Sunday, July 29, 2012

Should all high school students take algebra and geometry?

When I was in Basic Training at Fort Jackson, SC as an Army draftee in early 1968, other privates would address me as “Hey, algebra!”

The New York Times “Sunday Review” July 29 has a banner headline, “Is algebra necessary?” The long article, by Andrew Hacker, has link (website url) here.  

OK, I have to put in a good word for book smarts here.

I remember back as an undergraduate (in the 1960s), there were two tracks of physics courses.  One of them was for people without calculus.  But “the real physics” required it.  And, really, physics doesn’t make much sense without it.  Or, take freshman chemistry and then qualitative analysis.  Exams tend to have a lot of “concentration of solutions” equilibrium  (later, titration) problems. Yes, you can learn to work them as “story problems”. But with algebraic formulations, it’s much easier to think them through.  It’s much easier to understand, for example, how a thunderstorm develops if you know the physics behind it, and that means knowing the math behind it.

Algebra helps one see the “logical consequences of things” and to “connect the dots”.  It helps one see the world more objectively.

I taught “remedial” algebra to freshman as a mathematics graduate student at the University of Kansas in the 1960s.  The students got grades in the course but 3 hours were added to graduation requirements.  About half of the students were simply incapable of the abstraction required.

And it is true, some students fail algebra and other math courses and pass everything else.

The idea that all students must take and pass certain courses has always been fundamental to our system.  At times, the notion has been regarded as a weeding out tool, particularly in the 1960s when we had a male-only draft but also student deferments.  I rather got off the hook on the physical education side of this. Was that fair?

Steve Rhine at Willamette University (Oregon) discusses the problem here.

Update: Sept. 7

MSN Careerbuilder, in a piece by Sonia Acosta, offers "5 Ways You'll Use Algebra in Your Career", link here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Heat-driven summer super thunderstorms threaten ozone layer

Climate scientists expressed concern that the “superstorms” – that is gigantic thunderstorms that build very high into the stratosphere and create “avalanches” – leading to derechoes – may be jeopardizing the ozone layer.  This could cause the damage from climate change to feed on itself even further.

Science Magazine has an abstract for a major study report here
The New York Times summarizes the article in a story Friday by Harry Fountain here

The problem gets much worse as daytime temperatures in northern latitudes, especially in the northern Plains, get much higher than normal much earlier than normal, as they did this June.  Abnormally high temperatures lead to enormous lift of moisture when the atmosphere “collapses”. 
Is this really due to more carbon dioxide, or just to a jet stream farther north than usual, after a La Nina winter?  The pattern last winter, with little snow, has continued.

Friday, July 27, 2012

US birth rate falls because of economy, even among some minorities

Some media outlets reported this week that the birth rate in the United States has hit a 25-year low because of the economy.
Asian and non-Hispanic white women with some college showed increases in birthrates, but Hispanic women, now reeling from weaker employment, declined.  So the patterns of population decried by the right wing  (“the right babies” argument) as falling into racial lines does not always hold.
A company called Demographic Intelligence provides (at large cost) a U.S. Fertility Forecast (actually trademarked), as explained at the company’s brief site here
The LDS Deseret News, obviously interested in such matters for religious reasons, has an interpretive story by Lois M. Collins here.

USA Today has a detailed story by Haya el Nasser (Thursday) here
An important aspect of the issue is that women often want the children but tend to put them off until older when they think they will be better prepared economically. But the biological clock can run out.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mountaintop removal: energy, climate, streams, jobs, and aesthetics

While mountaintop removal and stripmining for coal remain a significant issue in our energy policy debate, coal companies and even state government policy makers seem to be trying to keep the problem out of sight of “average” motorists, residents, and tourists.

In 1971, I visited a strip mine near Mt. Storm W Va, was almost arrested for trespassing, and given a tour.  In 1972, I visited, with a former graduate school roommate, an area of strip mining in eastern Kentucky and far southwestern VA, near Norton.  More recent visits to these areas (like Norton in 1990, Mt. Storm many times, especially 2004 and 2010) have shown these areas largely “reclaimed”, although probably not restored to original contours.

Today the most controversial areas are in southern West Virginia and across into Kentucky.  Much of this area lies west of I-77, from Bluefield to Charleston.  The term “mountaintop removal” is a bit of a misnomer here.  The “mountains” here are not ranges like the Blue Ridge; rather, they area a plateau sloping toward the Ohio River from the Eastern Continental Divide, to the NE of the I77 highway (the 4700+ peaks start about 60 miles to the NE).  What gives the area its unusual and sometimes breathtaking scenery is deep canyons cut by streams and rivers, such as the New River Gorge, and much of the area around the “West Virginia Turnpike” as it descends toward Charleston.  (There is a similar area to the south on the Va-KY border, Breaks Interstate Park, which I visited in 2005.)

The nrtorious Kayford Mine is slightly west of I-77, north of Pax, and some of it can be seen from the Interstate (at one point in particular, with no views for photography – that’s intentional).   Most of the ridge is just a few hundred feet higher than the highway; the average elevation of the plateau before mining was about 2000 feet.   (The Mt. Storm mine, mentioned above, was in the higher country, at about 3500 feet; but generally that’s unusual.)

The people in the region say they know very little about it, or have never been to the mine.  It is very difficult to see the complete mine from public highways, because of private lands and security.  In 1999, I reached the edge from Rt 3, but was still kept from getting close enough to look into the mine. The homes, forests and streams in the area actually look relatively clean to a casual observer.  The towns tend to have narrow one-way streets (most county roads become one way or very narrow quickly), and the entire area has a “being on another planet” effect. 

You can look at the aerial view online easily. In Google, go to Maps, enter Pax WV, go to satellite view, and pan to the NW a bit, "travel" a few miles W of I-77, an pan in.  You'll see it all. A modern MacBook is recommended for this exercise. You can try Google Earth, too.  That would be a great geography class exercise in public schools, rated G (if politically incorrect for some). Maybe an activist substitute teacher will dare!

Wouldn’t this area make a good topic for an investigative report by CNN Presents, or specifically by Anderson Cooper? 

I explored this area further Thursday.  The road up the mountain (to the left of I-77 and then an immediate right) is mostly on private land and the public is banned from using it.  The coal companies (whatever they say about liability) don't want us to know.  But you can see deep into the mine from I-77 in a couple of places, and from one other side road, behind houses. All the roads becomes one-lane and pretty undriveable without a 4-wheel drive.

I noticed that a lot of people in the area live dangerously close to streams that can flood easily (and will do so more often in some cases because of the mines above).
Note that in W Va there a signs that seem to suggest a conciliatory attitude to waste disposal from industry into the water table.
There's  plenty to see in the way of processing of the coal around Marmot WVA, just outside Charleston; there have been demonstrations near barges on the river.

West Virginia is indeed quixotic.  Most of the worst environment abuses are out of sight of most tourists, who find it hard to believe we could really be tearing down our mountains.  And some residents in the area seem to live rather isolated, if self-sufficient, lives, in little settlements deep in hollows in the mountains and canyons, accessible only in one-lane roads.  The coal companies couldn't get away with this anywhere else.

Also, Wednesday night, one pickup truck followed me into one hollow behind Pax, until I turned around in a railroad switching area.  I remembered, "Deliverance".  This was a wild two-day trip.
Mountaintop removal has an interesting metaphor: laser epilation!

I site "I Love Mountains" has a collection of Flickr images of Kayford Mountain here.  It is several hundred feet lower than it used to be.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Hobet mine from air, similar to Kayford.


There exist toy replicas of strip mine "Big Muskie" mountain razors:

The drag line, or perhaps razor, is the great equalizer! (Army barracks quote from the 60s). 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Whitman Walker holds "Return to Lisner" panel with latest AIDS research information

The Whitman Walker Health Center of Washington DC held a “Return to Lisner” AIDS panel forum at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University in Washington DC tonight, July 25, 2012.

The first such forum had been held there on April 4, 1983, well before HIV (or HTLV-III) had been identified.

The link for the event is here

The program started with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, dressed informally, singing two anthems.

David Chalfant, Director of Development spoke.   He showed a short video about Whitman Walker.

But the keynote speech came from Jeanne White-Ginder, mother of Ryan White, who died at age 19 in 1990 of transfusion-associated HIV necessitated by hemophilia.

White described the refusal of local school officials to let Ryan attend school despite reassurances from the CDC. She also mentioned the rumors about other modes of transmission (like insects) invented by the religious right in the 1980s.

She described his funeral at the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and described the attendance of Michael Jackson and family, Elton John, and Barbara Bush.

She then showed a 5-minute video about Ryan, “Gone too Soon”.

A panel discussion followed.  The panelists included A Cornelius Baker, Regan Hofmann (editor of POZ), Joanne Keatley (transgender health at UCSF), Robert Redfield, Adam Tenner, Phil Wilson, and Jose Zuniga.

There as a general consensus that there has been tremendous progress in the past five years.  Now, a functional “career” is envisioned, and a vaccine is back in development.  Still, 34 million people around the world have HIV.

One panelist spoke about “The Normal Heart”, Larry Kramer’s play, which he had seen at the Arena Stage Monday night, and said he was still angry.  (Drama Blog, July 3, 2009, has a review of the play text.)

WJLA has a detailed story about the march Tuesday by AIDS protestors near the White House. About 13 people were arrested near the White House fence.  Some protestors made a “People’s Party” style demand of a 25% tax on Wall Street profits to fund treatment for AIDS.   The WJLA link is here

I wonder about research for a vaccine for something that really could become casually transmissible and become the world’s biggest ever pandemic: H5N1.  

There is more on the 19th International AIDS Conference and the "Global Village" exhibit on the Internatioal Issues blog July 27. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Keep the Promise" holds rally on Washington Monument grounds, near Quilt, as international AIDS conference begins

Keep the Promise held a rally today on the Washington Monument grounds, leading to its March on Washington for 2012, today, July 22, 2012, at the XIX International AIDS Conference Washington DC, which runs through July 27.

The link for the pressure group is here

The link for the Conference is here

I started by visiting the Quilt on the Mall (there is also a Digital Quilt booth), before going over to witness the rally for KP.  Names were being read from the Capitol end of the Mall.

The weather was humid but not too hot, around 80 degrees, on what is statistically the single hottest date of the year in Washington DC.   Threatening skies held off the rain, and gradually cleared.  However, thinderstorms on the Mall are typically more severe  (particularly with lightning risk) than in other nearby areas because of the flat, open expanse and nearness to water. This consideration can affect any major march during the spring and summer. 

There was a singing of “We Shall Overcome”  and a variety of speakers, including representatives from most countries around the world affected by AIDS, particularly Africa and Southeast Asia.

There was a truck offering free condoms parked on Constitution Avenue. 

The president’s helicopter reportedly flew over.  Speakers challenged the administration of budget cuts in AIDS care, and on military and defense spending.  In recent days, I have become more sympathetic to defense and infrastructure spending because of some serious unconventional risks that this society runs (from solar storms and certain kinds of specific EMP attacks).  I’ve always felt that some people on the radical Left want to see everyone “brought low”, but if that happens, no one can be helped.

A number of people at the rally did not look well physically, when compared to the population of people visiting the quilt area on the Mall, or people normally in the clubs (as last night).  The appearance of some persons was striking and disturbing.

More protests are likely Tuesday. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Conservative DC area newspaper supports citizens' carrying concealed weapons into public spaces

The Washington Times, which has the (probably well deserved) reputation of being the DC area’s “right wing” newspaper (The Examiner is a bit less strident), as an incredible editorial today, “Batman won’t save you, but a concealed weapon might”, link here
TWT is even critical of business’s “private” policies of not (knowingly) allowing firearms on the premises. 
Do we really seriously think that most public spaces (like movie theaters, major league or college sports stadiums, even most bars and discos) can tolerate people bringing their owned concealed weapons? 
Let Piers Morgan react to this, in less than 140 characters!

On NBC "Meet the Press" Sunday morning, it was noted that Holmes was heavily shielded by armor and that return fire out or personal self-defense could not have worked and would have only added to danger and injury. 
In fact, in Texas, it’s illegal to carry a concealed weapon into any place serving alcohol, and all bars are required to post such notice. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Should "volunteers" fix the power lines?

There are a number of interesting LTE’s in the Washington Post on July 18, 2012, p A20, about power outages.

One writer suggests backup distributed systems including reverse engineering from home solar panels (perhaps even natural gas generators), and, most interestingly, training “volunteer” line repairmen and tree removers.  This sounds a bit like the extension of a volunteer fire department, and begs more questions about “national service”.  The link is here.

Other letters concerned the issue of the moral responsibilities when a neighbor’s tree falls.  Unfortunately, it’s with the homeowner on whose property it falls, unless the tree has been documented as diseased.

But in this part of the country, in residential areas, trees near homes (let alone power lines) are getting older and weaker.  In Fairfax county, a 150-year-old dead oak (weighing 40 tons with no root system) fell on a car stopped in traffic, killing the motorist. It just fell (although uneven trimming had undermined it).  In a climate that is getting warmer because of our carelessness with the planet, this is becoming a novel moral problem.  

Update: July 23

Look at this article from the Weather Channel about recruiting "younger adult" volunteers (under age 60) for emergencies in Tidewater Va, link

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Newt Gingrich jawbones on utility preparation for solar storms, EMP attacks; depending on minimum-wage and volunteer firefighters

Former House speaker and GOP primary presidential candidate New Gingrich (from Georgia) has a sobering op-ed in the Washington Post July 12, “Preparing for the next outage”.

 Newt and his wife live in McLean VA now and lived through the derecho-related power outages. The article confronts the possibility that power could be out for months in some parts of the country should a terrorist ever explode a high-altitude nuclear device (as with a scud launched or lobbed offshore or conceivably from North Korea toward the Pacific Northwest or Alaska), or from an extreme solar flare event (with coronal mass ejections).

Actually, local EMP effects can happen with conventional microwave weapons, in use by the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq, should they fall into the wrong hands. This was pointed out in a now obscure Popular Science article published just before 9/11 in 2001.

It’s unlikely that our power grid could recover from a Carringston-sized solar storm, such as what happened in 1859.  Recently, the Earth passed in front of a sunspot array that could have launched such massive ejections. It’s only a matter of time (centuries, maybe) before, out of pure probability, it happens again.  Coronal mass ejections, compared to EMP blasts, would be less likely to fry ignition circuits in cars or consumer electronics and PC’s, but even this catastrophe is conceivable.

Gingrich says that the technology to harden the power grid (and hopefully the wireless communications grid) against EMP and solar storms exists.  How it works (grounding equipment a certain way) is obscure, but the subject certainly ought to be the subject of a CNN Presents report, or perhaps an ABC 20-20 or NBC Dateline episode, or  even a major documentary film for AFI Silverdocs.  (Yes, Morgan Spurlock, I would work with you to make such a film!)

If we blow our infrastructure (as in the upcoming NBC series "The Revolution"), I'll be 69 or more years old in a world in which I have nothing to contribute, in which I am a burden.  I will not survive that.

The GRID Act (or "Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act") was introduced as HR 5026 in the 111th Congress in September 2010 but did not pass the Senate.  It would need to be re-introduced, as far as I know. The Govtrack reference is here.

I wonder if "intentional communities" that live "off the grid" like Twin Oaks, VA (discussed here April 7) would fare well if tested by a crisis like this.  

Here’s the link to "Professor" Newt’s article.

Another major news item is the reduction in pay of fire and police employees in Scranton PA to minimum wage by the mayor, who says there is no choice. Are we going to let alpha males do our risk taking and dirty work for us at low page or as “volunteers”?  This story reminds me of the debate over possible resumption of the draft, and even that Washington Nationals teen star Bryce Harper has said that he would consider working as a volunteer firefighter during the off season.  I doubt his contract or the Nationals’ insurance policies would allow that.

Here’s a Christian Science Monitor video on the Scranton story, link

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Can homeowner's protect themselves from a neighbor's "tall trees"?

Paul Farhi has a perspective on p A13 in the Washington Post, Saturday, July 14, “Tall trees make poor neighbors”, and he doesn’t mean the “tall trees” in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”.  The link is here

In Montgomery County, MD and in most jurisdictions, Farhi found, you (or your homeowner’s insurance) are responsible for what falls on your property.  No matter if it’s a neighbor’s tree.  There may be some exceptions of the tree was known to be weak or diseased and the property owner has notified the neighbor of concern properly.

There is some sense to this. No reasonable amount of prudence can prevent the extreme damage of tornadoes, derechoes, wildfires, earthquakes, or other severe storms.

In Fredericksburg, VA, a home was damaged Sunday when a roof blew off a business several hundred feet away and blew into the home.

I don’t have any tall trees on the property that I maintain, but if I did and I was concerned they could fll on me or a neighbor, I would remove them.  There was a poplar tree (a cause for “interference” in neighborhood backyard softball games in the 1950s) that came down to lightning in 1986, barely missing the house.

I (normally) cannot remove a neighbor’s tree and “prevent” a future loss, however. It is sometimes all right to remove limbs that overhang one's property (particularly in Virginia). 

In fact, some roof damage in the derecho may have been mitigated by a brake of trees in a neighbor’s property, 300 feet away.  The thick fir trees probably slowed the wind speed down.  The damage came with a Bernoulli effect, when the gust speed rose to get over the crust of the roof and uprooted some older shingle and popped a hole.

See also posting July 18, 2011. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Yes, the "individual mandate" requires a "pawn sacrifice" for the "common good"

So, the House, under the ideologues in the GOP, votes to repeal Obamacare.  They can’t pull this off in the Senate – and won’t unless they capture the Senate in November.  A typical story is by Tom Cohen on CNN, here.

What makes health insurance different from all other kinds, under Obamacare (or Romney care?)
With auto insurance, you pay a rate tailored to your own age, gender, driving history.  There is a direct relationship between your premium and the expected value of your own future claims.

With property (homeowners and renters) insurance, that’s more or less true.  Homeowners usually need separate coverages for flood and earthquake (sometimes even sinkholes), often government-supported. But this year it’s obvious that property companies are charging everyone more to help recover losses from tornadoes, derchoes,  wildfires, and sometimes (indirectly) floods – climate-related extreme events. And property companies have to ponder other murky and novel issues like Internet behavior.

With health insurance, if you’re young and healthy and have to buy mandatory insurance (or accept a lower salary so that an employer buys it for you), there is every expectation that you won’t recover the value of your own premiums.  You’re asked to “sacrifice” for others (those with pre-existing conditions, which might be heritable (unfortunate) or behavior –based, or a combination of both.  But anti-selection hurts everyone anyway.  Some people get care and don’t pay, so everyone else makes up the difference.  Others don’t get care and die.  Personally, if I were a typical college graduate entering the work world, I would feel more comfortable with the social stability that can be enhanced by having everyone insured.  The insurance premium, unlikely to be used, is a small “sacrifice” for having a life that is more robust and less vulnerable to shocks.  I like the analogy of "sacrificing" the "two bishops" in chess for a stable pawn structure. 

The other side of the ideological debate, however, hides the other place where personal sacrifice happens – within families.  A world where families take care of their own sick is not a world just predicated merely on “personal responsibility” following one’s own choices.  The libertarian individualistic model where everything follows from this narrow idea of personal responsibility is seeming less and less sustainable.

Conservatives do have one good idea here:  health insurance should focus on catastrophic illnesses, and tax-deductible health savings accounts should pay for routine care, where markets can develop (as they have for cosmetic surgery and now for dental implants – an aggressive technology where costs probably will come down with competition).

And Dr. Oz has thrown another wrinkle into the debate:  people who are socially isolated are poor risks for expensive treatment to extend life.  That’s going to create a stir.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Common Good: antibiotic resistance, dental health, the uninsured, and conscription (odds and ends)

The Washington Post on July 11 has an editorial on the dangers of “global” antibiotic resistance, and warns that we could enter a “post antibiotic” era where ordinary wounds and strep throats becoming life threatening. 

It is critical of the behavior of pharmaceutical companies, who don’t have as much incentive to develop new medicines that are not taken for long periods of time. (The typical dose today of long-acting erythromycin is three to five tablets.)  

It’s true that for decades doctors and dentists have been overly generous in prescribing antibiotics.  Various penicillins and “mycins” are often effective in relieving dental abscesses or gum disease and postponing (or procrastinating) expensive treatments for uninsured dental patients.  I had a serious jaw infection in 2004 (making it impossible to open my mouth wide) which disappeared completely with a dose of clindaymycin, preventing oral surgery – in the meantime, my body must have become immune to the bacteria because it did not come back.  Dentists may have a public health point in warning patients about eating habits (the carbonic acid even in diet sodas can erode teeth over a long period of time). 

The link for the story is (“March of the microbes: Resistance to antibiotics is becoming a crisis” here.  

Check also Matt Miller’s op-ed  “GOP to the uninsured: drop dead” (July 10).  (Remember, 1975, "Ford to City, drop dead!"?) We’re back to the moral debate of sharing responsibility for “other people’s problems”.  The GOP says “the natural family” has to do that.   What about Santorum’s “common good”?

Richard Cohen has an op-ed “should the US revive the draft”, referring to a recent article by Thomas Ricks in the New York Times (“Let’s draft our kids” – is this Jonathan Swift?).  Rick recommends this: no service, no federal benefits.  Ricks wants to use the young for cheap labor, as part of a “pay your dues” campaign.  Nevertheless, before we go back to war and have a “stop-loss” or “backdoor draft” we should all have skin in the game, right?  The New York Times piece is here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NOAA report indicts man-made changes for climate change

NOAA has released a report which the media says indicates that man-made activities are causing increase in greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, whose increases cannot be explained by evident natural causes.

The NOAA link, with sublinks to official reports published today, is (website url) here

The report discusses the rapid increase in record highs around the world, and the rapid loss of reflectivity in icecaps, and the increased likelihood of warm months over cool ones. Global warming did not cause all extreme events, such as floods in Thailand.  But a warmer Earth means that storms will be stronger, and that floods, fires, tornadoes and derechoes could become much more common in areas not previously prepared for them, presenting considerable problems in insurance and in preserving infrastructure and “way of life”.

Scientists speaking in the media today still said that we have not necessarily reached the "tipping point" yet. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Coal companies intimidate local critics of mountaintop removal; CNN's Ali Velshi predicts a fiscal cliff

The New York Times has an editorial by Jason Howard, “Appalachia Turns on Itself”, about the recriminations against those who protest mountaintop removal in southern West Virginia, with link here

Some of the retaliation taken against critics has been indeed graphic.

Of course, mountaintop removal does not require a large number of jobs, either. So the I-77 sign near Charleston, “Obama’s No Jobs Zone” doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I was actually detained at a strip mine by coal company security in 1971 when I was taking pictures.  

Sunday, Ali Velshi on CNN gave his own recommendations for what it takes to keep America from falling off a fiscal cliff.  His recommendations for what Congress must do before the November 2012 election are three: (1) end the “sequester”; (2) negotiate the debt ceiling increase (again); (3) revise the Bush tax cuts but modify the alternative minimum tax to prevent if from kicking in for 2012 for millions of Americans. 

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Hobet mountaintop mine in W Va.

Update: July 16

There is a Blogger entry describing protest in which head shaving is compared to mountaintop removal as a metaphor (2012), link here.

Here are the driving directions to Kayford Mountain (I hope one can really see it up close), link.

There are more high quality "Appalachian Aerial Images" here

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Pepco's performance could really become tragic in case of a major solar storm event; Earth in crosshairs for X-class solar flare on July 4

Pepco, the electric utility for Washington DC and Maryland, has been sliding into substandard performance in keeping the power grid up and in restoring neighborhood service, since around 2005, and it now ranks near the bottom of major US electric utilities.

The quality of service declined when Pepco sold off its coal and gas holdings and became a “grid only” service. 

The Maryland Public Utilities Commission has taken public responsibility for allowing the utility to slip, favoring short-term profits over public sustainability.

There is a story in the Washington Post Independence Day by Joe Stephens and Mary Pat Flaherty, here

In the aftermath of the derecho storm to hit the DC area Friday night, many outages occurred in business areas not particularly near trees, both in Virginia and Maryland.  Cell And 9/11 service was severely compromised for most of the weekend.  Cellular Internet service, needed when cable is down, was spotty Saturday because of power losses at Verizon.

Information on progress in service restoration was incomplete and non-specific for the first 48 hours of the interruption, then things rapidly improved.

There are worse calamities that the grid in major East Coast cities could face. One would be a major solar flare storm, or large coronal mass ejection, which in the most extreme cases could fry some auto ignition systems and home electronics, too. (A solar storm would have about a day's notice, perhaps a little more.)  To protect power grids, utilities would have to build much more shielding and grounding into their infrastructure than they have so far, but it can be done.  Similar comments apply to shielding from any possible EMP terror attack.

The derecho provided a warning of much worse that can happen.
Also, major media are reporting moderate solar flares (M level) from a subspot 8 times the diameter of Earth, one on Monday and one very early July 4.  The Earth is passing in front of the sunspot so would be vulnerable to any X-class events (conceivably Carrington-sized) July 4 and for a while afterwards.  CBS link (going to Spaceweather) is here

There has been a lot of debate in recent days about burying power lines underground. The quick reaction is that burying lines does not protect them from geomagnetic storms, but this idea bear further looking (see comments at link). 

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Maryland English teacher explains alternative schools to CNN; DC promotes its residence charter school

Robyn Barberry, who teaches English in a Maryland alternate high school and also in community college, explains what a year in alternative schools will mean for the middle school kids suspended for the verbal abuse of the school bus monitor in Greece, NY.

The link to her CNN “Schools of Thought” blog entry ("My view: Bus bullies suspended, justice served; now teachers' work begins") is (website url) here

It is true that in the New York State incident, the alternative is a middle school.  Alternative high schools have always been a visible part of any school system. 

When I subbed, I sometimes worked at alternative high schools in Fairfax County VA and Arlington. 
The campus programs are simplified, as are class schedules, which are the same every day, usually four periods.  There are no extracurricular activities, but there is a gym and mandatory PE.  There is some outreach to get the kids into community service.  (Fairfax County did close one such school due to budget problems in 2010.)

The schools don’t have their own cafeterias. Lunches are brought from the nearest conventional high school.
Classes are small.  Lesson plans for subs seem to be simple.  Typically, most students are relatively quiet and well-behaved, but a very few show that they are obviously troubled by their situations. 

In fact, most behavior problems occur in regular schools with special education students or sometimes with low income students, sometimes those with gang issues.  In middle schools there are more problems than in high schools.

The gap in ability and academic interest among students (I taught 2004-2007) in northern Virginia was extreme.  There are a large number of students who excel at everything – in the usual academics and sports, and sometimes in music, drama, and media (at least one teen filmmaker with probably fully employable skills).  One could have been on the 2008 Olympic swimming team had he pursued it (he’s in medical school now). 

There’s also a lot of despair among students who see high school as overly competitive, with grades as a currency.

I would recommend reading Barberry’s full story, including particularly the last paragraph, where she characterizes “empathy education” – a two-way street, if you think through the full story of the bus incident.
I also see her close, “someone like you.”  I thought about the “career switch” and at a certain na├»ve level, thought I could have become a math teacher for a few years.  Yes, I would have loved to do AP (and maybe make up calculus test problems based on the physics of sports – even Bryce Harper’s home runs).  The need, however, was with the non-achievers and the challenged.  They needed more than instruction, they needed personal attention.  I suddenly realized I could not switch my whole identity and tend to them when I had spent the first sixty years of my life living on another planet.  If I did so, I would never return.

I'll pass along another story, by GMU English professor and Fairfax County high school teacher Erica Jacobs, from the Washington Examiner, in 2006, "So You Want to Be a Teacher?", here

Picture: Washington-Lee High School, Arlington VA, 2008 (a regular high school, new building).

Second Picture: Today, at Eastern Market, Washington DC. Note well!

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Is the Court playing with "constitutionalism" or "conservatism"? Healthcare ruling was not "liberal"

Pamela Karlin has an interesting perspective in the New York Times Sunday Review section, Sunday July 1, “No Respite for Liberals”, link (website ulr) here.

Despite finding a backdoor to approve Obama’s mandate, it was not liberal on the Medicaid issue, and Roberts, while denying he was commenting on the wisdom of any public policy, may have believed the practical case of countering anti-selection in individual health insurance markets was simply overwhelming.  He is helping large insurance companies and large corporate interests with the opinion, as well as ordinary people.

But he’s right in maintaining that it is very dangerous for the government to say that an individual’s “not” making a particular life-related decision (that causes some forms of commerce to take place) hurts the common good, and then try to compel the decision. For example, it’s true, that in certain segments of society, lower birthrates will make it harder to pay for the elderly eventually.  Could the government try to compel people to have the “right number” of children by forcing the childless to support directly other people’s children?  No, but it can (and does) charge different tax rates based on family dependents.
Of course, we all know that China aggressively monitors personal decisions like family size.