Sunday, June 30, 2013

To reduce power outages and home damage from increasing Mid-Atlantic storms, do we need to cut down most trees in residential areas?

One year ago yesterday, the mid-Atlantic part of the country, including the Washington DC area, endured the Great North American Derecho of 2012.  There was some minor “Bernoulli” damage to the crest of the roof, for which, given the haste, a contractor overcharged to repair.  The generator worked, but the external power was out three days, and Cable a week (Comcast wouldn’t come until the entire surrounding neighborhood had power, not just my street).  There was little damage on my street (it just takes one limb to knock out cable and power) otherwise.  But I recall the heat of the day, and the suddenness of the powerful wind gust (at about 10:35 pm), probably about 65 mph on the ground and 80 mph at the tree tops.  
Fortunately, the ground was not as saturated as it is now, or many more trees would have come down.  The wind lasted only about a minute, and the rain was not that heavy, maybe a half inch.
The derecho had formed around noon EDT south of Chicago and moved with unbelievable speed.  It hit a relative’s home near Columbus, Ohio around 7 PM, and a family dog has run around barking for an hour before, knowing that a storm was coming.

All of this raises the question of proper disaster preparedness. 

I think you can make a case for a policy change in East Cost suburbs and cities.  Require homeowners to remove all trees capable of reaching a critical part of a home (or a neighbor’s home) if they fall, even if hit by lightning.  Remove all trees that can hit power lines.  Don’t require insurance  companies to cover damage from falling trees.  Empower homeowners the legal right to get threatening neighbor’s trees removed (right now, that’s dicey and unusually not possible in most states, although you might be able to remove limbs overhanging your property, but even that is risky; right now, homeowners are usually responsible for damage to their property from objects falling from other properties or the sky). 

How practical?  I don’t know.  Would doing so affect the carbon footprint because there would be fewer trees?  I wonder.  Would it make the Washington DC suburbs look more like Dallas, which has relatively few big trees in residential areas.  But when I lived in Minneapolis and Dallas, there were few power outages caused by falling trees. 

Of course, you can’t removal all risks in life.  We need to have people living and working along the Gulf coast, more exposed to bug hurricanes, or the Jersey Shore for that matter  (most of New York City is lower than people think, and lower than most of the DC area).  People have to live exposed to earthquakes and wildfires.  And we can’t prevent F5 tornadoes in the southern Plains with 300 mph winds. (Yes, people need to live in Oklahoma, just as in states where I have considerable roots:  Ohio, Texas, Minnesota, and Kansas.)  These disasters seem to be increasing, and could spread east of the Appalachians (Maryland has had two F4 tornadoes since 1998).  The only answer is to reign in on climate change.

In the mean time, we seem to go through the cycle almost weekly with the inevitable “severe” pop-up or frontal storms with 2-inch rainfalls, hail, lightning, and “mere” 60 mph gusts, sometimes rotating into very minimal tornadoes.  We expect utility linemen to do the dangerous work we aren’t fit to do, week after week.  (The Maoists would not approve.)  We could reduce the damage by much more aggressive tree trimming.

And we need to reinforce our power grid against solar storms.  That’s the next wake-up call.

Wikipedia attribution link got Derecho diagram.   

Friday, June 28, 2013

Debate on conscription raises questions about "morality" of shared sacrifice, among different generations

Yesterday, I reported on more idling discussion about national service and occasional calls for resuming conscription.  It raises a debate, that availability to share the risks in defending freedom is a moral issue, or at least it was when I was growing up.  On the other hand, freedom from involuntary servitude ought to be a fundamental right.  There’s always been a clash between these ideas in my own mind.  It also raises the idea that times change, that behavior that was condemned in the past will not be today.  But how should people whose acts seemed evasive, cowardly, or maybe courageous (depending on how you look at things) during the times they came of age be judged today?
How should be people “evaluated” if they were actually convicted for crimes, that would no longer apply today?
It has been common to accuse some politicians of evading or “dodging” military service, such as Bill Clinton.
President Carter, in 1977.  issued a pardon for men who had violated the Selective Act between 1964 and 1973,  But a pardon does not remove a conviction from someone’s record.  There is still the view that during that particular period, men were expected to step up and share a common risk of the community.  As we know from history, that risk may have been misconstrued.  President Ford had offered a more selective clemency plan, requiring some public or community service, link here..  You can check the Wikipedia page on draft evasion here.

The DOJ page on that pardon is here
My history is unusual.  Because of my “psychiatric” history after my expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 for admitting “latent homosexuality”, I was marked 4-F after my first draft physical in 1964 in Richmond.  I considered this a blight on my “reputation” (long before the days of “online reputation”), and retook the physical in Kansas City (from graduate school) in 1966 and was marked 1-Y.  I asked for another one and passed as 1-A with a physical in August 1967.  I got a draft notice in January 1968, with induction on Feb. 22, giving me time to finish my M.A. at the University of Kansas.  I “volunteered” for two years and went in on Feb. 8.
I had a hard time with Basic, got recycled into Special Training Company, but eventually got stronger physically.  But I was sheltered by my graduate degree and got an “01E20” MOS and didn’t have to go to Vietnam and be exposed to “sacrifice” (which can mean sacrifice for others). Others went and took increased risk because I was sheltered. 
This couldn’t happen today.  With a volunteer military, if I didn’t meet the physical strength standards (regardless of lifting DADT), I simply wouldn’t be accepted.  Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it.
It raises questions about my history, though.   Was it “right” that I was earning a living by working for a company that sold life insurance for military officers when the debate over the military gay ban erupted in 1993?  I eventually transferred in 1997 away from the situation – more on that in a future post. 

My upbringing, though, made a big deal of the moral aspect of “getting out of things” that others have to put themselves through.  It raises moral questions that we don’t like to talk about today.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

National service, conscription keep popping up as ideas as "times change"

There is a brief but strong Letter to the Editor in the Washington Post this morning (Thursday, June 27, 2013), reiterating the logic behind military conscription (now including women), or perhaps an alternative of civilian national service.  The link for the letter is here

The letter is titled online “Equalizing opportunity and obligation”, a concept which helps explain why I got quickly involved with the effort (17 years) to end the military gay ban starting in 1993.

The letter refers to an op-ed by Michael Gerson  (“National Service can heal our nation”), with reference to an earlier proposal by General Stanley  McChrystal for universal national service. Would it be necessarily limited to young adults? 

Some sharing of common obligations (and risks) was an important moral concept when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s.  It has become less so since then. But the nature of today’s world, with asymmetric threats on the one hand, and increased opportunities to prolong or enrich the lives of the disabled, along with increases social pressures regarding the value of human life, makes the concept relevant again. Times change, and they change again, back sometimes.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Virginia environment group challenges individual behavior; Obama's climate change plans seen as waffling by both sides

President Obama’s plan to meet climate change, announced Tuesday, probably sounds lukewarm to environment activists, but intrusive to economic conservatives.
Last week, Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center placed a flier on my door,  The link is here
The tone of the flier seemed to put much more responsibility on the individual.  I don’t know how much difference small steps like energy efficient light bulbs make.
There’s a general observation that as fuels get cleaner, people drive more anyway and tend to fill in the carbon gap, at least indirectly.  Bjorn Lomborg;s column in USA Today is relevant, here  (See review of his book “Cool It”, Book Review blog, Feb, 11, 2009).

Does hyperindividualism lead to more carbon emissions, because people feel encouraged to do more travel on their own and by themselves?  I wonder if in the future it will be possible for people to rent cars alone with unlimited mileage like I often did for thirty years on vacations.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Supreme Court strikes down current law supervising certain states actions in voting laws

The Supreme Court is going slow with controversial rulings, issuing a divided 5-4 opinion Tuesday morning June 25, striking down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

The federal government can no longer demand that certain states or counties in certain states accept federal supervision on change to voting rights laws.  However, Congress is welcome to go back and rewrite the laws so that voting patterns in recent years are taken into account, rather than viewed as they were in 1964.
Bill Mears has a developing story in detail on CNN here
The case is Shelby County, AL v. Holderet al, and Supreme Court slip opinion is here

The measures that the 1965 act addressed included poll taxes, identification, and literacy tests. 

The Court majority scolded Congress for not trying to revise the Act in 2006 when it extended it. 

I can recall libertarian debates about proportional representation in voting back in the late 1990s.

Read the opposing viewpoints on the voting rights laws in USA Today here.   

Monday, June 24, 2013

Supreme Court applies "strict scrutiny" to affirmative action in race-conscious admission policies

In the case Fisher v. University of Texas, the Supreme Court has ruled today that that universities may continue using race-conscious policies in admissions, but must use a strict scrutiny standard in doing so to avoid running afoul of the Equal Protection clause.
The Court sent the case back to Fifth Circuit for further review.
Bill Mears has a story for CNN here.  There is an embedded opinion PDF there.
The Supreme Court has quickly published a slip opinion here

The vote was 7-1. Justice Kagan abstained from participation.

Strict scrutiny might be met if, for example, a university was trying to educated medical students who would serve in a minority area and had no conceivable way to do so without considering race. 

The idea of race can be complicated also by the notion that not all ethnic minorities are racial.  For example, the Census Bureau allows people to classify themselves as Hispanic and white at the same time, which occurs commonly in practice.  
A USA Today opinion suggested that some universities were universally allowing African-Americans automatic credit in evaluating their SAT scores.  Not sure if this is really true.  Economic class seems much more relevant now to student performance. 

In some recent dental surgery (implants), there was a female African American dentist and a male Hispanic participating heavily in my day-long procedure.  My own experience suggests that medical schools are welcoming minorities as much as possible.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Feds break up "right wing" plot to make, perhaps use, "ray guns"

NBC News is reporting the arrest of two men, associated with the extreme Right or Ku Klux Lkan, or plotting to build a “ray gun” to kill individual targets, by emitting intense X-rays.  The weapon was called a “Hiroshima light switch”, and anyone hit would die within 24 hours.

The link for the story is here.

It wasn’t clear that the weapon would really work, and it was quite far from completion.  It was to be operated from a mobile van and could be triggered by remote control.  
Possibly this weapon could be related to the flux gun or radio frequency gun discussed by F. Michael Maloof in his book “A Nation Frosaken”, reviewed on the books blog April 13.  Maloof referred to an old paper published in 2001 (in Popular Science right before 9/11)  about how such weapons could be manufactured at home for a few hundred dollars, although the idea seems to stretch real credibility.  

It sounds possible that the van would be designed in a manner similar to one discussed a few years ago (2009?) in a Washington Times story about a van that could house a flux gun held by the US Army at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  
This is a scary report, from Pete Williams (the NBC justice correspondent), Jonathan Dienst and Eric McClam .  Let’s hope it’s isolated.    Was NSA snooping needed to find the people?  

There could be questions as to whether someone could "invent" a fake flash camera actually capable of harming people (they can harm oil paintings).  A bizarre complaint in a disco in 2011 reminds me of this far-out possibility.  

  There is a lot of buzz about "TWA Flight 800", which exploded in the air near Long Island in the summer of 1996.  I'll say more about this as soon as there are more facts, or I can see the new documentary film.  But I recall that radio talk show host Joe Brown tool a call reporting the missile while I was driving my car that night. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Supreme Court strikes down Arizona voting law requiring proof of citizenship

The Supreme Court today struck down, 7-2, the provisions of Arizona law requiring voters to present proof of citizenship.   But it did allow the state to use ad hoc evidence that someone might not be a citizen without validation.
Bill Mears has a detailed story on CNN here  including a video.  
Volunteers has said that voter registration drives have become smaller and less effective because of Arizoa’s law.
While the Constitution gives the primary responsibility for conducting elections to states, it has the explicit power to make or alter regulations. 
The slip opinion, from Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, is (website url) here

The earliest SCOTUS can announce it ‘s rulings on gay marriage will be Thursday.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day: Dads should roughhouse with their kids; what about non-dads?

In the past day or so, there have been several Internet headlines advocating that fathers learn to roughhouse with their kids, and that this experience is crucial for kids’ development.
ABC News had a major story by Michael Murray June 17, 2011,  web url) here.

MSN had a story yesterday, and it disappeared quickly.

But another typical article is on the “Parents 101” column, here

The topic comes up right before Father’s Day.

The topic is of interest to me, indirectly, because when I was substitute teaching a few years ago, I found that more “attention” and “intimacy” was expected of me by some people than I would have even thought welcome or appropriate, possibly even to risky degrees.

I noticed in films on trips to Central America by youth and adults in a local church that there was more “intimacy” with the native peoples than I would have expected.

How does this report affect adults who have not had children, at least indirectly?
It also reminds me of the topic of “attachment parenting” in “the family bed”. 

Picture:  The "derecho" yesterday was a no-show at my location, but the day was filled with dire weather threats all day and a few small tornadoes in the mid-Atlantic.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Should "better off" homeowners be (better) prepared to shelter people personally after disasters?

There have been, around the world and in the US, a number of huge physical catastrophes or natural disasters, displacing large numbers of people at once.  The very worst might be the tsunami in Japan in March 2011, compounded by the nuclear power plant meltdown.  But in the US we’ve seen increasingly violent, wide, and long tracking tornadoes (Greensberg, Tuscaloosa, Joplin, Moore and Enid OK); hurricanes or hybrid ocean superstorms  (Katrina and Sandy), wildfires, and bizarre disasters affecting fewer people, like sinkholes and mudslides or ground cliff collapse.   Many other scenarios can be examined, such as Atlantic tsunamis or solar superstorms, as well as manmade catastrophes (EMP).
The “normal” thing is to have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, which may not be effective very quickly if an area has widespread damage.   To that homeowners may need to ad federally subsidized flood insurance, or earthquake or sinkhole, given the laws of the state of residence.   FEMA has made a spectacle of its trailers (with all their problems including volatile contaminants).  Homeowner insurance premiums are rising rapidly everywhere.  Homeowners all over the entire country will pay for the increased damage in coastal and mid-continental areas – but it can happen to anyone. 

So there’s the “grab a hammer” ethic (TV blog, Aug. 29, 2007, note the first comment on an Anderson Cooper report on Katrina volunteerism).  Can US companies do a better job of rebuilding (albeit cookie cutter homes) than individual rehab volunteers?   Probably.  Church groups sent people to New Orleans, and volunteers often were not allowed to do much because of mold. 

I volunteered on the phone lines for the Red Cross for a while in September 2005 (when I was also substitute teaching),  and found for most callers, all you could do was send them to the FEMA 800 number and wait for hours.   But sometimes there were callers with medical problems (diabetes) and it was gratifying to find a nurse on the floor who could help them immediately.
The LDS (Mormon) Church was said to be unusually effective in sending help for Katrina, and it does take care of its own very well.

Om 2005, people were indeed housed hundreds of miles away from New Orleans, often in Texas;  a few hundred were housed in the DC area/ 

Given the possible scale and suddenness of a possible “event”, there’s another ethical and possibly policy question to ask.  Should persons or families (or households) with greater than average living space per person be expected to be prepared to receive people with “radical hospitality”?  Keeping a home ready for an improbable but perhaps eventual event, prepared to have children or disabled as well as ordinary adults ready – in terms of cleanliness, and removal of possible hazards like lead or  residual or undetected asbestos in older homes – could be very daunting for many people – including me.  Tax policies encouraging such practices can certainly be imagined.

Today, outside a Metro Station in the DC area, in a relatively well-off area, I saw a woman with a typical cardboard sign, “lost everything to fire, have three boys”.  I wondered, where is the husband (non-existent) or father(s); why did she have no insurance, etc.   There seems to be a deeper moral question here. 

Update: June 14

Washington DC ABC affiliate WJLA reports that homeowners who sustain damage to their own power meters or line on private property have to hire private electricians to do those repairs before power companies will restore power.  That means getting an estimate from the insurance company first, and usually the insurer has a list of contractors who will honor the settlement rates.  That takes even longer to get done.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

What about "ability groupings" in schools?

The New York Times has a story about the resurgence of ability groupings in public schools, at least in New York, in a story by Vivian Yee  with emphasis on grade schools, link here

 When I went to grade school in the 1950s, there was some pretense of this, in that report cards, at least in Fourth Grade, claimed that grades were related to ability, but then that was dropped.

In high school, “accelerated” courses (the precursor of AP) was an innovation, in math (algebra), physics , and chemistry.  I took only the Enriched Chemistry course in 12th grade; it gave an extra half point on the grade-point.    

Math courses in high school are sometimes “ability-grouped”, as there are slow-paced courses that cover only a half-year of algebra in a full year.

In the 1960s, at the University of Kansas, slower students could take a slower algebra course and get a grade, but the three hours would be added to the graduation requirement.
 I experienced a variation of this concept in physical education.  I always got C’s (a D in tumbling in 11th grade) but the grade did not count toward the grade point.  There could be a point in making gym count.  We did not have swimming, but I believe it’s mandatory now at Washington-Lee in Arlington VA. 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

As teachers make up final exams (or departments and school systems do), parents should question "The Core"

The New York Times Sunday Review has a big article on “Common Core” for schools, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, “Who’s Minding the Schools?”, link here

What seems to be at issue is the development of curricula that is neutral about everything and that does not provoke political or social controversy or engage the student’s emotions.

Now, since I subbed for a few years (three), I can say that some things that inspire some feeling to get taught. How about Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Weisl;’s “Night”. 

The article had a couple of examples of exam questions, that may be useful this time of year as final exams are upon the kids.

For example, there was a multiple choice reading question, where the student determines why a particular sentence was included in an argumentative paragraph about what belongs in American folk music culture.  

Then there is a free response question about the effect of :”determination” in some ancient Greek literature (Demosthenes and then Icaris and Daedalus).  But you could pose similar questions about “ambition” in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, revenge in “Hamlet,”  family loyalty in “Romeo and Juliet”, and integrity in “Julius Caesar”.  (You could ask about the “cobbler” character there.)   Or, how about compassion in “Silas Marner,”  or public shame in “The Scarlet Letter”, or courage v. cowardice in “Red Badge of Courage”. (The point of “Sartor Resartus” gets a but esoteric.  But is Wordsworth right about poetry giving “pleasure”?  How about a psychologist’s examination of Prufock (Elliott) or “Splendor in the Grass”.

So, I get to give teachers some ideas for final exam questions, a bit beyond the Core.   Here is one "emotional" topic. How could being kept out of the military (for a personal characteristic) affect one's civilian life?  I know, "don't ask don't tell" was repealed in 2011.  But there's a moral lesson underneath, and it belongs in the Core.  And on social studies finals.  

Saturday, June 08, 2013

More calls for cold turkey on fossil fuels

While waiting for the Big Day at the dentist (implants), I caught sight of an April 2013 Rolling Stone article on fossil fuels, seeming to call for drastic sacrifices and collective action by ordinary Americans to end the dependence on fossil fuels.  The basic link seems to be here.

There was talk about 80% of the North Polar ice cap being lost by 2100.  There are more extreme reports that it could all be gone by 2020.

One important concept was that developing countries should go right into a green phase, without fossil fuel development.  That’s too late for China. 

All of this debate occurs when it finally looks as though the United States can finish major surgery on its biggest Achilles Heel: former dependence on foreign oil, all the way back to the Nixon, Ford and Carter days of my own early adulthood.
The gist that that morning in the waiting room is that the authors want Americans to go cold turkey.  The fact that social ties are weaker and people tend to be pickier about relationships seems to be relevant.

Update: Sunday June 9

Michael Oppenheimer and Kevin Trenberth have a major opinion piece "Will we hear Earth's alarm bells?" the The Washington Post, p. A19, here

Thursday, June 06, 2013

A simple public health suggestion: Make all return envelopes self-sticking

I picked up on another possible public health hazard today when I licked a return envelope.
Yesterday, I did the tooth-implant event (not from Clear Choice, but similar). I’ve noticed a little redness (bleeding) in the mouthwash, but little discomfort.  Today, I went to the UPS store to copy and mail some securities forms and a payment, all in prepared bar-coded envelopes requiring stamps and with ordinary glue.  I noticed a little redness when I licked one of the envelopes.
I wiped it off (with tissue) and sealed it with tape instead.  And, yes, I know that I am HIV negative from a recent enough test.  (I could well have become positive given my activities in the early 80s; maybe some people are genetically lucky and don’t get infected easily.)  But there could be other bloodborrne viruses, like Hepatitis C, untested and present but not causing disease or symptoms. 

This may bring back the right-wing theories from the mid 1980s, that viruses like HIV would find unusual chains in order to get to the general population.  They haven’t panned out. But at a certain intellectual level, it wasn't easy to dismiss them.  An incredibly homophobic bill floated in the Texas legislature in the spring of 1983 (before HIV had been identified) that would have banned gays from most occupations.  
Instead, in the 21st Century, the greatest global public health threats may come from animal viruses (influenza or coronavirus) and the practice in the less developed world of people living in close quarters with agricultural animals.  Another possible vector is insects or mosquitoes.  Robert Preston, in “The Hot Zone”, suggested that bats in a cave in India could harbor a kind of Ebola-virus.

Still, making all return envelopes self-sticking might be a good public health precaution, and not controversial.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Is a DNA sample like a fingerprint, or computer face analysis? Supreme Court decides 4th Amendment case today

The Supreme Court has held by a 5-4 vote (I’m surprised it is close) that a criminal suspect (in a major crime) can be forced to give a DNA sample without a warrant, if a state stipulates it in law.
A typical story appears on CNN here.

A law-and-order Justice Scalia, however, dissented, fearing the precedent set.

The Fourth Amendment problem comes up because the police could take a DNA sample irrelevant to the cause of the arrest, and then use it in another case, which is what happened in King.  DNA can be taken after conviction in all jurisdictions, but can it be taken without probable cause for a specific arrest?   
In theory, is this so different from a fingerprint (taken at the time or arrest or detention)?  Could it lead to the requirement of DNA samples for work requiring security clearance or handling of money?  (When I went to work for Bradford for New York State MMIS in 1977, we were fingerprinted for cursory background checks.  I don’t think the fingerprinting led to any dismissals.)
The case was Maryland v. King, and the slip opinion is here.  At issue was the Maryland DNA Collection Act. 

It seems that there are many possible biological indicators that can help establish identification, even facial metrics.  

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Do improved home prices now make sense?

NerdWallet has an interesting article on housing prices, which may help put some perspectives on media reports about somewhat improved home prices.  The piece, by Jason Van Steenwyk, dates from Oct. 2012, but seems valid, link here

It may seem gratuitous to compare the housing mess to the challenges to civilization of World War II.  But some points are well taken.  Low interest rates will make lenders pickier about whom they give mortgages to.  They may help keep housing prices in perspective.  But the upward pressure comes from rent – that people need places to live.
I’ve always thought there was something wrong all these decades with the idea of renters as second-class citizens, not as stable, not as careful with property, and not as committed to anything.  Often, home ownership comported with having a family with children – and the attractiveness of the condominium market with yuppies and “singles” has been a bit fickle. 

But there is a certain class of persons who will pay top dollar for location, convenience, and these days, infrastructure stability.  Perhaps living in a downtown condo in New York or Washington (and particularly paying Manhattan prices to a Donald Trump) seems questionable to a lot of people – the possibility of becoming targets for terrorism, or an infrastructure that could fail if a sufficiently large disaster happens (as with Hurricane Sandy in lower Manhattan, and the week-long power outage because of ConEd’s lack of robustness at low elevations).  Nevertheless, if you’re a “professional”, or an artist or musician, or a newsman, or anything visible – you want to be able to come and go from your pad and not worry about anything.  People have to pay a lot for that.  Ask Anderson Cooper.  There can be no “Reid-ing” video  about this– secure housing is not free.  

Subsequent news stories in the New York Times say that Wall Street has been buying homes in areas, formerly crashed, that are now recovering.