moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, May 28, 2010

The inanity of page counts

When debating actual legislation, there's one sure-fire attack to levy at your opponents: "your legislation is longer than [insert complex sounding document]." A good recent example is the Facebook privacy policy, which was accused of being longer than the U.S. Constitution. This is a particularly inane comparison, because the trim 4,400 words in the U.S. Constitution make it the shortest of any country's.

The recent conversation over energy legislation is a good example, and I am ashamed to say that I've been guilty of it with regard to the House Waxman-Markey climate legislation. But here's a great refutation of that point, from a Grist chat with energy analyst Trevor Houser:
"Our litmus test for legislation that will fundamentally alter the behavior of the U.S. energy sector -- a $2.2 trillion part of the U.S. economy -- for the next 40 years is whether or not it can be kept under 100 pages?"
Sometimes wanting simple is just being simple. Brilliant.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Has education reform finally come?

This extensive piece in the NY Times Magazine discusses the federal Race to the Top education funding that provides cash in exchange for schools coupling teacher compensation and tenure with student performance. 

My gut reaction is that this is a good thing, that there should be an element of accountability for performance for teachers.  But at the same time, there are many factors out of a teacher's control. 

The article does discuss a fascinating anecdote, where a charter school and a public school in Harlem share the same building, but the charter school's very different style (and performance-linked pay for teachers) is getting much better results:

A building on 118th Street is one reason that the parents who are Perkins’s constituents know that charters can work. On one side there’s the Harlem Success Academy, a kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter with 508 students. On the other side, there’s a regular public school, P.S. 149, with 438 pre-K to 8th-grade students. They are separated only by a fire door in the middle; they share a gym and cafeteria.

On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work — and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year...

Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.

But while the public side spends more, it produces less...

To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.
Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students...

Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington, reported, “The effect of increases in teacher quality swamps the impact of any other educational investment, such as reductions in class size.”
Is tying teacher compensation to performance the answer?  Or does it require a much more comprehensive effort (note the much longer hours of the charter school teachers, among other requirements)?  In reality, the charter teachers probably get paid less per hour.  It'd be interesting to know if their job satisfaction is better...

Combo update: high MPG in trains, taxes and economic growth get along, discipline beats IQ

Freight trains have doubled fuel efficiency since 1980
Cars are the big news in fuel economy because of the recent increase in CAFE standards, but it's trains that really scoop the efficiency scores.  One ton of freight ( on a train moves 480 miles per gallon.  For comparison, and Honda Accord would have to get 320 MPG to match it).  That's probably why liberals love commuter rail, beneficiary of $9.3 billion in stimulus dollars.

High taxes don't cause growth, but they don't kill it either
A nice chart by Paul Krugman exploding the conservative-spread myth that high taxes and growth aren't good bedfellows.  Also note that the federal debt wasn't rising back then, either.

Hard work trumps natural ability
In the long run, it's hard work that matters, not innate IQ (and IQ can be increased through study).  A study of students found that "Students who were more self-disciplined and were able to delay gratification performed better than their peers who had higher IQs."  In other words, keep at it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Red pens make you see more errors?

MinnPost: This is an example of an interesting hypothesis and good reporting.
"But, as a study [PDF] published online in the European Journal of Social Psychology earlier this month reports, “people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens.”"
Fascinating, but the article also includes the study limitations.

The current study has limitations, of course. The study did not control for the volunteers’ age, level of education or other possibly confounding factors. And none of the volunteers were experienced teachers.

In other words, it was true for this set of volunteers, but may not have a significant impact on people who grade for a living.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Oil Spill: Obama failing at his 9/11

Op-Ed Columnist: "President Obama seems intent on squandering his environmental 9/11 with a Bush-level failure of imagination. So far, the Obama policy is: “Think small and carry a big stick.” He is rightly hammering the oil company executives. But he is offering no big strategy to end our oil addiction."
It's time to transition to a clean energy economy and Obama couldn't have asked for a better rhetorical tool. If only there were pending legislation he could champion...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Senator tries to fight banks on ATM fees

Sen. Tom Harkin:
"The national average per ATM transaction is $2.50...on average, the real cost of processing a transaction today is only 36 cents or less."
Why should we care? First, because ATMs are like slots to the casino, they're a serious money generator disproportionate to their customer value.

But second, because it punishes folks who don't withdraw a lot at one time:

Some people may think that $2.00 is not much, but here is the other unfair thing about it. The average person going to an ATM machine takes out on average $20.00 or $50.00 to get them through a day or two, and they are charged $2.50 for accessing that money. Yet someone else may withdraw $500.00, and they pay the same $2.50. The burden falls more heavily on low-income and moderate-income people. That is grossly unfair.
Sen. Harkin has an amendment to the The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 (financial reform bill), but he faces uphill slogging.

Shoot your Senator a note and tell them you're tired of being Bank of America's hot nickel slot machine.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Libertarians and the real world

If libertarianism requires incorruptible politicians to work, it’s not serious.

From a nice blog post by Paul Krugman about the inanity of self-regulation by oil companies like BP.

Go figure: bees and neurotoxins don't mix

Results are in from a pesticide ban in Italy, and it turns out that the mysterious colony collapse disorder that was decimating honeybee populations was the disorienting result of neurotoxins in "nicotine-based neonicotinoids" pesticides

Yet another example of the unintended consequences of a chemical policy that assumes things are safe. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The new climate bill - American Power Act

A new climate bill was introduced in the Senate yesterday and it establishes a much-improved cap-and-trade program compared to the House version. It still has some gaping holes (see links for descriptions of the 2 billion tons of carbon offsets) but it's a reasonable framework.

Click around for a comprehensive review and some commentary on the bill from the author himself, Sen. John Kerry.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Understanding the Gulf oil spill

Here's a very thorough analysis of the causes of the leak and explosion at the oil platform, by one of the gubernatorial candidates in Texas (with a fair amount of experience in the field).  A very well-reasoned assessment of the oil leak causes.

Ditching pesticides to kill mosquitos more effectively

The U.S. used a lot of the pesticide DDT to rid itself of malaria-carrying mosquitoes before the chemical was largely banned and the DDT is still one of the more effective chemicals to attack mosquitoes.  And yet, as Mexico has discovered, landscaping can be more effective than DDT (to which bugs can develop resistance).

According to Yale 360, Mexico once used DDT and other insecticides to fight Malaria, even spraying it inside people's homes (though pesticide-soaked wallpaper seems to be slightly safer...). As much as 70,000 tons of DDT was used between 1957 and 1999 in the effort to prevent malaria. However, in 1998, Oaxaca introduced methods of clearing vegetation along waterways and it showed effective - so effective that the number of malaria cases dropped from 17,500 to 254 in two years, and Mexico incorporated the more eco-friendly methods.

By 2008, Mexico had ditched insecticides including DDT in all its anti-malaria efforts and the number of deaths from malaria reported during that year was a whopping zero. 
Just a lesson that what seems easiest often isn't, and that chemicals are not the be-all, end-all of preventing pests or disease.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Combo update: excess of corporate power, psychiatry gets medicated, political assassinations, and the Herbicide Merry-Go-Round

Though I wish I had time for in-depth analysis, I'll have to resort to a quick summary of some interesting stories:

Eight Words That Could Save Our Country - a constitutional amendment proposed to limit the power and legal rights of corporations, reserving those rights for people.  This essay offers arguments about the benefits of limiting corporate rights and the rather tawdry legal history of the debate.

Psychiatry gets medicated - a fascinating look at how mental health therapy has shifted the couch to the back seat, and drugs to the front, despite little medical evidence that drugs are more effective.  Given that there's money to be made in drugs and not couch time, don't count me surprised. 

One thing the story leaves out is whether therapy also makes a patient more resilient to other types of related mental health problems, versus a drug that may only address one.

Political assassinations - not only is it awful that President Obama has authorized the killing of an American citizen without due process (as a terrorist), it seems that this tactic has a rather poor history of making us safer.

The Herbicide Merry-Go-Round continues - much like the problems with overusing antibiotics causing disease resistance, overuse of herbicides on agricultural land creates super weeds.  Only this time, it's happening with "Roundup Ready" genetically modified crops.  These super crops were bred to be resistance to a particularly effective weed killer, so you could spray your mutant crops with impunity. It was so effective that everyone is doing it:
Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.
Unfortunately, the overzealous use of Roundup Ready crops and Roundup herbicide has created resistant super weeds, scarcely 10 years after the genetically modified crops were introduced.  Hello, agribusiness!  You're already making antibiotics less useful by giving them to pigs.  Maybe that should have been a hint.