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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Widening Roads Not the Route to Safety?

Sycamore Avenue between 26th and 41st Streets in Sioux Falls evidently has some problems with reckless drivers. Friday night's deadly crash follows a fatal April 2006 crash just a few blocks away that killed a motorcyclist going 80 down this city street. This morning's Argus offers an interesting observation from a witness to that motorcycle accident, Rob Hibbison:

Since the street was widened and the limit increased to 35 mph, speeding has only worsened, Hibbison said Saturday.

"Since they widened it, they've made it a two-lane race track instead of a single lane," Hibbison said. "It's just gotten ridiculously worse."

[Jill Callison, "Worst I've Ever Seen, Says Officer of Fatal Crash," Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 2007.09.30]

This is just one anecdote, not statistics, but it raises an interesting question for those of us interested in widening Highway 34 from Lake Madison to I-29: if safety is our primary concern, is adding lanes the best way to go, or might it only encourage whatever dangerous driving habits might be happening now?

Update: KELO-TV focuses on the safety issues on Sycamore, noting that after the widening of that street, residents are now calling for more stop signs [Summer Evans, "Sycamore Known for Speeding," KELOLand.com, 2007.09.30].

Guest Commentary: The Farm Bill and Water Quality

At the same time MDL's editor was touting the "Get Big or Get Out" philosophy of agribusiness, MDL ran a sharp letter to the editor pointing out one of the many dangers of that profit-blindered mindset: the deterioration of water quality caused by farming marginal lands. For an explanation, we turn to fellow Lake Herman intellectual Charles Stoneback:

If you think the farm bill affects only Ag producers it is time to think again. With corn, soybean and wheat prices soaring to create pressure for putting marginal soil, wetlands and stream banks into production it is now time to shift some of the payments from crop production into promoting natural resource conservation in farming practices which will ensure long term productivity of Ag land as well as protecting our water and wild life resources. Two specific areas of the farm bill that I feel are critical to the water quality in our lakes and streams are the Conservation Security Program and the Sod Saver Program. The Conservation Security Program that pays producers on how well soil, water and wildlife habitat are improved in water sheds has been cancelled in the House passed version of the bill. The Sod Saver program would prohibit taxpayer support payments on native grass and forest land cultivated for crops. This program is facing major opposition from several farm groups.

Why do I feel these programs are so critical to our water quality? The Interlakes Water Quality Committee has sponsored two water quality monitoring initiatives in our local lakes this past year. The first was a phosphorus testing program which compared samples taken at sites during 1995 with those taken during 2007. It should alarm us all that measured dissolved phosphorus which produces the smelly green fish suffocating scum has more than doubled in Lake Herman in spite of the expensive county wide watershed project completed in 2005. The second project started this spring is a volunteer monitoring program for bacteria coordinated by East Dakota Water Development District. Again alarming levels of E coli bacteria are being found in Lake Herman during the spring run off and after rain events. The highest recordings are where streams enter the lake. It may be like global warming as far as difficulty in determining responsibility but I don’t think our lakes can wait another six years to improve Ag conservation practices. It is time to contact our Senators before the Senate passes it’s version of the farm bill

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Construction Zone -- Reduce Speed!

The Madville Times IT Department insists on tinkering with this perfectly good blog. (IT people are like that -- they learn at university to embrace change, and if they can't find any change to embrace, to make some of their own.) Watch out for falling graphics, unexpected blackouts, and other surprises. Please browse slowly. Thank you for your patience.

Driving As If There's No Tomorrow

Updated 15:45: The Argus Leader reports the death of two teenagers in a senseless, stupid act of irresponsible driving and teenage bravado. The article says 17-year-old Washington HS student Artyom* Koval killed himself and his passenger, 15-year old Ashleigh Mauseth, by crashing his Toyota into a pickup truck at 34th and Sycamore in Sioux Falls last night. Koval's reckless driving sent the owner of the pickup, 27-year-old Dustin Allen Wasmund, and his three-year old daughter to the hospital. The Argus cites Koval's friend Alan Whitcomb as estimating that Koval was racing down Sycamore as fast as 100 miles per hour.

"We like to go fast," Whitcomb said. "His was the fastest one of our vehicles. He loved showing off. We all did. ... No more going fast."

Stop right here, kids. I want to help, but to do so, I'm going to say some harsh things. (People who care tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.) If you knew Koval or (as I did) Ashleigh, if you are grieving and upset, you might want to stop here. Close this page, come back in a week, or a month, or a year, whenever you're ready. If you're ready, then read on...

Kids, listen up. I know you get tired of hearing me play the scold, but your lives are at stake. The media may pump your heads full of images of speed and daring (not to mention thrill-a-minute parties revolving around booze and sex). You're told that following the rules and being careful is for losers, that if you're not "living on the edge," you're not living.

Two kids were living on the edge last night. Now they're not living.

I'm particularly worked up about these deaths because something very similar happened in Montrose last year. After the death in Montrose, kids went around calling the 15-year-old driver a hero, talking about how great it was that he lived on the edge, and praising him as a great friend. Will the same talk be going around Washington High School about the young man who died last night? Let's hope not. Here's why:

  • ***A hero doesn't senselessly risk the lives of other people for his own thrills. Koval killed a girl and almost killed a dad and his three-year-old little girl. He could have killed who knows how many other motorists who were out minding their own business on Sycamore at 9 p.m. Had he lived, Koval likely would have been charged with manslaughter or vehicular homicide. There is no heroism in driving like a madman.

  • ***A great friend doesn't think only about himself. Koval didn't think about anyone but himself. The people who survived the accident will have hospital bills and terrible traumatic memories. The people who saw the accident will be similarly traumatized. The families of Koval and the girl he killed will grieve. Washington High School will be a mess next week, with kids and teachers struggling to cope with a loss they shouldn't have to face. One selfish, thoughtless act causes all this pain -- no thoughtful friend would do that.

Kids, as you struggle to make sense of what happened, you may feel an urge to turn this accident into some glorious myth. It happened in Montrose, and it may happen now. You want to believe that these deaths meant something, that some good can come out of the accident. You'll want to avoid speaking ill of the dead, so you'll try to turn your blame elsewhere (maybe even against me for saying such harsh things).

But if any good can come of this crash, it lies in seeing it for what it really is: a senseless loss of two young people filled with potential, the near loss of other precious lives, and a terrible amount of grief and pain, caused by one act of thoughtless selfishness.

Recognize that ugly truth. Recognize that a moment's carelessness can impact so many lives beyond your own. That may be hard to swallow now, and I understand if you reject that message now. But that message, if we share it, if we really learn from it, is exactly the message that can keep other kids from dying.

Will saying these things stop every senseless death? Of course not. Teenagers will always want to push the limits. But after the death in Montrose last year, some kids (and some of us old folks) thought about what happened every time they got into a car, and they wore their seat belts more often.

Stories like this are terrible. The people involved in last night's incident at 34th and Sycamore likely will wish they could forget the details completely. But if we tell these stories, if we tell the central message that tomorrow is too precious -- that life is too precious -- to throw away for one night of showing off in a cool car, we might save lives. And if out of the millions of you kids out there, just one of you thinks about the story and slows down or stays home and saves just one life, then the sad telling is worth it.

But if my long arguments don't stick with you, at least remember what Koval's friend Whitcomb said:

No more going fast.

Life's too short to go fast. Be careful. Please.

p.s.: I wrote about the Montrose incident on these pages last November, and wanted to say more, hoping that parents and kids alike would look at what really happened, look at the senseless loss of life, and just be careful. However, a complaint was filed with the school district (over a blog article that I wrote on my own time, on my own computer), and while the complaint process went on, I voluntarily removed the article and withheld further public comment.

What happened there is another story. The point here is that not telling stories leaves people ignorant. Ignoring what really happened means more kids might die.

If I had told Ashleigh the Montrose story, would she have gotten in that car with Koval?

Those of you interested in reading the story I posted last November, contact me (see comment page for private e-mail address), and I'll send you a copy so you can share the message with others and try saving some lives.

*Argus earlier reported the name of the driver as Troma.

Leslee Unruh Says Abortion Isn't Wrong

...wherein the Madville Times tries prooftexting and finds the Apocalypse is probably nigh...

Mount Blogmore's Bill Harlan turns me on to the most amazing quote of the day:

Leslee Unruh from the National Abstinence Clearinghouse shared about her group’s new and successful way to ban abortion in South Dakota by framing the debate as a feminist issue.

“We’re not saying ‘abortion is wrong,’” she said, according to the Times. “We’re taking women by the hand and saying ‘let us help you.’ The days of standing by abortion clinics with pictures of dead babies, that’s over.”

[Michelle Vu, "Pro-Family Summit Faces Opposition,"The Christian Post, 2007.09.24]

Abortion isn't wrong. I didn't say it; Leslee Unruh did. Have the Unruh-Hunt-Howie cabal of radical right-wingers realized that supporting "family values" means helping people, not jduging and excluding them?

Pilots, watch out for pigs....

Friday, September 28, 2007

Keep Reading, You Thievin' Canucks!

Shivers down my spine: Sitemeter tells me folks from Transcanada and something called "BigPipeInc" (I checked -- it's not porn, thank goodness!), both with servers in Calgary, are reading the Madville Times's articles on Transcanada's unjust thievery of South Dakota land. Cool! Maybe they'll figure out that we don't care for big corporations thinking they're entitled to our land. Deal with us fairly, or go home... and take your lawyers with you! Grrr!

(By the way, I have good friends in Canada, and I send them all my love. However, I can do without Canadian corporations trying to kick South Dakotans around.)

Family Values in Action

I didn't come up with the line, but I'm sure going to use it. Here's Senator Tim Johnson, from an article titled "Family Values in Action" in the newsletter he put in the Madville Times mailbox yesterday:

I tire of hearing people talk about "family values" while at the same time doing little to increase wages or provide affordable health care and housing.

I think the good senator must be reading his Steinbeck. Now if we could just get the Republicans to think more like Jim Casy and Tom Joad.

Confirmed: Transcanada Ready to Take Land by Force

Terry Woster and Melanie Brandert confirm that Transcanada sees South Dakotans as peons, not partners ["Pipeline May Sue for Land," that Sioux Falls paper, 2007.09.28]:

The company proposing to pipe crude oil across eastern South Dakota from Canada to Illinois is beginning condemnation proceedings on some property, a rural water system official says.

TransCanada, the company proposing the Keystone Pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Wood River and Patoka, Ill., filed a notice of condemnation on property on which BDM Rural Water System has its own easement, BDM Manager David Wade of Britton said Thursday.

If negotiations with landowners fail to get an easement, right of eminent domain gives TransCanada the ability to take landowners to court. In court, a fair price would be set for the easement or to take the property.

"It's a surprise. I didn't know we (rural water) could get a condemnation against us," Wade said. He said the rural water system received "a sort of complementary filing," because it held an easement on property the oil pipeline wants to cross.

Oil versus water -- oh, the metaphorical import of it all....

Arctic Cat Closing Madison Plant, Raises Questions About Economic Development Strategy

Snowmobile and ATV manufacturer Arctic Cat is closing its Madison plant, leaving 89 workers to hunt for jobs. The company is laying off 41 workers right after Thanksgiving, another 23 two weeks before Christmas, and the remaining 25 a week before Valentine's Day (ah, the corporate holiday spirit).

In the corporate world, this is great news. Arctic Cat CEO Christopher A. Twomey's written statement to the press and his workers:

Christopher A. Twomey, Arctic Cat chairman and CEO, announced in a written press release that the closure made good business sense for the company and "is in good keeping with our strong commitment to enhance operational efficiency."

"By providing this long notice, we expect that most of these employees will be able to find other employment either in the Madison area, where current employment opportunities seem strong, or at another Arctic Cat facility," Twomey said in the press release.

How considerate. The company will save a million dollars a year in operating costs (that's 11K per worker). Meanwhile, Arctic Cat shares closed up yesterday by 0.15. (Why is Wall Street's optimism always inversely proportional to workers' optimism?)

Arctic Cat already has a buyer for its Madison facility: our own Rosebud Manufacturing has finally given in to pressure from the city fathers and will move its operation out of downtown to the industrial park by spring. Thank goodness Arctic Cat won't be burdened with Madison property or workers any more.

One minor annoyance: Lake Area Improvement Corporation director Dwaine Chapel said he learned about the plant closing last week but couldn't say anything due to confidentiality agreements [see Chuck Clement, "Arctic Cat Closing Local Plant," Madison Daily Leader, 2007.09.27, p.1]. I know contracts are contracts and laws are laws, but it doesn't seem right that an economic development official should be more beholden to corporations leaving town than to his own neighbors who might want to start looking for work as soon as possible. Confidentiality agreements are nothing but trouble for the common person.

Obviously, this is a rotten situation for Madison's Arctic Cat workers and the local economy. LAIC's Chapel assures us that his organization is ready to help with money -- not for the workers themselves, but for area businesses that hire them. Chapel asserts that other businesses are looking to expand, offering as many as 125-150 new jobs in the Colman-Madison-Howard metroplex.

We hope everyone involved can find good jobs and not take a financial hit. We also hope our leaders will consider the following questions raised by the Arctic Cat plant closing:
  1. Why does Madison keep losing manufacturers? Rosco left in 2003, taking about 100 jobs out of Madison. May & Scofield closed in 2005, after a peak employment of 103 in 2001.
  2. Can Madison (and the state) afford its strategy of trying to attract more big manufacturers? After the Rosco and May & Scofield closings, state and local government handed out over $150,000 (see here and here; I welcome correction from better sources) to businesses to encourage them to hire the laid-off workers. Help from the state is fine, but if businesses have to get a government handout to hire local people, something must be wrong with our market fundamentals. How many more big plant closings can we absorb? Is there any other business model that might prove more sustainable?
  3. If South Dakota has the best tax climate in the nation, why aren't we keeping these manufacturers? Rosco moved to North Carolina, which has a corporate and individual income taxes. May & Scofield moved to Mexico, which has a corporate income tax of 35% plus compulsory profit-sharing (again, I'll take corrections and updates on Mexican tax law... and yes, May & Scofield's probably found labor in Mexico even cheaper than ours). Arctic Cat is consolidating its manufacturing at its 1500-worker plant in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, which has corporate and individual income taxes. Now sure, you could say it only makes sense for Arctic Cat to consolidate to the much larger facility, but then you have to ask: how is that factory able to survive in Minnesota's supposedly awful tax climate in the first place? Hmm... maybe "No Taxes" isn't such an effective economic development slogan after all.
  4. Might we do better to focus our economic development efforts on growing local businesses? Importing big out-of-state manufacturers leaves us at the mercy of corporations whose ultimate commitment is to the bottom line, not the community. If a corporation is willing to move to Madison from Peoria or Poughkeepsie, it'll be just as willing to leave Madison for Tuscon or Timbuktu the moment a chance for one or two percent more profit presents itself. Investing in homegrown entrepreneurs may not promise the immediate big numbers -- CT@DSU is looking at start-ups with one, two, maybe five employees, not 100 -- but they build our economy on the knowledge and skills of people who are in Lake County for reasons bigger and more heartfelt than the desire to make a quick buck.
If consider these questions and change our economic development strategy, we might find ourselves with a more stable local economy and a stronger community.

Transcanada Condemnation Push Story: Verification?

The restored and rejuvenated SD Watch amends its story on Transcanada's delivery of condemnation letters to Marshall and Day County landowners to note that we still do not have independent verification of the story. None of the big media have run confirmation yet. The only condemnation clearly in the works is DME's request for a hearing before the state Transportation Commission to condemn land for its expansion from Wyoming.

The South Dakota blogosphere thus puts out an all-points bulletin for information on Transcanada's efforts to acquire land in the state. If you've received any cranky letters for Transcanada -- or, for that matter, if Transcanada has been perfectly polite and cooperative with you and is offering you a million bucks for the privilege of laying a pipeline across your cornfield -- let SD Watch or your other favorite South Dakota bloggers know. Transcanada's Keystone Project is an important story, and we should know whether this newest corporate neighbor plans to treat us as partners or peons.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

SD Watch Exclusive on Transcanada Condemnation Push

SD Watch reports weird technical difficulties. While Mr. Epp wrestles with gremlins, below is the full SD Watch article cited in an earlier post on this important issue, copied from the RSS feed: Todd Epp, "TransCanada Condemnation Confirmation," SD Watch and Epp Law Report, 2007.09.26]

TransCanada Condemnation Confirmation
transcanada_logo.gifI have received confirmation from one condemnee that they have been served condemnation papers from TransCanada for the oil pipeline. I am keeping their name anonymous:

We are one of the farmers that have been served papers by TransCanada. There were 9 landowners listed on those papers that received summons at that time. I understand that they have sent out more of the leading letters to other landowners. They are given from Sept 24th through the 30th to sign. Otherwise, condemnation will be started on them also. That is the way ours started only last month.

We have until next week to answer their summons. They say they have negotiated with us. They came to our farm and told us to take what they offered or get nothing. Anyone has tried to work with the easement has been told that they can do nothing to change it. We only get what they have offered and nothing else.

The lawyer in me wonders how TransCanada can utilize the state’s condemnation statute for common carriers without the pipeline project being approved first by the SD PUC. Seems like putting the refined product before the oil well to me.

If anyone has the answer to that one, let me know.

And my thanks to the correspondent who emailed me with the update.

Wed, 26 Sep 2007 21:00:26 +0000

Transcanada Stealing Land -- Time to Raise Hell!

Big news of the month: SD Watch runs confirmation that Transcanada is setting the legal wheels in motion to strongarm South Dakota farmers out of their land. After only cursory preliminary contacts and zero cooperation or substantive negotiation (basically, "Our way or the highway, eh?"), Transcanada is sending out condemnation notices.

Technical Alert: SD Watch is experiencing technical difficulties (I'll bet the Canadians -- or maybe the PUC? -- are jamming his signal.)

All South Dakotans should be outraged. Just last year we outlawed the use of eminent domain for private benefit. Eminent domain is restricted to public projects. How is a pipeline a public project? No South Dakotan gets to pipe his own oil (or moonshine, or other preferred fluids) through Transcanada's pipeline. No South Dakotan gets to hang pictures or ride his bicycle on it. The pipeline produces profit for the private owner, and that's it. Indirect benefits ("oh, gee, America, you'll have more oil to to fuel your SUV's, eh?") don't cut it -- either the project is public, or eminent domain is wrong.

We need our governor to get the dollar signs out of his eyes and intervene. We can cooperate with Canada and big corporations, but when they start forcing us to give up property, it's time to say "No deal!"

Who Needs Retirement?

MDL gives front page space to local woman Ardyce Dirckx who, at age 74, is working in the kitchen at Madison's Second Street Diner [Chuck Clement, "Experience Works for Madison Senior; Woman Gets New Job," Madison Daily Leader, 2007.09.26, p.1].

Dirckx likes the job, the hours, the people. She has benefited from the assistance of the federally funded Experience Works program, which has evolved from the old Green Thumb program. Experience Works provides 100,000 low-income senior citizens across the country with training and job opportunities (meaning the feds give businesses money to help cover the cost of hiring and training these older workers).

Now I'm all for people working for as long as they want. If septuagenarians or centenarians find they like working better than retirement, let them exert themselves to their heart's content. I love seeing old Jack at the county dump, bombing around in his big front-end loader in his eighties. My friend Donus up in Watertown retired from teaching and coaching eight years ago, but he still gets out to debate tournaments to judge and share his wisdom. For many old folks, work is a chance to get out and interact with people. They bring all sorts of experience and wisdom to the workplace.

But then I noticed one key line in the Dirckx story:

Dirckx needs to work part-time because her income from other sources, including survivor's benefits from Social Security, won't stretch far enough for her budget. She was a housewife and mother until her husband Ted died in 1995 at the age of 63.

She's not working because she loves to work. She didn't choose to stay active in this fashion. She has to work to pay the bills in her old age.

What's wrong here? Plenty. First, we're not talking about some irresponsible woman who didn't do her part. She worked as a housewife and mother. She gave up who knows how many career and educational opportunities and instead supported her husband and children with her sweat and smarts at home. But apparently our family-values society doesn't really value any work that doesn't produce a (man's) paycheck. Dirckx did her part as a housewife and mother, but society says, "Sorry, no retirement for you." And it's off to the diner she goes at age 74.

Sure, sure, we all have to be responsible and pay our way. But doesn't there come a point where a person is entitled to relax and enjoy the remaining years of life? Our senior citizens have raised families and kept homes. They've generated wealth and wisdom. What more can we demand of them? If old folks enjoy working, we shouldn't kick them out of the workforce. But we shouldn't force them to stay in past retirement age, either. Old age brings enough burdens; if we really value our older generation, we shouldn't let the economy impose more burdens on them.

Student Scores Up -- Teacher Pay Boosts on the Way

Optimism is going to be my undoing...

KELO-TV reports that South Dakota's fourth- and eighth-graders are outsmarting the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, another big ugly standardized test. (The Madville Times still holds that standardized tests in general are incomplete measures of children's overall intellectual progress, but today we'll take good news where we can find it. Our fourth-graders squeaked past the national averages on math (SD average 241 compared to the national average of 239) and reading (SD 223, US 220). Our eighth-graders got even smarter (or the rest of the country got even dumber), with a math average of 288 (US 280) and reading average of 270 (US 261 -- see Associated Press, "SD Students Score Above National Average," KELOLand.com, 2007.09.25).

So surely we'll soon hear the governor and the secretary of education sending out congratulatory press releases and declaring that we have a moral obligation to pay the teachers of South Dakota above-average salaries for getting kids to post above-average scores. Oh, look, there's the press release! I'm looking through it... hmm, Secretary Melmer mentions alignment with state standards, need for state push for preschool, state program funded by federal grant, school lunch, pverty... what?! No mention of the good job those kids' teachers did?! Part of the document must have been cut off.

Oh, no, wait: Governor Rounds and Secretary Melmer are probably just being cautious, checking their budget figures, identifying which parts of the state payroll (which the Republicans have expanded significantly, and faster than any increases in spending on K-12 ed) can be reallocated to fund the well-deserved pay raises for our highly productive teachers. The state investment officer gets bonuses for good performance; surely our governor will apply the same logic to our teachers.

(And surely, I'm about to get comments on merit pay...)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

MDL Editor Redefines "Local" Agriculture

MDL editor and publisher Jon Hunter shows his big-business stripes in last night's editorial. Ignoring the hopeful message for small farmers carried here yesterday and on his own pages a few nights ago, our man Hunter touts a "growth spurt" for "local agriculture."

But wait -- "local"? Let's look at some phrases straight from the good editor:

  • "Perhaps an overall theme to our growth could be the decades-long trend to larger operations. Observers correctly say that larger farms have reduced the number of farmers, but the efficiencies gained by larger operations have boosted productivity to remarkable levels." Fewer farmers means fewer local farmers.
  • "The Madison Farmers Elevator will handle more than 22 million bushels this year, up from only about 3 million a year twenty years ago. Increased yields have contributed, but the biggest boost has been the increased deliveries from farmers farther away.The investment in the 110-car unit train facilities has paid off tremendously. As small-town elevators have shrunk or closed, Madison has been drawing in business from farther and farther away." Small-town elevators closing, farmers traveling farther to deliver their products -- again, that's a decline in local agriculture.
The editor of our local newspaper reflects what appears to be the persistent mindset of the business community: bigger is better, efficiency and productivity equal success. The raw dollars brought to town by increased farm productivity look good in the ledgers, but what about community? According to Hunter's essay, Madison's economic health has been built on driving ever more farmers out of business and off their land, concentrating land ownership in the hands of a few industrial-sized owners, and crushing the economy of an ever-widening circle of smaller communities.

We may be holding our own economically by importing business from bigger and more distant farms, but the decline of small, diverse farms has to be related to four decades of population stagnation. Fewer farmers means fewer families buying boots and shovels and steak dinners in town, fewer kids in the school district, and fewer people bringing their ideas and spirit to the community.

If Hunter's happy conclusion is correct, "local" agriculture will reach its apotheosis when Stips or the Hutterites or BP Ethanol finally buy up every acre and consolidate the whole county into one big hyper-productive cornfield farmed by remotely controlled GPS-guided tractors. The local economy would ring up great profit... there just wouldn't be any local people left to enjoy it.

LAIC Cuts Housing Study Program

Smarting from a budget hit by the county commission, the Lake Area Improvement Corporation as axed its proposed housing study program. According to KJAM ["City Approves Ammended [sic] 2008 Budget," KJAMRadio.com, 2007.09.25], the city commission Monday night reduced the community development budget from $112,000 to $62,000, based on the LAIC's decision not to pursue the housing study.

Surely Dwaine Chapel, Jon Knuths, and the other LAIC leaders could bring out some figures to explain their prioritization of programs. However, the LAIC raised $2.3 million in its Forward Madison campaign last year. As far as we know, the LAIC hasn't burned up all that money yet. Given that one of the purposes of that fund was to "strategically grow the community through business retention, expansion and recruitment," and given that the businesspeople and workers we want to retain and recruit need affordable places to live, perhaps the LAIC could put some of that Forward Madison money to work on its housing initiatives.

And heck, who needs a study? Does the LAIC spend $20,000 studying or focus-grouping its handouts to recruit and promote businesses? Probably not. The LAIC knows affordable quality housing is tight in Madison; we know there are programs out there for developing housing resources. Let's get the LAIC leaders together with some other community thinkers and have them spend a couple days walking around town surveying the housing situation themselves. Then put them in a room with some business journals and a couple Internet terminals, let them brainstorm a bit, and I'll bet we'll get a good local plan for action housing.

Don't let the county commission get you down, LAIC! We've got the money, we've got the brains -- let's keep that housing effort as part of our economic development picture.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fly the Friendly Skies... with the Thought Police

More expansion of government power and narrowing of constitutional rights from our Republican executive branch: KELO tells us that the TSA has trained hundreds of new "Behavior Detection Officers" to keep us safe at the airports [Matt Belanger, "Watching for Warning Signs," KELOLand.com, 2007.09.24]. Everyone KELO interviews sounds perfectly happy at the prospect of the Thought Police patrolling Joe Foss Field and probably everywhere else:
  • “It just makes you feel good that they're there in the background,” said Cindy Maffei from Willow Lake.
  • “I'm in favor of whatever we can do to reinforce and strengthen security,” John Housiaux said.
  • “If you've got something to hide what you worry about being watched but if you haven't got anything to hide what does it matter,” Housiaux said.
Did no one else read 1984? Thought Police, people. Thought Police.

I'm curious what standards the TSA is about to introduce for probable cause: "His eye was twitchy, so we strip-searched him"? "She looked mad after she turned from the ticket counter"? "He looked away when we looked toward him"?

"If you haven't got anything to hide...." That's not the issue. The Founding Fathers gave us a Fourth Amendment to protect us against a government or government officials that might have something to hide -- i.e., corrupt reasons for wanting to harass, detain, or otherwise harm an innocent citizen. The government's interpretation of a person's possible state of mind seems a far cry from actionable evidence of wrongdoing. Instead, the new Thought Police (Behavior Detection Officers -- who comes up with these names?) are a violation of privacy of the grossest kind, an erasure of the last self-defining boundary permitted to citizens, their thoughts and emotions.

And again, this is a Republican executive branch creating the Thought Police. No wonder the GOP is losing members while Libertarian membership jumps 18%. (Dems are losing members, too, but that's another post.) Not everyone is as sheepish about the Bill of Rights as the KELO interviewees who make the air.

Once again, the government revokes the Constitution in airports. All the more reason to avoid airports altogether and drive. See you on the highway!

Farmers Can Make It Small and Local...

...but they've got to hustle!

The conventional thinking (I hesitate to call it wisdom) in farming is "Get big or get out," a philosophy that empties out the countryside of all but the biggest corporate farmers and destroys the sense of rural community. As South Dakota's small, independent farmers (and Mrs. Madville Times) will be happy to read, smaller dairy operations in Wisconsin are finding a way to defy that thinking.

MDL runs an AP report on dairy farmers in Wisconsin packaging and selling their own milk, cheese, and ice cream to local and regional buyers [Associated Press, "More Wisconsin Dairy Farmers Are Choosing to Diversify, Stabilizing Their Income," Madison Daily Leader, 2007.09.21]. The advantages:
  1. "We control the market all the way to the consumer," says dairy farmer Troy DeRosier. Farmers set their own prices and have more control over their destiny.
  2. "Consumers sense they are getting a fresher product. They are willing to pay extra," says Jeremy Foltz, assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics, University of Wisconsin.
  3. Citizens can buy products from people they know instead of big faceless corporations.
  4. Buyers and producers pump their money into the local economy, instead of seeing value slip away to out-of-state corporate middlemen.
The main disadvantage: farmers have to learn new skills, like packaging and marketing. Operating a small store right on one's farm, like DeRosier, requires a whole 'nother skill set. of course, farmers have always had to be jacks-of-all-trades, so maybe adding retail skills to the mix is no big stretch.

Marketing homegrown products in town may not be ever farmer's strong suit, but we're happy to see any way that small farmers can keep their operations small and local and still succeed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dollar General Violates Law, Asks for Free Pass

Visitors coming to Madison from the east can't miss the new and rather unsightly sign for our latest economic development: the new Dollar General store. The big, boxy, yellow sign with chunky black letters beckons shoppers to Madison's third dollar store. (Three dollar stores? Just how many outlets does one town need for cheap plastic junk from China?)

Turns out the Dollar General sign offends not only this author's senses but the City of Madison's sign ordinances. According to tonight's city commission agenda (page 20), Pride Neon, Inc., of Sioux Falls installed the Dollar General sign so that the streetward end hangs just six inches from the property line. City ordinance requires signs to stand at least five feet back from the property line.

So does Madison's newest corporate resident intend to address this violation of city law? By requesting an after-the-fact variance. Evidently moving the sign to conform to local laws would be too much of a hassle. According Pride Neon's Gale Mudder, writing on behalf of Dollar General (page 22 of tonight's agenda packet), "Locating the sign 5' behind the property line would place the support pipe in the parking lot area which would eliminate (1) parking space and could create a traffic hazard as well as subjecting the support pipe to possible damage by vehicles."

Evidently Dollar General didn't get to be a $9.2-billion company by sacrificing parking spaces or putting up a couple concrete barriers to keep savings-frenzied shoppers from crashing into their signs.

The permit application Pride Neon's Allan Meyer signed back in February (page 26, agenda packet) says explicitly, "All provisions of laws and ordinances governing this type of work will be complied with whether specified herein or not." It looks like Dollar General asked its sign contractor to ignore city ordinance and stick that sign right where the company wanted it. Now that the concrete is poured and the steel all bolted down, they want us to just excuse them for breaking the law.

A city commission interested in making clear that Madison is ruled by laws and not whim would tell Dollar General, "Sorry, but you screwed up, and the laws apply to everyone. Move the sign." But Dollar General has gotten its business neighbors -- Lewis Drug, the Schaefer plaza, and Dennis Miller -- to sign statements saying they have no objection to the sign staying where it is (pp. 23-25, agenda packet). Good Midwesterners all, they apparently don't want to raise a fuss.

Perhaps the city commission will surprise us an actually hold our newest corporate resident to its word. Otherwise, I assume the commission will start granting every builder amnesty for sticking signs and garages and other improvements wherever they darn well please.

Note: Let's compare the city's response to multibillion-dollar corporation Dollar General to the response they give local residents Roger and Charlotte Hanson, who are also requesting an after-the-fact variance for a construction boo-boo (pp. 13-15, agenda packet). They apparently poured a concrete slab for a garage a foot too close to the property line. "We were wrong," write the Hansons in their variance request, "and apologize for not checking out the full requirements first." That's more of an acknowledgment of wrongdoing than Dollar General or Pride Neon gives. The city's responses to these requests tonight will tell a lot about where local residents and big corporations stand in the eyes of our elected officials.

Lake Herman Bacteria Up Slightly, Levels Still Safe

The bacteria monitoring project continues on are lakes and streams. Readings from last Wednesday on the two sites monitored by the Madville Times on the west side of Lake Herman were 80 and 60 colony-forming units per 100 ml. That's up from the near-zero readings of August, but still well below the EPA single-sample maximum of 235 CFU/100 ml for recreational use.

Monitors have one more round of scheduled samples in October before stowing their gear for the winter. Prospects are good for continuing this project next year: the Lake Herman Sanitary District has budgeted $700 to fund continued monitoring on this lake, and the East Dakota Water Development District and other funding sources may make possible the continuation of the project throughout the watershed.

34 for the Two-Wheeled Future -- New Bike Trail Opens

Four lanes from Madison all the way to I-29 may be a long way off, but Madison can now boast four miles of a fifth lane out to Lake Madison. Madison's new bike trail is open and ready for two-wheelers. The Madville Times rode out early to beat the approaching cold front and try out the new trail.

I hopped onto the new trail at the southeast corner of Madison, where Highway 34 turns into the big red morning sun (red -- surely symbolic of those pinko income-taxing liberals one state over). I met just a couple of walkers. Otherwise, I had the trail all to myself.

The bike trail parallels Highway 34 from Prostrollo's out past the old Grandview area on Lake Madison. Actually, "parallels" isn't perfectly accurate; it appears the digger and paver operators were pointed in the general direction of the lake and given liberty to curve and swerve as they pleased. And that's a good thing for bike trails -- the Madville Times likes them curvy and swervy. A paving machine can only deviate so far from a straight line within the right-of-way, but every little weave and bob is a pleasant change from the South Dakota cyclist's usual fare of endless miles of straight-to-the-grid country roads.

It's also a great pleasure to charge along on two wheels without worrying about traffic. Most South Dakota motorists have treated this cyclist well -- even this morning, as I rode up 451st, drivers coming up from behind would ease all the way over into the other lane for me. Still, cyclists can't help feeling that little tension as they listen to a vehicle rushing up behind them. The new bike trail gives cyclists a few miles of no worries.

As you can see from this photo (featured this week on the City of Madison's website front page), the trail has a long stretch out in the open. Shady spots are few (I count two fair tree stands and a couple more lone trees where one might seek shelter) and far between, so be ready for wind and, come next summer, hot sun. Let's hope that the right-of-way regulations won't prevent us from planting some more trees along the route.

The payoff comes past the Grandview, where the trail turns south for a bit, then east into the trees. The leaves are turning already, so the next couple weeks should make for glorious autumn riding along that last wooded stretch. The paved trail ends abruptly at the gravel loop that leads to Johnson's Point. The fancy-pants cyclists with their spendy and skinny racing tires won't like it, but most of our recreational riders will enjoy the last quarter mile or so over the gravel that will take them to the boat ramp, fishing dock, and Johnson's Point itself, a splendid place to park the bike and sit and enjoy the view before heading back to town.

Turning back toward the big city, one can detour along Dakota Avenue and head toward the old Chautauqua grounds to see the historical marker and various lake cabins and homes. Then it's back to the bike trail for a long, steady climb up to the Highway 19 junction. (Note to our out-of-state visitors: "long steady climb" is a relative term; those of you used to biking in actual mountains or even the Black Hills won't even notice.)

Once over the hill, recreational cyclists may enjoy stopping at the second-most scenic spot on the bike trail, the new bridge over Silver Creek. It's not a high bridge, but it's near the trees -- more good autumn viewing -- and in spring when the snow melts, there will be the added pleasure of rushing water beneath our wheels.

The pavement is mostly smooth, but right now some dried mud remains on portions of the trail, so rollerbladers need to keep their eyes open. There also appear to be some heavy equipment markers and a few spots where the pavement wasn't quite packed down enough, so we may see some spots eroding more quickly with the snow and rain and requiring some upkeep. But overall, the trail offers a very nice riding surface.

Coming back into town, riders need to navigate the intersection of main 34 and the bypass, where the trail switches from the south to the north side of the road. One can stop to pat the big white buffalo, then roll on to Egan Avenue, where the trail turns toward the heart of town. At this turn, the trail slopes downward, giving riders a welcome boost as they whoosh into town by the Field of Dreams, the 4-H grounds, and finally to Flynn Field.

That last stretch does offer a particularly flattering view of our fair city: no ugly signs or dollar stores, just lots of trees, green space, and some nice modest houses. The route is also a perfectly logical route to direct visitors downtown, straight to the visitor center at the Chamber of Commerce and the hustle and bustle of downtown, right where we want our visitors. Unfortunately, the trail ends abruptly a few blocks shy of downtown. Maybe the city can come up with some money to extend that pavement all the way to the visitor center for a truly grand welcome to cyclists. Short of that, a simple sign where the trail meets Egan Avenue, saying "Visitor Information, This Way" might do the job. (We heard a few months ago such a sign was coming, but we're still waiting.)

The trail looks like a good investment and, we hope, the beginning of a bigger bicycle network. Naturally, we can only hope for an expansion of this health- and tourism-promoting infrastructure. Perhaps the next of round of grant money can go toward building a spur south along 19 around the wastewater treatment ponds (hey, they're actually rather picturesque, what with the gulls and geese) or through the trees along Silver Creek. Loops around all of Lake Madison and Lake Herman would be spectacular, but that would require the agreement of a lot of landowners, and as much as I enjoy bicycling, I'm not ready to eminent domain anyone for the pleasure of a bike trail. The most important development, though, would be designated bicycle space on the main roads through town, to encourage residents to use their bicycles not just for recreation but for daily transportation.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Corporations Profit on Granny's Bedsores

With apologies to Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the free market, and I'm here to help."

South Dakota faces some serious problems with providing sufficient long-term care options to its aging population. We're headed for the baby-boom retirement, and even though our baby-boomers have been jogging and aerobicizing like crazy, their aging will still bring an increase in the number of people requiring health care assistance of some sort, whether in an assisted-living setting or full-time nursing home care. Making matters worse is the decreasing labor pool to choose from. More old people needing care, fewer young people to take care of them -- not a good economic recipe.

In addition to growing demand, nursing home costs (like other health care costs) may be going up fast because of increased litigation costs. One would think the free market solution would be to provide better care that people can't sue over. But according to the headliner in today's New York Times [Charles Duhigg, "More Profit and Less Nursing at Many Homes," New York Times, 2007.09.23], the large private investment firms that have bought up 9% of the nation's nursing homes in the past few years have a better solution: create a Byzantine ownership structure that makes it impossible to determine who actually owns the nursing homes and bears responsibility for wrongdoing. That way the owners cut cut nursing staff, let more old folks die, and insulate themselves from legal action by family members and regulatory agencies alike, ensuring a steady flow of dividends to the contented shareholders.

The Times article is not pleasant reading. The Times analyzed federal government data on over 15,000 nursing homes, including "1,200 nursing homes purchased by large private investment groups since 2000" [Duhigg, sidebar]. It found the facilities owned by private investment groups have fewer nurses (professional staff is always such a burdensome expense), more health deficiencies, more residents losing functionality and mobility, and more residents suffering from depression.

For providing this inferior care, these nursing homes ought to receive the free market's punishment of less business and lower profits, right? Oops, wait a minute:

The typical large chain owned by an investment company in 2005 earned $1,700 a resident, according to reports filed by the facilities. Those homes, on average, were 41 percent more profitable than the average facility. [Duhigg]

Given that financial performance, the investment groups say they should be lauded for saving the industry. "Legal and regulatory costs were killing this industry," argues Arnold M. Whitman, a principal with Formation Properties I, one such investment group that has been buying (and selling for a tidy return) nursing homes. And we sure don't want to kill any industries. So instead, we kill Grandma. [Oops, sorry -- more hyperbole. Why do we liberals get so emotional over petty things like valuing profits over human life?]

Duhigg offers another valuable insight from Mr. Whitman:

If investors are barred from setting up complex structures, “this industry makes no economic sense,” Mr. Whitman said. “If nursing home owners are forced to operate at a loss, the entire industry will disappear.”

Hmm... "operate at a loss" appears to be shorthand for "be held accountable for insufficient staffing, moldy food, and bedsores."

Mr. Whitman appears to be saying that the free market can't provide even inferior care for Grandma and Grandpa without complicated legal structures to hide its failings from legal scrutiny. I think Adam Smith said something about that: if the free market can't do the job, society has a right and duty to do the job through its government.

Today's New York Times article gives a good example from one specific subset of the health care industry of why blind adherence to free-market theology in health care without at least strict regulation, if not full funding and control, by the government leads to immoral treatment of our fellow citizens at the hands of profiteers.

Colman Keeps Cost and Speed Down

No word yet on whether Colman has hired a new police chief (their online commission minutes are still stuck on August as of this writing). However, a trip through Colman last week revealed an apparent effort to save money without decreasing public safety. As the Madville Times cruised through Colman on Highway 34 last week, the staff spotted a city police car parked along the highway. We slowed from 30 to 25 and got ready to wave. Nearing the police car, though, we discovered something less than Smokey inside. The only occupant of the police car appeared to be
an empty police jacket hanging in the driver's seat.

No one ever said the Colman City Commission wasn't clever.

Guest Commentary: South Dakota GOP Lets Education Lag

We haven't heard much from our political leaders about South Dakota's embarrassingly low rankings in the 2007 Kids Count report. Evidently no one wants to deviate from the Rounds orthodoxy of talking about how great everything is and ignoring real problems that call into question business as usual.

Not so this morning's guest commentator, good neighbor, gadfly, and former District 8 legislator Gerald F. Lange. His commentary is evidently too tough for that Sioux Falls paper, but not this blog:

"Kids Count," but not like they used to here in South Dakota, according to the latest report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Perhaps this is just one of the trade-off costs we pay for "putting taxpayers first," in providing a "favorable business climate." Maybe short-range "economic development" is more important than "human development!"

On a positive note, the Prairie Business August edition, reports South Dakota winning the national license plate award along with the NSF favoring us with their decision to use the Homestake mine for research.

But the August issue also measures educational opportunities and continues to show us how far ahead our neighbors in North Dakota and Minnesota continue to be. While the legislature in North Dakota is pumping 90 million more into its K-12 schools, we here in South Dakota continue to tolerate the stigma of being last in teachers' salaries. As for university research money, last year UND out-researched USD 81 to under 30 million. Could almost 30 years of one-party rule have anything to do with this blatant disparity in educational opportunities here in South Dakota?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Karl Rove -- Not All Wrong on Health Care

An occasional reader sends a Wall Street Journal column from newly unemployed Karl Rove. ["Republicans Can Win on Health Care," Wall Street Journal, 2007.09.18, page A15]. I'm surprised to find the GOP strategist and I can identify some common thinking (beyond our agreement that Hillary Clinton's health care plan is junk).

Obviously, I have some differences of opinion with Mr. Rove. For instance, he trots out the usual free-market-theology boilerplate that "Socialized medicine inevitably leads to poor quality, inefficiency, rising taxes and rationing. The waiting lines and poor care that cause people from other countries to come here for treatment are not the answer." He follows that boilerplate with the standard absence of evidence for such boilerplate. The only people coming here for care are rich people (Saudi princes and such) who don't like waiting their turn behind poor people. And Rove also makes no mention of the growing trend of medical tourism -- 500,000 Americans seeking care overseas in 2006.

Also, Rove's emphasis on tax credits as panacea shows the thinking of a rich guy who has an accountant and the extra wealth to make those credits pay off. For folks making under $40,000 a year, additional tax credits don't amount to a hill of beans, at least not enough beans to cover the increases in health insurance premia.

However, I can roll with Mr. Rove on portability -- what a waste of human potential to lock people into less-than-optimal jobs just because they can't afford health insurance! I also agree with his point that, under the current system, we need more interstate competition. Says Rove, "Lack of interstate competition helps to explain why the same health policy costs $8,334 in North Dakota but $10,312 in South Dakota. If consumers in South Dakota could buy that North Dakota policy, prices for health insurance would go down." Talk about medical tourism -- we need medical insurance tourism! When's the next bus to Fargo?

Rove makes a similar point in talking about the need to pool risk. He's right: the bigger the risk pool, the better we can spread out the costs. Of course, the logical conclusion is that the best pool would the biggest pool: all Americans under a truly universal, single-payer plan.

Energy Synergy -- a.k.a. "You Scratch My Back..."

KELO reports this morning that Hyperion's chief exec Albert Huddleston is saying the Transcanada Keystone Pipeline is (in the report's words) "the main reason for considering" Elk Point for Hyperion's new refinery (AP, "Pipeline Is Key to Refinery Project," KELOLand.com, 2007.09.20).

Wait a minute -- that's not we were hearing this summer. Consider:

  1. From Josh Verges, "'Gorilla' Revealed: Dallas Company Plans to Build Oil Refinery," Argus Leader, 2007.06.14:

    "Hyperion plans to pipe in crude oil from Canada, but how they'd do it is uncertain.

    A Canadian firm, TransCanada, is planning a pipeline that would move 435,000 barrels of crude oil per day under South Dakota by 2009. Trans-Canada spokesman Jeff Rauh said Wednesday that the pipeline is not related to Hyperion, and the two companies have not met.

    He did say TransCanada always is looking for new customers and could expand its daily volume to 590,000 barrels. Rauh said a spur line of 30 miles or so to meet Hyperion's refinery would be possible.

    [Hyperion spokesman Preston] Phillips said Hyperion might want to join forces with Trans-Canada, but in the alternative, the refinery is a big enough project to merit "its own dedicated pipeline."

  2. See also content similar to above from Ben Dunsmoor, "Transcanada Pipeline Not Connected to Hyperion," KELOLand.com, 2007.06.15.

  3. From Loren G. Flaugh, Primghar, Iowa, "Elk Point Refinery Unfeasible," letter to the editor, Argus Leader, 2007.07.12:

    I was at the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission hearing in Yankton. I clearly heard TransCanada officials say there was no conspiracy, collusion, connection or relationship between TransCanada and Hyperion Resources. That was simply inadvertent speculation brought on by the Sioux Falls and Sioux City area television and print news media.

  4. From Ray Tyson, "'Gorilla' Project Unveiled," Petroleum News, 2007.06.24:

    Though Hyperion says the company plans to use Canadian oil for feedstock, it’s unclear just how Hyperion would actually tap into the resource, with no third-party pipeline system in the immediate area of Elk Point to transport the product to market. Reportedly, a Hyperion representative said the project is of sufficient size to build and operate its own pipeline.

    He also said that if needed, undisclosed pipeline operators told Hyperion that a bullet line could be constructed from Alberta, Canada, to the Gorilla refinery.

    However, Hyperion spokesman Eric Williams reportedly said that neither Marathon nor TransCanada has any involvement in the refinery plan. But he said that in addition to Frank, the Hyperion refinery team includes two other former Marathon executives: Carl Clay, a former president of Marathon Pipe Line Co.; and Dick White, a former senior vice president of marketing for Marathon.

When big companies start changing their public message, something is up. Maybe Hyperion and Transcanada are sensing some growing opposition to their plans and are trying to create a little PR synergy. Hyperion now says Transcanada's pipeline (now thinner than ever!) is key to its plans, and that helps Transcanada sell its project to the PUC and neighboring landowners. Or maybe Hyperion makes these comments about Transcanada to quell doubts about how Hyperion would get the oil it needs for an Elk Point refinery. Ease doubts, convince investors that a whole 'nother company will eat the cost of building all but 40 miles of the pipeline necessary to get oil from Canada to Elk Point, and watch the stock price go up. Clever.

This is all speculation, but leaving us common folk to speculate has been par for the course for Hyperion. Finding out anything from Hyperion itself is pretty tough online: the company website is open to authorized users only; I had to use ZoomInfo's cached pages just to get the official Hyperion bio of CEO Huddleston. Hyperion doesn't exactly give that warm fuzzy feeling of openness (no wonder they get along so well with Governor Rounds). Combine that penchant for secrecy with the now changing public story, and you have godd reason to be suspicious of Hyperion's intentions.

Fortunately, both Huddleston and Rounds will be on South Dakota Public Television's South Dakota Focus tonight. Let's not waste Mr. Huddleston's time with silly questions about his big campaign contributions to George W. Bush, John Thune, Stephanie Herseth's husband Max Sandlin, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; let's ask just what the connection is between Hyperion and Transcanada. Maybe with the bright light of public attention to focus his thoughts, Mr. Huddleston can settle on one story so we know just what oily devil our governor wants us to jump into bed with.

Baraka in Still-Life

Ever seen the movie Baraka? This blogger taught it as the culminating film of the senior English cinematography unit at Montrose HS. After examining 3 or 4 other films, students watched Baraka twice, without interruption or explanation from the teacher (hard as it was for the teacher not to insert his critical commentary). Then, for their final exam, they had to answer a single question: "What is Baraka?" Watch the film -- you'll see why that simple question isn't so simple.

If your local Movie Guy doesn't carry this fine film, then perhaps you'll enjoy a free amateur still-life version on your very own computer. The Madville Times violates its dedication to South Dakota news and commentary to point out something really, really cool: Blogger's latest toy, Blogger Play. It's a live streaming display of photos being uploaded to Blogger. The result: an oddly captivating sequence of photos from all over the world. Blogger Play includes an info link at the lower right that allows you to view the blog articles and links associated with the pictures, but if you like the Baraka experience, leave the captions off and enjoy the snapshots of humanity that stream by.

Smut alert: the nice folks at Blogger note that while they apply their anti-smut technology to the stream, the occasional nasty picture may sneak into the mix, so you run the site on your work computer at your own peril. For what it's worth, though, Mrs. Madville Times and I viewed Blogger Play for a few minutes just now and saw nothing we couldn't show our young 'un. (Madville Times Jr. particularly enjoyed the baby photos.) We also learned from Guillermo in Buenos Aires that "¡No somos dignos!" is the Spanish version of Wayne and Garth's cry, "We're not worthy!"

O.K., Blogger Play doesn't call for that level of self-abasement. But it sure is fun. Enjoy!

Blogger Helps DSU Fight Plagiarism

The Madville Times continues to fight the war on plagiarism on numerous fronts, and with more than just "outrageous hyperbole." This time, plagiarism rears its ugly head in the online classrooms of Dakota State University. On one course discussion website, 3 out of 17 student responses to assigned questions turned out to be plagiarized from academic papers and websites.

Unfortunately for the plagiarizers of those three posts, they are in class with this blogger, who has unashamedly ratted them out. No one likes a tattle-tale, but the Madville Times isn't in business to be liked. Why be a plagiarism ratfink?

  1. Utterly selfish reason #1: The DSU doctoral program, like many doctoral programs, is a competitive setting. Students are competing for top grades, assistantships, and recognition, which will translate into good recommendations, good reputations, and good jobs in academia and industry. This doctoral candidate does not plan to bust his chops for an A, only to have cheaters tie with him.
  2. Still selfish, but broader perspective: Even if plagiarists sneak through DSU, they will eventually be caught. Some will have their plagiarism discovered; others will find their ignorance exposed as they struggle to advance through their careers and prove they don't actually know what their transcripts say they should know. At that point, such graduates would make their alma mater look bad and tarnish the reputation of all the graduates and faculty of DSU. This doctoral candidate doesn't care to see his university or his future professional standing damaged in this way.
  3. Professional obligation: Students this blogger taught in high school would have said, "You don't rat out your friends." We can perhaps forgive high school students as viewing themselves as a social group united in opposition to their teachers. At the doctoral level, though, students are no longer separate from the faculty. A big chunk of doctoral students (this writer included) work for the university. They collaborate closely with faculty in research and teaching. They are de facto members of the academic community, with an obligation to protect the integrity of their fields of study and their universities. Plagiarists are not friends; they are threats to the principles and practical functioning of their fields. They are also stupid: if they can't generate their own simple responses to questions from professors, how will they ever generate the original research that is the coin of the doctoral realm? Plagiarists have no place in the university, and loyal members of the university community, students and faculty, have an obligation to root them out.

Now the Madville Times has named names in previous plagiarism incidents; why no names this time? We find ourselves in interesting legal territory here. Some lawyers have argued that, even if speech is taking place off campus, a speaker identifying himself as having an affiliation with a school is instantly bound by any and all rules associated with the speaker's employment on campus. This blogger is indeed an employee of Dakota State University and the Board of Regents. This blogger discovered the plagiarism not in the context of his employment but his studies. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act generally applies to teachers and school personnel keeping student records private. However, revenues from the Madville Times aren't enough to hire lawyers for court cases (and I've got better things to do than play lawyer myself).

The miscreants will thus, for now, remain nameless. They know who they are, and they know now they can't cheat their way to a degree at DSU. Let them brand this blog a ratfink -- there's too much at stake to remain silent.

State Fair 2007 Revenues Up

Again, the State Fair folks catch me sleeping. Last year, they didn't release revenue figures until October. This year, within two weeks of Labor Day, the State Fair Board and South Dakota Department of Revenue and Regulation are able to publish the fair's revenues. This speed is surprising, since they apparently had more receipts to count this year:

  1. Gross sales were up 22.8% ($934,565.97 for 2007, compared to $760,909.52 in 2006).
  2. Total tax revenues were up a similar 22.6% ($69,342.66 for 2007, compared to $56,559.16 in 2006). That includes sales tax revenues of $37,382.66 for the state and $18,691.28 for the fair city of Huron (assuming the DRR's figures don't include all those Forestburg melon sales serving hungry fairgoers along the many scenic routes weaving through the Jim River Valley).
Now let's remember that the state subsidized this year's fair to the tune of $750,000 -- even if they didn't go, every South Dakotan paid the State Fair one dollar. We broke even on the cosmic scale, generating $1.25 of sales for every $1 of tax money invested. Looking at it purely from the government perspective, though, we spent $13.26 for every tax dollar we generated.

Are we getting our money's worth? The Rapid City Journal doesn't think so, seeing government handouts that don't produce sufficient statewide return on the investment. South Dakota Magazine sees his dollar-a-year as money well spent, though he urges the Fair to take some lessons from smaller successful fairs like the Turner County Fair and rediscover its rural roots.

The Madville Times looks around at smaller fairs and wonders how they make it without big handouts from Pierre. The profitable Turner County Fair, the oldest fair in the state, draws 60,000 people to Parker, a town of 1,000, and has been a free-gate fair since 1961. It doesn't take $750,000 from Pierre to put on a great event. (The Turner County Fair website is also powered by Linux -- maybe open-source software is the key to running a fair in the black!)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rounds Making Progress? I Take That Back...

Governor Mike Rounds and Secretary of Education Rick Melmer are beating the drums early for more money for education. They recognize the value of education and are willing to ask the Legislature to spend even more money to put the best teachers in every classroom...

...as long as those teachers are computers. Very tricky: the governor gets the legislature and 41 school districts to buy into the Classroom Connections program. Citibank floats the state a donation to get the pilot program going. And now that program has momentum, Rounds and Melmer will put the screws to the Legislature to increase funding to keep it going.

If our governor and education secretary really valued teachers, they'd be speaking in terms of priorities: "Yes, the one-to-one laptop program is nice, but it won't mean much if we can't compete with Minnesota and Wyoming for the top teachers to show kids how best to use those laptops as learning tools. We want to keep funding the laptop program, but by gum, we're not adding any money to the ed-tech budget until we find the funds to raise teacher salaries at least to cost-of-living parity with Minnesota." People first, then computers!

Ah, but we don't hear language like that from the state. Technology remains our primary goal; we'll get around to paying our professionals what they are worth some other time.

Where this undying faith in educational technology is anyone's guess. Just remember that the greatest teachers in history did their jobs without computers. Socrates just walked around town asking people questions, and the kids loved it. Jesus got his message across without a chalkboard, let alone without PowerPoint. Doc Miller taught me speech communication without Internet, and I can hold my own in front of an audience.

If we have money sitting around in Pierre to spend on computers, hooray! But first, let's make sure we're paying our teachers a moral wage (i.e., a lot more than what we're offering now). Then we'll have bought ourselves the moral authority to spend our money on other educational projects.

Governor Rounds Making Progress...

KELO runs this headline this morning: "Governor Remembers Three Inspirational Teachers." Gee, maybe he'll remember the other 9000+ by the time he crafts his budget for next year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zaniya, Romney, Clinton -- All Corporate Socialists!

Don't believe me that Zaniya Project Draft Recommendation #14 -- government mandate for individuals to buy private health insurance, like what Romney did in Massachusetts and HR Clinton now proposes -- is just a sop to the insurance industry? Fine. Read Doug Wiken at Dakota Today, who refers us to an excellent Marketplace commentary from Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Says Court [emphasis mine]:

...Mandatory private health insurance proposals are all stick and no carrot.

The average health insurance premium for a family of four is just over 12 grand per year. What middle-class family making, say, 60,000 bucks per year can afford that bill?

What we need is the carrot of affordable health care. That means government standardizing charges by insurers, doctors, hospitals and drug companies. No more $6 Tylenol in the hospital.

The reason health insurance is so unaffordable today is that no one is watching the costs. With standardization, insurance would be cheaper and people would want to buy it -- not have to because the government is threatening them with a tax penalty.

Oh wait, I can hear the plaintive cry of the free market. You can't tell a doctor, insurer, hospital or drug company what's reasonable to charge. That's socialism. Well, how reasonable then is it to tell every American you have to buy a product whose cost is obscene if you want to be a U.S. citizen? Isn't that corporate socialism?

Mandatory health insurance is a government bailout of a free market that's failed its customers. Fewer people and employers are buying private health insurance because it costs so much more and delivers so little.

Adds wise old Wiken:

We will be barraged with a bunch of smoke and mirrors designed to give the appearance of making health care affordable, but which will actually make huge salaries of insurance and health care administrators even more lucrative and will continue to suck the life out of the economy and stifle new business startups. And as the commentary above indicated make it possible for ever larger political contributions to politicians so they can spread more smoke and mirrors when their previous proposals fail to deliver anything significant.

Time to say goodbye to a private health insurance system that has failed and hello to a single-payer system that is efficient.

While I'm thinking of it, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson helps us follow the money [again, emphasis mine -- nothing like political shysterism to make me feel emphatic]:

The hold of the healthcare industry on the top candidates is already apparent. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top recipient of campaign contributions so far from the pharmaceutical and health products industry is Republican Mitt Romney ($228,260). But the next two are Democrats Barack Obama ($161,124) and Hillary Clinton ($146,000). The top recipient of contributions from health professionals is Clinton ($990,611). Romney is second at $806,837, and Obama third at $748,637.

The top recipient of cash from the insurance industry, which includes health insurers, is another Democrat, Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, at $605,950. Romney and Republican Rudolph Giuliani are second and third, with Clinton and Obama fourth and fifth. Even though Obama is in fifth place, he still has collected $269,750 from insurance companies.

In a category that is relatively small in money thus far, but huge in terms of healthcare morality, Democratic presidential candidates occupy four of the top six spots in receiving money from death-dealing tobacco companies. After Giuliani's $69,500 from tobacco companies, Dodd has received $45,400, Clinton $32,300, Romney $31,400, Obama $7,885, and Democrat Joe Biden, $4,000. [Derrick Z. Jackson, "Kucinich Is Right on Healthcare," Boston Globe, 2007.08.29.]

The Zaniya Project has 12 days to edit Recommendation #14 out of its final report. Let's hope they hear some complaints and come up with a plan that serves everyone, not just the rich insurance guys. If you're going to be socialist, Zaniya Task Force, you might as well go whole hog and help everyone, not engage in this charade of protecting the failing free market.

Zaniya Project: Closed and Clueless

The Zaniya Project has me cranky today for two reasons:
  1. I was hoping Lt. Gov. Dennis "Let's Campaign for Three Years" Daugaard would tell his task force to get their collective rear in gear and do a better job of openness than his boss. Alas, with its draft proposals out and final report due in 12 days, the task force hasn't managed to publish of its meeting minutes since June. That's three meetings we're being left in the dark on. If we're about to get stuck with a scheme to boost profits for the insurance industry, we'd like to know how the discussions that led to that scheme went.
  2. Recommendation #14, the radical change buried on page 3 of the draft proposal, says Pierre will force us to either buy insurance or prove "financial ability to pay for health care costs." Financial ability -- hmph! that standard excludes pretty much everyone but Denny Sanford. The problem with the current system (and especially with HSAs) is that even middle-income families can't afford good insurance and save up enough money to protect themselves from medical bankruptcy. Just what "health care costs" will the state decide is the amount an individual ought to be able to reasonably cover? A yearly check-up, a couple prescriptions, and a broken leg? Bypass surgery? Chemotherapy? It will be fascinating to learn just how rich is rich enough to escape the Rounds/Daugaard administration's latest proposal for expanding state government for the benefit of its friends in private industry.

Stop School Violence -- Let Teachers Pack Heat?

AP reported yesterday that a majority of South Dakota schools have written plans for responding to on-campus violence but that another majority lack formal programs for deterring school violence. (Do video cameras count?)

How about a policy that deters violence and responds to what violence might happen: how about letting teachers carry firearms? The Christian Science Monitor runs an article on an Oregon teacher who is suing for the right to carry a concealed weapon at school [Brad Knickerbocker, "Should Teachers Be Allowed to Pack a Gun?" Christian Science Monitor, 2007.09.18]. An anonymous high school teacher wants to carry her Glock 9-mm pistol to school to protect herself against her ex-husband, who earned himself a restraining order for making threats against the woman and her children.

The interesting legal hang-up here: the teacher's school district prohibits anyone other than law enforcement from carrying weapons on campus, but Oregon state law says that authority "relating to firearms and components thereof, including ammunition, is vested solely in the Legislative Assembly."

Now imagine a school in which the teachers are armed. Would potential troublemakers really think twice about starting fights or making even more serious trouble? And if some malcontent did stage a rampage like Columbine or Virginia Tech, would armed teachers be able to put a stop to it without harming innocent students or each other? The state panel that investigated the Virginia Tech shootings doesn't think so:

"If numerous people had been rushing around with handguns … the possibility of accidental or mistaken shootings would have increased significantly," the panel wrote [Knickerbocker].

Nonetheless, various state legislatures are considering legislation to allow teachers to carry weapons on school campi. Some legislators cite the example of Israel, although there it is armed security guards and not teachers themselves who carry firearms. Nonetheless, in Israel, where the potential for violence from political extremists and terrorists is much higher than that in the US, three decades have passed with neither Palestinian terrorists nor disgruntled students shooting up schools.

The Madville Times offers no policy endorsement this morning, just food for thought. In our fair state there's probably more chance of kids getting shot in hunting accidents than in school. What problems we may have with school violence won't go away with a written plan. We may not need target practice, but we at least could use some creative brainstorming.

Pepsi, Coke, Royal Crown -- Take the Candidate Taste Test!

An article in the Las Vegas Sun on the Kucinich candidacy [J. Patrick Coolican, "No Respect for Kucinich, Even Though Many Agree with Him," Las Vegas Sun, 2007.09.17] directs my attention to an unscientific "blind taste test" that allows voters to rate their own political stances and then see which presidential candidate most closely fits their views. The Sun reports that our man Dennis is winning this poll overwhelmingly.

The Madville Times emphasizes the unscientific nature of this poll; nonetheless, it is interesting to see what happens when voters consider the issues before the media images. For those of you who aren't already burned out on the two-year presidential campaign, take a peek, see where the issues might direct your vote.

And for those of you interested in comparing notes, here are my scores from this morning:

Kucinich 31
Gravel 30
Richardson 20
Obama 17
Edwards 16
Paul 14
Clinton 13
Biden 9
Dodd 8
Cox -3
McCain -10
Thompson -11
Brownback -22
Giuliani -26
Tancredo -26
Huckabee -30
Romney -35
Hunter -40

Note that Libertarian masquerading as Republican Ron Paul ranks higher than Hillary Clinton in my rankings, and that he is the only GOP candidate who managed to earn a positive score. Try the test yourself, let me know what you learn!

Center for Technoentrepreneurism Opens Competition

The Center for Technoentrepreneurism at Dakota State University (blessedly abbreviated to CT@DSU) has fired the starting pistol in the race for creating new tech businesses in Madison. Fifteen curious DSU students and potential technoentrepreneurs attended the opening informational meeting and call for business plans on campus yesterday over the noon hour. CT@DSU review board member and DSU professor Josh Pauli noted that 15 is a pretty good crowd -- "and we got that without free pizza."

Pauli laid out the goals of this new project, a joint effort of DSU and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation (who we hope will not have to cut funding for this project after the budget hits it took from the Lake County Commission). CT@DSU wants to promote tech start-ups by capitalizing on the skills and ideas floating around the DSU campus and the surrounding area. CT@DSU plans to offer assistance, but to get started, the project is focusing on DSU students, encouraging them to come up with "quick, small successes."

And when CT@DSU says quick, they mean quick, and they have money to encourage that quickness. Pauli asked for interested students to submit one-page business summaries by September 28. The review board, consisting of Josh Pauli and fellow DSU professors Wayne Pauli (yes, Josh's dad), Kevin Streff, and Tom Halvorson, will hand $100 to each student who submits a summary that looks like it has potential. Students must then submit full business plans by October 19. Students whose plans are accepted get $250 and are then expected to set up shop in the Heartland Technology Center by November 2 and legally form and register their company by November 16. Students (and eventually other interested entrepreneurs) who form a business receive $500 a month, as long as they continue to show progress in building their companies.

Whoa. Take a moment to picture this: if a third of those in attendance at the meeting yesterday follow through and create reasonable business plans, we could have five new tech businesses buzzing about town in two months. That's big-thinking ambition!

Why all this money? Simple: as Josh Pauli put it, he knows there are technoentrepreneurs on campus with really good ideas. But they have to work to pay their tuition and other bills, and they may not have time to start a business. The stipends CT@DSU is offering provide the equivalent of 15 hours a week stocking the shelves at Lewis or delivering pizzas. If we have technoentrepreneurs who can create businesses that will ultimately create jobs and revenue and keep more high-knowledge, high-income DSU graduates in Madison, then we should help them get into business as soon as possible instead of sapping their energies in jobs anyone can do.

As one student in attendance, Matt Paulson, noted, many of these students may be hard-core programmers and not have business background. That's why CT@DSU isn't just offering the above stipends; the project offers numerous services to help new technoentrepreneurs develop their businesses and business skills:

  1. Scholarships and paid internships: again, students with these great ideas need more time to focus on developing their businesses and business skills. Scholarships and internships can take the place of part-time work that wouldn't be related to their business plans and studies.
  2. Company formation: CT@DSU will cover the legal costs of signing the papers and formally creating the business.
  3. Travel: CT@DSU will help technoentrepreneurs find and cover travel costs to business workshops, conferences, and competitions.
  4. Advice, advice, advice: each business will have a Board of Advisors consisting of academics and local businesspeople to help guide the new business through the rocky first years. CT@DSU will help the aspiring technoentrepreneurs connect with other experts among faculty and the business community. CT@DSU will also identify external agencies, like the Enterprise Institute in Brookings, that can provide help.

Streff noted that for him and his fellow review board members as well as for students, this is an exciting time. Since sitting in these very classrooms as a student 20 years ago, Streff said, he has seen DSU grow significantly. The university has become an important source of employees for big corporations like Premier BankCard and Citibank. However, DSU hasn't sparked the creation of many tech businesses around Madison. CT@DSU and its participants have the chance to get in on the ground floor of a new chapter in job and wealth creation. Streff urged potential technoentrepreneurs to imagine themselves twenty years from now as the leaders of local businesses who would be right here at DSU's doorstep, with first pick of the crop of DSU's tech graduates.

If there was any downside to yesterday's meeting, it was pointed out by DSU instructor and graduate student Pam Rowland, who looked around and asked, "Where are the women anyway?" Indeed, the demographics resembled those of the July 24 forum on the role of universities in commercialization: of the fifteen potential technoentrepreneurs and four review board members in the room, she was the only woman. There are lots of women on campus (DSU is not the School of Mines -- last year the female-male ratio was 53:47); a ratio of 1:14 at yesterday's meeting disappoints this observer. Ultimately, business is business, and DSU grads eager to work in the area may not care much whether it is a man or a woman handing them their $60K starting salary. But let's hope there are more technoentrepreneurial women out there ready to rumble with the men in what CT@DSU hopes will be a vibrant Madison market.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to write up my plan for turning the Madville Times into an international e-publishing house. Silicon Valley, Bangalore, here we come!