a priest in Chicago under investigation.

Today, demonstrators displayed signs saying that the Church should end its requirement for priests’ celibacy and allow priests to marry. Many of the demonstrators were men formerly abused or their family members.

The CNN story is here.

The Reuters blog on the visit (by “Andy Sullivan”) is here.



See also an earlier posting on the celibacy matter Feb. 22 2008 on this blog.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Use sports examples to teach math and physics (and for test problems!)




When I was subbing, I noticed repeatedly in math classes that some people just have trouble with the abstraction of mathematics (especially algebra), with thinking about something that is a mental model and not “real.”

So, here is a place for a little bit of Rafe Esquith’s philosophy of “Teach Until Your Fair’s On Fire,” applied to older (middle and high school) students. For example, many students in Algebra I have difficulty with “story problems” or word problems. So make up a word problem with self-interest. For many kids, sports is a place where there is obvious self-interest, and besides team work and performance, sports is all about math and physics.

For example, two track runners are competing in a (26 mile) marathon. After two hours, runner A is run 13 miles, and runner B has run 12 miles. If runner A keeps the same pace, how fast does runner B have to run to catch up and finish in a tie (or win)?

The sport providing the ultimate exercise in principles of math and physics is – you guessed right – baseball. There has been a lot of interest in the design of ballparks in the past fifteen years, building them to be asymmetrical and more like the old parks. That development came after some years where Major League Baseball felt that differing designs of fields distorted statistics. I can think of some good projects right away. Is there any relationship between having a home field with eccentric design and home won-lost record relative to road record? That would be an interesting statistics project, but I have a feeling that the Boston Red Sox would be found to have maximized their home field advantage. (In June 1961, they actually beat the “new” Washington Senators 13-12 by scoring 8 runs in the bottom of the ninth after two were out, including a grand slam over the “Green Monster”, sending the Senators into a tailspin for the rest of the season.) Of course, the Yankees pulled off a five game sweep there in 2006 (and remember how 1978 ended – Bucky Dent).



Baseball stadiums are exercises in geometry, and one good question is explaining why few big league stadium outfields have been rectangular (other than maybe old Shibe Park in Philadelphia). A little geometry or trigonometry shows that a square playing field yields a very deep center field for home runs (OK, remember the center fields in old Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds?) So, imagine a math problem on a test like this: On a chess board, each square measures 45 feet x 45. So two squares represents the distance between the bases. This model shows that the outfield as a whole is always very large compared to the infield in area (compute it). In the picture above, the distance down each foul line is what? (360 feet). If you cut off center field with a bullpen wall (like old Comiskey Park in Chicago had) as shown in the picture, how far is it to dead center? (How about 6 x 45 x sq rt of 2). How far is it to the corner in each power alley? (A good trig problem-- and it's interesting that there are disputes about the power alley distances in many parks, such as the old RFK in Washington). So, teachers, I’ve given you a good test problem. (Maybe for extra credit.)

Another quiz question: Is the 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher's mound to the plate halfway to second base? Explain.

Another anecdote: during summers in Ohio, another boy built a fence to cut off a fallow corn field (in left) and turn it into an enclosed "field of dreams." He let it be rectangular. No one could hit the ball out in dead center field.



Physics comes into play. If you were to superimpose a drawing of Fenway Park (or MinuteMaid Field in Houston) over the new Coors Field in Denver, you’d find shorter left fields with higher walls. You have situations where low line drives are home runs in Denver but don’t clear the closer wall in Boston. Imagine some physics problems there.

Or, how about this. If a real high school football player Clark Kent existed (Smallville), how high would he have to throw a football from the fifty year line (to the goal line) to catch his own pass if he could reach the endzone in ten seconds? (Remember the formula in physics: s = ½ g * t**2). I don’t know if the rules would allow this.

Links: Baseball field dimensions Ballparks.com

Monday, April 14, 2008

KPMG: is another auditor getting in trouble? Remember 2002?


Remember how Arthur Andersen went out of business after Enron collapsed in 2001? Now, questions arise from the trouble with New Century Financial about the performance of its auditor, KPMG.

Apparently KPMG knew about the issue with the calculation of loan reserves by January 2007. By spring 2007, New Century would go bankrupt, and that would trigger an avalanche of failures of mortgage lenders, leading to a crisis in the bond insurance market (discussed in this blog in December) and eventually the “Ides of March” (approximately) Fed bailout of Bear Stearns. KPMG, as I recall, created a stir in the late 90s by trying to place legal obstacles to other webmasters in providing simple “unauthorized” links to their corporate website.

There is a long story by Vikas Bajaj and Julie Creswell in the Sunday Business of the April 13, 2008 New York Times, “A Lender Failed. Did Its Auditor?”, link here. Bajaj has an earlier story from March 27, 2008 “Inquiry Assails Accounting Firm in Lender’s Fall,” here. (registration may be required). It doesn't look like this approaches the Arthur Andersen fiasco, yet.

A former partner at KPMG is also involved in a federal prosecution of a tax case, New York Times, story by Lynnley Browning, here.

Okay, after the fiascos in early 2002 over Enron and then WorldComm, you’d think auditors would learn their lesson. This seems to be a world of short memories. After my forced retirement, I never seriously though about applying at a big 8 firm (a number smaller than 8 now), although I could see them all along the Skyway in downtown Minneapolis.

It seems as though many concepts in accounting have gotten subjective. I worked on the general ledger system as an applications programmer for NBC in the 1970s, and never got the impression that there was any wiggle room in how entries on the Chart of Accounts were to be set up (users did that). The most complicated concept in those days was something like “retained earnings.” I remember those nights during accounting closings hoping I didn’t get a call to my cozy NYC apartment about a job going down. (They usually didn’t.) I do remember how tight the schedule was in getting “proofs” out. That was my perception of corporate finance then in my own “coming of age.” How times have changed.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Airlines: Get Real! (or show the movie "The Terminal")


I haven’t flown since 2006, and the last time I traveled for business by air extensively was in 1997, when I made five midweek trips to Minneapolis from Reagan, related to a project, a process that went efficiently and led to a very useful corporate transfer in September of that year. I remember looking out from the office at a luxury apartment building (The Churchill) and think, well, wouldn’t it be convenient if my “other life” was housed there and I could walk across the street to be home. In a few months it was.

Not so now, for business travelers, who today face their fourth day of last minute airline cancellations as they watch departure boards and terminals, and don’t even get the courtesy emails at home. Email, yes, the airlines penalize you for not reserving online and getting an e-ticket. They penalize you for baggage. Everything. Imagine what those trips in 1997 would be like now.

It isn’t funny. While I lived in Minneapolis there was a family situation. Think what it would have been like had this happened then.

It’s unbelievable. This is American’s second round of wheelwell inspections on its mid-range domestic MD-80’s. It didn’t get things right the first time. What was the ad, “You expect more from American, and you get it.”

And I have to be say that American has been good in otherwise, helping sponsor SLDN and giving air travel to servicemembers fighting “don’t ask don’t tell.”

When I moved to Dallas in 1979, I quickly discovered Southwest at Love Field, with the almost ticketless and quick boarding and everyday low, no frills fare. I loved it. But Southwest was the first airline to be affected by the FAA’s new “zero tolerance” mood.

It’s easy to say that the Federal Aviation Administration should have announced its new policy and worked with the airlines. But it had to get tough because there was an inherent conflict of interest in the way the airlines reported their inspections – like a student grading his own final exam. (Oh, some schools allow that, grade inflation, you know.) And American has dropped the ball twice.

Air safety expert John Nance has been discussing "air worthiness directives" which the FAA issues, and which normally airlines have plenty of time to comply with.

I spent most of my adult life being able to travel for leisure with low fares whenever I wanted. I did many weekend overnighters and short vacations. I had only one flight canceled (because of a wildcat strike in 1978) with a trip postponement, and one or two four hour delays (such as one in Denver in 1994 on United – and then we had no food on the plane.) With the world oil crunch and political climate, I wonder if those days are over. During my pre-Internet adulthood, personal mobility conferred a kind of personal "power."

On September 11, 2001, one coworker arrived in Minneapolis and found out what happened in the terminal as soon as he landed. He had come for a two-day meeting. He had to rent a car to drive 900 miles home. The next few evenings, global temperatures were reported as 2 degrees F cooler because of the absence of contrails.

Maybe those people stuck at the airports should watch Steven Spielberg’s film “The Terminal.” Or Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

National Harbor opens: a menage where "things happen": testing customer service work ethic


Today I visited the just-opened National Harbor on the East (Maryland, Prince Georges County) side of the Potomac, and across both the “new” Woodrow Wilson “drawbridge” (yes, it still isn’t tall enough) and across the river from Alexandria. I had tried to visit in February, when one could not get into the complex. The roads are designed such that one could not even pass through it and see it until open.

The Gaylord Hotel and other businesses attracted media attention with their February job fair (the one time they opened early) to hire 1600 people, and they made a lot of the fact that they were looking for “passion” in job applicants. These were largely hotel service positions (domestic, food service, front desk, reservations) so they were looking for people who would have a “passion” for providing personal service to others. The need was presented in the media with a measure of moral fervor. The job fair lasted about four days and I understand they hired only about 10% of applicants. Rooms there start at $300 a night. I don't think that the place is exactly "Grand Hotel" (from the 1932 MGM movie: "people come, people go, nothing ever happens") except that the particular film also got a lot of mileage from its expressionistic atrium (in black and white, no less).

The atrium was out of this world, and actually presents itself as a miniature Colonial Willamsburg (even though this is Maryland, and St. Mary’s City is 40 miles to the SE). There is a sports bar with Nationals trademarks and a model of Babe Ruth (mix of teams). The refreshments were every bit as expensive as theater concessions.

Army reserve NCO’s (dressed in "dress fatigues" with spit-shined boots) were having a convention, and I ran into some of them, including at least one in a wheelchair. At any event like this, the physical results of the war are apparent immediately and publicly. They hadn’t heard of the disturbing new film “Body of War,” which anyone following events in Iraq should see. I'd think think Army reserves returned from Iraq would know about it. (I have a review of this documentary film here.)

The St. George Parking Garage did not present the best in customer service. One exit was closed, and it was hard to figure out how to leave. The elevators did not work. One walked down stairs, only to find out that one was supposed to take his ticket with him when reaching the ground. The lot was almost full, and that means that PG County will enjoy needed additions to its tax base, when other areas are faltering.

This is a brand new “play city” that, for all its opulence, has a fictive feel about it. (I remember that 50s Parker Brothers game “Star Reporter” with its “Playville” and “Play Beach”). One feels like one is in a movie set, or in some huge Twilight Zone board game. It doesn’t seem quite real yet.

Update: Friday April 11

The Washington Post has a Metro story by Hank Steuver, "The Haute in Hotel," with more interesting indoor atrium and outdoor Potomac pictures, in a slideshow gallery,here.

The Cirque du Soleil, with all its acrobats and teasing in its circus performance, will perform at the National Harbor in October 2008. I saw it in Minneapolis in August, 2000.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Army will recruit those with criminal records, turn away those who say they're gay


The Army seems to be reaching deeper into the world of people with misdemeanor and some felony convictions in order to meet recruiting goals. The nice word for this is "conduct waivers." The rate has gone up to 11% in fiscal 2008 from under 5% in fiscal 2004.

This all seems really ironic in the days of "don't ask don't tell" (codified into federal law in 1993). You go back and read one of the major books about the ban (Joe Steffan, Jose Zuniga, Margarethe Cammermeyer, Reichen Lehmkuhl) you really get a sense of how off-base this has gotten.

The press story is in the USA Today, Monday April 7, 2008, "More Army recruits require 'conduct' waivers", by Jim Michaels, link here.

Of course, think about all this in combination with "stop-loss" (as in the recent film) and the "backdoor draft."

The latest news on attempts to repeal DADT in Congress are at SLDN here.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Workplace and family responsibility: more debate needed


Amy Joyce has stimulated quite a bit of discussion with her “Returning to Work after Baby” (a kind of "best title for the story" in a "Weekly Reader" quiz) piece on March 30, 2008, link here, Actually, the full title was “After a Baby, Full Time or Part?
When Family and Career Collide, Working Mothers Struggle With Their Answers.”
There is a transcript of her online discussion about “baby” from March 31 here.

On April 6, there was a followup “Full vs. Part-Time, Continued,” on p F4 of Outlook, here.

One angry comment (the third one down) says “ … After 30+ years in the workplace, I am very sorry to say that I rarely see a woman with a young child who does all the work that her position requires. And I am tired of being expected to pick up the slack, without additional compensation, for these mothers, who continue to receive full salary. … Having a child is a choice, not an obligation. …”

That was indeed an issue for me, a single male, at times toward the end of my IT career. Some times I picked up the beeper call for other people, who could not do it because of family obligations. I was not compensated directly. There is a caveat. For a while, in the middle 1990s, we had a “night programmer” but five of us “volunteered” to rotate to be her backup. We did get extra compensation built into our raises. But when she finally gave birth, I was there one whole weekend covering end-of-month.

Of course, the is a lot of tension between parents and the childless, as Elinor Burkett documented in her 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family Friendly America Cheats the Childless.” But some people feel it is the other way around: childless adults are “cheating” society, as Philip Longman suggested in his 2004 book “The Empty Cradle.”

Rounding out this discussion is Vickie Elmer, “Sitting across from a questionable query,” in the Jobs Section, p K01, The Washington Post, April 6, link here. She notes that questions about family situation (and in many localities, sexual orientation) are clearly illegal. Employers are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of having eldercare or child care responsibilities (either), even though in many salaried jobs (without overtimes) they can present issues that affect other employees. In “retirement” and in my eldercare situation, I find that if I mention it, employers don’t want to call back. Of course, they can’t admit it.

I also found, that in an attempted "career switcher" situation in relation to substitute teaching, it's much easier to fulfill social expectations of "surrogate parenthood" if one had been a father oneself (I haven't), as I wrote here on my GLBT blog.

This is a big problem deserving real debate. Presidential candidates, where are you on this?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

McCain: Bring back the home down payment (and then what else?)


Remember how it was in the early 70s? In Sterling VA, a tract house could be had for $35000, and in Oxon Hill, MD. $26000. But many houses were sold conventional and required 20% down, or else paid severe points. Couples saved for down payments (which is one reason for the two-wage family and delayed children). In time, lower down payment deals evolved, especially for condos (and conversion) in many cities, especially in the Southwest (like Dallas). Singles became homeowners. (Before and During World War II, single people often lived in Y’s or rooming houses; they couldn’t even get apartments. That’s how it was for my parents.)

We all know how things flipped, leading to the current subprime crisis. Today (April 5), The Washington Post has a column by Kenneth R. Harney, “Up with the Down Payment,” link here . Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants to raise down payment requirements, even for FHA loans, and eliminate “piggyback” secondary loans. McCain wants home buyers to have their own skins in mortgages. Needless to say, some of this is happening on its own in the private markets anyway.

McCain also has said it is not the duty of government to bail out those who make bad choices, whether individuals or big companies. George Will goes over this in his April 6, p B07, op-ed, with “McCain’s Housing Restraint,” link here.

It’s easy to imagine this kind of idea about personal discipline and morality (sort of 1992 Perot style) put into practice in other areas, even the Internet. The concept sounds good, but the tone is scary, and, as Barney Frank pointed out, maybe not totally workable.

This past week, USA Today had a map of a neighborhood in Denver with the foreclosures in red. It was pretty scary. I wonder, could the banks take the houses back and rent them to the former homeowners rather than have the sheriff force them out in the street? How do people even get apartments with broken credit?

William D. Cohan as a much more corporatized idea of “personal responsibility” in the Sunday Aprl 6 Post, “Firms gone wild: The big brokers blew it: they should bear the cost,” here.

George Soros has an Internet article “The worst market crisis in 60 years” here. He also has an e-book “The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means,” which is available for wireless Kindle readers or for PDF download, here. Why not make it available as print-on-demand, at least (like iUniverse)?

More bad news: a record three airlines shut down this week (Aloha, which I flew in 1980, ATA, and Skybus). I remember the Braniff shutdown in 1982.

Update: April 6

The Washington Times has a useful commentary on p B1 "Better housing fixer-upper" by Linda Chavez, here. Besides offering the usual (but well written) criticism of the unsound practices that led to the home price bubble, Chavez suggests that the Tax Reform Act of 1986, with its elimination of passive loss deductions and often called a "major policy blunder" by conservatives, may be getting in the way of getting the homes moved in a socially constructive manner, with the opportunity to get people at least back into renting the homes that maybe they once owned, perhaps with the eventual possibility of owning again.

Update: April 7

The Washington Post has an editorial "A Pro-Foreclosure Bill: The Senate's housing relief needs repair" which maintains that the a proposed tax credit might give banks a perverse incentive to foreclose as an unintended consequence of the "Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008" (which is actually S2636, see link below). See this link.

Donna Brazlie has an op-ed p A15 of the April 7 2008 Washington Times (not online yet) "Fueling a subprime inferno," in which she advocates lifting a ban on court-supervised loan modifications for a borrower's primary home (S2636, HR 3609). And Govtrack has an blog argument by Josh Tauberer on broker restrictions on loans, concerning HR 1852, Expanding American Home Ownership Act of 2007.

There is a lot of disagreement here among reasonable, well-meaning commentators.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Do sellers have to disclose nettlesome neighbors to buyers? The "Reputation Defender" problem again


Today, ABC Good Morning America presented a bizarre lawsuit from Phoenix, where a home buyer was not told about a noisy or abusive neighbor by the seller. The legal question comes up, does the seller have an obligation to disclose abusive neighbors? Should the buyer ask? Does it matter is the buyer asks? Does it matter if there was police action?

ABC did not yet have a link, but the Arizona Central has a story by Michael Kiefer, “Home sale lawsuit is over neighbor’s odd behavior,” link here.

The ABC went on to suggest that home buyers use search engines to check out neighborhoods, and visit them on weekends to see how noisy they are. There is a “gossip” website that allows people to post comments about neighbors, http://www.rottenneighbor.com/ . The maps do not appear to give specific addresses and may not always correctly identify a particular house. Still, it looks like a kind of Everyman's "Juicycampus" and poses similar problems (link).

I looked at it, and what I did find that it was possible to post unsubstantiated comments or “opinions” about other people. This very much fits into the “Reputation Defender” problem that I’ve discussed on my main blog. Internet “self-defamation” could also result in someone being mentioned on this site.

But what also seems possible is that unsubstantiated rumors about “neighbors” could affect property values in a neighborhood, especially now with the real estate downturn.

It’s possible to check state s.o. registries for residents near a proposed home, but it’s possible that rumors about this issue could also become relevant. At least one state, Ohio, allows a civil registry of people who have not been convicted of an offense, and there is nothing to stop private interests from making up such lists until libel laws catch up with them.

There was a story on Washington’s (ANC) WJLA last night (April 1) that a pricy neighborhood in Dale City, VA did not want homes from Habitat for Humanity in their neighborhood, and Habitat pulled out.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Arlington, Fairfax still mull over real estate tax increases; commercial increase rate still an issue


Last week, Arlington County VA held budget and Tax Rate hearings (the schedule is posted here. the results of which will be worked through in a series of budget meetings (schedule there) and eventually a decision about the tax increase.

The local Sun Gazette has a detailed story by Scott McCaffrey from March 28, here. The article discusses a proposal by County Manager Ron Carlee to raise residential rates by 3.4% (including a 1.4% sewer improvement) which is said to raise the average home’s bill in Arlington by over $200, to over $6000 a year. The same rate would apply to commercial property, and under the authority granted by a controversial Virginia law passed last year and approved by the board in late November 2007 (see this blog then), commercial property tax rates would go up by an additional 12.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

So far, there is no indication that the Board would change the way properties are classified or the rules for home based businesses or the permissible uses of property in zoning laws. In some other states (like New Jersey), this has been a concern, basically because of “political” problems in those areas among various types of property owners.

McCaffrey’s report, however, warns that some businesses, especially restaurants and hotels, might pass increases on to consumers.

The meeting pointed out that commerce pays the largest share of taxes, where as residents, in proportion to what they pay in taxes, consume the largest amount in services, especially public schools. Corporations, in general, wind up paying for the largest share of improvements in the school systems.

Arlington residents with Comcast can watch some Board activities on Channel 74 (as well as on the Web, with video links above). Some selected public school and adult classes are shown on Channel 70.

Fairfax County has been having similar budget meetings and public comments at its Government Center, and NBC4 has shown some of this.

Arlington and Fairfax, in general, have not been as severely affected by foreclosures and real estate price drops as other areas of the country, but they still are a major factor in budget planning.

April 2:

Loudoun County, VA, which has more problems with real estate prices, has announced a 19% residential property tax increase, with an average increase of $300 (that sounds low mathematically!). Washington Post story by Sandhya Somashekhar, Metro, p B01, "Loudoun Approves Jump in Tax Rate: Housing Downturn, Schools' Growth Prompt 19% Rise", list here.