Saturday, May 31, 2008

Disaster Reinsurance: socialize the risk, privatize the profits


Congress, particularly some Democrats, are talking about socializing the reinsurance risk of catastrophic losses in major storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes, and possibly other risks like earthquakes and wildfires. Government reinsurance would kick in when losses in an area exceed certain levels. Discussion on reinsurance may be increasing as the official Atlantic hurricane season begins Sunday June 1.

Conservatives criticize this with the usual mantra. This encourages building in high-risk coastal areas. This means people who live in lower risk areas subsidize those who “choose” to live in high risk areas. (The reality of choice is certainly debatable). However, some versions of legislation like this would kick in at different levels in different areas, offering subsidies at a lower loss area in geographical locations exposed to less risk.. For example, for most contingencies, mid Atlantic residents who live away from the coast and on the Piedmont, within the influence of mountains, usually have less risk of flood and tornadoes, as well as hurricanes, than do coastal or Midwest residents (these risks can increase with global warming), and have low earthquake and wildfire risks compared to California. The southern part of the Mississippi valley may have a considerable earthquake risk because of the New Madrid dimple.

There is an old adage about “privatizing profit” and “socializing risk.” Of course, that seems to be what our system is faced with in health care financing, too. Perhaps this is an working example of the New Testament adage, "I am my brother's keeper."

The Weekend Wall Street Journal article today (May 31) on the front page of the print version is by Elizabeth Williamson and is titled, “Taxpayers May Face Hurricane Tab.”
The link is here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quantifying personal carbon footprint, and what offsets "cost"


The May 26, 2008 issue of Time has a major story on “personal responsibility” and carbon footprints, by Bryan Walsh and Tiffany Sharples, on p 53, titled “Sizing Up Carbon Footprints: How new web tools help measure – and shrink – your impact on global warming”, with the link here. On the outset, it should be noted that the article presumes that the debate that global warming is man-made is settled. We must deal with the Inconvenient Truth.

The most important value of the story is quantification. The typical American’s consumption patterns emit more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide (40000 pounds) a year. Even a homeless person in the US emits more carbon than a typical person in a developing county. The illustrations on p 54 give some examples for various activities. A cross country flight emits about 2500 pounds each way. (Okay, the plane would fly anyway. But no it wouldn’t, if demand for travel went down, which it has because of high oil prices.)

The article mentions the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) calculator, which I found here. There is also a PDF (a paper by Sara Hartwell) at EPA that explains how this works, here, and a blog "Greenversations" here. I tried the calculator and found my personal annual estimate to be 39265 pounds. I found “easy” steps would reduce 28% of this amount. The Time article also mentions “Carbonrally”.

Then there is the opportunity to improve one’s karma by purchasing “carbon offsets”. There are many “retailers” of this, but one of the main intermediaries is CarbonFund. I found that a “Direct Carbon” or “Zero Carbon” offset for my use right now runs about $200 a year (the link is here). That doesn’t sound too bad. That sounds like it’s supposed to represent the average consumer’s “fair share” of the cost of renewable energy and reforestation projects to reduce carbon emissions from human sources to close to zero.

From a moral viewpoint, one can imagine where this is headed. Will we some day gave a "carbon footprint" score that is like a FICO score? In the minds of many people, the global warming problem, when applied at an individual level, argues for greater socialization (often connected to family identity and religion), and less personal expressiveness, which tends to consumer resources. But in the past we’ve always depended on a “free market” to run that, and high gas prices are partly an expression of how a free market can regulate behavior and practical choices without necessarily replacing entire personal value systems. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Report on race and adoption may challenge federal law; will adoption some day become a "duty"?


There is recent controversy about the Multiethic Placement Act of 1994, which prohibits social workers from mentioning a child’s race during placement for adoption or in managing foster care. In 2007, David J. Herring at the University of Pittsburgh published a paper “The Multiethnic Placement Act: A Threat to Child Safety and Wellbeing,” here. Today, The Washington Post, on p A2, runs a story by Darryl Fears, “Study of ’94 Adoption Law Finds Little Benefit to Blacks,” A new report, associated with the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City is called “Finding Families for African-American Children: The Role of Race and Law in Adoption from Foster Care.” The link for the report is here. The report suggests more flexibility in the law in the ability to consider race in the placement effort.

The text for Title VI “The Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994” is at the website of HHS Administration for Children & Families, link here.

Media coverage on the need for foster and adoptive parents has increased in recent years, as with NBC4’s “Wednesday’s Child” segment (as well as adoption expos; there was one in Dec 2007 reported on this blog). In some parts of the country, such as Minneapolis (where bus stop wait seat backs had adoption ads in 2003 when I was living there), local policies encourage singles to adopt.

Monday, May 26, 2008

High School: Is Junior Year the Hardest? (HSM won't say)


Is Junior Year the “hardest year” in high school? I remember an episode on TheWB’s Everwood where piano prodigy Ephram (Gregory Smith) says that, in a year when he gets a D in Spanish (the “easiest” foreign language) and Bright flunks trigonometry. In my own case, at Washington-Lee High School in 1960, I had that “hard” Va. and U.S. History teacher whose tests were almost all essay. I also had physics that year, which is hard at first, but you get used to it.

The Weekend Wall Street Journal (May 24, p A1) featured a story by Jonathan Kaufman “High School’s Worst Year: For Ambitious Teens, 11th Grade Becomes a Marathon of Tests, Stress and Sleepless Nights,” link here. I had to write a term paper in English that year, and the topic was James Fenimore Cooper’s treatment of women in his Leatherstocking Tales. I remember taking the bus downtown Saturdays to the DC library (now a museum) to find good enough material for research, that was kept on index cards; and the term paper was actually handwritten in penmanship (it was easier to do footnotes that way), long before the days of Word Perfect or Microsoft Word (and turnitin.com). But I was introduced to final exams in 10th Grade, two three-hour finals each day in a period in June, and I remember writing an analysis of Mark Antony’s motives in Julius Caesar on the English exam.

But now, with high school usually starting in ninth grade, educators are saying repeatedly that ninth grade is the hardest, and has the most failures. I had ninth grade in “Junior High School” when we were the oldest kids in the block, but age 14 was the worst of all in my own teenage angst. It got better in high school for me, but not for a lot of people.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

FEMA housing for Katrina clients leading to health problems; does this raise questions about premanufactured housing and relocation to higher areas?


Shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I volunteered in the phone bank over at the Red Cross off Route 50 in Falls Church. Some of the phone calls produced a level of reward, staying on the phone for an hour with someone who needed to know how to get medication, requiring me to coordinate the call with a staff nurse. But with many of them, we were told to divert them to a special 800 number for FEMA, and many clients reported having been on hold waiting for representatives for more than 24 hours.

So it is, now, the karma comes back, as a story in the May 25 Washington Post reports (on p A1) about the use of trailers and manufactured housing for Katrina victims. The story ("Safety Lapses Raised Risks In Trailers for Katrina Victims: Formaldehyde Found in High Levels; 17,000 Say Homes Caused Illnesses") is by Spencer S. Hsu, link here.

We hear a lot about volunteer trips going down to New Orleans to help. In some cases, volunteers have not been allowed in the homes because of mold.

We also hear a lot about whether many areas well below sea level should be rebuilt, especially since the adequacy of the Corp of Engineers efforts to protect them with better levees is questionable, and whether public policy (let alone the casualty insurance industry) should encourage people to rebuild in very high risk areas. There may well be superstorms in the future, although the relationship of global warming to hurricanes may be more complicated than we had thought.

I’ve wondered, then, why wouldn’t premanufactured housing help provide a practical solution. It’s true, some areas probably should not be built, but premanufactured homes could be erected in other areas with programs to help people move. The formaldehyde issue sounds important, particularly as some parts of the homes are probably built with imported wood products.

The links on the Internet on premanufactured housing give ambiguous results, as companies seem to have different ways to present the concept. The “Evangelical Egologist” blog supports the idea here.

It looks like I took up the topic on the TV reviews blog in Aug. 2007. There was a comment to the effect, why didn't more people (including TV journalists) pick up hammers themselves and earn some karma?

Also

Today, speaking at a commencement in Connecticut (for Sen. Edward Kennedy), Barack Obama called for volunteerism. He suggested that everyone have hands on experience working to rebuild communities, even with travel (as to the Gulf area) when possible. He said, this is not because "you have a debt" for the opportunity you have, "which you do," but because "you owe it to yourself" and that individual ambition must correlate to the common good. Obama has sometimes suggested national service programs with some very strong carrots.

I visited New Orleans and the Gulf area for three days in Feb. 2006.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Foreign state control of oil reserves, rather than oil company behavior, may account for most of recent price run-up


A story by Patricia Hill in the May 24 Washington Times, p A1, presents an important view of the oil price crisis. The story is titled “State monopolies nudge out Big Oil: West’s expertise losing value,” link here. (Note that The Washington Times has a beta format for its website and may soon launch it. Very recently the "conservative" paper doubled its newsstand price for the print version from 25 to 50 cents, to make the price the same as the Post. Sunday Edition still just charges $1.00.)

The story points out that most of the world’s oil reserves are under the direct control of governments (often authoritarian and potentially or actually hostile to the West) or government-owned oil companies, like Aramco. Political instability in these countries feeds their economic interest: the implied threat of disruption keeps the price high, feeding authoritarian regimes.

ExxonMobil is a corporation, not a "country":


ExxonMobil may be the U.S. ‘s largest oil company and may report enormous profits, but it controls only a little more than 1% of the world’s known oil reserves.

ExxomMobil closed yesterday at $90.70, a drop but still high in its trading range.

Russell Gold has a brief but important story in the Weekend Wall Street Journal May 24, "For Exxon Holders, Profit Is Not Enough" about the upcoming shareholder meeting May 28 in Dallas, and the likelihood that some shareholders will propose measures on going green and emphasizing renewable energy, in "Oprah" manner. The XOM link announcement is here. The Corporate home page for the company has some recent position papers on environmental and citizenship issues.

A group named CoopAmerica is encouraging Exxon shareholders to pressure the board to use Exxon's profits for clean energy; the petition is here.

A story by Susan Mufson in the Washington Post today "Peeved at Prices? Don't Blame the Dealer; Awash in Profit, Exxon Fights for Pennies While Raising the Rent," in the Washington Post, Sunday, May 25, p A1, link here, doesn't help the company's image. Exxon is reported as raising rents on properties it leases to franchisees, and raising wholesale prices when it learns retail prices have gone up.

Investors who bought domestic oil stocks during the 1970s oil crisis (even after the 1973 Arab oil embargo) and held onto it have done extremely well, with perhaps a 20-fold increase in value. Some investment advisers or financial planners suggest that investors (perhaps even retirees who need income) invest in overseas operations in developing countries. But these might involve more risk or require more capital.

I recall a substitute teaching assignment three years ago where tenth grade students had to write in-class current events report, and the lead news story of the day was about the oil supplies in a vulnerable and autocratic Saudi Arabia. Some kids made the print copies from The Washington Post (including that article, which I pointed out as among the most important) into paper airplanes. This will be their world to run soon, and some of them have not a clue as to what is going on.

Friday, May 23, 2008

US motorists are driving less; will history repeat itself as in the 1970s?


Remember how it was in late 1973, after the October Yom Kippur war? I found out about it at a social gathering in New York City (at the Ninth Street Center, the weekly potluck in the East Village then) after a Friday night camping trip at High Point State Park. Funny how details stick in your mind with history. In northern New Jersey, where I lived then, gas prices rose daily, and by the end of the year most gas stations were closed on weekend with “no gas” signs. Dictator Richard Nixon “ordered” gasoline stations to close on Sunday and told the nation on a November evening, “we may have to ration gasoline” in the same breath that he said “I’m not going to resign from the job I was elected to do.” I remember listening to that speech in a Tysons Corner VA Holiday Inn, as I traveled for Univac.

Then in many places they had even-odd rationing as for gasoline purchases. The government printed up ration tickets but didn’t use them, as it had during World War II, to save tire rubber. Several European countries started formal gasoline rationing Jan. 1, 1974. I remember driving to a New Years Eve party in North Jersey for GAANJ (some visitors remember all of this) and hearing the say on the radio, that for this New Year we looked into a glass, darkly, as Paul does in I Corinthians.

I traveled to Minnesota for Univac in early 1974, and rented a car, and had very little trouble with gas, unlike the East Coast. It all mysteriously cleared up in April, as soon as “the price was up.” We were no longer grounded.

At the beginning of 1979 I moved to Dallas, where the oil was, and yet there would be another oil crisis, because of Iran. There was a self-service station on Cedar Springs near my apartment (near the Tollway) that never closed, until the crisis intensified in the spring, and then it blew over, with the price up, of course. It seemed both times that the "blackmailed" economy would eventually adjust to higher oil prices, but only after recession and stagflation.

Chris Baltimore has a story today on Reuters (also published on Yahoo!) “March driving down for first time since 1979: government,” link here. That means that March 2008 is the first month that Americans drove less in a particular month than they had the same month one year before. It’s likely to continue in April and May.

This time, there is no talk of rationing, but the price is already way up. We've seen this cycle at least twice before in the 1970s, but this time the fundamentals may really be different. IEA is likely to come out with a report that we are tapping out on oil production. Oil companies will simply say government has to get off their backs and let them drill in exotic locations.

Yet, today, traffic in northern Virginia was heavy, with the usual bottlenecks on the Internstates and Beltway. Beach communities like Ocean City and Rehoboth expect brisk business, because many people will drive 150 miles for a long weekend even with high prices, and refills on the Eastern shore will be cheaper way from the major cities. But they won’t make the 400 mile trips. Florida resorts should do well if the beaches get enough local business. The same for northeastern beaches and some mountains, that are relatively close to major cities. P-town is farther from Boston than it looks.

Update: June 2, 2008


Evan Snyder, a technology person from the Seattle area with whom I corresponded on some Internet v. policy matters, has an interesting take on oil prices. He says he welcomes $10 a gallon gasoline, and gives this explanation. "Why I welcome higher gas prices" on his blog, here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

DC area "slugging" could be disrupted by fewer commuters driving; oil prices are really spiking now; IEA to report markets tapping out


I can recall when I was working in information technology in Arlington fifteen years ago hearing other teammates talking about depending on slug lines. In information technology, I wondered if that was kosher, because people had to work overtime a lot (unpaid); there were deadlines, big system tests, and abends at night. In fact, carpooling could be a problem, because in IT, I thought, you couldn’t count on going home at a specific time. Oh, the day care pickups, and everything else, all of that was alien to me. I had an apartment four miles away, and could come and go anytime. Sometimes other workers took advantage of my convenience, and sometimes I resented it.

So, today, goes the discussion of slug lines. “Slugging” doesn’t refer to the baseball statistic that measures extra base hits and homers. It specifically refers to the practice of solo drivers picking up riders so they can use the HOV lanes during DC rush hours, on I-95 and on I-66. In fact, a portion of I-66, from Falls Church all the way to the terminus in the District after the Roosevelt Bridge (through Arlington) is available only to HOV vehicles during rush hour, since it is only two lanes each way. Drivers need riders, so they aren’t supposed to charge.

The latest news is that there are fewer drivers (with the surging oil and gasoline prices) so riders may have to wait longer or might not find rides at all.

Many other cities have HOV lanes (I once got directed onto one while alone in Pittsburgh by a police officer as I tried to get out of a crowd near Pirates stadium; I didn't get fined). I would think the practice of slugging would go on in most metro areas.

Where is this headed? Wednesday May 21, the crude short term price jumped to over $135 (by over $4 in one day, I believe). This runaway, Weimar run-up in oil prices is threatening the business models of many companies. Now American Airlines will charge a $15 fee even for the first checked bag.

An article by Alexander Kwiatkowski on Bloomberg explains some of the speculative ride, with explanation of the term “falling open interest” and the need for speculators to exit “selling short” positions on futures as suddenly the US shows a dip in inventories (in May, when it is usually growing), and as China is likely to cause a spike in demand (especially for diesel) because of the earthquake (which doesn’t really seem to have damaged China’s own production, however). The link is here.

Bloomberg has a chart on Department of Energy Crude Oil inventory, here I found a tabular version of this information on the DOE’s own site here. Look at the third row to compare to Bloomberg. (There are many other related charts on DOE, some of them in separate PDF’s only; The Department of Energy’s own chart on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is here (This is a "just in case" inventory available if there is a major oil supply disruption.)) Christian Smollinger explains this chart and related information (the sudden dip is alarming) in this article (slightly older, from yesterday) on Bloomberg.

Yesterday, as other media outlets reported, Congress grilled oil company executives about the runaway price increases. ExxonMobil’s official explanation ("Factors in Fuel Pricing") is here.

Even Regis and Kelly talked about this problem today (May 22). The oil companies say they make 4% of what we pay for gasoline.

Is this parabolic price rise simply an adjustment to short-selling? In that case it could be a commodity "bubble" (like a stock market (dot-com) or real estate or even Magnolia Pictures "Bubble") that could be modeled in calculus with curve fitting. Or is it because world oil production really is getting tapped out, and we are now ready for our "Crude Awakening" as in the Netflix film.

There is a story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning by Neil King, Jr. and Peter Fritsch that makes the alarming "tapped out" argument, "
Energy Watchdog Warns Of Oil-Production Crunch; IEA Official Says Supplies May Plateau Below Expected Demand," link here. The International Energy Agency offers an Oil Market Report, but much of the detailed content requires paid subscription.

This week, CNN has been running an updated version of its one hour film “We Were Warned” that suggests that during a price spike (particularly after a natural catastrophe somewhere in the world – it doesn’t have to be a hurricane in the Gulf), oil production facilities overseas, particularly in Saudi Arabia, could become tempting targets for Al Qaeda. Then what happens?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Focus on Advanced Placement in public high schools stirs debate, even resentment; should AP teachers "pay their dues"?


Today (May 21), The Washington Post ran two Letters to the Editor on advanced placement courses in high school, on p A18. The writers expressed some interesting views. One said that the emphasis on AP takes teachers away from giving attention to underprivileged and lower performing students (or from even wanting to teach them). That’s an interesting “pay your dues” kind of argument. Another suggested that taxpayer money should not be spent on better-off kids, when there so many other needs. AP could be offered at nearby community colleges, and arrangements could be made for qualified high school students to attend them. Another argument is that AP increases “competitiveness” among some students that becomes “oppressive” and ruins high school and being a teenager for some. That seems like an odd argument given all the recent attention to the issues with teenagers on the Internet (as shown on a PBS Frontline show last night – see my TV blog).

Indeed, advanced placement courses do offer an opportunity to earn considerable college credit in public school at “taxpayer expense.” For a middle income but well performing student, perhaps a minority member, wanting to go to medical school some day, such an advanced start in dealing with the enormous eventual expenses of education is certainly worth it. Of course, there are scholarships, and there are other opportunities, such as joining the military or earning a service academy appointment, for pursuing such dreams.

I can say from my own experience as a sub, there is enormous range in student ability in high schools. In AP classes, it was common for lesson plans to include practice SAT or AP tests, including free response questions that are similar (say in physics, chemistry, or calculus) to problems (with multiple parts) found on typical college mid term or final course exams. Typically, the student must apply and combine several concepts to answer a free response question. Learning these skills of “connecting dots” does not come easy at first, but students typically get past an inflection point in intellectual maturity and can do very well at this. In the past, much of this transition occurred in graduate school, where it took a semester to get used to the demands of professors. Now it can occur much earlier in life.

I personally have seen or known of all kinds of talents. I’ve seen commercially publishable creative writing. One AP student wanted to become a major league pitcher, although he could have done anything. (Nats scouts, take note!) NPR recently presented a 13 year old pianist from China or Taiwan who was already in college on the West Coast.

There has been criticism that many school systems have eliminated honors course in 11th and 12th grades and offer only Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate. Daniel De Vise started the latest debate with a story in the May 19 Washington Post, p B1, “Honors course give way to AP rigor,” link here.

Of course, imagine the arguments you can make about high school athletics.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nation's growing deficit worse that government admits



A couple of stories in popular periodicals and newspapers add more perspective to the nation’s current financial crisis.

The Monday May 19 issue of USA Today has a scare front page story by Dennis Cauchon, “Bill for taxpayers swells by trillions: Deficit far bigger than government estimate.” The link now is this. (Search usatoday.com for "Medicare"; the search for "Cauchon" or "deficit" doesn't yet work there.)

The article is written with the idea of the federal government as a corporation that has the fiduciary responsibility to report like one. Medicare’s obligation has grown by $1.2 trillion in the last year, with an unfunded liability of over $30 trillion. That’s about $100000 per person!! One problem seems to be goofy accounting, well known from the growing problems with pensions in both the private and public sectors.

The June 2008 issue of Reader’s Digest has an account (“Home Sick”) of the foreclosure crisis by Lisa Collier Cool, on p 160, that echoes the explanations of Suze Orman on Oprah (or even the comedy on Saturday Night Live). After the dot-com bust, greedy people looking for fast bucks found the next bust thing. Since agents didn’t forfeit their commissions when selling houses with questionable loans, and since banks passed on the risks to investment houses that “securitized” the subprime mortgages, nobody cared about the math of this obvious ponzi scheme. The writer gives stories of how real estate agents themselves went broke and lost homes, or nearly did. The link is here.

On page 166, Mark Gimein has a story “Mr. Foreclosure” about the business of buying uninhabitable and stripped foreclosed houses, fixing them and turning them around and selling them. This is not exploitive "flipping," which is more what the original "real estate boom" a few years ago was about. Now, it’s hard work (it requires a fixer-upper background) but for a while it will earn big profits. The link is here. Another profitable business in some cities is turning homes or foreclosed condo units into quickly rentable units.

And, they say, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton left office with the nation essentially financially healthy (well, the dot-com bust had started). Somehow, with our manufacturing more and more outsourced, we turn to manipulative schemes to "make a living" of "get rich quick."

Monday, May 19, 2008

NOAA study on global warming complicates the picture for hurricanes: maybe there will be fewer of them


The media took a deep breath Sunday with the story about a study, published in Nature Geoscience, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s dynamic fluid lab in Princeton NJ. The study by Tom Knutson (and Joseph Sirutis, Stephen Garner, Gabriel Vecchi, and Isaac Held (maintains that global warming may produce fewer Gulf and Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms, but the ones it produces could be fiercer.

Reporting this finding is certainly necessary for objectivity, and the picture is complicated. Higher water temperatures in the Gulf could trigger more sudden super category 5’s, but melting icecaps could disrupt the Gulf Stream and reduce hurricanes in other ways. There seems to be a tendency recently for extra-tropical storms and even land storms to be more severe and behave like true tropical storms, with “wrong direction” severe thunderstorms and even embedded tornadoes in the Atlantic regions from big low pressure systems even at lower temperatures.

AP science writer Seth Borenstein has a writeup May 19, “Jump in hurricanes not global warming, says study that predicts fewer future storms,” link here. NOAA has its own link for the detailed science behind the story here.

However Geoscience at Nature’s website (contents are here) has some other very provocative stories and editorials (the new Sunday story doesn’t seem to appear yet), but many of them may be viewed online only by institutional visitors. There is an editorial on p 281 “The drive for fuel” that takes a careful look at whether biofuels really can extend scarce resources. Maybe they should look at the success of Brazil's sugarcane ethanol fuel program as reported on CNN ("We Were Warned").

The NOAA lab is on the Forrestal Campus at Princeton. Another big lab in the area used to be the David Sarnoff Research Center, where I worked in 1970 when I started my first job, at RCA. I understand that it now belongs to SIAC.

Another large fluid dynamics lab belongs to the David Taylor Model Basin of the US Navy, where I-495 meets the Potomac River in Carderock Maryland. I worked there summers from 1965-1967 and there are many large wind and fluid labs on the premises.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wisconsin man convicted on unusual weapons charge: another 2nd Amendment case looming?


CNN’s Lou Dobbs reports today (Saturday May 17) about a disturbing potential Second Amendment related case from Wisconsin. David R. Olofson, who had served a tour in the Army with an honorable discharge and joined the reserves, bought an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with M16 parts, and somehow transferred or loaned it to someone on a firing range in Wisconsin. The rifle malfunctioned, and fired up to six rounds in two squeezes of the trigger. The federal government and ATF prosecuted him for violating the “assault weapons ban” or machine gun weapons ban, and he was sentenced to 30 months in prison this week in a federal court in Milwaukee. However, observers in the case maintain that the weapon would have been illegal only if it had auto-seer, which it does not have.

The case has been appealed. There were some questions about past charges in the defendant’s military and civilian record, but he has never been convicted of a felony or weapons offense.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a story by John Diedrich about the sentencing May 13, here. Search the paper online for subsequent stories about his background, and watch CNN and other media outlets for details of this story to appear.

In Washington DC, the District of Columbia’s handgun law is now before the Supreme Court, as has been covered on this blog.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stop whining about gas prices -- get to work!


So, with the gasoline prices approaching $4.00 a gallon, ordinary Americans, when interviewed, say they feel like grounded kids. They can’t go where they want when they want. It’s getting difficult. And it could be like this forever.

But we had these scares in the 1970s, with the Arab oil embargo, even-odd rationing, and gasoline station closures on Sundays, a 50 mph national speed limit for a while. There was talk of restricting driving further with the possibility of World War II ration stamps. That didn’t happen, and the crisis that started in the fall of 1973 lifted in the spring of 1974, with prices much higher. We saw a repeat of it in 1979.

This time, the culprit seems to be exponentially increasing demand from the developing world, especially China and India, at a time when we may be tapping out on oil discovery and future production, and when our whole culture is vulnerable to religious and external international "political" pressures that are well known. As a CNN documentary says, "We were warned."

Will we adjust again? I don’t know, but this time I wonder why Detroit doesn’t get busy making hybrid cars and figuring out how to make them affordable. The Toyota Prius seems to be the main opportunity so far. As noted on this blog some days ago, some young men in Illinois have re-engineered the Prius to get 100 miles per gallon with an electric plug in for recharging.

What needs to happen is that American manufacturers need to start providing these cars.

As for renewable electric power, the most practical opportunity in many areas, subject to cold fronts (or strong Santa Anna winds) will be the wind turbines. There should be many more of them in the DC area, and on the Blue Ridge behind us.

Saudi Arabia has said this week that it will not increase oil production, because it believes demand is going down. Actually, that's not true; Saudi Arabia is worried that it oil supplies will get tapped out by exploding third world demand, and the falling dollar exacerbates oil prices in the U.S. Later news stories contradicted the refusal to raise production, and reported that Saudi Arabia had agreed to a miniscule increase in production, and that The Kingdom was doing the best it could.

Stop whining. Get to work. Of course, it's so easy to talk about "they." This time, there is no "they."

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Debt collectors are getting a bad rap now, but most may well be OK


Television station NBC4 in Washington this evening reported on the problem of abusive debt collectors. The problem may be escalated by the current bad economy and subprime crisis.

The Debt Collection industry is regulated by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) link is here (PDF). There are many provisions. Any phone call has to start with a mini-miranda that informs the consumer of the purpose of the call. Any consumer can ask not to be called again, and any debt claim can be disputed. There are strict rules against disclosing the debt to third parties except spouses (in some states, not even spouses may be told). Parents cannot be told. People who claim to be guardians or caregivers cannot be told without permission.

However, legitimate debts, if not paid, will be reported on a consumer’s credit report and affect the consumer’s score. Accounts in collections can be reported. In some cases, legal action resulting in garnishment can occur.

I worked as a debt collector for a company called RMA while living in Minnesota in the summer of 2003. Collectors are paid an hourly wage, and it is not high. We went through several days of training, including the requirements of the FDCPA. Before we could work on the floor, we had to answer every question on a multiple choice test correctly.

The media has reported abusive calls by collectors, but most companies today conduct the business in an ethical manner. The general philosophy is that there are enough people who want help clearing debts that they will negotiate repayment plans. So good and ethical collectors focus on finding consumers who really are willing to talk to them. There is attention in the business to the "quality of calls" as well as number.

Collection companies divide their workforce into different client groups: bank credit cards, telecomm companies, gas and oil, and medical, which requires additional training because of HIPAA regulations. Collectors are often authorized to negotiate partial payments (sometimes as low as 70%) to get the consumer out of collections. Payment mechanism include check by phone and Western Union. Consumers may be pressured to pay immediately. Many consumers do pay by mail in practice. Internet banking could make some of these payment methods antiquated, but many consumers may not have good Internet access.

Sometimes debt collection companies buy debts from banks, and then try to partially collect them. I found such a debt on my credit report in 2000, a Chemical Bank (now Chase) card from 1980 that I had lost track of during moves. They claimed that a $125 debt had now become $600. I called the company, National Credit Systems, and first they located the debt. Suddenly I got a very rude call from a manager demanding to pay up or there would be a lawsuit. Collectors cannot threaten to sue, and this threat was illegal, although I didn’t know that at the time. I paid, even though I wanted to dispute the bill. Legally, they had to let me dispute the bill and prove that it was valid. At the time, I thought I would try to buy a house, and had to pay up.

There is an Association of Credit and Collection Professionals (ACA) which maintains that the industry does not support abuse of consumers. Their website is here.

On Monday, May 19, USA Today ran a story by Kathy Chu on p B1, "More people complain about debt collectors; as economy slumps, tactics become more aggressive."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arlington Earth Day recommendations: different strokes for different folks: a vote for high density urban living


The Arlington Earth Day exhibit in the Ballston Common a couple weekends ago had a nice cardboard handout and somewhat coercive-sounding "Pledge" (printed in ink-jet and very soluble I found out) to make personal lifestyle changes, of varying practicability.

Some are easy. For example, “purchase products online”. I do that with Amazon and Dell (and iUniverse), but the products have to be packaged and transported by UPS or USPS. I guess that’s more fuel efficient than driving a couple miles to the store.

Reduce “vampire electricity.” That would take some effort. The computer stays on, and some electronics may be better off if left on. Some items are turned off and disconnected (the laptop). During a storm it may be necessary to disconnect.

Oprah wants everybody to buy a reusable shopping bag. But that’s not enough for groceries. You have to tell clerks not to use plastic. I don’t need bags at the 7-11 any more.

Many of the recommendations require a lot more effort or money. Installing a solar hot water heater, buying a new hybrid car. Many are community projects and require time. When I was substitute teaching, one of the seniors at Wakefield had set up some kind of garden as an Eagle Scout project, and I could drive by it on Four Mile Run at any time.

Almost any community could install wind turbines in some areas, especially higher land, to capture energy from cold fronts (on the East Coast). There are large farms of turbines around Palm Springs, CA. Why not install them here?

The biggest issue is still the amount of driving, at least until getting a plug-in hybrid is practical. One factor in stopping subbing was the long distance to some schools. Many jobs require individual transportation to different locations, and many require working late, and carpooling or “slug lines” aren’t practical.

Much of the excessive driving and automobile size developed in the past few decades during suburbanzation. Employers moved to the suburbs (like along I-270 or I-66 in DC, or outside the Beltway, or north of I-635 in Dallas). But commutation patterns were complicated and driving distance remained long. For a single person, there is nothing more efficient and secure than high rise living in a city with most amenities (and, especially, your job) within walking distance or available by Metro or subway.

In Minneapolis, from 1997-2003, I lived in a famous downtown highrise, the Churchill and walked to work at ING/ReliaStar along the Skyway, about 1500 feet. I could even make it to work on crutches after my hip fracture in 1998. This energy (and economy) efficient arrangement worked great for four-plus years until the downsizing and “retirement” (severance, buyout – you know that many companies do this) at the end of 2001. One did have to pay for a car parking space. I later worked fourteen months at the Minnesota Orchestra, and still could walk on the skyway, just 20 minutes instead of 5 minutes. All efficient. High density living is efficient. Renting (away from high cost cities on both coasts) may be more efficient than buying, although its hard to predict how condos will settle out with the foreclosure crisis. (Prices there seem high until you compare them to New York, Washington and San Francisco). High density living also tends to require less time for adaptive tasks perhaps related to green living, although opportunities (like food coops) are available even in the cities.

In New York, I lived at 11th and Broadway in the Cast Iron Building (now a landmark) in the late 1970s, and took subway (usually the BMT) to work in midtown or lower Manhattan. The West Village and East Village were each a ten minute walk away. A car was unnecessary.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Health care: universal coverage? Try universal automated care coordination


In recent networking about various health and elder related issues, one point has become apparent to me about the health care debate. There seems to be a considerable potential for savings by much better integration of patient care. This is particularly the case with patients under Medicare and with those in many retiree health care plans, and probably some ordinary group plans.

Many plans sponsored by employers require “managed care” with the person selecting a primary care physician who must approve (or at least start the approval chain) referrals to specialists. The primary care physician (often a family practice or internal medicine physician) knows all of the medications prescribed. In Medicare, and in some retiree plans, patients are allowed to go any specialists on their own who accept Medicare or who accept the particular plan under contract. Often there is no systematic checking for medications, repeated (and redundant) tests or other therapies. The patient (or the patient’s family) is counted on for this information.

Conservatives have sometimes made a strong case for much better record keeping and sharing of information among providers. This may run into HIPAA-related issues, but there is almost no question that doing so could save considerably on Medicare and ordinary medical plan costs and claims. Liberals (and particularly the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton) have been talking about universal coverage and mandatory coverage, but they should also talk about mandatory automation of treatment coordination.

Civil libertarians may be concerned about the concentration of information, however. It could make it easier for governments to quarantine or isolate persons in the future should some now unknown communicable disease appear.

Picture: Amtrak's Union Station National Train Day.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Major "newseum" sources need to report on substitute teaching issues


I’ve written about my own experience as a substitute teacher on this and on my main blog several times, and noted some problematic areas in how substitute teaching works in many states. There are often questions about the lack of licensure, and in the fact that some substitutes, especially some retirees, may not have experience communicating with younger children or low-income students needing specific kinds of attention and communication, especially in the matters of classroom discipline (or “classroom management”) and motivation. Sometimes the best subs are ex-military.

I’ve tried to cover some of the more subtle and esoteric aspects of these problems on the blogs. However, I think the problems are so pervasive and widespread that the “journalism establishment” – the “Newseum World” – needs to cover it in detail. I think that major newspapers in this area (The Washington Post, and I count the Washington Times) need to cover the problem with detailed stories. (I could add USA Today, but its stories tend to be brief, synoptic, and high-level. More detail with anecdotes is needed here.) I think this is a good subject for a report on ABC 20/20 or something like Anderson Cooper 360. The stories should be developed and reported in the professional and “objective” manner commensurate with the ethical standards of major journalism companies.

The media admitted to the need to cover this after the John Mark Karr episode in 2006 (he had been a sub) – the need to look at how we hire and retain subs – but then got quickly forgotten.

Here is a reference from 1997 from Eric Digest, “Not Just a Warm Body: Changing Images of the Substitute Teacher,” link here.

I will help any such effort in any way that I can.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Are tornados in the Mid Atlantic more common now with global warming?



Are storms stronger now in the mid-Atlantic states than they used to be? Is it because of global warming?

I can speak anecdotally. When I was growing up in the DC area in the 50s and 60s, I recall that most severe thunderstorms occurred after hot humid days with cold fronts. Severe, lightening generating storms and tornado watches did not occur except on hot days. There were rare exceptions, such as “thunder snow” with big Noreasters in the winter, as with the 1961 Inauguration Day blizzard.

In the past few years, we have seen much more tree damage, a tendency for much stronger pull-away winds after cold fronts, and much more dangerous storms during “ordinary” lows that pump in large amounts of Atlantic moisture. The tornados in Suffolk Va a couple weeks ago, and in Stafford County VA Thursday night occurred during “ordinary” lows passing to the north or west, with southeast winds at the surface, and cold-front-like winds from the northwest in the upper levels, resulting in spin, even when surface temperatures were only in the 60s, even at night when the sun had not been out to heat up the ground. I don’t recall this occurring before.

I’ve noticed that southern Maryland, between the Potomac River, Bay, and Ocean gets much more violent weather than the No VA suburbs west of Washington. That area got tornados even in “wrong direction” thunderstorms moving from the Southeast during a stalled low. “Wrong direction” fronts are becoming more common as land lows take on tropical storm characteristics, even in the spring. However, that area is flatter, surrounded by warm water, and farther from the mountains. Some parts of the DC area to the west are somewhat protected by the closer Blue Ridge, especially the Central Section that rises to 4000 feet. A bit farther north, the mountains are lower, so Montgomery County MD seems less “protected.”

Thinks have changed. The tree foliage stock, important for absorbing carbon, has gotten older and weaker, and a lot of it fell in 2003 during Isabelle, which never actually got violent; it was just prolonged and the ground was soaked.

When I was a graduate student a Kansas University 1966-1968, a few times some of us rode around chasing tornadoes. I knew a woman who lived through the Wichita Falls, Texas tornado of 1979, while working in a fast food restaurant that was struck. This was called a "wedge tornado." And I recall the March 30 tornadoes in Minnesota in 1998; I was with a friend driving back to Minneapolis from a visit to the wineries up north when the violent storms struck suddenly.

On August 11, 2001, I spotted a funnel cloud when driving back from Rehoboth Beach , DE, along route 9; flooding thunderstorms had occurred, emptying the beach. I was probably about a mile from it. It didn't hit any buildings, just farmland.

Friday, May 09, 2008

FBI will back off on FISA letters gag orders when challenged in court


A story by Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post, May 8, 2008, p D01, “FBI backs off from secret order for data after lawsuit”, link here relates the story of a secret administrative request, with gag order, from the FBI of a visitor to the Internet Archive in San Francisco, the “WayBack Machine”. That website stores partial copies of other websites back in time as far as the middle 1990s. There has been some controversy about it (copyright), and the possibility that investigators or even employers could find out what someone had posted years ago and then deleted. The Archive will remove website copies on request and currently does not get indexed into search engines.

Many versions of my old site hppub.com, going back to 1997, are there.

But the main point of the story is that the FBI seems to back down on the data demands associated with “national security levels” when challenged in court, rather than reveal its sources.

There is also a funny story in the May 8 Post by Peter Carlson, “Eyes Only [redacted]: In its – offices, the National Security Archive houses stockpiles of __ gotten from the government by ___,” link here.


Update: May 15, 2008

The ACLU has a blog entry May 9 "Gag lifted Brwester Speaks" about the lifting of the order against Brewster Kahle, link here.

Picture (unrelated): Mt Vernon slave house.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Oil at $123 a barrel: Echoes of film "A Crude Awakening" and CNN's "We Were Warned"


There are many media stories today on the Goldman-Sachs prediction of $150-$200 a barrel in two years, perhaps much of that this year, leading to an average retail price of 87 octane gasoline of $5.60 in the US (already comparable to what Europe has had for years). I don’t know how that translates into air fares, but it could make low cost airlines and excursion fares almost impossible to operate in the future. (Right now, there are still some reasonable deals around.)

A typical story is on AP by Madlen Read, “Stocks lift even as oil prices soar near $123 a barrel,” link here. The title suggests the sense: the collapse of the subprime market, the movement into commodities, and investor speculation based on fears of overseas security problems leads to a higher price for commodities than a market normally bears. This is one reason for the calls for windfall profits taxes on oil companies.

Nevertheless, the analytical stories about the putative peaks in oil discovery and production are applicable. The were well outlined in the 2006 Netflix Red Envelope film “A Crude Awakening.” I discuss this film here
And I encourage the visitor to watch the seven minute video “World Without Oil” here.

A factor in the runup has been the litigation over socialist expropriation of oil resources from Venezuela by Hugo Chavez, covered in the upcoming LionsGate film “The War on Democracy”. (review). Unrest in Nigeria and attacks on oil facilities affect futures prices, but are probably more motivated by resentment against democratic changes underway since 1999. (CIA site. But obviously worse is the potential impact now of activity against the Saudi oil fields, as previously documented in a CNN documentary “We Were Warned” about a speculative 2009 event after another hurricane in the US Gulf.

Update: Friday May 9

Oil hit $126 today, and Jose De Cordoba and Jay Solomon report "Chávez Aided Colombia Rebels, Captured Computer Files Show," in the Wall Street Journal, link, with the possibility of US sanctions against one of our largest sources of imported oil.

A scary article from April 24 in the WSJ "Environmental Capital" was "Skyrocketing Oil: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet," by Keith Johnson, link here, and says that market fundamentals will lead to $225 oil by 2012 ($150 by 2010).

Monday, May 05, 2008

Parents can monitor their kids' grade, attendance in real-time now


When you’re a tween or a teen, you feel that your first act in life is school. In fact, school seems like your whole universe. For some kids, grade become the currency – unfortunately perhaps, but inevitable given a meritocratic society. Remember the pulsating telltale heart was the teacher passed out the graded algebra test? Oh, the last one was five word problems. Miss one, B-. Miss two, D-. Well, maybe there was part credit. Sometimes questions have parts (especially in college and graduate school). Or the history test. That might have been multiple choice, especially today in this SOL-obsessed world.

Already, many teachers have taken to posting up-to-date running grades by student number on their classroom doors, compiling tests, quizzes, homework, lab, and projects or papers. It’s a particularly popular practice in big science courses.

Now, kids might find their test grades on home computer inkjet printouts on their beds, or from the parents before family dinner (or even family home evening). There is a proliferation of companies that offer schools the ability to keep a daily real-time database of their kids’ progress, and school districts are jumping on board. The monitoring extends beyond test and quiz grade and tackles fundamentals like attendance and tardiness, too (maybe even too many bathroom breaks, that some schools count). They include Edline, Pinnacle Internet Viewer (this link is typical), PowerSchool, and Parent Connect (this link is typical). Kids feel they are being spied on and complain vociferously on Myspace and Facebook, which parents and often schools monitor.

The New York Times story, Sunday May 4 in Styles, is “I know what you did last math class: Programs that let parents track grades in real time are popular but can stress out families,” link here.

ABC's Good Morning America covered the practice, too, this morning (Monday May 5), “Online programs allow parents to track kids’ grades step by step; about Parent Connect, with a survey here.

Television station WJLA (ABC) in Washington reported today that at least two school districts in Maryland are starting to use Parent Connect.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Candidates consider new taxes on oil companies; Hillary wants ExxonMobil et al to pay your gas taxes this summer


Today, Hillary Clinton, on the Indiana primary campaign trail, suggested that oil companies be forced to pay consumer gasoline taxes this summer. Sounds like expropriation, doesn’t it! She also wants to regulate energy trading, and brings up Enron as an example of past abuse. She says that the market price for oil should be less than $100 a barrel, but it has been driven up by commodity speculation. True.

As we know, John McCain had suggested a gas tax holiday for the peak summer driving months, probably not too effective; Barack Obama repudiated that idea but, in the same spirit as Hillary, wants an oil company windfall profits tax. Obama called oil prices a "shell game." Richard Nixon had suggested that back in early 1974, before his unraveling with Watergate.

ExxonMobil is trading in the upper part of its range after announcing record profits, but naturally investors are going to fret about the prospect of new taxes, and wonder if they should sell now. Steve Mufson has a story in the Friday May 2 front page Washington Post, “Up $10.9 Billion, Exxon Worries About New Tax,” link here. The story is here.
Exxon’s earnings depend on a lot of things, including refinery operations, which are not necessarily doing as well, and government policies overseas, especially Venezuela now, as well as unrest in Nigeria. The boost in oil prices does not increase profits in a linear manner.

Exxon's first quarter results are here.

Individual investors who did invest in oil and gas decades ago seem to have done very well. Is this "wealth without work", as the Left claims?

Picture: Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, near Harrisburg, PA, site of an accident in 1979.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Shenandoah Valley Habitat for Humanity volunteers build with solar heaters


The Washington Times Metropolitan Section, B, page 1, has a story by Hannah Northey, that had appeared April 29 in the Harrisonburg, VA Daily Record, link here, “Earth-friendly habitats: Solar heaters, panels become standard for volunteer group; Habitat Homes Going Green; Smart Building Lowers Clients’ Bills” The story refers to Habitat for Humanity houses built in Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, about level with the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. Volunteers now receive instruction in solar heating, and some homes have solar panels that cost $1750 each, but that will save substantially in water heating bills over time. The terms of the Central Valley Habitat requires building to meet EarthCraft House standards.


Today, the Weather Channel has an AP story by Roxana Hegeman, about Greensburg, KS, "Tornado-flattened Kansas town is coming back greener," link here.