SocraticGadfly: 4/29/07 - 5/6/07

May 04, 2007

The bloom is fading from public school laptop computers

The New York Times reports that more and more school districts have become disenchanted with school-purchased laptop computers for students.

Why? Well, here’s problem No. 1 (and if anybody wants to forward this to Lancaster, Texas superintendent Larry Lewis, feel free):
The students at Liverpool High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

School districts with laptops have other problems, such as maintenance costs, a fair amount of which are not covered by insurance, down time, needing a “lab” room for repair work if it’s done on-site, trying to teach to a class where some students laptops are working and others’ aren’t, and more.

Throw in teachers having to reorient lesson plans, complete with some concerns about “teaching to the computer,” vs. the old “teaching to the test” with standardized tests, and you can see some of the issues involved.

And here’s not a problem, just the empirical evidence:
“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.

Those giving up on laptops include large and small school districts, urban and rural communities, affluent schools and those serving mostly low-income, minority students, who as a group have tended to underperform academically.

In one of the largest ongoing studies, the Texas Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group, has so far found no overall difference on state test scores between 21 middle schools where students received laptops in 2004, and 21 schools where they did not, though some data suggest that high-achieving students with laptops may perform better in math than their counterparts without. When six of the schools in the study that do not have laptops were given the option of getting them this year, they opted against.

No, that’s not to say that laptops may eventually find some place in more schools. But, let’s not consider them some magic cure-all for getting kids into Harvard or whatever, or even into a decent state university.

Part of the U.S. healthcare problem is too much money in the system.

Per Scientific American (subscription required), the average U.S. med school grad has $130,000 of debt, twice that of a French grad.

So, he wants to go into a high-paying specialty. That means being at a hospital or clinic with lots of fancy machinery. That means overusing the machinery.

Enough said?

Subprime mortgages equal prime-time pot plantations in California

At least, that’s whatHigh Country News (subscription required) reports. In California, drug dealers bought large suburban McMansions with subprime loans and converted them to marijuana plantations.

Since last summer, cops in Northern California have raided 50 such places, HCN says.

Subprime mortgage fallout starting to hit the West

High Country News (subscription required) says 21 percent of real estate licenses in Nevada, the state with the nation’s highest foreclosure rate, are inactive.

As I’ve blogged previously on this issue, this could be, at least in Nevada, the start of a “domino effect.” Unemployed real estate agents don’t buy “power salesperson” cars, etc.

You don’t want to export horsemeat to France? Here’s what will happen

Decay-poisoned horsemeat lying around the, High Country News says.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell:
What do slaughter opponents advocate? Their Political Action Committee, aptly called HOOFPAC, says it all in a slogan: “Keep America’s horses in the stable and off the table.” This is a catchy phrase, but it doesn’t address whose stable, and at whose expense. Adoptive homes are not available for all unwanted horses today, and the current horse population is an estimated 9.2 million — more horses living now than in 1900, before the automobile began replacing the animals as transportation.

In the flesh-and-blood world of horse ownership, horses, whether beast of burden or beloved pet, must sometimes be put to death. The animal may be old and infirm, injured or dangerous to people. Slaughter opponents call for “humane euthanasia” by a veterinarian, at a cost of $100 to $300, which is a lot to pay for a horse that might bring as little as $300 to $500 at auction. And supporting an unwanted horse for a year can cost as much as $3,000.

Once a horse is euthanized, what then? The owner is left to dispose of a 1,200-pound carcass that has been saturated with a toxic substance. Most states require burial of euthanized animals at least two feet deep, away from water. Slaughter opponents advocate rendering — that is, boiling the animal and extracting what’s useful — but rendering is unavailable in most parts of the country and unsuitable for poisonous remains. A common solution is to pay the veterinarian to haul the carcass to the public landfill.

First, though having grown up in the West, I had no idea wild horse numbers were THAT high. The French and Belgians were just easing a bit of pressure on the pressure valve.

And, to be blunt, a horse is NOT a pet. Folks, get over “Black Beauty.” As for the money to dispose ever-more horse carcasses, our country has plenty of higher priorities.

WHEN will baseball — and other sports — get serious about DWIs?

St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Josh Hancock, killed less than a week ago in a crash into a parked trailer, was legally drunk. He had a 0.157 blood-alcohol level, plus more than 8 grams of pot and a pipe to boot. I’m sure that was only the No. 3 cause, though, the marijuana. Being drunk was No. 1. Talking on a cell phone while drunk was No. 2.

As for the question, the likely answer is: “Not much.” Given that manager Tony La Russa got a DWI arrest in spring training, with nary a disciplinary action by club management, and is going to fight the case in court, it would be stupid to expect more.

Army lists media as same threat level as drug cartels

Seriously. No bullshit. The media is now an official threat to the United States Army. Read on:
It looks like it’s official: the United States Army thinks that American reporters are a threat to national security. Thanks to some great sleuthing by Wired’s “Danger Room” blogger Noah Shachtman, the Army's new operational security guidelines (OPSEC) hit the Web in a big way yesterday, and the implications they have for reporters — who are grouped in with drug cartels and Al Qaeda as security threats to be beaten back — are staggering.

Make no mistake, this is a very big deal, and every American citizen, not just reporters and soldiers, needs to understand the implications of the Army’s strict new policy, because it directly affects how citizens receive information about their armed forces: information that it has every right to get.

Shachtman reproduces a slide from the new “OPSEC in the Blogosphere,” document, which lists and ranks “Categories of Threat.” Under “traditional domestic threats” we find hackers and militia groups, while “non-traditional” threats include drug cartels, and — yes — the media. Just to put that into some perspective, the foreign "non-traditional threats" are listed as warlords, and Al Qaeda. In other words, the Army has figuratively and literally put the media in the same box as Al Qaeda, warlords, and drug cartels.

While snake oil salesmen like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh would surely rank the American press up there with Bin Laden and his homicidal ilk, for the Army to do so is shocking, displaying a deep ignorance on the part of at least some segments of the uniformed military over just what the media’s role in a democracy is, while sending the unambiguous message to soldiers and DoD employees that reporters are to be treated as enemies.

Under the new rules, all Army personnel and DoD contractors are told to keep an eye on reporters and anyone seen speaking to the press, and that they should “consider handling attempts by unauthorized personnel to solicit critical information or sensitive information as a Subversion and Espionage Directed Against the U.S. Army (SAEDA) incident.”

Great. Even less reason to trust the military’s comments about Iraq than we have now. Even more reason to be suspicious of kowtowing embedded reporters.

May 03, 2007

Why I am who I am

It’s the sun, not the stars, that can help shape our fate, Brutus!

Shakespeare reference aside, it’s true about the sun’s influence.
Professor Jayanti Chotai, a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Umea University in Sweden … found that men born from October to January have low dopamine levels and are most likely to be gentle and reflective types.

My birthday? Dec. 26, right in the middle of this cycle.

Hate-crime bills cause cancer?

It wouldn’t surprise me if folks like the Traditional Values Coaltion make that claim about HR 1592, a federal hate crimes bill, as has falsely been claimed about abortion.

Given that they are claiming pastors can be arrested if they preach against homosexuality and a church member of theirs commits a homosexual-based hate crime, who knows what will come next?

• Speech can’t be prosecuted like that, whether for hate crimes or other causes, unless it contains an actual incitement to act.
• The only way it could so be criminalized would be if the TVC’s quasi-divinized President Bush got his way with enough “anti-terror” legislation that its provisions got extended to hate crimes prosecutions. (Of course, the “hoist by one’s own petard” scenario would almost make that worth it.)

Why does R-CALF opposed tighter U.S. BSE testing?

R-CALF USA ,, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, has some great ideas, like mandatory country of origin labeling of beef products.

And, I know the great majority of bovine spongiform encephaly cows in North America have been of Canadian origin.

Nonetheless, why do you protest the idea of U.S. testing and certification, and instead, in essence, try to blame everything on Canada?

Don’t give me this “government snooping” line, either.

From a consumer point of view, it looks like you’re afraid and have something to hide.

Let’s have better country of origin labeling AND much more stringent testing of U.S. beef. After all, many of you are the folks who fed beef offal, or offal of other ruminants, to cattle for decades in the first place.

And, let me rephrase your claim, referred to in the second paragraph, to say:
The great majority of known bovine spongiform encephaly cows in North America have been of Canadian origin.

Maybe it’s lax U.S. testing that’s part of why we have so many Canadian mad cows and so few U.S.-born ones.

Sping slump, not thaw, on housing - and cars

Tentative signs say April, while not as bad as March’s 18-year-worst slump in sales, will show another decline in housing sells.

Realtors’ associations may try to blame the subprime mortgage issue this month, as they blamed the weather for the March bad news.

Don’t buy it; the market was in trouble even without the subprime issue. Bubble-like trouble. This just made it worse yet, on top of what was already bad.

And, related to that, it wasn’t a good month in Detroit either. Why? In part, the housing sag, removing more and more home equity credit from the auto-buying market. For the alleged Big Three, vs. Japanese competition, the high reliance on pickups and SUVs in the face of another gas price surge doesn’t help.

Silver lining on House failure to override Bush veto of Iraq bill

The vote to override got four more votes than the original spending bill itself. Momentum even among Republicans not enthralled to or bamboozled by Bush continues to shift.

That said, the Democrats have two strategies remaining.

One is short-term, month-to-month supplemental bills. Advantage? The GOP would have to vote on the war time after time. Disadvantage? Not even a benchmark, let alone a timetable.

The second is to send a full funding bill, without timetables but with benchmarks. Advantage? Enough GOPers might vote on this one that Bush’s veto threat gets less serious. Maybe there’s enough coalescence for an override.

But, a bill without timetables is toothless, especially if the spending amounts are for a full year. The Democrats would further lose a voter like me, unless they trimmed at least a symbolic 2-3 percent from the spending level.

This note at Talking Points Memo has more background.

GM’s one once-profitable sector now crumbling, too

GMAC, due to its mortgages as well as car loans, used to be the one segment of the company pulling it through tough times. Well, with the subprime mortgage crisis spreading, that is no longer the case.
While still profitable overall, the General’s profits fell 90 percent for the first quarter since a year ago.

May 02, 2007

Texas Senate passes journalism shield law

I give the bill a B/B-minus. Biggest concern is it defines bloggers outside the loop; the story isn’t clear about “independent journalists” or freelancers being covered or not, as well. And, I’m kind of iffy about the bill defining who is or is not a journalist, in general. I think the definition, if any, should be in the act of journalism.

Newspaper future not totally grim

The Web is hitting new marks in ad revenue:
According to a recent survey, for the first time, advertising revenue for local newspaper Web sites last month exceeded local TV advertising. One of the reasons for the improvement in Web ad dollars is the video now being produced for these sites. Video has a big advantage. It can be attached to video commercials.

In other words, the traditional newspaper is becoming more and more video-like.

Now, won’t this also lead to a push to increase broadband speeds in the U.S.? (By the way, average “broadband” speeds in the U.S. are dead last in the industrialized world.) If so, at what price? And, will more cities start offering Wi-Fi as a city amenity, putting more pressure on private providers?

Exhibit A against the War on Drugs

Cops kill 92-year-old, plant dope, lie later

This story shows all the major issues wrong with the War on Drugs: uncritical use of informants, failure to evaluate informants’ motives in snitching, the use of no-knock warrants, lying to get such warrants, lying to cover up afterward, and the ethos that can develop in drug enforcement.

Plus, what in the hell is the difference between a “certified” and an “uncertified” snitch? Do you go somewhere to get a piece of paper? Do you have to reapply or get continuing education credits?

GOP no new taxes mantra leads to new taxes by other names

The knee-jerk swooning for toll roads is Exhibit A. Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi, all GOP-governed states, have passed sweeping toll road legislation. Florida’s law is even clearly directed at privatizing and tolling currently free and state-owned roadways.

Especially in this case, where the road was already built by tax money, it’s a new tax. Even if it’s to build a new road, if a toll road bill doesn’t have sunset provisions to make the toll system go ahead once the original cost of the road is paid off, it’s a new tax.

Fact is, especially at the statehouse level, where GOP governors are too chickenshit to tell Grover Norquist where to get off, GOP-controlled legislatures, and GOP governors, are going to devise more new fees, surcharges, user moneys, etc. all the time while refusing to call them “taxes” and continuing to repeat the “no new taxes” mantra.

It’s governance of the worst kind, that fails to confront the middle class and say:
Here’s the services you want. Here’s how much they cost. Now, how do you want to pay the bill?

(It should also be noted that most states’ tax systems are more regressive than the federal one, including federal FICA taxes.)

May 01, 2007

I call bullshit on alleged cheap Texas electricity

MSN Money’s Jim Jubak has the facts.
Texas residential customers already pay some of the highest prices for electricity in the country. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a residential customer in Texas paid an average rate of 12.09 cents per kilowatt-hour. Only the Northeast and California pay higher rates.

This is another lie, yes lie, of the majority of the Texas Legislature, including a few Democrats here and there, and the vast majority of the upper crust of the Texas GOP, that needs a stake through its heart once and for all.

Part of the problem, as people who follow the issue know, is that the “price to beat” is based on natural gas, not coal, setting aside environmental issues.

A bigger part of the problem sees Texas hoist by its own petard. “Texas is God” wingnuts, among other things, boast about its independent electric grid.

Well, that cuts both ways. Cheap out-of-state power can’t easily get to Texas. Hello???

Plus, the propsed KKR buyout of TXU will only make things worse.

Jubak said Texas being off the national electric grid is one problem.
Buyouts like that of TXU work only because of inefficiencies like this, and in the long run, buyout firms have an interest in perpetuating these inefficiencies so that local prices stay high.


KKR’s “green” takeover of TXU could take more green from your wallet, too

Hold the phone, there, Nellie. MSN Money’s Jim Jubak has the scoop on how folks like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts see plenty of dinero in deregulated electric utilities.
And, down below, he shows how the Natural Resources Defense Council pretty much got hoodwinked on this deal as a “front” for KKR

First, this sobering reminder from private equity company history:
The last time Wall Street applied its best minds to the electric power industry, they brought us Enron, brownouts and wholesale-price-gouging in California, not to mention higher electric bills.

Now, not even 10 years later, they're at it again: Private-equity buyout funds have set their sights on electric utilities. And the result will be? You guessed it, higher electric bills for you and me. As if inflation and the rising cost of oil and natural gas isn't pushing our bills up fast enough already.

I already warned, in an early blog post on this subject, that KKR would try to recoup the buyout price by canning people. Jubak agrees:
In the short run, making a profit on one of these buyout deals depends, first, on "restructuring" the company so that it's more profitable than it was before the buyout. Most of the time, restructuring involves spinning off money-losing operations and outsourcing some part of operations — and it always involves cutting jobs.

But that’s not all, he says;
That would be bad enough in the case of a utility, since job cuts are likely to mean a decline in utility service.

But you'll wind up paying more for less service because, second, turning those small gains in corporate profits into big profits for buyout investors rests on building the buyout deal so that borrowed money, known as leverage, multiplies those relatively modest improvements in corporate earnings.

Problem A, according to Jubak, is 75 percent of such a buyout is done by selling debt based on the acquired company’s real property, etc.

Well, TXU already has enough debt:
Even before the deal, TXU was carrying a big load of short-term ($1.5 billion) and long-term ($10.6 billion) debt, and paying a sizable interest bill of $784 million in 2006. Adding an additional $33 billion or so in debt will run that interest bill significantly higher. And that additional debt load will put pressure on the company’s credit rating, already a relatively low BB from Standard & Poor’s.

Dang, the school district I covered at my previous paper, in it’s worst days, wasn’t rated that low.

But, that’s still not all:
And that's not the limit of the debt load to be piled on the purchased company's balance sheet. Used to be that buyout funds waited until they dressed up a company and sold it back to public investors before they cashed out. In today's market, buyout funds have added a new wrinkle: While the company is still private, it issues a big cash dividend to the buyout investors, so those investors get part of their cash back in short order. How does the company pay for that dividend? Why, by issuing more debt, of course!

And how’s that debt financed? Just open that TXU envelope every month, in a deregulated market, and you’ll find out.

Jubak also explains that KKR’s promise to not build more power plans is money-green, not enviro-green, indicating the Natural Resources Defense Council, and some of us until now, have been hoodwinked.
The long-run logic of utility buyouts leads to lower investment in power lines that would eliminate price differences like those that cost consumers money in Texas (and California and the Northeast). And it leads to lower investment in new power plants, since spending cash on new, more efficient plants cuts the utility cash flow so necessary to paying all that post-buyout debt.

Nice. KKR and TXU get “green” window dressing for what was going to happen anyway.

April 30, 2007

PTSD issues suck

Mood: Mix of shitty, rundown, tired, anxious and other emotions and body sensations.

After a whole week or more with no problems, the sleep issue returned last night. (Don't know if part of it was a muggy evening that didn't want to cool down a lot.)

Anyway, I woke up an hour or a little more early, as I have been doing in the past. It was compounded by being in a bad dream about having a bunch, a bunch of stuff to do at work, which I don't actually have.

Tried going back to sleep. I reached some state near sleep after half an hour, at which point the a-hole in my apartment complex who turned on a ShopVac at 8 a.m. Saturday, followed by wheeling a 2-ton car jack on the sidewalk, rolled the car jack out at just after 7 on a Monday morning. So, i tried again to get some last bits of sleep, but it didn't happen before the alarm, and the one snooze time I allow for an extra nine minutes.

Got up, got ready, etc. and wound up having enough anxiety problems that I had a mild throw-up before I left some, with a queasy stomach most the rest of the day.

I hate where the hell a lot of my life's aspects are at right now. Maybe I need to do another "acceptance" list.

April 29, 2007

Carbon offsets like medieval indulgences? “Amen” to that

Or, as another person quoted in this article says, the idea of purchasing a “carbon offset,” to get three trees planted to make up for the carbon dioxide from a plane flight or whatever, smacks of so much of today’s America — long on consumerism, light on sacrifice. (Perhaps that’s part of why Shrub hasn’t called for any “sacrifice” related to the invasion of Iraq.)

Here’s the quote referenced above:
“The worst of the carbon-offset programs resemble the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences back before the Reformation,” said Denis Hayes, the president of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental grant-making group. “Instead of reducing their carbon footprints, people take private jets and stretch limos, and then think they can buy an indulgence to forgive their sins.”

“This whole game is badly in need of a modern Martin Luther,” Mr. Hayes added.

The article goes on to note environmentalists are split on the issue. Well, I’m one of the ones who agrees with Hayes.

Plus, there’s the question about just how true-to-life this market is:
Hayes said there were legitimate companies and organizations that help people and companies measure their emissions and find ways to cut them, both directly and indirectly by purchasing certain kinds of credits. But overall, he said, an investment in such credits — given the questions about their reliability — should be looked at more as conventional charity (presuming you check to be sure the projects are real) and less as something like a license to binge on private jet travel.

I agree that it’s like buying wood from a sustainable harvest forest… there’s few such claims that pan out.

Instead, this lets people avoid on insisting that Boeing and Airbus get to work on designing more efficient jetliners, as well as looking at their own lifestyles more carefully.