March 1, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 7:36 AM


How Jeb Bush's school reforms really played out in Florida (Valerie Strauss February 2, 2015, Washington Post)

His critics call him not a "reformer" but a "privatizer" of public education in part because of his attitude about traditional public schools -- calling them "politicized, unionized monopolies" or "government-run monopolies run by unions" -- while advocating for charter schools as well as voucher and voucher-like programs, which use public money to pay private school tuition for students. [...]

To understand what really happened, I had an e-mail conversation with professor Sherman Dorn of the University of South Florida, who has spent years researching and writing about public education in the Sunshine State. He maintains a blog about public education at

Here's our conversation:

Q) Let's start with the basics. When Jeb Bush became governor of Florida in 1999, how did he proceed in terms of school reform?

A) In his first term, most of Jeb Bush's efforts in education came in three areas: test-based accountability, private-school vouchers, and support for improved reading instruction. In 1999, Bush signed legislation that required annual testing of all children in grades 3-10, tied test scores to annual "A" through "F" labels assigned to local public and charter schools, and required retention of children in third grade if they did not meet critical scores in the state reading test or provide other evidence of reading skill. In the same year, the Florida legislature created two voucher programs, one tied to the state labeling of local public schools and the other available to children with disabilities. Bush also created the Florida Center for Reading Research in 1999, which used both state and federal funding to support classroom teachers and reading coaches. [...]

Q) Bush frequently talks about how his test-based policies led to higher test scores. I'm not sure if he was referring to NAEP or to FCAT. What happened with the test scores and the achievement gap?

A) [...] Governor Bush and his allies generally point to fourth-grade reading as the most important story, and that is where one can see large increases in average scale scores, not only across cohorts of fourth-grade students but in comparison with the national sample of fourth-grade students. Between 1998 and 2013, Florida's fourth graders rose from being quite a bit below the national average on the NAEP testing program to being well above the national average. You can quibble with testing samples and comparison issues, but this is an unambiguous good.

The picture is less optimistic when you look at reading in eighth grade or math at either fourth or eighth grade. NAEP reading scores for Florida eighth graders slowly converged to the national average, with large bounces up and down across the years. That's good if less impressive than fourth grade. [...]

Q) The former governor talks about closing the achievement gap, especially with Hispanics. Did that happen? [...]

A) I focused on fourth-grade reading, where there is the best evidence for improvement in Florida children's achievement during and since Bush's terms. For fourth-grade reading looking at NAEP, there is evidence of gap-closing for children in low-income households and students with disabilities, and reduction of the gap at a faster pace than the nation as a whole. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 AM


'Demand Response' Is How The Smart Grid Will Save Us Billions (James Conca, 3/01/15, Forbes)

An energy company in the Pacific Northwest just demonstrated that Demand Response works really really well. Although demand response is being implemented in many places, Energy Northwest in Richland, Washington launched a demand response project last Monday that worked perfectly. Energy Northwest is already a model power company, producing all of its power from non-fossil fuel - wind, solar nuclear and hydroelectric. It is a non-profit public entity that sells its power at cost.

Using something called a Demand Response Aggregated Control System (DRACS), Energy Northwest demonstrated to the regional Bonneville Power Administration that this new DRACS system could be relied upon to handle the changes in electricity demand in this new way.

Using this system, many electricity customers are aggregated into a network of users whose electricity use can be varied to adjust demand as needed, in minutes. One such user is the Northern Pacific Paper Corporation (NORPAC) in Longview, a giant consumer of electricity. NORPAC uses huge thermal mechanical pulping refiners that are driven by over three dozen 6,000-horsepower motors (see figure).

As part of this demand response project, NORPAC agreed to let Energy Northwest shut down eight of these huge motors at a moments notice to reduce electricity demand.

That's a big chunk of energy.

"Energy Northwest met a significant commitment to the region by successfully launching the demand response pilot project by the target date," said Jim Gaston, general manager of Energy Services and Development for Energy Northwest. "This was a great team effort involving partners throughout the Northwest."

Indeed, the response to take 32 MW offline was 4 minutes, well under the 10-minute window dictated by the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA, itself a federal non-profit agency, actually called the event without warning to see if they could catch Energy Northwest off-guard.

"From receipt of the event notification through termination by the DRACS, each of our demand response assets performed beyond all expectations," said John Steigers, Generation Project Developer.

This kind of broad-geographic project involves a lot of people. The City of Richland and the Cowlitz County Public Utility District signed on to let their power needs be varied as needed, and were part of this demonstration last week. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory also helped out by hosting the DRACS in its Electricity Infrastructure Operations Center, a DOE-funded incubator facility built and operated for just such an opportunity.

If we evolve our energy infrastructure as we should in the years to come, almost everyone would be involved in some way. Not just a smart grid, but a smart total system.

Then there's the batteries. Large battery storage systems are an obvious tool in this demand response toolbox, able to be kept charged until needed, and able to come online immediately to smooth out changes in demand. Energy Northwest has some big ones, 500 kW each, and the efficiency of these batteries are now up to 85% (see figure).

The plan is for dozens to hundreds of these mobile lithium-ion battery energy storage systems to be spread out across the region, all acting in concert, along with the demand response customers.

Posted by orrinj at 7:10 AM


Georgia's education chief has some words for Arne Duncan (Valerie Strauss February 27, 2015, Washington Post)

Richard Woods became the State School Superintendent of Georgia last month after spending 22 years in public education in various roles: teacher, teacher mentor, assistant principal, principal, curriculum director, testing coordinator, pre-K director and alternative school director.  He is also a former small business owner and was a purchasing agent for a multi-national laser company. This week, Woods wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and sent it, too, to members of Georgia's delegation in the U.S. Congress and to the House and Senate education committees, which are currently working on legislation to rewrite No Child Left Behind. One of the key issues is whether annual standardized testing, as mandated in NCLB for grades 3-8 and once in high school, will continue in a new education law.

Woods, in his letter to Duncan, urges changes to federal mandates on standardized testing, saying in part:

Our broken model of assessment is too focused on labeling our schools and teachers, and not focused enough on supporting our students. Our current status quo model is forcing our teachers to teach to the test. We need an innovative approach that uses tests to guide instruction, just as scans and tests guide medical professionals. Oftentimes, we hear teachers called professionals because they have the knowledge and skill set to reach the needs of their individual students, yet in our accountability measures we have not supported or given value to diagnostic tools and tests that teachers need to fully utilize that knowledge or those skills. We must find a balance between accountability and responsibility.

...the jobs would be high-paying and filled by men.  All we want is folks capable of teaching to the test we write for them.  The whole testing regime is designed to end educator autonomy and experimentation.

Posted by orrinj at 7:06 AM


The truth about the Sound of Music family (Louise Hidalgo, 3/01/15, BBC World Service)

Johannes was born in 1939 - by then his mother and father had been married for 12 years and had already had two children together, to add to the seven that the widowed Captain von Trapp had from his first marriage.

In the film the couple marry in 1938 and as Johannes says: "It was quite tough enough with seven kids for the movie company."

The von Trapp children also already played music before Maria came to their home as a governess. "My mother was the energy and the instigator that took them to almost concert quality," says Johannes.

But it was another important figure in their life, the priest, Father Franz Fausner, who was instrumental in their musical success, touring with them in Europe and America. He was left out of both the film and the Broadway musical.

Another more hurtful change was the portrayal of Georg von Trapp. Far from being the distant rather domineering father of the Sound of Music, Johannes says he was "a very charming man, generous, open, and not the martinet he was made out to be both in the stage play and in the film. My mother did try to alter that portrayal for the film, but she was not successful."

It was Maria von Trapp's book, The Story of Trapp Family Singers, which was published in 1949 that inspired first the musical and then the film.

The family had lost all their money when the Austrian bank that held it failed in the 1930s - they managed to keep their villa outside Salzburg.

But after the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, life became increasingly untenable and later that year they left.

They didn't cross the mountains as shown in the film though - they went by train to go on a concert tour from which they never returned. They finally travelled by boat to New York and when they arrived had only a few dollars to their name.

They continued giving performances and later bought a farm in Vermont where the family still runs a hotel, the Trapp Family Lodge. But when Georg died in 1947 Maria was left with 10 children to support.

That's when she wrote the book which became a best-seller. A German-language film and the musical followed.

Maria later recalled, in a BBC interview, that she only learned Hollywood was making a film when she read about it in a newspaper.

"I felt very alarmed," she said. "I didn't know what they are going to do with us... Hollywood being Hollywood, [I thought] they will have me three times divorced and five times married or whatever. And then it turned out so nice - especially the beginning with the mountains and me coming up over the meadow."

She had some reservations about how her character, played by Julie Andrews, was portrayed though: "My long drawn out misery is, I can't get these diverse Marias to be as wild and untamed as I was at that age - they are all very ladylike you see and I was not."

Maria was a "force of nature" says Johannes. "It wasn't easy to disagree with her but she kept everything together... She was an extraordinarily strong person and that was both wonderful and sometimes difficult.

"She did everything quickly. She walked very fast, with a rolling gait developed from hiking in the Austrian mountains and it was hard to keep up with her. She ate fast, she drove too fast. My wife borrowed her car once to go the village, and was astonished that everyone in front gave way when they saw my mother's car coming."

Posted by orrinj at 6:57 AM


Zero inflation is great (so long as you're not in government) : Victorians enjoyed higher living standards without price rises. Maybe the 20th century was an aberration (HAMISH MCRAE,  01 March 2015, The Independent)

[I]n a very long view, the aberration was the 20th century, with Germany and a number of other countries having hyperinflation in the 1920s and the entire developed world having very rapid inflation in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a famous study of prices in England from the Middle Ages onwards by Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila Hopkins which showed that there was no significant increase in prices from the 1300s to the 1500s, that prices then rose roughly four times as a result of the opening up of gold and silver mines in Spanish America, and there was another period of reasonable stability until 1914. Periods when prices rose, such as during the Napoleonic wars, were offset by periods when they fell, such as the long Victorian era. If you were born in 1820, you would only know stable or falling prices.

This is not to say this will be the experience of young people in Britain now, though something close to that has occurred in Japan over the past 25 years. Our sub-1 per cent inflation is a function of one-off forces, notably the plunge in energy prices, and underlying inflation is around 2 per cent. But the working assumption of most of us that inflation over the next few years will be 2 per cent or a bit more may be wrong. Our long-term rates are not as low as Germany's, but they are lower than in Victorian times. This would suggest that inflation in the UK will be 1 per cent or less over the next 30 years. Of course, the markets may be wrong; this has been known. But the narrower point that in the short-term there will be very little inflation in much of the developed world stands. The longer that price stability persists, the more our attitudes will change. [...]

For the business community, a world where you can't increase your prices is a stern discipline. "Why," a top retailer asked me the other day, "if the statistics say the economy is booming, does it not feel like a boom to us?"

I think the answer is that, in a world of flat prices, retailers have to run to stand still. Zero inflation is obviously bad for those who have over-borrowed, countries as well as companies and people, because the value of the debt is no longer whittled away. But it is not bad for consumers. Quite the reverse. During the 19th century, living standards rose by between 1 and 2 per cent a year as prices fell. We already get a lot of improvements in living standards from falling prices: think of the way mobile communication costs have fallen while the service has become more extensive and competent.

February 28, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 6:32 PM


ISIS is losing (Zack Beauchamp, February 23, 2015, Vox)

One year ago, ISIS was soon to launch the offensive in Iraq that, in June, would sweep across northern Iraq and conquer the country's second-largest city, Mosul. Today, the Iraqi government is prepping a counter-offensive aimed at seizing Mosul back, which the US believes will launch in April.

In that year, the situation has changed dramatically. After ISIS's seemingly unstoppable rampage from June to August of 2014, the Iraqi government and its allies have turned the tide. Slowly, unevenly, but surely, ISIS is being pushed back.

"There's really nowhere where [ISIS] has momentum," Kirk Sowell, the principal at Uticensis Risk Services and an expert on Iraqi politics, told me in late January.

"There are a significant string of [Iraqi] victories all along the northern river valley, up through Diyala and Salahuddin [two central Iraqi provinces]," Doug Ollivant, National Security Council Director for Iraq from 2008-2009 and current managing partner at Mantid International, explained.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish forces are threatening to cut off a highway that serves as ISIS's main supply line between Iraq and Syria. They took the town of Sinjar, which sits on the highway, in December; by late January, they had taken a longer stretch of the highway near a town called Kiske.

Ollivant describes much of the Kurdish progress in the north as a "circling around Mosul." Though the Kurds won't attempt to retake the city on their own, a joint Iraqi-Kurdish force is now poised to do so. Re-taking Mosul would be a major blow to ISIS.

One of the many reasons to remove Assad is the hope that ISIS would try to fill the vaccum, making themselves easier targets.

US-led task force launches 20 air strikes in continued attacks on Isis (The Guardian, 28 February 2015)

US-led coalition forces have launched 11 air strikes in Iraq and nine in Syria since early on Friday, the Combined Joint Task Force said on Saturday.

The strikes targeted Islamic State (Isis) fighters and positions in both countries and were part of long-running air campaigns against the militants, who have conquered large areas of territory since last summer. Strikes began in Iraq on 8 August and in Syria, which is racked by civil war, on 23 September.

Posted by orrinj at 6:12 PM


Sen. Rand Paul Wins CPAC Straw Poll (BEN BELL, 2/28/15, ABC News)

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, was crowned the winner of the annual CPAC-Washington Times Straw Poll for the third year in a row, it was announced today.

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 AM


France's Anti-Terror, Free-Market Socialist : Prime Minister Valls talks about 'Islamofascism,' his personal experience with rising anti-Semitism, and the necessity of economic reform. (SOHRAB AHMARI, 2/28/15, WSJ)

Though Mr. Valls is careful not to reduce one to the other, France's social crisis is owed in part to the country's economic failure. Growth is nonexistent. Unemployment remains above 10%. A quarter of French youth are unemployed. The most talented young French men and women are more likely to be working in Silicon Valley or London than in Paris. Foreign direct investment in France fell 94% over the past decade, thanks to the country's high taxes, labyrinthine regulations and rigid labor-market rules.

With the old left incapable of addressing the economic problems that are largely its creation, Mr. Valls has emerged as a leader of the reform wing of the Socialists, emphasizing law and order, personal responsibility and free markets. "For 30 years France got used to massive unemployment, to too-high public spending and to not undertaking courageous reforms," the prime minister says. "France must prove to itself and to the world that it is capable of reforming itself."

Departing from traditional socialism, Mr. Valls says, "I very much believe in the role of the individual, the responsibility of each individual and individual accomplishment. I don't believe in egalitarianism. You have to support, including at school, each individual according to his potential. We have unemployment benefits that somehow sponsor unemployment." Instead, he wants to "sponsor going back to work."

He has already made significant progress, though at a high political cost. Mr. Valls's government is cutting public spending by €50 billion ($56 billion) and social taxes and fees on businesses by €40 billion ($45 billion) over the next three years. The government last year introduced a law to privatize some public assets, open 37 highly regulated professions to greater competition and allow shops to stay open 12 Sundays a year, from five currently, among other measures.

Sensing the law would face tough opposition from hard-left Socialists, Messrs. Hollande and Valls last week invoked a rarely used constitutional loophole that allows bills to bypass the National Assembly and go directly to the Senate for approval. The government survived a subsequent no-confidence vote.

There is no longer a Second Way.

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


Technology will help architects 3D print concrete moulds (Julia Pierce, 2/25/15, The Engineer)

A giant 3D printer capable of producing moulds up to the size of a phone box will allow architects to bring their creativity to life through the creation of freeform concrete designs. 

Architects have long complained that concrete forces their ideas into flat and angular shapes. However, a partnership of industrial 3D printing and 3D engineering company 3Dealise and Bruil, the construction company, has resulted in the development of a technology that brings freedom of design and other such benefits of 3D printing to large-scale concrete structures. 

According to its developers, the new technology will help architects as they are no longer constrained by technical limitations and can create irregularly curved surfaces, lightweight half-open mesh or honeycomb structures, and even ornamental craftwork.

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 AM


Who really gets tested by state exams (Lynn Baker,  February 27, 2015, Washington Post)

I entered my classroom on test day, armed with a positive attitude and a calm smile. Neither guaranteed test success or reflected my true feelings. Both made me feel better.

Preparation for the Virginia Standards of Learning tests had begun in September. Third grade was an especially demanding year, since it was the first time the children had been tested. Merely practicing for the test wasn't enough. We practiced for the practice for the practice test. Online testing meant that a large part of the computer lab had been transformed from a time of creative discovery into endless drills. The counselor even directed a skit that was full of test tips: If you feel anxious, breathe deeply and slowly count to 10. Remember to go to bed early the night before the test. Eat a healthy breakfast on the morning of the test. Our efforts couldn't guarantee higher test scores, but they made us feel better.

These tests were high stakes for the classroom teachers and for the school but not for the 8-year-olds.

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 AM


Competing on Corporate Tax (Laura Tyson, 2/28/15, Project Syndicate)

The problem for the US is that developed and emerging economies have been slashing their rates, leaving the US - which had one of the developed world's lowest corporate tax rates after the 1986 tax reform - at a serious disadvantage.

Most recently, the United Kingdom reduced its rate to 20%, half of the combined US federal and average state rates. And, since 2013, the UK has applied a special tax rate on income from patents, which will fall gradually to 10% by 2017. Twelve European Union countries currently have or are implementing similar special tax regimes, or "patent boxes," for income from intellectual property, which is taxed at rates of 5-15%.

The US statutory corporate tax rate, at 39% in total, is more than 14 percentage points above the OECD average - making it the highest in the developed world. These differences affect corporate decisions about how much to invest, how to finance investment, and where to do business.

The pro-growth rationale for a sizable reduction in the US rate has garnered bipartisan support - a rarity in today's Congress. Obama has proposed a rate of 28%, with a preferential rate of 25% for manufacturing, and additional special provisions to promote investment in research and development and clean energy.

There is also bipartisan agreement that the foregone revenues from a rate reduction should be covered mainly by broadening the tax base - the same approach adopted in the 1986 tax reform. Broadening the base would also reduce the tax system's complexity and enhance its efficiency. But there remain deep fissures over which preferences should be eliminated and which activities currently outside the corporate tax base should be brought into it.

...why would we want to tax (stifle) business activity in the first place?  Reducing the tax on some businesses so that we can tax more of them seems a particularly odd idea, spreading the mistake thinner but wider.    Especially when the revenue will just go into general funds to be spent willy nilly.   

India slashes corporate tax rate by 5% as Jaitley envisions imminent double-digit growth (Jerin Mathew, 2/28/15, IB Times)

India has slashed corporate tax rate by 5%, as the country looks to become more business friendly under Narendra Modi.

While presenting the federal budget for fiscal year 2015-16, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced that the country's corporate tax rate will be cut to 25% from 30% over four years. 

February 27, 2015

Posted by orrinj at 5:13 PM


Dalton Got His Gun : The lodestar of the Hollywood blacklist was all that his fans said he was--and less. (STEFAN KANFER, 27 February 2015, City Journal)

Between film assignments, Trumbo found time to write Johnny Got His Gun. The novel's protagonist is a limbless, faceless veteran of World War I, whose brain narrates what he cannot speak. At first glance, Johnny could pass for the tract of a conscientious objector, ruing the results of Woodrow Wilson's call to "make the world safe for democracy." But the book had a hidden agenda: Trumbo had fallen under the spell of Communism and now marched in lockstep with the Party line: Germany and Britain, preparing for all-out war, should duke it out themselves. Never mind the reports of Nazi atrocities; America must not get involved in this European squabble.

The Communist Daily Worker was delighted to serialize Johnny in its pages, and with good reason: the U.S.S.R. had recently signed a nonaggression pact with the Third Reich. But in June 1941, Hitler's armies invaded Russia. Overnight, Johnny was excised from the Worker's pages. Now, combat was not only moral but mandatory. When Trumbo's publishers chose not to keep his novel in print, he went along with their decision. Trumbo sees no inconsistency in the writer's position. "By 1941," the book straight-facedly reports, "Hitler had become a menace to the whole world, and when the United States entered the war against Germany in December of that year Trumbo saw 'no other way than to support it.'"

Journalist Allan Ryskind has a different take on Trumbo's about-face. In Hollywood Traitors, an exposé of the Communist film colony from the 1930s onward, he asserts that Trumbo's "fanatical cries for an isolationist foreign policy" were "nothing more than a shrewd tactic solely designed to please Moscow. . . . It's a pretty good bet that Trumbo and his 'anti-fascist' comrades would never have turned against the Fuehrer if he hadn't betrayed his friend in the Kremlin."

And then came 1947, the year the House Un-American Activities Committee visited Hollywood. The congressmen said that they were in pursuit of show business "subversives." Trumbo argues that the committee members were more interested in hunting headlines than in tracking down Reds. In any case, the leftist actors, directors, and writers turned out to have been pseudo-revolutionaries, singing "Arise, Ye Prisoners of Starvation" around their swimming pools. That hardly mattered to HUAC. It issued scores of subpoenas, demanding that each witness name the names of his comrades and fellow travelers. When ten men--among them Dalton Trumbo--refused, they were cited for contempt, sent to jail, and blacklisted from the business. That list soon expanded to include those whose crimes varied from Party membership to the signing of a petition or attendance at meetings that met with the congressmen's disapproval.

At this point, Trumbo portrays its subject as a martyr to Cold War hysteria. In fact, the scenarist remained loyal to the Kremlin and subservient to its world view throughout his investigation and imprisonment, and afterward. After V-E Day, Joseph Stalin renewed hostilities with the West. Earl Browder, who as head of the American Communist Party during the 1940s had encouraged a rapprochement between socialism and democracy, was deposed. Ryskind reports Trumbo's response: "It comes down to this, if Lenin was right, then Browder was wrong and vice versa. I prefer to believe that Lenin was right." Trumbo didn't leave the Party until 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev's speech stated what honest historians had known for decades: Stalin was a mass murderer, responsible for the death of some 20 million of his own people through deportation, mock trials and executions, and mass starvation--not to mention those who died because he had strengthened Hitler's hand.

Posted by orrinj at 5:03 PM


These Concentrated Solar Arrays Produce 50% More Power Than Normal Panels (Ben Schiller, 2/27/15, Co.Exist)

 Researchers from Penn State University and the University of Illinois have developed a smaller, consumer-sized CPV system that gets around some of the normal disadvantages of CPV and maximizes its advantages. Though at an early stage, it could allow homeowners to buy into higher-efficiency cells by reducing the cost of tracking.

The system has two main innovations. First the cells, which were developed at the University of Illinois, are very small: only tenths of a millimeter across compared to cells that are normally centimeters-squared. Second, the tracking system reverses the way things are normally done. The "microcells" are laid onto a piece of plastic, then sandwiched between two bubbled layers of optics. During the day, the middle layer moves slowly against the static outer layers, so it's always got enough light.

"Instead of pointing all your optics at the sun, all your optics remain fixed and the solar cells move to follow the focal point," explains Chris Giebink, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Penn State.

As yet, the technology has only reached the prototype stage. But the results so far are impressive. The system captured 70% of available optical light and generated 50% more power than a conventional silicon solar panel (which has efficiency of about 20%).

Posted by orrinj at 4:56 PM


Unlikely Winners of Greece's Surrender (Mark Gilbert, 2/26/15, Bloomberg View)

The Greek government's apparent capitulation in debt negotiations with its euro partners makes it less likely that Athens will be forced out of the common currency. The real winners, though, are the European governments who have stuck with spending cuts in the face of mounting domestic opposition. They don't have to worry about a successful austerity renegade giving ammunition to their opponents.

Posted by orrinj at 4:53 PM


Christie's Budget: Flat Funding for Schools, Towns (HEATHER HADDON AND JOSH DAWSEY, Feb. 24, 2015, WSJ)

A plan released Tuesday by a commission convened by the Christie administration called for the current state pension system to be frozen, to align future benefits for state workers with those found in the private sector and to start a type of defined-benefit pension plan that more closely mirrors investment returns.

In return, the state would constitutionally guarantee annual payments into the pension system, which could begin at $2.6 billion a year and grow annually.

Mr. Christie's proposed budget, which includes no significant changes to tax policy, calls for a $1.3 billion payment into the state's underfunded pension system.

That is the largest single payment made under any governor, but falls short of the more than $3 billion originally scheduled for the fiscal year beginning in July.

State Democrats and public- sector unions criticized Mr. Christie's call for further changes to the pension system, saying workers already made concessions when the governor agreed to pay more into the pension system in 2011.

Posted by orrinj at 4:50 PM


It's true: Americans like to drink bad coffee ( Roberto A. Ferdman February 24, 2015, Washington Post)

[P]eople in this country, on the whole, are actually drinking worse coffee today than they have in the past. And the reason appears to be that they value cheapness over quality -- and convenience over everything. "A lot of people in America would take a sip of single origin high-end coffee and not appreciate the taste," said Howard Telford, an industry analyst at market research firm Euromonitor.

"Price is important because if you can't afford it, you can't buy it, but convenience is the one thing that's really changing trends these days." Indeed, the bulk of this country runs not on single-drip artisanal coffee, but standard, pre-ground coffee, which, by most coffee snobs' measures, is one of coffee's most inferior forms.

Only about 8 percent of the coffee beans Americans buy are fresh whole beans, which upscale coffee brewers, like Blue Bottle, will tell you is the much better way to buy coffee beans. And ground coffee isn't just outpacing whole bean coffee -- it's increasing its lead, each and every year. [...]

But while the high-end coffee world imagines a country in which everyone can have fresh, ground beans delivered to their doorstep, the bulk of America is still perfectly happy drinking the basic stuff.

And the high end drinkers would fail a taste test.

Posted by orrinj at 4:48 PM


More Than 1 Million People Pick New Health-Law Plans (LOUISE RADNOFSKY,  Feb. 25, 2015, WSJ)

About 1.2 million people who bought coverage on in 2014 dropped their health plan and picked a new one through the site for 2015, the Obama administration said Wednesday.

The extent of people's willingness to consider shifting to a different insurance carrier came as a surprise to federal officials, said Andy Slavitt, a former top executive at UnitedHealth Group who is now principal deputy administrator at Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and will become acting administrator on Monday.

"This is a much more active consumer than anybody expected," Mr. Slavitt said, noting that in other programs such as the federal employees' health plan, or Medicare prescription drug benefits, as few as 10% of customers changed plans from year to year. "We wanted to create maximum choice while we had maximum consumer protection," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 4:45 PM


The day an ancient and very wonderful sport died : Farewell to the great hare-coursing slipper Garrett 'Garry' Kelly (Jeremy Clarke, 2/28/15, The Spectator)

In 1997 I was sent up to Great Altcar in Lancashire to report on the Waterloo Cup for a newspaper. To give me the best possible view of the action, the organisers put me in the 'shy' with the slipper. The 'shy' is a canvas screen hide past which the hares are driven by flag-waving beaters. The beaters encouraged individual hares to move forward by saying to them, 'Ah! Ha!' Knowing absolutely nothing, I crouched down out of sight clutching my notebook and biro.

The slipper that year was the great Garrett 'Garry' Kelly, slipper of 17 Waterloo Cups. Garry was dressed in cloth cap, hunting frock-coat, jodhpurs, jodhpur boots and ankle covers. While waiting for the first hare to be flushed, he and the coupled pair of coursing greyhounds stood quietly, the dogs' skin crawling with anticipation. Then a hare made a bolt for it, shooting past the shy and across the open coursing ground. The crowd lining the grass bank roared. Once the dogs had clapped eyes on the hare, 180 pounds of sinew and muscle strained forward towards what has been the object of its desire for 3,000 years. Garry reined them in with all of his might but only partial success.

Now the slipper must tell at a glance if the hare is old, fat, injured, deformed or unwell. If she is any of these, he lets her go. A diarrhoea-encrusted rump, for example, is a laissez-passer. The only thing that will do is a fit hare that will test the dogs' agility and stamina. If the hare is a good one, the slipper walks the madly bucking dogs out of the shy, and makes sure that both have the hare firmly in their sights. (The dogs' eyeballs by this stage are nearly popping out of their sockets.) He ushers them forward, first slowly, then at a rush, until the hare has her regulation 80-yard start on them and the dogs are flowing like dolphins under the restraint of the leash. On the leaping greyhounds' upbound, if possible, he slips them, and they are away and going faster than cheetahs, with four yards of leash uncurling in the air after them.

Great slippers are born, not made. Garry Kelly was a one-off. He was taught first by his father, who in turn learned slipping from the doyen of the Irish slippers Mick Horan. Garry was also taught by Jimmy Rimmer, who slipped the Waterloo Cup from the 1930s to the 1960s. Garry's slipping style was his own: flamboyant, balletic even. To see him on tiptoe, arms elegantly outstretched, the leash snaking through the air in the wake of the stretching dogs, was to see the work of a master, and it produced in this onlooker, at least, the same feeling of emotion that the Spanish like to describe as duende.

It amazes me, now, to think that I was given the opportunity to spend the first day of the 1997 Waterloo Cup in the shy with Garry Kelly. You'd think he'd have been cheesed off at having to share his hide with an ignorant reporter. Not a bit of it. He talked to me as familiarly as if I were his old mother. If a course went on for too long, it always disturbed him. 'Dear, oh dear, oh dear,' he'd say to me after an usually long course. 'They'll sleep well tonight, those dogs.'

Posted by orrinj at 4:31 PM


J-Lo sparks quest to find 'first editions' of The Iliad (Alison Flood, 18 February 2015, The Guardian)

A scene in Jennifer Lopez's new film in which her character is given a supposed first edition of The Iliad has prompted viewers to attempt to find their own first edition of an epic poem composed at least 2,000 years before the invention of the printing press.

According to books marketplace AbeBooks, since Lopez's film The Boy Next Door was released in the US on 23 January, "The Iliad, first edition" has been its top search term, ahead of To Kill A Mockingbird. AbeBooks attributes this to a scene in the film in which Lopez's character, a high-school teacher, is given a hardback copy of the book by the teenager with whom she is to go on to have a dangerous affair.

"Oh my God - this is a first edition? I can't accept this, it must have cost a fortune," she tells her admirer. "It was a buck at a garage sale - one man's trash..." he replies.


Posted by orrinj at 4:27 PM


Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is out to emancipate the Land of Lincoln (George F. Will, 2/25/15, Washington Post)

After more than a dozen credit-rating downgrades in five years, Illinois has the lowest rating among the states. Unfunded public employees' pension liabilities are estimated, perhaps conservatively, at $111 billion, the nation's largest such deficit as a percentage of state revenue. Currently, public pensions consume nearly 25 percent of general state revenues. The state owes vendors $6.4 billion in unpaid bills, and more than 1 million people have left Illinois for less dysfunctional states in the last 15 years. Debt per resident is about $24,989, compared with $7,094 in neighboring Indiana.

Four of the previous nine governors went to prison, so, Rauner says, "people know we've had bad people in charge." Bad but routine practices are astonishing. Some legislators practice law, specializing in real estate tax appeals: They are paid a portion of what they save clients by reducing the clients' bills under the laws the legislators have written.

Rauner says previous governors from both parties have been complicit in the unionization of about 93 percent of government employees. Unionization began during the 14 years (1977-1991) of Republican Gov. Jim Thompson. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), now an inmate, instituted "card- check" unionization. Rauner says union organizers would tell individuals: Sign the card or else -- we know where your wife works and your children go to school.

Rauner is a tall, confident, relaxed man with a powerful voice and a plan to break "a totally rigged system." The plan includes structural reforms necessary to enable lasting policy reforms.

By executive order, Rauner has stopped the government from collecting "fair share" fees for unions from state employees who reject joining a union. This, he says, violates First Amendment principles by compelling people to subsidize speech with which they disagree. The unions might regret challenging this in federal court: If the case reaches the Supreme Court and it overturns the 1977 decision that upheld "fair shares," this would end the practice nationwide.

Rauner hopes to ban, as some states do, public employees unions from making political contributions, whereby they elect the employers with whom they negotiate their compensation. Rauner notes that an owner of a small firm that does business with Illinois's government is forbidden to make political contributions. Rauner also hopes to enable counties and local jurisdictions to adopt right-to-work laws, thereby attracting businesses that will locate only where there are such laws.

He hopes the legislature will empower voters to ratify changes to the state constitutional provision that says public pensions can never be "diminished or impaired." He also proposes shifting state employees from unaffordable defined-benefit plans to a more affordable plan for the state. Furthermore, he hopes to end practices that now have more than 11,000 retirees receiving six-figure pensions.

Posted by orrinj at 4:24 PM


Robear: the bear-shaped nursing robot who'll look after you when you get old (Stuart Dredge, 27 February 2015, The Guardian)

A number of companies have explored the idea of humanoid robots as future home-helpers for elderly people. The latest experiment from Japan is distinctly more bear-shaped, though.

Meet Robear, an experimental nursing-care robot developed by the RIKEN-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company.

Unveiled this month, the robot is designed to lift patients out of beds and into wheelchairs, as well as helping those who need assistance to stand up. Robear weighs in at 140kg, and is the successor to heavier robots RIBA and RIBA-II.

"We really hope that this robot will lead to advances in nursing care, relieving the burden on caregivers today," said Toshiharu Mukai, leader of the project's robot sensor systems research team.

Someone has to do those jobs.

Posted by orrinj at 4:19 PM


10 Things to Know About Negative Bond Yields (Mohamed A. El-Erian, 2/27/15, Bloomberg View)

 The seemingly illogical willingness of investors to pay issuers to borrow their money is neither irrational nor driven by just noncommercial considerations (such as regulatory requirements or forced risk aversion). As the European Central Bank prepares to start its own large-scale purchasing program next week, some investors believe they could make capital gains on such negative yielding investments.

There are many immediate reasons to justify this investor optimism. The impact of the ECB's quantitative easing program (whose scheduled purchase of government bonds is likely to run into a relative scarcity of supply) is amplified by still-sluggish growth, "low-flation" and the threat of deflation. Geopolitical developments also play a role, along with messy national and regional politics in Europe.

 These immediate drivers benefit from a supportive secular and structural context that ranges from the dampening effects of demographics to the impact of technological innovations and growing inequality.

Posted by orrinj at 4:12 PM


Putin's Gas Problem (Paul R. Gregory, 2/25/15, Project Syndicate)

[C]ontrary to what Putin seems to believe, neither Europe nor Ukraine is likely to be the biggest loser in Russia's effort to redirect its gas exports. Gazprom receives two-thirds of its hard-currency revenues from Europe, and a period of falling exports and domestic economic crisis is not the ideal time to play games with your best customer.

Indeed, the European market is already slipping away. Gazprom's European sales plummeted in the third quarter of last year and fell by 25% in the fourth quarter. The slump in demand is coming at a time when Russia is desperate for hard currency, owing to sanctions that exclude it from credit markets. Its major companies are facing huge debt refinancing needs, its currency reserves are collapsing, its economy is heading toward a deep recession, and the ruble is plumbing new lows.

In redirecting its exports, Russia is in effect demanding that Europe spend billions of euros on new infrastructure to replace a perfectly good pipeline, only to satisfy Putin's desire to cause trouble in Ukraine. In January, Gazprom's CEO, Alexey Miller, imperiously brushed off European concerns, stating, "We have informed our European partners, and now it is up to them to put in place the necessary infrastructure starting from the Turkish-Greek border."

The initial reaction in Europe was that Putin either was bluffing or had taken leave of his senses. "The decision makes no economic sense," was how Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission's vice president for energy union, put it. "We're good customers. We're paying a lot of money. We're paying on time, and we're paying in hard currency. So I think we should be treated accordingly."

Putin's erratic and economically oblivious policies are frittering away the last remnants of what was once Gazprom's monopoly position in the European gas market. Clearly, if Europe is to spend billions on pipelines, it would be better off doing so as part of an effort to diversify its sources of natural gas, rather than deepen its dependence on Russia. After all, memories are long, especially when it comes to frigid winters of unheated homes and closed factories.

Europe Isn't Really Worried About Putin (Leonid Bershidsky, 2/25/15, Bloomberg View)

For all the alarmist rhetoric about Russian barbarians at the gate, NATO countries are reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. Only the countries closest to Russia's borders are increasing their military spending this year, while other, bigger ones are making cuts. Regardless of what their leaders say about Vladimir Putin, they don't seem to believe he's a real threat to the West.

In a paper released today by the European Leadership Network think tank, Denitsa Raynova and Ian Kearns analyzed this year's spending plans for 14 NATO countries. The U.K., Germany, Canada, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria will cut military expenditure, and France will keep it at last year's level. Only six countries -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Romania and the Netherlands -- will increase their defense spending. Four of them are Russia's close neighbors, and the fifth, the Netherlands, suffered greatly this year from the Ukraine conflict when an airliner filled with Dutch citizens was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

Among the six, however, only proud little Estonia will spend more than 2 percent of its economic output on defense. 

The only people worried about Putin are the Russians and nostalgic neocons.

Posted by orrinj at 4:09 PM


French National Front candidate says Jews blocking his musical career (JTA, February 27, 2015)

A French amateur singer affiliated with the far-right National Front party said his musical career is being blocked by Jews because he is not part of their clique.

Xavier Sainty, a candidate for National Front from the central Allier region in the upcoming regional elections, made the statement on social media earlier this month, the Liberation daily reported on Wednesday.

"Even in show business I am blocked in all directions, and a Jewish producer, 'Patrick Jaoul' told me to my face: 'as you're not Jewish you'll never be on television or the radio and you'll be barred because we have money and it all belongs to us, you'll never make it.'"

Using the Hebrew word for non-Jews, Sainty added: "This is how we are treated by these governments for decades, we the 'goyim.' For a real French revolution, for Marine Le Pen and fast!"

As long as he hates Muslims too, right?

Posted by orrinj at 4:04 PM


The Train Keeps Rolling, 50 Years On (MARC MYERS, Feb. 25, 2015, WSJ)

The 1965 song opens like a movie, with shimmering strings, spiritual humming and a far-off horn--an orchestral scene-setter that signals a biblical storm has passed and the sun is emerging. As the four-bar introduction ends, the cooing voices of Curtis Mayfield and Sam Gooden, backed by Fred Cash, begin singing: "People get ready / There's a train a-comin' / You don't need no baggage / You just get on board."

The Impressions' "People Get Ready," a gospel-soul ballad about a train to the Promised Land, was released as a single 50 years ago this month. An obvious metaphor at the time for hope and racial equality, the song was written by Mayfield in the late summer of 1964 and recorded that October. The song's gentle, optimistic message came just months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and its sermon-like delivery, cadence and imagery were reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech of August 1963. [...]

Born in Chicago in 1942, Mayfield found solace in the church, a religious and cultural beacon for the black community hemmed in by segregation. At age 7, Mayfield sang with a local gospel quintet, and he started his own group, the Alphatones, at age 14, where he began songwriting. Two years after he joined the Roosters, the vocal group changed its name to the Impressions in 1958. As northern gospel singers became comfortable with pop, many were highly marketable. RCA signed Sam Cooke and Columbia signed Aretha Franklin in 1960, while ABC-Paramount signed Mayfield and the Impressions the following year.

But Mayfield wasn't interested in recording brassy, swinging albums like those produced by the label for Eydie Gormé, Steve Lawrence and Ray Charles. His music required a more sensitive, sweet touch. "In 1962, the Impressions were appearing at New York's Apollo Theater so I went up there to hang out with the guys," said the group's longtime arranger-producer Johnny Pate, 91, during a recent phone conversation. "Curtis said people at ABC wanted to talk to me. I wasn't keen on going, since I didn't think much of R&B at the time. I was a jazz guy. So Curtis offered to come along. When we walked in, they closed the door, handed me a contract and asked me how much [money] I wanted to produce and arrange the Impressions. I signed on."

Since Mayfield didn't read or write music, he'd play the songs he wrote on his guitar for Mr. Pate, giving him enough on which to build arrangements for recording sessions. For "People Get Ready," which appeared on their fourth album for ABC, the group met at Mr. Pate's house in Chicago, where Mayfield handed Mr. Pate a tape. "It was just Curtis strumming on guitar and singing 'People Get Ready,'" Mr. Pate said. "I felt it immediately."

Mr. Pate, who began his career as a jazz bassist and led trios, wrote a lush, lullabylike score, while Mayfield created the vocal arrangements. The rhythm and vocal tracks for "People Get Ready" were recorded at Universal Recording in Chicago, while the "sweetening"--Mr. Pate's word for strings and orchestration--was added afterward. Mr. Pate included orchestra bells to lighten the mood and had the strings pluck in places to enforce the rhythmic feel of the song. Mayfield added his soulful and now-famous guitar solo.

It's the race case where the ofay cover is even better:<br><br>

Posted by orrinj at 4:00 PM


Jeb Bush was very, very good at CPAC today (Chris Cillizza, February 27, 2015, Washington Post)

Bush was energetic -- maybe due at least in part to nervousness in facing a testy crowd -- and informed. He refused to back down -- particularly on immigration -- from positions that he knew would be unpopular with the crowd.  He insisted that Republicans were good at opposing things but bad at "being for things." He was composed. He was up to the moment. He looked, in a word, presidential.

By contrast, the opposition, which had promised a major walkout when Bush entered the room, seemed to fizzle.  Check out this video of the protests -- and count how many reporters there are versus how many actual protesters there are.

Jeb was also helped by a friendlier-than-I-expected interrogator in Hannity who, while he did ask him about immigration and Common Core, threw the former Florida governor any number of lifelines by touting his conservative record on affirmative action, taxes and school vouchers. (Hannity even added in a Terri Schiavo reference.) And, Bush's campaign team smartly made sure that the CPAC ballroom had its fair share of their own people in it -- ensuring a built-in cheering section to overcome the boos.

Good luck, smart organization and a solid performance in the face of adversity is what successful presidential campaigns are built on.  

The biggest problem his opponents face is that he actual political record is more conservative and effective than theirs.  

Posted by orrinj at 3:50 PM


Rebels Accuse Saudis of Fueling Unrest to Divide Yemen (SHUAIB ALMOSAWA and KAREEM FAHIM, FEB. 26, 2015, NY Times)

The leader of the Houthi rebel group here, in an unusually combative speech Thursday that reflected frustration by the rebel movement at its deepening isolation, accused Saudi Arabia, Yemen's powerful neighbor, of financing armed opponents and trying to divide the country.

The Houthis control the capital, Sana, in northern Yemen, and much of the nation's military. Yet their authority faces a sharp challenge from Yemen's former president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled to the southern city of Aden on Saturday and, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, declared that he was still the country's legitimate leader.

One of the most glaring examples of an oppressed Shi'a population and American ideals vs the salafist Sunni.  The Houthi are the majority in Northern Yemen and get to govern themselves.

Posted by orrinj at 12:25 PM


Russian diplomat accuses Washington of taking "destructive" stance (Associated Press Feb. 27, 2015)

A senior Russian diplomat has accused the U.S. administration of taking a "destructive" stance in bilateral relations and warned that Moscow could retaliate.

No, it can't.

Posted by orrinj at 11:55 AM


Scott Walker's Awful Answer on ISIS (JIM GERAGHTY, February 26, 201, National Review)

First, taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn't quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups. 

Second, it is insulting to the protesters, a group I take no pleasure in defending. The protesters in Wisconsin, so furiously angry over Walker's reforms and disruptive to the procedures of passing laws, earned plenty of legitimate criticism. But they're not ISIS. They're not beheading innocent people. They're Americans, and as much as we may find their ideas, worldview, and perspective spectacularly wrongheaded, they don't deserve to be compared to murderous terrorists.

One important thing to keep in mind is that candidates with ideas tend to be more respectful of their opponents because they're willing to debate them.  They just think their ideas are better.

You tend to try and delegitimize your opponents when you can't win the argument, which is why the GOP has faced such ludicrous vitriol for the past forty years.

Is Liberalism Exhausted? (Jonah Goldberg, February 27, 2015, RCP)

MSNBC had thought it could mimic Fox News' success from the left. The problem is that it never understood what Fox News is. MSNBC's execs saw it through the prism of their own ideological bias and so ended up offering a left-wing caricature of a caricature. Contrary to myth, Fox (where I am a contributor) is in fact an actual news network, albeit with prime-time opinion shows. Meanwhile, a study by Pew found that MSNBC was 85 percent opinion. 

The more salient point is that there's such a small appetite for that opinion. As Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal recently observed, Barack Obama has successfully moved his party to the left but has failed utterly to bring the rest of the country with him. [...]

Meanwhile, the cultural left has disengaged from mainstream political arguments, preferring instead the comforts of identity-politics argy-bargy. You judge political movements not by their manifestos but by where they put their passion. And on the left these days, the only things that arouse passion are arguments about race and gender.

For instance, the feminist agitprop drama "The Vagina Monologues" is now under fire from the left because it is not inclusive of men who believe they are women. Patricia Arquette was criticized from the right for her Oscar acceptance rant about women's wage equality, but the criticism paled in comparison to the bile from the left, which flayed her for leaving out the plight of the transgendered and other members of the Coalition of the Oppressed.

Such critiques may seem like a cutting-edge fight for the future among the protagonists, but looked at from the political center, it suggests political exhaustion. At least old-fashioned Marxists talked about the economy.

It's even worse than Mr Goldberg realizes, precisely because the UR has moved his party to the Right.  Where are you even going to find leftwing talking heads to defend his continuance of the WoT, the corporate cronyism of Obamacare, the wage-stifling immigration orders and the obsession with free trade agreements? His ideological allies are all conservatives.

Posted by orrinj at 11:52 AM


Jeb Bush Defends Stance on Immigration, Education (PATRICK O'CONNOR, Feb. 27, 2015, WSJ)

[H]e stuck by his support for two stances at odds with those of the Republican base. He backed a set of education standards known as Common Core and touted the economic benefits of increased immigration, restating his belief that immigrants in the country illegally should eventually be granted some form of legal status.

The timing of his remarks—on the eve of a highly anticipated appearance before conservative activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington—suggests Mr. Bush is willing to court confrontation with some of his party's most committed activists.

"I'm not backing down from something that is a core belief," he declared to rousing applause here at the Club for Growth's annual retreat. "Are we all just supposed to cower because, at the moment, people are upset about something? No way, no how."

The comments were a nod to Mr. Bush's decree in December that, in order for Republicans to reclaim the White House, the next GOP presidential nominee must be willing to "lose the primary to win the general" election.

In a likely preview of the themes Mr. Bush will highlight Friday at CPAC, Mr. Bush touted his efforts to reduce the state government workforce by 13,000.

Mr. Bush told the crowd he lowered taxes every year as governor and drew loud applause when he said he vetoed $2 billion worth of line items in the budget during his eight years in office, rejecting projects and programs advocated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

"They called me Vito Corleone," he joked," referring to the movie "The Godfather."

He also pointed to his efforts to rework Medicaid and end Affirmative Action in higher education and government procurement.

Throughout, Mr. Bush pitched himself as a conservative reformer with a proven record of enacting big changes.

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