Photo of the day

Thanks to JDW for sending me this awesome Putin gallery (“43 Photos That Show Vladimir Putin Doesn’t Mess Around”) with wonderfully snarky commentary that makes it more than worth your while to check out the whole thing:

Putin takes in the scenic Siberian wilderness while shirtless on a horse.


Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia’s Tuva region August 3, 2009. Putin, a judo black belt who has flown in a fighter aircraft and shot a Siberian tiger in the wild, plunged into the depths of Lake Baikal aboard a mini-submersible on Saturday in a mission that added a new dimension to his macho image. Picture taken August 3, 2009. REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Pool/Alexei Druzhinin



NC Teacher Raises

So, Republicans being raked over the proverbial coals for the sorry state of teacher pay in this state, and this being an election year, the Governor has come out strongly in favor of raising teacher pay.  Not that simple, though, when you consider that prominent Republican legislators have attitudes like this:

Only days after Gov. Pat McCrory’s pledge to get N.C. teachers a needed pay increase, one Republican legislative leader was showing how difficult that might be to get through the state legislature.

On Thursday, House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam’s office sent a press release explaining how N.C. teachers had the “opportunity” for salary increases in the current year’s budget. All it would take is school districts taking advantage of “flexibility” lawmakers have given them to use state money designated for one purpose – gifted students or career technical education, for instance – and use it for another – like paying teachers more. Or, school districts could use money they get from their local governments to boost teacher pay.

Got that? Problem solved. There’s really no need for the governor and legislature to carve out a plan to commit resources to increase teacher pay.

Stam’s office even included a helpful list of where the state’s school districts’ could legally rob Peter to pay Paul. Stam points out, also helpfully, that the legislature last year opened several areas that had been off-limits for such transfers. This includes funds that had been restricted for disadvantaged students, at-risk students, limited English proficient students and low-wealth schools.  [emphasis mine]

So, want to pay teachers more? Raid those coffers and do it.

But, really, all we really need is for teachers to stop being so wasteful and figure out to run the schools more efficiently:

The release ends with this: “There are 95,000 teachers in North Carolina. They are in every public school and in every classroom!!! Each teacher can help his or her LEA run the schools more efficiently. Those savings can be converted to extra pay for teachers under existing law.”

Well, gee, who knew it was that simple?!  Time to get on this.  Perhaps we’ll solve all our state problems that way– we’ll just make everything more efficient.  Hooray!  What would we do without bold visionaries like Skip Stam teaching us there’s no such thing as tough choices– just greater efficiency.

On a very much related note, school systems in VA are advertising across NC.

Disturbing chart of the day

From an FBI report on “active shooter events”

Figure 1. Active Shooter Events by Year.jpg

In absolute numbers, this is still really low, but nonetheless a worrisome trendline.


As you know, SOTU’s bore me.  In fact, most all political speeches– even when I’m there.  That said, I would be remiss as a political scientist blogger not to say anything.  Okay, I won’t actually say anything.  Just that I liked Chait’s pre-speech take.  And that everbody’s been saying it will be all about what the President can accomplish without Congress.  And that lo and behold, the speech was about all that Obama was going to try and do without Congress.   And, that I love John Dickerson’s ideas for shaking things up.

Photo of the day

Hard to beat cool storm photos.  This is an awesome gallery at Wired.  Love the way this one looks like a wave.

A supercell tracks across southern Nebraska. MIKE HOLLINGSHEAD

Drug dogs

Great Radley Balko piece on the mis-use of drug-sniffing dogs.  Everybody thinks they are always right, but like any tool used by humans, they are hugely prone to human error:

Over the last 20 years or so, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the alert from a drug dog is enough to establish probable cause for a search. The problem is that while it’s true that dogs have a finely tuned sense of smell, far better than any technology we humans have been able to develop, we’ve also bred into dogs a trait that can supersede that ability—an eagerness to please us.

Without careful training, drug dogs will end up relying more on the body language of their trainers than on their olfactory prowess. That means that for many drug dogs, an “alert” is little more than a validation of the suspicions of its handler, and the very purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to protect us from invasive searches based merely on the suspicions of an agent of the government. Controlled academic studies of K9 team performances, for example, have shown that tests designed to trick a drug dog’s handlerare far more likely to make the dogs falsely alert than tests designed to trick the dogs themselves.

That’s why the field performance records of drug dogs are often no better—andsometimes worsethan a coin flip. Yet a dog’s alert during a traffic stop can result in a thorough search of your car, allowing police officers to snoop in all of your belongings. It can also give them cause to rip out upholstery and linings, damaging your car. (And in case you’re innocent, good luck getting compensated for it.) Worse, an alert, combined with a few hard-to-prove allegations from a cop about your body language or “suspicious” answers to questions, can result in the seizure and forfeiture of any cash or valuables you happen to be carrying, even if the officer doesn’t actually find a measurable quantity of drugs.

But, hey, don’t worry about it.  So what if a lot of innocent people are wrongfully searched and have their rights violated.  It’s all in the name of stopping illegal drugs.  I’m pretty sure that makes everything okay.

D vs. R on policy priorities

Well, when it comes to what Americans think is important politically, there’s Red America and Blue America.  Pretty interesting results in a recent Pew poll.  Lots of good stuff, but I like this chart that has partisan breakdowns on issue priorities:

Wide Partisan Differences over Environment, Dealing with the Poor, Global Warming and the Deficit

You could name multiple “top priorities” in the poll, so there’s plenty of important issues for each party, but several things stood out to me.  I find it depressing that so few Republicans consider protecting the environment a top priority.  I also wish there was not such a partisan disparity on improving education.  I guess this is because so many Republicans are old and don’t care about the education of young people?  It’s also interesting that Democrats are actually more concerned with crime.

I also wonder just what the 61% of Republicans think we should be doing to “strengthen our military.”  Seriously– it’s not strong enough already?!  And lastly, I suppose like any good liberal, I cannot help but roll my eyes at “dealing with moral breakdown.”

Surgeons surger

A friend who’s son just completed a wonderful, non-invasive treatment for club foot posted a link to this great NPR story that is a depressing tale of modern medicine.  Basically, there’s been a method around since the 1950’s to correct clubfoot (1 in 1000 births) through a series of casts, braces, etc.  It works, there’s few side effects, and there’s no repeated painful surgeries– the traditional treatment.  Well, when your baby is born with a clubfoot where do you but an orthopedic surgeon.  And what do surgeons like to do?  Cut.  Thus, a non-surgical treatment that is superior in pretty much every way was ignored for about half a century.  Until finally enough parents found out about it on the internet.  It’s a pretty amazing story.  Here’s a bit:

Just a decade ago, up to 90 percent of babies like Snyder’s daughter Alice were treated with surgery that usually had to be repeated several times. That created a buildup of scar tissue that often left patients with a lifetime of chronic pain, stiffness, arthritis and medical bills. But with the help of a simple, noninvasive solution and an Internet campaign led by parents, the course of treatment and likely outcomes have changed completely…

Instead, Herzenberg used what’s called the Ponseti Method. Doctors begin by applying a series of full-leg casts to slowly turn out the infant’s flexible feet. Casts are changed weekly for three to eight weeks…

Unlike the traditional surgical method, the Ponseti method is pretty much painless, and patients who receive it usually have a complete recovery, with no long-term discomfort. It also costs less. Ponseti spent the next 50 years tirelessly trying to get other doctors to accept it, but with little success.

“People were falling over themselves to do fancy invasive surgery, and this one strange old guy who speaks softly with a Spanish accent in Iowa was getting sort of ignored by the drumbeat of people who were in favor of surgery,” says Herzenberg, who is one of the foremost practitioners of the Ponseti method today.

Surgeons are trained to operate, explains Herzenberg, and usually that’s the way they make money. The Ponseti method brings in a lot less for orthopedists. For about 50 years, the technique mostly stayed in Iowa.

But then something new came along: the Internet…

Today, the Ponseti method is now almost always the treatment of choice for clubfoot and is recommended by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. When it is done correctly, 97 percent of children born with clubfoot never need invasive surgery.

Orthopedic surgeons should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for causing their patients needless suffering while they were getting needless enriched (I know they weren’t doing this for the money, but it doesn’t hurt to step back and question one’s assumptions– especially when practicing medicine).

I’m not a big fan of alternative medicine– I’m basically for any medicine that’s evidence-based– but with stories like this you cannot help but wonder what great treatments are out there that may simply be getting ignored by the medical establishment.  Also, chalk one more up for the internet.

Photo of the day

Discovery channel gallery of best ocean animal photos of 2013:

Blacktip sharks are active at dusk, as you can see in this shot of a shark near KwaZulu Natal, a province of South Africa.


How to fix voting

Jeffrey Toobin with a nice summary of the recommendations of a bipartisan commission to fix voting (hours long lines, anybody) problems in the US:

The world’s greatest democracy is not so great at running elections, as we all saw in 2012. There were, among other things, long lines at polling places, botched registrations, and mysterious rules on absentee ballots. As President Obama declared victory on election night, he wanted to do something about these problems. He appointed a (very) bipartisan commission, chaired by two self-described “partisan hacks”: Robert Bauer (Obama’s personal lawyer and his one-time White House counsel) and Benjamin Ginsberg (the national counsel to the Romney campaign and many other Republican causes). Wednesday, after six months of work, the “lines commission,” as it’s known, released a hundred-page report. Notwithstanding the strong party affiliations of its leaders, the group was unanimous in its recommendations…

The key recommendations come in four areas:

• More early voting. More mail and Internet voting would take care of the biggest problem in 2012, long lines. This is a clear embrace of a Democratic priority.

• Easier voter registration, including online. Again, this is a top Democratic priority, though the commission also gives a nod to technologies that compare databases and allow purges of ineligible voters, which have been a Republican cause.

• Improved voting technology. After the 2000 fiasco in Florida, the federal government subsidized the purchase of many new voting machines, but these are now approaching the end of their useful lives. The commission recommends ending the hegemony of the specialized voting machine and allowing voters to use their own computers to print out their ballots at home, like they do with boarding passes. With the right security in place, this makes all the sense in the world.

• The legacy of Newtown. The commission learned, surprisingly, that in the wake of school massacres, many schools are determined to keep strangers off the premises at all times—and that includes voters. Schools represent about twenty per cent of all polling places, and the commission proposed putting even more to use, so this creates a serious problem. The report recommends “taking all the steps necessary to address these legitimate security concerns,” as well as trying to arrange days when children aren’t present—ones set aside for teacher training, for example—to coincide with elections. (Election Day is only a holiday in some states.) Again, early voting and improved technology can address these issues…

Democrats are likely to greet the recommendations with some enthusiasm, though many will regret the absence of proposals on photo identification and the Voting Rights Act…

The recommendations will test Republicans. If, as many Democrats believe, they simply want to reduce turnout because they have a tendency to win low-turnout elections and lose high-turnout contests, Republicans can ignore or nitpick the recommendations, despite Ginsberg’s impeccable partisan credentials. (I first met both Ginsberg and Bauer when they were on opposite sides of the Florida recount, in 2000.) Or the commission’s work could serve as a model of bipartisan coöperation, with the two sides putting aside their differences in the interest of setting up fairer fights in the future. That, in any event, is today’s fond hope.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the majority of Republican legislators are far more interested in doing whatever they think keeps themselves in power (lower turnout) than in taking obvious steps that even very partisan non-elected Republicans can conclude are good for our democracy.  I’d love to be proven wrong.

Can any Democrat beat Hillary in 2016?

Probably not.  There’s some really nice Political Science work that emphasizes that, although it may not appear that way, the institutional political parties are still the key players in determining the presidential nominees.  A nice CJR interview with Hand Noel lays this out:

The key insight of the book is to look at presidential nominations not from the point of the view of the people trying to get the nomination, but from the point of view of the party that’s trying to bestow it. There are only a handful of people in the party that are running for office. Most of the people in the party are not running for office, but they really care about who wins the nomination and who wins the general election. And so we should tell the story from the point of view of the players in the party who have an opinion about who the nominee should be and can do something about it.

I think that’s the big difference. We generally talk about individual candidates building a campaign, hiring people, doing the strategy, and all of these things. And they are doing that, but they’re doing it in the context where there’s a bunch of other people who are very, very important, who have a lot of influence, and can kind of decide, “Look, you can build all the campaigns you want, but if you’re Pat Robertson, you’re not going to be taken seriously, no matter how much money you’ve earned.”

Anyway, with that it mind, John Cassidy runs down the situation for Democrats in 2016 and barring some unexpected developments (always possible, of course) it’s hard to see somebody else getting the nomination:

Right now, twenty-four months before the Iowa primary, and at a point when not a single serious candidate has declared that she or he is running for President, Priorities USA, the Democratic Super PAC that raised and spent wads of cash in support of President Obama’s 2012 reëlection campaign, is putting its money and expertise behind—you guessed it—Hillary Clinton.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this journalistic onslaught, and you can’t blame it all on political reporters desperately looking for something to write about. In the post-Citizens United world, Presidential campaigns are big business, and they never take a break. As the Times story indicates, decisions are being made today that will determine who runs the country—or, at least, the White House—for four years after President Obama leaves. So, suck it up and keep reading!

The most immediate implications of the decision by Priorities USA, which was founded by two former Obama-campaign officials, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, are for anybody who is thinking of challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Imagine for a moment that you were one of these hopeful souls. Here’s what you’ve just been told: don’t bother! This thing is already sewn up. If you go ahead with your foolhardy pursuit, you’ll be crushed. Not only will you be confronting the candidate with the most experience and strongest poll numbers, you will also be going up against practically the entire Democratic establishment: [emphasis mine] the best campaign managers, the wiliest spinmeisters, the biggest of big-name endorsers, the most modern technology, and the deepest pockets. Forget about it. There’s always 2024, or 2020 if Hillary loses.

Yep.  Sure, it’s early, but this does seem to be a big step in the party deciding and it is deciding on Hillary.  Click the link for Cassidy’s take on all the other possibilities.

Monet at 4:53pm

So, this is pretty cool, a team of researchers at Texas State figured out the precise day and time of a Monet painting at the NC Museum of Art:

A researcher holds up a post card depiction of another Monet painting of a famous natural arch called Porte d’Amont on the Normandy coast, while standing at the exact spot it was created. The scientists used the cards to find the precise locations where Monet worked, and in the case of one painting were then able to use the position of the sun depicted to determine the exact minute it showed. COURTESY OF TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY

Some of the details:

The researchers, led by astronomer and physics professor Donald Olson and including a graduate student from UNC-Chapel Hill, traveled to Normandy in 2012. They brought along high-tech and low-tech instruments, including a sextant and a laser rangefinder. They also brought several postcard depictions of a dozen or so paintings that Monet made along the rugged coastline there.

They used the cards to determine the precise location where Monet worked on a whole series of paintings along the Normandy coast. Their main focus was on one painting because, unlike the others, it had a crucial detail: a distinct disc for the sun.

“You see a glow in many, where the sun has set, but you just don’t know where it is,” Olson said.

That allowed the researchers, once they had the location, to determine how high above the horizon the sun was in the painting, and where it was in relation to an arch in the cliff and a rock spire shown in the painting. The arch and spire were several hundred yards apart, so the scientists were able to line them up precisely to help determine Monet’s vantage point.


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