Tuesday, November 30, 2010

DC voting rights have little chance in GOP-controlled House in 2011

Ben Pershing has an important article leading off the Metro section of the Washington Post on Monday, Nov. 28, “For F.C., voting rights window appears closed; Chance of passage at ‘zero’ in next Congress after GOP takeover of House,” link here. Even with Democrat control, the House could not pass a bill that would give one house seat to the District of Columbia and one more (probably GOP) to Utah. Since Utah, according to the 2010 Census, is very close to qualifying for the seat, it has little reason to remain a bedfellow or “bunkmate” of the District.

Another plan could be retrocession to the state of Maryland, which would take several years are encounter obvious obstacles in the managing of social services. But in other countries capital cities are in the states that surround them, such as Ottawa, Ontario (but not Mexico City). Do Mexico DF residents have full voting rights?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Media uncovers hidden toxic hazards for home buyers, not caught by government regulations (asbestos, meth)

AOL is reporting today that about 35 million homes are insulated with zolonite, containing asbestos-tainted vermiculite. But according to Public Health reporter Andrew Schneider maintains that the US government refuses to offer warnings about a product in use from the 1940s to the 1990s, perhaps for “political” reasons. However, the product is not harmful if the insulation is left absolutely still and not disturbed. Working in an attic with the insulation may disturb it, and only specially equipped contractors can deal with it. Even small asbestos fiber exposures may lead to long term rare lung cancer risk. Some tile materials may also contain asbestos.

The EPA has a detailed fact sheet on the issue here.

CNN has a somewhat similar story about a family that bought a home near Philadelphia and was soon told that it had been a meth lab. The family members had some nose and throat symptoms from low level second-hand exposure. The link is here.  States generally don’t require that inspectors check for meth, but the DOJ USDA has a list of “clandestine” labs here. Home purchasers or realtors could take the initiative to check this list.

In Dallas, a garden apartment building in which I had once lived (until 1984) burned a few years after I left because of a drug lab.

Lawyers start "mass litigation" over bedbugs (maybe like copyright?)

Well, while we have mass litigation for copyright infringement, maybe we’ll have frivolous litigation over bedbugs. J. Freedom DuLac has a story in the Washington Post Nov. 27, ‘Maryland lawyer bites back with bedbug lawsuits,” here.  Many of them are against apartment complexes. Elie Mystal has a “snarky” legal blog entry “There’s only one way to deal with bedbugs, release the sharks”, link (website url) here on "Above the Law". In a few cases, plaintiffs have been awarded over $100000. Will Righthaven join the bedbug litigation boom?

I wonder if tenant checks (by landlords before renting) will look for “litigiousness”?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Israel's airport security system is unrealistic for the US

Would a much more customized or targeted airport security system like Israel’s work here, and allow most “ordinary people” to pass through security with little intrusion?

Maybe not, wrote Helene Cooper in the New York Times on Nov. 22. People have actually boarded planes in Israel without shoes or wallets, and people are questioned much more for “consistency” (rather like a polygraph examiner’s test) before boarding. For example, someone who says he is a history professor might be asked questions on history. Obviously, a screening force would have to be much more educated academically than ours could ever be. The link is here.

The Washington Times had proposed an Israel-style system Monday Nov. 22, in an editorial with a humorous title, here.  The TWT writes “TSA believes an 80-year-old grandmother deserves the same level of scrutiny at an airport terminal checkpoint as a 19-year-old male exchange student from Yemen.” Yet, once we start profiling, the enemy, as the Washington Post has said, will start finding other groups of people as buffers. Ruth Marcus writes an op-ed in The Washington Post, “Grow Up America” here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA waffles regularly on new screening, pat-down rules, makes them random; John Tyner gives comedy interview

Here’s a quizzical, perhaps “Comedy Central” interview of John Tyner by ABC News. Tyner had just started to blog a month ago, getting 250 hits a day, and now gets hundreds of thousands.

Seriously, the TSA now says it will randomly pick passengers who have to go through the new machines. Pilots no longer have to, but flight attendants do. But the rules change every day.

Furthermore, AC360 now reports that the new machines can’t detect a relatively large soft mass pasted onto someone’s chest without any sharp edges. What is the TSA going to do, ask to see dirty dancing as part of the screening?

Charles Krauthammer has said we have to stop being politically correct and squeamish on profiling; other countries, even Israel, haven't made the mess of this that we have.

The public objects much more to the pat-downs than to the machine screening.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paul Volcker, others support US VAT tax (replacing income tax?) to fuel "entitement state"

I heard this morning about a proposal from Paul Volcker to implement ra national value added tax (essentially a sales tax),.  Some people say this could replace the federal income tax entirely, maybe also eliminating state income taxes too.

To eliminate the IRS and avoid the regressivity of a VAT alone, there would have to a poverty line rebate mechanism.

The CNBC story Nov. 15 about the VAT by Barbara Stcherbatcheff, “Would a national sales tax really work in the U.S.?” has link here.

Charles Krauthammer has also discussed the VAT, and also discusses the mandate that individuals buy health insurance. Charles says we’ve never had a requirement for people to enter into contracts with private companies, but we do that with auto insurance (for the privilege of driving). He says that the VAT is how the Europeans extended the “entitlement state”.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Border screening policies may treat your laptop as "your junk"

The New York Times has an editorial Wednesday regarding the risk to travelers that their personal laptops could be searched and held without probable cause at border crossings and at airports (particularly with international flights).

Even given the recent scare regarding shipped laser printer cartridges, there’s no practical reason to look at the business and personal records of “average” travelers, the newspaper argues. The link for the editorial ("Searching Your Laptop") is here.

The ACLU has filed a suit regarding the holding of materials from press photographers (not amateurs, apparently) and criminal defense attorneys. The Times supports a Traveler’s Privacy Protection Act (S 3612, 110th Congress, Russell Feingold, govtrack link here ; the 112th Congress would have to reintroduce it.

My own practice is to carry only a small lightweight laptop when traveling. However, considerable personal (an unpublished) information would have been copied to the laptop which government agents could see.

Another issue in the past used to be having to turn a laptop on to prove it functions in the Security line. You had to be sure that the battery was charged and that the laptop is undamaged, and can boot up relatively quickly (a problem with XP and Vista). Since travel computers are likely to be older and less used, this could be a problem. Air travelers (taking personal computers for blogging and social networking) might want to consider the very small notebooks out now, including one from Verizon for only about $130.

At least, my older laptop is not “my junk.” You can touch it.

Update: Nov. 21

More on "junk" from the Alex Jones Channel:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Should Article V of Constitution allow states to start amending Constitution without conventions?; conservatives target 14th, 17th amendments

James Lucas has an interesting op-ed on p B4 of the Monday, Nov. 15 Washington Times, “Return the Constitution to the People: Kill the constitutional convention requirement”, link here.

Lucas is talking about “Method 2” in Article V of the Constitution. Every successful amendment so far has started with the 2/3 majority vote in both House and Senate, and then gone to the states for ratification by ¾ (the state convention method was used only for the 21st Amendment).

But the states can call a convention by the action of the legislatures of at least 2/3 of them. Lucas wants to bypass the “convention” part of it and let 2/3 of state legislatures pass an amendment directly, it seems.

He also talks about what he wants to change. He wants to eliminate Amendment 17 (direct election of Senators), and part of 14 – essentially the citizenship by birth provision (regarding children of illegal immigrants) and probably the incorporation doctrine, applying limitations of the powers of the federal government against citizens to states as well. Second amendment advocates (and that probably includes most conservatives and Tea Party types) generally don’t want states to limit their right to defend themselves, so Lucas sounds inconsistent there. But of course there are other rulings that the incorporation doctrine has supported, such as Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that he may not want.

So Lucas is proposing amending "Article V" with an "amending amendment".

John R. Vile wrote an important book, “Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process” in 1993 (Praeger).

In the first printing of my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book, one of the biggest typos was in Chapter 3, “constitutional conventional” (no “al”). I was talking about calls from the far Left (in the early 1970s, the Nixon years) to call for a constitutional convention to address its indignation. I also somehow misstated the age of the Bill of Rights on the first back cover (first sentence), as it goes back to 1791. It took 18 months for anyone (or me) to notice. (Moral: Never state the age of something on the cover of a book; the time arrow moves forward.)

Picture: The Capitol in August smog (or maybe "The Fog").

Monday, November 15, 2010

Will TSA's "advanced imaging technology" work in all those Freudian places? Probably not.

Given all the controversy over the increased screening at airports these days, I thought I’d give the link to TSA’s own presentation of its “Advanced Imaging Technology” here. It sounds appropriate for airline employees who must be screened repeatedly to wonder about exposure to radiation. It may actually benefit passengers with some kinds of surgery or implanted devices.

But the nature of some unconventional semisolid explosive material is so subtle that it may become impossible for any device to catch every conceivable hiding ploy, such as in “cavities” or maybe even in hair. One can imagine the necessity of the “body analysis” of the 1971 film “The Andromeda Strain” of Michael Crichton’s novel, or maybe even the dreaded “photoflash chamber.”

I actually went to an employment assessment for TSA screeners back in Minnesota in August 2002. I backed out over a misunderstanding on starting pay. But I think I would be concerned about being required to do extended “pat downs.” It’s a bit too intimate (like the military). And it seems to have become much more intimate recently.  (I've undergone only one, back on 2002 at San Francisco airport.)

The media is making a lot of software engineer John Tyner's challenge to the TSA (over his "junk"). Here's John's own account of the incident, apparently posted with Mobile Blogger, link. In fact, the vigor of Tyner's on air comments makes me glad someone with my background did not become a screener.  And, yes, I hope he finds this post!

Here's the link for the supposed TSA "boycott" over Thanksgiving.  Doesn't sound pretty.

Picture: Prepare your teddy bear for TSA body analysis (it's less permanent than a laser beam).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Northern VA high school (West Potomac HS) replaces most "F" grades with "incompletes"; is this "fair"? A desirable experiment? Echoes from my own past (there); also, mercy for cheaters!

A Fairfax County VA high school just outside the Alexandria, VA city limits, West Potomac High School (site), is trying an interesting experiment. The school is giving few “F’s” for quarter grades, but rather changing them to “I’s” (incomplete) showing students owe work.

Donna St. George has the story on the front page of The Washington Post on November 14, 2010, link here. The  implication is that students could retake tests that they have failed. There are implications in the area of “fairness”, certainly when compared to older paradigms for student grading, which affect college admissions and, when I was coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s and there was a military draft and student deferments.

The story has additional meaning for me because I substitute taught there in 2004 and 2005. In the spring of 2005 I had a set of Honors and AP Chemistry sections about seven times (my forte is math), and saw the exams, which were interesting in this respect: for multiple choice questions, students had to state a reason for the choice for full credit. The exams were structured in such a way that every student had to show mastery of each subtopic.

This reminds me of practices in some college courses. At George Washington University in the spring of 1962 when I took Qualitative Analysis, the professor had a rule that you had to pass lab and lecture separately to pass the course; he said that one reason was that many students “couldn’t work the problems” (on equilibrium and concentrations of solutions).

The school was interesting in having such an extreme range of student ability and work ethic. In AP Chemistry, the students had a project to make a senior documentary short film in a film lab on campus. The “kids” invented a new element for the Periodic Table, “Reltonium”. (I guess I could review it on my movies blog; it was actually more like an Andy Samberg SNL skit.)

A couple times I showed the film “Copenhagen” (see my drama blog, Nov. 12, 2006) based on Michael Frayn’s play about a hypothetical WWII meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, about the ethics of publishing (or self-publishing) scientific discoveries that could wind up in the hands of one’s enemies. (We also showed the film “Outbreak” related to novel pandemics.)

The school does have a new principal, Clifford Hardison.

There was an incident at the school in which I was involved in October 2005. I give the details on another blog posting on the “BillBoushka” blog, July 27, 2007. (To find it, navigate to my Blogger Profile [extreme bottom left], which lists all my 16 blogs.) There was a lot of “bizarre coincidence” involved in the incident (some of it involving newspaper editorials that appeared about the time concerning bloggers and campaign finance reform, and the First Amendment), and even though I am no longer subbing, I would appreciate the opportunity to sit down with school officials and sort this incident out some day. (My last assignment there was Dec. 8, 2005, just before a snowstorm; I remember overhearing a kid in one of the chemistry classes say “that’s the ‘gays in the military guy’. I guess I already had an “online reputation.”) We could all learn something.

I returned to subbing in January 2007 and stopped after one semester for unrelated reasons. I’ve only visited one school campus since then, on December 1, 2008 when ABC’s Weather team visited Wakefield High School in Arlington for a presentation (written up on my “drama blog” that date). Perhaps Doug Hill and Adam Caskey will do the same show ad WPHS some day (and talk about solar "coronal mass ejections" predicted in 2012). It’s a small  -- and sometimes dangerous -- world.

Update:  Nov. 18: The same Washington Post reporter writes on the front page this morning, "Giving Cheaters Another Chance?", that the new West Potomac High School principal has announcted a policy allowing students caught cheating (perhaps plagiarizing) to retake the test or redo work in some cases.  The principal says that cheating is a "disciplinary" matter, not an "academic" one.  I think a lot of universities would disagree.

When I was a graduate assistant instructor in Math at the University of Kansas in 1966, I gave an "F" in the course to a student whom I had seen copying answers on an algebra test and could prove cheating by comparing free response answers. He actually came to my dorm room to ask for another chance and said he was worried about what would happeb to him if he were drafted.  Later, in the fall of 1967, the administration would mention concerns over the draft to assistant instructors in matters of grading!!

Update: Nov. 20:  Now the Post reports that the West Potomac High School principal has cancelled the "no Fs" (in both incomplete and cheating situations) policies, out of parental objections. However the school is insisting that it maintain a fine-tuned "learning by objectives" policy, very much as had been implemented before 2005 on those "notorious" Honors Chemistry multiple choice tests.  (Think about it: why does our staying alive depend on both sodium and potassium, when both have the same valence?  Imagine your next multiple choice question on electronegativity, kids!  You'll need to know this in medical school!)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

AOL gives advice on home equity loans in difficult market; also homeowners insurance

AOL had an informative article today on how homeowners, especially retirees, can handle the home equity loan problems associated with decreasing home values. Of course, an upsidedown home could not get one, but lenders are increasingly worried about the uncertainty of future values of homes, especially in neighborhoods that have had other foreclosures. The link was here.

Likewise, AOL and MSN have recently reported that insurers are increasingly concerned about lowering values, not only of homes themselves but of surrounding neighborhoods. The MSN article (10 things to watch) from Friday is here.  (No, this article didn't mention social media.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

New report from urban schools coalition on underachievement of black males in urban public schools

Mara Gay has a lead story on AOL today, “Report on Black Male Achievement Gap Spurs Call for Action”, link here.  That’s a report from the Council of Great City Schools, “New Report on Black Male Achievement in America Reveals ‘National Catastrophe’: Urban Group Calls for White House Initiative”, link here. The Report singles out high unemployment or underemployment of parents in black households as a major reason. However the report also focused on poor schools and unaccountable teachers.

The Council is a coalition represent the nation’s urban public schools.

I remember that in Dallas, people would move to north Dallas (within the expanded city limits) to be in the “Richardson School District”, which, in the 80s at least, made home prices higher.

Wikipedia attribution link for North Dallas picture (jn that school district!)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Tim Wise, essayist, attacks "White Right" over midterm election; is he referring to 'demographic winter"?

I think this “Open Letter to the White Right, on the Occasion of Your Recent, Successful Temper Tantrum” by “antiracist essayist, author and educator” Tim Wise, posted Nov. 3, at this link does deserve a look.

It’s funny, and it reads like a tongue-lashing to the bubbas of the world.

But seriously, he’s obviously talking about the “demographic winter” argument (sometimes articulated by the religious right) in the US. It’s true, the white population is not having as many babies (this brings back the old argument about “the right babies” discussed here (Feb. 20, 2008, second part of posting)). But that’s more among the “blue family” population, higher educated with smaller families and parents being older when they have kids at all.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Teenager runs study of SAT essay grading practices

Milo Beckman, a 14 year old student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, put together a “science project”: a study of the correlations on grades given to essays (“free response”) on SAT exams, and the length of the essays. He found a correlation that he thought was unhealthful. He thought his second essay, though longer, was not as good as his first but it got a higher mark.

The same is likely true of AP tests, which have free response questions, although that would not be as likely with math or physics problems. For those, AP teachers travel to centers to grade responses for a week (Erica Jacobs has written about this in the Washington Examiner).

Milo’s study appeared also on ABC’s Good Morning America, and he showed almost unbelievable poise and articulation for someone the age of a high school freshman.

The Huffington Post story is here.

ABC ran the statement from the ETS College Board. (Yup, in 1971 I had a job application with ETS, near Princeton, NJ).

I'd love to see Michelle Rhee's reaction to this story.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

NASA has study warning of possibly apocalyptic solar storms (coronal mass ejections) in 2012; power grid wipeout?

Recently, I’ve come across some web speculation about a solar superstorm in 2012, a huge coronal mass ejection similar to that of around September 1, 1859, which caused electric shocks and damage even then, before society had come dependent on electricity.

I wrote a blog posting on my “disaster movies” blog (see Profile) yesterday, regarding some YouTube films, including one from Cosmic Journeys.

NASA wrote a post about the problem in 2003, here. It says that the October 2003 coronal mass ejection outburst was significant but not nearly as severe as the incident in 1859, when several solar storms occurred at the same time, producing a super CME.

In a worst case scenario, power grids could be out of commission for months.

Governments and the military can probably protect their infrastructure with Faraday cages, but can large companies, power stations, and large Internet ISP’s and server farms do the same? Can products be designed to protect home electronics? It sounds like we ought to get to work on this.

Lawrence E. Joseph has a couple of books warning about the 2012 solar storm, discussion on “over the limit” here.

Here’s an article (“2012: No Kiler Solar Flare”) from “Universe Today” questioning the doomsayers, link.

The Examiner has an August 2010 article by Brent McGardy here.  This article finally led to a reputable story from NASA itself, dated 2009, which also mentions a 1921 incident which was ten times larger that the 1989 incident that caused a one day power stop in Quebec. The important link is here.  (Yes, a really big solar flare could stop your toilet from flushing, and a lot more.) So, indeed, there seems to be something to this, although NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and NSF (in Arlington VA) seem now to be showing some public restraint on this issue. One reason for the concern is that the sunspot cycle reaches its 11 year max then; the 2003 storm was “out of cycle.”

Is this the case, "I read it on the Internet, so I believe it?"  Is this Chicken Little's "online reputation"?  It's not as bad as a brown dwarf approach, maybe. It seems like a curious thing to bring up two days after the midterm GOP rout, but it definitely transcends party lines. We ought to get to work on this, yes, really!

Monday, November 01, 2010

GOP should not be complacent about tomorrow's midterm

Liz Sidon has an AP analysis of tomorrow’s election (on MSNBC), as to why the GOP came back so strong. After all, didn’t the Bushies prevail over the financial meltdown of 2008 and the sins that led to it? National short term memories seem weak. The link is here.

It seems that it’s about jobs, stupid. But even that is structural. We’re competing with lower wages around the world and have lived beyond our means. The Republicrats won’t change that with simplistic ideology. Nor will the Tea Party.

Maybe the GOP is already complacent. Look at the turnout at Jon Stewart’s rally in Washington Saturday.

Generally, polls have shown that Republicans are more likely to turn out for the midterm exam than Democrats, a major reason why the GOP is expected to retake the House.
Fareed Zakaria wants the US to implement an “innovation” tax, rather like a European VAT.

The Washington Post has a provocative story by Ylan Q. Mui and Jia Lynn Yang, “Companies may have to make amends after midterm elections” Republicans to companies that played with Obama money, “We won’t forget”, link here.  Well, some of the Tarp money was Republican, unless you believe Henry Paulson was really a Democrat.

I get ribbed by a conservative friend for getting an Obama car loan and buying my car with Tarp – but it is a Ford Focus, and Ford took no bailout money.

I remember a math professor at the University of Kansas in 1966 who announced, “your grade will consist of a mid term and a final exam”. He even gave the final on a Sunday, for his own convenience. I got a B.