Monday, May 30, 2011

Cell phone long term safety questioned by CNN AC360 report

AC360 and Sanjay Gupta tonight aired an unsettling report on cell phone safety and the possibility of brain tumors many years down the road, especially for minors, whose brain cells divide more quickly.

Microwave radiation from cell phones is “non ionizing”. But even manufacturers recommend using devices that keep the phone about an inch away from your ear. But no one does this. It’s a little more dangerous when you have a poor signal; your phone compensates by emitting more radiation to communicate with cell towers.

The report mentioned a study that apparently showed no risk, but had a footnote showing increased glioma in people who had used cell phones for more than ten years.

I did not use cell phones much until about 2002, when I used a small USWest phone. I had an analogue cell phone for a while in the late 90s that was clumsy to use.

Bluetooth devices are not in as great a contact with the ear and don’t present as much exposure.

One surgeon said that parents should not allow their kids to use cell phones because of the increase risk of cancer by age 50.

The World Health Organization's statement from the International Agency for Research on Cancer is "IARC classified Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic for Humans", link (website url) here. The major news media made a big story about this May 31.  They talked about using speaker phones or extensions. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Debit card controversy shows silliness of professional lobbying; but there is no reason for Congress to meddle

What about all the lobbying messages on TV urging consumers to pressure their representatives not to pass the proposed caps on debit card fees.

It’s all very complicated stuff, that could benefit some kinds of merchants at the expense of everyone else, so “on dit”. 

Nerd Wallet (eg. “Nerd Herd” from Chuck, maybe) has a detailed explanation  (“The Durbin Amendment Explained”) with charts (website url) here.  But going through it takes up and down through seeming financial contradictions.  The bottom line is that consumers don’t want to pay for the convenience of using cards and not carrying cash, but they will have to. (I like Nerd's slogan, "We do the homework for you." So do I.)

Another crowd argues that banks will set up a frictionless inter-party payment system that could drive services like PayPal out of business, link (wesbite url) here.

There are a lot of short, hysterical postings on the web about S 585 (from the 111th Congress), without a lot of substance, which shows the problems when debate is turned over to “professional” lobbyists. 

Deroy Mudock, a libertarian-leaning syndicated columnist in conservative publications, however, gave a more lucid explanation of what's wrong in the Washington Times on May 27, here.  Banks fee will be limited to a flat fee on any sized purchase; merchants will tend to pocket the profits, and banks will have every incentive to gouge consumers in other areas, like free checking. This sounds to me like an area where Congress doesn't need to meddle. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Anti "debt ceiling rising" crowd quite vociferous: draconian cuts and sacrifices are possible

Is it irresponsible for the US not to raise its debt ceiling right now? 

You see Alan S. Binder (May 19) in the Wall Street Journal arguing that responsible democracies always tell investors how they will pay back their debts.  And May 16, the WSJ warned that the $14.3 debt ceiling was reached, meaning that right now the federal government has to stop issuing securities in certain pension plans. After Aug 2, there is a crisis. The main article is by Damian Paletta and Carol E. Lee, link here

Yet, I get beaucoup emails asking me to join the tea party bandwagon to block extension of the ceiling in August. What’s the answer to default?  Immediate, draconian spending cuts.  (Freedom Works has a typical article and chart here.). I’m told that this generation of baby boomers must make real sacrifices now – today – to stop the shameful passing of trash to great grandchildren. (And, guess what, not everybody will have great grandchildren – the generativity problem).

To be truthful, there are probably three ways to counter the default without raising the ceiling. One is raise revenues dramatically, mostly on taxes on the rich. It worked during the Clinton years.  Another is defense cuts – mostly contractor abuse – harder to sell politically now that Al Qaeda is on the run. And the big daddy is entitlements.  Seniors paid for a lot of their Medicare and social security benefits with FICA and other taxes, but not all of it. You could start means testing now. States could enforce filial responsibility laws, too. 

I remember the great financial crisis for New York City in 1975, and the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline in the New York Daily News.  In the end, unions had to give in a bit.     

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Will fibbies, states impose a mileage tax as well as gas tax?

On Sunday morning, May 21, CNN reported that there exist preliminary proposals in Congress and some state legislatures for a mileage tax, as more cars switch to hybrid or even all electric.  Gas tax revenues would eventually plummet. 

It could be enforced with odometer readings at state inspections (they are no foolproof) or by requiring motorists to have Expass transponders.

Do you want the government to know how much and where you’re driving? A new privacy issue, it seems.

It’s true, it encourages more car pooling and slug lines.

But what about jobs that require use of a car for work?  Would these be added into the tax?

What about car rental mileage?  Does this get added into your own tax, or the rental company's?

No question, there is the “Wyoming issue”, too. 

Here's another thing about Ezpass transponders. It seems like I pay a lot to rent them even if I don't need to use them a lot.  Am I missing something?  I need to use to tunnels and toll roads more.

Picture: Sideling Hill Service Plaza, PA Turnpike.  

Friday, May 20, 2011

Andrew Ross Sorkin to Piers Morgan: The financial system can break again at any time

Last night (Thursday), on CNN Piers Morgan, young NY Timess investigative reporter (and author of “Too Big to Fail”) Andrew Ross Sorkin (not to be confused with Aaron Sorkin, who screenwrote “The Social Network”) warned that the financial system can fail again at any time, suddenly, whenever one party suddenly decides that the next animal in the “food chain’s” credit is no longer any good.

One problem now is too few banks (big banks, any one of which can take a sizable part of the economy down).  In the early 90s, everybody said there were too many banks.  Remember how American Security got bought by Maryland National, which got bought by NationsBank, which got bought by Bank of America?  Or perhaps Crestar and SunTrust?

But the main problem is trust.  Money provides the “rules of engagement”, as conservative columnist Cheryl  Wetzstein (The Washington Times) used to say.  Even outside the monetary system, it’s a sad fact: if you think others won’t follow the rules and pay their dues, maybe “you” won’t either.

The other problem, is of course, too much debt, everywhere. In everything.  As for reckoning with the debt ceiling, Congress sounds like a bunch of 1040 procrastinators.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

With flood control: does government play Robin Hood?

Whether it’s the Army Corps of Engineers, or LA governor Bobby Jindal, government is indeed playing “Robin Hood”, some libertarians will say, sacrificing the property of some people to save others.  Sounds like the draft?  This came to light this past weekend with the decision of the Morganza Spillway. But the issue came up earlier in the Cairo, IL area, too.

Actually, I’ve been told anecdotally that many property owners in flood plain areas of the Gulf have signed agreements saying they know government can do this. And the government, the taxpayer, winds up paying for the losses. 

This time, Baton Rouge,  as well as New Orleans, needs saving.  I visited both cities in Feb. 2006.

Back in graduate school, at the University of Kansas in the 1960s, I had a roommate, of Ayn Rand leanings, who said that people who live in cities were “second handers” (like in “The Fountainhead”) who live off the toil of those on farms or in the country. That sounds strangely Maoist today.

Probably, anyone who lives within 60 feet of a river should have flood insurance. But the farther upstream the property, the less the risk. It’s getting so you don’t want to live on a coastal plain or tidewater at all.  Here’s the Floodsmart reference

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fairfax County, VA teacher fights to recover life, reputation after acquittal for what seems like a "revenge" accusation by a student; Should schools require a "do not touch" policy?

On Sunday, Tom Jackman ran a detailed story about a Fairfax County Public School system elementary school physical education teacher who was acquitted of dubious charges made in early 2010 by a female student, 12, who may have been motivated by a desire to “get back” for being properly disciplined.

The teacher may have picked up the student briefly, but this is not illegal in and of itself in some kinds of classes or situations. Having worked as a substitute teacher myself, and encountered some bizarre issues myself (check the “BillBoushka” blog July 25 and 27, 2007), it strikes me as unwise to ever touch a student, at least of that age, at school. But maybe that’s just my own introversion.  

Despite the acquittal and partial reinstatement after transfer, the teacher is unable to get his attorney’s fees paid. Instead, FCPS has been developing a written reprimand letter and taking the position that students must never be touched. But is that reasonable?  Many teachers are used to some family-style interaction with students. I am not, but that’s me.

The link for the story is here.

The story shows that acquittal in our system doesn’t quickly repair someone’s reputation, or undo the damage done by having to defend oneself from false charges.

It seems as though teachers are at risk, particularly older male teachers from female students, who may have a grudge over bad grades or other disciplinary actions. School systems and teachers are caught in the middle of this. The problem would discourage many (including me, given what happened in 2005) from going into teaching permanently. 

I now generally don't repeat the name of an acquitted (or charged but not convicted) person for search engines to pick up one more time, but here is a site (named provocatively "") that (however after-the-fact and ironically, as if surprised by the acquittal) explores the issue of the damage to the teacher’s reputation.  Micheal Fertik, of Reputation Defender, could weigh in on this case.  

It's ironic that this story appears in the Washington Post on the same day that CNN runs a major documentary on education ("Do Fail Me: Education in America"), reviewed yesterday on my TV blog.

On May 19, on p A18 in print, The Washington Post ran a major editorial on this case calling for the FCPS system to make things fully whole for the teacher. Even though Virginia has better procedural protections against wrongful prosecutions than some other states (like North Carolina in the lacrosse case), the Fairfax County Police Department needed some "soul searching", it said. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New study from South Korea shows much higher incidence of "autism spectrum disorders" than previously thought

The media has reported on a major study in South Korea that, with mathematical modeling, suggests that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is as high as 1 in 38, not just one in 110, as the US CDC has reported.

Dr. Young Shin Kim at Yale discussed the study in a CNN video.  Students in special education programs or other disability-related programs were now usually shown to have symptoms of autism or some form of Asperger’s. 

However, viewing Asperger’s as an autism spectrum disorder seems questionable in the “mildest” cases, where there may be apparent extreme introversion but no loss of cognitive ability (sometimes actual cognitive gifts).   This may be more reflective of a societal demand that everyone “join in” and participate in some common social interests.

Autism spectrum disorder, as defined, still affects males several times as often as females. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Would steel home construction prevent most tornado destruction?

Recently some home builders have presented the concept of steel homes on network and cable television. A builder in Arkansas showed his Ozark mountaintop home which he said could withstand 140 mph sustained winds.  Generally, the cost of construction is 5-10% more than conventional home construction with wood.

Jay Gartner has a YouTube video giving some details on how this works.

A web search shows many companies offering steel homes, many with “kits”, and I’m not sure how much hands-on responsibility that leads to.  Some of the companies are in Australia and New Zealand.

A typical website is “green steel homes” here

I do wonder how much steel technology might have been used to rebuild Greensbug, KS.

Should building codes in more tornado-prone areas in the south and Midwest encourage steel homes?  Would steel construction have prevented the devastation in Tuscaloosa, Raleigh, and other towns during April’s tornado outbreaks?  Can it withstand an F5 tornado?

Should prevention of destruction in the face of such a disaster be a priority?

Saturday, May 07, 2011

UMD fake ID incident poses question: why would a "good kid" do this?

A University of Maryland student, said to be a straight-A student on scholarship, now 20, has been indicted for making bogus Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania driver’s licenses in his dorm room, and charging up to $175 a card.  NBCWashington has a story here.

The operation required the acquisition of various kinds of equipment for printing holograms and for encoding.

An obvious question, from the viewpoint of a (former) substitute teacher, is, why would a “good kid” do this?  (I must add, there is an indictment, but not a conviction yet.)  It’s disturbing. Maybe there is a viewpoint that “no one is harmed” and it’s “beating the system.”  There have been stings and arrests in the past of fake ID rings in the District.

When I was substitute teaching, in fact, I saw persons whom I knew to be less than 18 (not just 21) on two occasions in bars – I knew the ages because I could see the birthdates on the class rosters that I checked during assignments.  I did tell one establishment after the fact about the incident on a subsequent day.  I did not tell the school systems.

In one of my screenplays, the possibility that a kid could print his own fake-id (and implicate someone else for participating, however tangentially) figures into the “plot.”

An episode of the WB series “Everwood” showed the teenage piano character Ephram (Gregory Smith) getting a fake ID and then getting into trouble in a bar.

There have occurred very rare, but horrific and tragic, cases of “good kids” doing even much worse, such as Philip Markoff with Craigslist (Movies blog Jan. 3).

Monday, May 02, 2011

High schools' zero tolerance policies are affecting students getting in to colleges

On this day where schools are probably following the news that broke last night from the White House, I wanted to note a Sunday front page story in the Washington Post by Donna St. George about the severe penalties in our school systems for high school students (this time in Fairfax County schools) for possibly minor infractions, under zero tolerance. The link for the story is here

The story followed a particular high school senior expelled from Langley High School after a device capable of using marijuana was found in his backpack, and a residue test of the device was positive. He was allowed to enroll at Marshall High School as a senior. Penalties for possession of any materials associated illegal or even legal non-prescription drugs have met increased penalties in the past ten years, often expulsion. 

Typically, students are allowed to enroll in other high schools or alternative high schools (like Bryant in Fairfax County), but suffer major academic disruption (unless allowed to finish work at home) and serious effects on later college admissions. Even though school systems don’t usually report disciplinary history to colleges, typically admissions packages have a “do ask do tell” policy.

When I was in high school, from 1958-1961 (Washington-Lee in Arlington VA, the new building shown above), there were no lockers or backpacks (just briefcases) and no searches.  There was no excessive concern about possession of non-prescription patent medicines.

When I substitute taught from 2004-2007 in Fairfax and Arlington, there were no searches of teachers or substitute teachers. 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

High gas prices? Blame the budget deficit and weak dollar

Dan Froomkin has an interesting perspective if the Huffington Post, “Your Pain, Their Gain: How high gas prices impoverish the many while enriching the few,” link here

He covers the gamut: higher share prices for oil companies help most pension funds, so there is a “good side”. He talks about the role of speculators, which at some point has to break. But the main point, he says, is that oil company executives can enrich themselves by buying back their own stock.

ExxonMobil gives its own spin with a corporate blog posting April 28 by Ken Cohen, “ExxonMobil’s earnings: the real story you won’t hear in Washington,” link here
 Exxon talks about the relatively small contribution of US purchases of gasoline, but their most compelling point is the weaker US dollar, driven by deficits and US debt, which raises the international price of all commodities.

So visit the article by Lori Montgomery on the front page of the Washington Post, “Running on the red: How the US, on the road to surplus, detoured to massive debt,” link here.  And she says, it was largely due to reckless tax cuts for the rich, reducing revenues.  She doesn’t even blame the defense spending after 9/11 or entitlements, with all their creative accounting.

Picture: Mine, from my DVD, of an anti-tax rally in St Paul, MN in 2002.