Friday, October 30, 2015

A day trip to look at the fracking issue

Yesterday, another day trip, this time in the high country.  At over 2500 feet, there was no fall color left.

The point of the excursion was to see some fracking wells.  Despite all the publicity, they can be hard to spot from main roads.

I drove around southern Pennsylvania, along US 40 to Uniontown, and back toward Somerset.

Often, what appeared to be a fracking tower appeared near a cell tower, but would be smaller and thinner, with only a small building at the bottom.  A few of them were near gas or chemical company plants.   One of them seemed to be very near a prison just east of Somerset.  Most of them would not appear to have a lot of impact on the surrounding landscape or countryside (as opposed to coal mining).  Some are near ridge tops with wind turbine farms nearby.

Nevertheless, in some areas of the country, fracking seems related to more small earthquakes and water table problems, with damage to homes.  This can be a serious problem particularly for a homeowner with a small income stream.

Here’s a map of where many of the wells are.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Classroom incident in S.C. makes me wonder if my own laid-back approach as a sub was right after all

There’s plenty of discussion of the incident in a Columbia SC high school that led to a female high school student’s being forcefully dragged out of the classroom by police, and CNN has opined that police shouldn’t do classroom discipline, rather incredible

As I’ve documented before, when I worked as a substitute teacher, particularly with a few incidents in 2005, I was criticized for “poor classroom management” in not being pro-active enough with discipline.  I indeed felt it was safer to lay back and not intervene in very small matter and take the chances for an incident.  An incident like this in the national media makes my own laid-back attitude in the past more justifiable.

There were a few times I was expected to enforce rules that were indeed unreasonable (like a limit on the number of bathroom visits per quarter).  On the other hand, I do recall a disturbing occasion where a female student wrote a note for the regular teacher that she could not concentrate in class because I did not stop a male student from being minimally disruptive

Update: Oct. 30

A fire in a high school chemistry lab class in northern VA this morning shows the exposure teachers can have in keeping kids safe.  There is no information now that a sub was involved, but many of my best classes back in 2005 were chemistry (although I never had lab).

I can remember high school demonstrations of putting sodium in water.  I actually got a small bromine burn on a finger in high school, and it took three months to heal completely.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

White House, GOP-controlled House reach deal on budget to about debt-ceiling fiasco and default -- but vote still has to work out on Wednesday

The Associated Press, in a story by Sam Sweeney, has a detailed story on the budget deal struck by John Boehner, house Republicans, and the GOP House late Monday night, here on WJLA, link.

The deal would table any government shutdown, which could have happened in December, and moreover forestall a crisis on the debt ceiling which might have led to a default as early as Tuesday, November 3.

The major media was generally quiet on the debt ceiling issue, except for the Washington Post and then NPR, which had some scare stories on what could happen.  Then early Monday the USA Today ran Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s warning on the debt ceiling (on my Retirement blog Monday).

I had “chatted” with Vox on the matter, which had indicated it was waiting to see how serious the threat of actual failure in Congress would get before writing a yellow-card-stack explainer.  I was away yesterday, but broadcast-tweeted Lew’s op-ed, just before driving into West Virginia where my own phone doesn’t get Internet in many places.  Vox was one of the first companies to report the deal Monday night in a story by Dylan Matthews.  I wonder if the GOP takes even other conservative bloggers seriously. Maybe so.  It’s conservative to pay your bills on time. (I even missed one, from AA Barclay's MasterCard this month, made a mistake, and paid the fee – got the due dates mixed up – it happens to people, but Congress can’t afford it.  Debt collectors don’t call the Treasury.)

Update: Oct. 29

In the debates in Colorado last night, Rand Paul said he would filibuster the budget and debt ceiling deal Thursday, and suggested the government needed to stop borrowing money at some point, and go cold turkey, even if it had to stiff a lot of people.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Some notes on road safety: Blind spot mirrors and information monitors in cars; bicycle safety

I did have a close-call on the road with the “blind spot” issue yesterday on a divided highway in the rural Virginia Piedmont. There is a something to note that should be passed on.

My 2015 Ford Focus has a “integrated blind spot mirror”.  This is explained well on p. 87 of the Focus Owner’s Manual in print.  The mirror has a separate segment in the upper corner (toward the street) to show a car in the blind spot.  (I rented a similar car in Orlando in July that did not have such mirrors.)

The main danger (which the Manual, to give it proper credit, does warn motorists about) is that a vehicle visible in the extra small mirror is MUCH closer than it appears.  If the driver cannot also see the car in the main mirror, then the logical conclusion is that the car is already in the notorious blind spot.  The incident occurred in twilight, before many drivers had turned on lights but when cars could be harder to see.  The driver’s brain, in low light, might confuse the two mirror images and believe the car to be at a safe distance when it is already trying to pass, a “human error” that is more likely than it sounds.  (Fortunately there was plenty of shoulder yesterday where this happened.  But a passing driver could be thrown into a ditch or into a barrier, with the driver causing such an accident unaware of what he or she has just done. )

The Focus does offer the Blind Spot Information System, described on p. 167.  Mine does not have this, and I have never rented or driven a car with one.  It could probably be installed by a dealer for several hundred dollars.

Again, the Manual warns that the Information System is not a substitute for actually looking.  Dependence on the dual mirror is not a substitute for the shoulder glance maneuver.  Again, cars in other lanes without lights in twilight can be hard to see, even by a driver operating properly. Leaving the power window down a bit can help, making hearing the vehicle more likely.

In early 2012, an older Focus was struck by a car to my right on a local street when I was in its blind spot, resulting om $3000 damage (although it looked cosmetic).

The blind spot to one’s left can be as tricky as the better known blind spot to the right.

One other point to make:  many highways require sudden lane changes (when lanes “disappear” suddenly), especially for road work.  Many older interchanged are badly designed, without enough merge area, or merging from the left.

In older eastern cities and suburbs, many intersections need protected left turns.  In Arlington County VA, for example, a protected turn is badly needed from Geroge Mason northbound onto 16th St., or from Glebe Road northbound onto 16th St.  Many intersections still need “No Right Turn on Red” because of poor sight distance, requiring drivers (under pressure from motorists behind) to creep forward to look, risking pedestrians and wrong-way cyclists.

There is controversy in San Francisco over whether cyclists should be required to come to a complete stop at every stop sign, link here. This would not be a big deal in itself, but cyclists should be required to ride with traffic (not against) and honor stop lights.  One problem with cyclists running lights is that a motorist has to pass the same cyclist multiple times safely (which is not a problem if there is a separate bike lane).  Wrong-way cyclists are likely to be missed by motorists turning onto  a street, expecting traffic from only a legal direction.  FindLaw has a primer on all this here.  The biggest liability risk for the average motorist is probably still striking a cyclist or pedestrian in a hard-to-see environment.

Update: Oct. 30

Last night, as I approached the Breezewood exit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike from the west, at night, I was confronted with the sudden loss of the right lane when the road work signs warned only of loss of shoulder.  Since there was a concrete birm on the left, this could obviously cuase the deceived driver to make a sudden maneuver, forcing someone behind him or her into the birm, a catastrophic accident.  Maybe Pennsylvania law gives the lead car the right-of-way, but I was shocked at such a dangerous situation was allowed. ,

Update: Nov. 9

Cyclists:  At night, if you barrel down a hill in rain, with glare from street lights, and have only a small head light and dark clothes, drivers just might not see you, even when you have the right of way.  Watch your speed around any intersection.

Update: Jan. 28, 2017

Here's an LTE to the Washington Post where a cyclist says growups need not to become cowards and be willing to ride in full traffic (LTS4).

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Michigan judge reduces sentence, removes 19-year-old from s.o. registry in controversial Internet dating case

A different judge in Michigan has reduced the sentence for Zachery Anderson, convicted of “statutory rape” for consensual sex with a 14 year old girl who had lied and said she was 17 when he met her online on a dating site.  He will get probation and no longer be on Michigan’s sex offender registry.  He will be allowed to use the Internet, but, for now, only for work or school (apparently not for personal social media).  The terms are provided by Michigan Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, which a previous judge had refused to use.  It isn’t yet clear if the record is expunged after successful two years probation. Julie Bosman has the story in the New York Times here.  Unfortunately, he stays on the register in Indiana, which complicates his living arrangements.  His attorneys expect to challenge that.  I had covered the case in a Nightline story on the TV blog Aug. 1, 2015. has a copy of his petition here.
The case illustrates the fact that sex offender registry laws often label people not likely to be repeat offenders and originally intended to be listed as such.  But offenses are often viewed as “strict liability”, and a teen’s lying about age is not always a defense.  And apparently a “Romeo and Juliet law” wasn’t in effect in Michigan.
As I’ve described before, one of my own screenplays deals with the possibility that a substitute teacher could be fooled by  precocious student (incident on the “BillBoushka” blog, July 27. 2007).
 Another scenario that could happen (more likely in a gay male context) is that an older person meets a “precocious” teen at some public event and the teen, wanting to leave home, later looks up the person (maybe by hacking) on the Internet and simply shows up. That sounds like another movie plot. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Major media outlets wait and see on the next debt ceiling "drop dead" date in early November

The debt-ceiling issue is back, as I wrote on the Retirement Blog yesterday.  The latest article on GOP votes and Boehner’s situation right now (approaching noon Tuesday) is here.  The drop-dead date varies from Nov. 3 to Nov. 10, according to the very latest reports.  WJLA did mention the issue briefly in its noon news today, but without much urgency.

I checked around with some media outlets Monday afternoon, and the attitude seemed to be “wait and see if this is for real”.  As of noon Tuesday, the issue does not seem to be affecting securities markets – yet.   Everybody is distracted by whether Joe Biden will run.

The most alarming reports seem to suggest that the ideologues in the GOP really still would be willing to go off a cliff, and some people really seem confused about the difference between new spending and paying bills already owed (and the legalities over the way the Social Security trust fund is handled can complicate that problem further). Would bondholders in China get paid before Social Security?
You can see why Porter Stansberry and Ron Paul have some cannon fodder right now.

Update: Friday, Oct. 23

Although the stock market goes up, danger signs continue.  Today, on CNN, SC GOP Congressman Mark Sanford said he was against raising the debt ceiling, but the GOP would come together, uner Ryan. Really, the US should just decide who to stiff?  We've been there before.

The Washington Post has grim blog entry today by Paul Waldan, here.  I'm asking Vox when it will lower the boom on this issue.  This isn't funny.  But the markets are still "'too sinful to notice".

Monday, October 19, 2015

Financial reporter says mortgages and federal backing are a necessary "evil" in housing policy; home ownership helps offset high rents

Bethany Mclean has a disturbing op-ed on p B4 of the Sunday Washington Post Outlook, “The next housing crisis: No one can afford a place to live”, link here  Online, the title is “Government-backed mortgage lenders are awful, and essential”  (a “Weekly Reader best title”).

McLean dutifully points out that a big problem is that consumers used their houses as ATM’s before the 2008 crash (“The House Is Not a Credit Card”, New York Times, Nov. 13, 2014)  .  But it seems pretty much common sense that real estate sales people, in the middle 2000’s, felt the pressure (“Always Be Closing”) to put consumers in more house than they could really afford.  The pressure to get something for nothing behaves collectively.
It does appear that all new apartments around many areas rent for more than most people can afford.  That tends to drive people to borrow money to buy, and to be responsible for mortgages that could go upside down.  Single young adults often get together to rent houses, often cheaper than new apartments.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Unusual odds and ends from volunteering (and a note about teachers moonlighting)

With some volunteerism, I ran into some interesting conversations today.

Before stopping at a Community Assistance session, I bought some stuff at a Starbucks.  The clerk happened to mention she was working as a long-term sub, ESL, in a northern Virginia school system. She also said that it is hard for social studies teachers to get jobs again, although math and science is promising.  I’ve talked about “career switchers” here a lot.

Then, at the Community Assistance event, I was tasked to “serve food”.  But there were plenty of servers, and all I did was watch the supply of cups for lemonade.  But they really were shorthanded on the labor-intensive preparation of the meatloaf meal.

I got to talk shop – about the collapse of the Washington Nationals this season around the time of the trading deadline.  The other fan believes that the Lerner family told the team “win with what you’ve got” and the team could stumble the next two years.  The family could even sell the team, and a move to a place like Charlotte or Las Vegas could happen, despite the construction of Nationals Park and all of Lerner’s redevelopment of SW Washington.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Washington Post backpedals a bit on DC's paid family leave proposal; more on "democratic socialism"

The progressive Washington Post may have pulled a surprise by writing in an editorial Thursday morning, “D.C.’s paid leave proposal goes way too far”, link here.

It’s true that employers could go to Maryland or Virginia to avoid the payroll tax, a possibility that other comparable European capitals don’t have to deal with.  The payroll tax, on the other hand, mutes the idea that workers without kids or other family obligations, will “sacrifice” for those who do. As with unemployment insurance, they won’t get a benefit they don’t need.

We’re getting to the point, though, that we need to rethink the idea of family responsibility on some moral grounds bigger than just owning up to what follows having intercourse resulting in children.  I can see that I outlined a lot of the argumentation in a seemingly out-of-date (2006) essay on my legacy site, “Gay Marriage and Family Responsibility”, here.  Yes, court decisions, culminating this year, have quieted some of the underlying debate, which still needs to happen.  In the past, I’ve said that privileges should come with actual responsibility or dependents (whether elderly, biological children, adopted children, or children being raised by a sibling after a family tragedy) rather than the name of an institution.  But we probably need to talk about the cultural divide in taking on the responsibility in the first place.  Having children gets more and more expensive, and the competitive demands of the “toxic workplace” grow all the time.  Our culture, as the Pope warned recently, has actually encouraged people to deliberately avoid forming families, marrying, or taking on responsibility for others.   Somewhere in all the debate, yes, the role of same-sex couples raising children (born outside the relationship) comes into play, as would even surrogacy.

I’ll also give a nod to Bernie Sanders for making us look at what is “democratic socialism”, link here.   Why has it seemed to work so well in northern Europe, without causing controversies about “justice”,  equality of fairness?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Welcome to Grid Neutrality 101

Vox has an article today about electric power “grid neutrality”, in apogee to the idea of “net neutrality”, by David Roberts, link here.  Electricity would be like information, something that could be supplied by users (especially with solar panels).

I’m a bit “old” to get into putting solar into a house that could become a teardown target by developers, but I do have a generator, and can invite neighbors to charge devices during outages (like after the 2012 derecho).  It seems that about one in four homes has one – just walk the neighborhood during an outage.  And an underground gas line is much less likely to be disturbed than an overhead power line (the 2011 quake didn’t hurt it).

All of this fits into security for the grid – does decrentralization help?  I think the ability to manufacture and move transformers is still a national security issue, as is the proper grounding of power stations (but insurance companies say utilities have made a lot of progress in the last ten years in hardening the grid against most conceivable manmade or natural threats, but Oak Ridge and NAS remains concerned).

Monday, October 12, 2015

The flat tax proposal is back again


I’m not personally a fan of Rick Santorum (“It Takes a Family”, Book review blogs, March 5, 2012), and as I recall, he tried to sponsor a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage back in 2004, and that went nowhere. 

But Santorum has a intriguing proposal for a flat tax in the Wall Street Journal today, as an elixir for prosperity, link here. Are their shades of Steve Forbes?   Santorum would allow minimal mortgage interest deduction and charitable giving, but would replace all other deductions with a standard tax credit (to which there could be other per-child credits).  True, he gets rid of the AMT (which can ambush "ordinary" taxpayers) and apparently of estate taxes.  
One problem is that Santorum wants to pay for this by repealing Obamacare, with all its implied federal spending.  He talks about Health Savings Accounts.  But right now, there would be too many people falling back through the cracks, especially with pre-existing conditions, who could not get insurance at all, again.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Should all new guns have biometric locks?

What should we expect of the personal weapons industry?

The calls to make gun manufacturers have more secondary liability for what owners do (indeed, a dangerous idea if copied onto debates about spontaneous Internet speech) comes up today in a Washington Post op-ed by E. J. Dionne, link here.   But one of his ideas should get real traction – press for smart guns, which can be used only by a registered owner, using biometric locks.  (It’s pretty easy to imagine this in the cybersecurity world, too.) I’m surprised it hasn’t been discussed more by now.  Stolen guns would have little use. 
I recall that the rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald was mail-ordered and cost around $13 in 1963.
Alex Moe and Matthew Grimson have a story about sweeping legislation tightening background check requirements, reported on NBC News here.

Another important Post story today, by Aaron C. Davis, indicates that police intervention on urban streets is now less aggressive than it used to be because of fear of the “YouTube effect”, link here

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Washington DC may mandate paid family leave; some businesses support it

Washington DC has a mandatory paid family leave proposal before City Council, as detailed in a Post story by Aaron C Davis, here  It appears that the proposal would cover eldercare and some events other than childbirth.  It might only apply to District of Columbia residents.

While some employers see it as undermining competition with suburban companies (especially in Virginia), other small employers say the bill would allow them to offer a benefit they could not afford.  It would be paid for by a 1% tax on payrolls. The funding concept is a bit like that of unemployment insurance; if you don't need the benefit, you don't get or claim it. 
DC Government already offers 8 weeks of paid family leave.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Gun control debate, comparing US to Europe, could affect debate on free speech issues

The arguments for more aggressive gun control, rather like that in Australia and Britain, are back.  Look at this New York Times piece today by Charles M. Blow, “On Guns, Fear Is Winning” here .

In the Washington Post Monday morning, there are op-eds by Fed Hiatt (“On guns, aim higher”)  (with buybacks and a gun-free society) and E. J. Dionne Jr. (“Call out the gun nuts”), and a stinging main editorial “The Price We Pay.”  And Vox (Dylan Matthews) also laid it out, "What no politician wants to admit about gun control", that only massive buybacks (mandatory) would reduce violence in a way that has reportedly happened in Australia and the UK, although under different circumstances, here

One concern of mine is the psychological parallels between gun control, and control of user-generated speech on the Internet, out of fear of the real harm done by some people (revenge porn, cyber bullying, terror recruiting), as a result of a permissive environment that allows easy profits for some and social disconnection for others (like me) .  It seems that some of the underlying dichotomy about individualism and the common good is similar.  In Europe, some say, these problems have been solved with some degree of moderation (although Europe is still probably under a much bigger radical terror threat than is the homeland US). (See a related post on my main blog today.) It is significant that Hillary Clinton has proposed downstream liability for gun manufacturers and retailers. 
Indeed, there is a group moral case that no one should have weapons.  But there is also a moral case that any able-bodied person should be able to defend others, with firearms if necessary.  That’s how it is in Switzerland.  People have told me that they feel safer if they think all their neighbors, as well as themselves, could defend themselves if necessary.  There is real fundamental disagreement on this, so tied to life circumstances. One place these ideas come together is the hard reality: a victim of violence pays for the crimes of the aggressor.  Individualism doesn't process this hard fact very well. 

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Can cash grants to low income families help the cognitive development of disadvantaged children?

Vox media has run some op-eds encouraging helping poor people directly by giving them money and housing, rather than by manipulating their lives.
Now Kimberly G. Noble has an opinion piece on p. A17 of the Saturday Washington Post ,  where she describes a study where neurological assessments of children are made and correlated to cash assistance levels to their low income mothers.  There is one report already on Nature.
This is important in a personal way, because volunteers often find it is very difficult to communicate with low-income adults who probably didn’t learn the cognitive skills necessary to function well in our kind of society.  So whatever people’s good intentions, their actions often amount to “preaching to the choir”, and interacting with people who process the world the same way – which low income people (and sometimes mentally ill) often do not.  This is of profound moral importance, because people reach adulthood without ability to exercise "personal responsibility" was we normally expect it in out personal interactions with others. 

The idea is that kids will grow up with greater cognitive skills and learn to deal with the world better than their parents.
There is mention of a book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, website  (Times Books). 
Along these lines, I’ll give a link on the “brains of high achievers” tweeted by Jack Andraka. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

NTSB wants to supervise DC Metro, with implications for non-commuter riders

Angry and frustrated Metro riders in the Washington DC area are glad to “bring on the feds” for oversight, as the NTSB recommends that the administration push Congress for official federal oversight of the Metro system (with a declaration of Metro as a "commuter railroad"). A GOP Congress may well balk. But Petula Dvorak has a Metro section column in the Washington Post Friday, link here.  This would be the only major transit system under federal supervision. By the way, NTSB has said very little about the big May Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in recent months. 
Metro service was reliable in the 1990s, but I've noticed many more delays and disruptions myself in the past five years. 
One problem that keeps cropping up is the idea of cancelling after midnight service on weekends, to allow more time for maintenance (in line with the "commuter railroad" concept).  But businesses in Washington DC are very dependent on this service.  Taxi service has improved, and it’s possible that Uber and Lyft would take up the remaining slack (again, regulation).  But businesses in entertainment areas of DC have not built the secure 24-hour garages as has been done in downtown areas of other cities without enough public transportation.  (For example, I found parking in downtown Orlando, for $5, easy during a summer Saturday night street festival, with bar visits, recently.)
Another idea is to run “dedicated bus lane” service along express routes all the time (Cleveland has done some of this), and that would give Metro more time for repairs.
The call for fibbie regulation runs counter to calls for DC Statehood.  It’s interesting to note that if DC were a state, it would have its own two Senators (a compromise of only one would be an “unconstitutional amendment”, as implied by John Paul Stevens’s book – on my Book reviews Aug. 31).  It’s also interesting, as a thought experiment, to add the population of Arlington and part of Alexandria (within the original 10-mile square) to the District.  You get about 950,000 people, I think.  Maybe a good question for the Millionaire quiz show.