Saturday, February 27, 2010

Washington Post LTE debates equality for women

Sunday, Feb. 21, Jessica Valenti, author of “The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women”, founder of “Feministing” (link; without the “t” you get a parked domain with lots of links) ran an op-ed , “For women in America, equality is still an illusion” . Today, Carrie Lukas (the name appears online but did not print) answers with an LTE, “What’s really behind female inequality in America?”, link here. She writes bluntly: The fact is, full-time working men spend more time in the office, take less time away from the workforce and accept more risk (men suffer 93 percent of workplace deaths) than full-time working women. These are the primary reasons for the gap.” My own “coming-of-age” experiences turned the “risk acceptance” into a primary moral issue! Lukas is vice president for policy and economics with the Independent Women’s Forum, link here.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Washington Post calls Republicans "callous" on health care; check out Pearlstein's column

The front page of the print version of the Washington Post today (Friday Feb 26) highlights in a box “ Steven Pearlstein on the Summit: Columnist sees callousness in the Republican lawmakers’ approach to health care.” The actual column on p A17 has the title “The Republicans on health care: More claims and more denial”, but the online title is more revealing, “At summit, Republicans prove they aren’t putting America’s health first,” link here.

What seems to be the goal of the president: It would seem, to provide practically universal coverage at affordable premiums with affordable copays. But, Pearlstein notes, Republicans see this as an “entitlement” that could only be supported with bigger deficits. They’re not willing to consider taxing entities that many say really could afford it – that’s playing Robin Hood, or it’s expropriation. They are begrudging in their treatment of the pre-existing condition problem, seeing it in terms of high risk pools.

The hard core social conservatives want families to take care of their own – especially the childless to experience filial responsibility for others. They have their own idea of psychological socialism – the so-called “natural family.” But there are a lot of ways you can write a social contract.

On CNN, there was a paid ad, "if health reform doesn't happen, then what happens to you?"

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ben Bernanke warns of Greek tragedy; Paulson prescribes how to prevent (another) one

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress Tuesday that the Federal Reserve will not be able to control the ballooning debt by printing money, leading to further periods of inflation. But a Washington Times story Wednesday Feb. 24 (“Bernanke delivers blunt warning on U.S. debt”) by Patrice Hill was subtitled by “Stage is set for Greek tragedy” based on the problem of Greece’s runaway deficits. The link is here. There is a related story “Feds look at high-risk contracts on Greek debt” (that AP story is here on Yahoo!). The Greek situation helped bring down the market today.

On Feb. 15, former treasury secretary Henry Paulson wrote an op—ed for the New York Times, “How to watch the banks”, link here as if the banks were like jobs running on a mainframe computer accumulating excp’s.

Paulson warns that at the end of 2008 we were at the edge of a James Cameron abyss that could have led to another great depression with 25% unemployment. Paulson wants two major reforms: a “systemic risk regulator” and “resolution authority” to sell off failing institutions before they fail. I’ve heard friends say that Paulson was actually a Democrat in disguise in a cabal with the Bushies.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rhode Island high school fires all its teachers!

The school district for Central Falls High School in Rhode Island has fired every single teacher, after dismal student performance and negotiations over whether teachers would be compensated for extra workloads broke down. It’s unclear from detailed stories if some of them can reapply for their jobs. The teachers were called into a meeting and fired one-by-one, by name.

But many sources say that the school is one of the most impoverished in the state. Only about half graduate, and only 7 percent at the 11th grade were proficient in mathematics.

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The story seems to illustrate the enormous gap in learning and achievement in some cities based on the economic level of parents. When you watch a show like “It’s Academic” you see students brought up in homes and environments where learning as valued.

The incident seems to make DC school Chancellor Michelle Rhee seem reasonable by comparison.

The New York Times has a front page story Wed. Feb. 24 by Jennifer Medina, "Progress slow in New York goal to rid schools of bad teachers", link here. John Stossel one time showed a holding pen for bad NYC teachers who were paid but had nothing to do.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Illinois professor reports that Toyota does have problem with electronic acceleration system; diagnosis codes not returned; Brian Ross reports on ABC

Brian Ross and Joseph Rhee of ABC News are reporting that a problem in Toyota’s electronic acceleration system prevents the car’s “normal” onboard diagnosis circuitry from detecting short circuits that could cause sudden accelerations.

Professor David Gilbert of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (which I visited in 2000 to see a law student) had Brian Ross demonstrate the problem with road tests.

Toyota has been saying that it can fix the problem with a brace to prevent the pedal from sticking.

The link to the story is here.

The title of the news story (run tonight on World News Tonight) is “Expert: Electronic Design Flaw Linked to Runaway Toyotas: “. Auto Professor Says Defect in Toyota's 'Fail Safe' System for Acceleration Creates Dangerous Condition."

In the test drive, even ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross could not get himself to use neutral properly.

Update: Feb. 23

NBC Nightly News adds this segment on Toyota's likely electrical problems, associted with wireless technology (for the accelerator!), as covered in Congressional hearings lead ny Rep Waxman.

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Update: March 8

Toyota says it has repeated the professor's experiments and disputes the findings, which it says were manipulated (ABC News).

President Obama ups his profile in the substance of the health care debate, takes initiative with specific proposals

President Obama, while keeping a “low profile” in the actual content of the health care debate, has put forth his own proposal to push reform through, given especially recent political or partisan chances in the Senate. The basic “.gov” link for the proposal is here.

Some of the ingredients include closing the Part D doughnut hole, raising the floors on the “excise tax”, some middle class tax relief (including tax credits for premiums and “cost sharing”), and regulations prohibiting discrimination on pre-existing conditions. Some sort of coverage will be mandatory for everyone, as in Massachusetts. The PDF for the proposal is here.

Update: Feb. 24

The president and some congressional leaders and staff have a summit on health care Thursday Feb. 25 at 10 AM, at Blair House in Washington, to be carried on MSNBC.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

PA school district "accidentally" spies on students at home with webcam on lent-out laptops

Here’s a good one. A school district in Pennsylvania lent laptops to students in a technology class and then installed tracking software that allowed school officials to monitor the kids at home. According to an eWeek story, the FBI is now investigating webcam spy allegations against the school (link here). Apparently school officials accused a particular student of improper behavior based on a photo placed on the laptop, and the parents turned around and sued the school district, the Lower Merion School District in Penn Valley, PA.

The school district issued an apology letter (shown here) and says that the tracking software was only intended to locate lost laptops. But then why was the student accused?

Of course, the situation could be similar to use of company-issued laptops from work. They should be used only for legitimate business purposes (often on-call support). Companies would have the ability to inspect the laptops when at work, or to inspect communications sent back to their servers. The same rules would apply to school districts.

CNN talked about this case, and a couple of lawyers (Richard Herman) called the school district’s conduct “criminal.”

One other thing: kids generally don’t have a legitimate need for webcams at home, until they’re old enough anyway.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The do's and don't's of FHA assumable mortgages

Jack Guttentag, “The Mortgage Professor” at the Washington Post, has a column (on p E5) on Saturday Feb. 20, “Assumability: A hidden value to FHA loans”, link here.

He constructs some scenarios where a home buyer takes an FHA loan and pays some points with the idea that the loan will be easier to assume in a few years if mortgage interest rates actually go up. He gets into a lot of technical actuarial stuff (like what’s on LOMA FLMI examinations) about present value calculations. But sometimes FHA is a good idea.

It’s important to note that a buyer who assumes an FHA note must qualify. This rule became the case in the middle 1990s, after many defaults on assumptions, for which the original owner can be held liable. When the new buyer qualifies, the original owner is no longer responsible if the new owner defaults.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Are 10 grades enough for high school graduation, college entry?

At least eight states are experimenting with programs that would allow students to start at community colleges or state-funded colleges after completing tenth grade if they pass necessary tests. The story appeared on ABC “World News Tonight” Friday Feb. 19, and the text version by Hanna Siegel is here.

Of course, there are good questions. Do kids get in all the math (algebra, geometry, trig, etc), humanities (US government and history, American and English literature, foreign languages) they need? Are they mature enough? It has always sounded to me that AP or IB in high school is a good bargain.

There’s a gender question, too, although boys are generally caught up with girls well before tenth grade. Students who perform (drama, music) or who have a specific passion (even computer programming) seem to be able to progress academically in all areas much more quickly.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Local communities start to print "monopoly money"

I once wrote a draft for a novel about a post-nuke America where people find monopoly games and start using the Monopoly money as legal tender.

Smart Money ran an article (here, from MSN) yesterday (Feb. 15, 2010) about towns printing their own money, with the link here. Apparently it’s legal as long as the money doesn’t look too much like US money. It would seem you would have to convert it somehow, just as you do when you travel abroad. The long title of the article is "Struggling towns printing their own cash; In an echo of the Great Depression, local currencies with their own special flavors are popping up all over in attempts to give commerce and communities a lift."

Second Life has its own money, the Linden Dollar. I guess Middle Earth would, as would Pandora.

It’s common for street festivals (especially gay pride festivals) to sell tickets as “script” or local “currency” among all the booths, as a local security measure.

Monday, February 15, 2010

GOP patchwork health care reform fixes probably would fall short of the mark: start with pre-existing conditions

On Sunday Feb. 14 I found a curious counterpoint on health care reform.

In The Washington Post, on p. A23, Republican governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (as if that were an oxymoron, but it isn’t) ran an op-ed “Five steps to health reform”. They sound straightforward enough (1) smart consumer incentives (2) pay providers for performance (3) tort and malpractice reform (4) allow interstate purchase of health insurance (that’s common sense, it seems) and (5) modernize health insurance and medical record keeping (would employ a lot of old mainframe computer programmers like me again, particularly in the Twin Cities). The link for the article is here.

But the New York Times came back with an editorial on Opinion p 7 (Feb 14), “Small Ideas Won’t Fix It”. The NYT argues that interstate purchase provisions could lead insurers to relocate to states with few requirements (the way credit card companies went to Deleware), with healthy people living in low premium states and sicker people living in states guaranteeing health care.

On Health Savings Accounts (usually a GOP suggestion), the NYT writes “the proposal would be of little use to people who couldn’t afford to set money aside for future health care bills.”

But the most important point in the NYT piece is about “high risk pools”. The NYT writes “Republicans reject the Democrats’ proposal to require insurers to accept all applicants, regardless of pre-existing conditions.” The link for the editorial is here.

This weekend, California Anthem BCBS gained notoriety with a huge (up to 39%) increase in premiums on individual policies, which it “graciously” put off for sixty days after public protest.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lobbying is much more difficult to control than Obama administration thought

President Obama’s efforts to reduce the effects of lobbying are being questioned, as lobbyists keep finding workarounds, so the snow keeps coming. That’s the message of a major story today on p A3 of the Feb. 14 Washington Post by Dan Eggen, “Success of lobbying crackdown questioned: Obama steps up efforts: But spending reached record levels in 2009,” link here.

Obama tried to close registration loop-holes for part-time lobbyists, require public disclosure of all lobbying contracts, and control money that lobbyists can donate. But many workarounds remain, such as Tom Daschle, who did not have to register because he spends less than 20% of his time lobbying.

The recent Supreme Court ruling undercutting much of McCain-Feingold also complicates regulating lobbying.

The Lobbying Database at the Center for Responsible Politics (“Open Source”) is here.

Check also the Campaign Finance Reform section of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, link here.

The link for CREW, the Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington is here.

On the other side of the ledger, look at the Code of Ethics for the American League of Lobbyists, link here.

When you’re a lobbyist, you’re paid to advocate someone else’s point of view. You can no longer speak your own mind on public blogs. That’s a “conflict of interest”.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unemployment extensions could expire Feb. 28 based on expected Senate bill

Many people will be disappointed or very concerned about what seems to be out of the Senate job s bill. Specifically, as it stands now, the 99-week unemployment benefits extension expires Feb. 28; an earlier House bill would extend it to May 31, but now it seems out. Also out is pension funding relief, the Medicare “doctor fix”, and an extension of expiring energy tax provisions. “In” would be a payroll tax exemption for employers who hire people, even if they “hire and fire,” the conversion of tax-credit bonds, and reauthorizing the highway trust fund. All of this seems to relate to what Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nv) said he would bring to the floor after a scramble involving Max Baucus (D-MT) and Grassley (R-IA), and some Scrooge-like behavior by the GOP, perhaps. The major story and comparison chart by Paul Kane appear on p A3 of The Washington Post Saturday Feb. 14, link here.

Alternet had run an article on Dec. 8, 2009, link here, article by Daniela Perdomo, title "Unless Congress Acts, 3.2 Million Will Lose Unemployment Benefits in Early 2010".

There is still a lot of talk of the GOP playing scrooge on unemployment, saying that extending benefits saps the drive out of jobseekers. How cynical. Say it ain’t so!

Friday, February 12, 2010

DC Metro has another accident: how reliable will our mass transit be?

The Washington DC area Metro experienced a derailment underground Friday morning, on the Red Line, approaching the Farragut North Station from Metro Center. The accident occurred underground, and would not be related to the recent blizzards.

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Later information indicates that the accident was cause by a "derailer" which derails the train "automatically" when it detects the possibility of running a red signal or rear-ending another train ahead of it.

The DC Metro has had to close stations for 3-day weekends for track maintenance, forcing riders to use shuttle busses. As a whole, the DC Metro is becoming much less reliable than systems in New York and London, although it hasn’t experienced transit strikes. Earlier, proposed service cuts and adopted fare hikes have stirred political controversy.

The system was built in the 1970s. I remember when Arlington first had service to Rosslyn in 1981. I still wonder why the system deteriorates so quickly, compared to the 1990s when it was reliable. In June 2009 the was a huge accident in an above-ground portion of the Red Line.

Update: Feb. 14

This weekend, President's Day, Metro has been closing at midnight, cutting service, they say to remove snow. I hope this isn't continuing on. The region needs transit at night for its night life given the lack of parking, especially now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

American Psychiatric Association may classify Asperger's as part of the Autism spectrum

The American Psychiatric Association proposed (Feb. 10) placing Asperger’s syndrome within the diagnosis group of “Autism spectrum disorders”. Letita Stein has a story in the St. Petersburg Times (Florida) today, Feb. 11, link here.

It is certainly controversial to link a diagnosis for someone who functions and communicates normally in an intellectual sense but who does not make social connections easily or read body language or emotion, with profound disability that interferes with most of life’s activities and communications. The article discusses that link.

The article mentions Michael John Carley, author of “Asperger’s From the Inside Out” and chairman of Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (link)

According to Wikipedia (link), Autism and asperger syndrome have been classified separately within the groujp “pervasive developmental disorders”.

Another possible connection would be Asperger’s syndrome and the so-called “schizoid personality”.

Perhaps this is media hype, but the conventional wisdom is that people engrossed in the computer world or in the arts are more likely to have Asperger’s and be living in their own worlds. Is this real pathology or is this a matter of society’s expectations that everyone “participate” in conventional family and overriding social structures? On the other hand, musicians, including the “classics”, need to do well in social interactions to have successful careers, at least in performance. (How many famous composers had Aspergers?) On the other end of the ability spectrum, it seems that professional actors who are successful when very young do well because they are so good at social interactions. Educators tend to find that performing arts tend to improve social interactions in many kids. Acting is quite different from music in the brain function abilities that it demands.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

East Coast blizzards and "The Purification": Global Warming?

Global warming anybody? I grew up in the DC area, and it’s amazing that Washington DC right now leads Buffalo and Syracuse for snow this winter.

The explanation is supposed to be an El Nino pattern (although usually El Nino winters are milder). This time, Pacific currents somehow drag down the jet stream over the eastern half of the country, setting it up for repeated Nor’easters when other storms hit the Atlantic. So rather than “Lake Effect” snow you get “Atlantic Effect snow”. The storms draw in so much moisture that they tend to backfill as moving away, leading to prolonged accumulations. We sit around like Noah’s kids, waiting for the sun to appear indicating the end of the flood.

Successive blizzards in a milder climate area brings up notions of The Purification. They can become positively dangerous. Remember movies like “Ice” and “The Day After Tomorrow”? If we destroy our planet, maybe some week there will be a succession of events that makes a lot of us intellectuals useless. Global warming can certainly make the storms more violent.

But there are a lot of possible calamities we can do nothing about so far. How about the Cumbre Vieja Volcano letting loose an underwater landside that sets up a 300 foot high tsunami on the East Coast? How about the Yellowstone supervolcano.

But a lot of calamities would prevent – like the California wildfires. But Dec. 21, 2012will indeed roll around, and the government has no list as to whom to save -- I hope.

ABC reported that the eastern 2/3 of the US is running way below normal temperature for February, but Greenland is way above normal, as is Vancouver.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Extension of unemployment benefits stirs debates on several fronts

Perry Bacon has an important column on p A15 of the Tuesday Feb. 9 Washington Post (yes, paper deliveries went on today despite two feet of snow), “In Congress, it’s decision time on the long term jobless”, link here.

In states with highest unemployment, some workers can receive up to 99 weeks, and after the first 26 weeks, the federal government picks up the tab. Some Republicans and more conservative Democrats want to limit the benefits or keep them temporary. Some claim that it makes the jobless less enthusiastic about looking for work.

It’s complicated how you work with unemployment if you got severance first, and had the severance paid out over time as a continuation of salary. In some cases, it pays to wait until filing. In 2002, in Minnesota, I was eligible for 26 weeks, and wound up collecting about 16.

In practically every state, you have to remain actively working for work, and even attend jobs center counseling sessions. I wonder if “online reputation” could eventually work its way into the unemployment world. Could unemployment offices deny benefits to people that it thought had undermined their “online reputations”?

Update: Feb. 10: Check out the Washington Times editorial "Fudging jobless statisticsRate this story: "Fudging jobless statistics: conflicting government measurements skew jobless rates", link here. The editorial concerns how unemployment is evaludated for newer and smaller businesses when statistics are based on older companies. Family structure can also matter.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Demographics could affect sovereign debt, equity markets in the long run

Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini have an important subscription piece on p A15 of the Wall Street Journal, “Sovereign Risk Meets Sovereign Reality: U.S. bonds won’t be rejected anytime soon, but higher borrowing costs will constrain policy.” He discusses the bailout of Dubai and the problems of Greece, Spain and Portugal, and the possibility of sovereign defaults is a real threat to equity markets. The link is here.

But he also says that the high debt in the U.S. and Japan will become a problem, without tax increases and entitlement reductions (means testing?) in the U.S. itself. Only the longstanding use of the dollar, almost as per Ayn Rand, seems to save us for the moment. Japan’s previous status as a trade creditor nation is weakened even more than the US by its aging population.

The undertone of the article is that “demographic winter” could become a serious strategic economic threat (indirectly showing up as higher interest rates), as much as climate change or financial debt structures themselves.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Maryland private parties closed for "zoning" violations

Zoning regulations can sometimes squash private “recreational” gatherings, at least in Montgomery County. MD, with a man who was running (straight) BDSM parties in an upscale rented house in Bethesda. They were said to be parties “among friends” but did request donations. Authorities viewed this as a commercial enterprise. The nickname of the party sponsor was reported to be “British Lucky Paul.”

The story was reported today (Feb. 4) in the Washington Examiner, p. 4, by Freeman Klopott and Alan Suderman, link here.

On Nov. 20, 2009, on my main blog, I reported a story of video equipment being seized from parties in San Francisco that did not have proper permits. In some cities, gay “private parties” have been found in violation of zoning laws, as in Washington DC, as reported on my GLBT blog Oct. 25, 2009.

Update: Feb.5

Paul Duggan fills in the details in The Washington Post with "Montgomery County sex-party host must role-play by the zoning rules", link here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Abstinence-only education works if it emphasizes personal maturity, not just marriage

A study of abstinence-only education compared to instruction in both abstinence and condom use, showed that with middle school students, abstinence-only education tended to be more effective in getting teens to avoid sex, pregnancy, and STD’s later in their teen years.

However, the education was most effective when “practical” rather than based on the idea of waiting for marriage or based on religious precepts. That is, students believed the message when they were told that they were not old enough to deal with the consequences of premature explorations. The best idea seemed to be, to wait until you were able to be on your own and make a living on your own.

That all sounds like common sense, doesn’t it.

Tamar Lewis has the New York Times story, “Quick response to study of abstinence education”, at this link.

Monday, February 01, 2010

XOM, despite recession and earnings drop, beats analysts' expectations; what happens to oil company business models with green energy?

ExxonMobil, apparently the world’s largest company, reported a Q4 decrease by 23% in earnings in 2009 compared to 2008. The XOM News Release (PDF) link is here.

Because this beat analysts’ expectations, XOM stock was rising today, up 2.87% at 1 PM EST to 66.29.

ExxonMobil says that its purchase of XTO will enable it to profit from the growth of the “unconventional sources” market, that is green sources.

Oil companies will need to become “energy companies” ready to build the new green infrastructures and green Internet (as Thomas Friedman describes them) for their business models to be sustainable.