Opinions from the Past

Fair Elections, Now!

Surprise, surprise, even though Big Pharm and the health insurance industry and big commercial hospital systems poured MILLIONS into convincing congressmen (and -women) to muddle the health-care reform bills with nonsense riders and abortion/antiabortion babble somehow the Democrats were able to pass a watered-down version. I noticed that not a single Republican voted for the measure. Says something about how much they really care for the welfare of "the American people" they so vocally champion! They only people they truly champion are those who line their pockets!

But there are ways to attack the problem of big money running government. They did it in Maine and Arizona and have an extremely limited pilot program in California to change the way elections are funded. It is pretty technical, so you ought to see it for yourself - look up the Fair Elections Act, Proposition 15 on the June 2010 primary. Also, at the Federal level consider the Fair Elections Now Act in both the House and Senate. The federal acts are not likely to pass (you've NO IDEA the amount of money spent on federal elections. Neither do I. That is the big idea - if we don't know who is paying whom, what part do voters play except rubberstamping the games of moneyed interests?)

The Supreme Court recently decided that the US could not Constitutionally limit the spending of big corporations on elections. This means, of course, that corporations, which seem to be legally persons under the law, have far more influence on who gets elected than you or I, or, in fact, a whole bunch of yous and Is, despite the fact that corporations can't vote! (Should we therefore give corporations a vote? What a can of worms!) This is clearly a case of the "golden rule": he who has the gold, rules!

The principle is simple enough. Money is power. Power tends to corrupt. Democracy is about all the people keeping power. It is not about some people making more money than others and using that money to deny power to others. The recent financial meltdown caused by unregulated over-lending in the housing market is a prime example. The people who sold those crazy below-prime mortgages resold them to big banks and made off with fortunes. The banks couldn't get their money from oversold homeowners and instead cried to the Feds for bailout (which they got - then used it to pay their genius executives fat bonuses!) How did they get away with running an unregulated housing market? Guess... Did someone say lobbyists? BINGO! Because of corporations' rights of free speech (money talks)(no, it SHOUTS) our nation has a million homeless people, and a million people who lost billions on their homes, now sitting empty, the property of banks no longer willing to lend. Insanity? Not if you consider the people who made huge profits from this entire mess!

This is just one example of how money undermines democracy. Click the links above to see some good ideas about small first steps to turn this around and maybe give some elections back to the electorate. (2/10)

Obama's Speech to School Children
I could not have said it better than Phil Plait: The mainstreaming of crazy (10/09)

Political swear-words

Republicans are a scream. Many of them haven't a clue how the real world works and it is hilarious when they pontificate on our uncertain economic times as though the old homilies of the past are good for all times. Nuts.

Point 1: "Tax and Spend" Democrats. Yes, indeed, Democrats spend money! And then they have the effrontery to tax the citizens to pay for it. Now Republicans, instead... spend money! And then they wreck the economy with wars and deregulation and then give us tax cuts and astronomical deficits! Big difference! Democrats make everyone pay for feeding at the trough, Republicans make future generations pay for it. In triplicate. Cool, huh?

Yeah, politicians are to blame for spending us into bankruptcy, and they (of any party) should be ashamed. I agree. But you can't show me ANY data which says Republicans spend more carefully and frugally than Democrats. Big spending is part of the game! I would much prefer that whoever spends that much money turn around and charge the beneficiaries with the taxes to pay for it. Instead, Republicans seem to think that if you make tax cuts instead (and sorta ignore the deficit elephant sitting in the living-room) everything is now OK.

Sure it is, for those who most benefit from the tax cuts. Aint me, babe!

Whatever happened to "fiscal responsibility", so much touted by Republicans?


Point 2: Here is the ugly word (cover your eyes if it hurts them): SOCIALISM. Ever since Pres. Obama's election, the GOP leadership has been screaming this term at the top of its collected lungs.

GOP, you don't know socialism from your rear end.

I will absolutely agree that this administration strongly supports many "welfare" programs where the federal government takes over many of the activities (banking, insurance for two) formerly left to the free market. Regrettable, true. But these two institutions (among others) are currently moribund. The long-term regulatory climate (most prominantly promoted by our dear, departed ex-president Reagan (the acting president)) is mostly to blame. So what are we supposed to do? The Republicans would have you believe that all we have to do is bail out the banks and insurance conglomerates (over and over) and everything will be hunky dory. Markets remain free, and all sins are forgiven.

Balderdash.

In 1932 a Democratic President came into office amid the same economic chaos as what is happening now. He moved quickly to regulate banks (and insurance companies and many other "free market" institutions) to make them work again and, most importantly, to restore public confidence in them. Immediately, Republicans branded him "Communist" (the cold war version of "Socialist"). But he saved the country. He gave people jobs and restored confidence, and lead us to a new era of prosperity (and organized us to win a World War on the side).

YES, DAMN RIGHT this is socialist! You Betchum! When the government fails the majority of the people who elect it, it is not doing its job! Government has one primary mission: to protect the vast majority of its people from the ravages of those with abnormally exaggerated power and influence - like corporations and financiers. Sure, we NEED corporations and financiers in the modern world, but we also NEED to keep them in check. The "anti-socialists" tell us we don't. In light of the economic woes of the last year, you tell me. Do we need regulation, or not? It's socialist, remember! Do we need universal health care, or not? Another socialist program. ANYTHING for the common good at the expense of free (unbridled) enterprise is socialist. Maybe it is about time we gave up this knee-jerk reaction to this word and went ahead and did the things we need to do to "promote the general welfare".

And until the Republicans get off this old catch-word hobby-horse, I strongly suspect they will become more and more marginalized in the eyes of all the Americans who work so hard for a living and currently fear for their lives from this recession, depression, or whatever it is.

(Disclaimer: I have worked with many Republicans, and most are nice, intelligent people. But the Party Mouthpieces seem to be of the type described here. I hope all you Republicans will look at what the Mouthpieces are trying to claim you believe. If you don't believe this nonsense, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! ) 03/09
School Testing

I saw this article in T.H.E. Journal. Jeanne Hayes begins:

I just got off the phone with a colleague who had returned from a business trip. After visiting with various school districts, she presented remedial reading products to a school board in an affluent suburban school district. When she finished presenting the need for her product, the school board member asked, "Why are you bothering to build remedial reading products when there are so many kids who are performing in the middle of the pack?"

This school board member is a real estate broker. Does he know the statistics about kids who can't read properly? Does he know whether a kid is in the inner city or in the affluent suburbs? Does the school board member know that the student's life may well be determined by whether someone brings him into the world of literacy? Is this school board member qualified to serve?

Sometimes I think that all the media coverage about NCLB has made the public weary of the notion that reading is fundamental. And, for good or bad, school board members reflect the public's sentiments. So what is the process for a member of the community to become a school board member?.

So it occurred to me that there IS a way! And it may just help combat the pervasive deadening effect of the NCLB Act. NCLB is often rephrased by teachers as "No Child Left Untested" because it relies heavily on continuous, expensive, somewhat misleading TESTING. So here is my idea: Test all candidates for schoolboards! They should each take the current High School Exit Exam (whatever that is) AND any teacher-qualifying exam, such as the CBEST in California. The CBEST is a simple test showing basic competence in reading, writing and math (the 3 Rs!) and not much harder than the exit exam. Professional teachers have almost always taken it, but it is the ONLY qualifying exam for substitute teachers that I know of. If the candidate FAILS the exit exam, I don't think he/she is qualified to run for schoolboard at all. In any case, the test results should be published IN THE ELECTION MATERIAL so that voters can see who is most qualified to be on the board. In addition, those elected should be tested again each year, and expelled from office if their scores go down!

The most likely result would be, not only more qualified (hopefully literate?) candidates, but the school boards would have a real appreciation for the exit exams and the pernicious effects of NCLB. As long as the public is complacent about NCLB, nothing will happen. This may change that complacency. 01/07

Teacher Corps
No, I'm not talking about a defunct(?) federal do-good organization from the 60s or 70s. I'm talking about a realization I had today, talking to my daughter. She asked "Why don't college professors know how to teach?" Uh....

Got me to think. College professors are very good at their subjects - namely whatever earned them their PhDs, but only those in the Education departments spent any great time studying educational methodology. Additionally, few professors have had teaching experience (except as college TAs) before getting their PhDs and later their professorial positions.

So, I thought to myself, they should be school teachers first to get that experience - right? And immediately I thought of another pet peeve of mine - the fact that a majority of military officers have had no enlisted experience. See the parallel? Hence "Teacher Corps". Both the military and college education could benefit from better teaching experience. In the military there is a name for this - something like the mustang career route. For instance, at one time, in the Marine Corps at least, officers who had not worked themselves up through at least several enlisted ranks and seen combat action as enlisted got a lot less real respect that officers who had. I believe much of the troubles in the current US military may stem from this - but that is another topic for another day.

I just think maybe colleges should look closely at professor applicants and see how much real experience they have had, teaching public school, especially. The public school teachers are the REAL shock troups of education in the modern would. Professors may be smart and educated, but do they know how to TEACH? Even well intentioned professors would have to spend 10 years actively trying to learn how to teach before they get good at it. Most of them don't try - they put their efforts into research or writing - because that is what pays. But public school teachers spend MOST of their time trying to learn how better to teach - their job, and employers, demand it! And in California, failure to take skill improvement classes can lose you your credential!! Do they require this in college? Or is it tertiary to publishing and research?

My personal opinion is that college students learn mainly in spite of professors, not because of them. The college system selects for students who can largely educate themselves.

Intelligent Discussion

I'm not a scientist by profession; I'm a mathematician. In Mathematics, you can fashion rigorous proofs from generally accepted axioms and postulates. In science you cannot prove anything in the mathematical sense. This is not how science works. The purpose of science is to collect information to help understand what we hope are solid principles and theories of how nature really works. Part of this understanding process is the formation of ideas about things difficult to observe directly.

Darwin's theory of evolution is a good example. Darwin imagined a system of simple principles which together explain most of the wondrous variety and forms of life as we know it. It also helps guide research to understand more of the natural biological world. On a planet with almost a billion species of plants and animals and other kinds of life, his theory was a tremendous gift to science.

Did Darwin "prove" his theory? NO. That was not his intent. Indeed, most scientist generate theories and then spend the rest of their lives trying to disprove them! Sounds crazy, but real scientists know that if they fail to try to shoot down their theories, someone else will. So every theory is continuously tested against any new scientific results. And evolution has done very well as a theory! The few inconsistencies found have either been explained by new research, or they have lead to discoveries in new and different disciplines, such as chemisty, geology, climate and astronomy. No other theory comes close in its predictive power.

"Intelligent Design" is a challenger to Darwin's theory, we are told. I'm not sure it is a theory, however. It says, I think, that cellular architecture and mechanism is so fantastically, beautifully designed that it could not have happened by chance - there must have been an intelligent designer (or Designer). A flat-out religious claim. Hardly scientific. What does it predict? What new observations might support or challenge it?

I can't comment on the existence of a Designer. You can go to church and decide that for yourself. I do know something about cellular architecture, however. 1) the architecture is fantastic because we do not yet know all the details and don't yet have the tools to design such things ourselves. 2) The mechanisms are by no means perfect. Every cell is klugey - a Rube Goldberg compromise of various things seemingly thrown together by chance. Some of those mechanisms have ancillary mechanisms in placed to keep the first from running amock. They contain redundancies and self-correction mechanisms. Sometimes cells make mistakes. Eventually they die.

The big mistake anti-evolutionists make is thinking small. Evolution is slow. But it happens in a "test-tube" filled with a BILLION cubic miles of air, water, minerals, and chemicals, supplied with TERAWATTS of energy, and the experiment has been running thousands of millions of LIFETIMES! The scale is so enormous even the scientists need big numbers. Critics are thinking way, way, WAY too small. I don't see a problem with evolution.

Keep your "intelligent design" in your church where it belongs. 2/06

Education Reform

Now that I have been a regular school teacher for a while (admittedly short) maybe I am entitled to an opinion about Gubernator Schwartzenegger's campaign to reform California Public Education.

California schools are some of the most budget-constricted in the nation. I heard today that we spend, per student, less than what 48 other states spend. Either that is an incredible bargain, or self-destructive penny pinching. If you are rich (and can afford private school or tutors for YOUR brat, the former is the case. If you are poor and your kid gets warehoused in the local crumbling structure, it's the latter.

I just finished teaching at a school where 70% of the students are Latino, and 40% read English with great difficulty, and teachers there are working MIRACLES! I've never seen such caring, hardworking, brilliant people trying to grow hope in the lives of people everyone else gave up for failures. So Ahnold wants to pass an initiative to penalize teachers based on state standardized test scores. In other words, the teachers working with the neediest kids will have the least chance of pursuing a teaching career.

THAT'S ME YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT, AHNOLD!

Yes, teachers have a special interest. The governor warns us about listening to special interests (he should know). Our special interest is kids. You wouldn't want kids to have any voice in our state's future, now would you? 6/05 

Freedom of religion to......?!

The 1st Amendment prevents the US government from meddling in church affairs. It also implies that this prohibition must be balanced by religions keeping hands off government. It is quid pro quo. Many, many saavy scholars and justices have pointed out the danger to the free exercise of religion of allowing religious ideologies to affect public government. Inevitably, such meddling backfires, severely tarnishing the reputation of the people and groups who do it and endangering the freedom of others. You don't have to look far to see examples of this - much of the bloodshed in Iraq is religiously inspired. Not due to the teachings of Muhammed, mind you, but to the idea that religious leaders deserve to be political leaders by virtue of their religious authority. As though having bulgy muscles qualifies one as a political strongman (sorry, Arnold). 5/05

 Andromeda Galaxy