blueollie

I grow pessimistic about Obama’s reelection chances

Paul Krugman talks about why people are down on the economy: basically, jobs are growing at a rate which is sufficient to keep up with population growth but not at a rate to accommodate those who had been laid off:

But I don’t think we need to look for deep reasons for our current malaise; it’s still a lousy economy, which has not created enough jobs to do more than keep up with population growth:

And of course, there is gas prices:

Notice that both Obama disapproval and gas prices have the same series of peaks and valleys, and keep in mind that Obama’s approval ratings, like Bush’s, appear to lag a couple of months behind gas prices – suggesting that the last surge in gasoline prices hasn’t yet found its way into Obama’s approval ratings.

There’s no rocket science here. Presidential approval ratings tend to track the economy, and gas prices, especially as they reach the thresholds we discussed yesterday, take a few months to feed through into the economy as a whole.

Barack Obama should be thanking his lucky stars that it is 2011 and not 2012. And he’d better hope that Oil’s choke hold on the economy loosens by then.

To see how this worked for President Bush:

So why have I NOT given up? Well, he is running against Republicans and the Republican primary voters might give us Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee. I think that Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Mitch Daniels would be their best candidates, but can they get through the Republican primary?

On another note
Paul Krugman points out that longevity is causing a problem with Social Security and Medicare. Though people on the whole are living longer, this longevity is NOT evenly spread among the economic classes:

In general, the fervor with which Washington types call for raising eligibility ages is a “tell”: it shows how disconnected they are from the way the other half lives (and dies). For in our increasingly polarized society, life expectancy is more and more a class-related issue. As the Social Security Administration has shown, the gap between life expectancy in the top and bottom halves of the wage distribution has risen sharply:

In short, it makes sense to raise MY retirement age but it doesn’t make sense to raise the retirement age of a poorer blue-collar person whose job is more physically demanding than mine.

The spread is getting worse.

Other stuff
High Speed Rail Dr. Andy pointed me to this article about high speed rail in China:

Yesterday, we rode the high speed rail from Hangzhou to Shanghai. It took 45 minutes to go about 110 miles, and the ride was smoother than any US form of transportation. At dinner last night, the Chinese, justifiably proud, asked what we had thought.

“I want it!” said one of my companions.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to get it.

Megan McArdle (the author of the article) went on to point out the reasons why she thinks it wont work in the US. One of the reasons is the spacing between the major cities of the United States (more spread out). She also pointed out that the differences in government between the US and China. In China, they can say “we are doing this” and that is that. In the US, we need: environmental impact studies, economic impact studies, cooperation between many layers of government (Federal, State, county and city), etc. There would also be eminent domain issues.

And yes, even liberals get outraged with a higher branch of government imposes its will on a lower, more local one (witness the outcry over the Republican governor’s power grab in Michigan).

So, even if we were to try, we’d face a host of challenges that the Chinese and the more socialist governments don’t have.
Still, this isn’t an issue I’ve studied deeply; mostly I see it as “gee, this is neat” and if we had it, I could tell the hated airlines to “kiss off” (I HATE them!). But alas, “Ollie thinks it is a neat idea” isn’t a good enough reason to undertake a multi-billion dollar project. :)

Richard Dawkins

This is a fun video:

April 26, 2011 Posted by | 2012 election, economics, economy, evolution, High Speed Rail, Mitt Romney, political/social, politics, politics/social, republican party, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics, science, technology, Tim Pawlenty, trains, Transportation, travel | Leave a comment

24 April posts

Medicare reform plan: Democrat vs. Republican (From the New York Times)

One of the biggest differences, under both parties’ plans, would be a large reduction of unjustified subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans that serve 11 million of Medicare’s 46 million enrollees. Last year, those plans were paid 9 percent more per enrollee, on average, for coverage comparable to what traditional Medicare would provide. By eliminating most of the subsidies, the Democrats hope to save $136 billion over 10 years. The Republicans plan to cut only $10 billion less.

The Republicans have also embraced health care reform’s necessary plan to slow the growth rate of payments to health care providers, which was expected to save hundreds of billions over the next decade.

House Republicans would make another deep cut — definitely not in the Democrats’ plan — that would hit many current and future Medicare users hard. The reform law provides subsidies to help close a gap in prescription drug coverage, known as the doughnut hole, that poses a hardship for millions of patients who need lots of medicine and often cannot afford to pay for it. The Republicans would repeal that subsidy.

Perhaps most significant, the two parties have very different approaches to what they would do with their savings. The Democrats would use the savings to extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans, a goal we heartily endorse. The Republicans say only that they would use the money in some way to bolster the solvency of Medicare. That is not good enough.

MEDICARE IN THE FUTURE The differences get even bigger over time. President Obama wants to retain Medicare as an entitlement in which the federal government pays for a defined set of medical services. The Ryan proposal would give those turning age 65 in 2022 “premium support” payments to help them buy private policies. There is little doubt that the Republican proposal would sharply reduce federal spending on Medicare by capping what the government would pay at very low levels. But it could cause great hardship by shifting a lot of the burden to beneficiaries. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2022 new enrollees would have to pay at least $6,400 more out of pocket to buy coverage comparable to traditional Medicare.

Trains: the con (via the New York Times)

IT is hard for liberals like me to find good news in the latest agreement to cut the federal budget, but there is at least one silver lining: subsidies for high-speed rail have been sharply reduced. Why is this good news?

In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right.

For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain, and Americans came to regret it.

It is not that either transcontinental railroads or high-speed railroads are always bad ideas. A compelling case can be made for high-speed rail between Boston and Washington, for example, but the administration proposes building high-speed lines in places where there is no demonstrated demand. In California, construction of the new high-speed rail line from San Francisco to San Diego will begin with a line from Borden to Corcoran in California’s Central Valley. It is already being derided as the train to nowhere. The reduction of federal subsidies has not stopped the project, which now threatens to become a forlorn monument to hubris.

Proponents of the transcontinental railroads promised all kinds of benefits they did not deliver. They claimed that the railroads were needed to save the Union, but the Union was already saved before the first line was completed. The best Western farmlands would have been settled without the railroads; their impact on other lands was often environmentally disastrous. For three decades California commodities could move more cheaply, and virtually as quickly, by sea. The subsidies the railroads received enriched contractors and financiers, but nearly all the railroads went into receivership, some multiple times; the government rescued others.

The author goes on to point out that the world only has two non-subsidized high speed rail lines; one of them is Tokyo to Osaka. But I say this: what about the other transportation systems in the world; aren’t those heavily subsidized too? What about the United States; aren’t the airlines subsidized to some degree? The issue is that the high speed rail should be seen as being in competition with the airlines.

The Fed: yes, it bought up debt. This has helped slow down or stop the slide somewhat, but that’s about it:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve’s experimental effort to spur a recovery by purchasing vast quantities of federal debt has pumped up the stock market, reduced the cost of American exports and allowed companies to borrow money at lower interest rates.

But most Americans are not feeling the difference, in part because those benefits have been surprisingly small. The latest estimates from economists, in fact, suggest that the pace of recovery from the global financial crisis has flagged since November, when the Fed started buying $600 billion in Treasury securities to push private dollars into investments that create jobs.

As the Fed’s policy-making board prepares to meet Tuesday and Wednesday — after which the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, will hold a news conference for the first time to explain its decisions to the public — a broad range of economists say that the disappointing results show the limits of the central bank’s ability to lift the nation from its economic malaise.

“It’s good for stopping the fall, but for actually turning things around and driving the recovery, I just don’t think monetary policy has that power,” said Mark Thoma, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon, referring specifically to the bond-buying program.

Paul Krugman: sympathy for the poor, put upon wealthy:

Matt Yglesias has a good question, but I don’t think that I agree with his answer.

He points out that

we used to have a debate in which the left said redistributive taxation might be a good idea nd then the right replied that it might sound good, but actually the consequences would be bad. Lower taxes on the rich would lead to more growth and faster increase in incomes.

but that now the right seems fixated on the point that taxing the rich is unfair — they made it, they should keep it.

And he suggests that the right is, implicitly, conceding that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

But my take is that what we’re looking at is the closing of the conservative intellectual universe, the creation of an echo chamber in which rightists talk only to each other, and in which even the pretense of caring about ordinary people is disappearing. I mean, we’ve been living for some time in an environment in which the WSJ can refer, unselfconsciously, to people making too little to pay income taxes as “lucky duckies”; where Chicago professors making several hundred thousand a year whine that they can’t afford any more taxes, and are surprised when that rubs some people the wrong way. Why wouldn’t such people find it completely natural to think that the hurt feelings of the rich are the main consideration in economic policy?

Ok, so the next person who calls the poor “lucky” because they don’t pay income tax will get a punch in the nose! Ok, no they won’t, at least not from me as I am far too wimpy to carry out such a threat. :)

Science

Did you know that there is a chance that the HIV virus could be mutated to provide some benefit to humans?

Human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is responsible for the disease Aids. Every year, around 2 million people, including 250,000 children, die because they have become infected with the virus, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts by the World Health Organisation and other aid agencies are beginning to reduce mortality levels. Nevertheless, HIV – which wreaks its havoc by attacking the very immune system that is supposed to protect humans against disease – is still destined to cause tens of millions of deaths over the coming decades before it is brought under control.

The notion that the virus could be used to improve human health is therefore an unexpected one. Nevertheless, this is the remarkable idea that is being pursued by Mary Collins, professor of immunology at University College London. She is leading a group of scientists who are devising ways to turn HIV’s lethal properties on their head and to harness the virus so that it can be used to treat a range of diseases.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Barack Obama, biology, disease, economics, economy, health care, High Speed Rail, political/social, politics, politics/social, Republican, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics, science | Leave a comment

6 October 2010 pm

Video: watch Christopher Hitchen’s most popular smack-downs:

Politics
There is a lot from the New York Times today:

Democrats do ok when registered voters are polled. But we do not-so-great when “likely voters” are polled.

The White House (and OFA) are acutely aware of this. They are trying to fire up liberals and new voters. This is the public face of this; there are some private moves too.

Here is the idea: all too often, voter outreach is aimed at those who, well, were going to vote anyway. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten material for Democratic candidates. Folks, that is wasted money.

OFA (Organizing For America, the off shoot of the Obama 08 group) recognizes that and is using programs specifically to target reluctant voters or voters who need some prodding.

Sure, they’ll contact me, but only to raise money and to look for volunteers.

Silliness
Republicans seem to hate trains. :) Personally, I’d love to see them catch on; it would be great to hop on a train to Chicago and then hit high speed rail to Texas. Right now, air travel sucks and I don’t see it ever getting any better.

Ok, the above is just a difference of opinion over policy.
The following is beyond silly: Republicans are seeing “signs” in the fact that, at a recent talk, President Obama’s Presidential Seal fell off of the lectern. Hey, I didn’t see the big deal in the first President Bush barfing in Japan or the second President Bush forgetting that a door didn’t open at all.

October 6, 2010 Posted by | 2010 election, atheism, bush-era, High Speed Rail, political/social, politics, politics/social, pwnd, religion, Republican, republicans, republicans political/social, republicans politics | Leave a comment

15 May 2010 (II)

So, what will happen in 2010? Paul Krugman thinks that maybe, just maybe, the Republicans are counting on a victory that might not come.

Why does Krugman think this? My guess:

Nature Yes, bats give each other oral sex, and it helps with the procreation:

Not only do female bats give male bats oral sex, but they do it while they’re having intercourse. The male enters the female from the rear, and the female bends over to lick the shaft of the penis while he’s thrusting in and out. I have never seen that in a porn film. Maybe there is such a thing out there — I can’t claim much knowledge of porn — but this means that animals not only carry out sexually activities condemned by the religious as unnatural, but they do it better than we do.

Interesting, right? Well, some feel that this is an inappropriate topic for a university?

I have just done something very wicked. I have compared human sexual behavior with that of another animal, describing work published in a serious scientific journal. I could get fired for that! If you were to show this story to co-workers and discuss the implications, you also could get condemned and sanctioned. We’re in trouble now!

You may find that hard to believe, but it’s true in at least one case: Dylan Evans, at University College Cork, in an argument about the uniqueness of human behavior, brought this article up, and his opponent shut him down by crying harassment, triggering an investigation. He was exonerated, but the university president has decided he needs to be sanctioned anyway.

This is hard to believe.

Technology and trains: maybe we’ll get high speed rail in the US?? Secretary LaHood thinks so.

FAIL This is the worst “protective vest” (from a bullet) that I’ve ever seen.

May 15, 2010 Posted by | 2010 election, Barack Obama, economy, education, High Speed Rail, nature, obama, politics, politics/social, science, Transportation | Leave a comment

Riding the rails in Japan, China – Welcome to the FastLane: The Official Blog of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Are Japanese bullet trains coming to the US? This is a question I’ve seen being asked more than once in the media this week. Now, to be fair, I may have started this buzz by riding a couple of Japan’s…

more about "Riding the rails in Japan, China – We…", posted with vodpod

May 15, 2010 Posted by | High Speed Rail, hsr, lahood, obama, science, shinkansen, trains | Leave a comment

9 February 2010

Workout notes woke up late (5:15 am; that’s late for me), shoveled snow, lifted weights, 2.4 mile run on the treadmill, (changed speed from 5.5 to 7.0 mph, elevation from 0 to 4), 2.6 on the AMT, 3.11 on the stairmaster, 2.0 on the elliptical.

Leg: it hurt a bit (hamstring area; higher than the calf) but that happens in chilly weather and when I shovel.

It is still coming down though not as hard. Did I tell you that I detest northern winters? :)

Mathematics and Education
Here is a couple of interesting articles about mathematics education and women written by Daniel R. Hawes: here is part I:

Drawing on meatanalysis of the literature and new data gathered as a result of “No Child Left Behind” the researchers find that

“gender differences in performance were close to zero in all grades, including high school. [...] Thus, girls have now reached parity with boys in mathematics performance in the U.S., even in high school where a gap existed in earlier decades.”

A question, that is not addressed by the study, but which I am curious about is how much of the narrowing of the gender gap is girls catching up vs how much is boys falling behind; especially as numeracy is one of my pet peeves.

Universal dumbing down: I love it! :) But there is some good news too:

Focusing on the mathematically talented, i.e. the professors and award winning mathematicians, the researchers also find the gap to be closing. This is interesting, since one popular hypothesis regarding sex differences in mathematical (and other cognitive) abilities used to state that possibly men’s and women’s ability was spread around the same mean, but that men displayed greater variance. This would explain why men dominate the lowest and the highest percentiles for many cognitive ability scores.
However, the researchers not only find the score to be narrowing, but also cite data that shows no difference in variance for math performance in a number of countries. Given that most people will not be willing to extend an hypothesis in which sex differences are the reason for differential math performance in some countries but not in others (which does seem quite absurd), this also seems to indicate that the “greater variance hypothesis”, as I shall term it loosely, needs to be discarded.

Ok, the “greater variance hypothesis” used to make sense to me, but we should be seeing that in all societies, not just ours. But here is what is most interesting:

Getting to the final part of the study, the lead researchers Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz manage to show a significant correlation between the percentage of girls on a country’s International Mathematical Olympiad Team, and that country’s World Development Indicator Gender Gap Index. The emerging pattern is quite clear: The greater the gender parity in a country, the more girls go to the Math Olympiad; thus indicating a significant role – who could have doubted it – of social equality in girl’s performance on this (and other) indicators of mathematical achievement.

In all honesty, I haven’t seen much difference between male and female ability in upper division mathematics classes (undergraduate). I’ll leave to others more qualified than I to talk about graduate students.

Part II of the Hawes article can be found here. The argument is something like this: if the teacher is uncomfortable with math, the students pick up on it, and most elementary school teachers are female. Hence the message “women suck at math” gets propagated, even if on the subconscious level.

Trains and High Speed rail Conservation Report outlines a fantasy of mine.

Surf to the Conservation Report to see President Obama speaking about this topic.

Speaking of President Obama: Nate Silver points out that he is on the public side of most issues (and backs up this assertion by linking to the appropriate polls).

But our Senate rules are hindering progress; sure they once served us well, but now it is all too easy for a few to obstruct things (via the filibuster, “holds”, etc.) This has happened before. Paul Krugman reminds us:

A brief history lesson: In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Polish legislature, the Sejm, operated on the unanimity principle: any member could nullify legislation by shouting “I do not allow!” This made the nation largely ungovernable, and neighboring regimes began hacking off pieces of its territory. By 1795 Poland had disappeared, not to re-emerge for more than a century.

Today, the U.S. Senate seems determined to make the Sejm look good by comparison.

Last week, after nine months, the Senate finally approved Martha Johnson to head the General Services Administration, which runs government buildings and purchases supplies. It’s an essentially nonpolitical position, and nobody questioned Ms. Johnson’s qualifications: she was approved by a vote of 94 to 2. But Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, had put a “hold” on her appointment to pressure the government into approving a building project in Kansas City.

This dubious achievement may have inspired Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama. In any case, Mr. Shelby has now placed a hold on all outstanding Obama administration nominations — about 70 high-level government positions — until his state gets a tanker contract and a counterterrorism center.

What gives individual senators this kind of power? Much of the Senate’s business relies on unanimous consent: it’s difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure. And a tradition has grown up under which senators, in return for not gumming up everything, get the right to block nominees they don’t like.

In the past, holds were used sparingly. [...]

So, how is President Obama doing in this environment? Robert Reich explains:

Obamanomics suffers from a misunderstanding of what the President is trying to achieve and what he’s up against. Into the breach come Republicans, Tea Partiers, nay-sayers, deficit vultures, and Raging-Dog Democrats, all viewing Obamanomics as more taxes and more spending. That’s nonsense. To see the big picture, keep your eye on three big things.

1. Government spending needed to offset the continued reluctance of consumers and businesses to spend. You don’t have to be an orthodox Keynesian to understand that as long as the private sector is deleveraging, the public sector has to borrow and spend in order to keep the economy moving forward. [...]

2. The boomers now speeding toward retirement. Neither party wants to deal with the inevitable consequences for Medicare and Social Security. The President’s idea for a bi-partisan congressional commission on the deficit was too large and amorphous to gain the support it needed. He’d do better to try for a bi-partisan commission that focused just on these two giant entitlement programs. Social Security is an easier fix than Medicare, but the growth of both have to be tamed. [...]

3. Mad-as hell politics. The economic stresses of continued high unemployment and low wages are contributing to the growth of the “I’m Mad As Hell” Party – a rag-tag collection of Tea Partiers furious at establishment Republicans, left-wing Democrats angry at what they consider lily-livered Democrats in Washington, and Independents disgusted with everybody inside the Beltway.

Mad-as-hellers on the right hate government; mad-as-hellers on the left hate big business. Both share a growing sense that the economic game is rigged against them. The two are also united by how much they detest Wall Street and its bailout, and their contempt for any cozy relationship between big business and government. They distrust the Fed, and have no particular fondness for international trade, either. Mad-as-hellers are likely to be a formidable force in the upcoming midterms and beyond. [...]

In sum: If you want to understand Obamanomics one year out, look at the demand-side hole we’re still in, the gargantuan boomer deficit we’re heading for, and the mad-as-hell party these bad times have spawned. How Obama deals with all three will be the real economic test of his presidency.

Seems fair.

Religion
Susan Jacoby takes exception to being included as one of the “nice atheists” (unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, who I like):

I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of “kinder, gentler atheists”–most of them women–compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism.

She then goes on to attack 5 common misconceptions that people have about atheists (I wish she didn’t use the word “myth”, which for me is reserved for a religious story that has deep meaning for many…e. g., the resurrection of Jesus, the burning bush, Mohamed’s night journey, Joseph Smith’s golden tablets, etc.)

Here are some juicy tidbits from Ms. Jacoby’s article:

Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. It is this lack of deference, more than anything else, that has outraged religious believers–particularly those on the right–in America. Most have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.

Emphasis mine. Just because an idea has the label of “religion” does NOT mean that it is worthy of respect!

She further adds:

One point, however, is indisputable: there is a strong correlation between simplistic fundamentalist beliefs, relying on a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and lack of education. As the level of education rises, the number of people who believe in materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days; the literal resurrection of the dead; and the Virgin Birth diminishes. That is why fundamentalists have been tireless in their efforts to inject religious teaching into public schools. So it is generally true (although there are of course many exceptions) that the less people have learned about science, history, and different belief systems, the more likely they are to cling to a rigid form of faith.

She goes on with the usual caveat that “educated doesn’t mean smart”. True, but there is an undeniable correlation between intelligence and education level, though, of course an imperfect one. For example, I firmly believe that an average competent engineer or scientist with an undergraduate degree is much smarter than a typical person with an doctorate in education. And yes, there are people without college degrees who are smarter than most with them. But the correlation is undeniably true.

She doesn’t make this point, but she points out that many educated atheists follow stupid things like Ayn Rand’s philosophies. She does close this section with a winner:

What ultimately distinguishes atheists from religious believers, however, is that no intelligent atheist can ever claim that his or her ideas constitute absolute truth.

In all honesty, many liberal “believers” also think this; for them, religion is, more or less, a nice metaphor to live life by and that people in different cultures will find value in different kinds of metaphors.

Her article continues on and is excellent reading.

February 9, 2010 Posted by | 2010 election, atheism, Barack Obama, Democrats, economy, education, health care, High Speed Rail, injury, mathematics, Peoria, politics, politics/social, religion, republicans, running, training, Transportation | 1 Comment

I Am Excited About This

President Obama talks about the proposed high speed rail program:

Yes!!!!! It will be great to be able to go long distances without these *(&^^ airlines!
(or at least be able to catch a train to fly on Southwest)

April 20, 2009 Posted by | 2008 Election, Barack Obama, economy, High Speed Rail, politics, politics/social, Transportation | Leave a comment

Trapped into going to the Symphony

I’ve been trapped into going to the symphony tonight; funny how “our” activities are exactly what my wife wants to do. :(

But I’ll have some online fun anyway:

Science Avenger links us to this: it is a list of the previous 44 Presidents (43 men in all); each face morphs into the next one.

Animal Camouflage: Surf to Conservation Report and see if you can spot these bats. You should be able to, but they really do blend in well.

Rail and “ready for the shovel” projects: Ray LaHood (who has just been confirmed as Transportation Secretary) says that he is big on rail. Here are probably some things that he is considering:

As the Obama Administration considers spending hundreds of billions to stimulate the economy, a number of rail supporters, from associations (pdf) to think tank writers to state and congressional policy makers – not to mention the incoming White House, advocate making major investments in rail projects.

In December 2008 Transportation For America collected data on transportation “projects ready to go in four months” and “ready to go in one year” – listing almost $20 billion worth of projects. While these projects include bus transit, here in this first post of a series on “Shovel Ready” rail projects, we’re using Transportation For America’s rail data, augmented with our links, to describe rail projects that could become part of the economic stimulus package. Below is a Google Map showing projects ready to go within four months – click the train icons, and on the upper left hand side of the map the four-way directional movement arrows and the ‘+’ and ‘-’ zoom to manipulate the map (for an easier, full-page view with a legend describing the projects see U.S. Regional Rail Projects Shovel Ready Within Four Months).

Surf via the above link to the article to see the aforementioned map and to obtain other links.

How to set up high speed rail: this article argues that it is correct to hub the high speed rail in the cities rather than in the airports:

Okay, I realize that lately some airlines in Europe have actually been supporting HSR and even getting into the biz themselves, like Air France. This is great. What we can’t do, however, is make the mistake of seeing high-speed rail as merely some replacement for short-haul connection flights. Trains [probably] won’t ever be as fast as planes, so it’s critical that we don’t remove from them one of their best advantages over flying: being able to leave and arrive right from the city.

For one thing, this makes things easier for travelers. Airports are generally located in the far-flung fringes of an urban area. The trip to and from the airport after the plane has landed can be long, expensive, and cumbersome for travelers. This is true for drivers and doubly true for users of mass transit. If you’re lucky, the city has a rail transit connection to its airport. If you’re not, get ready to put up with a more confusing bus ride or a pricey cab fare. Even if there is a connection, like the CTA’s Blue Line at O’Hare, those trains are usually neither suited for luggage nor the long suburban distances. It’s much more practical to have our trains arriving and leaving in the cities themselves, where they are well served by local transportation and close to urban amenities and destinations. The UK is looking at having Heathrow be the hub for a national HSR scheme, but Heathrow already has an express rail connection to London, and as part of the plan will be getting an even faster one. I don’t envision the political will ever materializing for something like that in the United States. Transit connections will always be “good enough.”

This also dips into the realm of urban policy. Focusing our tax money on airports will encourage more development in those far-flung suburbs. [...]

Biology and Evolution: is there a gene that enhances aggression and makes some people more eager to punish transgressors? Research seems to indicate that the answer is “yes”:

Individuals with the so-called “warrior gene” display higher levels of aggression in response to provocation, according to new research co-authored by Rose McDermott, professor of political science at Brown University. In the experiment, which is the first to examine a behavioral measure of aggression in response to provocation, subjects were asked to cause physical pain to an opponent they believed had taken money from them by administering varying amounts of hot sauce. The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to McDermott, the research team included Dustin Tingley of Princeton University, Jonathan Cowden of the University of California–Santa Barbara, Giovanni Frazetto from the London School of Economics, and Dominic Johnson from the University of Edinburgh. Their experiment synthesized work in psychology and behavioral economics. [...]

The PNAS paper is the first experimental test of whether MAOA-L individuals display higher levels of actual behavioral aggression in response to provocation. A total of 78 subjects took part in the experiment over networked computers (all were male students from the University of California–Santa Barbara). Each subject (A) first performed a vocabulary task in which they earned money. Then they were told that an anonymous partner (B), linked over the network, could choose to take some of their earnings away from them. The original subject (A) could then choose to punish the taker (B) by forcing them to eat unpleasantly hot (spicy) sauce — but they had to pay to do so, so administering punishment was costly. In reality, the “partner” who took money away was a computer, which allowed the researchers to control responses. No one actually ingested hot sauce.

Their results demonstrate that

* Low-activity MAOA subjects displayed slightly higher levels of aggression overall than high-activity MAOA subjects.
* There was strong evidence for a gene-by-environment interaction, such that MAOA is less associated with the occurrence of aggression in the low-provocation condition (when the amount of money taken was low), but significantly predicted aggression in a high-provocation situation (when the amount of money taken was high).

The results support previous research suggesting that MAOA influences aggressive behavior, with potentially important implications for interpersonal aggression, violence, political decision-making, and crime. The finding of genetic influences on aggression and punishment behavior also questions the recently proposed idea that humans are “altruistic” punishers, who willingly punish free-riders for the good of the group. These results support theories of cooperation that propose there are mixed strategies in the population. Some people may punish more than others, and there may be an underlying evolutionary logic for doing so.

Follow the link to read more details.

Hilarious Right Wingers

This is Ted Haggard.

Guess what? He has not only had long term involvement in a homosexual relationship, but he has also paid for sexual favors!

Ted Haggard is in the news again — it seems he has been involved in long term homosexual relationships, and has been abusing his power for sexual favors. Raise your hands if you would never have expected it!

Hey, how come none of you lifted your fingers from your keyboard?

Here’s his latest excuse, and it’s actually a good one.

In an AP interview this month before an appearance in front of TV critics in California, Haggard described his sexuality as complex and something that can’t be put into “stereotypical boxes.”

Hmmm, why can’t these right wing evangelicals understand that other people also have complex sexuality? ;)

January 24, 2009 Posted by | Barack Obama, evolution, High Speed Rail, Illinois, obama, politics, politics/social, republicans, science | 5 Comments

29 December 2008 Part II

From around the internet:

Another Ed Current video:

Teaching of mathematics and science

This article is well intentioned; it talks about trying to teach science by hands on stuff. But in fact, at least in mathematics, students don’t really understand the subject unless the understand the concepts in the abstract:

A new study challenges the common practice in many classrooms of teaching mathematical concepts by using “real-world,” concrete examples. Researchers led by Jennifer Kaminski, researcher scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Cognitive Science, found that college students who learned a mathematical concept with concrete examples couldn’t apply that knowledge to new situations.

But when students first learned the concept with abstract symbols, they were much more likely to transfer that knowledge, according to the study published in the April 25 issue of the journal Science.

“These findings cast doubt on a long-standing belief in education,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and human development and the director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State.

“The belief in using concrete examples is very deeply ingrained, and hasn’t been questioned or tested.”

Kaminski and Sloutsky conducted the study with Andrew Heckler, assistant professor of physics at Ohio State.

Teachers often use real-world examples in math class, the researchers said. In some classrooms, for example, teachers may explain probability by pulling a marble out of a bag of red and blue marbles and determining how likely it will be one color or the other.

But students may learn better if teachers explain the concept as the probability of choosing one of n things from a larger set of m things, Kaminski said.

The ability to transfer the concept from one seemingly unrelated area to another is what constitutes understanding.

Science articles:

Google maps lead to the discoveries of new species? Believe it!

Energy efficient houses in Germany: constructed so as to minimize seepage. This seems nice; I’d love one of these houses. Our old house is so drafty. :)

What do you do with old garlic salt? Use it (with regular salt) to de-ice roads? Note: the crews that used this salt ended up being more hungry than normal. :)

My new pet issue: high speed rail.
I’ve found some resources and blogs including these:

Trains for America.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association. If I have money after paying this month’s bills, I might look into joining this outfit. :)

Here is an associated blog.

A more familiar “pet topic”: Religion and politics (via Friendly Atheist) These are some 2008 “lowlights” which, yes, feature my favorite politician.

and of course, Pat Condell

Yes, I am enough of a realist to recognize that no politician will ever win a major election at the state or higher level without some nod to the public superstition or superstitions. The best we can hope for is what we got: someone who will at least make excellent science picks. But change takes time, and if we can continue to persuade more people that vaccinations will do more to prevent disease than saying prayers, well, we’ve made a big step in the right direction.

What makes me optimistic: it appears to me that, at least among many, that many people see their religion as more of a self help thing (something to help one’s own personal serenity and peace of mind) rather than some source of magic; that is, praying (in one form or another) can give the person doing the praying some calmness, peace of mind and relaxation in the way that, say, yoga can stretch and strengthen the body.

So, where I think that religion can provide a community and can provide techniques to improve the lives of some, I hope we can shed the superstition (e. g., the idea that a deity or spirit will intervene) and shed the tribalism that leads to such bloody conflicts such as the one we are seeing in the Middle East.

Israel and Gaza: The Daily Kos is a liberal website; many of the bloggers are Jewish and staunch supporters of Israel. So when diaries such as this one appear and get recommended, you know that things are bad:

Today I end my support of Israel Hotlist
by Chilean Jew [Subscribe]
Sun Dec 28, 2008 at 11:07:48 AM PST

Like davidminzer, I’m Jewish and descendant of holocaust survivors. Moreover, I’ve been a Zionist all of my life. I went to a Zionist school, I was active in Zionist youth groups. I’ve always been a fervent supporter of Israel as a refuge for Jews around the world who seek a place to exercise their traditions and embrace their identity in peace.

I sang the Israeli anthem in the train rails of Aushwitz-Birkenau and I pledged to fight every day of my life to make sure the savage crimes that had taken place there would never happen again. Every year I pledged: Never Again. Remember and Never forget.

Well, I haven’t forgotten. And so to honor that pledge, to honor the memory of my family members who died in those death camps and because “there comes a time when silence is betrayal”, today I finally and publicly end my support for the state of Israel.

I do this with great pain in my heart, but nonetheless with the overwhelming conviction that it is the only right thing to do. I was patient: I tolerated the destruction of the Oslo process by refusing to end or slow down the constant and criminal construction of settlements. I held my nose and stood my ground when Barak killed the final status negotiations at Taba 2001. I even remained loyal after Sharon’s massacres in the West Bank, the brutal Annexation wall, the illegal “selective assassinations” and Olmert’s war crimes in Lebanon.
I had to defend Israel and Israelis with my friends and others who demanded I be consistent with my progressive views and oppose a country that was responsible for horrible crimes against innocent human beings. “Israelis are scared, they are traumatized, you have to understand…”, “Israel is responding to attacks on itself, tell me one other country that wouldn’t respond when attacked…”, I demanded understanding, I pleaded for a fair and comparative analysis.

ENOUGH. I’m done justifying crimes against humanity by a country that claims to be an illuminated western democracy. I’m done defending a country that is unwilling to grant self-determination to a neighboring people because it won’t let go of a few settlements and divide a city. I’m done tolerating the slaughtering of innocent kids, the murderous and barbaric occupation of an impoverished people, the utter disregard for human life.
Fuck them.
If they think their daily peace of mind is worth the lives of hundreds of innocent people, Fuck them.
If they think the best way to go right now would be to vote for Natanyahu (who is so far winning in the polls), Fuck them.
If they won’t bat an eye before keeping millions without electricity or water, before bombing civilian neighborhoods at exactly the time when kids are leaving schools, before breaking every standard of international law or moral decency, Fuck them.
It’s time for every true progressive in this country and around the world to do the only thing that our consciences should allow us to do, the only thing that can keep us consistent with our supposed beliefs that human life is precious and that unnecessary violence is always criminal, barbarous and unacceptable. We must demand that Israel stop violence and immediately put an end to its colonialist military occupation of Palestine.

This is a bit of a sensitive topic for me because I believe that Israel has an immoral foundation (expelling people off of their land) just as the United States does. On the other hand, if I were forced at gunpoint to live in a Middle Eastern country, that would be the one I’d choose, even though I completely disapprove of “X states”, no matter if X stands for Jewish, Muslim, Christian or whatever. Also, my best friend is a secular Jew who is staunchly pro-Israel, sometimes irrationally so (IMHO); it almost appears at times that “The Holocaust” is, to her, the world’s singular event rather than one sorry example out of many (e. g., Pol Pot, the great Communist massacres, the Mongol atrocities, or even the blood thirsty (alleged) genocide by Joshua in the Bible).

But this situation bothers me, not only because of the human misery, but also because the United States supports Israel so strongly (huge amount of foreign aid). So we have a moral obligation to put pressure on Israel; of course they can always choose do without our aid.

December 29, 2008 Posted by | 2008 Election, Barack Obama, education, evolution, High Speed Rail, Middle East, politics, politics/social, science, Transportation, world events | 2 Comments

Put American Airlines Out Of Business: Back High Speed Rail Initiatives!

More about my trip (and then I will let it go): the first thing to remember is that, thanks to Congress and airline deregulation, you have practically no rights as a passenger. If they cancel your flight and delay you for days, well, you have no recourse. They have you at their mercy:

Delays/Cancellations:
Airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. Each carrier differs in its policy and there are no federal requirements for passenger compensation. Most airlines will book you on the next available flight if your flight is canceled. If your plane is delayed, the airline may pay for meals or a phone call, so it’s worth asking. Some will offer no amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or other conditions beyond their control. Compensation is required by law only if you are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold (discussed below).

Editor’s Note: If you are traveling in the European Union, you do have the right to compensation if your flight is canceled or delayed, but only under certain circumstances. If the airline can claim “extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken” — this could include weather, political instability, security issues and other similar situations — the airline does not have to provide compensation. For more information, visit the European Union’s Web site.

In short: Congress represents the powerful interests and not you. So, the only power we have is to inform each other about the poor performance of the airlines and to not to use the bad ones. So, that is what I am doing.

Also, if so inclined, you can push for your elected leaders to develop other types of transportation to compete with the airlines so as to drive these lousy companies out of business.

I should point out that my story is not isolated; most of the other non-Southwest Airline carries pretty much suck too.

About 26,000 people responded to the survey during the first quarter of this year, rating their level of satisfaction as customers of companies in a variety of industries, including airlines. An American Customer Satisfaction Index, on a scale of 1 to 100, was created based on the responses to questions about overall satisfaction, intention to be a repeat customer and perception of quality, value and expectations.

The index for the airline industry as a whole fell to 62 from 63 last year, barely above its historical low of 61 in 2001. Southwest led the way with an index of 79, up from 76 last year.

“We’re always excited and thrilled that we can offer some of the best customer service in the industry,” Southwest spokeswoman Christi Day said.

After Southwest came a huge drop in customer satisfaction, with scores of 62 at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and Continental. Delta Air Lines Inc. scored 60, and Northwest Airlines Corp. slipped to 57 from 61 in 2007. US Airways’ score dropped to 54 from 61 a year ago, taking over the bottom spot from United, whose score held at 56.

My story: I submitted it here (where you can read other stories)

Just the facts: I was flying from Austin, TX to Peoria, IL via Dallas. The Austin to Dallas flight left at 4:30; when we got to Dallas we find out that the Dallas to Peoria flight is canceled (due to fog). Ok, that happens.

But American’s response was terrible.

1. The dense fog had settled in prior to the Austin flight leaving; why weren’t we notified at the gate? It is better to be stuck at the start of the trip rather than at a midway point.

2. Only one gate agent was available to deal with this whole flight. We were given a number to call and the operator seemed to not understand that being stuck in a midway point of the trip for 48 hours was unacceptable.

3. When I did finally get a gate agent, he didn’t read the computer correctly; he said that we were rebooked on a flight leaving the next day when in fact it was two days later.

4. Of course, we had to pay for our overnight accommodations even though AA’s scheduling policies were in part responsible for our being delayed for so long.

5. Finally the next day I manage to rebook a flight that got me 90 miles away; fortunately I had someone to give us a ride. We would have been up a creek without that.

6. Of course, the luggage didn’t make it to the final destination.

I find it absurd that one has to have an extra 100-150 dollars extra for the trip because AA couldn’t deliver what they promised to deliver.

I wish I had done what I have done in the past: drive 2.5 hours to a larger airport, pay the parking fees and to have flown Southwest. I’ve never had a problem with Southwest.

The problems go beyond this incompetent, uncaring airline. Some of these carriers need to go out of business and we, as a country, need to develop alternate forms of transportation.

Solutions

Maybe, just maybe in a few years, we can get alternate transportation and end up putting pathetic airlines such as American Airlines out of business for good!

John Kerry and Arlen Specter have an idea that I think is promising:

There’s been a lot of talk in Washington and the media lately that one way for the federal government to give the economy a boost would be to start making massive investments in the nation’s infrastructure. Such spending would both create jobs in the short term and give the U.S. the kind of infrastructure to build its economy around in the future.

In that vein, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would allow bonds to be issued to raise more than $23 billion for high-speed rail projects around the country. Some of that money — it’s not clear exactly how much — could be used on the proposal to build a high-speed rail line in California. Here’s a link to a story about the bill in the Boston Globe.

That is interesting, of course, since voters here earlier this month approved Proposition 1A, which allows the state to issue $9.95 billion in bonds to plan and construct a high-speed rail line. It’s not nearly enough to finish the proposed line from Anaheim to San Francisco — the California High Speed Rail Authority said recently the cost will be $33 billion; critics say it will be much more.

Still, the federal bill is worth watching. If it passes, it would arguably be a boost for passenger rail along some Amtrak corridors after decades of the nation making heavy investments in the nation’s airports and highways.

The press release from Kerry’s office is after the jump.

The press release on the Kerry-Specter high-speed rail bill:

Kerry-Specter Bill Would Create Jobs, Stimulus, Infrastructure Investment

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Ed Rendell Applaud National High-Speed Rail Initiative

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a bill to create new jobs by updating the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 would transform America’s outdated and underfunded passenger rail system into a world class system.

“At a time when our economy desperately needs a jumpstart, we need an effective national investment that puts Americans back to work,” said Sen. Kerry. “A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again. The High-Speed Rail for America Act will help fix our crumbling infrastructure system, expand our economy, and match high-tech rail systems across the globe.”

“We must continue to focus our energies on building and maintaining a strong national passenger rail system in order to ease congestion of air and highway corridors connecting high-growth markets, as well as to meet energy and environmental goals,” said Sen. Specter. “The High-Speed Rail for America Act is an investment in our nation’s infrastructure and has the potential to provide tremendous economic opportunities throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.”

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Joe Lieberman (I-CT.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), cosponsored the legislation.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell both voiced their support for the high-speed rail initiative.

“Creating a national high-speed rail network is an ambitious goal, but one that gets more urgent by the day,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Investing in modern infrastructure is vital to the nation’s long-term economic and environmental health – and in the short-term, it would help put more Americans back to work. Many countries in Europe and Asia are investing in high-speed rail, and if our economy is going to remain competitive, we have to start catching up. Greater investment in our railways is a top goal of Building America’s Future, the infrastructure coalition that Governors Rendell and Schwarzenegger and I created. I applaud Senator Kerry for tackling the issue head-on, and I strongly support his efforts to create the high-speed rail network our country needs.”

“This long-overdue national investment in high-speed rail would help to stimulate economic recovery while creating good jobs that cannot be outsourced,” said Gov. Rendell, one of the founding co-chairs of the Building America’s Future coalition. “Expanding our nation’s critical rail infrastructure will make our transportation network more efficient, reduce traffic pressure on our already busy interstate highways, and improve the environment.”

The High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 builds upon the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 which reauthorizes Amtrak and authorizes $1.5 billion over a five-year period to finance the construction and equipment for eleven high-speed rail corridors. It provides billions of dollars in both tax-exempt and tax credit bond and provides assistance for rail projects of various speeds. The bill creates the Office of High-Speed passenger rail to oversee the development of high-speed rail and provides a consistent source of funding.

Specifically, the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds which finance high-speed rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour It creates a new category of tax-credit bonds – qualified rail bonds. There are two types of qualified rail bonds: super high-speed intercity rail facility bond and rail infrastructure bond. Super high-speed rail intercity facility bonds will encourage the development of true high-speed rail. The legislation provides $10 billion for these bonds over a ten-year period. This would help finance the California proposed corridor and make needed improvements to the Northeast corridor. The legislation provides $5.4 billion over a six-year period for rail infrastructure bonds. The Federal Rail Administration has already designated ten rail corridors that these bonds could help fund, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities up and down the East Coast.

December 28, 2008 Posted by | High Speed Rail, politics, ranting, Transportation, travel | , , , | 3 Comments

   

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