Archive for August, 2010

A question I never thought I’d ask

August 31, 2010

(more…)

What do you mean “we,” white man?

August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck

“We will reclaim the civil rights movement,” Glenn Beck says.  “We will take that movement because we were the people who did it in the first place.”

Glenn Beck of Fox News spoke Saturday from the Lincoln Memorial, on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  He is one of many right-wingers who are trying to associate themselves with Dr. King’s legacy. They quote Dr. King’s statement, that he wanted his children to grow up in a country where they will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of his skin, to mean he was some kind of libertarian conservative.

According to their interpretation, this statement means that Dr. King was some sort of rugged individualist who was merely asking for a level playing field.  This not only rules out any kind of government action, especially those that help black people proportionately more than white people, but also collective action or solidarity.  Using this logic, right-wingers say the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the United Negro College Fund are themselves racist, because they’re concerned with black people and not with white people.

This chain of thought takes them some distance from what Dr. King actually thought, as well as some distance from reality. Dr. King’s ideal was not a fair competition, in which some people wound up in palaces and others in the gutter because they deserved to.  His ideal was the beloved community, in which we lived according to the ideals of the Gospel.

Dr. King was the foremost proponent in his time of the Social Gospel, the idea that social justice is part of Christianity.  His last action, before he was murdered, was to rally support for striking garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn. Glenn Beck is on record as saying you shouldn’t belong to a church that preaches social justice.

The contemporaries of Dr. King now regarded as conservative heroes – Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr. – were all opponents of the civil rights movement.  The living people who actually took part in the movement – Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, the Shirley Sherrod family – get no respect from Glenn Beck and his comrades.

“We are the people of the civil rights movement,” Glenn Beck keeps saying.  “We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement.” As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger in the old joke – “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” (more…)

Sturgeon’s Law

August 29, 2010

Ninety percent of everything is crud.

(more…)

Optical illusions on the highway

August 28, 2010

Karanvir Singh Sangha, a student in Moga, India, posted some astonishing photos on his Karansangha’s Blog, of semi-trailers on European highways that are painted to look like what they’re not.

I don’t know what I’d think if I were driving down the road and saw one of these coming in the opposite direction.

Look at the photos to see what I mean.

(more…)

Conservatives and liberals: the difference (3)

August 27, 2010

Liberal men pride themselves on being nice guys.

Conservative men pride themselves on being tough guys.

What’s right (and wrong) with Feisal Abul Rauf

August 27, 2010

Imam Abdul Feisal Rauf, the Muslim cleric behind the Park51 project, is a good person and a patriotic American, even if I don’t agree with everything he says.

After the 9/11 attacks, he went beyond just denouncing the 9/11 attacks.  He offered his services to the FBI as an expert adviser, and he visited majority-Muslim countries on behalf of the State Department to speak on behalf of the United States, at the risk of being labeled a stooge for the U.S. government.

Judea Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded in 2002 by terrorists in Pakistan affiliated with al Qaeda, invited Imam Rauf to speak at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl at B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan.  Imam Rauf affirmed in that service that the religious values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were not only the same, but were the values of the same religion.

Yet he is under attack as an enemy of Judaism and Christianity because of the Park51 project, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque which is not at Ground Zero and not a mosque.

I first heard of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf some years ago, when I picked up his book, What’s Right With Islam: a New Vision for Muslims and the West, in a bookstore selling remaindered books.

In the book Rauf tries to explain and justify Islam to non-Muslim Americans, and American ideals to Muslims.  He makes a case that the principles of Islam, rightly understood, are compatible with American freedom and democracy, and to Muslims that American freedom and democracy, rightly understood, is compatible with Islam.

Imam Rauf says that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the successive unfolding of the same religion, which teaches that all human beings are children of the same Heavenly Father and that all of them are entitled to justice and worthy of love and compassion.  American freedom and democracy, in his view, are part of that same “Abrahamic” tradition.

Muslims, like Orthodox Jews, give a central place to religious law, which they call “shari’a.”  To me, as to many Americans, the word conjures up pictures of Islam at its worst, ignorant fanatics in places such as northern Nigeria stoning women to death for adultery.  Imam Rauf says “shari’a” should be understood as God’s law in the way that most Christians and Jews, and as the writers of the Declaration of Independence understood it when they appealed to “the laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God.”

What’s wrong with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

(more…)

Islamic architecture in the Twin Towers

August 25, 2010

I never knew that the design of New York’s World Trade Center was influenced by Islamic architecture, but evidently it was.  Laurie Kerr, writing for Slate about three months after the 9/11 attacks, explained:

The World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was a favorite designer of the Bin Laden family’s patrons—the Saudi royal family—and a leading practitioner of an architectural style that merged modernism with Islamic influences. …

Interior of World Trade Center

Yamasaki described its plaza as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.” True to his word, Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca’s courtyard by creating a vast delineated square, isolated from the city’s bustle by low colonnaded structures and capped by two enormous, perfectly square towers—minarets, really. Yamasaki’s courtyard mimicked Mecca’s assemblage of holy sites—the Qa’ba (a cube) containing the sacred stone, what some believe is the burial site of Hagar and Ishmael, and the holy spring—by including several sculptural features, including a fountain, and he anchored the composition in a radial circular pattern, similar to Mecca’s.

At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches—derived from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam—as a transition between the wide column spacing below and the dense structural mesh above. (Europe imported pointed arches from Islam during the Middle Ages, and so non-Muslims have come to think of them as innovations of the Gothic period.) Above soared the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin, which doubled as a structural web—a giant truss. Here Yamasaki was following the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, as in the inlaid marble pattern work of the Taj Mahal or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra.

The shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy. According to Oleg Grabar, the great American scholar of Islamic art and architecture, the dense filigree of complex geometries alludes to a higher spiritual reality in Islam, and the shimmering quality of Islamic patterning relates to the veil that wraps the Qa’ba at Mecca. After the attack, Grabar spoke of how these towers related to the architecture of Islam, where “the entire surface is meaningful” and “every part is both construction and ornament.” A number of designers from the Middle East agreed, describing the entire façade as a giant “mashrabiya,” the tracery that fills the windows of mosques.

(more…)

Can we grade the teachers?

August 24, 2010

The Los Angeles Times has announced it will publish a data base to measure the effectiveness of each individual teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation.

The newspaper obtained seven years’ of math and English test scores, and applied a statistical method called value-added analysis.  This measured the improvement in students’ performance in each school year from the previous year.  As the LA Times said, this controls for poverty, race, English proficiency and other factors blamed for poor school performance.

This is what the reporters concluded:

  • Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year.  There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%.  The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math.
  • Some students landed in the classrooms of the poorest-performing instructors year after year — a potentially devastating setback that the district could have avoided.  Over the period analyzed, more than 8,000 students got such a math or English teacher at least twice in a row.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas.  Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district.  The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.
  • Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets.  Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend.  Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
  • Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers’ effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.

It would be a mistake to use these tests as a basis to reward and punish.  Instead, every elementary teacher in the Los Angeles area should be given a day off during the school year to observe a high-performance teacher.  Then at the end of the year, teachers should go on a retreat to talk about what they’ve learned.

The way you improve in industry is to learn the best practices, adopt them and figure out how to improve upon them.  But in the public school system, there is no systematic way that you learn the best practices.  Each teacher operates in isolation.

Michael O’Hare, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, put the case this way:

What the LA performance data does is highlight a batch of teachers at the top of the data whose classrooms need to be visited by their peers, perhaps by videotape, and discussed. The point is not that everyone should be completely focused on increasing these test scores, but that a successful record at that measurable result is a good (not perfect) indicator of teaching practices that, if observed and discussed, will lead to better outcomes for students on a variety of dimensions. …

Teachers never see each other work, almost never get to talk to each other about individual students, and have practically no opportunity for the core practice of quality assurance, which is observing and then discussing a particular practice, comparing alternatives, in a group of peers. …

via The Reality-Based Community.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, objected to the survey.  I think he is wrong, but I agree there is a danger the numbers be misused. The more test scores are used as a basis to reward and punish, the greater the temptation to manipulate the results.  I’m reminded of one of the favorite sayings of W. Edwards Deming, the father of Total Quality Management – that if you give a manager a numerical target, he’ll make it, even if he has to destroy the company in the process.

There also is a danger of taking one measurement and assuming it is the only thing that matters.  School performance is affected by many things, including the backgrounds of the students, by how many days a year the schools are open, by the textbooks and facilities and by whether having a diploma will in reality make a difference in getting a job.

Deming was a statistician, and he was aware of how statistics can be abused.  One is judging people by how they rank (1st, 2nd, 3rd … last) rather than by their distance from the goal or from the average.  The performance of most people in most things is very similar, Deming said.  When someone’s performance is so outstanding that they are off the charts, they should be put to work instructing others.

My mother was a public school teacher in the primary grades for more than 40 years.  The affection and respect of her former students show she was an excellent teacher.  She developed her own teaching methods, which were private to her. When a supervisor came to observe her work, she would switch to whatever instructional method was in favor that year.  What a legacy she could have left if there had been a means by which she could have shared her experience and knowledge with others!

Click on Who’s teaching L.A.’s kids? for the full Los Angeles Times article.

Click on Teacher performance data and its discontents for Michael O’Hare’s full comment.

Click on Dukenfield’s Law of Incentive Management for the pitfalls of linking financial incentives to test results.

[P.S. 12/31/10]  Michael O’Hare in a later comment specifically related teacher evaluation to the Deming philosophy.

Deming – brilliant, tough-minded, and humane –  demonstrated that if you reward individual workers for performance, you are going to be rewarding random variation a lot of the time, with poisonous effects.  Right away, when the top salesman among twenty gets a trip to Hawaii with his wife, the response of the other nineteen is not to emulate him (and how could they, if they don’t see what he does, which is the case for teachers in spades), but to be pissed off and jealous, which is, like, really great for collaborative enterprise.  Next year, regression toward the mean sets in and he is only number five, or ten, so he looks like a slacker, coasting on his laurels. Even his wife starts giving him the fish eye; don’t be surprised if his lunch martini count starts to go up.

It is a universal, desperate, desire of lazy or badly trained managers to find a mechanistic device you can wind up like a clockwork, loose upon the organization, and go play golf.  Like testing and firing to get people to do good work.  Please, Lord, show me the way to manage without any actual heavy lifting!  But many desires, no matter how desperately we cleave to them, are not fated to be fulfilled, and this is one.  Teaching, like any complex production process, will get better when teachers watch each other work and talk about what they are doing, why, and how it works; what to watch is usefully indicated by statistical QA methods.  Period.

via The Reality-Based Community.

[P.S. 3/10/11]  However, I do agree with this observation by Conor Friedersdorf on the American Scene web log, and I think W. Edwards Deming would, too.

Is it difficult to develop a precise metric for ranking every teacher in a school from highest performing to lowest performing in order to divide up compensation by merit? Yes, very tough indeed. In extreme circumstances, however, it is very easy to evaluate teacher performance. Say that there’s a student at your school who attempts suicide, and on his first day back, one of his teachers tells him, “Carve deeper next time – you can’t even kill yourself.” Or imagine another teacher who is caught keeping a stash of marijuana, pornography, and vials with cocaine residue on school grounds. Ponder a case where a male middle school teacher is observed lying on top of a female student in shop class. Or a special education teacher who fails to report child abuse, yells insults at children, and inadequately supervises her class. These aren’t hyperbolic examples crafted to make a theoretical point that has little bearing on the real world. These are actual examples of misbehavior by Los Angeles Unified School District teachers who weren’t fired!

via The American Scene.

In a large group, there may be a couple of outstanding performers who are in a different category from all the rest, and there may be a couple who are grossly incompetent or worse.  But it is always obvious who they are.  You don’t need a complicated evaluation process to identify them.

[P.S. 5/7/11]  Click on The Testing Machine for an article by Barbara Renaud Gonzales in The Texas Observer about how high-stakes testing works at one Texas middle school.  (Hat tip to Steve B sending me the article).

The school is testing for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) benchmarks before the real TAKS test, which determines which students progress to the next grade.  The tests, administered by the Texas Education Agency, also determine how the school is rated academically. Benchmark testing is supposed to help schools project how students will perform on the actual TAKS. If too many students fail in the spring, the principal’s job, along with everyone else’s in the administration, is at stake. The school I’m visiting is considered at-risk for being labeled “low performing.”

The school district, out of desperation, has contracted with a prestigious university, my employer, to help the teachers in math, reading and science.  I’m here to gather data about attendance, behavior and grades—key to researching how to reduce dropouts.

At my university, researchers have spent almost 15 years examining the complexities of student success in at-risk schools.  We have found that standardized tests like the TAKS are not predictors for high school graduation. Students flunk the TAKS for reasons other than academic skills.  Some have oh-my-God! panic attacks.  Some, like the dyslexic Albert Einstein, can’t perform well on tests.  Many progressive educators believe that standardized tests should enhance the curriculum, not punish students by failing them. … …

Because of my job, I get to observe the different seventh-grade classes.  There are more than 30 students in most of the math and science classes, and the teachers try hard to ignore whispering, jostling and paper-shuffling.  One-third of the class seems to be at risk of failing because of emotional and academic problems.  Some are special education students who have been mainstreamed.  Some are wannabe gang members.  Some are just bored.  The teachers must get through their lessons in 45 minutes and don’t seem to breathe the whole time.   They are absorbed in their LCD boards, their colorful markers, swooping through the fractions and formulas once and again.  They give tips and shortcuts for solving the math problems likely to come up on the TAKS.  Pay attention!  The front of the class is quiet, but the back third is buzzing at the end of the day.  My university’s master teachers are helping teachers keep students engaged with the coursework.  Play games, they tell the teachers.  Give real-life problems.  But the TAKS seems to be the dark cloud in their classroom.

The math teachers call the last period of the day “the class from hell.”

At the end of the third six-week period, in early January, I tell my university that it doesn’t seem right to me that the grade reports show only six seventh-graders out of 350—the target group we’re following—are failing math.  I’ve been in those classrooms, observed how one-third aren’t paying attention.  How can this be?  I’m a product of working-class public schools and know how easy it is to fall behind in math. … …

At the end of the school year, seven of 357 seventh-graders have failed math, according to the official roster.  Six have failed English and reading.  The school meets the TAKS standards and receives a “recognized” rating.  With the help of master teachers, after-school and Saturday morning tutorials, 70 percent of the students have met the standard in math.  But do they know how to solve a problem that’s not on the TAKS?

President Obama and the race card

August 23, 2010

President Obama at the Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla.

Ever since Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President, he has been accused on a fairly regular basis of “playing the race card.”  This is a great example of the principle of accusing your opponent of the very thing of which you are guilty.

It is Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Andrew Brietbart and the rest of the radical right, not President Obama, who are the ones who are trying to make every issue a racial issue.

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly said during the campaign that Obama was a threat to “the white power structure that you and I belong to.”  Rush Limbaugh said Obama’s election was a form of affirmative action. Glenn Beck has said repeatedly, based on nothing at all, that Obama is a “racist” who “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”  His economic stimulus plan, his health reform plan and his other initiatives have been called a form of “reparations” or “affirmative action.”

Black kids and white kids get into a fight on a school bus, and Rush Limbaugh said this is “Obama’s America.”  After the Haitian earthquake, Limbaugh said the reason Obama ordered aid to the stricken population was to merely to boost his credibility with “the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community.” Glenn Beck said during the Gulf oil spill that the problem is that Obama “hates white CEOs.”  Limbaugh said Michelle Obama’s expensive vacation in Spain escapes criticism because of a feeling “it’s only fair that people of color get a taste of the wealth of America.”

The latest and most absurd attack on Obama, by Commentary magazine, is based on an interview he gave to the South African Broadcasting Corp. about al Qaeda in Africa, in which he said terrorist organizations “do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself.”  Supposedly this shows that Obama only cares about attacks on black people, not on white people.

In this game, President Obama has no race card to play.  Whenever there is a conflict with a black person on one side and a white person on the other, he tries to keep out of it, even if the black person is clearly in the right, or a valuable political ally.  His enemies chip away at him, week by week and month by month. If he were to argue back, it would just reinforce the meme of white vs. black.  It is a lose-lose situation.

Barack Obama is not the first President to be the target of unrelenting attack.  It is not as if the right-wing media treated Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry with kid gloves.  But the use of race as a wedge issue is more than a problem for President Obama, it is a problem for the country as a whole.  Framing every issue as a question of white against black is deeply divisive.  It puts at risk all the progress toward racial tolerance of the past 40 or 50 years.  Unless there is a push-back, the conflict could become violent, as in northern Ireland or the USA itself in earlier eras.

(more…)

Law of vacations

August 22, 2010

For every week you’re away and get nothing done, there’s another week when your boss is away and you get twice as much done.

Sail Amsterdam

August 21, 2010

Click on tall ships slide show for slides of Sail Amsterdam, a tall ships festival which will be going on through Monday.  They’re spectacular.

Click on tall ships photo gallery for photos of Sail Amsterdam.

The first Sail Amsterdam was held in 1975, to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the founding of the city.  But it was so much fun that the Dutch decided to hold one every five years.

I found these links on the Making Light web site of Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

‘Forgive me for crimes I never did nor advocated’

August 20, 2010

I like this by Fred Clark of Texas on his Slacktivist web log.

As a white male Baptist, it is my duty today to denounce the violence perpetrated by Patrick Gray Sharp, 29, who yesterday attacked the police headquarters in McKinney, Texas, in a heavily armed but ineffectual assault involving a high-powered rifle, road flares, “gasoline and ammonium nitrate fertilizer.”

So I denounce this attack and state unequivocally that we white male Baptists do not believe in this kind of violent extremism. I beg you all not to condemn all of us for the actions of this lone member of our community, although of course I will understand if you decide that you must do so and will humbly accept whatever restrictions on our full participation in society that you see fit to impose. That’s only fair.

I further beg your forgiveness for my not denouncing this violent act sooner. Unlike the nearly identical failed attack in Times Square, this attack wasn’t the lead story on our local news and the newspaper I work for somehow didn’t mention it at all. Then today I was outside most of the afternoon cutting the grass and just didn’t hear about the story until now. I plead with you to understand that as soon as I learned of this incident, I rushed to post this denunciation.

That’s no excuse for the delay, of course, and in no way diminishes my obligation to constantly monitor the behavior of every white male Baptist, denouncing anything that might reflect badly on the WMB community. That is, after all, the foremost duty and purpose of every religious adherent, ethnic group and gender. My failure to promptly condemn Patrick Gray Sharp for specific actions I have previously condemned more generally cannot be excused just because the lawn needed mowing.

On behalf of myself and of all white male Baptists everywhere, I apologize for this lapse and denounce myself for the delay. (Note to other white male Baptists: You should also denounce me for this. If you fail to do so, I’ll probably have to denounce you for that.)

(more…)

Conservatives and liberals: the difference (2)

August 20, 2010

Conservatives regard American politics as a game they want to win.

Liberals regard American politics as a game they want to referee.

The Burlington Coat Factory Mosque

August 18, 2010

I wonder how many people think the “Ground Zero Mosque” will be an actual mosque on the actual site of Ground Zero, rather than a community center in a former Burlington Coat Factory store two blocks away.

It would be easy to get that impression based on the news coverage.  I imagine that, lower Manhattan being what it is, there are pornographic book stores and strip clubs as close to the former Twin Towers site as the Cordoba House will be, but nobody calls them the Ground Zero Porn Shops or the Ground Zero Strip Joints.

(more…)

Does the Constitution apply to Muslims?

August 18, 2010

I have read the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and, despite what some people apparently believe, there is no footnote that says “does not apply to Muslims.”  Ted Olson, who was Solicitor General under the Bush administration, appears to understand that well.  His wife, Barbara, was killed on Sept. 11, 2001; she was a passenger on the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.

General Colin Powell expressed the same thought during the 2008 election campaign.  After denying allegations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, he went on to say:

Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that he is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.”

via Colin Powell Invokes Image Of Fallen Soldier.

Click on More on the Soldier Kareem R. Khan for his life story.

Click on Muslim Victims of September 11 Attack for the names of Muslims, including firefighters and police officers, who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Muslims and terrorism

August 18, 2010

The video was produced by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American Muslim community organization founded in 1988, for its members.

Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, was intended to ignite a war between the United States and the whole Muslim religion.  Presidents Bush and Obama had the good sense not to fall into that trap. They were always careful to distinguish between a small band of terrorists and a diverse global religion of more than 1 billion people.  In fact, based on statements by al-Qaeda leaders and statements by leading Muslim clerics and scholars, it is al-Qaeda that is at war with Islam.

The MPAC has done an analysis of terrorist attacks on Americans since Sept. 11, 2001. Among the key findings are:

There were 70 total plots by domestic non-Muslim perpetrators against the United States since 9/11. In comparison, there have been 37 total plots by domestic and international Muslim perpetrators since 9/11.

Only 42% of individuals publicly associated with terrorism by the Department of Justice were actually charged with violating an anti-terrorism or national security statute.

There are at least 5 incidents of non-Muslim domestic extremists possessing or attempting to possess Chemical or Radiological weapons. One of those occurred since Obama’s election. No such cases involving Muslim extremists have been reported since 9/11.

There appears to be a general rise in violent extremism across ideologies. If one is to use Obama’s election as a starting point for recent trends, since November 4, 2008 there have been 39 terror plots by non-Muslim domestic extremists. By comparison, there have been 16 plots by Muslim domestic and international extremists.

Muslim communities have helped foil almost 1 out of every 3 Al Qaeda-related terror plots threatening the United States since 9/11. However community vigilance and assistance is not limited to Muslims; many terror plots – by Muslim and non-Muslim violent extremists – have been foiled communities of all backgrounds. This highlights the importance of law enforcement partnership with ordinary citizens through community-oriented policing.

Click on Post 9/11 Terrorism Data – MPAC Publication for a summary of conclusions, and a link to a PDF file of the full report.

Click on Muslim Victims of September 11 Attack for the names of Muslims, including firefighters and police officers, who were died in the 9/11 attacks.

Click on How American Muslims Really Responded to September 11 for a 2002 report by the Council of American-Islamic Relations, a grass-roots American Muslim civil rights and advocacy group.

Click on Muslim Denunciations of al-Qaeda and Terrorism for statements by mainstream Muslim clerics and scholars.

Reasons for not hiring black people

August 17, 2010

1950s and before.  Black people are an inferior race.

1960s.  Black people lack seniority, experience and educational qualifications.

1970s.  Black people are the products of dysfunctional families and a culture of poverty.

1980s.  Black people would rather be on welfare than work.

1990s.  Black people who appear to be qualified are really beneficiaries of affirmative action.

2000s.  Black people have equal rights, and yet they still complain.

2010s.  Black people are the real racists, and white people are victims.

Note: This is sarcasm.  I don’t actually believe there are valid reasons for refusing to hire black people.

I am not beating a dead horse here.  Although racial prejudice has greatly diminished in my lifetime, and overt racism has ceased to be respectable, it is still true that testers find people with stereotypically African-American names have greater than average problems being hired, and employers will hire a white person with a prison record over an identically-qualified black person with a clean record.

(more…)

The greatest liberal reformer since FDR?

August 16, 2010

Some White House insiders and commentators have said that President Obama’s legislative accomplishments make him the greatest liberal reformer since President Franklin Roosevelt.

President Obama

President Franklin Roosevelt

They forget a certain President of a generation back. This President created affirmative action in its present form. He responded decisively to an economic emergency by imposing wage and price controls.  He proposed a Family Assistance Plan which would guarantee a minimum income for all Americans, and a Comprehensive Health Insurance Act which would have provided a public option as an alternative to private health insurance.  He endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

The Comprehensive Health Insurance Act was rejected by Congress. So was the Family Assistance Plan, but the Earned Income Tax Credit was enacted as a substitute and compromise.

The President did sign into law the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act.  His administration established the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Council on Environmental Quality.

On the world stage, this President negotiated with leaders of a nation which was a sworn enemy of the United States.  This country financed anti-American insurgencies all over the world, including a country in which the United States was bogged down in a quagmire war.  Previous Presidents had responded with economic sanctions and non-recognition, but this President and his Secretary of State were able to reach agreement.

(more…)

Dukenfield’s Law of Incentive Management

August 15, 2010

Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, is a temporary guest-blogger for Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic Monthly.  He wrote a post on Friday about scandals in which educators were caught falsifying results of tests used to measure school performance and, in the process, came up with a new sociological “law.”

Mark Kleiman

A school superintendent allowing his staff to doctor students’ answers on a set of high-stakes standardized exams has something in common with a corporate CEO holding a bundle of stock options who practices “earnings management” via bogus asset sales. Each is responding to an intense incentive system by faking success rather than producing it.

One could formulate this as a general principle: any incentive to create a result also creates an incentive to simulate the same result. The corollary is obvious: the greater the incentive, the greater the temptation. Or, as W. C. Fields put it in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, “If a thing is worth winning, it’s worth cheating for.” Borrowing Fields’s real name, I propose to call this generalization Dukenfield’s Law of Incentive Management. Designers of control systems ignore Dukenfield’s Law at their peril, and ours.

A second corollary follows directly from the first: holding the level of audit effort constant and other things equal, the reliability of a measure will decline as the importance attached to it grows. To put the same thing another way: to maintain a given level of reliability, the resources invested in verifying any performance measure need to rise roughly in proportion to the stakes involved

via The Atlantic. (my bold-facing)

(more…)

An antidote for self-pity

August 14, 2010

I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.

Click on Look at Yourself After Watching This for an illustration of this proverb.

I thank my sister-in-law, Sandy Ebersole, for e-mailing me the link.

Why Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are right

August 13, 2010

 

 

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the richest and second richest Americans, have said they are willing to see their income tax rates revert to 1990s levels in order to help bring the federal government’s budget into a better balance.

Someone near and dear to me, whose good sense in most matters I respect, sneered at Gates and Buffett.  He said that if they think they are undertaxed, they are free to donate the excess to the government, but that’s no reason why taxes on the rest of us should go up.

But taxes are not a charitable contribution.  They are an obligation.  What the government spends that isn’t paid by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will have to be paid by you and me, and what isn’t paid by you and me will have to be paid by future generations.

 

 

CBPP stands for Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank.  Obviously the future in unknowable and the projection is a best guess.  To the extent that the United States can generate a high-wage, full-employment economy, the governmental budget problems may be easier to deal with.  But CBPP’s basic point is correct.  Changes of just a few percentage points in the top income tax rates will have a huge effect on federal government budget.

During President Bush’s administration, income taxes were cut across the board, but it was the reductions in taxes on the upper bracket payers, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that did the most to throw the budget out of balance.  However, I’d be willing to see my own taxes revert to 1990s levels to show I’m willing to do my fair share and not put the whole burden on millionaires and billionaries.

 

(more…)

“545”: an e-mail chain letter

August 12, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail chain letter quoting a 1985 newspaper column by Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinal.  In this column he pointed out that everything the government does is authorized by one of 545 people – 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, a President or nine Supreme Court justices.

Charley Reese

He went on to point out that they are all employees of we, the people, who have authority to vote them out (well, not the Supreme Court justices, but his basic point still holds).  The e-mail version concludes with a paragraph, which Reese apparently didn’t write, saying “we should vote them all out of office and clean up their mess.”  Tacked on to the end is a poem by an anonymous contributor and a list of all the taxes we pay, with the comment that we didn’t have any of these taxes 100 years ago and everything was just fine.

Here’s my reaction.

One.  Charley Reese was one of my favorite columnists until he retired in 2008, and I agree with the original versions what he wrote.  However, he had too much good sense to think that anything could be accomplished by simply voting out all incumbents.  If I owned a business with 545 employees and wasn’t getting the results I wanted, it would make no sense to simply fire them all and hire 545 others at random. If every single one of the employees performed unsatisfactorily, there must be something wrong with the system of supervision or something else about the way the business in run. What a sensible business owner would do is to figure out what was needed, explain it to the employees, reward those who did what was needed and replace those who couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Two.  The list of taxes we supposedly didn’t pay 100 years ago is historically inaccurate.  Excise taxes on liquor go back to the earliest days of the Republic; they were the reason for the Whiskey Rebellion under President George Washington.  Property taxes are the historic way in which local government was financed.  School taxes have existed as long as public schools.  And so on.

Three.  The United States of the good old days was not a utopia.  We had sweatshops, child labor and lynchings.  People bought contaminated food, unpasteurized milk and dangerous drugs.  Striking workers were shot down by corporate security and National Guard troops.  Government was even more corrupt than it is now.  Progressive reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were just beginning to change things for the better, and the changes required use of, yes, governmental authority.

Four. Blanket objections to taxes are as pointless as blanket objections to business profits.  Government has its proper function, which it may perform well or poorly, just as business has its proper function, which it may perform well or poorly. What’s wanted is to reward what’s done well, fix what’s done poorly and withhold support from what shouldn’t be done at all.  Maybe there are governmental activities that ought to be abolished, maybe there are taxes that shouldn’t be imposed.  But we need some level of governmental activity and some level of taxation.

(more…)

The trouble with us liberals

August 11, 2010

Robert Gibbs

Evidently we liberals are like a bunch of whining little children.  No matter how much President Obama does for us, we’re never satisfied.  That’s what I hear from pundits on TV and what I read in off-the-record comments by White House staffers, and now on the record as well.

During an interview with The Hill in his West Wing office, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted liberal naysayers, whom he said would never regard anything the president did as good enough.

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.”

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as health care reform, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”

via TheHill.com.

Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that we liberals are a bad lot, and that I myself am the worst of the bunch, and that it is a waste of time to consider what people like me think.  This doesn’t really matter.

What matters is whether President Obama’s program is enough to make a difference to Americans who are out of work, worried about their savings or unable to pay medical bills.  Was the stimulus bill enough to jump-start the economy?  Will the financial reform bill avert another financial meltdown?  Will the health reform bill actually make medical care more affordable and available?

The answers to these questions, as it seems to me, are (1) clearly not, (2) clearly not and (3) it’s hard to tell.  I could be wrong, and, for the sake of my fellow Americans, I hope I am wrong.  In a few years the facts will show, one way or another, who was right.

(more…)

The most frightening book I ever read

August 10, 2010

The most frightening book I ever read was Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford.

Buford was an American living in England in the 1980s.  He became fascinated by British football hooligans, and how, by assembling suddenly in large numbers, they were able to overwhelm the forces of law and order, and engage in unconstrained property destruction and violence.  He hung out with the hooligans long enough to be accepted, and began to identify with them.

The frightening thing about the book is that Buford showed there is such a thing as a crowd mind.  He found that members of a mob can cease to be individuals, only units of a mob mind.  He experienced this himself, and found it to be extremely pleasurable.  He enjoyed the feeling of having his ego dissolve in the mass, of being free from the constraints of civilization, of individual responsibility, of giving himself up to adrenaline and the thrill of the moment.  His ego dissolved into a larger consciousness. It was a kind of evil mysticism.

Buford was not the kind of person you would think of as a thug.  He was the editor of Granta, a respected British literary magazine. He was, on the evidence of this book, a fine writer, with good self-insight and honesty.  If someone like him could get caught up in mob violence, even temporarily, then nobody is immune.

His book was mostly reporting and not theorizing, but he had some suggested thoughts.  One was the high unemployment in Britain at the time. Men whose identity was based on being “working-class” were without actual work.  Another was nostalgia for World War Two.  Buford at times thought that the hooligans found mob violence, particularly when directed against foreigners at World Cup tournaments, as a substitute and next best thing to an actual war.

The way football spectators were treated may have been a factor.  You had to pay a premium for a seat on the grandstands.  The holders of the cheapest tickets were herded into pens in front of the stands. They were like livestock pens.  Spectators were so crowded together it was literally possible to be trampled to death.

So there was a crowd of men, pressed close together (and the British, like us Americans, are a touch-me-not culture), sharing the same enthusiasm and resentment, hearing the same shouts and reduced to the same body language and no doubt (I would add) influenced by the same pheronomes, the chemicals that influence emotions through subliminal smells.

But there is nothing in Buford’s book to suggest these men were slaves of circumstance.  They cultivated violent feelings and engaged in violent behavior because it was fun.

The nightmare of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism was the possibility that the state, by means of brainwashing, terror and propaganda, could force human beings to surrender their free will.  What Buford’s book suggests is that, under certain circumstances, people might surrender without being forced.

(more…)

The promise of American life

August 9, 2010

The promise of American life is that every generation will enjoy a higher material standard of life than the generation that came before.  But what happens if this is no longer true?  What happens to the American way of life then?

Compared to my parents, I am better off materially in every way.  I live alone in a house that is bigger than the house in which my parents brought up my brother and me, and for which they saved up for years.  I have a thermostat which I can turn up or down as I like.

I remember the first family in my home town to get a TV set.  All the neighbors gathered to watch as they set up a free-standing outdoor antenna that looked like the Eiffel Tower.  Now TV is practically a necessity of life.

But am I happier than people of my parents generation?  I don’t think so, at least not after they came out from under the shadow of the Great Depression and World War Two.  They were happy and unhappy for the same reasons people are today.

I’m now in my 70s, and I am materially much better off than I was in my 20s.  I was happy when I owned a radio and a library of 20 books.  Now I have cable TV and an Internet connection, and thousands of books.  I don’t know if these things make me happier.  But I am very unhappy when my computer malfunctions or I lose my Internet connection for a couple of days.

Will my niece’s and nephew’s generation, and their children’s generation, enjoy the same material abundance that I do?  Maybe not.  For the past three decades, the U.S. manufacturing base has declined, wages have been depressed and an increasing share of U.S. wealth has flowed to the upper 1 percent. Even if our dysfunctional economic and political system can be reformed, we face real-world problems such as the peaking of world oil production and the worsening of global climate change.  Maybe there is an answer to these problems, but maybe not.

I have always believed that the story of the United States is the story of the affirmation, in the Declaration of Independence, that human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, and of the struggle to live up to that affirmation.  But what if I’m wrong? What if the promise of material abundance through individual effort was not merely a part, but the whole, of the American dream?  And what if that promise was not fulfilled?

We do not need the latest of this gadget and the best of that product in order to be happy.  We need a minimum of food, clothing, shelter and medical care.  We need freedom from well-founded fear, whether of crime, arbitrary government or economic catastrophe.  Beyond we need things that economic and political systems can’t provide – ties to family and friends, interesting and worthwhile things to do, the consolations of religion and philosophy.  None of these things are out of reach, either now or in the foreseeable future.

Can this be enough to sustain American freedom and democracy?  Or will we turn to something else?  I probably won’t live long enough to see.  In certain moods I’m glad I won’t.