Archive for the ‘public policy’ Category

The idea of progress is a flimsy concept.  Nothing in the universe comes for free.  So when some system or entity “progresses” in comes at the expense of energy somewhere.  It’s not necessarily a wholly destructive expense but it is an expense nonetheless. The way in which we commonly talk about society, civilization and the human race is in terms of progress.  We’re progressing from a barbaric or unenlightened state to a state if self reliance and control and technologically enhanced awareness.  But this progress is mostly an illusion.  It comes at a great expense to other species,the planet and even ourselves.

Some conflicting reports:

http://humanprogress.org/ (there’s progress!)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_progress (there’s progress!)

http://reason.com/archives/2013/10/30/human-progress-not-inevitable-uneven-and (there is a thing called progress but we’re not always on it!)

http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S445.htm (there’s progress!)

http://www.alternet.org/environment/myth-human-progress (progress is an illusion!)

http://www.vice.com/read/john-gray-interview-atheism (there is no progress!)

(Another way to think about this is that everything is competing to exist against other things that also are fighting to exist.  The better we compete the more we extract from the ecosystems.)

Certainly we’ve increased our life expectancy on the whole and reduced violence and physical suffering in the human race. We have invented computers, figured out space flight, eradicated some diseases, taught billions to read and write.  All progress right?

To what end?  Where is all this progress going?  How is this progress measured?  Does a longer life mean a better life? Does a less violent life lead somewhere differently than a more violent one?

Perhaps even more challenging is figuring out whether we have a choice in the matter.  Are we even biologically, physically capable of not trying to progress in these dimensions and exert our competitive advantages upon or environment?  If we had some definition of how best to live in some philosophic sense and it differed materially with the progressive ways we’ve chased could we actually change?  Could we choose less technology and a culture more in balance with the environment?  And no there’s no “hippie” justification needed for this thinking.  The question is is there a way of life that is more sustainable and less extracting from the world than the way we currently live?  Or is our survival inexorably tied to dominating everything we can?

To make this very clear consider the species that have become extinct at the hands of humankind’s hunting.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_extinct_animals
Our “progress” has led in many cases directly to their complete decline.  Who are we to say whether our progress is worth it – Was worth their demise?

I’m directly asking everyone what is the point of our focus on progress.  Certainly in America we are all put on a course to progress through life.  Our goal is clear to get through high school, go through college, and begin to produce.  One production should lead to ever more important positions in this progressive society with ever increasing economic output.  We measure all facets of our culture against GDP and endowments and ROI.  We do not recognize that growth in these aspects must be paid for in other respects.

So the question remains.  What is progress? and what’s it worth to you?

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After a TechCrunch article writer by Sarah Lacy posted August 22, 2011

A few months ago Sarah Lacy, a TechCrunch.com writerwas giving a talk in her hometown of Memphis, TN, and someone asked what the city could do to ignite more entrepreneurship among inner city kids. Her immediate answer was to teach coding– even basic app building skills– along with English and Math in every public school. She was surprised that her brother– an engineer who worked for many years in Silicon Valley before relocating to the Midwest– didn’t necessarily agree.

The thing is that while this is a first level issue of who gets the jobs needed in coding – foreign or domestic coders, it occurred to me that we are in the 30th year or so of serious code writing and it has had some unanticipated consequences.  The changes in the world that have been brought about by the Internet and technology have changed what is done by people.  Now, more and more what is done is done by software applied to different technologies.  The world of TechCrunch and other quasi-geek clusters are alive and well due to the prevalence of algorithms.  They are the workers in a mired of different ways today.

They paint the cars, cut the steel, do the book binding, print the content, answer the phone and a zillion other things that we all used to do.  In a cumulative way the jobs that were are now being done by technology just like was the case when ol’ Ned Lud (see emphatic published accounts for the most favorite spelling…) brought to mythical status between 1779 and 1812 that changes in British textile practices were coming to a screeching halt.

No, I am not being Luddite here.  I am simply pointing out that, when all the talking heads whine and moan about this political union or that political union not producing jobs for the reconstitution of the economy, they should take note; the jobs in the past that went away aren’t coming back.   Many of them aren’t coming back due to being  long overdue to be absorbed before the downturn and no one – or not many, took notice.

Instead of asking for someone else to provide jobs, it is time to create jobs based on that uncomfortable situation that we find ourselves in every 70-90 years.  Change has overtaken the status quo.  Now we need to create jobs that machines can’t do – yet.  That is, jobs involving organizing communities, infrastructure, law, education and human-care… for children, for families in transition, for elders and for soldiers who are brought back and deposited on the steps of America.  They were taught how to do what was necessary to what they had to do to survive.  Nowhere is the training they get any better for that purpose.  Now however, they have done that under duress, for double tours, etc. etc. etc.  To be spit out by those that trained them as worn out and disposable civilians with defects without the slightest bit of care on how to survive reestablish domestic values, is despicable.  Software and algorithms can’t pull that off.  We can if we stop waiting for someone else to do something we favor or don’t find dogmatically repugnant.

HP’s decision to go big and purchase the U.K.’s Autonomy Corp., and probably other players doesn’t seem so ridiculous under a ‘software good – hardware sad’ scenario, does it.

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[By Ron Williams, former attorney, Texas native, patriot and a frequent contributor to free press expression and open forum debates of note.]

Tea Party candidate for Connecticut Senate, Christine O’Donnell, recently stated in her debate with fellow candidate Chris Coons that the Constitution, as written, provides that the government shall not interfere with the establishment or operation of the church, but that there is no prohibition against the church being involved in the operation of the state.  This is a most interesting interpretation of the Constitution.

This is an interpretation you hear many right wing conservatives espouse when they attempt to get government to somehow sponsor a church event or have the government provide money to support some church organized activity.  The most common of these activities is probably getting the government to pay for private church operated schools.

Some conservatives espouse in the opinion that the government should be operated on strict principles of Christianity.  After all, they argue that this government was formed on the principles of Christianity, so why should its daily operation not be based on those Christian principles?

There is a name for democratic governments, where religious principles dominate.  They are called theocracies.  One example of a religious-based “theocracy” is Iran.  So if taken who its logical conclusion, as in Iran, the President of the United States, Congress and the Courts would all look to the pronouncements of a religious leader in interpreting the Constitution and in the implementation of any law.

If you are okay with that proposition, we then come to the next question.  Christian beliefs will dominate government actions.  Now, which version of Christianity will that be?  Will it be the Mormons, so we can look to Utah for government principles?  What about the Catholic Church.  Catholics certainly are certainly Christians.  That means we would look to the Pope for the operation of the American government is interesting that even in Italy, with all of its Catholics, the Pope still does not run the Italian government,  But it seems that this would be okay with our conservative right wing brethren.  If not Catholics, which branch of Gentile Christianity gets to call the shots?

Of course, I believe that when the right wing conservatives talk about applying Christian principles to the American government, what they really mean on their Christian principles.  They believe that they get to decide what the rules are, what the laws are and how the government should operate.

One example of this might be the issue of abortion.  One of the great tenets of the right wing movement is to be use the size and influence of government.  They want to get government out of their lives.  Whether or not to have an abortion is one of the most intimate and difficult decisions a woman can make.  Then they would turn around and take the most intimate decision away from women.  Right wing conservative would use the government to interfere in the intimate private lives of women.  Explain to me how that is getting the government out of American citizen’s lives?

So what we come to, I believe, is that the people who call for the integration of church and state don’t really believe in democracy at all.  They believe in a government run on their principles regardless of the feelings, beliefs, attitudes and opinions of other citizens.

And that is what is scary.  A group of people who call themselves patriots who in fact are doing everything they can to destroy our current democracy.  I believe we have to be careful of groups like this.  What happened in Mussolini’s Italy and 1930’s Germany.  You get some group who come into power via a democratic election, only to run the government based on their narrow political agenda.  Real democracy is kicked to the curb.  All the citizens then are required to follow the dictates of this new moral majority that control the government.

As a side note, notice how right wing Christians seem to cluster themselves around our military academies.  Also, we should take note of the investigation surrounding the command structure at the Air Force Academy which has been investigated for proselytizing the Academy’s cadets

You say it could not happen here.  And why not?  If you believe I am being extreme to accuse these Christian right wing so-called “patriots” of being actually anti-American?  Well go ask them how they feel about a government operated on Christian principles, and watch him say YES.  Then ask them how they feel about those Christian principles being dictated by the Catholic Church.

I believe right wing Christian conservative are a danger to our democracy and should be recognized as such.  A true patriot accepts the fact other patriots will have a slightly different view of democracy and allow those principles to be acknowledged in the operation of the democracy.  The beliefs of these right wing zealots show that they do not believe in that sort of free democracy.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010


This is not a political endorsement but a process endorsement.

It starts something like this: Under pressure, few of us are as calm as President Obama appears to be.

How does he keep his cool? Someone might ask, “Does he meditate? Does he practice yoga? Has he tried any of the hip therapies that have promised everything that the media has pushed since his election? How about brain exercises? Those are ‘cool’ right now… What kind of medicinal herbs, salt-free diets or protein shakes is he provided that the rest of us need to know about?”

Along with 92,000 other people packed into the University of Michigan’s football stadium last weekend, President Obama deliver a remarkable speech very calmly to the Michigan’s graduating class of 2010.

Volcanoes are erupting, oil vomiting from the ocean, rivers flooding, car bombs smoldering in Times Square and the birthplace of all nation-states collapsing in Europe while wars of our own making are raging along with division and derision of the American people on what to do and how to do it. The whole world seems to be wrenching by the porcelain. Everyone’s ‘rules’ are being broken in so many ways. Yet, President Obama appears to be calm.

Attacks on him as a person, on the office of the President and on his policies are everywhere, any one of which could anger, embattle or create greater amenity toward those yelling, plotting or disagreeing.  Just writing about it spikes my blood pressure.  Yet, he’s been doing something we were taught is a good rule to have; he is listening.

While some contemplate their own navel, march to their small righteousness, stand firm in mystic convictions or ponder what therapies to experiment with next, he interacts with as many Americans as possible.  As pointed out elsewhere, every night President Obama reads ten letters from American citizens. He says, “This is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place” he admits. He also admits that about a third of the writers call him an idiot or worse, which is how he knows he’s getting “a good representative sample” he concedes with his typical delivery smile.

If you turn on the news, read the printed media or listen to the talk while getting a Starbucks, you can sense why friends, family and strangers are on edge. Serious arguments about serious issues are bound to arouse emotions during these unique but fear-filled times. Obviously, we can’t solve our problems if we can’t hear the good ideas delivered in the cacophony of that fear. Our fears challenges the possibility to disagree with people’s positions without demonizing them or questioning their motives or patriotism.

The advice he gave to the newly-minted graduates of ‘Big Blue’: “For four years you’ve been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars,” he said. “Don’t narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you’re leaving…   Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You’ll learn what it’s like to walk in somebody’s shoes.”

My advice to you at the end of this class is as robust and just as meaningful contextually: Listen. Suspend disbelief that anyone could accept ideas that you don’t have. Avoid emotional fits; they’re all exhaust. Then, question what you think you know, what your teachers, authorities, gurus, priests or potentates tell you is the ‘absolute’ or the ‘new’ truth. This process has no known short-cuts, is hard & can be lonely but will keep you going when others bog down from rhetoric.

This is not a political endorsement but a process endorsement.

Contorted, twisted and purloined from a P. Warner Post in The Huffington Post : May 9, 2010

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Get Obama’s transcript here:

We face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds and different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bill. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.

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I laughed when I opened my email this morning.   I had my daily dose of barackobama.com spam

Russell —

Opponents of health insurance reform have power. Some reap huge profits from the status quo. Others take large campaign contributions from those who profit.

So they’ll do anything to keep the current system in place. When fact-based arguments don’t work, they attack President Obama with outlandish lies about a government takeover and euthanizing the elderly. And once that doesn’t work, they’ll go even further.

We don’t know what they’ll do next. What we do know is that we’ll have to be prepared for anything — ready to set the record straight, ready to make sure the media and Congress see the overwhelming support for reform, and ready to pass real reform this year.

But we’ll need the resources to do it — to pay for rapid-response ads in key districts and states, organizers to put together large rallies and grassroots events throughout the country, and the best technology available to empower volunteers — all at a moment’s notice. Can you chip in $25 or more to help us pass real reform, this year?

Is this not hilarious?   “Some reap huge profits from the status quo.” “Can you chip in $25 or more to help us pass real reform, this year?”

Yes, indeed.  Let’s fight money with money!  ads with ads.   C’mon, man!

Reform doesn’t take big ads and big bucks.  It takes leadership.  Congress and Barack Obama need to use their PUBLIC forums (tax payer paid!) and talk about a bill that people actually want.

What might be keeping reform at bay is exactly this double talk messaging.  To fight money we need money!  To keep the media from misrepresenting the situation we want to give media money!

Stop the media massaging and just lead us to reform.

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From a recent essay by NN Taleb:

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

My question is… do we actually need to establish these rules or is the “market” already enforcing them?  Media is a good example.  The media companies are getting smaller, more diverse and very little leverage compared to how it used to work just 10 years ago.

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Think that’s a crazy question to ask?

Read this detailed report from the LA Times.

Among the findings:

* Building a case for dismissal is so time-consuming, costly and draining for principals and administrators that many say they don’t make the effort except in the most egregious cases. The vast majority of firings stem from blatant misconduct, including sexual abuse, other immoral or illegal behavior, insubordination or repeated violation of rules such as showing up on time.

* Although districts generally press ahead with only the strongest cases, even these get knocked down more than a third of the time by the specially convened review panels, which have the discretion to restore teachers’ jobs even when grounds for dismissal are proved.

* Jettisoning a teacher solely because he or she can’t teach is rare. In 80% of the dismissals that were upheld, classroom performance was not even a factor.

When teaching is at issue, years of effort — and thousands of dollars — sometimes go into rehabilitating the teacher as students suffer. Over the three years before he was fired, one struggling math teacher in Stockton was observed 13 times by school officials, failed three year-end evaluations, was offered a more desirable assignment and joined a mentoring program as most of his ninth-grade students flunked his courses.

As a case winds its way through the system, legal costs can soar into the six figures.

Not convinced?  Just dig through the numbers reported by the California Department of Education.  (ala 67% graduation rate district wide through high school vs 80% statewide…) Or perhaps check out this study and write up from 3 years ago.

Slightly more than 44% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduated from high school in four years, according to the study, which was conducted by the research arm of the nonpartisan publication Education Week. Of the country’s 50 largest public school districts, only five placed lower than Los Angeles, the study determined. […] The Education Week study found that New York City has a graduation rate of 39% and put Chicago, the nation’s third largest district, at 52%.

Is this correctable?  Probably a little, but at what cost?  That’s the issue.  Do you want to spend 10-30 years and continue to have a less optimal experience for generations of children while we let the slow grind system try to improve it? or do we just blow the whole thing over and try something new?

The contingencies regarding performance are messed up in these big city school districts.  The performance is so far removed from the paycheck that you have no hope of really impacting teacher/student/admin performance.  The hope of every parent in these school districts is that you draw a good straw with your local school and the teachers.  i.e. the teacher has to be good as the system can’t train them or course correct.

Outside of teacher performance the current framework of mass public education is flawed.  Schools teach out of date behaviors, skills and knowledge.  The environment for learning is outdated and terribly inefficient. The way students are evaluated doesn’t match up with the actual learning taking place or lack thereof.

Forget the big education theory questions.  These big city school districts simply get crushed under their own weight.  Too many students.  Too many uncommitted parents.  Broken buildings.  Out dated technology.  District wide curriculum is too vanilla.  Constant need to “beat the numbers” to get budget overtakes all other goals. Terrible nutrition in school food.

Here are some of my own experiences to back up my claims:

  • All food on campus is pre packaged.  It is no longer cooked on the spot.  It usually is some sugary, preservative filled something
  • Most campuses are very insecure.  As long as you talk and look like a parent, you can get in.  I’ve only had to show an ID once.
  • There are no classroom assistants.  1 teacher 20-24 students and occasionally a room parent/helper
  • The computers are very old, using very old software and not in the least bit focused on the Internet
  • Without the constant donation of time, money and supplies from parents the classrooms would go without printer paper, Kleenex, a vacuum…
  • Earthquake drills are only run at the END of the year
  • There is no consequence for tardiness and the most schools do not have automated alert system for notifying parents
  • Teachers are responsible for finding their own subs and when the sub doesn’t show, it’s not clear what the remedy is
  • and so much more…

I’m not complaining nor blaming anyone in particular.  I grew up on public schools and I’m doing just fine.  The point is you can’t  implement a better education program when the core of teacher performance, school environment and daily operations are fundamentally broken.  And, no, throwing money at this has not helped.

It’s time to face the facts – the system doesn’t scale.  Trying to get more students into worse aging buildings with ever decreasing resources and under trained teachers doesn’t work.  Vouchers, charters, after school programs… all of that is a band aid or a smoke screen to save a job or two.

Scale?  How can the public school systems scale?

  • Technology
  • New focus on the skills that matter
  • Put it on the parents and provide the resources


For curriculum – By using the Internet and online curriculum huge amounts of budget can be freed up.  Stop printing all this stuff.  Stop buying out of date books from publishers.  Even kindergarten’s can use a computer or a Kindle and these devices cost far less than books in the long haul, as they are multi purpose, can be updated, etc. etc.

For physical space – There is no reason to have these clunky school buildings with oversized lunch rooms and pretty little libraries.  Why not build an efficient community center that has the main focus of technology and community rooms?  Don’t build another library.  Don’t get me wrong. I’m a bibliophile and I still think the little school library or regional branches are doomed because they don’t provide you the materials you or your child needs any faster / better than you could get them via the Internet or Barnes and Noble.  The less space we waste on books and materials, the more space we have for learning or the less space we need period.

For administration – Why do we have all this paperwork?  This is crazy making!  40 forms for enrollment. sign in, sign out.  Report cards.  Memos for fund raising.  Volunteer sign ups. Calendars.  Menus.  …  STOP!  Use technology.  and none of it would cost anything.  There is enough open source software to power all of these features or I’m sure the schools can find some enterprising students to help build it.

Skills that Matter

Teach computing early.  It’s the ol’ teach a man to fish thing.

Teach reading.

Teach figuring things out for yourself.

Teach listening.

Teach mathematical thinking (not rote arithmetic!)

Teach many languages

And teach it all in a way that isn’t about mimickry or regurgitation.  It should all be exploratory – theory making and testing.  Questions.  I’m not education theorist, that’s probably clear. However, based on my own experience with my children I think young children are very good at abstract thinking.  When we are too hasty to fill them with facts we clog up that very useful abstract thinking.  Most facts can be retrieved or computed quickly nowadays.  Learning how to talk about things and question and query and compute is way more important than the actual fact. (Oh and many facts we teach are usually outdated by the time they are learned!)

Parents and Resources

I have repeatedly given this advice to my friends preparing to put their children in school:  Your children will get the quality of education YOU provide.  Yup, don’t rely on the schools and community to give you what you think is needed.  Get involved and make it happen.

This needs to be amped up by the schools too.  Here’s a crazy idea… Test the parents and report those results with the students.  Really be hard on the parents for getting their kids to school on time, getting homework done, knowing the material themselves.

And, finally, as a way to let parents be even more involved… Provide distance learning to every student. Let any student elect into distance learning as long as they show they can keep up.  There should be a hybrid model.

and more!…

Public school systems in large cities are lost.  We can’t keep putting Humpty Dumpty back together.  Find a different model… now… the consequences of not doing that are really straight forward: some 50% of the population in a big city doesn’t graduate and isn’t able to earn more than 40k a year.  You do the math from there to see why waiting for reform is a less optimal strategy.

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Gosh. What to say about the verdict in the Luis Ramirez murder case?

This string of events, court case, and circumstances is a real GRAY AREA.

Gasps filled the courtroom in Pottsville Friday as not-guilty verdicts were announced on charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation for the teens.

A death caused by a brutal beating of an illegal immigrant.  Alcohol. Teenagers as the culprits.  Small town America.  All white jury.  Religion. Racism.

And a messy bunch of testimony and witnesses.

Walsh pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Ramirez’s civil rights and could be out of prison in four years. On the witness stand, he identified Piekarsky as the kicker. So did Scully, who told jurors he tried to kick the immigrant but missed. Scully is charged in juvenile court with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.

This one is not going to go away anytime soon.

Even if the verdict came back guilty I think this one still hangs out there as a big giant hornet’s nest.

Questions hanging out there:

  1. Did the culprits get off easy?
  2. Was racism at play in the courtroom?
  3. What rights does an illegal immigrant have?
  4. How do we prosecute teens?
  5. Did the recent debates in the region stir up violence?
  6. What are the consequences at play here?
  7. What are the histories of these teens? of the victim? of the town?
  8. What is the legal precedent? the cultural precedent?

More than anything we need to talk about these things.  Debate them.  This situation doesn’t have an easy answer nor an absolute answer.  It’s real gray and the gray things require a lot of thought and debate. Let’s start.

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Do you think President Obama and his administration proposed the largest deficit in history by far to improve the chances that a meaningful budget will get through eventually?

That is, as is often done in business, has Obama spit out something at the highest budget levels knowing that opposition will ask for compromises and cuts and only go with something once they cut enough flesh?

It doesn’t seem implausible to me that one might want to come out with a preposterously big proposal so that you can lose 25% in negotiations and still have a usefully large budget.

Really when you look at the estimates, factsheets and assumptions powering the media behind the budget  – everything does read like a typical MBA-built business plan – it’s all up and to the right where it needs to be.

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