Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Haunting, tragic, forgotten song: "Ballad of Gale," by Savage Rose

Savage Rose was a Danish rock band of the late 1960s and 1970s.  In my opinion, they were far superior to most American rockers of that period.  

On "Ballad of Gale," their phenomenal lead singer, Annisette, carries us into into a realm of cruelty and despair.  I found it deeply unsettling when I first heard it and still do today.

"The only one she needed was YOU!"

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

More innovation: one step away from Soylent Green

From the BBC (with video demonstration):  

"A Glasgow-based company has installed its first commercial "alkaline hydrolysis" unit at a Florida funeral home.

The unit by Resomation Ltd is billed as a green alternative to cremation and works by dissolving the body in heated alkaline water."


Monday, August 29, 2011

Prominent speech defects undermine political debate

Obama’s supporters are restless.  A good number of them feel he’s bending over backwards to placate his right wing Republican and extreme Tea Party opponents.  Many are certainly among  the 89% of the populace the Gallup Poll finds dissatisfied with the direction the country is headed. 

Some of the problem has to do with the language Obama and his White House crew employ as they try to describe America’s predicaments.   For example, as he talks about the recession, unemployment and jobs, Obama is inclined to say, the “some Folks on Capitol Hill” are not coming together to address the nation’s real problems.   Or “some folks in Washington” are unwilling to work toward a reasonable compromise.  While his points certainly true to some extent , the identity of the troublemakers as “some folks” misses the point in ways seem weak and evasive.  Why not just give his listeners and the names and addresses of the individuals and groups who have, quite openly (!), stood in the way of initiatives the President thinks necessary.   

As it stands, Obama’s rhetoric and, maybe, even his vision seem clouded by an unwillingness to call out those who cause the obstructions.  Perhaps this speech defect will vanish as the election nears, although I think this would only happen if the polls and focus groups suggest that a tactical shift toward clearer language is in order.  

This recurring malady in Obama’s way of speaking has some serious consequences.  First, it lends credence to the false impression that “both sides do it” as regards gumming up the activities of government and dumbing down crucial activities of debate and and decision-making.  Since  it’s just “folks” in Washington that are causing the problem, it might appear that you, your advisers and the Democrats in Congress are among the miscreants that need to be eliminated in the next election.  Right?
A closely related tick in Obama’s way of talking is one that the afflicts the speech of a great many people in politics, academics, and American professions.  This is the use of the foggy pronoun “we.”  Barack often says that “we need to…,” “we must…,” “we have the opportunity to…,” and phrases of a similar kind.  I confess that I sometimes use this lame phraseology myself .  When it’s called to my attention by puzzled friends, e.g., Michael Bennett (“Who’s the WE in the sentences you’ve been using, Langdon?”), I have two choices: (1) identify precisely who it is I’m talking about  or (2) admit that I don’t what the hell I’m talking about! 

Listening to Obama blather on about “we” this and “we” that is driving much of his devoted following in the 2008 election campaign (note that I didn’t say “us”) to utter distraction.   So please, Mr. President, explain who the “we” you keep mentioning actually are.   While it’s true that in a population of 311,800,000 or so it would be difficult to produce a full list of names and addresses of the relevant people and groups on short notice, a little more precision beyond the foggy, stupid “we” would strengthen your town hall comments.

While I’m at it, another compulsive tick that has entered the political lexicon recent years is the obsessive use of the term “middle class.”  No longer is it possible to speak of the nation’s “working  class,” “working people” or what used to be called “the working poor.”  Evidently, that large and (sadly) growing spectrum of the populace must either be counted as “the middle class” or simply erased from the social landscape.  Even Senator Bernie Sanders, proud American socialist of a certain kind, no longer mentions poor people or the working class in his public pronouncements.   My guess is that politicians are warned by their pollsters and handlers that voters, especially those wonderful “independents,” just don’t want to be reminded about the existence of nation’s lower socio-economic layers. It’s yet another way in which public figures are inoculated against a deadly virus that’s being going around recently, one that might be called “reality.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The "Homeland Security" Boondoggle: $75 billion per year welfare for the rich

                              The boys and their high tech toys at a Homeland Security trade fair

While the poor, disabled, elderly, students, and ordinary working people are being clobbered by budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels, America's two exorbitantly costly gravy trains  --  The Pentagon and its twin brother, Homeland Security -- just roll on and on.

Details about the internal features of these Big Government juggernauts remain largely unreported, sheltered from public debate.  Year after year they float above scrutiny, cherished as the nation's citadels of fear.  It seems that our politicians and much of the citizenry would rather drive the country into bankruptcy than confront the irrational policies and staggering levels of waste these institutions involve. 

On rare occasion some in the press corps bother to ask: "How much are we paying for this stuff and what are we getting for it?"  Thus, an article in the LA Times recently surveyed the $75 billion per year spent on the projects (many of then patently absurd) called "Homeland Security."

"Large sums of Homeland Security money, critics complain, have been propelled by pork barrel politics into the backyards of the congressionally connected. Yet the spending has also acted as a cash-rich economic stimulus program for many states at a time when other industries are foundering.

"Utah is getting a $1.5-billion National Security Agency cyber-security center that will generate up to 10,000 jobs in the state. The Pentagon in July launched bidding for a $500-million U.S. Strategic Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which likes to point out that former President George W. Bush flew here for shelter after the Sept. 11 attacks."

  *  *  *  * * *  *  *
Few people in public life want to talk about it -- much of the colossal budget for the Pentagon and Homeland Security amounts to welfare for the rich, e.g., lots of six figure salaries and lots of "research and development" on high tech toys.  When it comes to "addressing America's spiraling debt," welfare programs in this category are never "on the table."

Think of them as "entitlements."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Return to "Recession"? Compared to What?

The news today quotes several leading economists predicting a "return to recession."  When I hear pronouncements of that sort I'm reminded of one of the greatest soul/jazz tunes, "Compared to What" by Les McCann and Eddie Harris.  And it turns out that the original video of the 1969 Montreux concert is now available on YouTube!  I'd not seen it before.

The lyrics, piano, sax, rhythm section, total groove, and message from preacher McCann are still fresh after all this time. 

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin' to make it real compared to what?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Will Facebook go the way of the Beanie Babies?

                                                          Will you still be my friend?

A web research outfit, Globalwebindex, has published its "Wave 5 Trends" study.  It suggests that Facebook my be going out of style.  Oh my.

"Despite massive global user growth, active participation on Facebook is falling and we are increasingly seeing a slow down in existing Facebook users. This is particularly true in the U.S. and in other English speaking countries where Facebook has been prevalent for longer and has shifted growth to emerging countries."

Speaking of popularity, much of the report uses the increasingly popular language of "brands" and people's relationship to "brands" as a way to gauge the pulse of the planet.

"Online consumers want brands to provide services that fit with their lifestyle. Most importantly they want brands to listen and their comments wherever they are posted ....More and more consumers are expecting brands to improve their knowledge in specific areas and connect them with other similar-minded brand users." 

This rapidly spreading blight upon the language now infects descriptions of our economy, social life and politics.  In the White House, for example, there are now grave concerns that the once robust brand "Obama" is withering as voters/consumers look for more exciting and satisfying "brands." The worry is not not that his leadership is flagging, but that his "brand" is sagging.

Evidently, among the world's most urgent problems right now is this:   

                                                     Are my brands listening to me?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Small robot drone for monitoring political demonstrations

At a robotics industry trade show in Washington, D.C. recently one of the corporate vendors, AEE Technology based in Shenzhen, China, unveiled its small drone aircraft, the F50, advertised to be  especially good "as a tool for monitoring protests."

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the device is "about the size of a pizza pan" and shows "the burgeoning international competition in the market for unmanned aerial vehicles and military robots." 

Although a drone for watching people who gather in public to express their views  may seem ominous defenders of free speech, the drift of opinion at the show had a more upbeat, market oriented slant.  Thus, P.W. Singer, author of the book Wired for War, observed, "The market for military robotics has gone global, and China is looking to be a major producer and exporter in that market, just like the U.S."

To my way of thinking, Singer's statement  is a good example of how an academic can become a flack for the arms industry.  Indeed, at a conference I attended this summer, Singer enthusiastically regaled an audience of philosophers with news of  the burgeoning field of "killer apps" in the robotic arms race, and then asked the crowd to ponder "the ethical implications" of these things.  How uplifting.

The road to slaughter and, now, police surveillance is paved by very clever, well paid intellectuals with seemingly noble intentions.  From the WSJ  story: "Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said China's interest in developing unmanned aircraft as a tool for policing crowds or responding to emergencies was 'totally understandable, and legitimate.'"

  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

From now on a new dimension -- one might even call it an "innovation" -- will be added to attempts to exercise the right of free speech and assembly worldwide -- fear of drone aircraft hovering overhead. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

As Tablets Wane, Companies Look to Brain Implants


Report: As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets

"Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research. More than two-thirds of those tablets, however, are sold by Apple."

Save your money.  In the world of "innovation" and global commerce, this will soon be old news.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Please stop us before we destroy the planet!

So here I am doing the finishing touches on my fall course, "Science Fiction Cinema and Social Criticism," when along come this story from The Guardian: "Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, scientists say."

"Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report."

This is  the basic story line from a whole host of 1950s science fiction movies, including "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the one I'll be showing in class.  Back then, of course, the threat that bothered the alien visitors was annihilation through nuclear holocaust.  Today's scenario, revised and updated by a group of scientists from Penn State University, focuses upon possible extraterrestrial concerns about what green house gases are doing to the planet.  

"Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth's atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain."

Reading the Guardian story made me laugh out loud, both for its way of presenting global climate crash and for its echoes of the sci-fi stories and movies of my youth.  It's hard to tell from the actual report, “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis,” whether the writers are fully serious or just having a good time speculating about some ghastly possibilities.  

Klaatu barada nikto
   ...and a Happy New Year!



Thursday, August 18, 2011

College "student aid" package = crushing burden of debt

As students receive the letter saying "Congratulations, you've been admitted to" the college, university or graduate school of their choice, there's usually another package of materials labeled "Financial Aid."  In times long passed this may have meant a scholarship or fellowship offering all most of the cost of tuition and, perhaps, even a stipend for living expenses.  In sane, well-managed, egalitarian nations of the world, often this is  still true.  Societies of that kind understand that supporting talented young people in their quest for knowledge and preparation for meaningful work is a public good of great importance.  But in the U.S.A. ....?

During the past 30 years, what is fraudulently labeled "your student aid package" has actually become "your crushing burden of long term debt."  Under the neoliberal (free market conservative) policy approach, students are defined as "customers" and "consumers" whose ability to purchase goods and services is a matter of ability to pay, or more likely, to borrow and borrow and borrow.

Now the results are in.  A story in the Wall Street Journal  reports that the crushing burden of student debt in America now exceeds money owed on credit cards. "Student loans outstanding today — both federal and private — total some $829.785 billion, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and"  Credit card debt amounts to a mere $826.5 billion. 

Young people and their anxious families used to assume that the debt load was well worth it because there would always be challenging high paid jobs issued with one's cap and gown.  Alas, that is no longer true.  When university brochures talk about their "outstanding graduates," they may be referring to the amount of money the poor souls owe.

Is student debt America's next financial "bubble"?  If so, when will it pop?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hippy village of Christiania in Denmark -- now a semi-autonomous region

About 40 years ago an unused military base in the middle of Copenhagen was occupied (squatted) by a group of Danish free spirits who began living and working in the existing barracks, building free form architectural structures along the canal that runs through the place.  Renamed "Christiania" by the inhabitants, it has been focus of continuing controversy, especially about  its notorious, sometimes crime infested, drug culture.  Fortunately, the little village also evolved as a home for the arts, music, and some good restaurants.  It's also the original site of a factory that produces ingeniously designed human-powered vehicles used around the world.

Several years ago local authorities threatened to shut the place down and evict its several hundred residents.  But an outcry from Copenhagen citizens stopped the move. "Why destroy a place that's become the second most popular tourist destination in the city?" supporters argued.  Recently, Christiania has been officially designated a "semi-autonomous" region where the inhabitants have considerable powers of self-rule. 

Smart move, Denmark!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Flash mobs turn ugly

Several years ago a writer sent me a pre-publication copy of a book on what was then a little known phenomenon: the flash mob.  Many aspects of the events described in the manuscript struck me as fairly appealing  -- spontaneous organization, communication with like-minded souls via the Net,  possibilities for launching brief artistic and cultural happenings, instantaneous partying, and even prospects for political demonstrations.  However, one aspect of this new form of social organization gave me pause -- the name "mob" itself.  Having read Gustav LeBon's The Crowd, Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence and writings on the "mass society" and totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, including the works of Hannah Arendt, I was struck by the political naivete that utopian imaginings about "flash mobs" seemed to encourage.  What  if the "mobs" turned out to be as angry, thoughtless and brutal as the name implied.  Are we being asked  to forget the hideous, decades long, politically pungent  record of lynch mobs in America?  I also remembered the "mobbing" against children problem -- we'd call it "bullying" in the US -- that was a major problem in schools during my my family's stay in Scandinavia twenty years ago.

With those lingering impression in mind I quietly decline to write a "blurb" for a book that contained some interesting, even admirable observations and arguments.

Now it appears that the days of the joyous song and dance flash mobs in Grand Central Station and of birthday and wedding celebrations in odd locations have to be weighed against the nasty flash mobs in the UK and U.S. spontaneously assembled for theft, looting and occasional violence.  Those surprised by this turn of events have been suffering from a kind of forgetfulness about what can happen when you play with fire.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Science fair idea: Can a great nation survive while brain dead?

    How a volcano works

                                                                                                                                                          The time has been
                                                                          That, when the brains were out, the man would die,
                                                                          And there an end. But now they rise again
                                                                                                Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4

Put away those baking soda and vinegar volcano demonstrations, kids.  There's a much better middle school science fair project to tackle this year.  It's basically a political science experiment, not physics, biology or chemistry, but prospective entrants should be able to convince their advisers that it is genuine research.  While the set up is bound to be very costly, students won't bear the expenses (at least not until much later in their lives) because wealthy campaign donors are putting up hundreds of millions in cash to put democracy to the test.  All you need to do is watch TV to see what the candidates, reporters and pundits are saying about the crucial issues facing America and notice what consequences flow from the torrent of stupidity.

Of course, any good science fair topic begins with a rigorous question.  In this instance the question might be:  Can a great nation survive while brain dead?

Evidence is already mounting to support a rigorously supported answer for the inquiry.  In months to come the data should be even more plentiful: -- factory closings, stock market crashes, rising unemployment, social safety nets torched, urgent problems left unaddressed, unrest in the streets, loss of national prestige, etc.  Tracking the collapse of the nation's sentience and decline in its nervous system functioning should be easily done. Fox News is especially good in reporting and amplifying the data, but the other networks are quickly gaining ground.

For young researchers looking for a quick start, here's a piece on "American Idiocracy" from the Economist.

Remember, kids, your project will also need a working hypothesis.  Which would you choose?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi: BBC Reith Lectures

One of the most admirable political figures of our time, Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy leader of Burma, has given two wonderful Reith Lectures on the BBC, one on "Liberty," another on "Dissent."  Both are available as podcasts for download.  Held under house arrest off-and-on for more than twenty years by the military junta that rules Burma, Suu Kyi was able to record the lectures and smuggle them to the UK for broadcast early this summer.  A telephone hook up also enabled her to field questions from an audience assembled in England. 

She speaks directly and eloquently about the meaning of freedom and the troubles that confront her quest to bring democracy to a land ruled by ruthless dictators.  Along the way she describes the circumstances of her imprisonment, sources of inspiration for resistance, what the term "activist" really means, the events of "Arab Spring," the barriers faced by members of her political party, and the promise of new communications media in worldwide struggles for liberation.  In one clear, no-nonsense passage, she puts her finger on the lure of "power" that entices people to abandon liberty and betray those who seek it. 

During the autumn of 1991 during a sabbatical in Norway, I went to the Oslo City city hall for the open-to-all ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi.  She was under house arrest at the time.  Her husband, Michael Aris, accepted the award and her son, Alexander Aris, delivered a  moving speech on her behalf. 

If you have a chance, by all means listen to her gentle but insistent message in the Reith Lectures.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Job creation plans of both political parties: a detailed comparison

I've been reading in newspapers and on the Net to identify the key points in the job creation plans of the Democrats and Republicans.  In several days of searching, here's a point-by-point comparison of the ideas I've found.

Democratic Plan                                                 Republican Plan

1.  Extend unemployment insurance                          1.  Tax cuts for the wealthy
2.  Handshake and nice pat on the back                    2.  Handshake & hearty "Get a Job, Jerk!"
3.                                                                                         3.
4.                                                                                         4.
5.                                                                                         5.
6.                                                                                         6.
7.                                                                                         7.
8.                                                                                         8.
9.                                                                                         9.
10.  Obama's lecture fees when he leaves office       10.  Lecture fees for George W. Bush now
                                                                                                   that he's left office

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Election 2012 choices -- Blue dog or just plain crazy?

Moderate oligarchy

Extreme theocratic oligarchy

Don’t tell the mass media, but the presidential race for 2012 is turning out to be a terrible bore.  While we don’t yet know exactly who the Republicans will run, the basic outlines of our “choices” are already perfectly clear.  Hold your nose.

On the Democratic ballot we’ll have Barack Obama, once beguiling orator, who has again and again revealed himself to be the faithful representative of moneyed interests and spokesman for neoliberal (aka, moderate conservative) views of economics and policy.  Recently, a series of thoughtful, hard-hitting, revealing essays in the press and online have unmasked the smiling, hollow suit who convinced 2008 voters that he would be a progressive, “a transitional figure,” but who has shown very little of that.  At every opportunity he’s sided with Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the medical insurance “industry,” and large, global corporations to continue what amounts to the looting and dismantling of the U.S. economy.  And there he is on TV again smiling and waving, praising the latest despicable “compromise.”  Sorry -- I’m not buying it.  

On the Republican ballot we will have one or another candidate from a group that Thomas Frank calls “the wrecking crew.”  These are folks, radical free market “reformers,” who want to repeal the fundamental social contract – concern for one’s fellow citizens -- that has held America together for several generations and to dismantle all forms of public support in education, health care, social security, job creation, environmental protection, and other crucial services.  Even more extreme than the Democrats, they believe that “business,” e.g., corporate power, is the only legitimate source for policy making.  What the Republicans add to the presidential campaign will be some nasty, nativist (covertly racist) cultural themes along with a strongly militaristic, rightward tilting, evangelical theocracy, mistakenly called “Christian.”  (The gentle, loving soul from Nazareth weeps from on high.)

Some choice, eh?   That's why I’ve decided not to offer the course, American Politics and Elections, I usually teach during election years.  The 2012 options presented the voters, especially young people, contain very little on the upside.   While our national politics now produces “change” of a purely negative kind, for the time being it’s run dry on any “hope” of improvement.   When the alternatives ranging from lame, to stupid, to horrifying, what’s to get excited about?  Why dignify this empty charade?  Other varieties of education and political action are urgently needed to resist rapidly spreading economic destruction and to explore the possibility of “rebuilding the American Dream.” Let's get busy with that work!

Yes, alas, I will vote (but not campaign) for Obama for three reasons: (1) the need to recognize the “Sophie’s choice” of the lesser of evils when that’s all we’ve got, while fighting for genuine alternatives in years to come; (2) the possibility that a blue dog’s choices for the Supreme Court might be better than Republican legal plutocrats who dominate  that flagrantly corrupt body; (3) the recognition that our system negates third parties at the presidential level.     

Email and search top the list -- Pew report on online activity

The Pew Research Center's work is always thorough and reliable.  Its new study shows email and search tied as the most common internet activities in the U.S.  One might have expected social networking to score higher.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We'll have this recession thing fixed in no time!

The day after I stood cheering with a million and a half people standing in the Mall at Obama's inauguration, I walked to Capitol Hill to visit an old friend, a staff person for a Congressional committee.  "What do you think of Obama's prospects?" I asked.

"I think he's got a lot going for him," the fellow replied, "but his economic team -- Geithner, Bernanke, and Summers -- is very bad news.  They're full of the worst kind of advice for getting the country out of the recession." 

And so it was and so it continues.  At the beginning of his presidency I wondered why Obama's inner circle did not include the likes of Robert Reich or Joseph Stiglitz.  The answer is obvious.  Their advice would have questioned plain vanilla neo-liberalism (aka free market conservatism) that the administration has followed so slavishly, right to the point of "double dip," lost decade or worse.

Here are some of Stiglitz's latest thoughts on our predicament.

"Throughout the crisis – and before it – Keynesian economists provided a coherent interpretation of events. Pre-crisis, America, and to a large extent the world economy, was sustained by a bubble. The breaking of the bubble has left a legacy of excess leverage and real estate. Consumption will therefore remain weak and austerity on both sides of the Atlantic now ensures the state will not fill the void. Given this, it is not surprising that companies are unwilling to invest – even those that can get access to capital.  
When the recession began there were many wise words about having learnt the lessons of both the Great Depression and Japan’s long malaise. Now we know we didn’t learn a thing. Our stimulus was too weak, too short and not well designed. The banks weren’t forced to return to lending. Our leaders tried papering over the economy’s weaknesses – perhaps out of fear that if we were honest about them, already fragile confidence would erode. But that was a gamble we have now lost. Now the scale of the problem is apparent, a new confidence has emerged: confidence that matters will get worse, whatever action we take. A long malaise now seems like the optimistic scenario."

 * * * * * * * * * * * *
I'm not an economist or presidential adviser.  But I do talk with lots of college students and parents who still expect their will be good, high paying jobs at the end of the pipeline, especially the STEM pipeline: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- the golden pathway to ...?

What should I tell them now?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Anonymous hacks Syrian Ministry of Defense with an uplifting message

"To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side - tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime's brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country - rise up against the regime! - Anonymous."

This news comes from what is (to me) the most interesting web site of the year: THN -- The Hacker News.   But I'm slow picking up on these things.

No Fraud Left Behind -- you say you like standardized testing?

At the top of a growing list of dysfunctional institutions in America would certainly be our public schools.  Among the the most recent and most destructive "reforms" of education -- right up their with the oil & lube coupon/voucher approach -- is the standardized testing regime foisted upon the schools by the widely praised but wrong-headed "No Child Left Behind" law of the George W. Bush years.  Today's headlines reveal what has long been obvious to thoughtful observers: No Child Left Behind forces a set of methods and perverse incentives upon teachers and administrators.  Evidently, the schools in Atlanta, Georgia led the way in revising students' reported test scores to match the program's ambition goals, a way to keep federal cash flowing in.  According Alan Schwarz's story in the NY Times:

"A 413-page report by special investigators for the Georgia governor’s office that was released to the public on July 5 recounted in stunning detail how elementary- and middle-school teachers and administrators throughout the Atlanta public school system manipulated students’ answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Georgia’s method of gauging student achievement and complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The most egregious cheating included principals overseeing social gatherings in which answers were erased and corrected. At Toomer, in the residential Kirkwood neighborhood east of downtown, the report claimed that some teachers either told students the answers or suggested them with voice inflection during testing.

The scandal has reignited the larger national debate over the reliance on test results to evaluate educators and the pressure that such emphasis can breed among superintendents and principals. Teacher cheating knows no borders, as developing situations in Philadelphia, Washington and other cities indicate, but Atlanta, as the most thoroughly investigated example, has become symbolic of it."

The best diagnosis I've heard of the fundamental problem in today's forlorn efforts to improve education through standardized testing came from Diane E. Levin, professor of early childhood learning at Wheelock College in Boston.

"The basic premise of No Child Left Behind can be stated very simply," she observed during a conference in New Orleans three years ago.  "People say: When the teachers did their job, the children we able to learn.  Then the teachers stopped doing their job and the children stopped learning.  When we force teachers to do their job, then the children will start learning again." 

"The hammer used to apply the force," she continued, "is standardize testing used as a way to allocate educational funding."

Levine argued further that the real problems in the schools have to do with much larger, untreated ills in American society -- poverty, unemployment, urban decay, and the chaos in the social relationships that many children must contend with everyday.  Placing the blame on teachers and applying the screws to them merely exacerbates the trouble.

The scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere show the consequences of  ill-begotten efforts to put America's schools on track for "excellence." Alas, Obama's modest revision of the Bush program merely tweaks the system of rewards and punishments and leaves the underlying maladies untouched.

In educational systems that have strong integrity, public support and long term success -- Finland's schools, for example -- the basic approach is: 1. Hire some of the most talented people in society as teachers and pay them well for the work they do. 2.  Working closely with parents, pay careful attention to what each individual child needs.  Of course, this requires a society with a good deal of social solidarity and concern for the well-being of all its members. 

Does this sound like today's America?  Grab your eraser!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Obama: from audacity of hope to half-hearted capitulation

We all know that Barack Obama strongly believes in compromise.  He emphasizes that point repeatedly.  But many of his supporters are wondering: Does Obama believe in anything else?

Clinical psychologist Drew Westen, author of the provocative book, The Political Brain, probes the question and, like the rest of us, seems deeply puzzled.  His piece in the NY Times, "What Happened to Obama?" reflects the vacuity and lack of any principled commitment that have been the hallmarks of Obama's "leadership" so far. In Westen's view:

"...when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. ....

"The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. ....

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling."

Westen moves on to analyze the possible causes of Obama's apparent inability to express or act upon any deeply held beliefs, beliefs of a kind that would, arguably, prove attractive to voters and crucial to the steering the Republic away from the obvious disasters ahead.  But he notices a crucial feature in the way Obama talks and, evidently, thinks. 

"When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability."

The essay ends with a chilling comment on the President's favorite quote from Martin Luther King, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  Westen observes, "The arc of history can only bend so far before it breaks."

Another possible ending here might be:  Perhaps Obama now lives in a different moral universe from the one Dr. King mentioned.

Weird contradiction -- Ads for serene capitalism precede images of riots

It's becoming a familiar scene in news coverage of world events on the Internet: scenes of riots, burning cars and buildings, clashes between demonstrators and police -- all preceded by video advertisements depicting serene, self-satisfied, reassuring capitalist corporations and their wonderful product lines.

The BBC reports on the recent riots in Tottenham in London are a good example.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

America's sad decline -- they've noticed in Europe (and now China)

Recently there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces in European newspapers and magazines lamenting the political and economic chaos in the U.S.  Perhaps those in the White House, Congress, the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Sunday talk shows think that no one across the Atlantic would notice how deranged and dangerous our country now seems.   But people abroad have begun to notice and are shaking their heads in dismay. 

Jacob Augstein's commentary in Spiegel Online, "Once Upon a Time in the West," is typical of a strand of opinion heard in Germany and elsewhere.

"The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically -- in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise" ....

"The country's social disintegration is breathtaking.....The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country's total income for themselves -- 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. [Joseph] Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown."  ....

"The name "United States" seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and '70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country's highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country's first African-American president may have played a role there, too" ....

Augstein concludes that the U.S.A. no longer upholds the commitment to reason, equality and democracy that has long defined "the West."  "The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That's us."

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Update:  During my recent travels in China, a similar question came up in conversation.  "Is America really in as much trouble as it seems to be?" Hence, it's no surprise to read the Chinese government's response to Standard & Poors downgrading America's credit rating (story from Reuters with quotes from the official Xinhua news agency):

China tells U.S. "good old days" of borrowing are over

In the Xinhua commentary, China scorned the United States for its "debt addiction" and "short sighted" political wrangling."

China, the largest creditor of the world's sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China's dollar assets," it said.

It urged the United States to cut military and social welfare expenditure. Further credit downgrades would very likely undermine the world economic recovery and trigger new rounds of financial turmoil, it said.

"International supervision over the issue of U.S. dollars should be introduced and a new, stable and secured global reserve currency may also be an option to avert a catastrophe caused by any single country," Xinhua said.


Friday, August 05, 2011

The End of Growth -- Has Economic Policy Become a Cargo Cult?

To an increasing extent, today's discussions of economics and public policy resemble the cargo cults  on Pacific islands of the 19th and 20th centuries. After their encounters with travelers from Europe and the U.S., some islanders decided that the material wealth displayed by the visitors was destined to come to them, a blessing guaranteed by their ancient ancestors.  Hence, they built rough wooden models  of ships and, later, airplanes, engaging in elaborate rituals as ways to attract the shower of prosperity that they hoped would come their way.

Among today's economic policy experts, our equivalents of voodoo doctors, there are basically two cults with differing sets of ritual incantations and practices.

On one side we have those who believe that the problem is excessive government "spending" and the spiraling levels of debt the nation has piled up over the years.  Members of this cult demand austerity achieved by slashing federal and state budgets and, of course, by lowering taxes, especially on the "job creators," their equivalent of the beloved but now woefully absent ancestors revered by the cargo cults.

On the other side are those who believe that the basic problem is insufficient "demand" caused by both long and short term developments -- outsourcing of jobs, the housing bubble, foreclosure, job loss, etc.  Priests of this cult insist the renewed prosperity will arrive when government takes steps to pump more money in the economy, creating new jobs and boosting demand for goods and services.

What the two cults share is the view that mana from heaven -- economic GROWTH -- is just around the corner.  With just the right collection of chants, ceremonies and talismans and just enough financial inducement thrown to the most worthy (or needy) members of the tribe, the good times will surely return.  All hail to BIG MAGIC!

Faced with these arguments and programs, my normal preference is usually to side with those who seek to boost the economy by enlarging government programs that might help the poor, unemployed, students, small business.  At the same time, I am more and more haunted by the thought that the diagnoses and remedies of both sides are fundamentally flawed.  What if "growth" has finally become a chimera for modern technological society?

The publication of Richard Heinberg's book, The End of Growth, comes at an appropriate moment.  In the U.S.,  European Union and around the world, the anemic "recovery" following the economic crash of 2007-08 has begun to sputter.  A "double dip recession" or worse may be at hand as the nostrums and hand-waving of both major schools of economic seem impotent to turn things around.  Heinberg's book raises many crucial questions and offers a strong set of arguments backed by impressive evidence.  "Economists insist that recovery is at hand, yet unemployment remains high, real estate values continue to sink, and governments stagger under record deficits. The End of Growth proposes a startling diagnosis: humanity has reached a fundamental turning point in its economic history." 
(from the Heinberg's Post Carbon Institute web page)

The book identifies indelible limits to growth in resource depletion (especially petroleum), environmental impacts (especially climate change) and "crushing levels of debt."  Heinberg ponders the consequences of this nightmare and speculates about new economies and ways of living that could emerge from the wreckage. 

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Update:   This page contains a cartoon video with Richard Heinberg's commentary summarizing some of the book's basic themes.  Watch until the very end to see container cargo ships sailing off the edge of a Friedman-esque "flat" world.


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hostage taking in American politics -- still works just fine?

The goal is the same -- after depicting the President as a weak, ineffective man, bring him down!

This strategy worked before.  Will it succeed again?  Will the American people get the swindle this time?  And will the current President continue to play along?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Beauty and elegance of New Deal post offices threatened by budget cuts

                                  Murals at  a New Deal era post office in Modesto, California

Cultural historian Gray Brechin, head of the Living New Deal Project, reports the selling off of some of America's most important public places -- hundreds of post offices built during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.  Brechin's article in the Guardian laments the auction and possible destruction of many of these lovely, useful buildings, casualties of the manic budget cutting so characteristic of the Obama/Tea Party/Republican era -- the new "Dying Rotten Deal" perhaps?  (My words not Brechin's)

Gray's evocative essay show the price we pay for losing an enduring connection to history, the public arts and civic culture as our co-called "leaders" stampede to comply with demands of today's barbarian oligarchs.

"Roosevelt shared with other New Dealers a considerably more expansive notion of what the US could achieve. He forecast that "one hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief." The New Dealers envisioned a new Renaissance. Its successors are knocking that legacy down to the highest bidder, and with it goes what we once were and might yet be."

The Maobama T-shirt

From a gift shop in Shanghai comes the Maobama T-shirt, also available on coffee mugs and other merchandise.  This would have been a lot more fun a couple of years ago, when we actually believed that Barack Obama would be a progressive, "transformative" president instead of what he's revealed himself to be at this point -- a very conservative, uninspiring politician. 

Monday, August 01, 2011

Contest: Suggest a new name for Glacier Park

As a little boy in the middle 1950s , I visited Glacier Park with my parents who'd grown up in Montana and knew terrain well.  There were a good many glaciers back then, definitely an impressive sight.  It was a thrill to able to walk on the massive sheets of ice.  Alas,  today's New York Times reports that there are few glaciers left and that all of them will be gone by 2020.

As the U.S.A. prepares for this sad milestone, it's time to think of  a new name for the place.  Perhaps the  federal park system could hold a contest, soliciting ideas from concerned citizens.  To start the ball rolling, here are my entries.

Climate Crash National Park

Climate Denial National Monument