Sunday, January 31, 2010

Gumshoeing backgrounds of foster teens finds eligible relatives to become adoptive parents

The New York Times ran a particularly compelling story about adoption on p. 14, National News, of the Sunday Jan. 31 New York Times, ”A determined quest to bring adoptive ties to foster teenagers”, by Erik Eckholm, link here.

The story relates a new effort on St. Louis to find relatives for older kids and teens in foster care. The article maintains that diligent gumshoeing nearly always turns up relatives.

The story relates some specific incidents where people did not know that their “missing” siblings had fathered or mothered children, giving them nephews and nieces that did not know existed. In one specific example the new relative parent was already married with a family. But if the relative were childless and especially single, attempting to interest him or her in adoption would raise interesting ethical questions. Should relatives be responsible for the other people’s children (I could put it more bluntly) just because they are “family”? On the other hand, the teens have to go along with the adoptions, too.

Second picture, a Minneapolis bus stop ad in 2003.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Handheld cell phone bans while driving don't work (HLDI)

The Highway Loss Data Institute Bulletin reports on the effect on laws that ban hand held cell phone use in the District of Columbia and several other states, with the PDF report here.

The Institute reports that there is no significant decrease in crashes in these jurisdictions. No state bans hands-free cell phone use for all drivers, but the media is claiming that the study may show that hands-free use is just as dangerous because it is the conversation that distracts the brain, not just the physical distraction of handling the device. This sounds improbable and surprising. The additional distraction from texting, for example, must be considerable.

What about other distractions -- drinking coffee, listening to 80s music on Sirius radio?

And what's the future for the Jupiter Jack?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

DC Metro raises fares March 1 in lieu of more service cuts

The Washington DC Metro system is facing runaway problems with safety, service cuts and fare hikes. Today, Thursday, Jan. 28, the Metro Board approved an emergency across the board 10 cent fare hike, effective March 1, 2010 (apparently just through June 30).

The system has been plagued by slowdowns, delays, and single tracking and station closures for track maintenance, which was not common in the 1990s, as well as a number of serious accidents resulting in fatalities, the largest occurring last June.

The WJLA story is here.

Some cuts have involved weekend late night service, which is essential for nightlife and bar life in the Cy, which does not have enough parking and which has recently stiffly increased parking in evenings and Saturdays. Also, service cuts could lead to more DUI problems.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obama proposes increase per-child tax credit: would this please the "empty cradle" crowd?

President Obama is making some proposals popular with social and fiscal conservatives, including nearly doubling the per-child tax credit, and requiring employers to offer direct-deposit IRA’s, even those now without savings plans.

A typical news story appears on CNN, here.

The Child and Dependent Tax Care Credit would raise from 20% to 35% for families making less than $85000 a year, and up to $115000 there would be some credit.

Social conservatives have supported such measures in order to encourage middle class to upper middle class families to have more children, and for adults to be able to have children earlier in their working careers, at least while they are in the late 20s, before the biological clock starts to work against them. Phil Gramm, back in 1992, had proposed multiplying the credit by 10! This comports with the “empty cradle” or “demographic winter” argument of Phillip Longman and others. The appearance of the story on the same day that Lifetime aired its movie “Pregnancy Pact” is a bit ironic.

The Christian Science Monitor offers this story, by David Grant, title "What's cooler than a child-care tax credit? Obama's opt-out IRA: The child-care tax credit would increase, but an opt-out IRA is both one of the most interesting and least controversial of Obama's middle-class aid proposals”. The article notes that Incentives for employers “to create opt-out enrollment in retirement plans” were provided by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, but there has been no program for associates in workplaces without employer-sponsored savings plans, and it’s not clear that much is done about contractors, except through their staff-placement firms in corp-to-corp.

Perhaps these proposals come about as Obama’s health care plans get eroded.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

DC School Chancellor makes shocking statements about laid-off teachers

Here’s the latest Fast Company story (link) about Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the District of Columbia school system, called “Update: Michelle Rhee vs. D.C. Teachers’ Union”, Feb. 1, 2010, link here. The story is brief and her comment as to supposed teacher conduct very explicit, accusing them of acts that would have been prosecuted as crimes (of the Dateline kind) and, upon conviction, put the former teachers on s.o. registries. So a public statement like this from the Chancellor is indeed shocking.

The Washington DC area media have really jumped on this story. Former laid off teachers are saying that they have been made into laughing stocks around the country, and that the DC school system will now really have a problem with its “reputation defense.”

One fired teacher said that every year almost every teacher is accused of something and has to prove himself or herself innocent, usually because the parent is mad at the student about a bad grade.

NBC Washington's video of the story (by Tom Sherwood)

View more news videos at:

Update: Jan 26

The Washington Post has an editorial here, "Michelle Rhee must open up about references to unfit teachers".

Friday, January 22, 2010

Health insurance reform may be much weaker on pre-existing conditions

The Health Reform Bill may be whittled down a lot. It may not provide the restriction on discriminating on pre-existing conditions for all adults, it may not make insurance mandatory, and it will not have the excise tax or public option. It will provide for the insurance exchanges.

The reach of the reform will be disappointing, leaving many more Americans uninsured than hoped.

The latest story is in the New York Times, today, Jan. 22, by Robert Pear and David S. Herszenhorn, “A New Search for Consensus on Health Bill”, link here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Supreme Court reverses on campaign contributions; some are protected by First Amendment

The Supreme Court has reversed itself with respect to a 20 year old ruling, now saying that corporations (and probably labor unions) may use money from their own treasuries to pay for campaign ads. The AP story by Mark Sherman just appeared on AOL and Sphere, link here. To a large extent, campaign contributions are protected by the First Amendment. The ruling was 5-4; dissenters were Stevens, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg. However, in this case, the "conservative" side may have been more favorable to bloggers and citizen journalism, even if in another sense it could beef up almagamated corporate or union interests. That's a good essay question (below).

The case is “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission”, slip opinion here.

Much of the debate concerned whether the "conservative" documentary movie "Hillary: The Movie", when shown, amounted to a "campaign contribution" since it was about an active candidate.

The visitor may also want to read the Supreme Court’s explanation of what a “slip opinion” is here (government teachers – it’s a good test question!; stave off that senioritis!)

The older ruling created a flap a few years ago, as there was concern that it would cause the FEC to crack down on political blogging as a form of indirect campaign contributions. The FEC backed away from that position anyway, but the problem is covered on my main blog under the label “campaign finance reform and bloggers controversy” (see my Profile).

Jeffrey Toobin on CNN later said that the ruling effectively let corporations spend as much money as they want to influence elections or "buy them." Is this about publishing and distributing speech (my pet issue) or about purchasing it (which I see as intellectually tacky)?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

GOP takes Mass. Senate seat, complicating health care reform

Scott Brown, a somewhat charismatic and young moderate Republican, has won the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts US Senate seat, breaking up the Democrat supermajority (59-41) and supposedly jeopardizing the heath care reform bill.

Of course Nancy Pelosi insists that health care reform bill will pass soon, but many observers, including David Gergen on CNN, say that the coverage from the bill may be much less than “universal”. Democrats have not been able to sell their arguments, and from an ideological perspective one can see why.

Still, much of the “pre-existing condition” problem will probably be solved in whatever bill passes. And many people should find insurance much more affordable. The young will probably have to pay somewhat more, still.

Update: Jan 20

Steven Pearlstein has an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning, "GOP win doesn't mean health reform is dead", link here. The 60 vote supermajority fixation refers to being able to stop a fillibuster. The constitution does not require a supermajority to pass health reform itself (there is a supermajority required in the House for appropriations). High schooll government teachers can jump on the results of this election as a teachable moment (and maybe a good test question).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Safeway Amendment": wellness, v. pre-existing conditions in health care debate

The Washington Post Business Section on Sunday Jan. 17 weighed in on the wellness aspect of the health care debate with the article by David S. Hilzenrath, “A success story that isn’t shapes the health-care debate: Blood tests and weigh-ins; Misleading claims drive ‘Safeway Amendment’”, with link here. This article ties in with an AlterNet piece discussed here Jan. 12.

The “Safeway Amendment” would allow rewards and penalties for the results of “wellness tests”, supposedly rewarding or penalizing behavior (in employer health insurance groups and in other circumstances). On the other hand, the provision could cross the line in a principle that was supposed to do away with the pre-existing conditions problem, that health insurance premiums should not be influenced by health status. The wellness tests arguably invade privacy, and with some health conditions it is difficult to draw the line between behavior and factors beyond a person’s control. (The article gives a graphic dialogue involving cigarette smoking.) How would STD's and HIV be treated?

Safeway Stores, however, claims that its plan for non-union employees has been effective, a claim that the article disputes.

In my last year at ING (2001), we were paid a slight bonus for agreeing to an annual physical.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Noreaster storms jeapordize Cheaspeake Bay homes: any relation to climate change?

It may be an example of hyperbole to say that the powerful Noreaster that brought 18 inches of snow to the DC area Dec. 19 and eroded the Calvert Cliffs area on the Chesapeake Bay is a result of global warming. But the disruption to the area, to some homeowners along the Bay near Lusby, MD is very real. I made a “field trip” to the area today. This sort of problem may be more familiar to southern California residents who have to deal with mudslides when there are sudden heavy rains in the winter.

I took the Calvert Cliffs State Park trail, too. The mileage signs are misleading: the distance of 1.8 miles really refers to the distance from the parking lot on Highway 4, not the start of the “Red Trail.”

Update: Jan 25, 2009

Check out the Washington Post story by Christy Goodman: "Cliff residents losing out to beetles on he brink; Endangered species depends on erosion that threatens Calcert County homes," link here. This refers to the Puritan tiger beetle.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Does "bare below the elbows" make sense for health care workers? What does it really mean?

Will the AMA or other US medical associations recommend following the UK’s “bare below the elbows” policy for all doctors and health care workers, as adopted in 2007? There’s some debate on whether it works in various links such as this one.

The policy means wearing no neckties and no hand jewelry that could interfere with hand and wrist washing, at least as far as stated. But whether decorative items of clothing usually associated with professional dress codes really carry more pathogens seems controversial.

Islamic health care workers in Britain have objected, especially because in some cases religious rules require females to keep their arms covered when not around immediate family. There is some debate about it here.

Do these recommendations affect hygiene in the home, where perhaps a family member is immunosuppressed because of HIV or chemotherapy?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching encompasses a huge range in temperaments; but even content-oriented AP teachers need help keeping up

Public school teaching as a career lives in a wide range. At one end, you have teachers who do mostly AP courses and may teach a local colleges too and publish papers. At the other end, you have teachers of elementary or pre-school grades and special education, who have to love kids just as they are. Teaching implies that “you” are preparing someone else for the limelight and you are taking a backseat others in being recognized for intellectual accomplishments – until you get to the upper levels, into the “publish or perish” academic world.

A couple of newspaper articles demonstrate the problem. On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Emma Brown gave a Washington Post Metro Section article “The soul of an ambitious approach to up-to-date science instruction: Montgomery center develops lab exercises, shows teachers how to conduct them,” link here. Senior high school teachers generally have gotten there partly because of their mastery of specific content (as with the Praxis exams), but technology changes so quickly they need to be brought up to date anyway. The newspaper article presented an experiment in replicating DNA. I’m reminded of a recent AOL science story about a sea slug with chlorophyll – but an animal and a plant at the same time – and able to incorporate photosynthesis-related DNA from the food that it eats! Such processes may be more likely on alien worlds a few dozen light years away.

Then today (Thursday Jan. 14) Washington Examiner columnist Joetta Rose Barras writes (p. 9) “a damning evaluation for a D.C. teacher” link about a comparison of two elementary teachers in DC schools: a math teacher who had consistently raised scores of his kids, and a veteran teacher with 23 years experience and an $80000 salary whose kids consistently deteriorating in test score performance when in her class. Teaching in these grades is a selfless passion as an individualist sees things. You have to go back to the expectations laid out in Rafe Esquith’s book “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” (2007).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Over a quarter of auto accidents involve cell phone use

An article in The Washington Post (in the “Breaking News Blog”) by Ashley Halsey III, “28 percent of accidents involve talking, texting on cellphones”, link here.

The advent of hands-free devices for cell phones, including the Jupiter Jack, makes it hard for police officers to see drivers using cell phones. Yet even without use of hands, talking on a cell phone can be distracting. (But listening to the car radio or even Sirius, a companion for decades, is not?)

The article points out the possibility of making cars block cell phone signals, or being able to offer police the ability to spy on cell phone calls and texting. Cars might have to have data recorders, since police now subpoena cell phone records to investigate accidents. Nineteen states ban texting while driving, but some states require police to have another reason to stop motorists first.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Senate health care bill would let insurance companies charge individuals for not meeting wellness targets

Here’s a little known trap in the Senate version of the health care reform bill. True, We’ve dropped the public option and offered exchanges, but we’ve proposed taxing employers who offer “too much” health insurance. We’ve gotten rid of the pre-existing conditions problem. But insurance companies will be able to surcharge those who don’t make certain wellness targets, not just weight, but blood pressure and blood chemistry as well. I wonder how HIV infection would fare in this. Cigarette smoking clearly would be an issue. The presumption is that wellness falls under “personal responsibility” and behavior. But it invites a kind of wellness Gestapo. Would it apply to employees in a workplace under a group policy? In some companies, it's already happening.

A similar problem exists today when people apply for long term care insurance, especially at more advanced ages. They have to meet certain monitoring targets over time before being accepted.

Adele M. Stan has the article on AtlerNet Jan. 12 here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

So, does McGwire's home run record mean anything now?

So, does Mark McGwire’s 1998 home run record (beating Roger Maris and Babe Ruth) become worthless because he admitted steroid use today? The MLB story is here. By the way, the MLB schedules for 2010 have been up for over a month. Spring training schedules are also available.

McGwire wants to resume his career as a hitting coach. Will he be credible?

But you wonder, what does all of this mean any more. What exactly makes a substance a performance enhancing drug? I can remember all the urban legends as a boy about what kinds of foods and farm-related “matter” made you a man, etc.

Wikipedia attribution link for Busch stadium(s). I thought that Busch had been one of the bigger parks when McGwire “broke the record”.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New York Times takes up the problem of substitute teachers: training and licensure

Carolyn Bucior ran an op-ed in the Jan. 3 New York Times, “The Replacements”, with some startling statistics: 77% of US school districts give substitute teachers no training, and 56% hire without a face to face interview. (In spring 2004, at least, Fairfax County VA did not conduct one, but nearby Arlington County did.)

In 28 states, principles can hire subs with only a high school diploma. They can be as young as 18.

In some cases, “real world” people (as subs) with no teacher training are actually good for kids --- if the kids are mature enough to grasp what the “real adult world” will expect of them, as they relate to an adult who has been in the real workplace, without the filter of teacher’s licensure education. (I used to say to some classes, especially the Honors ones, with a block-long assignment, “this is a dress rehearsal for the workplace.” In AP chem., I remember a kid -- who could have been a teammate of Michael Phelps if he had wanted to -- who would grab three lab desks to organize his work, and then just have it. I think he’s in med school now.) But less mature kids, needing more attention, may be lost, and that’s where the discipline problems can start.

Today, Jan. 10, the Times ran several LTE’s in reply (you can fund it all at this link), the last of which recommends that school districts hire only permanent certified teachers as subs and pay them as regular teachers. Of course, in today’s budget-starved world that doesn’t sound too likely in a lot of communities.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Michelle Rhee eases up on DC teachers' budget; Fairfax County VA faces severe school cuts

Michelle Rhee. Chancellor of the Washington DC school system, still attracts controversy, now saying she will protect funding for teachers’ jobs and supplies, despite the sudden layoff of 266 teachers last fall. The Washington Post story Jan. 2 by Bill Turque is here.

But on Friday Jan. 8, even during a brief snow delay, Michael Alison Chandler and Derek Kravitz reported on tremendous spending reductions proposed by the Fairfax County Public Schools, which could especially affect music programs, freshman sports, some gifted programs, and all day kindergarten. The story link is here.

The music programs seem especially important as music often improves student performance in other areas, as demonstrated by a recent program in Miami Dade County (described on my drama blog Dec. 26, 20090.

FCPS is the 12th largest public school system in the nation. About this time last year it also went through discussion of severe budget cuts in the wake of the national financial crisis.

If the nation really wants more teachers, the politicians have to get serious about it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

New report calls for end of "mountaintop removal" strip mining

A group of scientists are asking the Obama administration to bring about a total end to mountaintop removal strip mining, in a report published Friday by Policy Forum and Science. The AP story for the report by Vicki Smith was carried today in many sources, such as Forbes, here.

The Washington Post print ran, as a “New Special Report” and part of the “Climate Agenda”, a special on p A3, “Scientists in mining study ask for action: US should stop mountaintop removal, researchers conclude,” with a picture of Kayford mountain, at the head of Cabin Creek, south of Chareston, West Virginia, link here.

Many mountaitntop mines are just out of sight of public roads. Most are in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Here is an 8 minute video on Kayford from Huntington news.

On Jan. 5, the EPA made an announcement regarding Clean Water permits for two other mountaintop mines, here.

Wikipedia attribution link for Kayford Mine picture.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Hospitlal handwashing gets even stricter

Hospitals are having to get even tougher on employee handwashing to fight superbugs, including clostridium difficile, according to a World News Tonight story by Courtney Hutchison. The story, by Courtney Hutchison, is “Eliminating superbugs at the source: How doctors are fighting hospital infection, link here.

One hospital in New York City employs hall monitors to check on employee handwashing and xray scans to show hand germs. It’s a carrot and stick approach, with freebies for employees who don’t get cited. It could become a more nettlesome issue for some male employees (remember the photoflash scene from Michael Chricton’s The Andromeda Strain).

Some hospitals in Britain have eliminated physician neckties as a source of germs.

Ordinarily, people who live alone become immune to their own germs, and all of this attention to super caution seems like unprecedented fastidiousness.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Does marriage really help keep people out of poverty?

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, has a Sunday (Jan. 3) “Politics” column “GOP should push education and pro-family tax reform”, apparently syndicated, as I found it here.

Barone notes that divorce and out-of-wedlock births have decreased since the 70s in educated people, but remain high in people without college degrees. And then the writes that most people who graduate from high school and marry and stay married to one person drops on the floor into poverty.

That begs questions, about singletons who live solitary lives, and many gay men, who in the past have not been allowed to marry adults of their choice. Interestingly, Barone writes “I see no evidence that prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying will induce opposite-sex couples who have children to get married and stay married.”

Curiously, Barone, at least here, doesn't get into proposals like "the family wage" or hypotheses like "demographic winter".

Picture: New Years Eve celebration, Washington DC

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ben Bernanke hints at higher interest rates in the future

In a speech Sunday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted that higher interest rates could be needed in the future as a tool of regulation to help control and prevent financial bubbles. Could this sour investors this week?

Bernanke spoke at the American Economic Association in Atlanta (Vanderbilt link here).

However in the short run the Fed expects to keep the lending rate near zero when it meets later in January.

Ultra low interest rates were put in after 9/11 to help contain the recession, and to some extent the technique worked. By 2003 the job market was getting better. But housing took off in a bubble, fed by derivatives, and policy makers did not seem to get the idea that this was not sustainable.

The AP story was reproduced on MSNBC here.

As a retiree, I even got a couple random calls to go out and sell mortgages, something in which I had no experience. I did not bite.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Health care reform: how much difference will lifestyle choices make?

The Washington Post carries a provocative op-ed by former AOL chairman Steve Case on page A15 of its New Years Day 2010 paper, “Health-care reform begins at home”, which online is titled (revealingly) “Health-care reform requires healthy living choices”. The link is here.

Case points out correctly that the debate is about how to pay for health care, not just how to deliver it, but then he moves to saying that we have a “sick care system” and not just a health care system. He then makes the arguments that we all have moral responsibilities to make healthful lifestyle choices, especially with regard to diet, exercise, and cigarette smoking, and probably drug and alcohol abuse. He doesn’t explicitly mention STD’s because that can lead to some very sensitive areas. And he’s right in that, if there is a moral debate over whether the young should pay higher premiums to care for the old or the healthy should pay more for the sick, there’s a deeper moral debate on how we live.

Of course, at an individual level, better lifestyle habits will usually or often reduce medical expenses. If we live more healthfully, we will need medical services less for many years. But we will also live longer. And living longer also means that eventually we still may use the services because we have more years in which to use them. There’s a double-edged sword here in medicine here. It’s true, we’re pretty good ad making sickness go away and in postponing disability. But in the long run, as people live much longer, there is still more extreme disability at the end of life. And medicine is very good now at extending life even with extreme disability. The need for end-of-life long term care is growing rapidly, perhaps explosively in mathematical numbers, because of demographics and because of the way medicine can be practiced now, and may soon outstrip the ability of institutions (assisted living centers and nursing homes) and for-hire home based providers to provide services without more family involvement . And there’s another point. Even among the young, many diseases, recently becoming treatable by medical advances, are genetic or congenital, or beyond the control of “life style choices.” At the same time, the ability to treat these diseases improves with technology. At the same time, families are smaller and more widespread. This makes treatment of some conditions, even in the young, more difficult if extended family members cannot sacrifice for them (even with organ donations for some newer technologies). Social conservatives make a lot of the decline of the family as a motivating force in society; and when it comes to medical care and long term care, they may have a point: the demand for care in these more demanding situations is increasing partly because medical technology can provide the care; but without the social commitment underneath, society and the health care system winds up having to make decisions about triage.

It’s good, however, to see a piece on health care by someone from “Silicon Valley East”. I remember how Case had to struggle with the "terms of service" issue in the 1990s when Internet service was newer, and had to develop a philosophy that voluntary compliance was the only way to make huge public infrastructures work well.