Thursday, January 31, 2008

No Standardized Test Left Behind

Exhibit A on why No Child Left Behind is crap: this story from Palm Beach, FL.

I'm immediately suspicious of anything involving science (which includes lots of math) and Florida officials, who as we all know can't count. But the idea that one all-encompassing "science" test can accurately assess student progress is obviously complete crap. Who but an idiot bureaucrat would put ionic chemistry and genetics on the same test? "Figure out how high a 0.4kg ball thrown at 5.5 m/s would go... oh, and describe the Krebs cycle while you're at it? Also name the moons of Pluto." I think having ADD would be an advantage for that test.

More reason why school evaluations ought to be done on a local basis. If you have to have testing-based assessments, I'd like to see each teacher write their own exams and have them approved by a local non-vested authority rather than to have one state-wide test that probably wasn't even written by experts or teachers. It'd be more reasonable, though, to give principals the right to fire sucky teachers, superintendents the right to fire sucky principals, and voters the right to fire sucky superintendents. If accountability to a state board is necessary, how difficult could it be for the state agency to send someone to inspect each school in person?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Little Sage, A Little Garlic - You Got A Terrorist

Hope you're good and ready to be pissed off today.

The Rolling Stone makes no secret of its liberal political leanings, so make of it what you will, but if even half the crap in this article is presented honestly, it marks one hell of a betrayal by our own government.

The gist of the article is this: the Joint Terrorism Task Forces that sprang up around the country in the wake of 9/11 have been paying informants to involve would-be jihadists in terrorist plots when the suspects otherwise would have neither the means nor the desire to do anything destructive. The author, Guy Lawson, explores a few possible rationales for this behavior, from law enforcement's absolute conviction that terror is a huge, huge danger to the more sinister suggestion that terror threats are created to distract us from the real news - which, if you consider the fact that this interesting list of bogus terror threats is a companion to the main article, is clearly what Mr. Lawson wants us to believe.

The idea that paid informants can cause as much crime as they help to solve is hardly a new one - Radley Balko over at The Agitator (where I got the link to this article) has been chronicling informant abuse in drug enforcement for a while now. What's remarkable is that the FBI and JTTFs are taking people who would otherwise be disaffected outsiders, turning them into terrorists, and then arresting them. They're basically creating the problem that they're solving. It reminds me of a police officer encountering a disaffected, picked-on teenager with violent fantasies, giving him guns and encouraging him to shoot up his school, then arresting him for actually doing what the cop suggested he do in the first place.

I don't generally go for conspiracy theories, and as such I don't buy Lawson's implied rationale that the FBI is creating terrorists in order to scare us into supporting the war on terror and distract us from what's really going on. In my mind, it's more plausible to think that the FBI - from top to bottom - believes that terrorism is so pervasive and such an existential threat to America that fighting it requires an all-out effort to eradicate even the slight whiff of violent anti-American behavior. And that, in my opinion, is even more dangerous than some silly conspiracy ever could be.

Most everyone gets mad at America every now and then, especially poor people and members of minority racial and religious groups. And fantasies of carrying out violent acts against others are worrying, they're hardly rare. The thing is, these fantasies usually remain firmly in the imagination, and if they don't, they simply propel someone into a life of common crime, not terrorism. It's kind of a reverse Catch-22: if you're an American and you have the means and community support required to actually carry out a terrorist attack, you probably don't have the desire to do so, and vice versa. But the FBI, by their strategy of taking isolated angry people and turning them into terrorists, is essentially treating all disaffected Muslims as terrorists. It's like treating all disaffected teenagers like school shooters or all disaffected right-wingers like Timothy McVeigh. And it's absolutely unconscionable.

Don't get me wrong - it is important to keep tabs on those who make violent threats, however vague. Our history of ignoring such threats from teenagers should teach us that. But there's a difference between watching someone to make sure they don't do anything and actually ensuring that they do do something and then arresting them. The FBI has criminalized violent thought among American Muslims, and has done so because they believe that they have to in order to keep America safe - and their tactics essentially prove their own point to them. That's the dangerous, scary, and disgusting part of this article. Regardless of how serious you believe the terrorist threat to be, effective policing of this threat involves finding and infiltrating actual conspiracies. It certainly does not involve tricking angry, disaffected Muslims into joining conspiracies of your own creation and then arresting them when they do.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Even More Random Thoughts

I'm thinking in soundbites nowadays. Here you go:

- Interesting article by the Post's Robert Samuelson on the Fed's role in the economic mess. He seems to suggest that an increase in what he calls "financial populism" is driving the Fed to make monetary policy with only short-term results in mind. I sort of agree with him - I think a lot of people who invest in stocks don't realize that occasional blips happen. Unless you're paid lots of money by an investment firm to day-trade, you're probably investing for retirement or your kids' college or something, and that's a long-term deal. Your stocks may be declining in value now, but over the long term they'll generally increase in value faster than inflation as long as you've managed your risk well (which, if you have a decent financial advisor, you probably are). But people are panicky - they'll watch their portfolio lose consistently for a month and freak out. This is where the demands for the Fed to do something come from.

But you can't absolve the Fed here - their job (this is the entire reason they're not elected officials) is to make unpopular decisions for the long-term financial well-being of the country. For them to give in to popular pressure and mortgage our future on a quick fix is irresponsible, and will just lead to bigger problems down the road.

- State of the Union thoughts: We watched the speech at a friend's house, and after we got home, my wife commented that this was the most boring SotU speech she had ever watched. I had to agree. The most entertaining part of the night was our friend Barnaby's rant about the egregious bill that would give retroactive immunity to telecom companies - and, as it turns out, Dubya himself - for breaking the FISA wiretapping law (and the Constitution, while we're at it). If I hadn't had those four beers, I wouldn't have bothered to listen. Though I did notice his voice crack a little while he was making his immigration comment - think his own party's betrayal on the issue has hurt him any?

Also, I'm pretty sure Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is a robot. She didn't change her vocal inflection or facial expression once during her entire speech. Also, I wonder if she has the same speechwriter as Obama. There were just too many similiarites. It was as if she took an Obama speech and made it as boring as possible. Anyway, Kansas confuses me now - they don't like evolution but they're pro-robot? We didn't evolve from apes but it's perfectly cool if we evolve into androids? I don't get it.

- OK, my Constitutional knowledge is limited at best, but can the Senate do this? I thought all approprations bills had to be introduced in the House first. Anyway, how great is it that the House Republicans and Democrats can both agree with Bush on something, only to have the Senate say "fuck you" simply because it's feeling left out? There isn't a whole lot of difference between the two plans - it's just a quibble on who gets what check in the mail. I think the Senate's just on a power trip.

- Bruce Schneier writes about the false "security vs. privacy" dichotomy that the bullshit peddlers in politics and in the media want to keep selling us. It's often true that the best security measures don't affect privacy at all. I'd be interested to see his evidence for the assertion that the executive's increased snooping powers haven't made us safer, too - anyone with such evidence please leave it in the comments section.

Friday, January 25, 2008

On Stimulus and Majerus

- The House and Dubya just passed a stimulus package that will hopefully, when combined with a drastic Fed rate cut, get the economy out of this little hole we're in. While I'm not one to complain about an extra $600 in my pocket, and I agree that putting money in the hands of those who are more likely to spend it rather than save it will help spur growth, I'm not sure I like the idea. It reeks of a temporary solution to a deep-seeded, long-term problem. If we hadn't spent the past 25 years eviscerating the social safety net, we might be able to let the economy go into the recession that we probably need to scrub the markets clean of this subprime crap, but since our safety net is so lacking, doing so now would just create a far greater social cost than it's worth. There isn't a better option, I guess, but I still don't see how a problem caused by overspending and cheap money is going to be fixed by cash handouts and cheap money.

Anyway, the free market's great and all, but we have to realize that sometimes it screws up. This is the main difference between American liberalism and conservatism when it comes to economic issues - liberals realize that the market's not perfect and is driven by people who often make mistakes. Furthermore, markets are also driven by a herd mentality that turns small disturbances into national crises, and national crises into catastrophes. Conservatives have too much of a tendency to fetishize the market - that is, to pretend that the market is an entity unto itself that functions as if it has a rational mind of its own. But it doesn't. It's made up of people, and people are stupid. It often takes snafus like this to remind us of that fact. Decreased regulation is great and all, but large groups of skittish people sometimes need regulations to keep them from going apeshit. The subprime mortgage market was one of those cases where regulations (ones preventing the securitization of predatory loans, for example, which was passed in NY, NJ, NM, and GA before the Treasury overrode them - read here for more info) could have kept things under control. And it's times like these when we realize that investing in a safety net for the poorest Americans isn't such a bad use of our tax money after all.

- As a University of Utah fan, I have a soft spot in my heart for Rick Majerus, the coach who made Utah basketball relevant. (My hatred for Kentucky can be traced mostly not to my days as an undergrad at Vandy but to the 1998 NCAA finals, where UK came back from way down to beat the Andre Miller-led and Majerus-coached Utes.) I always thought that the man basically lived off of basketball - I think he lived out of a hotel room in Salt Lake City during the season. So imagine my surprise when I found out that he has political views. And that the reason that his job at Saint Louis University is in trouble is because of those views.

Of course, the main person attacking Majerus for his support for Sen. Hillary Clinton's pro-choice, pro-stem cell views is Archbishop and professional douchebag Raymond Burke, who famously ordered his diocese to not give communion to Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 election. (Being forbidden from receiving communion - or an interdict - is kind of a big deal to Catholics. It's kind of like being condemned to Hell while still alive, as far as I understand. Matt, you can correct me on this if you want.) Burke has an massively inflated sense of his own power and importance - apparently, he pines for the days when a pope could declare the kingship of a country open simply because he didn't like the guy currently holding the job. Either way, SLU hired the man to be a basketball coach, and he's an excellent basketball coach. His political views are immaterial, unless the Democratic Party puts a plank in their platform opposing the three-point shot, in which case we can talk. If he goes 5-22, then maybe you could talk about firing him. But until then, Burke needs to go back to issuing interdicts to the bullies in his fourth grade class (I just kind of assume that's what Burke does with his spare time) and leave Majerus and SLU alone, since what Majerus does with his spare time is none of Burke's damn business.

Oh, and you know that David Horowitz guy who goes around "defending" conservatives who think they're being attacked for their views at liberal universities? What about when a liberal is clearly being attacked for his political views at a conservative university?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nevada Is The New Florida

The Republicans had no issue figuring out who won their Nevada caucuses. Mitt Romney ran away and hid - the nearest competitor, Ron Paul, didn't even have half as many votes as the former Massachusetts governor.

But the Democrats? They have no idea.

See, Sen. Clinton had way more votes than Sen. Obama. I think Clinton had 50% to Obama's 45%. But because of the bizarre way Nevada counts delegates, Obama - who outperformed Clinton in the sparsely populated northern parts of the state - won more delegates. At least in this case, both Clinton and Obama can declare victory and move on.

Anyway, I can't think of anything better to do, so I'll just give you my update on who I think would make the best President. I'll separate them into categories - excellent, good, mediocre, bad, and godawful. Here goes.


Nobody. Yes, I'm still bitter about Richardson leaving so early. Why do you ask?


Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton. I worry about the former's inexperience and the latter's penchant for secrecy and mean-spirited politics. But policy-wise, the two are extremely similar and would both probably push legitimately well-thought-out policies.


John Edwards, John McCain. Edwards is just too full of hot air for me - I think he's got his head in the clouds a bit. But policywise, his ideas aren't too different from what I would like to see, and he at least recognizes the existence of poor people. I like McCain's attitude, but he's far too conservative for me to place him above mediocre. However, he does have some good ideas every now and then, and appears to actually think his policy stances through. Which would be nice.


Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Fred Thompson. Romney seemed like he'd be a good chief executive from his time as MA governor, but his torture-happiness and abrupt about-face tell me he's weak-willed at best. He has the most potential to move up after the pander-to-the-base phase of the campaign passes. Huckabee is a nice guy, but four more years of culture-war craziness and a nutty tax plan is not what this country needs. Paul actually recognizes the importance of the Constitution (unlike any of his Republican compatriots with the possible exception of McCain), but has some policy ideas that often veer into nuttiness. As for Thompson? I'm not sure he's really running.


Rudolph the Red-Faced Mayor. Giuliani tried his best to turn New York City into a police state. He couldn't take criticism, and he had no tolerance for anyone who didn't share his narrow policy stances or who were irked by his bulldozer-like tactics. If it's possible to have a President worse than George W., Giuliani will manage. Anyone who still thinks Giuliani would make a good President will be disabused from that notion by reading this interesting New York Times article on Giuliani's destructive vindictiveness. The man's a human tornado. We don't need the Tasmanian Devil as our President.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ron Paul Would Like To Thank Nye County, Nevada

Congratulations, Rep. Paul, for winning some random county in the middle of Nevada. It will likely be your high water mark. Savor it while you can.

The Only Thing We Have To Fear... fear itself, according to the famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt. While this aphorism was intended to warn people away from the dangers of inactivity in the face of difficulty, New York Times science writer/libertarian John Tierney brings up a new study suggesting that there might be some scientific basis to the statement.

The numbers, of course, aren't perfect, but we can extrapolate a bit from what Tierney gives us. 6 percent of Americans are continually stressed about terrorism, and such people are three times as likely to develop heart disease. The American Heart Association estimates that about 80,000,000 Americans has some form of heart disease. Adjusting a little for the number inflation of which advocacy groups are often guilty, we can estimate that about 20% of Americans will get heart disease (that number I cited above puts the value at 37%, so I'm using a very conservative estimate). Now, if the people in that sample are three times more likely to get heart disease, this means that, on average, 60% of them - 3.6 million - will develop some sort of heart ailment. 2.4 million of those would not have had a heart problem if not for fear of terrorism.

The AHA further cites mortality rates at around 10% of the population. Again adjusting downward and using 5%, this means that 120,000 people died of heart disease that was related to fear of terrorism.

That number's probably still artificially large, but think about that for a moment. Al-Qaeda, in their wildest dreams, couldn't think of pulling a terrorist attack with 120,000 victims. If we sum all the victims of terrorist attacks on US soil since 1980, we can't break 5,000, even if we're generous with what constitutes an attack.

Interesting numbers. But here's the question - is Tierney causing even more heart attacks by making us fear fear?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Looks like Romney has further scrambled the GOP race by winning the Michigan primary. It wasn't even close, either. Funny, the last poll I saw before the election had Romney and McCain within a half a percentage point. Can we all agree to just discard the polls from now on? We're going into each vote with absolutely no idea how it's going to play out anyway.

Right now I'm rooting for Thompson to win South Carolina and Rudolph the Red-Faced Mayor to win Florida - which would give us five different winners in five major contests. Which would be awesome.

Also, Clinton won on the Democratic side, but no one cares since Michigan has no Democratic delegates and 55% of 0 is still 0. Which reminds me - why did 40% of Democrats come out on a presumably freezing January day to cast their votes for nobody in a meaningless election?

Whatever. Cheers, though, to the Michigan Republicans, who wholeheartedly congratulated the winner... John McCain. Apparently the party officials "pushed the wrong button." This is a departure from what Bush would have done - he would have blamed some 9% of Republican Michiganders for pushing the wrong button.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kerry Me Away

John Kerry has endorsed Obama. He is expected to endorse Edwards tomorrow - after all, we have to remember that Kerry was for Edwards before he was against him.

Sorry, that was too easy.

Democrats Lose One

Well, this blows.

The odd part about Richardson's disappointing election performance is the fact that most of the people I talk to about the campaign seem to like him as a candidate. I personally think Richardson got screwed by the media - the pundits decided there wasn't room for a fourth Democrat in the race, so they pretty much constantly ignored him. As a result, no non-New Mexican outside the hyperpolitical class really knew who he was and what he stood for.

In that case, I kind of figured that Richardson would have ignored the overhyped New Hampshire and Iowa contests and poured all his resources into Nevada or something. But oh well. VP Richardson, perhaps?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Raising McCain, Hillary

New Hampshire results are in; Clinton edged out Obama while McCain walloped Romney. Edwards was in a distant third (and Richardson, sadly, barely registered), and Huckabee. Giuliani and Paul both finished around 10%. No other Democratic candidate polled well.

First off, I think we can safely say that Thompson is finished. I don't care how little you put into a primary; finishing in the Duncan Hunter Division means you're pretty much done. And it looks like Paul was hurt by those accusations of racism/sexism/homophobia/general asshattery that surfaced right before the vote.

Second, I'd like to caution people not to lose sight of Rudolph the Red-Faced Mayor. He'll be a factor in FL, MI, and the Feb. 4 states - I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him pull this one out. No one seems to be noticing him, and that's dangerous.

Third, a note on McCain, since he's clearly the biggest story here. I watched a bit of his victory speech, and he made a point to state that he deeply respected the Democrats and their volunteers because they are doing what they believe is best for the country, just like him. It's an obvious sentiment, but think about it - could you see any other candidate making a statement like that? Obama, maybe, but beyond that? Especially at this stage of the game, when candidates are trying to make appeals to their conservative/liberal base? This is why I'm conflicted about McCain. On the one hand, he's the most agreeable Republican - he's hard right, but he's a smart hard right, and I guess I can forgive him for the obnoxious Woodstock crack that I've been holding against him since he made it. I wouldn't complain too loudly about a McCain victory in November. On the other hand, he's about the only Republican at this point that could beat Randomly Selected Democrat in November.

Fourth, if the Dems are down to two (like it seems), I'll be backing Obama. I like Hillary, and I think she's got a brilliant mind for policy, well-thought-out proposals, the know-how to bring her ideas to fruition, and none of the ideologial rigidity that would stand in the way of progress. I would support her if she got the nod, no doubt. But I have to support Obama because a Hillary Clinton administration would probably be run with the same secrecy and cynical partisan politicking that characterized the Bush administration, and we don't need more of that. I trust Obama to be open and conciliatory to the folks across the aisle more than I trust Clinton to do the same. If her campaign can dissuade me from that notion, I'll switch, but until then, I'll support Obama.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Iowa Hearts Huckabee, Obama

I was watching some television programming involving a certain Midwestern state tonight, and I found myself appalled, disgusted, and horrified by what I saw. I was watching perhaps the most soul-sucking, scream-inducing boondoggle that the world has ever seen.

Then I began watching the Iowa caucus coverage.

Seriously, it's a weird day when football depresses you more than politics. But after Virginia Tech mailed in a lifeless performance in a loss to Kansas (who, I admit it, was better than I expected) in the Orange Bowl, I figured I'd have better luck following the election returns.

First, the hard data. Obama won the Democratic caucus with 37%, followed by Edwards and Clinton in a virtual tie for second at 30%, and Richardson languishing on the margins of relevance at 2%. On the Republican side, Huckabee won handily, claiming 34% of the vote; he was followed by Romney at 26%, Thompson and McCain tied with 13%, Paul was fifth with 10%, then Giuliani at 4%.

Not much can be learned from Iowa, really - though the caucuses set turnout records this year, they're still a bizarre ritual occurring in a small state. New Hampshire - which is a real election - is a better barometer; the February 5th mess will be decisive. Anyway, here are my thoughts:

Obama's organization is better than we thought. Until now, the conventional wisdom was that Obama's support was a bunch of loosely organized but passionate youngsters. As it turns out, Obama's support is young, but well enough organized to get craploads of people to the polls.

The Ron Paul R[evol]ution is, at least partially, for real. Paul pullling double-digits was probably the biggest surprise of the night for me. I kind of consider Paul a "you guys suck" candidate who attracts Republicans and Republican-minded voters who don't like any of the "mainstream" candidates. Iowa is a test of organization, and this result shows that Paul is way better organized than we expected. Don't be surprised if Paul comes out third - or higher - in NH. Also, from what I've seen of Paul supporters, a lot of them don't really have a good second choice among the Republican contenders. A lot of Paul supporters will probably stay home rather than pick one of the other candidates - the size of that bloc is bad news for Republicans.

McCain is in better shape than Giuliani. Neither candidate had much of an organization in Iowa, yet McCain performed credibly while Giuliani was hardly relevant. This tells me that McCain's appeal is a little bit more broad-based than Rudolph's, and that voters will gravitate away from Rudy given the chance. We won't know anything about Giuliani's organization until Florida, but another awful performance like this in NH and he might not be able to recover.

Edwards is done - and that helps Obama even more. He won't get a better chance to win a state than labor-heavy, working-class Iowa, except for maybe South Carolina. He now needs to win SC to have a chance. If he doesn't, expect his support to go to Obama, since most of his attacks have been on Clinton thus far. This will pretty much give Obama the nomination.

That's it. We'll know more next Tuesday.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Values" Questions We Should Be Asking

Syracuse professor R. Gustav Niebuhr (any relation to Christian theologian Reinhold?) posts the five questions he uses to assess a candidate's morality here. I have to say, beyond stances on the issues I care about, Questions 1-4 are pretty much what I vote on. Question 5 I don't like because I don't like it when candidates make guarantees on issues.

At any rate, these questions go much, much farther into understanding a candidate's morality than does asking them about what flavor of religion they enjoy (I like butter pecan... tasty). We'd have a far more effective political process if people concerned themselves with a candidate's answers to these questions instead of whether or not the candidate believes that some poor schmuck that got nailed to a tree 2000 years ago was resurrected/came to America afterwards/was God or not. If he/she can answer in the affirmative to Questions 1-4, who cares?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Absolutely True 2008 News Stories

Here's a list of news stories that absolutely, positively, without a doubt will occur during the next year. I guarantee these stories 100%, though I'm not telling you what, exactly, it is that I'm guaranteeing. I am also not responsible for any adverse results that may come from planning your life around these predictions.

- The current Director of National Intelligence resigns; President Bush nominates Bill Belichick to replace him.

- While they agree on very little else, Al Gore and James Dobson both conclude that something America is doing will bring the world to an end by December. They finally join forces when scientists reveal that gay people cause global warming.

- Ron Paul reveals his plan to, if elected, abolish himself and turn the White House into a Wal-Mart.

- Mike Huckabee sets a new world record for the number of times Jesus is mentioned during a public speech, soundly beating out the previous record-holder, Jesus.

- The Iraqi government makes the courageous decision to order a pizza; however, the effort fails when fisticuffs breaks out between the Papa John's, Pizza Hut, and Domino's factions.

- John Edwards' hair will finish second in New Hampshire; Edwards himself will finish sixth.

- In an attempt to mollify anti-abortion Republicans, Mitt Romney will kiss a fetus.

- As college students deal with the rising price of beer, ethanol filling stations face an increase in one-gallon purchases and Kool-Aid stock triples in value.

- Rudy Giuliani unveils his "Super 9/11 Health Care 9/11 Plan."

- The baseball world is shocked to learn that George Mitchell was taking report-enhancing drugs.

- America is struck with a strange, eerie silence; it will turn out that Joe Biden stopped talking.

- Tom Tancredo is shocked to learn that his real father is an illegal Mexican immigrant.

- Barack Obama will be involved in a sex scandal; the pundits will call it "The Audacity of Grope."

- In a bid to pre-empt the War on Christmas, Bill O'Reilly acquires tactical nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

- President-elect Huckabee nominates Chuck Norris to his Cabinet. Norris will fill every position.