Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Vikings and the Metrodome

I’ve stayed away from the NFL this year because of the limited time I have for playing with my blog, but this one I can’t pass up.

The Minnesota Vikings came into this season with high expectations and a 63,000 seat stadium to play in. They’ve been lobbying for a new stadium since, by NFL standards, 63,000, is pretty small.

Now, approaching the 14th game of the season, the Vikings are a dismal 5-8, out of the play-off picture, without Brett Favre their starting quarterback and desperately trying to get the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium ready for a game against the Bears Monday night. Last week’s Sunday game against the Giants got delayed to Monday night as well and moved to Detroit thanks to a blizzard and the collapse of the roof of the Metrodome. The 21-3 loss to the Giants just added insult to injury.

This has all the earmarks of a total fiasco. Let’s start with the 63,000 ticket holders from last week that probably didn’t drive down to Detroit. The rumor was they gave out tickets for free and only 47,000 or so people took them up on it. I mean, why would people in Detroit flock to a Vikings-Giants game?

Now the problem is that TCF Bank stadium only holds 50,000 people. If they don’t figure out a way to provide extra seating, 13,000 folks are going to have a problem. Even if they manage that, imagine trying to figure out how to distribute the tickets. Then there is the little problem of the 17 inches of snow covering the winterized college stadium and the fact that college stadiums don’t sell beer so there are no kegs at the refreshment stands. Yeah, THAT’S going to go over big. And that’s not to mention the expected 0 degree temperatures for the game Monday night.

I mean, you have to laugh at this one. I was at the Giants-Cowboys game when the lights went out and that was a bit of a trip. I was trying to imagine 82,000, half of them drunk, trying to negotiate leaving the stadium in the pitch dark. Luckily it didn’t come to that.

Yeah, things can even go wrong for the NFL.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Noah’s Ark in Kentucky?

Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (AiG) appears to have worked out a deal with the state of Kentucky to build a full scale model of the mythical Noah’s Ark as the main attraction in a Bible themed park in Northern Kentucky. The state’s aid in this will be in the form of incentives rather than direct funding so it’s sort of on the border of legality. AiG also built the Creation Museum, also in Northern Kentucky. As a matter of fact the two will be within easy driving distance of each other.

Needless to say this is a really dumb idea. You want to know why the U.S. lags behind other countries in education? Well here’s one of the reasons. We let morons like Ken Ham build cathedrals to mythology that disregard real science and then waltz young children through them to have their brains thoroughly washed.

The Creation Museum attracts about 250,000 visitors a year and AiG is hoping the new Noah’s Ark park will attract some 1.6 million visitors a year. The governor of Kentucky is hoping the project will bring much needed jobs into the area.

Hey, it’s a free country. If you want to build monuments to stupidity that’s your right. I just don’t think the state should chip in with tax payer dollars especially when we’re talking about a religious themed project.

Perhaps Kentucky is looking to gain ground on Kansas and Oklahoma in the race for dumbest state?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

We're just average! We're just average!

The 2009 OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) just came out and we’re definitely doing something wrong. The U.S. has dropped to 14th in reading (out of 34), 17th in science and a dismal 25th in mathematics. I suggest we all start studying Chinese as China is starting to converge on Finland and Korea who have been the consistent leaders in education.

This is important because it is driving our ability to compete in the world market. We’re wallowing in complacency and thereby loosing the “first-mover” advantage we’ve enjoyed since the end of World War II. It’s not that we’ve gotten worse, it’s that we haven’t improved as much as everyone else.

Some quotes from the full report.

“…the United States did not measure the performance of states individually on PISA. However, it is possible to compare the performance of public schools among groups of states. Such a comparison suggests that in reading, public schools in the northeast of the United States would perform at 510 PISA score points – 17 score points above the OECD average (comparable with the performance of the Netherlands) but still well below the high-performing education systems examined in this volume – followed by the midwest with 500 score points (comparable with the performance of Poland), the west with 486 score points (comparable with the performance of Italy) and the south with 483 score points (comparable with the performance of Greece).”

There’s the South, at the bottom of the list again. Yet these right wing morons are always ready to tell everyone else how they should live and act. Explain to me again why we didn’t just let them secede?

“…a comparison of countries’ actual spending per student, from the age of 6 up to 15, on average, puts the United States at an even greater advantage, since only Luxembourg spends more than the United States on school education per student.”

Great, we spend more but we accomplish less. Does this sound familiar? This is the same problem that we have with health care.

“With respect to spending on instruction, the United States spends a far lower proportion than the average OECD country on the salaries of high-school teachers.”

“At the same time, high school teachers in the United States teach far more hours…”

Please note the two quotes above Governor Christie. It’s always a good idea to check the facts before arriving at a “solution” to a problem. Teachers are not the problem. If anything we should consider paying them more and working them less not the other way around.

Here's the bottom line, as much as the right wing nutcases would like to believe it is, this country isn't perfect. We have some fundamental problems which need to be addressed because these problems are leading to endemic weaknesses that are slowly but surely eroding our economic prosperity.

We need tax reform; we need educational reform; we need to address the runaway income and wealth disparity that has developed in this country; we need to get the budget deficit under control and we need health care reform. The recent Health Care Reform bill was a step in the right direction but it falls way short of where we need to be. We need more doctors, more hospitals and even broader health insurance coverage. We do not need to repeal the Health Care Reform bill, we need to build upon it.

What we don't need are more tax incentives for the multi-millionaires club or to squander time and resources preventing gay marriage.

Parents Insulted by Book

A couple in New Hampshire have taken their son out of the local high school because he was assigned to read a book which referred to Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”

The book was assigned in the student’s personal finance class and is “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenrich. The book is an account of Ehrenrich’s attempt to survive while working minimum wage jobs in Florida, Minnesota and Maine.

The couple protested to the principal and the school board but both took the position that despite some “questionable” positions, the book had value in describing the difficulties of making ends meet with a limited income.

The quote isn’t meant as an insult to Jesus. It’s part of the following description related to a Christian Church service.

"It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth."

This is a criticism of Christianity implying that it has abandoned the actual teachings of Jesus. The fact is that Jesus was a man that modern Christians in the U.S. probably wouldn’t dream of inviting over for Sunday dinner.

There are two questions here. The first is the appropriateness of the couple’s reaction and the second is how accurate is the description?

As to their reaction over their son encountering sentiments they may not agree with, or may even find offensive, they need to get over it. These opinions exists and will be expressed. Their son is old enough to accept that simple fact. No one is forcing him to accept that Ehrenrich’s opinions or descriptions are the unvarnished truth. He is free to disagree and he is free to express that disagreement. Banning the book isn’t the answer.

What about the accuracy of the description? Merriam-Webster defines vagrant as “one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support.”

Well, Jesus did wander from place to place but one could argue, even if one doesn’t buy the Son of God bit, that it wasn’t idle. As an itinerant preacher he certainly had a purpose. As for a means of support, one can infer that he lived on the donations of his followers in the same way that modern priests and pastors live on those donations. Therefore I have to conclude that calling him a vagrant is inaccurate.

As for “wine-guzzling,” I have to assume this is derived from the last supper. Wine would have been pretty standard with meals in Palestine at that time and I see no evidence Jesus “ guzzled” it nor even that he ever drank it. I have to conclude that this is inaccurate as well.

That brings us to “precocious socialist.” Certainly some of Jesus’ opinions appear to lean toward the socialist, but I think this is a bit of a stretch. The fact of the matter is that one can find Jesus quotes which, if interpreted properly, could be claimed to support almost any political position from the far right to the far left.

In order to address the question “was Jesus a socialist,” one has to agree upon what a “socialist” is. Technically, socialism decrees that the government should control the means of production, the means of generating wealth, and distribute that wealth in an even handed manner. Socialism doesn’t say everyone should share equally in the wealth, the manager can get more than the mail room clerk, but that the disparity should be kept within reason and everyone should get some minimum share.

Capitalism on the hand, is a wide open free for all with no guarantees for anybody.

People, read that right wing conservatives, also use “socialism” to describe any government decreed action which moves wealth from the richer segment of the population to the poorer. By this definition welfare, Medicare, minimum wage laws, housing subsidies, food stamps and even Social Security are “socialist.”

Certainly Jesus didn’t believe in the government controlling all means of production. He probably would have been flabbergasted at the idea. Nor do I think he believed in the government redistribution of wealth. This was sort of what the Romans were doing by taxing the provinces in order to feed and entertain the plebe underclass in Rome.

What he did believe in was individual charity and not amassing a fortune to the detriment of everyone else so he certainly wasn’t a rock ribbed Republican Capitalist. At the time he could only appeal to individual conscience. All of the Jesus quotes I have ever seen which people claim illustrate his socialist leaning are appeals for individuals to do the right thing.

The question is if someone had suggested the concept of the government FORCING the rich to contribute to the welfare of the poor would he have embraced that idea?

It’s difficult to say. If the government forces you to do what’s right than what would be the criteria for dividing the sheep and the goats? Certainly Jesus was concerned with the welfare of the poor, but the only way he knew of addressing that concern was to appeal to individual generosity.

So I’d have to say that labeling him a “precocious socialist” is probably inaccurate too. That makes Ehrenrich 0 for 3 in my opinion.

Arsenic Based Life?

Maybe, and maybe not.

On December 2, 2010, NASA released a scientific paper claiming that a strain of bacteria named GFAJ-1 had been developed that substituted arsenic in its DNA for phosphorus.

This would be a very big deal. Every life form we knew about previously was dependent upon phosphorus to build its DNA. If life could exist substituting arsenic, and perhaps other elements, then we would have to greatly expand our concepts on what it takes for life to develop and the probability that life exists elsewhere in the universe would take a huge leap toward the likely end of the spectrum.

Then scientists around the country started to review and criticize the paper.

The consensus of opinion at the moment seems to be that the researchers that published the paper in the journal Science hadn’t made their case. And that was one of the milder ways of putting it. Some of the reactions were considerably more scathing than that, calling the experiments flawed or even downright sloppy.

This is how science works.

You do the research, you publish the results and then you wait for the reviews. The negative reactions here do not mean the results of the paper are wrong. They don’t even mean the experiments were flawed or sloppy. This is all a matter of opinion. The authors are sticking by their guns and have offered to make samples of GFAJ-1 available to other researchers.

Critics say that a few straightforward tests can determine if the bacteria have arsenic based DNA or not. If that’s true, one has to wonder why the research team didn’t use those tests.

At any rate, the matter will be resolved by additional testing and research. NASA isn’t planning to petition local school boards to include “Arsenic Based Life” as a biology topic. I don’t hear any calls to “teach the controversy” because that is not how science works.

This is what makes sense. This is the process used to separate good science from bad science. This is the process that Creationists try to sidestep when they try to get so-called Creation Science or Intelligent Design into high schools classrooms while claiming it’s “what’s fair.”

No, it’s not “what’s fair.” It’s asking for a privilege not extended to anyone else. It’s asking to be declared valid science without having to do the research, publish the results and address the criticism of peer reviewers that are knowledgeable experts in the subject matter.

Why do they avoid following the established process? Because what they call science is total crap without a leg to stand on that’s why. It’s wishful thinking without a shred of evidence to support it.

If Christianity can champion total nonsense like Creationism and support it with lies and dishonesty, then I have to conclude that all of Christianity is nonsense supported by lies and dishonesty.

Like the American Atheists billboard says, “You KNOW it’s a Myth.”

The Tax Cut Compromise

You have got to be kidding me!

Whatever happened to the idea of fiscal responsibility? Obama gave in to the Republicans big time in order to get the unemployment extensions that every economist in the country said were going to get the best return on investment. In the meantime, all of the continuing tax cuts for the wealthy demanded by the Republicans are going to provide the worst return on investment.

The Democrats try to do what’s best for the country; the Republicans are only interested in what’s best for Republicans.

I don’t buy the Republican bullshit that the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest citizens is going to negatively impact small businesses because I happen to understand how economics and the tax structure work. It’s the old if the facts aren’t on your side, make up some phony ones and pitch them loud and often to the morons that make up the American electorate.

Even more ridiculous is the reduction in the Social Security payroll tax applied to everyone for 2011. That’s going to cost something like $120 billion in federal revenue.

Here’s the bottom line. We’re not going to be able to dig ourselves out of the current financial hole we’re in by any conceivable economic growth scheme. It’s not going to happen. In other words you can’t get there through tax cuts. The Laffer Curve and Supply Side Economics are total nonsense. What’s required are tax increases and spending cuts with an ultimate objective of reducing the wealth and income disparity that has developed in this country.

That’s reality, and the sooner we recognize it the sooner we can start to get the economy back on a stable footing. If you insist on calling this Socialism, be my guest. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s what’s needed for the economy to really recover.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Proposition 8 in the 9th Circuit

The 9th Circuit Court is in the process of considering the Constitutionality of Proposition 8 which eliminated gay marriage rights in California after the California Supreme Court had granted them.

There are actually two parts to the argument. The first is whether Proposition 8 advocates even have the legal right to appeal the lower court decision which declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional since both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown refused to.

There are a fairly wide range of possible decisions here.

The court could declare that the Proposition 8 advocates don’t have standing and the lower court ruling would therefore stand. I don’t expect this to happen.

The court could simply decide that it is constitutional for the electorate to take away a right granted to a segment of the population by the courts by amending the state constitution via a simple majority vote. I don’t really expect this to happen either.

The court could decide that any and all restrictions on gay marriage in states within its jurisdiction are unconstitutional. This would potentially legalize gay marriage in nine states pending possible Supreme Court review. This would be a bombshell that would almost certainly be overturned by the current conservative Supreme Court so I don’t expect this to happen either.

What I expect is a very narrow ruling to the effect that you cannot so easily deny a right from a very specific segment of the population once it has been granted by the court. This would restore gay marriage, at least temporarily, in California but not affect the other states in the 9th Circuit jurisdiction. This would also have some chance of not being overturned since I guarantee you that this case is headed to the Supreme Court no matter what the decision in the 9th Circuit.

Even if the ruling gets by the Supreme Court, you can be sure that gay marriage opponents will be looking for other ways to end its legality in California.

I think gays should have the right to marry if they want to regardless of how bizarre that might sound to some people. I don’t understand why this isn’t a big “don’t care” to everyone except religious wackos and we can safely ignore them.

Here’s hoping the 9th Circuit does the right thing.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Latinos, DREAM and Obama

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, an innovation close to the hearts of Latino leaders, appears to be on its last legs.

DREAM establishes a set of criteria for illegal aliens brought to this country as minors by their parents to obtain first temporary and then permanent residency. The criteria include no criminal record, at least a high school diploma, not ever being under an order of deportation, being brought here before the age of 16 and being here at least 5 years.

Permanent legal status would be granted after eithercompleting two years of college (one hopes it has to be an accredited college in order to avoid “colleges” springing up in the rear of bodegas) or at least two years of military service with an honorable discharge. Needless to say, the defense department supports this bill.

I don’t have a big problem with the bill either other than I didn’t see anything about being proficient in English. It gives young men and women, brought here by their parents, a way to obtain legal status in possibly the only country they’ve ever known as home.
Of course it’s more than a little controversial.

The Latino leadership is miffed at President O because he hasn’t pushed passage of either comprehensive immigration reform or even this plan B substitute. Actually they’re more than miffed, they feel betrayed.

As a result people like Representative Luis Guitierrez from Chicago are threatening to ditch the legislative route and take to the streets in an attempt to duplicate the success of the Black Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

I think that could be a major mistake if they don’t think this one through carefully.

There is a difference between the Black Civil Rights movement and immigration reform. Actually, there are several differences.

The single most important one is the difference between American Citizens simply asking for what they are entitled to under the law and people here illegally, even if through no fault of their own, who have no right to what they are asking for. Or at least no legal right to what they are asking for.

A second difference is that there is no emerging young, leftist baby boomer generation ready to take up the cause and provide an initial wave of white majority support.

A third difference is that the Civil Rights demonstrations in the south triggered violent, racist responses. You couldn’t watch blacks being blasted with fire hoses for simply asking for what they were entitled to as American Citizens without going WTF? It’s unlikely that Hispanic demonstrations will get that kind of response. Far more likely they will just end up being an annoyance, an inconvenience or ignored.

Finally, and a bit racist, is I never had to “hit one if you’re not black” like I have to “hit one to continue in English.” I grind my teeth every time I have to do that or have to wait through a repeat of the message in Spanish and I’m a lot more tolerant than most people.

If Guitierrez is going to try and drum up support, I say go for it, but if his efforts end up annoying the rest of us, this could really backfire.

Excuse me while I laugh at myself. What I just wrote sounds like the old “whatever you do, don’t push ‘em or you’ll get those extremists re-elected” advice from the old civil rights days. Unfortunately, given the realities of the situation, it might actually be sound advice.

I’m not saying be patient or be quiet. I’m saying direct your activities toward building sympathy and support then the political process becomes your ally. That’s what the black leadership did in the 1960s but I’m not sure that’s what the Latino leadership is thinking in 2010.