Photo of the day

The Big Picture provides a pretty amazing gallery from Japan’s “Nuclear Exclusion Zone.”  A number of photos of abandoned pets and livestock are particularly poignant– this is my favorite:

In this June 19, 2011 photo, a stray pet cat rests inside a dryer at an abandoned coin laundry in central Namie, Japan less than six miles from the crippled nuclear reactor. (AP Photographer David Guttenfelder on assignment for National Geographic Magazine) #

Finnish Education

Really interesting piece in the Atlantic about what lessons we can take from the much-touted educational system of Finland.  The big point seems to be that we’re not taking the obvious lessons.  Interestingly, in striving for equity, rather than achievement, Finland has created great achievement almost as an unintended consequence:

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

Maybe we are learning the wrong lessons from Finland, but I think the piece elides a bit that Finnish culture is apparently different enough from American that many of the “real” lessons from Finland seem entirely untenable in the American context.  To wit:

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea…

Indeed.  Insofar as sentiments such as the above drive Finnish education policy, they’re just not compatible with the socio-political reality of America.  Not that there surely aren’t important lessons that we are over-looking.  The one I like best is really valuing teachers:

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country.

As I’ve mentioned, I suspect that the Master’s degree doesn’t really matter, but making teaching a prestigious occupation that attracts the country’s best and brightest surely does.

And there’s actually lots more good stuff in there, too.  If you’ve any interest in education policy, definitely read the whole thing.

Modern Nullification

Much vacating, little blogging, but I did want to take a moment to highlight this Drum post, which I think is very valuable.  Read it.  Or, at least a few key points:

There isn’t yet any modern-day John Calhoun to articulate this new theory of nullification in detail, but the nickel version is pretty simple: it says that a single senator can nullify a duly passed statute of the United States.

In one sense, this is just the latest front in the Republican war against executive branch nominees of the Obama administration. But until now, that war has been merely an escalation: more nominees are being filibustered than ever before, creating logjams in the federal court system and a shortage of leadership in the executive branch. It’s a big problem, but nothing has actually been shut down because of it.

That’s now changing. Republicans are refusing to allow votes on President Obama’s nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and on his nominees to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. In both cases, the Republican refusal is explicity aimed at shutting down these agencies. In the case of the CFPB, it’s because the law that created it gives certain powers to its director, and without a director those powers can’t be exercised.In the case of the NLRB, it’s because they can’t function at all unless a minimum of three out of five seats are filled. When Craig Becker, already a recess appointment because of a  Republican filibuster last year, finishes his term at the end of 2011, only two seats will remain filled and the NLRB will grind to a halt.

If you actually believe in representative democracy, you have to acknowledge that this is just very wrong.  Otherwise, those Republican blinders are really, really strong.  Furthermore, this is a great example of our political asymmetry.  Democrats don’t just do crap like this– or at least not anywhere in the same league.   This should stop.  Of course, Obama should play tougher– and Drum covers this, too– but that’s almost surely not going to happen.

Photo of the Day

From Yahoo!’s year in photos:

Looking Into the Past: World Trade Center Collapse, September 11, 2001

I do like this cool photo-in-photo thing.  If you haven’t seen these before, check out Dear Photograph.

Disenfranchising college students

It’s gotten a little less attention, but in addition to passing voter ID laws that disproportionately affect the poor and minorities (i.e., Democratic voters) to “protect” against the thoroughly non-existent problem of voter fraud, Republicans are doing the best that they can to make it harder for college students (i.e., read, likely Democratic voters) to vote as well.  A friend of the blogger and the blog, forwarded a tweet in response to an NYT Editorial on the issue that said, “a thousand dollars to anyone that can legitimately defend this behavior.”   Umm, depends on what you mean by “legitimate,” because he might owe $1000’s of dollars to many Republican state legislators.  Now, if you read legitimate to mean “with intellectual honesty and coherence” now then, I think his money is safe.  Here’s a bit from the Editorial:

Next fall, thousands of students on college campuses will attempt to register to vote and be turned away. Sorry, they will hear, you have an out-of-state driver’s license. Sorry, your college ID is not valid here. Sorry, we found out that you paid out-of-state tuition, so even though you do have a state driver’s license, you still can’t vote.

Political leaders should be encouraging young adults to participate in civic life, but many Republican state lawmakers are doing everything they can instead to prevent students from voting in the 2012 presidential election. Some have openly acknowledged doing so because students tend to be liberal…

It’s all part of a widespread Republican effort to restrict the voting rights of demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic. Blacks, Hispanics, the poor and the young, who are more likely to support President Obama, are disproportionately represented in the 21 million people without government IDs. On Friday, the Justice Department, finally taking action against these abuses, blocked the new voter ID law in South Carolina.

Republicans usually don’t want to acknowledge that their purpose is to turn away voters, especially when race is involved, so they invented an explanation, claiming that stricter ID laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud. In fact, there is almost no voter fraud in America to prevent.

This is appalling, completely against (small d) democracy, and just plain bad public policy (you really want to do all you can to encourage young people to take a more active role in democracy, as civic participation builds upon itself).  Of course, that’s never really stopped Republicans from doing something for short-term political gain.  Argh.

Photo of the day

I think The Big Picture’s Year End Gallery Part II may be my favorite year-end collection yet.  Lot’s of really interesting photos.  The following is my favorite due to the just a little bit obvious last line of the caption:

A leopard attacks a forest guard July 19 at Prakash Nagar village near Salugara, on the outskirts of Siliguri, India. The leopard strayed into the village area and mauled several villagers, including three guards, before being caught by forest officials. The leopard, which suffered injuries caused by knives and batons, died later in the evening at a veterinary center. The forest guard being attacked was injured. (Associated Press) #

Okay, you know what, cannot resist two from this collection.  I love the following as it seems like a scene from a dystopian science fiction movie.  Just love the juxtaposition of that crazy mask with shorts and a t-shirt:

Protesters clash with riot police during a 48-hour general strike on June 28 in Athens. Greece is set to come to a halt on Tuesday as protesters launch a 48-hour general strike against the bankruptcy-threatened government which is desperately trying to push through sweeping austerity cuts. As parliament votes on the drastic belt-tightening measures to unlock 12 billion euros ($17 billion) of blocked funds from the EU and IMF, unions have called on Greeks facing hefty tax hikes to stage mass demonstrations. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images) #

Ron Paul: liar?

Ummm, yes.  Not to go all Ron Paul crazy this week, but it is a slow news week and I think the way the story of his racist, paranoid newsletters is interesting in a number of ways (and Weigel is all over it).  First of all, now that he’s getting serious national attention, he’s, of course, claiming that he didn’t write these newsletters.  That was not the case 15 years ago:

It’s nice to have this in the public record, but what’s new about it? Paul made money from the newsletters. Paul advertised the newsletters. He doesn’t claim anything new in these videos. No — as Sam Stein notices, with a look back into the Nexis machine, it was only in 1996 that Paul acknowledged that he wrote some of the newsletters. In a Dallas Morning News report from May 1996, Catalina Camia asked Paul to explain some of the more embarassing stuff in the survival reports. Paul had not yet seized on his current line, that he had “no idea who wrote” this stuff.

Of course, just as my post went up yesterday, GMA was actually running a story that made, somewhat fleeting, mention of his newsletters.  Nothing detailed mind you, more of a “look, all the leading candidates have baggage,” but still.  The simple truth is that for a “mainstream” candidate, Paul’s past publications is utterly disqualifying.  The fact that this story is still being treated more as a curiosity, if anything, shows that the media just doesn’t consider Paul a serious threat.  And he’s not!  For one, if he ever were, this stuff would make Rick Perry’s baggage look like a handy-sized carry-on.  Love this Weigel summary:

How did Paul slide through a year of televised debates, where his rivals were asked about their opinions of “submission” in marriage and accusations of affairs, and never get a question about this stuff? Paul’s associations haven’t changed in four years. His explanations haven’t changed. You can see why Paul’s fans might get annoyed or paranoid about this. They thought they’d litigated this stuff already, and earned a pass.

Of course, that’s the other interesting aspect– none of the other candidates have the cult-like following of Paul, in which the candidate can do no wrong (just read the comment thread to any negative–i.e., fact-based– critique of Paul, if you doubts about that).  There’s clearly an interesting dynamic going on there worthy of more study.

Photo of the day

I rented an F/2.0 lens for Christmas, since Kim (reasonably, I suppose) won’t let me spend $400+ for it.  What it excels at is the artistic blur of the background of your image.  I think it works especially well with a fireplace, and, of course, a beautiful baby

Ron Paul: racist nut?

So, I haven’t followed the Ron Paul racist newsletter stuff all the closely because it just doesn’t seem worth getting into the weeds on this.  From what I have followed, it seems pretty clear that whether he himself is actually a racist or not, he clearly is using racial animosity for political gain.  This Drum post, however, although actually about his truly laughable ideas about creating dollar bills which are more difficult to counterfeit, made me take notice.  Here’s Drum’s take on Paul’s “new money” fears:

Answer: as near as I can tell, he’s babbling about the introduction in 1991 of new currency designed to be harder to counterfeit. It made his skin crawl! The bills were tinted pink and blue! And they were being printed in — a nondescript building that has security measures and three-color printing presses!

Anyway, I so enjoyed that, that I followed the link to the source, a blog that has scans and discussion of over 50 “Ron Paul Newsletters.”  I realized he has claimed he didn’t author these things, but I didn’t realize the actual document was entitled “The Ron Paul Newsletter.”  Seems to me, when something goes out under your name, you bear some responsibility for the content.  As the blogger (presumably not actually an African dictator) writes, there’s really just no winning this:

As I said in my rundown on the Paul platform over atVice, reasonable fans of Dr. Paul now must accept that

there’s no way Paul could have been ignorant of the content [of] 8-12 page newsletters published under his name for over ten years. Paul supporters face three losing propositions:

• He lacks the competency to control content published under his own name for over a decade, and is thus unfit to lead a country.
• He doesn’t believe these things but considers them a useful political tool to motivate racist whites, which makes him fit to be a GOP candidate, but too obvious about it to win.
• He’s actually a racist, which makes him unfit to be a human being.

Yep,  those are pretty much the only possible logical conclusions.  It’s definitely worth taking a few minutes to read over some of these newsletter highlights.  Pretty odious stuff.  Here’s one quite typical example of the absurd paranoia, when it’s not race-baiting:

“I believe, in reality, the [Panama] Canal is now “owned” by facist-oriented [sic], international banking and business interests and is merely managed by the Marxist-oriented Torrijos dictatorship, with the bills being paid by the American taxpayers….”

And, as for racial stuff:

“Boy, it sure burns me to have a national holiday for that pro-communist philanderer, Martin Luther King. I voted against this outrage time and time again as a Congressman. What an infamy that Ronald Reagan approved it! We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day. Listen to a black radio talk show in any major city. The racial hatred makes a KKK rally look tame.”

Riiiiiiight.  And the only reason more people don’t know about Paul’s absurd and offensive rantings is because the media has never taken Paul as anything more than a curiousity with no chance to win the nomination.  If anybody actually thought he had a chance, he’d just be killed by this stuff in the mainstream press (and probably even Fox).

It’s also fun to watch the Paul fans try and grapple with this in the comments.   I would love to see Ron Paul have a moment in the sun as a front-runner and see him face some tough questions about this in the light of day. That, I strongly suspect, though, is not to be.

Merry Christmas

Alas, the scan threw off the colors a bit, but you get the drift.  Merry Christmas to all my blog readers to whom it applies (does that count as part of the War on Christmas?)


Photo of the day

So many great Santa photos in this Alan Taylor set, but this first one remains my favorite.  A classic of what really happens when really young children meet Santa:

lOlivia Ruch, a seven-month-old with a look of concern on her face, sits on Santa’s lap in Santa’s Grotto in Selfridges department store in London, England, on December 7, 2011. Santa is portrayed by actor David Warren, who has been playing the role for the past ten years.(Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)  

I was going to follow-up with a photo of Sarah in a not too dissimilar pose, but I guess the photographer never even snapped one because she was screaming.  Instead, I’ll give you Alex, who looks as if he’s the ultra-modern boy, sharing a Christmas wish list off of his Ipad.

Costs, benefits, and political control of the bureaucracy

I must admit, I too often fail to pay as close attention to environmental politics as I should, so the EPA’s new rulings on mercury would’ve largely slipped by my radar if not for Drum and Ezra’s blog.  It’s also one of those things, yet again, that make me appreciate the power of blogs as policy-wise, this is a very big deal, but I certainly didn’t get that impression from whatever 12-point headlines were in the Post and Times.   Brad Plumer summarizes costs and benefits:

Indeed, the EPA estimates that the regulation will produce $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by 2016 (compared with clean-up costs of about $9.6 billion). Confusingly, though, most of these estimated benefits don’t actually come from reducing mercury pollution. So where do they come from? And just how big a dealare these rules?

First, some background. Plenty of evidence suggests that mercury — a neurotoxin — inflicts quite a bit of harm on the public. A 2005study in Environmental Health Perspectives, for instance, looked at the effects of mercury poisoning on the brains of fetuses. It found that 637,000 babies were born each year with significant amounts of mercury in their bloodstream, with about two-thirds of those kids suffering IQ loss. The authors estimated that the lost economic productivity due to decreased intelligence came to about $8.7 billion per year [emphasis mine], with $1.3 billion of that attributable to power plants.

Short version: costs/benefit wise, this is a huge win for the American public.  And the benefits go well beyond the dollar value.  We are talking about avoiding the travesty of needlessly destroying Americans’ actual intelligence.

Despite the really obvious benefits, this is exactly the policy that’s hard to get passed.  Most people aren’t even aware of the benefit they will recieve and it probably works out to something like a mean .7 IQ point per person or something like that.  And surely, most people think it will be other people and their children who suffer the effects of mercury and particulate matter.  Meanwhile, the polluters are the ones to bear the cost, so they fight tooth and nail against it.

What pisses me off, is that Republicans generally seem eager to help them in their efforts to diminish the overall intelligence and respiratory health of Americans.  Talk about a regulation that’s a no-brainer, but I think Republicans have become so reflexively and unthinkingly anti-government and anti-regulation, that even something that makes so much economic sense is perceived as unnecessary and intrusive government regulation.   Frustrating.

Finally, this is a great example of why political control of the bureaucracy matters.  Even given the huge economic benefits of this regulation, does anybody seriously think an EPA under Republican-appointed leadership would’ve enacted it?  So, maybe a future child/grandchild of yours will breather easier or be smarter because Obama’s president.  And if not, somebody else’s child will.  And you’ll benefit– like all Americans– from their increased economic productivity.

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